The year 1905 is referred to as Albert Einstein's Annus Mirabilis. In that twelve-month span Einstein published four papers which revolutionized our understanding of the laws of physics. The titles of those papers are as follows: First, "On a Heuristic Viewpoint Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light;" Second, "On the Motion of Small Particles Suspended in a Stationary Liquid, as Required by the Molecular Kinetic Theory of Heat;" Third, "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies;" and last of all, "Does the Inertia of a Body Depend Upon Its Energy Content?"
Don't worry -- I will not attempt a gloss of any of these essays, nor any discussion of "special relativity" or that most famous of equations (first proposed in the final paper) E = mc2. I mention them only to point out that, once upon a time, scientific papers were generally about science. Nowadays, well, not so much.
This is the thought that occurred to me as I read through a new paper out of Cornell University by Mark Lynas, Benjamin Houlton, and Simon Perry, entitled "Greater than 99 percent consensus on human caused climate change in the peer-reviewed scientific literature." As the title suggests, the object of the paper is to demonstrate the tired old talking point that 99 percent of scientists accept the supposed scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change.
According to the abstract, "questions over the scientific consensus of the role of human activities in modern climate change continue to arise in public settings," (might this have something to do with the fact that one side of the debate cites it constantly?) the authors have decided to demonstrate said consensus "by searching the recent literature for papers [skeptical] of anthropogenic-caused global warming." They compiled 88,125 "climate-related papers" published since 2012, "examine[d] a randomized subset of 3000" of those papers, and searched them for keywords which would suggest that they are, in fact, skeptical of the standard environmentalist argument. As fewer than one percent met the criteria, the authors concluded,
[W]ith high statistical confidence that the scientific consensus on human-caused contemporary climate change—expressed as a proportion of the total publications—exceeds 99 percent in the peer reviewed scientific literature.
This, it needs hardly be said, is not science. Science is, in the words of Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, a method for testing "empirical theories through controlled investigation." "Scientific knowledge," he goes on, "is always, at least in theory, subject to further disproof by further experiment." This is why appeals to "consensus" ring so hollow --the sheer number of scientists doesn't matter at all. What matters are their arguments, and an engagement with the actual arguments of skeptics is notably lacking here. So notably in fact that the authors feel compelled to point it out: "An in-depth evaluation of [the] merits [of the skeptical papers] is outside the scope of this paper." To which one must reply, 'then what does your paper contribute to this discussion?' Almost nothing, except that it enables gullible journalists to claim that, according to a new paper, 99 percent of scientists agree. This whole project was in the service of future headlines.
There's more to be said on this topic -- we could cite the work of Princeton physicist and self-described climate "heretic," Freeman Dyson, who passed away last year, or the more recent work of Michael Shellenberger and Bjørn Lomborg (the latter of whom once had a pie thrown at him by the lead author of this paper for his climate skepticism), who've done yeoman's work pushing back on the scientists who thoughtlessly accept environmentalist readings of the data at hand. We might even mention the gobs of money pumped into climate science every year with the implicit understanding that it will go towards demonstrating that we're doomed.
But it will suffice to say that Albert Einstein's papers were, in fact, a major deviation from the consensus of his day. We're all richer for his having dared to disagree.