Starts With A Bang

What does ‘scientific consensus’ mean? (Synopsis)

Detection and Attribution as Forensics (source: NOAA NCDC), in: Walsh, J., et al. (11 January 2013), “Appendix II: The Science of Climate Change”, in FEDERAL ADVISORY COMMITTEE DRAFT CLIMATE ASSESSMENT. A report by the National Climate Assessment Development Advisory Committee.

“Those who know that the consensus of many centuries has sanctioned the conception that the earth remains at rest in the middle of the heavens as its center, would, I reflected, regard it as an insane pronouncement if I made the opposite assertion that the earth moves.” –Nicolaus Copernicus

There are certain words that simply get people’s hackles raised, shutting off the part of their brain that normally responds to reason and instead results in an emotional response taking over. For some, that word is “theory,” one of the words with the biggest gap between its colloquial and scientific uses.

Image credit: MacLeod / Union of Concerned Scientists.

But another such term is “consensus.” You might have grown up — like me — believing that doing something yourself is the only way to ensure it gets done correctly. But when it comes to science, not only is that not the case at all, but a scientific consensus isn’t the conclusion, but rather the starting point.

Our cosmic history, as best as we know it. Image credit: Bock et al. (2006, astro-ph/0604101); modifications by E. Siegel.

Come find out what it’s all about, and learn what the term you’ve probably even used before — scientific consensus — actually means!