Benny Peiser is a social anthropologist with particular research interest in human and cultural evolution. His research focuses on the effects of environmental change and catastrophic events on contemporary thought and societal evolution.
Benny is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and a member of Spaceguard UK. He has written extensively on neo-catastrophism and the potential risk posed by near-Earth objects. He is the editor of CCNet, an electronic science and science policy network with more than 5,000 subscribers from around the world. It is in this capacity that a 10km-wide asteroid, Minor Planet (7107) Peiser, was named in his honour by the International Astronomical Union. Wonderfully, in 2002, a second asteroid was named after Benny’s youngest daughter, Minor Planet (11956) Tamarakate.
He is a member of the editorial board of Energy & Environment and a scientific advisor to the Lifeboat Foundation.
THE DANGERS OF CONSENSUS SCIENCE
National Post, 17 May 2005
By Benny Peiser
Six eminent researchers from the Russian Academy of Science and the Israel
Space Agency have just published a startling paper in one of the world's
leading space science journals. The team of solar physicists claims to have
come up with compelling evidence that changes in cosmic ray intensity and
variations in solar activity have been driving much of the Earth's climate.
They even provide a testable hypothesis, predicting that amplified cosmic
ray intensity will lead to an increase of the global cloud cover which,
according to their calculations, will result in "some small global cooling
over the next couple of years."
I remain decidedly skeptical of such long-term climate predictions.
Nevertheless, it is quite remarkable that the global mean temperature, as
recorded by NASA's global Land-Ocean Temperature Index, has actually dropped
slightly during the last couple of years -- notwithstanding increased levels
of CO2 emissions. Two more years of cooling and we may even see the
reappearance of a new Ice Age scare.
Whatever one may think of these odd developments, the idea that the sun is
the principal driver of terrestrial climate has been gaining ground in
recent years. Last month, Jan Veizer, one of Canada's top Earth scientists,
published a comprehensive review of recent findings and concluded that
"empirical observations on all time scales point to celestial phenomena as
the principal driver of climate, with greenhouse gases acting only as
What the Russian, Israeli and Canadian researchers have in common is that
they allocate much of the climate change to solar variability rather than
human causes. They also publish their papers in some of the world's leading
scientific journals. So why is it that a recent study published in the
leading U.S. journal Science categorically claims that skeptical papers
don't exist in the peer-reviewed literature?
According to an essay by Naomi Oreskes, published by Science in December,
2004, there is unanimous "scientific consensus" on the anthropogenic causes
of recent global warming. Oreskes, a professor of history, claims to have
analyzed 928 abstracts on global climate change, of which 75% either
explicitly or implicitly accept the view that most of the recent warming
trend is man-made. When I checked the same set of abstracts [plus an
additional two hundred found in the same ISI data bank], I discovered that just
over a dozen explicitly endorse the "consensus," while the vast majority of
abstracts does not mention anthropogenic global warming. Oreskes
even claims that this universal agreement had not been questioned once in
any of the papers since 1993 and concludes: "This analysis shows that
scientists publishing in the peer-reviewed literature agree with IPCC, the
National Academy of Sciences and the public statements of their professional
societies. Politicians, economists, journalists and others may have the
impression of confusion, disagreement or discord among climate scientists,
but that impression is incorrect."
What happened to the countless research papers that show global temperatures
were similar or even higher during the Holocene Climate Optimum and the
Medieval Warm Period, when atmospheric CO2 levels were much lower than
today; that solar variability is a key driver of recent climate change, and
that climate modeling is highly uncertain? An unbiased analysis of the
peer-reviewed literature on global warming will find hundreds of papers
(many of them written by the world's leading experts in the field) that have
raised serious reservations and outright rejection of the concept of a
"scientific consensus on climate change." The truth is, there is no such
In fact, the explicit and implicit rejection of the "consensus" is not
restricted to individual scientists. It also includes distinguished
scientific organizations such as the Russian Academy of Science and the U.S.
Association of State Climatologists, both of which are highly skeptical of
the whole idea. The American Association of Petroleum Geologists formally
rejects the view that anthropogenic factors are the main trigger of global
warming, emphasizing: "The Earth's climate is constantly changing owing to
natural variability in Earth processes. Natural climate variability over
recent geological time is greater than reasonable estimates of potential
human-induced greenhouse gas changes. Because no tool is available to test
the supposition of human-induced climate change and the range of natural
variability is so great, there is no discernible human influence on global
climate at this time."
In the meantime, activists, campaigners and a number of scientific
organizations routinely cited Oreskes' essay as final confirmation that the
science of climate change is settled once and for all. In a worrying sign of
attempted press containment, Britain's Royal Society has even employed her
study to call upon the British media to curtail reporting about the
scientific controversy altogether.
Yet the scientific community is far from any global warming consensus, as
was revealed by a recent survey among some 500 international climate
researchers. The survey, conducted by Professors Dennis Bray and Hans von
Storch of the German Institute for Coastal Research, found that "a quarter
of respondents still question whether human activity is responsible for the
most recent climatic changes." Remarkably, a research paper about their
survey and some of its key results were submitted to Science in August,
2004. Yet shortly after the paper was rejected, the journal published
Oreskes' study, which claimed a universal consensus among climate
The decision to publish Oreskes' claim of general agreement (just days
before an important UN conference on global warming, COP-10) was apparently
made while the editors of Science were sitting on a paper that showed quite
clearly the opposite. It would appear that the editors of Science knowingly
misled the public and the world's media. In my view, such unethical
behaviour constitutes a grave contravention, if not a corruption of
scientific procedure. This form of unacceptable misconduct is much worse
than the editors' refusal to publish the numerous letters and rebuttals
regarding Oreskes' flawed study.
The stifling of dissent and the curtailing of scientific skepticism is
bringing climate research into disrepute. Science is supposed to work by
critical evaluation, open-mindedness and self-correction. There is a fear
among climate alarmists that the very existence of scientific skepticism and
doubts about their gloomy predictions will be used by politicians to delay
action. But if political considerations dictate what gets published, it's
all over for science.
Benny Peiser is a social anthropologist at Liverpool John Moores University.
Copyright 2005, National Post
NOTE: In my analysis, I used the same ISI data base and the same key words
as Oreskes but used all documents listed therein. While Oreskes did not specify here
methodology in her SCIENCE essay, it would appear that she excluded the abstracts in
the “Social Sciences Citation Index” and “Arts & Humanities Citation Index”. She also
seems to have limited her search to “Articles", while I included “all document types”.
These differences may explain the discrepancy between the 928 documents analysed by
Oreskes and the 1117 documents I analysed, although her figures don’t add up. Some
critics have claimed that these differences essentially undermine my main case while
they validate Oreskes'. These commentator, however, ignore the more important flaw
I discerned: Only 13 abstracts explicitly endorse what Oreskes has called the 'consensus
view', while a majority of abstracts does not include any direct or indirect reference to
anthropogenic forcing of recent climate change. BJP, 26/08/05