Consensus versus Unanimity: Which Carries More Weight?

British Journal for the Philosophy of Science (2021)
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Abstract

Around 97% of climate scientists endorse anthropogenic global warming (AGW), the theory that human activities are partly responsible for recent increases in global average temperatures. Clearly, this widespread endorsement of AGW is a reason for non-experts to believe in AGW. But what is the epistemic significance of the fact that some climate scientists do not endorse AGW? This paper contrasts expert unanimity, in which virtually no expert disagrees with some theory, with expert consensus, in which some non-negligible proportion either rejects or is uncertain about the theory. It is argued that, from a layperson’s point of view, an expert consensus is often stronger evidence for a theory’s truth than unanimity. Several lessons are drawn from this conclusion, e.g. concerning what laypeople should infer from expert pronouncements, how journalists should report on scientific theories, and how working scientists should communicate with the public.

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Finnur Dellsén
University of Iceland

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