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Title: Consensus Opinion, or Risk Management?
Author: David J Larkin
Abstract: The policy commitment to improve and maintain the environment should remain immutable. The welfare of the environment and all of its inhabitants should remain paramount. Nevertheless, in the shadow of ubiquitous uncertainty, and the confusion created by the current conflict of opinion pervading the matter of climate-change modeling, the timely measured-response is, surely, one of prudent risk-management.
Keywords: Consensus, consensus opinion, risk management, climate change, uncertainty.
Created: September, 2004
Last Updated: December, 2009

•Consensus is not an adequate substitute for proof. However, given the problematic nature of proof, one might assert, with respect to many important issues from the history of ideas, that the historical-consensus was not an adequate indicator of what was or what came to be. And, arguably in general, future consideration of consensus as an adequate indicator will always be problematic.

During the time of Copernicus and Galileo, the broad-church of Science held that the Earth, which they regarded to be at the centre of the Universe, did not spin on an axis, and moreover that it, the Earth, was flat. This was the received wisdom, the mindset, the consensus opinion, and represents a stark example of the failure of (that) consensus. Indeed, the history of human enquiry is littered with such foibles of thought. A more recent and contextually-pertinent example, from the earth sciences, is chronicled in the struggle to have the notion of continental drift received into the scripture of Science. [1]

The veracity of a proposition is not determined by the number of people, esteemed or otherwise, that support that particular proposition, nor indeed, is it determined by how long the proposition has received that support.

In many instances, the consensus opinion was subsequently exposed as merely collective ignorance, or collective prejudice, or indeed, collective anxiety. Indeed, the cynic could be excused for regarding consensus as simply a euphemism for a conspiracy of ignorance, or perhaps, mob rule. (Of course, this is not to deny the important role that consensus can play as a simple majority in the decision making process. But this role is not to be confused with weight of evidence.) Consensus offers no respite from uncertainty.

Therefore, where there is a credible-conflict of opinion (from the lay-person's perspective), as is the case with the anthropogenic climate-change debate, where an appeal to science is unable to provide irrefutable evidence in support of either polarised-disposition, then the community has little option but to err on the side of caution and implement appropriate risk-management strategies to mitigate the potential for harm.


The policy commitment to improve and maintain the environment should remain immutable. The welfare of the environment and all of its inhabitants should remain paramount.

Nevertheless, as a consequence of ubiquitous uncertainty, and mindful of the inherent limitations of mathematical modeling, in particular, economic- and climate-modeling, any associated implementation-strategy selected to effect remediation and sustainability should at least be flexible, that is, adaptive to changes in circumstance or demand. Moreover, the implementation-strategy should be a measured response, frequently monitored in order to determine the efficacy and efficiency of program outcomes. And, where consequence requires, the strategy should be reviewed.

As a cautionary note, acquiescence to extreme remedies may, consequently, be as disastrous as the inaction of denial. Arguably, the more timely our measured response, the less disadvantageous its impact may need to be.


Consequently, in this case, one is motivated to support the consensus opinion. But only because it is considered that, in the presence of uncertainty, the risk-management measures required to remediate and sustain the environment, more closely correspond with the strategic measures advocated by the consensus.

NOTES (click the list-number for any additional link)
1. Alfred Wegener (1880–1930) proposed the notion of continental drift in 1912 and published The Origins of Continents and Oceans in 1915. Despite the provision of additional evidence in later editions, the theory was generally dismissed for (purportedly) lacking a mechanism. Wegener, who was vilified for his audacious proposal, died an untimely death some thirty years before the notion was revisited, enhanced, and subsequently embraced by the orthodoxy. Wegener's revelation initiated what is now considered to be one of the most significant scientific-revolutions of the twentieth century. (For a more informed expose, the interested reader may wish to consult Oreskes, N., 1999, The rejection of continental drift: theory and method in American Earth Science, Oxford University Press: New York.)
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