Reader John sent this - a comment on the "Philosopher on Climategate" thread at the NYT. I thought it was an interesting point.
Is a consensus of scientists in a field enough for society to accept what they say unreservedly, and act upon that knowledge?
The consensus of scientists was wrong on plate tectonics for a long time -- the "experts" said there was no such thing, until the "go to" experts were dead. (I don't know if humankind was harmed by that erroneous consensus.)
More recently, the US government, in the late 1980s, advised women that they should take estrogen after menopause to lessen the risk of heart attacks. 15 or so years later, the double blind studies finally got done. These "gold standard" studies contradicted the observational studies which had been the basis for the estrogen recommendation. In the meantime, perhaps 50,000 to 100,000 women had heart attacks BECAUSE they took the estrogen. The government's advice killed. (Yes, the issue is more complex than this summary paragraph states, in particular with regard to opposed vs. unopposed estrogens, but the basic facts are as stated.)
In addition, when women stopped taking the form of estrogen commonly taken in the US, within months breast cancer incidence dropped. Once again, the government's advice killed, but for a different disease.
In this case -- taking estrogen post-menopause -- there wasn't much scientific opposition to the government's advice. But the consensus was very wrong indeed.
In contrast, with global warming, there is a huge amount of scientific opposition. The opposition isn't to the notion that CO2 warms the atmosphere, but rather to the amount and the effects. All of us understand that if a doubling of CO2 causes an increase of 1 degree C, there are far different policy prescriptions than if it causes an increase of 3 degrees. The IPCC is on shaky ground here.
So please, give it a rest on this appeal to authority.