the Air Vent

Because the world needs another opinion

The Consensus Debate

Posted by Jeff Id on December 10, 2009

An actual debate from BBC, it’s nice to see a real discussion on the news once in a while. Well considering it’s been 20 years since I’ve seen one, perhaps I should say a long while.

Click to play

9 Responses to “The Consensus Debate”

  1. Pouncer said

    I’ll bet two cents that in all the education about business-decision making, one learned about the “Abilene Paradox” or the “Road to Abilene”. I beg everyone to review your lessons about such group decision processes as applied to the CRU climate research, team dynamics, and the Copenhagen summit.

    Jerry Harvey’s “Abilene Paradox” describes situations in which a group openly favors and commits to a decision with which each and every group member privately disagrees. It seems irrational to suppose that such a circumstance can ever arise at all. An outsider might assume some outside force or prior, unspoken, collusion or conspiracy. But it’s not a conspiracy and it doesn’t result from outside pressures at all. Instead, these circumstances leading toward such a “paradox” happen so often that managers are taught to explicitly watch for the risk and take deliberate steps to avoid it. I believe that the circumstances in climate research, two decades ago, were precisely ripe for ” a road trip to Abilene”. And I suggest that only now is the trip complete. Now we’ve reached the stage where the inevitable recriminations are coming to light.

    In the parable, two couples in Coleman, Texas one hot dusty summer afternoon are on the porch, sipping lemonade, playing dominoes, and sweating. No one is particularly happy with the current environment or activity. Each has considered, privately, alternatives. None of the considered alternatives seems, to the individual, such an improvement over the domino game to be worth even discussing. However, an unspoken consensus is being reached that something different and better must be possible.

    One group member, an authority figure, suggests “dinner in Abilene”. His authority arises as father, husband, and father-in-law. It is not determinative. But it exists and the authority is respected. The group-leader’s articulation of a suggestion, ANY suggestion, arises from his acceptance or recognition of the group’s unspoken agreement that “something must be done.” And so he opens with a new suggestion. A very weak suggestion, which he intends only to break the ice and encourage brain-storming.

    In fact, and as all the group members know, “dinner in Abilene” will involve sacrificing the current entertainments — such as they are. No lemonade. No table for dominoes. Less comfortable seating — in an un-air-conditioned Buick rumbling down a bad road for more than an hour and more than 50 miles. Then back. The group won’t even be able to face each other for conversation — spending hours looking out windows at best or the backs of others’ heads at worst. Privately, each group member prefers the current situation, however unsatisfying, to the expressed alternative.

    In private deliberations each group member now considers three possible responses to the proposal. One is offer a superior counter-proposal. (What the initial proposer and authority privately hopes for.) Two, advocate for the status quo; their actual preference. Or three, acquiesce to the proposal, to which they privately object.

    To have gotten this far, circumstances have already biased against the first option. That is, any un-expressed alternatives have similar or greater drawbacks compared to the status quo. In the parable, perhaps, other road trips to other destinations are at least equally unpleasant — if not longer and on bumpier roads. More physical games than dominoes are even hotter and sweatier. Or perhaps the son-in-law would prefer to play bridge or canasta, but knows that the mother-in-law considers card-games sinful. Other beverages than lemonade — beer, maybe? — could be unobtainable; Texas liquor laws being what they are. Any potential counter-proposal has objectional features — as does the actual proposal. Each team member mentally and privately compares the publicly offered proposal to his or her own unarticulated and unsatisfactory counter-proposal. And each tends to decide the public proposal is, at least, not much worse than private counter-proposals. So each group members tends, for personal reasons, to reject response one.

    Group dynamics bias against the second response. This is particularly dangerous in groups like families, or a small circle of professionals or colleagues who mutually value the on-going association at least as much as any given decision. Circumstances are that each member of the group has correctly perceived the others have already decided, often implicitly and without formal expression, on changing the status quo. Each member may even join in that unspoken decision. But response two, against a particular proposed change, requires standing up and speaking out in personal preference of a situation the speaker dislikes and knows the community also dislikes. Everyone publicly and privately dislikes the status quo. It’s hot, it’s dusty, it’s boring, we’re running out of ice; and the lemonade is sour, anyway. Yeech! In such a situation, or in any similar case, it is rare for any group member to defend a preference for the bad — even against a proposal a member privately believes to be worse. So each group member tends, for social reasons, to reject response two.

    And so natural biases drive toward the third response: acquiescence to — even exaggerated approval of — an unsatisfactory proposal. Any expressed enthusiasm overcomes even the original proposer’s private and unspoken objections. “ I sure wish I could have thought of something better, but what else could it be?” In the climate of expressed (although false) approval and enthusiasm, each group member takes steps to support and implement: the decision. One puts up the dominoes, another pours out the lemonade, still another packs the Buick and before anyone has expressed a second though they’re bumping down the road to Abilene.

    And back. At which point somebody says — “Well, did you enjoy that trip?” And everybody else says; “It was hell! I knew it would be from the first second I heard the idea. What I can’t believe is how I let myself be pressed into it by the rest of you!”

    I think the community of climate researchers have just now gotten back on the porch from their own dinner in Abilene.

    The CRU / IPCC team has been just such a family-like crew of like-minded, like-aged, researchers. They value their association as much as they value each other’s work. They inherited a science model they considered somewhat unsatisfactory. At the time of the first IPCC report, CRU estimated the globe to be in a oscillating climate pattern of global warming followed by global cooling — of which the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age (MWP & LIA) were only the two most recent examples. The current global temperatures and conditions were intermediate and only accidentally optimal. The globe might soon get much hotter, or it might soon get much colder. But climate researchers felt themselves to be ignorant, and impotent — or, analogously, hot dusty and wasting their time on dominoes. Unsatisfactory.

    They were ripe for a trip to Abilene, and they took it.

  2. dearieme said

    That yarn just shows that the best thing to do is to shoot snakes.

  3. Paul Z. said

    There are 31,486 scientists (9,029 with PhDs) in America alone who say that there is no consensus on anthropogenic global warming. See:

    Who’s keeping tabs on Obama’s carbon footprint this week? What with jetting to Oslo for some useless sell-aggrandizement ceremony and then off to Hopanchangen. Haven’t they heard of video conferencing?

    Is there a website that keeps track of the carbon footprint of all the world leaders and what they are doing to offset their emissions? I can never find any audit or accounting for these emissions, just talk and a lot of hot air.

    Obama: “Do what I say, not what I do. Stop breathing! Only I and my rich elitist fascist banker friends can pollute the air with our exhalations. Only we, the rich and powerful, are allowed to eat meat, fly private planes, and have children. The rest of you only exist to pay the taxes that we require to fund our agenda.”

    [snip] – wrong blog for that. Even though I agree with you, there are better ways to make points.

  4. Ralph Short said

    I enjoyed the debate and while Watson definitely beat Singer in the number of words (he tended to go on, and on, and on…..) I felt Singer beat the daylights out of him in terms of the logic of his arguments. This is the second debate I have seen and there is a definite pattern where the pro AGW people just keep on talking without regard to substance. I also thought the moderator nailed it well when he challenged the prof on the consequences of their proposals, (major life style changes, draconian taxes, etc.) without having the most concrete evidence to support the doomsday they maintain is nigh.

    Paul Z., my sentiments exactly.

  5. Annabelle said

    Singer came across very well – totally unruffled. The interviewer was also well-informed which is a massive step in the right direction.

  6. boballab said

    What was interesting to note was when the discussion turned to the models. Dr. Singer showed how the models were flawed, Dr. Watson countered with they do show variation. Now normally this is where the “moderator” lets the Warmist get the last word in and shifts topic, thus letting the viewing audience with the false sense that the models did perdict it. Instead he let Dr. Singer rebutt and he didn’t disapoint when he said no they didn’t they had to be taught after the fact. Most people then get the picture that they fiddle with the models after the event happens, then claim they perdicted it (ie. Watson’s response), which hurt the Warmist side. Then you had the Journalist not just letting Watson bat away with the “we don;t own it” line and move on.

    Singer never had to move off his postion and Watson I saw had to shuffle around when the typical party line didn’t hold up.

  7. j ferguson said

    that is really good. thanks for sharing it

  8. P Gosselin said

    Singer is definitely an old hat in the field. There’s no way you’re going to pull anything past him. The man is 85 years old, and hangs in there like no one else can.

    I must say the BBC really took it tio Carter.
    I think Singer ciould have delivered the real KO just by mentioning Mojob Latif projects cooling to continue over the next 10 years as well, flying in the face of the models.
    Anyway – Good Job Siegfried Friedrich!

  9. stan said

    Regarding media coverage, this is kind of interesting about Andy Revkin from a guy who won a pulitizer prize.

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