Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Thoughtful and Shallow Skepticism

As a boy I was lucky to read the work of Martin Gardner, a brilliant polymath, who was also a hero to “skeptics and science-minded people worldwide”. My skepticism was greatly influenced Gardner’s 1952 book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (still in print) which was the classic, rational-empirical examination of pseudoscience and pseudoscientists. As Michael Shermer put it: "Modern skepticism has developed into a science-based movement, beginning with Martin Gardner's 1952 classic". It is worth noting that in 1976 Gardner became a founding fellow of CSICOP, now the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (SI), and was an original member of SI’s Editorial Board.
With Garner’s guidance as a base I am respectful of a thoughtful skepticism. But neither he or I view it as an absolute or something that protects us from false beliefs. Indeed increasingly I see Garnder’s disciplined, skeptical stance being replaced with a shallow version that is used to bash topics as diverse as Climate Change, Evolution (Teach the Debate) and Science itself. 

 Some of it is ideological in nature. So libertarians like Penn and Teller who are general skeptics apply shallow thinking to Climate Change. When Penn Jillette was asked whether he “still believed that man-made climate change is bunk, as he has said more than once, his basic answer was:

" I loathe everything about Al Gore, so since Gore has been crusading against climate change it must be garbage.” 

OK, so your loathing emotion means you don't have to examine data and rational arguments???

Both Penn and Teller are well-known libertarians, but also supporters of the libertarian Cato Institute, leaders in spreading doubt about global warming. It is humbling to see people considered both hard-nosed empiricists and skeptics giving way to ideo-emotions that encourage some pretty stupid stances. 
Another contributing reason, I suspect, for a shallower skepticism is a false idea of its role in Science. The basic scientific methodology requires any theory to be subject to refutation, and this creates a base skepticism for many people. People latch onto a nihilistic idea that everything should be refutable and people are being "scientific" when they take this stance even while ignoring the other aspects of a scientific stance (e.g. coherence, validation, etc.).

Dr. David Morrison (Senior Scientist at the NASA Astrobiology Institute) states it well when characterizing climate change deniers, “It is fine to be skeptical, but we need to be concerned when skepticism drifts into denial.” And such denial abounds in climate change despite a pretty prominent scientific consensus. This scientific consensus is combated by lots of misinformation/disinformation about climate change (published on the Internet), driven in part by eco-political and economic positions. 

I have a neighbor who sends me example of these things, perhaps in an effort to convert me. His self image seems to be of a powerful skeptic. But it usually takes me only Google minutes to find that the sources of his articles are people backed by groups and fronts for Exxon and allies. 

I have long wondered why he isn’t skeptical of such backings. When confronted, his “skeptical” response is a knee-jerk negativity - an appeal to the meme-idea that climate scientist receive money for their research and they are just milking the public for more support. He has a reflexive disbelief in the assertions made by climate scientists. He seems unaware of the role rationalism plays in Gardner’s skepticism based on a scientific view of the world. This is a rational skepticism that uses the tools of reason and critical thinking to follow the data wherever it leads. This thoughtful skepticism may start from a simple disbelief, but it qualifies and arms skepticism with an empirical stance; because assertions, no matter how commonsensical, require proof. Proof includes data that is rigorously investigated wherever it leads, which can be an increasingly messy picture for a while.

Clearly some topics like climate change are complicated and messy, but there is a broad consensus when one looks at the complete set. That is not to say that there won’t be surprises. Indeed what some future validated data supports may not be our original hunch, but something else entirely. It is just that these discoveries cannot be expected to follow a simple, ideological narrative. Simple, shallow skepticism’s does have this narrative appeal - it may be lulled into acceptance by being a good story. We often need a simple story that we communicate to others. This is a plus. We prefer stories with a connection to something familiar and comforting over a complex story even one that has a rational-empirical base. In climate change some simple but deceptive narratives include: ‘What we are seeing are “natural variations” caused primarily by variations in solar output’ or “The apparent increase in temperature is an artifact caused by the fact that much of the data are from cities, which are warmer than their surroundings”. Good stories, but not supported by (subsequent) analysis.

Stories that pass our skeptical filter may mature into climate hoax stories that provide a shallow skeptical identity that people happily try on and use happily. We saw this type of thing in the narrative that vaccines cause autism in children, something that seemed to have some data in back of it, but which turned out to be concocted. A publication earlier this month in the British Medical Journal accused Andrew Wakefield, the British researcher responsible for the controversial 1998 study linking MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccinations to autism, of falsifying data. The wheels of science may grind slowly but truth will out.

And of course from a secular perspective, we see simple, deceptive narratives in religious stories that provide comfort, structure, and cultural identity. Acceptance of these is a challenge for skeptics, but once accepted by the gullible they may offer fertile ground for the shallow forms of self protective skepticism. Often such religious stories intertwine as other shallow skeptical deniers support one another with a lacing of stories.

The simple doubts of confirmed curmudgeons and cynics can be a precious thing held firmly as part of their coping identity. It can be comforting. But a thoughtful skeptic can change his/her mind and not deny the preponderance of the evidence. Indeed there was an informal study done looking at sites of listed http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Skeptics_and_skeptical_organizations to see if there were climate change deniers on them. Turns out nary a one. 

Thoughtful skeptics are not climate deniers for the most part.

For more on skepticism see http://www.skepticnorth.com/2010/09/what-is-skepticism-week-1-curmudgeon-cynic-skeptic/ and http://greenfyre.wordpress.com/2009/08/27/skeptics-circle/

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