As many skeptics know by now, legendary skeptical trailblazer James Randi set off a firestorm last week with two Swift blog posts about global warming. His first post carried his strong suspicion that consensus science on climate change is incorrect, while his followup post wondered “whether we can properly assign the cause to anthropogenic influences.”
Bloggers were swift to respond. Critics (including PZ Myers, Orac, Sean Carroll, and James Hrynyshyn) chastised Randi for speaking outside his domain expertise; for dissenting from current consensus science; and for lending his name to the disreputable “Oregon Petition Project.” Others, like Phil Plait, corrected Randi while sensibly reminding us that “anyone, everyone, is capable of making mistakes.” And, inevitably, global warming deniers seized upon the event. (One headline, at Britain’s Telegraph.co.uk, gleefully crowed “James Randi forced to recant by Warmist thugs for showing wrong kind of scepticism.”)
But, of the many posts to respond to Randi, two in particular caught my attention. SkeptiCamp pioneer Reed Esau asked,
So what happens now? That uneasy feeling you are now experiencing may be the implications of the situation setting in. … Most of us are laymen who don’t have the professional experience and analytical skills to properly evaluate the data and the methods. To pretend we do (or to reject it on a hunch) separates us from the very scientific enterprise we skeptics purport to value.
Similarly, according to Skeptical Inquirer columnist Massimo Pigliucci, “we need to pause and think carefully about the entire skeptical movement in light of episodes like this one.”
So, What Happens Now?
I’ve long argued that our patchy, lukewarm reluctance to accept mainstream climate science is skepticism’s greatest failure. I’ll return to that argument in future posts, but today I’d like to concentrate on the general question raised by Esau and Pigliucci: what is skepticism’s appropriate relationship to consensus science? What — if anything — may skeptics responsibly say on mainstream science subjects?
Organized skepticism has always talked about science. Certainly, we use science-informed arguments when critiquing paranormal claims. We use techniques from science (and from other investigatory disciplines, such as history and journalism) when digging into strange stuff. The promotion of scientific literacy is also a core part of our traditional mandate (as I argued in the essay “Where Do We Go From Here?”).
Nonetheless, it’s my opinion that there are severe limits on the kinds of scientific arguments into which skeptics may responsibly wade. If we’re serious about our science-based epistemology, we must be prepared to consistently defer to scientific consensus. As Esau puts it,
That consistency is essential, because without it people like myself will ask “So, what’s the point?” To waver from that consistency risks calling the entire enterprise into question.
Staying on Track
The simple truth is that many skeptics have limited scientific qualifications. Yes, of course, there are towering, world-class scientists in the skeptical camp. But most skeptics are not working scientists. Even skeptics who do have scientific qualifications are frequently called upon to comment outside of their area of domain expertise. (Think of astronomer Phil Plait commenting on vaccines, or neurologist Steve Novella commenting on evolution.)
At the same time, people turn to skeptical media to find out what’s really true about weird things — sometimes life and death things, as in alternative medicine. Skeptics solicit that trust. We make the implicit (and sometimes explicit) promise that we are able to provide the nuanced, objective, evidence-based facts.
That combination of stated commitment to science, limited qualifications, and weighty ethical responsibilities (as when we comment on medicine) place a very high due diligence burden upon skeptics.
So, with last week’s firestorm as a cautionary tale, I’d like to propose some rules of thumb for skeptical discussion of mainstream science:
1) Where both scientific domain expertise and expert consensus exist, skeptics are (at best) straight science journalists. We can report the consensus, communicate findings in their proper context — and that’s it.
Skeptical resources spent on mainstream science journalism are resources taken away from our core mandate (pseudoscience and the paranormal — a mandate no one else has), although science popularization is of course valuable in itself when done responsibly. (My upcoming book is a straightforward kids’ primer on evolution.) But skeptics who do delve into science reporting should consider themselves obligated to stay close to mainstream expert opinion — and, obligated to solicit fact-checking and criticism from actual scientific experts.
Unfortunately, some lay skeptics have the idea that general critical thinking skills qualify them to critique professional science even in the face of wide agreement among domain experts. I submit that this is hubris — and almost always a mistake. (It is also the exact argument that sustains anti-vaccine activism, creationism, and other fringe positions whose examples we might wish to avoid.)
In my previous career as a shepherd, we had a term for a very similar (and almost inevitable) phenomenon: “Rookie Syndrome.” Raw trainee shepherds would arrive in camp, look at sheep for a couple days, and then start to argue with the experienced hands. Why they thought a cursory glance qualified them to challenge domain experts is anyone’s guess, but it happened all the time. With some basic, introductory experience (say, two or three years), they typically became embarrassed about the arrogance and naiveté of their first weeks — during which they had known too little to even realize what they did not know.
Whether it’s sheep, law, stage magic, aircraft maintenance, Shakespeare scholarship, or a scientific discipline, every field has its specialized literature, skills, and knowledge base that take years of work to acquire. In any complex field, such domain expertise is essential to form a qualified opinion. And in most such fields, Rookie Syndrome — armchair quarterbacking — is common.
2) Where scientific domain expertise exists, but not consensus, we can report that a controversy exists — but we cannot resolve it. As Bertrand Russell put it,
when the experts are…not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and… when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment.
Skeptics sometimes stumble badly here: we cannot, as laypeople, responsibly wade into an area in which we are not expert and expect to settle expert controversies.
If we’re not qualified, we should not promote our opinions. If we are qualified, we should attempt to convince our fellow experts in the relevant peer-reviewed literature — not skip peer review to make popular appeals in the popular (skeptical) press.
3) Where scientific domain expertise and consensus exist, but also a denier movement or pseudoscientific fringe, skeptics can finally roll up their sleeves and get to work.
This is traditional ground for us, our bread and butter, as when we combat creationism or vaccine paranoia or AIDS denial. But note that there are two distinct components to critiquing fringe movements: knowledge of pseudoscience (our own area of domain expertise); and knowledge of the contrasting body of actual scientific literature — a literature on which we are not typically expert.
On the straight science component, we are obligated to defer to the current state of the science. On the pseudoscience component, we are often able to make a contribution in our capacity as the best available experts.
Consider the example of debating creationism. In the past, creationists typically ran rings around biologists. This was not because scientists lacked knowledge of science, but because scientists lacked specialized knowledge of nonsense. That’s where we came in. The history and rhetoric of nonsense is a specialized niche arena — our arena. Skeptics perform an essential public service when we concentrate on that.
This is our primary realm:
4) Where a paranormal or pseudoscientific topic has enthusiasts but no legitimate experts, skeptics may perform original research, advance new theories, and publish in the skeptical press.
This practically endless assortment of traditional skeptical topics (from Nessie to pyramid power to astrology to iridology to UFO crashes to psychic surgery) is where we should focus our energy. In these areas, our contribution is unique, valuable — and, I have argued, an ethical obligation. There are hundreds of topics under this vast umbrella, so it’s not like this “narrow” mandate for skepticism doesn’t offer us enough to do!
In this shadowy, fringe realm, skeptics can indeed critique working scientists. There is no mainstream of consensus science on, say, ghosts; skeptics are the relevant domain experts. And, just as we stumble when we venture outside of our expertise, so too will scientists who charge blindly into our own speciality.
And what are the most powerful, most illuminating, most enduring examples of skeptics schooling credentialed scientists and prestigious mainstream media? Exactly those demonstrations — such as the epic Project Alpha and Carlos hoaxes — brought to us by James “The Amazing” Randi.