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What, If Anything, Can Skeptics Say About Science?

by Daniel Loxton, Dec 22 2009
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio, Larry Stock, Robert Gersten

NASA visualization of arctic surface warming trends. NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio, Larry Stock, Robert Gersten

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, 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.)

Daniel Loxton with 200 sheep in night corral

Daniel Loxton with 2000 sheep (in night corral) on the BC side of the Alaska Panhandle

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 expertsskeptics 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.

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158 Responses to “What, If Anything, Can Skeptics Say About Science?”

  1. Trimegistus says:

    So when Mr. Randi attacks Christian religion (about which he is only an educated layman) he is a bold crusader, but when he attacks “Climate Change” religion (about which ditto) he is an ignorant old man who should STFU. Got it. Thanks.

    • Quentin Hudspeth says:

      @Trimegistus: Been a while since you got an A on a book report, has it? Your powers of paraphrasing are indeed paltry.

      • mrG says:

        Got nothing to add? Why not try ad hominem attack! Well-done Quentin!

        Unfortunately, Trimegistus has a perfectly valid point … to a point.

        As we saw last year with that famous epidemiologist’s analysis of the journals, it isn’t that Science lies but that science ‘journalism’ (the Deep Urine-Yellow kind) jumps to conclusions to sell eyeballs to advertisers.

        I am so tired of “A study has found …” headlines. A study, using 32 bored and broke undergraduate WIMPs, and they think they ‘have’ something. The scientists probably don’t, though everyone professionally boasts a bit, but the media, the media has a story and if it supports the WIMP demographic as seen by the website hits, hey, so much the better. Put it above the ‘fold’ and go.

        Here’s where skepticism is both warranted and valid even when done by amateurs with odd grammar: Scientific method requires replication by independent research and replication by repeating the original research. Isn’t that simple enough? Take any Sci-Phi news item and go straight to the bibliography: Do they cite prior studies? Are they replicating prior studies? Have they found issue with the method of prior studies that has invalidated prior ‘conclusions’?

        We can ALL ask such questions, it doesn’t take a Game Theorist to read the bibliography of a John Nash paper, although it make take one hell of a theorist to critically assess his conclusions (or exceptions from the prior) and THAT is where we then return to the search engine and ask, “Has anyone ELSE found this same result?

        Chances are, these days, sadly, no. Take the Hockey Stick for example, and an example in my own domain: The famous letters clearly show the model was (a) questionable and (b) not replicable because the ‘data’ and the model were not public. Hopefully the Harry ReadMe incident will correct that and we will get both repeat and independent confirmation. But that’s just one example.

        Science, kid yourself not, has ALWAYS been primarily a game of rhetoric, a game of convincing superiors to extend your funding, convincing publishers not to remainder your books. cf Galileo if you wish, or even Aristotle. It’s about swaying people, about manufacturing belief, all too often with money involved, and there too, it doesn’t take a domain specialist to follow the money.

        Real Science (I know, Skeptics Hate Caps) does creep in there, sometimes even intentionally, but just look at those journals, any journals, and go back as far as you like: Ulterior Motive is far more often the reason for the research and as they say in Buddhism, when you hold a bow, you don’t hold two arrows.

        and then there’s the famous and frequent phenomenon of simply assuming the first study was ‘correct’ and proceeding from there. Cepheid Calibration for example, or the nature of the Instantaneous for another.

        But this is OK because while a Moses Asche or the IndEng who gave us Hourly Wage maybe had other agendas that fooled people for generations, blindly parrotted as fact in thousands of papers, eventually someone else will get the agenda-bug to challenge the old master, re-run their data or re-collect new data and Lo maybe they get their funding extended (or get ostracized forever) but collectively our understanding is that much increased.

        Which is not to say the PopSci press is likely to print a retraction, or that the Enquirer Crowd is likely to listen even if they did, but way out there on the fringes there will exist those few who did pay attention, who did follow-up and follow the story, and now sit in their bunkers with their tinfoil hats laughing smugly at the rest of us.

        Ooops, sorry, I forgot: tinfoil hats were discredited!

    • Mike K says:

      I don’t want to feed the troll, but that brings up an intersting point. Where does Chrisitanity fit in the “four categories of skepticism”?

      The specific claims I know that Randi has addressed (Peter Popoff’s faith healing radio scam, glossolalia and creationists) are fringe beliefs that fall squarely in category 4, enthusiasts with no expert consensus. But what about Christianity in general? There’s clearly not an “expert consensus” within the field that we should defer. I don’t think 2 (expertise but controversy) fits, because there is such a wide smattering of opinion even within Christianity. Since religous claims do not use evidence as their basis, it’s impossible to have an “expert scientific consensus” and falls comlpetely outside of these categories, except when it makes specific claims.

      My opinion is that a skeptic can legitimately comment on religion, but I am having trouble supporting that opinion on the basis of this article. Perhaps someone out there can help me out?

      • Leo says:

        Skeptics can certainly comment on specific real-world truth claims made by religious believers and leaders. However, when the topic ventures into the metaphysical we’ve left the realm of skepticism. One can be skeptical of Peter Popoff’s faith healing claims but not of his claim that God exists. The former are can be tested and proved wrong, but not the latter. We should never confuse or conflate atheism with skepticism.

      • frank says:

        since science advances through the triumph of hubris over consesus a consensualist may be properly wary of a creationist – especially one that accepts vast domains of evolutionary evidence (such as the process of natural selection though limiting its operational validity to within “kinds”)

        because there seems to be a priori total rejection of ID and creationism in these circles may i suggest that skeptics ought to be careful to discern where the valid hubris lies or one risks egg on face.

        conventionally credentialled YECs operating within their fields of expertise have made some provocative predictions – eg Russ Humphries’ planetary magnetic moments ; and there appears to be emerging work resolving a young planet in an ‘old’ universe – Hartnett , Camelli and others using a bounded condition rather than the usual ‘unbounded’ assumption for the cosmos.

        forgive the details – but i see these examples as pointing to the kind of evidentiary processes that an informed layman would like to see presented and tested. this is beyond ‘pseudoscience’

      • John says:

        Both skeptic and believer should refrain from *public* comments if they are not ‘up on the literature’. A skeptic who is ignorant of the scholarly study of Christianity shouldn’t express views publicly… unless he doesn’t mind looking like an ass.

        Now, you can say whatever the hell you want when you’re in a pub with your mates. Because no one minds looking like an ass when one drinks!

      • Rob says:

        Huh… he said Christianity and Scholarly in the same sentence. Weird.

    • Max says:

      This is actually a different issue: How much domain expertise should skeptics have in the pseudoscience they’re attacking?

      • mrG says:

        Let’s consider there to be multiple classes of skepticism:

        1. the professional researcher in the domain reads the paper and decides to replicate the experiment only to find that the paper is omitting details or otherwise behaving strangely, so they correct and flush out the process and publish a follow-up to confirm or question the original. This is what I would call Active Skepticism and I believe it is the most healthy and useful.

        2. scientists in other domains, even those with basic undergraduate training in scientific and academic method can evaluate the meta-details, the statistical methods, the reliability of the data, effacy of the model; this makes no comment on the domain per se, only on the application of the scientific method, and this form of skepticism does not refute, it only questions, it only maintains what a buddhist would call Great Doubt. This is Passive Skepticism, and while mostly it is idle debate over a few beers, it can inspire young Active Skeptics to give the ideas a shot in a bid for their own fame and glory.

        3. the vast majority of skeptics merely do not like something, they have a gut feeling that it is not correct and then invent reasons why their gut should be correct. Sometimes the reasoning can be quite humourous and if you want to see exemplary rationalization this way, ask any 4 year old to explain any topic to you that they wish to expound. It is hilarious, but also leads us to ask, “if the pre-schooler is so sure of his conclusions, what does that say about ourselves and our own sure-conclusions?” — take religion for example, what if the phenomenologists are correct, as neuroscience appears to suggest, and ‘religion’ is nothing more than the empirically-discovered science of phenomenological experience? Maybe it is unimportant if the liver was really removed, repaired and replaced if the experiential fact is that the patient has a subjectively better quality of life? But I digress … these “Because I just don’t like it” skeptics I call the Dogmatic Skeptics, who usually have some personal phenomenological percept they need to maintain and thus, to preserve their own ‘reality’ explains the vehemence of their methods.

        So can we scientifically comment on Religion? Absolutely! Religion is a priori. Religion exists in all ‘natural’ cultures, and beliefs in even the most seemingly odd systems are highly tenacious … so there must be ecological validity in it, multiple dimensions of vital livingry, some very fundamental creature-value that we would be well advised to understand.

        the active skeptic would seek to find out what that validity was and then demonstrate this through informed ritual-modifications that enhance the effect. Chemistry can enhance steel, Physics can enhance electronics and ice skates — Can you imagine James Randi or Richard Dawkins announcing they have an improved sacrament and then having the Pope agree and instantly adopting their innovation? Ah … no. :)

      • Citation Needed says:

        I’d like to point out you say that a majority of Skeptics are your “Dogmatic Skeptics”. Now while your philosophical debate is fine, and I agree with some of your characterization of skeptics, the last category is not a skeptic. To call a denier a skeptic is a great injustice. Indeed, skeptics refute the claims of such people, Holocaust Deniers, AIDS deniers, and to be honest, labeling the majority of skeptics, evidence falsifying liars is not only poisoning the well, but stupid. You sir, are one of your own Dogmatic Skeptics. I’ve yet to see the skeptic publication that calls those who make up their arguments without evidence skeptics.
        Prove your claims, or GTFO.

    • Joshua says:

      Clearly you excelled at the metaphor portion of the SAT’s, Trim.

    • Fritz says:

      So, reigion is a scientific endevor?

  2. Tom says:

    Not all science is created equal. Economists bandy about equations as if they can accurately model the real world – and they are even able to occasionally make correct predictions – but nobody would frown on someone being skeptical about their pronouncements.

    Perhaps there is something to be said for climate science being a bit less certain than, say, chemistry. A chemist can accurately predict that if you add sodium to water you had better exit the room promptly. Climate scientists still can’t tell us how severe next year’s hurricane season will be with anything greater than random probability of being correct.

    • WScott says:

      Climate scientists still can’t tell us how severe next year’s hurricane season will be with anything greater than random probability of being correct.

      Aplles & oranges, Tom. Predicting the (short-term) weather is a completely different game than predicting (long-term) climate trends.

      • Max says:

        Maybe so, but even long-term climate predictions are far less accurate than predictions of chemical reactions. I think that was Tom’s point.

      • Perspective says:

        In the 1970’s the prediction was an Ice age was coming. In the 2000’s Global Warming, now climate change. Admittedly climate change is right, but that is rather like saying if you stop breathing you will die.

      • Joel says:

        The global cooling thing was pretty much made up whole cloth by denialists – there was a pop sci book, and a few papers, and some sensationalised reporting – but nothing approaching a consensus.

      • A scientific consensus on global cooling did exist between 1972 and around 1975

      • chet jones says:

        yes, and predicting long-term climate change with accuracy is next to impossible. I say this with little domain expertise regarding climate, but instead based on my knowledge of statistics.

      • John says:

        Based on your knowledge of statistics could you tell me how much accuracy is possible for the standard solar model? Thanx – it will be a great help to solar physicists!

    • Reed says:

      I smell a non-sequitor.

      The uncertainties of climate science relative to chemistry do not automatically grant the pronouncements of the layperson any credibility. Same goes for economics.

      Of course you’re entitled to your skepticism of climate science, but it should be made clear that in doing so you may be rejecting science itself.

      • Tom says:


        This is true. But that also means that the opinions of the experts (in economics and client science) have a lower probability of being correct than the opinions of experts in other fields. Where there is great uncertainty, a healthy dose of skepticism seems pretty rational to me (particularly when trillions of dollars are at stake).

      • Max says:

        “particularly when trillions of dollars are at stake”

        Are you insinuating a conflict of interests, or just saying that extraordinary stakes require extraordinary proof?

        Should we then be extra skeptical of the claim that GW is not anthropogenic (particularly when the whole biosphere is at stake)?

      • Tom says:

        Max, I meant the latter – extraordinary stakes require extraordinary proof. Unfortunately, this is not a maximin problem…more of a maximaxi problem. The costs of both action and inaction are potentially very large.

        Before making the conscious choice to incur large costs now, I would prefer to have better evidence of the future cost of inaction.

    • Stephanie B says:

      The science is not less sound, in this instant, in climatology, though it may be less thoroughly understood. Part of that is because events move more slowly and that, though specific aspects of it can be tested in the lab or simmed on a computer, mixing it with the many other aspects of climate science makes it less predictable. They can understand the processes without entirely the specifics or, with exactness, the specific parameters.

      This is true for all of the most complex sciences. Simple chemistry, for instance, is straightforward. Advanced organic chemistry not so much and that’s child’s play next to biology. Biology, in fact, is an excellent example of what climate scientists are dealing with.

      The earth is, effectively, a living breathing organism and we are experimenting with drugs on her. We know what happens to lab rats, but, when it comes to knowing the long term effects on the earth, we are reduced to statistical guessing, partially because we don’t have a thorough and complete case history and the time scale is so far beyond our own record-keeping. The recommended treatment is based on sound science and best information, like treating a disease, but with the same limitations and inability to absolutely predict how this patient will respond to experimental and unprecedented treatment.

  3. WScott says:

    Trimegistus packed a whole lotta FAIL into his short post. But he inadvertently raises a valid concern.

    Given the sorry state of science education in this country (I’m in the US), the phrase “The best available scientific consensus says…” is not seen as fundamentally different from “The Priests say…” to most of the general public. I’m not saying they ARE the same, of course; I’m saying many people don’t understand the difference and hear it as just an appeal to authority. So when we’re invoking scientific consensus, we need to be careful to explain why we’re not just “trusting what a bunch of old men in lab coats say” (as I once heard it described).

    • Mike K says:

      I would say that the difference is the basis of authority (scripture and listening to God vs. evidence and rigorous experimentation). Although, making that distinction probably makes things worse.

    • Joshua says:

      The solution is to explain that scientific consensus refers to the results of numerous experiments rather than to any particular person(s), thus eliminating appeals to authority.

    • John says:

      This is a very good point. Science is unlike religion in a subtle way: ‘knowledge is determined by consensus rather than authority’

      A Mohamed, Jesus or Joseph Smith can persuade millions to accept his words are the truth, but in science, peer review determines what is accepted… because when science works you can’t get away with bullshit.

      Peer review is such a crucial aspect of science and yet we seldom hear about it. It compensates for the fact that we are all of us biased. If the pro and con camps are honest and diligent ideas and results will rise and fall on their own merits (admittedly, personality cults can hold influence for a time, but each generation of grad students seems keen to overturn their ‘Elders’ and that keeps the system ‘honest’. Who was it who said “True scientific revolution occurs when one generation of scientists dies off”?)

      The power of scientific consensus is lost when people lack understanding of the process of peer review. A consensus is like a jury returning a verdict on a case. Sure, it may be wrong but as long as there are those who seek to make a name for themselves by proving everyone else wrong the truth will out.

      To attack the consensus on climate change because scientists held different views in previous decades is as silly as attacking cosmology because we used to have a geocentric model of the universe: science progresses in ‘knowledge’ – else it would be no fun. The fact that the consensus on climate has changed signifies that the current results are better established than the previous (or how would they have over-turned the repetitious ones?)

      Really this climate brouhaha provides a wonderful teaching opportunity about the nature of science. Science doesn’t just scrutinize theories and hypotheses – it scrutinizes measurements (experimental results)… and more importantly it scrutinizes the *interpretation* of the results. (BTW: a lot can be said about pseudo-science and data interpretation)

      Finally, one of my pet peeves is the question “Is global warming caused by humans or not?” It isn’t an either-or situation (few things in life are). A much better question would be “How much of global warming is caused by humans?”

      Asking a good question is halfway to getting a good answer!

      (Sorry, this is a skimpy post on a vast topic – this topic is deserving of a book … which I’m working on).

      • John says:

        Oops. “.. over-turned the repetitious ones?” should be “…over-turned the previous ones?” Didn’t catch it until I posted it

  4. agreed, WScott.

    but, maybe Mr. Randi was having a bad day?

  5. Doesn’t religion qualify as the paranormal?

    “4) Where a paranormal and pseudoscientific topic has enthusiasts but no legitimate experts, skeptics may perform original research, advance new theories, and publish in the skeptical press.”

    • “Religion” may fall anywhere on that scale, depending what one means by it. For the kinds of things they teach at secular universities — biblical criticism, history of Christianity (or other religions), comparative religion and so on — there definitely are academic (and even scientific) experts, as well as bodies of established fact.

    • PrimevilKneivel says:

      if you don’t see religion as something that affects the world you live in but rather the place you go after you die (and if such a place exists) then it is different than the paranormal claims about the world we are currently living in.

      Many religious people don’t buy into the power of prayer to solve any real world problems, or a god that will choose a particular team. But ghost hunters do believe that they are seeing, or hearing, or photographing something that exists in the here and now.

  6. Jim Hughes says:

    I do not trust physicists, biologists, etc., just because they have degrees and have reached consensus. If I did, how would that be different from appeal to authority?

    I trust scientists when they make falsifiable claims which predict the results of future experiments. When they can’t (yet) invent such experiments I reserve judgement.

    Have climetologist made falsifiable claims about the future? Have they been succesful? Did they, for example, predict something about 2008 back in 2002? Were they right?

    It is not sufficiant to fit your models to past data. Many stock market theorists have gone broke thinking that their model “must” be correct because it so neatly fit the past data.

    • Skepdude says:


      If you go to 10 car mechanics and they all tell you the problem with your car is the radiator, and you take their word, that’s not an argument from authority, that’s the only sensible thing you can do. Trusting the authorities in a given field about a question about that field is not an argument from authority.

      On the other hand if your dentist told you that screw the mechanics, the issue is not the radiator but your brakes and “trust me I’m a smart guy” that would be an argument from authority. The fallacy lies not in trusting authority, but in trusting the wrong kind of authority.

      • Max says:

        Did you read Yau-Man Chan’s oil change rant?

        “For years, the recommended oil change interval for gas-powered cars in the US has been every 3,000 miles. This 3,000 miles interval is so well programmed into the psyche of the driving public that for many, drivers, mechanics, and dealers alike, it’s sacrosanct. I’m trying to break a superstitious habit.”

      • Jim Hughes says:

        I trust mechanics who have some history of successfully repairing cars. As a matter of fact, I seek out such mechanics, by reading reviews, asking for references, etc.

        Again, that brings me back to my question: Have the climate models made correct predictions about anything? (This is NOT a rhetorical question. I don’t know the answer and would like to.) If I find that these models have made good predictions for the last few year, my own niggling doubts will go away.

        Without successful predictions, how do we know the experts truly have expertise?

      • Mark says:

        “Have the climate models made correct predictions about anything?”

        Quite a bit – but depends on the level of accuracy you need. They get the major structure of the atmospheric circulation right, they can now get long-period oscillations like El-Nino right in character, and they have made valid predictions that an increase in green house gases (based on simulations done back in the late 1980’s) would lead to increased temperatures. Silly emails aside, there HAS been an undeniable rise in mean temperatures over the last several decades – the models didn’t get the increase dead on, but they were within a factor of a few – not bad because this really is a LOT more complex that chemistry. Making predictions about a given year (like 2008 back in 2002) is not really viable – there are too many oscillatory and/or quazi-oscillatory components in the system (like the multi-phase ENSO, but also a whole raft of others) – this is the climatological noise, if you like. The existence of this noise would be worrying if it were not for the fact that we can calculate the direct forcing that you should get for the CO2 (and CH4 – and the slave H2O) that we know we’ve introduced (it should be remembered, we KNOW we put that CO2 there, even if that sometimes gets attacked, too), and the steady 20th century rise in temperatures is in line with the response we should get for that increase in greenhouse gas. But it’s critical to note that the cyclic / quasi-cyclic patterns are distinct in character from the secular rise in temperature – and that the rise we’ve had over the 20th century has been sufficiently rapid that it would be extremely odd in the absence of correlates (i.e. yeah, temperatures rose VERY rapidly at the end of the last ice age – but contemporary observers would have noted dramatic correlates in the way of vast loss of continental ice sheets – and someone would have figured out a theory of ice sheet stability dynamics coupled with solar forcing variations).

        OK, long winded, but yes, climate models have been remarkably successful, given the enormous complexity. But the other thing to note also is the inherent skepticism amongst climate scientists – the models yield SPREAD in the range of predicted warming, associated with uncertainty in the capacities of reservoirs that can soak up greenhouse gases and heat, and to some degree cloud feedbacks. This doesn’t change the big picture – which is actually quite fundamental and demonstrable across the solar system: stronger greenhouse effect = warmer – but it does say that on a 50-100 year timescale there is an ensemble model-derived probability distribution of predicted warming, and one side of that envelope is very near 0 change- the other side of the range is quite bad, though. And in the long run (several hundred years), it becomes extremely hard special pleading to hope that somehow you can greatly increase the abundance of a key planetary greenhouse gas and nowt will happen.

        So how to be skeptical about all this? I’d say don’t buy into the CNN hysteria about any given year or storm being uniquely due to climate change. But don’t buy into Fox either that a winter storm in NJ means no global warming – an no, scientists are not following Gore. I’d say be skeptical of any single model of warming, but that warming is a real risk. Given it’s a risk, shouldn’t we be looking at how one manages that? Isn’t that we we formulate insurance? The big problem with AGW is that it’s turned into a partisan political issue, where neither side is quite right – to BELIEVE that we’ll have warming X or no warming, both are neither scientific nor skeptical views (and BTW, I’ve yet to meet a scientist who can function who isn’t a skeptic – sometimes annoyingly so :)

      • chet jones says:

        Bingo. It’s a risk-management issue. The risk could be guaged and addressed more or less appropriately, except for the fact that no action will be taken in democratic countries unless people believe there is a real crisis (think ozone hole). If it isn’t an imminent threat, people just don’t care that much, and certainly don’t put it above the economy, the war, etc. It’s a bit of a conundrum.

  7. PrimevilKneivel says:

    The problem with the climate change debate is there are two components to the AGW philosophy. There is a mistrust of the science but that is fueled by the political side of the debate.

    Personally I trust the scientific consensus, but I have no faith in the political initiatives, the carbon taxes, the carbon credits and the various ways we can pay our way out of this issue. Frankly it reeks of hucksterism and in the few debates I’ve had with folks that don’t trust the science, that’s what fuels their paranoia about the grand global warming conspiracy. I actually find they listen to my points on the science much better when I tell them I don’t trust Al Gore any more than they do, but point out that doesn’t affect the science.

  8. Max says:

    “Where both scientific domain expertise and expert consensus exist, skeptics are (at best) straight science journalists”

    Science journalists often question the consensus because they follow the politics involved and they remember previous cases where the consensus was wrong, and they get a little cynical. I detect some of this in Randi’s piece:
    “History supplies us with many examples where scientists were just plain wrong about certain matters, but ultimately discovered the truth through continued research.”

  9. Jason M says:

    Heidi, Religious belief would qualify strictly as #4, if only it did not invade areas where there is scientific consensus (e.g. Intelligent Design would be in category #3).

  10. Jim Lippard says:

    While I think the picture Daniel presents offers some good heuristics, I can’t help but note that this is really proffered normative advice about the proper relationship between the layman and the expert, which is a question that is itself a subject of research in multiple domains of expertise including philosophy of science, science and technology studies, and the law. A picture much like the one argued for here is defended by some, such as philosopher John Hardwig (“Epistemic Dependence,” _Journal of Philosophy_ 82(1985):335-349), but criticized by others, such as philosopher Don Ihde (“Why Not Science Critics?”, _International Studies in Philosophy_ 29(1997):45-54). There are epistemological, ethical, and political issues regarding deference to experts that are sidestepped by the above discussion. Not only is there a possibility of meta-expertise about evaluating experts, there are cases of what Harry Collins and Robert Evans call “interactional expertise” (“The Third Wave of Science Studies: Studies of Expertise and Experience,” _Social Studies of Science_ 32:2(2002):235-196) where non-certified experts attain sufficient knowledge to interact at a deep level with certified experts, and challenge their practices and results (this is discussed in Evan Selanger and John Mix, “On Interactional Expertise: Pragmatic and Ontological Considerations,” _Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences_ 3:2(2004):145-163); Steven Epstein’s book _Impure Science: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge_, 1996, Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, discusses how AIDS activists developed such expertise and successfully made changes to AIDS drug research and approval processes.

    The above discussion also doesn’t discuss context–are these proposed normative rules for skeptics in any circumstance, or only for those speaking on behalf of skeptical organizations? I don’t think it’s reasonable to suggest that skeptics, speaking for themselves, should be limited about questioning anything. The legal system is an example of a case where experts should be challenged and questioned–it’s a responsibility of the judge, under both the Frye and Daubert rules, to make judgments about the relevance and admissibility of expert testimony, and of laymen on the jury to decide who is more credible. (This itself raises enormous issues, which are discussed at some length by philosopher and law professor Scott Brewer, “Scientific Expert Testimony and Intellectual Due Process,” _The Yale Law Journal_ vol. 107, 1535-1681.) Similar considerations apply to the realm of politics in a democratic society (cf. Ihde’s article).

    All of the papers I’ve cited are reprinted in the volume _The Philosophy of Expertise_, edited by Evan Selinger and Robert P. Crease, 2006, N.Y.: Columbia University Press.

    • Drew says:

      I don’t have as much background on this as you seem to, but I agree when reading it I had to stop and think, “Wait, when you see neat little categories like this, you know something’s up.”

      Obviously in real life things are a lot messier, but over all I think his goal was to give us a nice heuristic and that’s been done quite well. This may be a post that I refer back to with some frequency.

      • Yes, as I put it in the post: these are “rules of thumb,” which I propose here mostly to focus our thoughts. Real life is indeed messier, and there are presumably instances that fall outside these proposed guidelines. For example, Steven Novella asks

        Also – Daniel – where would you fit something like chiropractic? Is this a pseudoscience fringe, or “enthusiasts”? Perhaps there needs to be another category of pseudoscientific pseudoexperts – where the whole enterprise if scientifically flawed, but they have the trappings of expertise.

    • badrescher says:

      Similar to what Jim Lippard said(#10), I’d like to remind everyone that in science there are no authorities.

      Carl Sagan was pretty clear on this point and the laws of logic/reason clearly dictate that authority is not relevant to an argument.

      Science involves peer review and consensus for this very reason, so it is not exactly reasonable IMO to silence the individual skeptic on the grounds that he/she is not an authority. Instead, the skeptical community should, as it currently does, come to a consensus through its own version of peer review (i.e., ripping each other’s posts to pieces and pointing out the errors in reasoning).

      I am not saying that skeptics should be irresponsible about voicing their opinions, but I do believe that your rules of thumb are unreasonable in that they do not consider who decides when a skeptic is capable of constructing a valid argument.

      I know plenty of very bad scientists who claim expertise they do not have, despite the number and prestige of their degrees.

      The opposite is also true.

      Perhaps I am biased since I am one of what I thought was more than a few of the “working scientists” you mentioned, but I do think that I am capable of evaluating research outside my field. Of course I cannot determine the validity of a study on microchromotosis (I made that up – any resemblance to a real phenomenon is purely coincidental), but I can certainly discuss the research methods of at least 75% of the literature outside my field. If I could not, I would not be a very good scientist in my field since my field incorporates knowledge of physics, biology, chemistry, anthropology, computer science, statistics, sociology, economics, political science, and many others.

      • Jim Lippard says:

        badrescher: , I wouldn’t go so far as to say that in science there are no authorities–rather, there are no *unchallengeable* authorities. The concepts of authority, credibility, and trust are extremely important in how scientists and scientific institutions function.

      • To be clear, I’m not advocating respect for authority, but respect for expertise. Also, I am not suggesting that we are obligated to accept the analysis of particular individual “experts.” As well, I would not suggest that consensus cannot be wrong.

        My point is that the best available window we have into any complex field is the overall consensus among the community of relevant experts. That consensus could be wrong, but how could we determine that without relevant expertise? Even if we are sufficiently expert, we are still likely to be wrong when we argue against consensus. That’s how advances are made (sometimes by outsiders!) — but there are many strikes for every game-changing home run.

        Bottom line? “The community of experts and body of existing research are mistaken” is an extraordinary claim. It demands extraordinary evidence.

      • badrescher says:

        In reference to my point, I don’t believe authority differs from expertise in this context and although credentials provide information about whom we should trust, they should never be used to measure the validity of an argument.

        I don’t disagree that a claim made against the scientific consensus is an extraordinary one and I would not, I hope, ever make one. That’s not relevant to my point.

        My point is that skeptical activism is the act of a community and that community has a culture which dictates how the community operates.

        I, for one, much prefer a culture in which what one says is criticized for its own merits (or lack thereof) to one in which the individual is criticized for saying it because they are not considered (by someone else) to be qualified to say it.

        Scientific consensus is reached through a transparent process of peer review in which both claims and criticism are freely made. Instead of evaluating claims, we criticize the evaluation of claims, but I see no reason the skeptical community should operate differently.

        What happened last week was nothing but positive, IMO. The community responded to Randi’s evaluation of AGW claims in a productive, open way and we all learn from those discussions. Yes, the irrational will use things like that against us, but the alternative is censorship (even self-censorship is censorship) and that helps nobody.

      • John says:

        In fact, frequently in research the bigger the reputation the more people scrutinize your work (if only to try taking you down a peg or two ;).

        Note: scrutinizing and nitpicking someone’s work means that scientists respect it enough to think about it. The biggest insult a scientist can suffer is not being ridiculed but being ignored – it is like saying “You’re not part of the community.”

      • epicurus says:

        “The community of experts and body of existing research are mistaken” is an extraordinary claim. It demands extraordinary evidence. That is true except it works against AGW theory. IPCC has about 2500 scientists advocating AGW but there are over 30,000 scientists who endorsed the opposite view(Singer, 2008). By the way, the vast majority of IPCC scientists do not have influence on the views expressed in the IPCC Assessment reports and in fact some have actually complained that the result of their research were either distorted or ignored because it did not support AGW. (If you want details on this, I can give you a first-hand account from the scientist.)

        But scientific truth is not decided by a survey of scientists. Consensus is irrelevant to science because the former is a political matter and has nothing to do with the scientific method. The more difficult problem with AGW is not the (lack of) consensus but whether it is at all a physical phenomenon supported by the laws of physics. I will send you a peer-reviewed scientific paper that argues this is not the case.

        I am not a climatologist but I have studied physics, chemistry and engineering. I have corresponded with atmospheric physicists who are advocates and skeptics of AGW. I have submitted a skeptical paper to the Journal of Geophysical Research. I do not expect objectivity since the Editor is an IPCC scientist and advocate of AGW.


      • Max says:

        “IPCC has about 2500 scientists advocating AGW but there are over 30,000 scientists who endorsed the opposite view (Singer, 2008)”

        Are you referring to the discredited Oregon Petition that James Randi cited in his first newsletter? Here’s what he said in his followup:

        “In consulting this source, I suggest that you go directly to ‘Case Study: The Oregon Petition’ to see just how this ‘project’ was created and distributed. I admit that I was unaware of the true nature of the Petition, and I thank Dr. Plait — and several others — who pointed me to this reference and a much better grasp of the situation.”

      • epicurus says:

        Thanks for pointing out. Perhaps if the scientists were allowed to vote for or against AGW. Pro would win. In this case, only the con’s were counted so it’s a bit unfair. I guess if a survey were conducted afterlife or not, afterlife would win ten to one.

    • It seems to me that this concept of “interaction expertise” and ideas around it have the potential to eventually shed a lot of light on deep issues in skeptical analysis of scientific claims in general. Perhaps even to help us identify criteria for qualifying expertise in general, taking the issue out of the realm of artbitrary choice between type 1 vs type 2 errors. This is a very helpful lead, thank you very much Jim.

  11. Max says:

    All of this presupposes that we know which of the four scenarios we’re dealing with, but our first job is to make that determination, using our baloney detection kit. Climatologists, homeopaths, and parapsychologists can all have degrees, peer-reviewed journals, federal funding, and consensus, but just because they call it science doesn’t make it so. Science is as science does.

    • Typically, skeptics don’t have to make that determination: experts from the surrounding sciences do this in an ongoing basis. For example, the larger psychology community is highly critical of psychoanalysis, but climate science is respected widely by surrounding scientific disciplines and organizations.

      • Max says:

        I agree that it’s a useful heuristic, but I should also point out that Carl Sagan’s baloney detection kit primarily concerns the actual process and various fallacies and biases. The only time it mentions authority is to say, “Arguments from authority carry little weight (in science there are no ‘authorities’).”

  12. cheglabratjoe says:

    Daniel, I don’t understand (at all!) how the following comment at the beginning of your article jibes with the four areas you outlined: “I’ve long argued that our patchy and lukewarm acceptance of mainstream climate science is skepticism’s greatest failure.” I feel like I’m completely missing something … do you think climate change falls into category 3 or 4, rather than 1 or 2?

    I think PrimevilKneivel hit the nail on the head, and (at the risk of giving him a backhanded insult) I assumed this was obvious to everyone. It’s difficult to separate the politics from the science when it comes to climate change. If AGW is real, then it implies the necessity of serious political/economic/social changes.

    So, if your personal politics disagree with what AGW indicates is necessary, you have a vested interest in rejecting AGW. For most topics, this isn’t an issue … evolution and ghosts are pretty much apolitical (or at least the politics can be separated from the science). At the end of the day, no one’s personal politics will be challenged or bolstered by the existence of UFOs.

    Finally, I think it’s a little funny that the word “libertarian” not yet appeared on this page. Are we hoping that the elephant in the skeptical room will disappear if we don’t talk about it?

    • To be clear, my position as a skeptic is that climate science is what climate scientists say it is (ie, category 1). Skepticism’s long flirtation with climate change denial is, in my opinion, a catastrophic failure to live up to our stated ideals of science-based decision-making. (Speaking as an individual citizen, my opinion on climate change policy is that we are ethically obligated to attempt urgent action.)

      • cheglabratjoe says:

        I see, and I generally agree. My apologies for assuming otherwise! Apparently I’m on edge after Randi’s “Swift-gate.”

      • tmac57 says:

        I have detected in some skeptics what appears to be a line of reasoning that goes something like this:
        1. The implications of AGW involving political and social action is distasteful to my belief system.
        2. I searched high and low and found others who offered an alternative view of AGW that fits better with my belief system, therefore even though it appears to be contrary to what the vast majority of experts in the field say, my gut is telling me that it confirms my beliefs, so it MUST be correct.
        3. Even though I traditionally accept scientific consensus on most everything else, because these scientists are espousing a hypothesis that leads me to an uncomfortable reality, not only are they wrong, but they are doing this for political/economic/nefarious/ reasons, and all of their arguments are lies and tricks which must be countered no matter what.

      • John says:

        I wouldn’t be so hard on the community of skeptics for being slow in accepting the scientific consensus. After all, scientific consensus builds slowly so there isn’t an “Ah-ha!” moment where all can see that the scientific community has reached consensus. Even the leaders in the field would have trouble putting their finger on when consensus was reached.

        Additionally, most of us don’t attend meetings like the AGU and don’t get to sit in on actual scientific presentations leaving aside that few of us would be able to follow the discussion). I suspect that many don’t read _Science News_ so get most of their news from NYT and such.

        The MSM has an incentive to hype controversy and play down consensus so, despite good intentions, may not accurately reflect the state of the science. Even good skeptics can only make decisions as good as their inputs. (which is the basis of your four points, IIUC).

        Many are slow in coming around – but the point we should all seize upon is THE SKEPTICAL COMMUNITY IS CHANGING ITS MIND ON CLIMATE CHANGE SCIENCE. IOW: SKEPTICISM WORKS!

        Maybe this who mess was a blessing is disguise: we got into this discussion and illustrated that skeptics are not mere nay-sayers, we are people who think and can change our minds – but require some substance to do so.

    • Max says:

      Creationists think that Evolution leads to Nazism and Communism at the same time, so to them it’s quite political.
      And if ghosts are real, that would shatter skeptics’ whole view of reality, which is more significant than personal politics.

      • cheglabratjoe says:

        Sure, Max. But, as I said, politics and science are very separable for most topics of interest to skeptics. Remove the social (read: religious) axis from politics, and think about evolution. Would a hard socialist look at evolution differently than a hard libertarian? I don’t think so, do you? On the other hand, I think each would have a strong bias w.r.t. global warming.

        As for your comment about ghosts, I agree that it might shatter some worldviews, but I don’t see how that pertains to my point about politics …

    • Max says:

      “So, if your personal politics disagree with what AGW indicates is necessary, you have a vested interest in rejecting AGW.”

      Libertarians suspect that the scientists are driven by their left-wing personal politics, and the UN is certainly a political body, so they don’t trust the science that comes out of it.

  13. Daniel –

    Couldn’t have put it better!

    Individual climate scientists may be qualified to argue with various details but _I_ as a lay person am not and so the best thing I can do when communicating to others is to offer the consensus (e.g. “The majority of scientists and scientific bodies agree that…”). Intellectual honesty would also require that the legitimate skeptical side of this is also presented.

    However, I don’t believe that I personally (and obviously cannot speak for any other commenters) can pick and choose the parts to believe. Until I have a degree in statistics (which appears to be where most of the arguments come down to… who used what method with what numbers), then to say “yeah, I know that the IPCC, the NAS, etc etc say this… but I think I will go with my gut on this one”.

    Naturally bloggers/journalists should have free reign to say whatever they want (it would be chilling otherwise).. but anyone who is purporting to be reporting the _science_ as a trustworthy source has a responsibility stay within the consensus (I believe), or at least very explicitly call out the fact that they are about to make statements that are held by a minority of scientists. To cherry pick the arguments that fit our views is exactly what we complain that homeopaths and acupuncturists do (hey, there _are_ studies that show minor efficacy, so surely it’s true!).

    Science sometimes turns out to be wrong, but the process will ferret that out.

  14. Daniel – I would just like to point out that I am actually published in the peer-reviewed evolution literature: Novella SP. Suboptimal Optics: Vision Problems as Scars of Evolutionary History. Evolution: Education and Outreach, Volume 1, Issue 4 (2008), Page 493

    Seriously – your point is well taken. I am not an expert. So I vet the hell out of my opinions before I write them, which means reading as much as I can. I also like to check my understanding of major science issues with actual experts – to make sure I’m not missing something.

    And then, when I still screw up, make corrections quickly and happily.

    The problem comes from sticking to an opinion formed largely from confirmation bias, a non-random sampling of evidence an opinion, and an imperfect understanding of the underlying science.

    I agree that an important feature of knowledge in an area is a thorough understanding of your own profound level of ignorance. Ignorance of ignorance is the worst kind of ignorance.

    • I’m in roughly the same boat. I’m not published in the peer-reviewed evolutionary literature, but I do write kids’ science books that attempt to explain evolution. I even cook up with a few mildly novel analogies to help me do that. But even as I stick as close as possible to widely held consensus views on these things, I’m keenly aware of my risk of error. Like you, I turn to domain experts to check my work!

    • Drew says:

      Haha, yeah, when I read about Steve (I can call you Steve, right? Okay, thanks) not being an expert in evolution, I chuckled a bit. Neurology requires quite a bit of knowledge of evolution, I would think. A better example might be that Steve is asked to comment on things like ancient pyramids in Bosnia, despite not being an archeologist. The point still stands. :)

  15. Also – Daniel – where would you fit something like chiropractic? Is this a pseudoscience fringe, or “enthusiasts”? Perhaps there needs to be another category of pseudoscientific pseudoexperts – where the whole enterprise if scientifically flawed, but they have the trappings of expertise.

    One problem is that chiropractors will often claim that only chiropractors have the expertise to understand chiropractic. Therefore, everyone else should accept their internal consensus of opinion. Of course, I reject that. But that opens the door to saying that perhaps climate science is also a flawed internal consensus – and your system breaks down.

    I definitely think there are disciplines in the gray zone also. Many psychology practices have consensus, and have some science, but also deep flaws.


    • Yes, I can think of several disciplines that are hard to fit into my rules of thumb: chiropractic, parapsychology, psychoanalysis, and so on. My essay sets aside the fact that entire disciplines can be wrong or become pathological, because skeptics qua skeptics are not well-qualified to determine what fields fall into that (fifth?) category.

      It seems to me that the cases skeptics might normally think of as skeptical victories over pathological science (such as false-memory syndrome pushing out recovered memory syndrome) are really instances of work by domain experts who merely happened to be skeptics.

      • Drew says:

        Someone above mentioned looking to other scientific disciplines. When I was a student of Psychology, we were taught to rely upon the sciences directly below us (mainly neuroscience) and the sciences directly above us (mainly sociology) to make sure our theories were consistent with the evidence in other fields.

        Surely to judge an entire field which purports to be science, you can simply reference the fields above and below it to see if it make sense. In this respect, chiropractic fails miserably, as do some practices that purport to be a branch of Psychology.

  16. My main complaint with Randi’s posts was the horrible and disappointing use of fallacious logic to support & explain his position. Randi was asked for his opinion on AGW as a skeptic and critical thinker, but the response he gave was supported by much fallacious logic and little critical thinking- argument from false authority, argument from personal incredulity, etc. That is the reason for the criticism of Randi. It was not so much his position, but the uncritical way in which he supported and defended it.

    • JerryM says:

      exactly, that was my problem too.

      And his response left me feeling uneasy as well. This post has some elements to explain this feeling. I will have to go think about my own habits and what being a skeptic really means to me.

  17. Erik says:

    This is all well and good, and I agree with the idea that a layperson should not argue with a scientific consensus, but the problem begins when the denier simply dismisses that consensus as corrupt and driven by peer pressure and the need to pander to varying sources of funding. While not a rational argument, it can be very convincing to the ultimate layperson, the general public. It was disappointing to see Randi poison that well even further.

  18. Erik says:

    Steven, while you are hanging around, might I suggest a special episode of the SGU featuring a panel of those involved in this discussion? I think the lay skeptic such as my self would do good to hear experts flesh this out.

    • Erik says:

      I don’t mean so much the Randi controversy either, that’s been beat to death, but the nuanced arguments that are arising from it such as the original post here.

  19. AUJT says:

    “The history and rhetoric of nonsense is a specialized niche arena — our arena.”

    LOL! Speaking solely for myself, ya got that right!
    Excellent article!

    Mr. Randi has been being pressured to weigh in on AGW. As most of us know, Mr. Randi has been ill and has been on medication. Mr. Randi mentioned this in the Swift blog in question and also stated that what he was saying was his opinion based on limited knowledge. Considering his status as a celebrity of sorts, Mr. Randi may have not done himself any favors by giving his opinion on such a complicated issue that is not his forte’ however, I think that he is now the wiser for offering his opinion. I know that I am.

  20. Rachael says:

    I think another way to look at it is that being a skeptic gives one the ability to think critically about just what expert to listen to. Does expert A have problems getting their papers peer reviewed in a decent journal? Spout conspiracy theories about how the man is keeping them down? Make claims without fully supporting them? Have questionable credentials? Attempt to conceal or gloss over the dubious methodology of their research?

    I think the problem we tend to run in to is that skeptics claim they are applying their skepticism to the experts, when it ends up being a justification to ignore people who are saying something they don’t want to hear. A prime example is someone who is “skeptical” of the IPCC.

    • Max says:

      Do anti-vaxers not want to hear that vaccines are safe and effective?

      • Rachael says:

        Do bears crap in the woods?

      • Rachael says:

        Also, I will not that I’m not saying this is always the case, or that it’s necessarily a conscious decision. People have complex reasons for doing what they do. But look at the example of someone who is anti-vaccine; they are for whatever reason wedded to the idea that vaccines are not safe, and not effective. Claiming to be skeptical of the experts (i.e. “he’s a shill for big pharma!”) who disagree is a way to dismiss the evidence that they don’t like, whereas if they were being truly skeptical in the sense that most people here understand it (thinking critically and scientifically) they’d find that these experts have good credentials.

  21. Carl Baker says:

    Made. Of. Win.

    Well said, Daniel!

  22. Excellent article Daniel!

    The idea that a little knowledge can do a lot of damage has been called “the arrogance of ignorance“.

    This definitely seems at play with AGW denial and anti-vax. People see a video here, or read an article there, and all of a sudden they can overturn the conclusions of thousands of experts.

  23. Maria says:

    Isn’t the whole idea of skepticism simply not taking things at face value? Not believing just because so-and-so says it’s so? Evaluating the evidence before coming to a conclusion?

    My biggest problem as a skeptic is that I’m NOT an expert on most things and simply don’t know what to believe anymore. I’ve found that I believe in so little these days — and I’m not comfortable with the resulting feeling.

    When I had to make my recent H1N1 vaccine decision, I had to look at the evidence as set forth by the Centers for Disease Control. This was AFTER my own doctor’s office said they weren’t offering vaccines because of the “high risk of severe neurological damage.” After my research — although limited — I decide to get the vaccine and get another doctor. But how many people would simply stop researching after getting the “expert” advice of their physician?

    And how can we as skeptics find the evidence we need to make informed decisions when we can’t trust the “expert” information we get from “trusted” sources — like a physician or a noted skeptic like James Randi.

    In answer to the original question, however, we should not share information that we cannot back up with research.

    And as for global warming, I’m almost proud to say that I hadn’t really formed a solid opinion on how bad the situation is or what causes it. How could I? How could Randi? How could anyone other than a climatologist?

    • tmac57 says:

      Nobody ever said that getting to the facts would be easy, but it is a mistake in my opinion not to listen to the arguments that the climate scientists are making ( as well as dissenters), and carefully consider the sources, and not be swayed by political or social or ‘gut’ instincts to make your mind up. Just throwing up our hands and saying “who knows” (not that I am saying that you are doing that)should not be an option for anyone who cares about the future of our planet. The hardest part is vetting the sources of information, and there seems to be too little of that being done.
      Congratulations on dumping your DR. after doing your homework on the H1N1 issue.
      Analyze the way in which both sides are making their arguments, and look for subtle signs of manipulation (especially emotional and political). See if you can spot logical fallacies in their assertions, and ask yourself “why are they using that kind of argument, does this mean that they don’t have valid arguments?”
      Like I said, its not easy, but its too important to ignore.

  24. R.G.Price says:

    It’s long been my view that “Skepticism” with a capital S applies purely to a movement of skepticism of paranormal or supernatural claims. In my mind, issues like global warming don’t fall under the purview of skepticism, because the arguments being made on both sides are based on at least theoretically scientifically testable claims.

    In my mind, “Skepticism” involved applying science to areas of human experience that are purported to be outside of science, i.e. things that are claims by their proponents to “have no natural explanation”.

    So, in my mind, the one can be a big S Skeptic and be on either side of the global warming debate. As a big S Skeptic on either side of the debate, one should be prepared to defend their view with facts and evidence and be prepared for the possibility of being proven wrong.

    If someone claimed that “the earth cannot get warmer because a spirit is protecting it”, or “the cause of the earth getting warmer is ‘negative energy'” or some such crap, then yes I would expect all Skeptics to take a position of opposition to such claims, but if one is debating a set of facts or interpreting a set of data, then I see room for Skeptics on both sides of the debate.

    • tmac57 says:

      I totally disagree with the idea that Skeptics (big ‘S’) should not concern themselves with things other than paranormal claims.
      Anything that someone asserts as fact, is, and should be open to being challenged. Dr Novella for example challenges medical nonsense and claims for “free energy”. Also political claims such as Obama not being a U.S. citizen, or that 911 was an “inside job” should be open to Skeptical inquiry.
      As a matter of fact, I personally have very little interest in the paranormal claims anymore, since that has very little impact on the real world. The bigger issues are so much more important, and Skeptics have decided that they are too big to ignore.

      • R.G.Price says:

        My point is that at some point these discussions just become standard scientific discussions, and being a “Skeptic” doesn’t bring anything additional to the table.

        There is a big difference between exposing the likes of Uri Geller and Peter Popoff, and addressing the debate over global warming.

        Certainly people who are “Skeptics” may have an interest in the global warming debate as well, but I don’t see what “Skepticism” itself brings to the table.

        IMO being small s skeptical is different from being a big S Skeptic. To me being a Skeptic implies certain view points, e.g. being inherently doubtful of supernatural and paranormal claims.

        Being skeptical doesn’t tell me anything though. Christians are skeptical of evolution. Teens are skeptical of adults. Anti-vaccers are skeptical of the scientific establishment.

        Being “skeptical” is not the same as being a “Skeptic” (IMO).

        I don’t see that “Skepticism”, however, brings anything additional to the table in any standard scientific debate, and I would consider the issues of global warming and vaccine risks part of standard scientific debates.

        IOW on an issue like psychic abilities, the Skeptic viewpoint dictates that the default position of the Skeptic be to doubt the validity of psychic abilities.

        On the issue of something like whether or not humans contribute to global warming, however, I don’t see that there is any inherent Skeptic viewpoint or how there could possibly even be one.

      • tmac57 says:

        I think that the thing that you are missing in the debate is that Skeptics develop better B.S detectors than the average person on the street. Therefore we are more likely to dig a little deeper into what the background is of the people making a claim, the prior plausibility, the known scientific background, the types of fallacious arguments that may be being proffered, and even to consult with members inside of the Skeptical movement that do have expertise in whatever the issue is. For that reason, I believe that Skeptics, while not necessarily having specific background in a particular subject, can and do bring critical thinking skills to the task of trying to sort out the facts. Do we always succeed? No. Do we have a better advantage than any other average person who doesn’t regularly exercise these skills? Definitely yes. That is what the Skeptical movement brings to the table, and I think that it should not be marginalized in such and offhand way.

    • Max says:

      Someone who claims that “the cause of the earth getting warmer is ‘negative energy’” would probably have no evidence to back that up, but would instead attack the scientific consensus, just as the AGW deniers do already. So the Skeptics still end up arguing the science.

      I’m basing this on experience with ID proponents, who don’t present evidence for their supernatural theory, but spend most of their time attacking Evolution.

  25. Tuffgong says:

    I get the sense that we really aren’t discussing the real issue and the other side of the coin, the recognition of “consensus” as an argument against those who question the theory itself. As a skeptic and layperson I have the sense and decency to put myself aside and see that they’re onto something but I see where the biases and potential and probably active faults lie in the theory.

    Not to sidetrack myself but I use the “can I publish it?” rule. Generally speaking no matter how good an argument may be made, if I can’t realistically publish this idea in the scientific world, then my argument merely rests in the layperson category. However that argument has every possibility of being valid and true. The nature of skepticism as a culture and process of truth seeking means that we are the very people who shouldn’t fall victim to assuming one side is the winner. The truth has no reason to play to one side and we have to be responsible and give credit where credit is due.

    In relation to consensus, the theory of Evolution is often debated and passingly consensus is also used as a justification for why it is correct. Because Evolution is properly established by other means and more important through the rigorous process over time, we can safely say consensus is an indicator of it being true. However it is only one factor and in my opinion serves as a probability-based indicator in relation to how established and true a theory or idea is.

    Also we tend to forget that AGW at its very core is a preemptive issue in relation to politics and society. However the process of science and skepticism is the opposite. We must put the time and effort in to provide the evidence, analyze it, argue it, and process it all over the world before we can claim it is the truth. Being that we have the threat of crisis that brings about huge bias considerations, not bringing it the factors of politicians and other non-science organizations influencing the study, the pressure to produce one result over another is easy to understand. This is probably the best idea Randi put forth and I wholly agree with him on that point. The human factor is complicated to consider because if we underestimate it, then we quickly justify arguments based on authority, and if we overestimate it, then we get no conclusions anywhere.

    Not the “denier” people were hoping to rip apart huh?

  26. Max says:

    James Randi has said that the smartest people can be the easiest to fool, because they make a lot of assumptions and basically fool themselves, all while thinking they’re too smart to be fooled. Randi demonstrated this with Project Alpha, as Daniel noted, which I think made Randi more skeptical of scientists in general. He even joked that a Ph.D. degree knocks out a person’s ability to say “I don’t know.” So when he wrote about global warming, he was in #4 mode.

    The hard thing to do is to recognize that an expert opinion may seem wrong because of your own fallibility rather than the expert’s.

  27. I do find the idea of having heuristics for applying critical thinking appealing, but I’m uneasy about this particular very broad set and framework. There’s some question begging that seems inevitable when we draw up neat categories for observations.

    Specifically, as heretical as it may perhaps seem to some, I don’t know that I agree that skepticism means a “science-based epistemology.” I think it means more a heavily empirical epistemology: observe and guess and test, rather than theorize and predict. Clearly, theory and prediction do play a central role in _science_, but not neccessarily in _skepticism_ pe se. To me they are closely related but not the same thing.

    These categories in the post seem in part based on the underlying notion that expertise and epistemic value are closely related. To me, expertise does not have a straightforward simple relationship with our knowledge of the underlying phenomena. For one thing, it takes us in two different directions at once: (1) refined expertise organizes our knowledge of a domain along very specific lines – thus its power – and this also causes us to treat true anomalies as outliers to be ignored, and (2) expertise also makes us better able to see finer distinctions that lead to new discoveries.

    So to me _expertise_ does contribute greatly to scientific discovery, but expert _consensus_ does not neccessarily define the underlying phenomena or by itself merit a different approach to experimentation. It is in the areas where we have the strongest expert consensus that the most interesting anomalies arise. It is often in testing the least likely conjectures, the ones outside the expert consensus, that we make the most interesting discoveries.

    Before the discovery of metamaterials, there was an almost unanimous consensus that em radiation could not be guided around objects except in science fiction. The discovery had to be made by experts who could understand the significance of the discovery and had the tools for isolating it, but still it violated the expert consensus. Examples like this are rare, but I think well established, showing dramatically the two divergent ways that expertise influences epistemic value.

    Dealing with the problem of interpreting an anomaly, if we knew ahead of time what the relevant domain of expertise was, and how it affected our understanding of the observations, we would already have largely solved the problem, thus the question begging of dealing with claims differently based on their relationship to the expert consensus, especially assuming that the expert consensus renders moot the scientific value of applying expertise to studying a putative anomaly.

    I would argue that skeptics are at their best domain-general observers and experts in various areas of protocol and experimentalism and avid students of past lessons learned in studying anomalous claims in general. Consequently I think they are best engaged across the board investigating the circumstances of interesting claims – making use of scientific domain experts … knowing the expert consensus and taking it as the default … but not relying on the expert consensus by assuming it always makes anomalies less likely.

    As a personal preference, I don’t think skeptics should be only in the job of confirming the consensus, but also in the job of questioning it reasonably.

    kind regards,


  28. SkeleTony says:

    Randi has cleared this confusion up it seems HERE

  29. wulfmankarl says:

    I agree, Todd, that science is only one basis for skepticism, that science’s rigidity gives us insight on what it can prove, but its process doesn’t allow us to validate any insight to things that it can’t prove. Science uses an inductive hypothesis and procedure, a deductive analysis of the data, and a pretty strict statistical standard for declaring that the results prove the hypothesis.

    Lack of evidence quality is the basis of skepticism. Science is the highest quality evidence in my opinion, because the other kinds of evidence require more inductive reasoning. Here are the other four I use, in order of lower to higher quality: intuitive, experiential, testimonial, and anecdotal.

    To prevent the skeptic from being dysfunctional, he/she has to develop criteria for analyzing the lower quality evidence. This is typically applying a “preponderance” standard, similar to what is done in civil courts.

    For example, the global warming alarmists have dismissed the scientific “proxy” evidence about the global temperature during the Medieval Warming Period as inconclusive on the basis of a large error band. However, a preponderance (in my opinion) of historical and archaeological evidence suggests that Greenland was warmer than it is now, because Norsemen had permanent settlements there between about 900 and 1500, and moved away because the ice began to stay year-round.

    This makes me skeptical about the alarmists’ claims that a couple more degrees of warming will cause a cataclysm to civilization. Other anecdotal evidence from the East Anglia emails, which show intent to fudge data to meet predetermined “scientific” conclusions, and regarding how the climate scientists have a tremendous financial incentive to find man guilty of climate change, makes me even more skeptical about their historical findings and predictions.

    Add in that the funding of climate research comes 99% from governments eager to hyper-regulate energy-intensive industries, or from co-opted corporations who have a large stake in the new carbon control oligarchy, and the scientific “consensus” seems quite manufactured, and skeptics are right to doubt the science, and the policy recommendations.

    • Jim Lippard says:

      I’m not quite sure what you’re saying about the Medieval Warming Period. It’s not “dismissed” by the IPCC, though there is question about whether it was a *global* vs. a *regional* phenomenon. The available temperature proxies show a lot of variability during that time period, and there are few relevant proxy data sets for the southern hemisphere. This is discussed in the IPCC AR4 WG1 report, ch. 6, pp. 466ff.

      Congress has not demonstrated an eagerness to “hyper-regulate” anything over the last thirty years without massive lobbying, and the EPA had to be forced by lawsuit by several states to regulate CO2 (Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497, 2007).

      • Jim Lippard says:

        Let me amend that last statement–make that anything that doesn’t involve being done “for the children” or to appear to be tough on crime, or both.

  30. Stephanie B says:

    I’ll go back and read the comments, but I wanted to say, “Hear! Hear!” to the article itself. This has been one of my own issues recently and you have stated my position so perfectly (when I have failed to do so myself) that I am legitimately awed.

    Thank you!

  31. Carpus says:

    Great post. Great comments. Congrats to you AND your readers.

  32. Bad Penny says:

    All arguments about predictability, authority and Christianity vs global warming aside, I figure if the climatologists are wrong and global warming has nothing to do with humans, how is all the recycling and carbon footprint reducing we’re doing a bad thing. It can’t hurt, and it just might help.

    • Max says:

      It diverts resources from other endeavours.

      • tmac57 says:

        That doesn’t mean that the “other endeavours” would be necessarily more important or worth while, so how can harm be assessed on hypothetical grounds?
        Every action taken by a society will necessarily divert resources from something else. The key is, do those things (recycling and lowering carbon footprint) do good? I’m for recycling in concept (wasting resources seems so..well wasteful), but I’m uncertain if it is being done in a manner that isn’t overall worse than not doing it. There seems to be arguments on both sides that are confounding. In regards to lowering carbon footprints, on an individual basis I can’t see how it will divert more resources than it saves. And Americans have developed extremely wasteful habits that most of the rest of the world would, and do find shocking and senseless.

  33. hittman says:

    Your article is an appeal to “argument by authority.” We’re too ignorant about AGW, so we should just trust the experts. You can do that, if you like, but I’d rather try to understand it myself, as best I can.

    And what I can see is that there has been some warming, an unfounded claim that man-made CO2 is the primary cause, and speculation that reducing it will make everything all better.

    Tom, I share your opinion. Some sciences are settled. For instance, we understand Newtonian Physics and Evolutionary biology so well there’s no doubt about them among real scientists and skeptics. At the other end of the spectrum we have String Theory, which is untested (and may be untestable). Climate Science, and its kissing cousin, Meteorology, are somewhere in between. Just as it would be foolish to bet our life’s savings on a prediction of the weather two weeks from now, it’s foolish to bankrupt the world economy based on Climate Science.

    Bad Penny, we’re not talking simple recycling and reasonable reductions in our carbon footprints, but restricting whole economies, creating new world wide bureaucracies, and with cap and trade reducing every American’s income by somewhere between one and two grand a year, every year. (And when was the last time you saw a government fee or tax go down in price?) We’re talking about huge sacrifices and reduction in freedom for everyone, so we’d better be damn sure we’re dealing with something real, not theoretical.

    • Jim Lippard says:

      “And what I can see is that there has been some warming, an unfounded claim that man-made CO2 is the primary cause, and speculation that reducing it will make everything all better.”

      What have you looked at, that that’s what you see? Have you read any part of the IPCC AR4 WG1 report, in particular ch. 9? If not, on what grounds do you use the adjective “unfounded”? What other forcings do you think are responsible for long-term warming trends, if not human contributions to greenhouse gases?

    • Max says:

      “Just as it would be foolish to bet our life’s savings on a prediction of the weather two weeks from now, it’s foolish to bankrupt the world economy based on Climate Science.”

      What if the weather prediction is a cat 5 hurricane, and by the time it’s certain, it’s too late to evacuate?

    • tmac57 says:

      You are being unnecessarily pessimistic in my opinion. For example the opportunities for exploiting clean, renewable and smart grid technologies could well save and create many jobs, and ultimately save billions of dollars by reducing imported fossil fuels and reduce air, ground and water pollution. Our national defense would be strengthened by having a more diverse energy supply, without dependence on foreign oil and gas supplies as well.
      Right now China is poised to be the worlds greatest supplier of these technologies, because the Chinese government has decided to back alternative energy research. Once again the U.S. appears to be backing the wrong horse.

  34. Skeptic of Skeptics with a captial S says:

    I would say you are all wrong to a degree about science, the science process itself, and the whole consensus priesthood, and that somehow the consensus is not subject to being driven by money interests and politics, but that everyone that trumpets consensus is doing it because they are sincerely wanting to get to the truth. I am a skeptic of science itself, not pure science, but science corruption, and the denialism in the Skeptical movement that it is devoid of it. I’m a skeptic of the idea that I cannot make up my own mind based off of the arguments of the minority scientists if it makes the most sense to me, as long as I clearly state that this is the conscious decision that I’m making. I consider scientific consensus to be akin to a bunch of democrats in the Senate that have a majority and can ramrod through what has become most ideologically popular to them. For Skeptics with a captial S to worship at the altar of science and not have a skepticism of the process itself which is just as subject to human nature as anything else, and give it an absolute pass is actually gullibility on the part of this movement. I stand outside of the Skeptical movement being absolutely ideologically independent and free of the confirmation bias that I see in it.

    • Max says:

      If you want to be free of confirmation bias, keep a tally of all the times you’ve been right and the scientific consensus was wrong, versus all the times you’ve been wrong and the scientific consensus was right.

      • tmac57 says:

        You are assuming that they will ADMIT or RECOGNIZE that they were wrong. Certain personality types seem nearly incapable of this simple act.

      • Skeptic of Skeptics with a captial S says:

        You don’t know me, nor do you have any idea about how many times I have conceded that I was wrong after having published an idea, and then publishing a retraction. The key is that I’m not tied to anyone as experts, fundamentally rejecting the claim that there is such a thing, as I have the ability to treat each opinion as not final, even if the opinion WOULD SEEM at the surface to be well based in scientific process. I have the intellectual freedom to use my own personal discernment. And so what if I’m wrong at this moment about some fact. Then I just figure out that I’m wrong tomorrow, and simply retract it tomorrow. Being skeptical of expert opinion is not the same as not being able to recognize when one has been wrong.

      • tmac57 says:

        It must be very comforting to be so sure of one’s self.

      • Skeptic of Skeptics with a captial S says:


        For some reason I couldn’t directly reply to your comment below.

        I’m not sure of anything. I only know what I rationally know at this moment, and what ideas I have in my head at this moment, that will surely change tomorrow when I have more information than I had today.

        I’m only sure of one thing, that I am independent of being intellectually tied down to what people are proclaiming to me what THEY are sure of, telling me that I don’t have a right to be critical of THEM or their process.

    • Alan says:

      Generally speaking, the problem as I see it with AGW Denial within the Skeptical Movement is the inevitably hypocracy that comes with it. You’ll have Skeptic AGW Deniers praising both the scientific process and consensus (since it develops out of the rigors of good science) when it comes to subjects like evolution and physics only to turn around and denounce the scientific community as little more than a gigantic, self-serving conspiracy the moment the topic turns to Climate Change. It amounts to Special Pleading — “You can trust science and the system we have built to use it except when science produces results I don’t personally want to be true. Then it is just a fiendish conspiracy to hide the truth.” Such double standards don’t just fail on general principles, they also make the entire Skeptical Movement look ridiculous.

      In practical terms the integrity of science rests on the willingness of its defenders to abide by its results even when they are personally disappointing. If we only accept science when it confirms our preconceptions then how is anyone supposed to take it seriously?

      • Skeptic of Skeptics with a captial S says:

        Nice. Special pleading and conspiracy you say.

        What you call special pleading, I call using your head and your own intelligence and to think critically outside of the consensus ideology, where you are bound by no ideology and can come to your own conclusions weighing all the matters in your own mind, and let what is most convincing to you rule by pure logic, to be free of absurdities. If you are seeking to be free of absurdities, then you must truly let go of that which is absurd, namely, to not be extreme in the view that consensus is GOD to you. It is the ultimate eclecticism personified in Bruce Lee, the great martial art eclecticist, not in the stale Skeptical movement. This is where the skeptical movement has failed, following RELIGIOUSLY the notion that to be right and rigorous, one must be in consensus-lockstep, and not knowing when to say that consensus has failed. Not that we ignore consensus when it is right, but to have the good sense to KNOW WHEN IT HAS FAILED!

        I never used the word conspiracy when I accused consensus of being prone to corruption and money-manipulation. If you want a word, then use ELITISM! Look at the new elites of the Skeptical movement that are now emerging out of the woodwork. The great Randi, Michael Shermer, Steven Novella, Brian Dunning. The new priesthood of the skeptical movement. Do I follow Skeptics Guide to the Universe and Skeptoid and Skepticality religously? You betcha I do. But I know when to break away and think for myself. Steven Novella tells us to not believe what he says, but to QUESTION EVERYTHING, even everything that they say on SKEPTICS GUIDE. Yet now that I’m questioning the authority and the absolute rightness of consensus at all costs, you accuse me of conspiracy theory and special pleading! PUH-LEE-SE. Get a grip people, and use your fracking heads, and stop being extremist lockstep consensus worshippers.

      • Alan says:

        Basic problem – your reply is a complete strawman.

        One, no one is arguing for mindless adherence to an idea. In fact, to accuse skeptics of such is pretty amazing.

        Two, I suspect that “consensus” does not mean what you think it means. Your response implies that scientific consensus is little more than just an educated guess or the result of a few scientists getting together and randomly coming to a conclusion.

        Quite the contrary, an idea becomes the consensus precisely because it has surviveda rigorous process of testing and debate. The scientific process has thrown all it has at it and the idea has come through confirmed.

        In other words, the consensus is the result of the scientific process that as skeptics we supposedly believe in. It is the whole point of the movement.

        So, when you scoff at the consensus you are scoffing at science itself – in effect you are arguing that the scientific system doesn’t work, at least at this time of civilization.

        If you want to claim that science is incompetent and/or dishonest go right ahead, but unless you are making similar claims for evolution, physics, biology, and so forth you are being a hypocrite. When can’t just believe or disbelieve the results of science however we like – not if we expect anyone to take science and skepticism seriously.

      • Skeptic of Skeptics with a captial S says:

        This is silly and stupid. I am not united with you in some kind of mission to make people take science and skepticism seriously. People in general are a bunch of lemmings and the world is just a bunch of stupid people. Thats why I said I’m not a Skeptic with the captial S, but a skeptic of YOU who are. A hypocrite is someone that claims to be one thing and says or does the opposite. I don’t give a damn if science and skepticism are ever taken seriously by anyone, because most everybody is just a bunch of peope who will never comprehend it, so why try. You as Skeptics will all end up sinking the whole ship yourselves on your own, and I will just laugh at you. I have never been a part of you, nor will I be, because you are all brain dead lemmings. I stand back independent of your whole movement watching and learning and taking in what is valuable. On the other hand, I’m an eclecticist who doesn’t give a damn about you, because I have no loyalty to you nor to science, and I laugh at you when you turn this into a religious thing worshipping your PHIL PLAITS of the world who are your new GODS. If you want to see hypocrisy, look yourselves in the mirror and look at how since you have all left religion behind as SO CALLED agnostics or atheists, YOU BEING HUMANS, must necessarily look to where you spend all your time and energy and focus, which as necessarily become your GOD, which you just can’t be without. So while I value science and true knowledge, I don’t give a damn about your definition of consensus, the Skeptical movement, or if there is a God and you all go to someplace fiery for rejecting him or whatever.

  35. Two important roles for skeptics that I admire:

    1. Entertaining criticism of bad experimentalism and wildly overreaching theoretical claims, publicizing the weakness of extravagant claims that would otherwise worm their way into our superstitions by default. This is a role that continues to be popular and useful.

    2. Probing the evidence base for claims of all sorts, not to “deny the consensus,” but to make its support better and more widely understood as an educational service. Something like the role of loyal opposition in politics, respecting the process of coming to scientific consensus and the expertise of scientists but also motivating them to think about its evidence base and educate the rest of us about it. This is a more subtle use of skepticism but to me even more interesting when done well than ripping apart unlikely claims with weak evidence. I like to see the best skeptics take on this sort of topic from time to time, as I think historically Shermer, Lippard, Sagan, and Asimov, and a few others have done.

    • Todd – trouble is, all one has to do is express doubts on any part of the Catastrophical AGW edifice (rather than the scientific consensus alone), and down it will come a storm of AGW True Believers throwing up labels of “Denier!” left, right and center.

      In fact, if one has the time to follow the information all the way from what the IPCC says to what gets published in the media and argued over the ‘net, there’s so much “Chinese whispering” the end result can become a comical…denial of the IPCC consensus, a denial written by a True Believer in human-caused disastrous Global Warming.

      • Jim Lippard says:

        Maurizio wrote: “trouble is, all one has to do is express doubts on any part of the Catastrophical AGW edifice (rather than the scientific consensus alone), and down it will come a storm of AGW True Believers throwing up labels of “Denier!” left, right and center.”

        Depends on what you’re questioning. If you’re claiming there’s no global warming trend or that the human contribution to greenhouse gases isn’t the primary forcing, then you’re making a claim that’s at odds with the best evidence, and you should expect a reaction like you would get from telling evolutionary scientists that evolution can’t produce new information.

      • I think that increasing GHGs will warm the earth. By how much, I am not sure.

        Furthermore…is a warmer earth better or worse? I am not sure either.

        And if GHGs are determined to be a major cause of the warming; and if we determine that the warming will be on balance a negative occurrence; the question becomes: is there a cost-effective way to reduce the GHGs, or are we better off putting our money into adaptation?

        For some reasons those are no questions that appear to be answerable by many apart than with a generic (and idiotic) “Denier!” response.

        Does Daniel Loxton or anybody else agree that “probing the evidence base for claims of all sorts” is a good thing? Or does it qualify as “denialism” if a scientific consensus does exist on a topic?

      • Max says:

        “Furthermore…is a warmer earth better or worse? I am not sure either.”

        The book Six Degrees describes the consequences of warming the earth by 1 to 6 degrees Celsius. Some have called the book “alarmist”, but the following review concludes that it’s not alarmist but alarming.

        In the comments, Dr. Ken Miller says, “The use of ‘alarmism’ is distinctly similar to Creationists now using ‘Darwinism’ as their foil.”

        I reserve “denier” for people who are extremely biased against a scientific theory, usually due to a religious, political, financial, psychological, or other ulterior motive. Creationists have a religious motive to deny Evolution, and AGW deniers have political and financial motives to deny AGW. James Randi’s piece on Global Warming may have been misinformed and misguided, but I wouldn’t call him a denier.

      • Skeptic of Skeptics with a captial S says:

        I think after the latest episode of Skeptics Guide, Dr. Novella has presented us with the best terms to use for those who are on either side of the climate change debate. Advocates and Dissenters. Let’s just face the fact that we are all skeptics, some outside the Skeptical movement, and some inside, some skeptics of this, and some advocates or dissenters of this or that. I stand on the outside your movement until I see pure skepticism, being NO RESPECTER OF PERSONS, BELIEF SYSTEMS, OR NO RESPECTER OF SCIENCE ITSELF, without loyalty for any ideology or belief system, and willing to call people on anything, and call BS whenever it presents itself in any form or fashion.

  36. Richard says:

    Perhaps the main criterion on which I base my skeptical interest in a pseudoscientific topic is the harm that it does to other people and to the scientific and intellectual enterprise. For that reason, I am most interested in unscientific medical claims and practices, such as alt-med and antivaccinationism. However, this skeptical interest would fall under point 3 of your article because there is a large body of expert concensus concerning these topics to which, as you say, we ought to defer rather than thinking we can or should argue these points all by ourselves. But I believe that such pseudoscientific movements do much more harm than UFOlogy, ghosts, or pyramid power, topics you place under point 4 and say should be our primary focus. I believe that we must all pitch in and help doctors and scientists to combat the forces of antiscience that are endangering our health and the rational, educational, and science-based institutions of our society.

  37. Curt Nelson says:

    Isn’t it obvious that any layperson (most people, when it comes to most things) should simply defer to expert consensus (i.e. specialist scientists) on such questions as climate change? Is climate change real and caused by people? The experts say yes and yes, therefore my answer is yes and yes.

    I’ve always wondered why, when someone like Sarah Palin is asked about this or evolution, and they say “No, that’s wrong,” why the interviewer doesn’t follow up with “How do you know? Where, specifically, did the scientists get it wrong? Explain how the data or its interpretation is in error.”

    If one believes in science, isn’t the *right* answer to all such questions (about climate change, evolution, vaccines, etc.), “I agree with whatever the scientists say”?

    • Max says:

      Here’s some insight from a jury consultant.
      “Why jurors routinely ignore expert witnesses”

      “You and I know that experts are bright and highly-trained, often professional and honest, and have spent vast amounts of time and detail studying the subject matter of a case. And yet jurors, who are far less knowledgeable than experts and spend only a few hours studying the subject matter, have two valid reasons for dismissing the opinions of experts: experts often don’t seem credible, and experts aren’t often understandable.”

      Creationists dismiss evolutionary biology for pushing an atheist agenda, anti-vaxxers dismiss big pharma for pushing drugs for profit, AGW deniers dismiss climatology for pushing a socialist agenda, you get the idea.

    • Skeptic of Skeptics with a captial S says:

      “The experts say yes and yes, and therefore I say yes and yes.” Defer your intelligence to the “experts” because they are the specialists and cannot be questioned. It would be one thing if you do it because you choose to do it intellectually honestly, but you only do it out of loyalty to an ideology, and this is why none of you can truly think for yourselves, because your GODS, the elitists, have done the thinking for you, in fashioning a “deferrment to experts who have the last word at all costs” theory.

      • Cabbo says:

        If the experts have followed the scientific method, and their findings have been peer-reviewed, then we have no choice but to trust them (for the most part; we can still check on what we know to be true, but this would seem to be a frequent waste of time), otherwise the only option is to study the subject to the extent they have and make our own peer opinion. Again, time’s a wasting.

      • Charlie says:

        All with the prayer that none of the publish-or-perish authors of the studies have fudged numbers or skewed ethics and another quick prayer that, with any luck, the peer-review had no political overtones and was genuine/thorough.

        In a perfect world, you would be perfectly correct. I regret to inform you: This is not a perfect world.

      • Skeptic of Skeptics with a captial S says:

        No, actually we very much have a choice to trust them. Its you that have handed your free will and critical mind over to them the moment you have decided that you are yielding it to them. If you say you agree with them using critical thinking, then that is you using your brain to agree with them, otherwise you have no ground to stand on to just “trust.” They, being human, have no “worthiness” by their “god” standing to be “trusted.” What they have to say must be subjected to critical thinking.

      • montreal says:

        Skeptic of Skeptics with a captial S, Why do you think scientists can’t be questioned and that they have the last word at all costs? You know that isn’t true. It’s just a matter of following the best advice. Scientists are frequently wrong but the knowledge they gather moves us in the right direction.

      • Skeptic of Skeptics with a captial S says:

        Montreal, most people in your movement are hell bent on deferment to experts at all costs. Don’t try to deny it, because I’m not naive and I have watched your movement for quite a while. I wanted to be a part of it for a while until what is wrong with your movement has kept me out of it. I see how you are dominated by atheists, agnostics and science lockstep-at-all-costs apologists.

        I’m a religious person but have no loyalty to corrupt Christianity, Islam, Judahism, creationism, intelligent design, or whatever else -ism that is not scientifically friendly.

        Atheists comment on religion when religion is non-falsifiable, and all science can say is in realms of things that are falsifiable. Therefore, atheists have no ground to stand on to be religious deniers, and science has no way to falsify religion is in a realm outside of falsifiability. That doesn’t make it wrong or right. It just makes it a belief system that is not something atheists can do anything other than deny. If you want to make a statement that you don’t believe in God, that is one thing, but don’t pretend science said something to falsify God.

        Similarly, you can say that data points towards climate change, but don’t try to pretend that science can prove that man has something to do with it, because that is a claim that is not falsifiable, and therefore science should have nothing to say about it. Therefore, Randi was right, and your science elitists have commented on something beyond the realm that is theirs to comment on, by trying to assign climate change to a human-caused phenomenon.

        Of course science moves us in the right direction. I’m saying that I reserve the intellectual right to be a critic and skeptic of anyone and everyone I feel the need to be, for whatever reason I feel necessary, for whatever reason. OF COURSE SCIENCE MOVES US IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION!

      • JohnL says:

        Mr S of S with a capital S
        I have read this entire thread (to date) and must conclude you are near the only true skeptic I have come across. And this on a skeptics blog.

      • tmac57 says:

        Two questions: 1. Do you believe that CO2 in the atmosphere contributes to the warming of the planet (is it a greenhouse gas)?
        2. Do humans add CO2 to the atmosphere?

      • Skeptic of Skeptics with a captial S says:

        Thank you JohnL. I appreciate the compliment.

        tmac57, I answer your question with a bit of SCIENCE.

        “No Rise of Airborne Fraction of Carbon Dioxide in Past 150 Years, New Research Finds

        Most of the carbon dioxide emitted by human activity does not remain in the atmosphere, but is instead absorbed by the oceans and terrestrial ecosystems. In fact, only about 45 percent of emitted carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere.”

        It doesn’t matter what I believe. It only matters that I’m a skeptic of the word “belief.” It only matters that what I think today will change tomorrow based on better evidence.

  38. Charlie says:

    In the end we’re all a lot of monkeys pretending and hoping to understand, aren’t we?

    Human limitation is a b***, but a reality nonetheless.

    I still like Randi, most skeptics, and many religious people (the ones who aren’t scam artists).

    Oo oo aa aa, and good night, my fellow chimps.

  39. Jason says:

    Then the skeptic movement is entirely worthless. If all they can do as a group is band together to defend the consensus viewpoint in science (which is dubious at best considering how much consensus has and will change in science) as well as criticize fledgling or ‘pseudoscience’ without being an expert in any of those areas either, then why bother having such an community?

    There is no point to simply becoming dogs of mainstream science. But if all we can do is trust consensus and beat its drum, we’re just talking heads. And without being experts (which the vast majority of us are not), we’re talking heads who are talking out of our collective asses.

    The entire fact that the skeptic movement banded together in the first place is starting to look ridiculous. You can think critically on any subject regardless of its consensus status or not, on your own. Now this movement is cracking a whip to get people to fall in line using quite literally arguments from authority.

    • Skeptic of Skeptics with a captial S says:


      Skeptics are right to question pseudoscience which has problems with its claims being scientific. The problem with the Skeptical movement is that it has no concept of using critical thinking ON SCIENCE, and where the science process has failed. Being a friend of science is NOT where the Skeptical movement has gone wrong. This is where they have it RIGHT. Minority opinions in “fringe” parts of the scientific community that are actually based on the scientific process are not pseudoscience. Skeptics are right to say that the consensus may not be pointing in the direction of the minority opinion. On the other hand, pseudoscience is a REAL PROBLEM, like in the case of quack homeopathy, creationism, intelligent design, young earth creationism, etc. And this is where the Skeptical movement has it right. But until they get their act together as far as trying to fight for non-scientific things that violate the principle of falsifiability, such as atheism, then I can never be united with them. There are some things where science can comment on religious things, such as how life was created, etc. but to try to deny God on the grounds that they cannot find evidence for God, is not scientific, because it is not falsifiable. No evidence is not evidence for something. It is just having no evidence. Finding proof positive something is false by experimentation and observation through the scientific method made that something false, and therefore falsifiable. God’s existence cannot be tested in this way, and therefore is outside the proper realm and reach of science.

  40. Freelancelot says:

    I am still appallingly disgusted at the writers on this site who call being skeptical about something designed simply to invoke fear and steal power and billions of dollars from people “a failure of skepticism” or anything similar.

    If you are not skeptical about “man-made climate change”, if by now it doesn’t reek of fear-mongering and fraud and possibly just plain effing STUPIDITY to you, then I for one find you to be no skeptic at all. You are just another unthinking, wholly ass-imilated part of the Borg. The same slack-jawed Borg-things who believe in every conspiracy theory…as long as it’s being carried out by those on the political Right, or private enterprise. The same slack-jawed Borg-things who believe in Socialism–a false religion if ever there were one.

    I shouldn’t have to provide you with any of the mountains of evidence against this absurd, alarmist, and wholly political anthropogenic climate change paradigm. But, out of the goodness of my heart, I will. Just this once.

    You can start your journey into learning how to think here:

    • Alan says:

      Show us that the scientific system — the very one designed to avoid the very problem you accuse it having — could literally be a conspiracy involving thousands with the power and actual act of tricking all of us then please show us the evidence.

      Note, that doesn’t mean endlessly reporting all the classic denial talking points, or offering ominous stories of how the economy will be wrecked, or that such and such fellow “can’t be trusted” et al. Rather, produce the well researched, ironclad evidence. Show it to the news and scientific organizations. If you are right expect to be hailed the hero.

      However, if all you have is assumptions and innuendo and a lot of ideology purity then please don’t waste our time. We deal with facts, not smoke and mirrors.

      • Skeptic of Skeptics with a captial S says:

        I for one never said conspiracy. I only say elitism is at work, and so is politics and big money. Nobody needs to produce allegations and accusations or cast aspersions at anyone. All we have to do is to look at the likes of Algore and what he has gained, and where his hypocrisy is, and what is in it for the UN and other elite organizations to promote Carbon Taxes. There is no need to invoke conspiracy theory. There is no conspiracy. There is only a bunch of people that are susceptible to money interests and politics and peer pressure. You want to call it consensus and peer review. I call it peer pressure to adhere to a popularized worldview.

  41. John Wright says:

    Eventually everything be explained by either Science or Ignorance.

  42. Brian M says:

    You mention “Rookie” syndrome like its a bad thing. I will remind you that virtually all new, novel approaches have come from non-experts challenging the status quo. Look at the computer industry. It was all about mainframes until a small group of hackers came along and put the computer on your desk that you are looking at now. Geocentrism was the norm by “experts” until “rookies” came along and proposed heliocentrism. I think to discount “rookie syndrome” is dismissive and wrong.

    Sometimes those challenges are in the forms of questions, like “why don’t we do X”. Don’t take it to mean “we should do X”, but take it as an excuse to say why, or think about if its a good idea. Even if phrased as “we should do X”, you can still explain why not to do X.

    Yes, there are many bad ideas, but discounting them all before evaluating them is a recipe for stagnation.

    • Max says:

      The problem is arrogance more than ignorance. That’s the difference between “Why don’t we do X?” and “We should do X!” or between “This doesn’t make sense to me” and “This is wrong and unscientific!”

  43. Eternally Learning says:

    I for one, do not believe that anyone should ever have to be qualified to just question anything as long as it’s done in a humble manner. The “Rookie Syndrome” obviously exists, but I think that to say those rookies had should have no right to comment, and more importantly, that they are always wrong is a very closed-minded thing to say. Only through questioning can one truly learn anything for oneself. One thing that I hold as a core world-view of mine is that no one is 100% right or wrong about everything and that everyone knows something you don’t. This is why as a lay skeptic, I don’t dismiss the arguments of IDers and such out of hand. I look into whatever the merits of their arguments may be and weigh them against the responses. Not being technical, myself, I usually end up learning more anyway. Just because someone hasn’t had the training to technically analyze a concept doesn’t mean that they might not have a useful insight or perspective into it that could even turn it on its head. I’m reminded of the tale of the semi-trailer that was too tall for an overpass and got stuck. While all the experts and professionals were busy trying to figure out how to manipulate the top of the trailer or the underside of the bridge to free the truck, a little child calmly asks why they don’t just let the air out of the tires. This is probably apocryphal, and probably manufactured to prove some ideological point, but I think that the illustration is still valid; all the expertise in the world can often focus you on one point and allow you to miss the simple answer.

  44. NOYB says:

    Phil Plait also speaks out of his realm of expertise. He is an astronomer, not a meteorologist. His postings makes that all too clear.

    • Max says:

      Phil was in situation #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.” For example, the Oregon Petition is the kind of thing that skeptics can pick apart better than the climate scientists.

  45. b Bridges says:

    What do true skeptics do when stuff like this : keeps pouring in? I mean, I know what some of the most recognized names in promoting science, critical thinking, and skepticism do, they ignore or dismiss it.

    Did the word “skepticism” get highjacked? How can you be a skeptic when you settle on consensus?

    Very bizarre. I expect to learn of a sizable grant rolled up here in some way.

  46. Alex says:

    There are some basic critical thinking problems with this essay.

    First, consensus among experts is only one of many rules of thumb for non-experts to determine the correctness of a theory. But there are other things laypeople can look for that would warrant skepticism(not rejection), such as good reasons to suspect a compromise of objectivity among experts. William Lane Craig argues, for example, that God exists from the fact that the experts (New Testament scholars) agree that the best explanation of the empty tomb and the eye-witness testimony of the apostles, along with their willingness to die for their testimony, is that they in fact saw the resurrected Jesus. The argument is valid, but it is not sound, since consensus among New Testament scholars is not very impressive due to the obvious reasons to suppose their consensus is contrived by non-evidential factors. So without being a New Testament scholar, I need not be believe in God, at least not on the basis of such evidence.

    There are several good reasons to be skeptical as a layperson of the consensus of climate scientists. First, the movement surrounding climate science has its origins, as in New Testament scholarship, in those who already believed in the doctrine. Second, and related, funding for research comes to a large extent from the government through panels by consisting of believers, who would be unlikely to fund challengers. Careers could not move forward for a young climate scientist, most likely a believer, without his working as a confirmer of the initial bias. This generates a contrived consensus.Scientists are as susceptible as anyone else to peer pressure and the need to advance their careers as the next human being. They do not have an unblemished record when it comes to falling in line with highly politicized positions.

    It is misleading to advertise consensus among experts, when people of the caliber of Richard Lindzen (tenured professor of meteorology at MIT) and others not only disagree, but offer straight-forward point-by-point proof that the evidence promulgated by the IPCC does not support the conclusion they, and the government officials who appointed them, wish to promote.

    What makes a person truly warranted as a non-expert climate change skeptic is the fact that intelligent rebuttals to the contrived nature of the evidence is not forthcoming, not even from among the educated. When I speak to evolution deniers, I can easily point out vestigal organs or the fossil record. I don’t label them and point to expert censensus. And I can do this even though I am not an evolutionary biologist. Even the educated resort to variations of ad hominem attacks–“deniers”, or, at best, a sad appeal to consensus. Now, if the criticisms of the data were erroneous, an educated person could easily show the errors in the criticism, but this simply does not happen. This strongly suggests that the conclusions of the consensus are, in fact, inadequately supported.

    Why can’t educated climate change supporters address the factual problems of pre-industrial global warming, or the fact that CO2 increases after temperature increases and not before, or the fact that CO2 is a negligible greenhouse gas occuring naturally? Any critical thinking text, such as *How to Think About Weird Things*, suggests a few red flags for objectivity. (1) Group pressure. There is tremendous group and social pressure to accept climate change in educated, not necessarily critical-thinking, circles. (2) Saving face. The consensus faces humiliation, if they concede mistakes. Al Gore’s material has been shown to have serious errors, which he could easily correct, if he had a scientific spirit. But he will not do so. It would be too embarrassing. (3) Fear: Al Gore has succeeded in scaring people. Fear causes people to rush to err on the side of safety. Blaise Pascal does not persuade me to believe in God, inspite of the possibility of hell-fire if I am mistaken in my choice. But the “Wager” works for those who let fear undermine their critical thinking faculties.

    James Randi dubbed the term “True Believer”. Once a person believes in a leader or a theory with full heart, it is nearly impossible to dislodge this belief. While I believe the earch is warming and that we are contributing to this negligibly on the basis of the available evidence, the rest strikes me as the commitment of true believers.