A recent article ran in The Economist entitled “Skepticism’s Limits.” The article in question felt directly with climate change and so-called “climate change skeptics.” However, I’d like to respond directly to the issue of skepticism that the article brings up, which could be applied to any topic of debate in the scientific community – or for that matter, the unscientific community.
In fact, I’m purposely avoiding the issue of climate change, because, while I do tend to think that much of the debate on climate change has involved cherry-picked data or trumped up predictions, I don’t feel qualified to state just how trumped up they are. Really, I just don’t know and I don’t want to speculate too much on this one. I probably could do so if I also did hours of research, but that’s not the point here.
As one who considers myself a “skeptic,” I have found many don’t quite get the concept of scientific skepticism. One question I get a lot is “are you skeptical about everything.” The answer is no, or at least, not to the same degree. Carl Sagan said “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.” This statement really sums up one of the most important concepts in skepticism: that all things are not equally plausible and that those which are the most far fetched require the greatest degree of skepticism.
So, after hours of research, I can dismiss Mr Eschenbach. But what am I supposed to do the next time I wake up and someone whose name I don’t know has produced another plausible-seeming account of bias in the climate-change science? Am I supposed to invest another couple of hours in it? Do I have to waste the time of the readers of this blog with yet another long post on the subject? Why? Why do these people keep bugging us like this? Does the spirit of scientific scepticism really require that I remain forever open-minded to denialist humbug until it’s shown to be wrong? At what point am I allowed to simply say, look, I’ve seen these kind of claims before, they always turns out to be wrong, and it’s not worth my time to look into it?
No, the spirit of scientific skepticism does not require that you remain open-minded to any “alternative” scientific beliefs or claims that do not provide very compelling and verifiable evidence to their validity. One of the things that I hear constantly when I describe myself as a “skeptic” is “are you skeptical about everything?” The answer is no, or at least, not to the same degree. I’m not skeptical about things that have been well established, repeatedly tested and are supported by well documented empirical data.
Yes, there does come a time when each and every claim of the same nature does not need to be examined and it’s valid to make a reasonable assumption. Take for example something like homeopathy. Homeopathy violates both scientific theory and basic logic and practical sense. Every well controlled study that has investigated it has found nothing. Many have claimed to have some kind of data that shows it works, but at this point, so many have been debunked, it’s not necessary to approach each claim with the same sense of “open-mindedness” that one would approach a more reasonable claim.
Both sides don’t always need to be treated equally…
The appropriate approach is to place the burden of proof on those who claim to have proven the mainstream wrong. This is not to say that the mainstream is not occasionally proven wrong, because it certainly is, only that it is fair to demand some pretty compelling evidence first, and an uneducated person’s ramblings on a website are not compelling evidence.
Well, here’s my solution to this problem: this is why we have peer review. Average guys with websites can do a lot of amazing things. One thing they cannot do is reveal statistical manipulation in climate-change studies that require a PhD in a related field to understand. So for the time being, my response to any and all further “smoking gun” claims begins with: show me the peer-reviewed journal article demonstrating the error here. Otherwise, you’re a crank and this is not a story.
I both agree and disagree with the author on this one. Yes, it is absolutely true that peer review is critical to the process of scientific validation. Peer review is not perfect, of course, and that is why even peer reviewed studies should be verified and repeated before a firm conclusion can be drawn. Even peer reviewed journals are not perfect, and there have been some noteworthy instances where studies were just plain fabricated and managed to make it into the publication. These are rare, of course, and as such, the degree of skepticism that one views of scholarly studies is not the same as a website or a magazine article.
The problem is that not everyone seems to realize this and crank stories and websites do get traction in the media and do garner attention of the populous. That is a huge problem. If science policy were determined entirely by scientists, then the banter and claims bouncing around outside the Ivory Tower would be of no concern. That is not the case. While these claims may not have anything to them, the fact is that many people think that they do and are convinced by them. Numerous examples exist in recent memory and as long as misinformation, especially wrapped in what appears to be valid information, is allowed to propagate unopposed, it will continue to cause harm.
In the 1990’s, the United States saw a large number of claims that silicone gel implants, especially breast implants, were causing serious health problems ranging from autoimmune disorders to cancer. The claims were not supported by empirical data, but the claims grew into a media circus that attracted dishonest researchers and an army of lawyers and claimants. Despite the lack of scientific evidence, the sensational scare eventually lead to a number of enormous lawsuits which completely bankrupted Dow Corning, resulting in thousands losing their jobs and retirements. Yet this event was not isolated.
Today the United Kingdom is facing a political debate as to the degree of coverage that national healthcare programs should provide for homeopathic treatments. Homeopathy just plain doesn’t work, but enough people have been fooled into thinking it does to force an otherwise educated and industrial country to burn money on a scam that does no good for anyone other than the quacks who dishonestly practice it. In Sweden, the government officially recognizes and offers compensation to those who claim to have “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” and around the world, anti-vaccine groups have managed to kill hundreds of children due to preventable disease. Other lives may be lost in war-torn areas, where limited funding for public health is spent not on nutrition or sanitation, but is instead diverted to re-mediating relatively harmless depleted uranium spent rounds.
While the claims may be bogus, the damage is very real and tangible. This is also why these claims must be refuted, their fallacies exposed and the realities presented with at least as much effort and enthusiasm as those who spread misinformation. There are a huge number of parties putting in a lot of effort to misinform the world. This must be met with at least an equal effort to get the facts out and refute the bad science out there.
Yes, it is true that it is a lot of work to go through these claims, check the facts and debunk them one at a time, but it is also an important cause and one which can’t fall on the shoulders of any single site or person. No single effort should have the end goal of completely ridding the world of bad science or refuting each claim made, but rather to refute at least a few and combat some of the bad science out there. Together, we can make a significant dent in the problem.
This entry was posted on Monday, December 14th, 2009 at 2:20 pm and is filed under Bad Science, Education, Enviornment, Good Science, Misc, media. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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