On “Scepticism’s limits”

December 14th, 2009
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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.

From the article:

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, media, Misc. 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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107 Responses to “On “Scepticism’s limits””

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  1. 101
    drbuzz0 Says:

            Antice said:

    As far as claims set forth so far for a widespread conspiracy they are just that. unsubstantiated claims.

    Widespread misconduct, even if it is all to a similar end does not imply a conspiracy. A conspiracy is, by definition, organized. A conspiracy would be all (or most of) the climatologists of the world getting together and deciding amongst themselves to follow some unified plan that was kept secret from the rest of society.

    The alternative (and simpler) explanation for why there would be widespread slanting of the data is that individuals and groups around the world, with no connection to each other and no grand conspiracy, have all realized that certain results get them more grant money, more recognition and better assurance of their department’s future.

    If you look at a political body with widespread corruption and find that 50 top politicians are embezzling money, does this mean there is one big conspiracy? No, it means that 50 top politicians all got a bad case of sticky-fingers – which really isn’t hard to imagine happening.

            Antice said:

    As for environmental romanticizing. Wanting to preserve nature has little to do with romantics. In my case it is a case of being pragmatic. Future generations wont thank us for killing everything in sight either directly nor trough habitat destruction. The schism between those who want to preserve nature and so called left wing greens is almost as large as that between capitalism and communism.

    Killing everything in sight? No, but killing many things, they will. I thank past generations for killing off Small Pox and I hope to see my generation kill off Polio. Both of these are, of course, perfectly natural organisms.

    I also don’t see anyone crying or lamenting the demise of Rocky Mountain Locust and I also doubt that many tears have been shed over the fact that several sub-species of mosquito that tend to carry malaria have been eradicated and left most of North America, Europe and much of Asia with no viable malaria vector.

    Somehow I doubt that future generations will judge us harshly for pushing the North American Boll Weevil to the brink of extinction.

    I also doubt that human head or pubic lice, human fleas, dog fleas, deer ticks, carpet bugs, mange mites, tape worms or potato blight fungus will be severely missed if destroyed

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  2. 102
    drbuzz0 Says:

            Bruce said:

    Antice said: Most of us are indeed quite attached to nuclear power as a solution to energy needs. wither for AGW reasons or energy security reasons or in some cases both.

    I disagree with you there, if you just look at Gallup polls the segment of American society, most skeptical of nuclear power, are those who are strong environmentalists. Even Al Gore, who I dislike with regard to his partial embrace of nuclear power, remains skeptical. Greenpeace, the Sierra club and many other environmental groups are very much against nuclear power.

    Most “family values” and “morality” groups are totally against equality for homosexuals or general social equality policy. Why is this? It must be that this is the most moral and value-oriented policy, right?

    No. It’s because most groups that use the term “morality” or “standing up for good values” or whatever are not moral or ethical at all! If anything, they’re the opposite.

    Similarly, groups that call themselves “enviornmental” such as Greenpeace, the Green Party, the Sierra Club, Earth First, Friends Of Earth are actually NOT AT ALL concerned about the enviornment. They’re concerned about a warped and ignorance-based social policy and above all these, lining their pockets. They’ve been caught in extreme dishonesty many times and are willing to say or do anything for power and above all else, CASH.

    You see this all the time in ideolog-based groups. They come to believe their own social philosophy and values are so important, and even more that *they* are so important that they have the right to lie outright and to do whatever they choose in support of it.

            Bruce said:

    Actually, as someone else pointed out, it is the most nut job global warming deniers such as jeff sessions who are most in favor of nuclear power.

    Well, there’s also Patrick Moore, James Lovelock and other generally hippie-type enviornmentalists.

    There’s also the African American Environmental Association, The Eagle Alliance, The Clean Safe Energy Coalition.

    Then there are those of us who have major stake in the industry financially and are totally independent of any organization, but strongly advocate nuclear energy simply because we feel it’s an important aspect of good policy for enviornmental benefits, bettering the living of all mankind and creating a better, cleaner, more sustainable industrial society.

    There you have myself and others like Kirk Sorenson, Rod Adams and many others. We don’t advocate nuclear energy for any reason other than we have done our homework and want to see a better world.

    Don’t tell me I’m not for the enviornment. The only thing I love more than humanity itself is nature. Some of my favorite times have been scuba diving on coral reefs, hiking in the Adirondacks, enjoying the lakes of Upstate New York and traveling the world to see the diversity of our planet. Some of the things

    I lament the most are that the lakes of Upstate New York are no longer full of trout, because their acid tolerance is too low and the PH of the lakes has been destroyed by the dirt burners in Pennsylvania. I also don’t appreciate seeing the smog stains downwind from the big dirt burner in Bridgeport and I severely dislike seeing a beer can on a coral reef.

    So please, go tell me and all the other nuclear supporters that we don’t give a **** about the enviornment. Go right ahead.

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  3. 103
    Antice Says:

    You are hitting the nail on the head. this is the problem of being the supporter of anything. one get’s constantly compared to extremists, or dishonest organizations like greenpeace and the ilk.

    As for you Bruce. the world does not stop at the US border. US politics does not rule the world.
    Go out in the streets and talk to people. you will find that many are indeed supporters of both nature preservation and nuclear energy. the support for nuclear energy as a solution to AGW is growing. There is a wast difference between wanting to preserve what is to many of us a beautiful world filled with living things and being anti human.
    Some of these organizations who are proponents of putting nature before humanity can fairly be described as genocide cults. Being morally opposed to the wholesale destruction of entire ecosystems is not in itself a bad stance. but just like any other moral idea it can be taken to extremes.
    being morally opposed to violence as a solution to problems ranges from protesting the use of war in international politics to being a full blown pacifist who would rather die than raise a hand to defend him/herself.
    Most people do not tend towards neither extremist violence/pacifism ideas nor do they generally tend toward extremist environmentalism.

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  4. 104
    drbuzz0 Says:

            Antice said:

    As for you Bruce. the world does not stop at the US border. US politics does not rule the world.

    True, but as an American, US policy is pretty damn important to me. And being the largest economy in the world, it does have impacts to the bigger picture.

    As an American, it’s really an important issue to me that my country stop shooting itself in the foot.

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  5. 105
    DV82XL Says:

            drbuzz0 said:

    As an American, it’s really an important issue to me that my country stop shooting itself in the foot.

    The US is not the only country that has environmental/energy policies at odds with the facts. I would put it in the middle of the road in terms of legislative disconnect with reality, however the size of the US economy is a multiplier in terms of its impact.

    One of the things that the US does have going for it is that there are not deeply entrenched national dogmas that work to prevent change. Being at their roots ultimate pragmatists, Americans can turn culturally on a dime, and as a group do not like to be seen as loosers. World events will influence US policy by pressure from within, but not until it is clear what path should be taken. Once that choice is made, it is best to get out of the way, because nothing is going to stop them.

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  6. 106
    BMS Says:

    Oh my! I return from holiday to discover that, to my surprise, I have been “spouting extreme right wing propaganda and siting [sic] right wing propaganda sources to boot.” This is particularly unnerving, considering that this “right wing propaganda source” was none other than a distinguished professor of atmospheric science, a professional climate scientist, and a lead author of the IPCC’s Third Assessment Report (the one that won the Nobel Peace Prize). Furthermore, this “extreme right wing propaganda” was merely a summary of a suspicious chronology of the publication of two peer-reviewed papers, and the entire article is supported by contents of the leaked CRU emails.

    Oh, but I forgot, those 1073 emails have been completely “debunked” by three YouTube videos. My bad. ;-)

    In any case, the comments here provide a fascinating example of the poor level of debate that surrounds the Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) issue. The careful reader will notice that I never even directly discussed the scientific evidence behind the theory; rather, I simply pointed out a few reasons why one would be suspicious of some of the claims that have been made. However, as we can see, some people think that even questions are not to be suffered when it comes to this topic. This attitude — a stubborn devotion to orthodoxy that tolerates no dissent — is the very antithesis of skepticism, and it is highly ironic, but illustrative, to encounter it here in the comments of a blog post on “scepticism’s limits.”

    More specifically, my critics have been disingenuous on several fronts. In my experience, these are fairly common tactics used by many alarmists in the public debate on AGW. Observe:

    -> A series of strawmen is set up by misrepresenting what I have written and asserting that I have made claims that I never made. Then my critics pat themselves on the back for discrediting me by tearing apart these easy (but false) targets. For example, I have explicitly and unequivocally stated that there is no grand conspiracy, yet I have been accused several times of making that claim. Similarly, nowhere have I claimed that the leaked CRU emails discredit all climate science; however, this is what some people have implied that I have said. And the list goes on.

    -> Sources are branded as “extremist” and “right/left-wing” simply because they run counter to particular viewpoints that are favored by the critic. (Ironically, at the same time, I’m accused of calling someone a “leftist” when I never used the word or any derivative of the word “left.”) So, for example, I am accused of getting my information from extremist sources and notorious cable news outlets, when nobody here can say for sure where I’m getting my information from. The idea that I might be qualified to form my own opinions based on information from original sources, without the hype and spin of the traditional media filter, apparently never occurs to my critics. The punch line of this joke, however, is that to counter various claims (including claims that I have not made) one critic has posted links to “Climate Denial Crock of the Week,” which provides a view that is about as spun as information comes. It is produced, no less, by a self-described environmental advocate with no scientific training, but with “30 years” of experience in graphic art and activism, including working with Al Gore. Then I’m the one who is accused of spreading propaganda?!

    -> Claims or predictions are made and asserted as absolutely certain or as “facts,” without any explanation or supporting evidence. In some cases, these assertions have been simply wrong (e.g., ice prevents the oceans from releasing their huge stores of carbon dioxide). In other cases, these assertions are type that claim that “signs” indicate that things are worse than predicted. What is not mentioned is that these “signs” are cases where the predictions of models fail to match observations. A consistent empirical trend that I’ve noticed over the years is that, when real-world data disagrees with climate models (or other models), the discrepancy, or its interpretation, always appears in the direction to cause the most alarm. Probabilistically, this is highly unlikely, which indicates that, at the very least, substantial bias is at work.

    Meanwhile, I have tried to support my comments by referring to credible sources. For example, I believe that I have referenced more articles and opinion pieces from real climate scientists than anyone involved in the discussion here. And what do I get for that? I’m accused of parroting “right wing propaganda sources” (see above).

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  7. 107
    R.J. Moore II Says:

    “The appropriate approach is to place the burden of proof on those who claim to have proven the mainstream wrong.”
    As a basis for interpersonal, professional exchanges/debates I certainly agree with this. However, from a perspective of individual epistemology and reasoning it is quite possible that the mainstream’s claims are so blatantly illogical that the burden of proof rests on them; say for reasons of parsimony or logical consistency.
    The mainstream view of theologians is that an omnipotent being who does unknowable things in an unknowable way exists. This is, however, metaphysical and epistemic nonsense to most people with a philosophy/logic background. I would say that most people’s belief that the government is a useful force for civilization is absurd, too, and not really worthy of arguing unless you’re trying to score debating points.

    Normal rules of discourse pretty rapidly breakdown once you get into beliefs that relate to people’s social signaling and status games, because logic has jack all to do with most of them.

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