by Planning Engineer
In recent years many “skeptics” have become vociferously critical of anyone who expresses any doubts toward any part of what they see as a climate consensus (both problems and cures). How did the skeptic community grow to take on this role?
This is off-topic from my usual posting areas, but I have supported, participated in and had considerable exposure over the years to the “skeptic movement”. This is from my personal observations and is not intended, and cannot be, a complete picture of the entire movement. I welcome perspectives from others that I may have missed.
Climate skeptics get a lot of grief. Much of it comes from the “skeptic movement”. People in the skeptic movement include people the denizens might know like Chris Mooney, the Bad Astronomer and perhaps this group operating as part of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) which proclaimed that “Deniers are not Skeptics”. Many within the “skeptic” community see so called deniers as anti-scientific and equate them with flat earthers, six day creationists and the anti-vax movement. I’m not sure of “official” positons, but in the ranks skeptics often react angrily to anyone minimizing fears of C02 or doubting the capability of renewable or battery technology. The word denier is tossed about casually to refer to anyone who cast aspersions or doubts around any of the finer points of climate activism. Skeptics have hosted Michael Mann at their meetings and praised him as a defender of scientific integrity. How did a group founded to combat claims of the paranormal evolve to becoming a support organization for an astronomer charging that Climate Change Denial is a Threat to National Security? If history were a little different perhaps the skeptic’s organizations would be challenging the climate mainstream.
Some credit the beginning of the modern skeptic movement to Martin Gardner’s 1952 book, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. Others identify its origins in the formation of the CSICOP (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal) in 1976 under Paul Kurtz. I first became aware through the “Skeptics Society’s” lectures at Caltech in the early 1990s. This group was founded by Michael Shermer in 1992. The third major group in the US is The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) founded in 1996.
In the early days the movement debunked things such as astrology, clairvoyants, psychics, healers, spoon benders, bleeding statues, UFOs, Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. They went after scammers, hucksters and frauds. They encouraged reason and critical thinking to arrive at valid conclusions. It was interesting learning about such things as how cold and warm psychic readings worked how people are captivated by pseudoscientific claims and how to tighten up your thinking.
The Skeptic movement saw huge growth around the turn of the century. The internet, skeptic “celebrities”, podcasting and increased local, regional and national meetings spurred growth. The differing skeptical groups all got along surprisingly well and were mutually supportive. Skeptics were generally united without conflicting allegiances. Some skeptics belonged to all the groups, some none of them. Conventions, podcasts, internet sites were generally welcoming. The demographics began to change as well. Previously skeptics were largely boring old white guys, while the incoming skeptics were more diverse. There was a push to go beyond the old skeptical topics and be more meaningful and relevant. It was not enough to avoid scams, quacks, woo and flim flam – skeptics became concerned with greater truths, addressing more of everyone’s daily life and fighting for social justice.
Skeptics became active in efforts to support vaccinations and keep creationism outside the classroom. These efforts likely enhanced a trend within the skeptic movement, counter to some of its earlier roots, to put science and scientists on a pedestal. Some in the movement today appear near worshipful of scientists, science and “sciencey” things.
I will try to share my glimpse of that story through a number of individuals. Please note that for all individual’s named in sub-headings I have great respect, admiration and appreciation for most all of that they have done.
The Amazing Randi (Founder)
James Randi showed that a magician who “honestly” fools people can be very resourceful in exposing the shenanigans of dishonest people. He first gained international notice in 1972 by challenging Uri Geller, a spoon bending psychic. Besides founding JREF, Randi was also a cofounder of CSICOP in 1976.
He challenged paranormal researchers in Project Alpha. He enlisted two young magicians to pose as psychics and fool researchers working under a $500,000 grant to Washington University. In those days Randi was not greatly enamored of scientist ability to get at the truth. Project Alpha was led by a physicist. Despite his warning in advance to the researchers, Randi’s posers completely fooled all of the scientists involved.
”The worst we can say” about the McDonnell laboratory, Mr. Randi said, ”is that they were far too confident of their abilities to detect fraud, and refused outside assistance because those who offered it lacked academic credentials.”
Over the years Randi has shared many stories illustrating his understanding that charlatans can fool scientists more easily than they can fool magicians. In 1988 he proved his value by investigating Jacques Benveniste who had managed to publish research showing that water had memory in the prestigious journal Nature. Randi was part of a team which published a follow up article in Nature exposing Benveniste and documenting the flaws which escaped Nature’s review process.
Within the skeptical community, increasingly after the turn of the century, some began to equate climate doubt with quack beliefs. Randi weighed in with a dissenting posting on AGW in late 2009 where he said “Happily, science does not depend on consensus.” (Click here – It’s worth a read.) A huge outcry erupted and many labelled him a denier or worse such that he posted a follow up “retraction”. At the same time, climate “advocate” Phil Plait was serving as president of Randi’s organization (JREF) and was actively engaged in fund raising efforts which appeared hampered by this inconvenient posting. The Bad Astronomer worked within the skeptical community to “rehabilitate” Randi. Perhaps Randi had given too much credence to the Global Warming Petition Project. (It wasn’t the first or last petition or survey to be given too much credit.) His other points were ignored. Basically it became fairly clear at that time that dissent from the climate change orthodoxy would not be tolerated.
Since then Randi has been redeemed in the eyes of climate alarmists and embraced “science”. In 2013 Randi’s The Amazing Meeting (TAM) with the theme “Fighting the Fakers”, provided over a thousand attendees the opportunity to be addressed by Michael Mann. Randi along with Michael Mann, Bill Nye, James Hansen, Bill McKibben and Michael Ruse serves on the National Center for Science Education Advisory Council whose goals were expanded in 2012 from fighting creationism in the schools to defending the teaching of Evolution and Climate Science apparently everywhere. Just last December he joined other skeptics in the earlier referenced CSI petition in requesting that climate deniers not be called “skeptics”.
Dr. Steven Novella (Podcaster)
Steven Novella, a neurologist and assistant Yale professor, hosts an excellent, popular and much beloved podcast with his brothers and friends called The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe. The podcast began in 2005 and they have almost 500 podcasts under their belt. He and his fellow podcasters have been welcomed at various skeptic conventions and they maintain an active discussion board. Dr. Novella has been a strong opponent against anti-vaccine activists and effective supporter of science based medicine.
The podcast has a mix of skeptical and scientific subjects and an interview with a guest skeptic or scientist. The show criticizes pseudo-science and promotes science. Many of the podcasts have a segment that features James Randi.
The blend in the podcast content includes the more conventional skeptic topics; exposing junk science, critical thinking and also includes “sciencey” news. In their discussions I’d regularly hear panelists who might laugh at someone gushing excitedly over some potential benefit from a new herb, exhibit the same behavior over some preliminary finding that suggested some improvements in wind power, solar power or battery storage. The double standard suggests they probably would not appreciate this skeptic joke presented as applicable to alternative energy resources as well.
-They call it medicine.
This pattern of increased uncritical adulation for technological “progress” for alternative energy along with growing environmental fears strengthened by climate ”science” appeared to be a common in many skeptical forums. Over time the feedback between skeptical media and the skeptical population has served to strengthen “climate alarmism” and calls for climate activism while pushing for any dissent from the orthodoxy to be labeled as part of climate denialism. I think Dr. Novella is a bright, honest, capable person who has been shaped by group pressures to be supportive of the “climate consensus”. Michael Mann was a guest on the Skeptics Guide to the Universe in 2013 and Dr. Steven Novella is also a signer of the CSI petition.
Greta Christinna (Blogger)
Greta Christina is an effective voice for the growth of diversity within skepticism. Below are some excerpts from a piece she wrote in 2012 advocating that skeptics need to move past “astrology, UFOs and Bigfoot”.
(I)f we’re serious about making skepticism appealing to a more diverse population than the white, middle-class, middle-aged, college-educated men we’ve usually attracted, we need to do more than just have more women and people of color speak at our conferences. We need to widen the scope of our attentions, outside the topics that traditionally concern white, middle-class, middle-aged, college-educated men, and into topics that more commonly concern women, people of color, poor people, blue-collar people, people who don’t have college degrees.
(If) your idea of skepticism is, “sitting around talking about stuff we already agree about” — then all I can say is, “You keep using that word ‘skepticism.’ I do not think it means what you think it means.”
For good or bad the skeptic movement did move on beyond its original core concerns. But I’m afraid the “new skeptics” don’t live up to the ideals expressed in Greta’s posting. When it comes to important impactful topics like climate it seems the skeptics do want people only “talking about stuff we already agree about”. In fact they seem to want to impose that on the greater society in general. Perhaps there is some debate within the skeptic community on topics such as GMO’s, but the movement as a whole now, perhaps counter to Greta’s expressed hopes, seems to be all about getting people on the same page with the same playbook. Implicit in the “skeptics” critical thinking approach is the idea the correct thinking leads to correct conclusions.
It didn’t have to be this way
In most cases dealing with claims which emanate from scams, paranormal beliefs, pseudo-science or just ignorance, skeptics have shown great patience and fortitude in allowing proponents the opportunity to make their best case before carefully debunking the proffered evidence and arguments. Skeptics generally were fastidious in providing point by point critiques to each challenge. There was a common understanding that for valid beliefs evidence could be lined up and presented so that the average person could understand and follow the reasoning. Credentials did not matter so much as evidence and reason. When it comes to climate it seems this approach has been abandoned. Typically the response is merely to label anyone with an inconvenient idea or question as denier. Further discussion is usually limited to assertions that: 1) that the discussion has already occurred, 2) there is considerable (but undescribed) overwhelming evidence and lastly 3) appeals to scientific consensus and the argument that if you’re not a climate scientist you can’t “know” and you shouldn’t be questioning.
What is added by “skeptics” being cheerleaders for some or any version of consensus science? Geography once indicated the earth was very old. Lord Kelvin with the equations of Fourier “proved” that the temperature of the earth indicated a recent origin. How could “skeptics” have helped that argument by taking sides in the years before Madam Curie discovered that radioactive decay heated the earth’s core? Had there been “skeptics” back then should they have sided with the George Gaylord Simpson and the academic majority against the outsider Wegner and his crazy theory of continental drift? Science is following the evidence to the end, not declaring winners by projecting from today’s current best available evidence.
As described above there were a number of factors and incidents that brought the skeptics movement to where it is today. Under different circumstance skeptical heroes might have included Freeman Dyson, Michael Crichton, Matt Ridley, Bjorn Lomborg, and Michael Fumento instead of Carl Sagan, Michael Mann, Bill Nye, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
The forces for group cohesion can be powerful. Within the skeptic community voices that dissented in any way (or even just said “I don’t know”) tended to become more and more marginalized. Those who might dissent now have for the most part left, shut up or deferred to “science” and their places have been taken by those who believe. I once asked on a skeptical forum, why the group responded so harshly to any statements challenging climate fears, but no one ever commented or challenged any statements no matter how ridiculous exaggerating climate fears. I was told that false statements against the climate understandings represented real threats, but little harm could come from overstatements of climatic risk. No one on that forum took issue with that position and that’s when I figured I could not learn much more there. This is a group on a mission that is not accepting of distractions.
When Randi was 80 years old just before publishing his retracted controversial post on global warming, he identified news reporters and academics as the being most susceptible to “magical thinking”. Randi described what is often behind such thinking, “Ultimately it’s not about intelligence or lack thereof. It’s about people not wanting to accept that life is random, suffering is inevitable, and there is no good reason for bad things happening.” Humans naturally seek “reasons” when bad things happen.
Certainly the amount of CO2, a greenhouse gas, in the atmosphere is increasing. All else equal that will cause temperatures to increase. Skeptics argue that it is appropriate to go with our best scientific understandings when there are areas of doubt. As a society that’s a good plan, but that doesn’t mean we should not continue to question our current “best” understandings. Many “skeptics” have promoted fears and described consequences of CO2 emissions that contradict IPCC reports and go much further than can be justified by best our current scientific understandings. Perhaps with science as with magical thinking some embrace fears of climate change because they do not want to accept that weather is random and that bad things can happen for no reason. Consistent with their role in regards to scams and hoaxes, many still see the task for skeptics as coming up with answers and explanations. Maybe the desire for impressive answers leads to excess certainty and an over-reliance on experts to quell doubts. Unfortunately today not enough skeptics see the value of critical thinking when it leads to an honest “I don’t know”.
JC comment: Someone recently emailed me this 1995 article from Skeptical Enquirer: How to sell a pseudoscience. Take a look; these tactics are all being used to sell climate science.
As with all guest posts, keep your comments relevant and civil.