"Some say they see poetry in my paintings; I see only science." -Georges Seurat



Thursday, December 20, 2012

Skepticism is Not the Same Thing as Science: An Eye Towards the Global Warming "Debate"

Skeptics primarily use logic, reason, and critical thinking in order to make sense of the world. Skepticism is a very important quality to have for professional scientists (and, I would argue, for just about everyone). But being skeptical is not equivalent to being scientific, although the two usually make for good traveling companions. Science goes one step further than mere skepticism by giving the final word to data, to empirical evidence extracted from cleverly designed experiments, to proof. Evidence is the ultimate decider in any debate, scientific or otherwise. Period.


Unfortunately, a lot of modern "skepticism" seems to be resorting to mere criticism of ideas (again using only logic, reason, etc.) without grounding the arguments in empirical evidence. As an example, a recent "debate" occurring in the comments section of an article outlining the main arguments and evidence for human-caused global warming was met with some intense skepticism (as we might expect given the target audience of self-proclaimed "skeptics"). However, in reviewing most of the counter-arguments and criticisms, here's what the skepticism and doubt about global warming seems to boil down to:
  • mis-understanding the data and the scientific consensus on that data (the famous "hockey stick" graphs being the prime example, which have been analyzed and re-analyzed exhaustively taking account of various critiques, and coming up with the SAME conclusions as the original works)
  • fear of the scientific consensus being propaganda, outright lies, or some vast conspiracy (evidence please?)
  • arguing that an overwhelming scientific consensus isn't compelling (good luck with that)
  • feeling that multiple sides of a debate deserve equal weight or consideration (even though some sides are backed by overwhelming empirical evidence and thus deserve much greater weight, while alternative arguments not backed by evidence are given more consideration than is due)
  • attacks on the credentials of the author (who was merely relaying the scientific consensus)
  • feeling that the evidence doesn't really point one way or another (even though the scientific consensus clearly says otherwise)
  • feeling of being "badgered" or "bothered" by the argumentative tactics of experts (this is what happens when you are wrong; it's called science)
  • fear of the economic and/or political implications of the scientific consensus (which has no direct bearing on the weight of the evidence)
  • questioning the quality or validity of the cited scientific sources (but then trying to back up their own arguments with shoddy sources)
  • agreeing that global warming is occurring but questioning whether it is human-caused (again, by mis-understanding the weight of the actual data and the scientific consensus supporting it)
  • arguing that climate is "complex" therefore all conclusions regarding its data are unreliable or questionable (actual scientists understand this and take account of it; complexity does not mean something cannot be scientifically or usefully studied)
  • mis-understanding the Scientific Method by assuming being skeptical is all there is to it (while neglecting the part about using real-world, empirical data to test theories)
  • hating and rejecting anything that comes out of Al Gore's mouth

None of these are actually compelling arguments or reasons to doubt the science of global warming, or the thousands upon thousands of high-quality peer-reviewed scientific works demonstrating that warming is occurring, that it is human-caused, and that it's likely to cause serious problems for humanity -- and potentially for many other life forms, as well.

It's abundantly clear in any case that most of the doubters and deniers haven't read ANY of the relevant science (from the actual primary sources) or done any real empirical research on the issue. Almost never are they actually talking about, interpreting, or debating actual climate data. Most just seem to relish in questioning and critiquing everything they hear, see, or smell, and then not listening to the patient responses offered by the scientific community. And most seem content on regurgitating second-hand or tertiary work critiquing global warming, even work that is out-of-date, proven to be irrelevant, or already dealt with in the literature.

The doubters apparently believe that just being skeptical, logical, or rational is accomplishing something useful. In this case, it's just not. News flash: Being a skeptic does not make you a scientist or an authority on the scientific method, or really an authority on anything. It just makes you an amateur critic of science, at best. At worst, it makes you a useless crank.

The real, ultimate decider about climate change is not going to come from comment sections in articles or endless blog rants (like this one). The data already speaks for itself, and future data will continue to do so, one way or another. Logic and reason are not the royal road to truth; data is. If you find yourself unable to read or interpret the data for yourself, try asking someone who can, or try reading a book or taking a class, or even try asking the authors (gasp!). Most have spent lifetimes and/or careers learning the methods and subtleties in their craft and would be more than happy to help you understand what they found and why it's important. They generally know what they are doing; listen to them. You might learn something.

Empirical evidence collected, analyzed, interpreted and presented by professional scientists will be the judge in this debate. Reality is the ultimate judge. Non-scientist skeptics will continue to throw in their two-cents in regards to global warming, but no amount of ill-founded skepticism will change the data. So my message to the so-called skeptics: Read the research yourself, from reputable primary sources, understand the data, and only then form your own intelligent opinion before talking about things you clearly don't understand. It's easy to tear down others; try building something yourself.

6 comments:

  1. arguing that an overwhelming scientific consensus isn't compelling (good luck with that)

    overwhelming scientific consensus is not compelling. Most people are sheep (including most scientists), so the fact that they all agree on something proves nothing. Science is not a democracy. The scientific consensus has been wrong many times in the past and is wrong about quite a lot today.

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    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, I appreciate you sharing your thoughts. I never said an overwhelming scientific consensus was absolute proof and certainty, I said it was compelling. And the scientific consensus on man-made global warming IS compelling. Unless you are prone to ignoring scientific consensus. In that case, I wish you good luck in life, like I said earlier.

      If my child is sick and I go to 100 different doctors and 98 of them give the same grim diagnosis and suggested treatment, and back up their opinion with repeatable and verifiable tests, then there is a compelling agreement by relevant professionals using evidence in support of their assertions.

      Are they guaranteed to be correct? No. Would I be stupid and ignorant for not listening to them? Yes. Unless one has good solid empirical evidence for thinking otherwise, it seems unwise and just plain silly to pretend like a scientific consensus doesn't mean anything.

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    2. I'm not saying scientific consensus means nothing or that people should ignore their doctors; I just don't find it a COMPELLING reason to believe something. I want to examine the scientific evidence for myself because far too often the scientific consensus is influenced by non-scientific factors like politics, peer pressure, group-think, research funding, arrogance, sophistry, self-interest, fear, fraud and intellectual laziness, and the scientific consensus is constantly changing which tells you must be largely wrong.

      Just because scientists tend to be very smart and very educated does not mean they tend to be especially correct. It takes more than brains and knowledge to get the truth; it also takes objectivity, a strong desire to WANT to know the truth, and the courage to promote the truth even when there are social and financial costs. And even if you have all those traits, scientists will still be largely wrong because the world is so complex that very few people can ever have a very good grasp on much of it.

      There was a very extensive study that asked a bunch of experts to make all kinds of predictions in their area of expertise, and if I recall correctly, their accuracy rate was roughly on the level of a coin flipper.

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    3. Expert opinions at the level of a coin flip? Do you really believe that? Do you really devalue expert opinion that much? I find it hard to imagine that you would really rather flip a coin or have an experienced, skilled surgeon operate on a terminal brain tumor? Or fly your airplane? Or babysit your child?

      Of course scientists, who are human, are prone to politics, peer pressure, group-think, arrogance, etc. But the scientific enterprise as a whole attempts to control for and weed out these factors (peer review, independent replication, reporting conflicts of interest, etc.), so that these nefarious effects of individuals won't make ALL of science questionable, as you seem to assert.

      Indeed, I would argue that since there IS a scientific consensus, this does tell us something important because it is not relying on taking the word of any one individual or small group of individuals. Instead, it is "taking the word" of thousands of well-educated, independent individuals who have come to an overwhelmingly similar conclusion using their own data that they have painstakingly collected, interpreted, and analyzed over the last several decades.

      Science may often be wrong, but it is much much less wrong than basically any other human enterprise. I'll take what it has to say any day of the week.

      I of course encourage you reading the research yourself, and deciding for yourself, and think more people should do exactly that. I recommend sticking close to primary sources of climate data to avoid your own (and others) political biases, peer pressure, arrogance, and intellectual laziness from interferring with your objectivity (unless you are lucky enough to not possess these traits, as I unfortunately can't always claim).

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    4. Expertise is clearly very useful when it comes to brain surgery and airplane flying, but there are many contexts where expertise is surprisingly useless:

      http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/12/05/051205crbo_books1?currentPage=1

      Don't get me wrong; I have the highest respect for science, scientists, and experts, I just think it's important to recognize the limitations. Sure science might be more accurate than virtually any other human enterprise, but that still leaves room for considerable error, does it not? The point is to always think critically about everything; even the consensus of scientists.

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    5. Good article, thanks for sharing. Note, however, that the article is basically studying how crappy self-proclaimed experts are at predicting complexity in the *softer* sciences like politics, economics, and social life. Predicion is definitely a difficult game to play without any elaborate theoretical or mathematical underpinnings that the harder sciences benefit from, and I have more confidence in what physicists, astronomers, geologists, and yes even climate scientists, etc. have to say than I do in what softer sciences can predict. This is not meant to insult scientists of the softer persuasion, since being a psychologist myself, I often find myself pining for the precision and objectivity that we lack at present, due to our limited tools and relatively simplistic understandings of minds, brains, and behaviors.

      I heard a good quote once that all sciences secretly wish to become engineering, meaning that once a field of science is so well-developed that basic research isn't necessary anymore (most or all of the interesting fundamental questions have been answered), then the science just becomes a tool for applied research and real-world utilization. Optics or mechanical or civil engineering were given as examples. Interesting food for thought.

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