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.