Saturday, May 25, 2013

Scepticism: I do not think it means what you think it means

There is a comment piece by Brendan O'Neill in last week's Big Issue which tries the following argument on for size.

1. Scepticism is hugely important. Hooray for the spirit of rational enquiry, Huxley and Mill!

2. But scepticism is under threat, since speaking out against man-made climate change theories is taboo (solitary case study: Johnny Ball being booed at a science and atheism event).

3. Therefore we should defend climate scepticism and challenge the scientific consensus on it.
Oh really? This smacks to me of sloppy reasoning.

First, the statement no-one can disagree with. We're all wedded to the scientific method here, Brendan. :-)

Then, the extrapolation from an isolated case, which conveniently forgets that the fact that we regularly hear climate-sceptical voices, e.g. in the right-wing press and mainstream political parties. 

This allows O'Neill to (incorrectly, in my view) present this as a censorship issue rather than a science issue.


For the purposes of his argument, he's treating man-made climate change as if it were equivalent to a medieval superstition, a pre-scientific received truth like the creation myths challenged by Darwin, Huxley and others.  

Let's just say one more time for the record that man-made climate change is an idea well established by evidence and the scientific method.

And, what's  more: you challenge a theory like this in the court of scientific appeal through fresh evidence. This is something the sceptics have as yet failed to do, although not for want of trying over the past decade and more, even in states like the US where Government policy has at times been receptive.

Still, the overwhelming majority (97%) of peer-reviewed research papers still agree that, yep, man-made climate change is happening. O'Neill might regard this as placing too much reliance on expertise; I say, if you've got the evidence to the contrary, bring it to the top table.

Let's be clear here what scepticism is not. It's not hanging onto obsolete ideas, it's not  challenging the conclusions of others without convincing evidence to the contrary. Convincing in this case meaning 'that with which you can persuade large numbers of others'.

That, my friend, is dogmatism. 

And it seems to me that dogmatism is what we're dealing with here.

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