Friday, December 18, 2009

A randy(i) skeptic

James Randi, a well known and well respected skeptic, recently stated his opinion on the global warming debate.
He really stepped in it.

And by "stepped in it" I do not mean he screwed up, or did something wrong. He simply stepped in the steaming pile of crap the whole pro global warming and the global warming deniers have left for all of us to wade through.

Many supposed "skeptics" attacked Randi on their blogs, or in comment sections of Randy's blog. They berated him for not being an "expert" in global warming. They blasted him for using his "status and influence" to support the global warming denialists. Some crowed about how Randi's chemotherapy was destroying his critical thinking because he dared question the "reality" that global warming is caused by humans.
Others seemed to trumpet on how even a skeptic can screw up.

A couple of days later Randi posted this clarification, reiterating what he said in his prior post about not being an expert, but that he is applying some skeptical critique to the subject.

"You should keep your mouth shut unless you are an expert in global warming" shouted some people.
"Leave the science to the scientists Randi, lets listen to what the climatologists have to say about the matter rather than the general scientists signing a petition." cry others.

You know what I find most interesting while reading about the whole global warming debate and Randi's addition to the subject? The way so called skeptics seem to attack Randi for stating his opinion. It seems that many of these "skeptics" equate being skeptical with being right.

Well, I have some news for those "skeptics", and a list of what being skeptical means. A bulleted list at that!

  • Skepticism does NOT mean being correct.
  • Skepticism is asking questions, and looking for evidence rather than blindly accepting what one is told.
  • Skepticism will not always lead one directly to the right answer to any question, be it scientific, moral, political or what not.
  • Skepticism does not constrain one to stating an opinion only if one is right.
  • Skepticism allows one to change their mind in the face of evidence, not in the face of browbeating, political pressure or snarky comments and ridicule.
  • Skepticism is not being afraid to ask stupid questions, and not being afraid to seem stupid to others while asking them.
  • Skepticism about a topic does not require you to be an expert in that topic. 
  • Skepticism does not require a "science degree"
  • Skepticism is not denialism.

I think many "skeptics" would do well by understanding these realities.


  1. Ah, global warming. As the debate unfolds, I often wonder whether proponents and skeptics alike have considered past climate fluctuations. From about 984 to sometime in the 1400s there were two major settlements on Greenland that survived on trade, hunting, and dairy farming. They must have done fairly well at first because on page 244 of "Collapse" by Jared Diamond the author notes, "Greenland's ecclesiastical establishment came to consist of one cathedral, about 13 large parish churches, many smaller churches, and even a monastery and a nunnery." On page 218 he writes, "...we can reconstruct past Greenland climates from Icelandic records, pollen, and ice cores, and the latter let us construct climate on a year by year basis...we've learned that the climate warmed up after the end of the last ice age around 14,000 years ago; the fjords of Greenland became merely 'cool,' not 'bitterly cold,' and they developed low forests. But Greenland's climate hasn't remained boringly has gotten colder for some periods, then reverted to being milder again...the history of the a history of people arriving, occupying large areas for many centuries, and then declining or disappearing or having to change their lifestyle..."

    Randi's concluding comment is so on target! He said, "more attention to disease control, better hygienic conditions for food production and clean water supplies, as well as controlling the filth that we breathe from fossil fuel use, are problems that should distract us from fretting about baking in Global Warming."

  2. Well said Mike. I will forward your skeptics list (with a bullet!) to people.

  3. In addition, here are some thoughts on a post at:

    "The simple truth is we are not all equally qualified to evaluate scientific research."

    Absolutely true.

    "Those of us who are not experts are obligated to defer to those who are."

    Absolutely NOT true.

    Accepting that we do not know does not obligate us to defer to the opinion of an expert.

    Credentials help us winnow the chaff and select those whose opinions we apply our critical thinking, not to select those we will listen to without analysis.