James Randi, anthropogenic global warming, and skepticism

Remember how yesterday I said that sometimes writing this blog depresses me? At the time, I made that observation because there are times when the unending constant onslaught of pseudoscience, anti-science, and woo leads me to despair that the human race will ever overcome its cognitive defects. However, there are other times when blogging depresses me. It’s for an entirely different reason, though. There are times when people I admire, people who should know better, fall and fall hard. No, I don’t mean Tiger Woods getting it on with a bunch of blondes. The level of horniness and lack of control all too common among powerful and well-accomplished men have long since lost their power to shock me. Rather, I’m talking about when skeptics whom I admire show a most unskeptical side. I’m talking about when a skeptic who really, really should know better makes an enormous mistake, a mistake that puts him firmly in the camp of denialists, although hopefully he doesn’t realize it. Fortunately it doesn’t happen very often that such a prominent skeptic makes such an error, but it’s very disconcerting when it does.

The first time it happened for me was around five years ago, when I first found out that Penn Jillette frequently allows his Libertarian political views to interfere with his skepticism and appreciation of science. The examples are multiple, including a Bullshit! episode in which the deleterious health effects of secondhand smoke were denied (which ultimately Penn had to admit to have been in error). Penn has also frequently parroted anthropogenic global warming (AGW) denialist tropes as well. I will admit that at TAM7, I saw Penn come as close as I’ve ever seen him to admitting that he was wrong about AGW, but he stopped just short, by retreating to the lame excuse of “I JUST DON’T KNOW!”

Unfortunately, the latest time this happened was yesterday. The prominent skeptic was James Randi. The disappointment came in the form of an article Randi posted to the JREF Swift Blog Monday night entitled AGW, Revisited. It greatly saddens me to say it, but in this single post, Randi unfortunately dropped a huge turd on the blogosphere. I take no pleasure at all in saying this because I’ve admired Randi for a long time. I even met him for the first time last summer at TAM7, and he was every bit as delightful as expected. Even weakened by surgery and chemotherapy, the mischievous twinkle in his eye was intact, and he seemed just as sharp as ever. Whether he was cruising around in his wheelchair or on his feet, Randi was still clearly the heart and soul of the skeptical organization that bears his name. That’s why his post on global warming is such a disappointment to me.

First off, let me just say that “doubting” the science behind anthropogenic global warming (AGW) does not per se make one a denialist. Nor does bucking the scientific consensus. Denialism does not involve questioning science so much as a fallacious manner of thinking that denies science and evidence. Evolution denialists (a.k.a. creationists), for example, are not anti-science because they “question” evolution. Rather it is how they question evolution, using straw men, misrepresentations of the science, cherry picking, and whatever it takes basically to try to torture the evidence into the appearance of backing up what they already believe and want to keep believing. The same is true of “alternative medicine” mavens, 9/11 Truthers, and any manner of conspiracy theorists.

Also, let me point out that I am not accusing Randi of denialism. What almost certainly happened is that Randi unwisely jumped into an area about which he did not know enough to distinguish valid scientific arguments from denialist pseudoscience. Indeed, he practically admits as much, calling his writing “in my amateur opinion.” Unfortunately, his amateur opinion failed on many levels. For the average person, such a failure might not be that big a deal, but Randi is not a “normal” person. He’s a major figure in the skeptical movement. In any case, even if the global warming “skeptics” are completely correct in their criticisms of AGW, the arguments Randi uses against the current AGW scientific consensus would still be bad arguments, because they’re chock full of logical fallacies and misunderstanding of the science. Let’s start at the beginning, where Randi opens with an observation that’s trivial but ends up coloring the entire post that follows:

An unfortunate fact is that scientists are just as human as the rest of us, in that they are strongly influenced by the need to be accepted, to kowtow to peer opinion, and to “belong” in the scientific community. Why do I find this “unfortunate”? Because the media and the hoi polloi increasingly depend upon and accept ideas or principles that are proclaimed loudly enough by academics who are often more driven by “politically correct” survival principles than by those given them by Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and Bohr. (Granted, it’s reassuring that they’re listening to academics at all — but how to tell the competent from the incompetent?) Religious and other emotional convictions drive scientists, despite what they may think their motivations are.

All of which is more or less true, but, as I said, rather trivial. It’s not individual scientists we are talking about when we speak of a scientific consensus, each of whom is (hopefully) human and thus prone to the same sorts of emotions and motivations as any other human. It’s also more than a bit odd that Randi would mention Newton, who was in fact also an alchemist and prone to all sorts of paranormal and strange religious beliefs when he wasn’t busy formulating his laws of motion; some of his studies were into the occult. That Newton was prone to believing in woo doesn’t render his laws of motion invalid any more than the observation that some climate scientists are not the nicest people in the world and have become a bit defensive invalidates AGW science. The science is the science. It stands or falls based on the evidence and how well observations and experiment describe reality.

Whether Randi realizes it or not, his framing his argument by beginning with an argument that scientists are prone to peer pressure and to kowtowing to “political correctness” is a pre-emptive ad hominem attack, most likely based on the recent “climategate” affair. He comes across as attacking scientists as close-minded and hopelessly in the thrall of peer pressure as a prelude to making some spectacularly bad arguments about AGW, chock full of logical fallacies. For example, there is the appeal to authority. First, he says this about The Petition Project:

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — a group of thousands of scientists in 194 countries around the world, and recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize — has issued several comprehensive reports in which they indicate that they have become convinced that “global warming” is and will be seriously destructive to life as we know it, and that Man is the chief cause of it. They say that there is a consensus of scientists who believe we are headed for disaster if we do not stop burning fossil fuels, but a growing number of prominent scientists disagree. Meanwhile, some 32,000 scientists, 9,000 of them PhDs, have signed The Petition Project statement proclaiming that Man is not necessarily the chief cause of warming, that the phenomenon may not exist at all, and that, in any case, warming would not be disastrous.

And concluding:

I strongly suspect that The Petition Project may be valid.

I fear Randi’s skeptical antennae are growing less sensitive. Regardless of what one thinks of the science behind AGW, accepting or rejecting it, surely the clever wizened old fraud spotter should have been able to see a striking similarity between The Petition Project, in which AGW denialists have tried to slap a patina of scientific respectability on their arguments by making it look as though many many scientists support them, and similar projects done in the name of creationism, for example, the Discovery Institute’s “Dissent from Darwin” list, the vast majority of signatories of which have no special expertise in evolution. So ridiculous is this “Darwin dissent” list that there is even a parody of the effort called Project Steve whose mascot is a panda puppet called Professor Steve Steve. I’ve been embarrassed by a similar effort to find physicians and surgeons who “dissent from Darwin.” The bottom line is that lists of this sort are very often the product of cranks trying to give an air of scientific legitimacy to their views. One should always–I repeat, always–be very skeptical of such lists. They are almost always more the tool of propaganda and very often are dominated by the names of people who have no special expertise in the subject being argued but do have letters and titles after their names.

Randi also repeats an argument that never fails to raise my hackles when I see it:

Happily, science does not depend on consensus. Conclusions are either reached or not, but only after an analysis of evidence as found in nature. It’s often been said that once a conclusion is reached, proper scientists set about trying to prove themselves wrong. Failing in that, they arrive at a statement that appears — based on all available data — to describe a limited aspect about how the world appears to work. And not all scientists are willing to follow this path. My most excellent friend Martin Gardner once asked a parapsychologist just what sort of evidence would convince him he had erred in coming to a certain conclusion. The parascientist replied that he could not imagine any such situation, thus — in my opinion — removing him from the ranks of the scientific discipline rather decidedly.

History supplies us with many examples where scientists were just plain wrong about certain matters, but ultimately discovered the truth through continued research. Science recovers from such situations quite well, though sometimes with minor wounds.

Nooooo! Not you too, Randi! The appeal to “science has been wrong before”is almost always an intellectually lazy shortcut, because what matters is not so much that science has been wrong before but how it’s been wrong. There are many ways of being wrong and probabilities of being wrong. It’s not enough to point out that science has been wrong in the past. Of course it has! That’s rather the point, isn’t it? Science is a self-correcting enterprise. Being wrong about things and finding answers that describe and predict nature more accurately is how science advances. In fact, we can say that virtually all of our current science is incorrect in some way or another to some degree or other and subject to correction and refinement as new observations are made and new experiments done. The question is how close science comes to describing nature. In many cases, it’s very close indeed, which is one reason why it is completely insufficient to invoke the “science was wrong before” gambit as though in and of itself that is sufficient to cast doubt on well-accepted science. If you’re going to argue convincingly that current science is wrong on a topic, you have to be able to show flaws in the science sufficient to cast serious doubt on the current scientific consensus, and you can’t do that if you don’t understand the science. Denialists often “find” new “flaws” that they think no one else has noticed before, when in fact scientists have nearly always already considered virtually every such objection and concluded that they aren’t supported by the evidence. Such objections often spring from ignorance of the background of an issue.

Which brings me to the bugaboo of “consensus science.” Actually, as much as it pains me to say this too, Randi is dead wrong here. Consensus is very important to many areas of science. Think about it. When you come right down to it , what is a scientific theory but a scientific consensus agreeing that a proposed set of principles describing a phenomenon is the best current explanation of that phenomenon that science has to offer? Moreover, when it comes to applying science to real world practical problems, consensus is incredibly important. In medicine, what are clinical guidelines but a statement of expert consensus of how medical science should be applied to specific diseases or clinical problems? Indeed, the NIH periodically publishes consensus statements about various conditions, with recommendations about how they should be treated. In treating breast cancer patients, I frequently refer to the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) guidelines. In any case, if you want to challenge a scientific consensus, you have to have the goods. You have to be able to produce sufficient evidence against the current consensus to throw it into doubt. It’s even better if you can produce positive evidence for an alternate consensus. Cranks are almost always unable to do either on a rigorous basis, although to the ignorant their “doubts” often look convincing on the surface. It’s disappointing that Randi accepted such superficial objections without actually, oh, asking someone about it other than perhaps Penn Jillette. Phil Plait, for instance. Or one of the many climate science bloggers out there.

Even more distressingly, Randi in essence invokes a classic argumentum ad ignorantiam or perhaps an argument from personal incredulity:

I base this on my admittedly rudimentary knowledge of the facts about planet Earth. This ball of hot rock and salt water spins on its axis and rotates about the Sun with the expected regularity, though we’re aware that lunar tides, solar wind, galactic space dust and geomagnetic storms have cooled the planet by about one centigrade degree in the past 150 years. The myriad of influences that act upon Earth are so many and so variable — though not capricious — that I believe we simply cannot formulate an equation into which we enter variables and come up with an answer. A living planet will continually belch, vibrate, fracture, and crumble a bit, and thus defeat an accurate equation.

I’m not even going to go into the errors in basic understanding of climate science in the discussion above. James Hrynyshyn, Greg Laden, and P. Z. Myers have already taken some of this on. Sadly, many are the errors, and Randi isn’t even consistent. Instead, I’m going to comment on the form of his argument. This may be harsh, but consider it tough love. I’m going to recast Randi’s argument into a bit more familiar of a form:

The myriad of influences that act upon living organisms are so many and sovariable–although not capricious–that I believe we simply cannot formulate a theory that explains how life evolved. A living ecosystem will continually change, fracture, and thus defeat an accurate theory.

Where have we heard arguments of this type before?

Randi should know this, but just because he personally can’t conceive of how science could possibly produce models to describe the earth’s climate and to make predictions based on those observations does not mean that it can’t be done by scientists who understand the issues involved any more than the fact that “intelligent design” creationists can’t conceive of how evolution could have produced the diversity of life says anything about evolutionary biology. If you know your understanding is rudimentary, then perhaps you should either not pontificate about an issue in such a way or make your knowledge less rudimentary before doing so.

Lest anyone think that I’m just lazily “defending the scientific consensus,” let me refer readers to this post I did a couple of years ago in a post I’m particularly proud of even all this time later (which is why you should read the whole thing). The post discussed skepticism and the scientific consensus, in which I expressed discomfort with the statement that a “real skeptic always sides with scientific consensus.” Basically, I agreed that the scientific consensus is the best place to start for a skeptic who is evaluating individual issues with which he is not familiar. I also pointed out there, as I did then, that what distinguishes denialism from skepticism is not bucking the scientific consensus. Bucking the scientific consensus is a good thing if you do it right; i.e., with data, a deep understanding of the flaws in the current scientific consensus, and a good modification of current science that might account for new observations and decrease or eliminate the those flaws. That’s one way that science advances. Old paradigms are overturned to be replaced iwith paradigms that describe nature more accurately. Rather, I agreed with Mark Hoofnagle denialism it is more about tactics and how evidence is used to support an argument than it is about the position taken. This is what I wrote back then. I repeat it now because, quite frankly, I can’t think of a better way to say it (either that, or I’m too lazy to think up a better way to say it right now):

Scientific skepticism looks at the totality of evidence and evaluates each piece of it for its quality. Cranks are very selective about the data they choose to present, often vastly overselling its quality and vastly exaggerating flaws in current theory, in turn vastly overestimating their own knowledge of a subject and underestimating that of experts. This is perhaps the key characteristic of cranks and the biggest difference between a crank and a true skeptic. In addition, because the mainstream rejects them, there is often a strong sense of being underappreciated, leading them to view their failure to persuade the mainstream of the correctness of their views as being due to conspiracies or money. Antivaccinationists, for example, view the rejection of their belief that mercury in vaccines or even vaccines themselves cause autism by mainstream medicine as evidence that we’re all in the pocket of big pharma. Global warming denialists see the consensus as being politically motivated by the desire of “liberals” to tell them how to live. Evolution deniers view evolution as the result of atheistic scientists wanting to deny God. People like Sandy Szwarc view the consensus that obesity leads to health problems as being due more to moralizing and bigotry against the obese, which, whether it is true or not, is an easy claim to make because there has been and is a lot of bigotry against the obese.

Yes, scientific consensuses can sometimes be wrong. It’s even possible, albeit unlikely, that the scientific consensus regarding AGW is in significant error and either no warming is occurring or the warming that is occurring is not caused by human activity. However, if you’re going to show a scientific consensus to be wrong, using logical fallacies and a rudimentary understanding of the science to argue against the scientific consensus is not going to convince anyone who knows a lot about the topic, although it might convince the ignorant. There are real controversies in climate science regarding the mechanisms of climate change being argued among scientists, who are not as monolithic as they are all too often represented. To engage in these arguments, though, one has to understand at least the rudiments of the issues involved, which is why I refer Randi to How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic, an resource I’ve used myself in rather heated e-mail exchanges with a friend of mine who is, as much as it pains me to accept, an AGW denialist. Another good resource is The New Scientist’s demolition of AGW denialist canards, one of which, I’d point out, is an argument very much like Randi’s doubt that we could ever construct an equation to account for the complexity of climate. Yet another good resource is John Rennie’s recent Seven Answers to Climate Contrarian Nonsense.

I assure you, my readers, and Randi (should he read this) that it gave me no pleasure to write this post; indeed, as I said in the beginning, it depressed the hell out of me. However, as is the case for so many things I write about, it was something I felt that I just had to comment on after someone e-mailed me a link to Randi’s post yesterday morning.

Finally, Randi’s post should serve as a warning to skeptics. One lesson to be learned is that a skeptic should not make sweeping pronouncements about a topic he clearly does not know enough about to be able to discuss knowledgeably. Clearly Randi failed in this. I can sort of see why it may have happened. Randi pointed out at the beginning of his post that many of his readers and admirers have asked him about AGW and whether he would “turn his skeptical eye to it.” Randi may have felt obligated to try to satisfy the requests of his fans. His failure clearly came as a result of his not sufficiently educating himself about the issues involved before commenting. At the risk of the hubris of comparing myself to Randi, I’ll point out that I not infrequently get requests to write about various topics. I’ve learned the hard way that it’s a very, very bad idea for me to grant these requests if they are about topics with which I’m not familiar unless I’m willing to take the time necessary to learn about the issues involved–and even then I don’t have a lot of confidence. So if you ever wonder why I don’t respond to a request that involves a topic that’s not regularly featured on this blog, nine times out of ten it’s because I don’t know enough about it to comment intelligently (or even not-so-intelligently) and it would take me too much time and effort to come up to speed on the issues involved. You may wonder why a surgeon can write so confidently about, for instance, vaccines. Wonder no more. I took the time to learn the science, background, and nuances necessary, and I’ve been at this for over five years. In the process I made some mistakes and, early on, anti-vaccine loons occasionally took advantage of those mistakes to embarrass me. Another lesson to be learned is that skepticism does not necesarily mean rejecting a contention. Indeed, although it doesn’t necessarily mean a reflex acceptance of the scientific consensus, skepticism usually does mean accepting the consensus in the absence of compelling evidence against it, at the very least as the starting point for learning about the science involved.

Obviously, I’m disappointed in Randi for publishing a post that gives aid and comfort to a most distinctly unskeptical movement, namely the AGW denialist movement. I really wish he hadn’t done that. Because of his fame and decades-long work combatting pseudoscience and woo, he is revered among most skeptics, and justly so. However, being a skeptic does not mean always being right–far from it. What will determine Randi’s mettle is how he reacts to the much-deserved criticism of his mistake that has erupted in the day and a half since he posted his piece, and, indeed, Phil Plait has said that Randi is working on a followup to his post. Will Randi educate himself and admit his errors, or will he dig himself in deeper? Randi has a very deep well of good will that is justly deserved for all his past contributions in demolishing faith healers, smacking down Uri Geller (one of my personal favorites), and showing the utter bogosity of facilitated communication, among other achievements. I, for one, am willing to give him all the time he needs to bring himself up to speed on the issues involved. If, after having done so, he still has a problem with AGW and bases his doubts on arguments that address the science, that’s OK with me, although I’ll still think he’s wrong. At least he’ll then be able to argue his case without resorting to logical fallacies. In the end, skepticism, like science, is a method designed to protect us humans from our cognitive shortcomings as we try to divine how the universe works, and no one, not even Randi, is flawless at exercising it.