James Randi, anthropogenic global warming, and skepticism, revisited one last time (I hope)

Yesterday, I wrote one of my typical Orac-ian length posts that was unusual. What was unusual about it was not its length. Rather, what was unusual about it was the target of its criticism, perhaps one of the last people in the world I would ever have expected to have to have taken issue with, James Randi himself, who had posted a truly embarrassing post in which he cast doubt upon anthropogenic global warming (AGW). What provoked my dismay was not so much that Randi had questioned AGW; what dismayed me so was how he did it. His post, as I pointed out, was chock full of logical fallacies and truly ignorant readings of the science. I concluded by pointing out that the true test of Randi’s mettle would be how he reacted to the criticism he was receiving and, in particular, whether he altered his position based on being informed of his errors and provided evidence by people whom he respects showing the validity of AGW science.

If ever there were a time when I wanted to bend over backward like a friggin’ contortionist and give someone every single benefit of the doubt, this was it. After all, it had been announced that Randi would be writing a followup post, and I figured this would be his chance to acknowledge his errors. When Randi’s followup post, I Am Not “Denying” Anything, appeared, I was all primed to accept almost anything he would say. Unfortunately, although Randi did take some baby steps in the right direction, he overlooked the most disturbing aspect of his original post. Sadly, from my perspective, it appears that Randi still just doesn’t get it. This time, I’m with PZ, although I’m going try to approach this from a different direction. Before I can do that, though, I need to tread ground that others have with respect to Randi’s response and cite this passage:

Sad? Yes, if it were true. But it’s not. There were a good number of other, similar comments, all quite wrong. I do not, and did not, deny the established fact — arrived at by extensive scientific research — that average global temperatures have increased by a bit less than one Celsius degree. My commentary was concerned with my amateur confusion about the myriad of natural phenomena that obviously bring about worldwide climate changes and whether we can properly assign the cause to anthropogenic influences. Yes, I’m aware of the massive release of energy — mostly heat — that we’ve produced by exhuming and burning oil, natural gas, and coal. We’ve also attacked forests and turned them into fuel by converting them into paper at further energy expense, paper that is also burned, in turn. My remarks, again, are directed at the complexity of determining whether this GW is anthropogenic or not. I do not deny that possibility. In fact, I accept it as quite probable. I remain respectful of science and its participants. I stand outside the walls of academe, in awe.

This passage is particularly curious because it appears to be claiming that, if AGW is real, it’s a result of heat release from the release of energy from the burning of fossil fuels and wood. That is a complete misunderstanding of what is thought to be the cause of AGW, which is not energy from burning fossil fuels but rather the greenhouse gases, in particular C02, released by their use. What’s a bit more disturbing is that, again, whether he knows it or not, Randi is also mimicking the stance of AGW denialists by in essence a combination of argument from personal incredulity and the fallacy of the golden mean. Whenever there are two positions in science, the correct answer is not necessarily somewhere in the middle, although that is what Randi is implying by implying that the doubts about AGW expressed in his previous post are valid. Now, he may be doing this because he just can’t yet bring himself to fully admit his mistakes, leading him to admit them partially and equivocate. As I said before, I do not believe that Randi is an AGW denialist. However, by couching his admission as he has, he seems to be implying that there is far more doubt about AGW than scientists in fact have. As others have pointed out, this is no different than implying that there is doubt about whether Uri Geller is a fraud, facilitated communication is pseudoscience, or that Peter Popov the faith healer is a scammer. When Randi says that “I do not deny the finding of GW. AGW, to me, is less clear, though I accept that it is likely true,” although he has moved towards accepting consensus science, he has still expressed the view that his doubts have not been assuaged and implied that he thinks that there is still something to the denialist position.

Speaking of logical fallacies, I think what disturbed me more about Randi’s second post is more what wasn’t in it than what was in it. What was in it was a weak retraction of what he said and an admission that AGW is “probably” true. Fair enough, and he did more or less accept Phil Plait’s corrections of his misinformation, in particular his uncritical acceptance of The Oregon Petition. Rather, what disturbed me about Randi’s response is that he left out any acknowledgment that his previous post was chock full of logical fallacies, including argument from personal incredulity, argument from ignorance, straw men about what climate scientists actually say, and, one I particularly detest, the “science was wrong before” gambit. The problem with his original post was not just that it got the science wrong. Rather, it was that the form of his arguments was also very poor. In essence, Randi used rhetorical techniques that he has seen through so many times before when supporters of Uri Geller used them, when supporters of facilitated communication used them or when any number of dowsers, ghost chasers, and believers in the paranormal used them. In any case, Randi’s final comment, although all too human, revealed a pique that is unbecoming:

Again, the importance and the impact of this phenomenon is well beyond my grasp. I merely expressed my thoughts about the controversy, and I received a storm (no pun intended) of comments, many of which showed a lack of careful reading that led to unfair presumptions and interpretations.

I’ll admit that there were a few commenters who were a bit harsh on Randi, but the bloggers who criticized him, including (I hope) me, were all quite deferential and, in fact, read his original post quite carefully, making cogent criticisms of the logical fallacies and scientific misinformation that it contained. In fact, I wonder in retrospect if I was a bit too deferential. Probably not, because Randi has earned deference based on his long history of battling pseudoscience and nonsense. He still does. Anyone who regularly reads this blog knows that, if it had been anyone other than Randi, there would have been a heapin’ helpin’ of not-so-Respectful Insolence raining down upon his head. Either that, or I would have ignored it altogether were it not Randi. But it was Randi, which is one reason it had to be answered. A no-name blogger repeating AGW denialist arguments due to ignorance of the science means little. Randi repeating AGW denialist arguments due to ignorance of science is a massive PR victory for the AGW denialists. Indeed, it’s already begun as this post entitled James Randi vs mindless consensus pseudoscientists. Get a load of this statement:

Randi who may be the world’s #1 symbol of skepticism towards pseudoscientific charlatans (and magicians claiming to have special abilities: he reproduced lots of their tricks without any paranormal abilities) turns out to be consistent in his skepticism: he is skeptical towards the climate judgement day pseudoscience, too.

Randi’s arguments are kind of obviously valid. He enumerates many solar, galactic, geomagnetic, lunar, and other influences that change the temperature by quantities comparable to 1 °C per century and that are not under theoretical control. It follows that the climate “equation” that would reliably predict a century of temperature changes with such an accuracy or a better one cannot be written down at present which is a reason why sensible people shouldn’t make far-reaching claims about the future temperature.

The blogger, LuboÅ¡ Motl, then goes on to repeat a number of AGW denialist canards. If you want to see them debunked, simply head on over to How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic, Seven Answers to Climate Contrarian Nonsense, 50 reasons why global warming isn’t natural, The Global Warming Skeptics vs. The Scientific Consensus. Meanwhile, another AGW denialist expressed “suspense” about Randi and what he would do, whining, ” Skeptic that is skeptical about making Global Warming THE defining issue of our times? Obviously, that’s not something that could be left unpunished.”

Luboš Motl then shows the conspiratorial side that we all know and love when it comes to pseudoscientists of all stripes:

His [Randi’s] newly discovered skepticism may explain why Phil Plait who is not a skeptic but rather an uncritical irrational believer when it comes to te atmospheric Armageddon theories is no longer the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation. Well, he may have been simply yet diplomatically fired by Randi for having brutally violated the main principle that underlies the work of JREF – scientific skepticism.

Yeah, right. If Motl has valid reasons and evidence to doubt Phil’s explanation that he has a possible TV deal that he really wants to pursue, perhaps he would share it with the world rather than making dark insinuations that Phil was fired because he accepted the scientific consensus regarding AGW, perhaps he should let us all in on them or shut up.

Randi is a revered figure in the skeptical movement for good reasons. That he is so revered places a special responsibility on him that, for example, you or I don’t have. Because of his position as a founder and leader of the skeptical movement, his words have far more weight than those of a schlub of a blogger like myself. I can spout off about whatever I want. If I’m wrong, the consequences are momentary embarrassment on my part and the possible need to publicly rethink my position and, if appropriate, admit that I was wrong. Even so, I usually try very hard not to spout off in an uninformed way because I don’t like being embarrassed and, above all, because when I write something I want to get it right. If Randi gets it wrong, it supplies ammunition to the very sorts of people he has spent his life refuting. I understand that Randi may have been taken aback, hurt even, by the criticism he received, but that criticism was in this one instance deserved. I hope he comes to see that.