The Suspension of Skepticism
How many opinions make up a fact?
The entire body of human knowledge has its foundation in logic, reason, and empiricism. We observe. We question. We attempt to explain. We want to know. As we’ve fine tuned the processes logic, reason, and empiricism depend on… math, philosophy, scientific method, etc… the growth of our body of knowledge has greatly accelerated. This has led to rapid improvements in every measure of human well being. We are healthier, wealthier, and live longer. We have managed to largely insulate ourselves against many of the forces of nature that formerly humbled and destroyed us. Disease, predators, and climactic conditions are more and more held at bay. War and other forms of violence are in decline. We’ve made great strides in much of the world in pollution control and protection of biodiversity and environment. These improvements are measurable. Statistics attest, and can be investigated at humanprogress.org and ourworldindata.org, among others.
Despite this amazing progress, and the empirical data that says it is true, large numbers of people around the world contend that things are NOT getting better, and are getting worse. They are pessimistic even though there is every reason to be optimistic for the future of humanity and nature. A great number of scientists share in this pessimism. And they always have. Human history is littered with prognostications of doom. This pessimism is evident in every ‘prophesy’ that the very progress that brought us our comfort and prosperity is dooming us. Many of these claims come from SCIENTISTS… scientists that have access to all the same data you and I have. Yet they grasp at minor and temporary indicators to assert that horrors await us, while minimizing or ignoring the impact of a much stronger set of positive indicators. Fortunately, brilliant minds like Steven Pinker and Matt Ridley (and many others) have begun to enlighten us to the realities of modern life: It’s a LOT better than what we had previously. We DO have reason for optimism.
So why are so many scientists so pessimistic? Because scientists are human, and subject to the same evolutionary influences as the rest of us. They are liable to various biases, poor reasoning, faulty logic, mistakes, self interest, and even deliberately misleading and corrupt practices. This is not to say something nefarious is afoot, at least not on any large scale. This is why the scientific method and peer review were developed; to weed out influences that might lead to incorrect conclusions. Of course they aren’t perfect screens. But the ongoing nature of scientific inquiry means any conclusion is open to future examination, revision, or rejection. Science is NEVER settled. Better explanations will always replace weak ones.
Which brings me to Michael Shermer’s article in Scientific American; Why Climate Skeptics Are Wrong. I’m a great admirer of Shermer, and greatly appreciative of his efforts to advance and promote skepticism as a force for good for everyone, scientist and non-scientist alike. However, like anyone else, he is also subject to bias and error. And here, it is his skepticism of skepticism that is wrong.
Shermer aims to replace scientific consensus with “consilience of inductions.” Fine. The explanation sounds reasonable. But he provides no examples of the “convergence of evidence.” In fact he moves from that description back to a discussion of “consensus science”:
“Is there a consensus on AGW? There is. The tens of thousands of scientists who belong to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society, the American Geophysical Union, the American Medical Association, the American Meteorological Society, the American Physical Society, the Geological Society of America, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and, most notably, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change all concur that AGW is in fact real. Why?”
This is misleading. Endorsement of the orgs doesn’t equal endorsement of the members in whole or part. Tens of thousands of scientists belong to those organizations. Do the members support leadership 100%? Or 1%? Somewhere in between? He doesn’t know, yet leads you to believe they ALL support the leaders’ endorsement. In truth, we don’t know if the members were consulted at all. What is this endorsement worth? It can’t be quantified. It’s value from a statistical or scientific perspective is nil. And it should be mentioned some of these societies base their position on the same Cook et al paper mentioned later. They are NOT all independent evaluations of the evidence. And one last tidbit regarding the IPCC… They admit warming is out of step with CO2 emissions, has paused for at least 15 years, and that 111/114 climate models overstate warming.
“The answer is that there is a convergence of evidence from multiple lines of inquiry—pollen, tree rings, ice cores, corals, glacial and polar ice-cap melt, sea-level rise, ecological shifts, carbon dioxide increases, the unprecedented rate of temperature increase—that all converge to a singular conclusion. AGW doubters point to the occasional anomaly in a particular data set, as if one incongruity gainsays all the other lines of evidence. But that is not how consilience science works. For AGW skeptics to overturn the consensus, they would need to find flaws with all the lines of supportive evidence and show a consistent convergence of evidence toward a different theory that explains the data.”
In each of these “multiple lines of inquiry” there are questions as to the rates, measurements, and cause. If you choose not to look at contrary evidence, disregard, or cherry pick only what supports your bias, you’ll arrive at a conclusion. But it will have nothing to do with science. In the case of ice cores, even prominent ‘warmists’ admit CO2 lags warming by 800 years. In the others, they are NOT unprecendented. All have happened before. And the geological record shows both lower and higher temps in much higher atmospheric CO2 concentrations. In fact all changes seen now are within the range of natural variability. Shermer then moves on (he is now using consilience and consensus interchangeably) to suggest skeptics need to “overturn the consensus” after saying in the very same paragraph: “It is not because of the sheer number of scientists. After all, science is not conducted by poll. As Albert Einstein said in response to a 1931 book skeptical of relativity theory entitled 100 Authors against Einstein, “Why 100? If I were wrong, one would have been enough.” Why would skeptics need to overturn a consensus? A consensus is an opinion. Notice the burden here is not on ‘the consensus’ to show a testable hypothesis confirmed by experiment, but on skeptics to overturn opinion. This isn’t science, but the epitome of politics.
Next Shermer moves on to the crux of all confused AGW arguments; the Cook et al study. To even call this a ‘study’ is laughable. It isn’t even a poll of opinions. It is a text search of selected abstracts. But even if we accept what Shermer says “Of those papers that stated a position on AGW, about 97 percent concluded that climate change is real and caused by humans” it still tells us nothing. Of course climate change is real. I defy Shermer or Cook to find any sane person, scientist or not, that disputes that. So it comes down to what “caused by humans” means. 100% caused by humans? 0.1% caused by humans? Somewhere in between? Doesn’t say. Again, this is statistically and scientifically meaningless. What it really says is that 97% of an unknown number of papers we carefully selected from 11,944 (how many were selected vs rejected?) by a text search of abstracts accept climate changes, and some undefined percentage of that may be due to human activity. A monkey with dementia would use more rigorous standards than Cook. And Shermer willingly repeats the nonsense.
Now if Shermer wanted to look into this a little deeper he could. He CHOSE not to. That is bias. And I hope he is uncomfortable with it. What Cook actually said about the 11,944 papers is this: “11 944 climate abstracts from 1991–2011 matching the topics ‘global climate change’ or ‘global warming’. We find that 66.4% of abstracts expressed no position on AGW, 32.6% endorsed AGW, 0.7% rejected AGW and 0.3% were uncertain about the cause of global warming.”
Joanne Nova, Richard Tol, and Jose Duarte (and others) have all written devastating critiques of Cook et al. Shermer could have found them as easily as I did before becoming Cook’s Minister of Propaganda. See:
In short, I don’t know whether Shermer is lacking introspection, careless, or simply a victim of unrecognized bias. In any case, I would urge him to reflect on his own closing sentence.
“Such practices are deceptive and fail to further climate science when exposed by skeptical scrutiny, an integral element to the scientific process.”