Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Skepticism and evidence

There's a debate going on over at Watt's Up With That involving a paper discussing the uses of terms like "denier" and skeptic.

I threw my two cents into the pot:


Donald A. Neill says:

If you’re not a skeptic, you’re not a scientist. A skeptic is someone who wants to see evidence, and who values it above all other things. So is a scientist.

In science, there is no higher law than evidence. All things give way before it. Models and speculation, no matter how elegant (or how deeply believed-in) cannot substitute for observed data. Why else did humanity spend untold billions to build the LHC? Why did we orbit the Hubble Telescope? Why are there robots on Mars? Why is Voyager leaving the Heliosheath…if not in order to obtain evidence? Why bother, if our guesses are good enough?

“Denier” is an ad hominem term. So is “warmist”. They are debating techniques, and base ones at that. They have no place in science. All that matters is where one stands on the evidence. At present, there simply is no statistically significant observational evidence demonstrating a causal linkage between CO2 (let alone human-produced CO2) and global climate. Temperatures are not responding to increased CO2 concentrations as the models say they should. Nor are predicted phenomena being observed. Sea level rise is not accelerating. Ice is not disappearing, much less “death-spiralling”. Predicted tropospheric hot spots are absent. There is no increase in storm frequency or severity. Ecosystems are not perishing. Entire species are not disappearing. None of the model predictions, no matter how modest or how lurid, are being borne out.

On the other hand, lobster is getting cheaper. Okay – who predicted THAT?

Meanwhile, as to the notion that “every reputable scientist agrees that the earth is warming”…well, what does the EVIDENCE say? Anthony has spent the better part of the last several years demonstrating that we cannot trust the US land-based temperature record because the instruments are poorly sited and maintained. Steve Goddard has shown that we cannot trust it because of illogical manual alterations to that record by GISS. The UHI has not been adequately quantified or understood. The UEA admits that their original temperature data no longer exist. Four-fifths of the measuring stations disappeared over the past couple of decades. I don’t disagree that we assume/think the Earth has warmed since the end of the Little Ice Age (fancy that!) – but from a point of view of the data that we do have, there are sound scientific reasons to be skeptical about the EVIDENCE that it has warmed. For crying out loud, this very site just published yet another peer-reviewed study showing that the Earth has actually cooled since the Roman Warm Period!

Stop and think about the stakes for just a moment. We just spent decades and tens of billions of dollars trying to figure out if our models were right or wrong about the Higgs Boson. But if the models were wrong, all that would have happened is that a bunch of physicists will spend the next few years being very happy and very busy. The lives of average people will not be affected one jot or tittle. But if we’re wrong about the AGW thesis and the models based upon its assumptions, then we are going to drastically alter the trajectory of human technology at enormous (probably unbearable) expense for no logical purpose, deepening the catastrophic financial straits in which the developed states find themselves, and preventing developing states from using cheap energy to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. The human cost of making the wrong move will be incalculable.

That’s the sort of step you don’t really want to take until you’re confident in your evidence, wouldn’t you say?


My comment was generally well-received. One chap took issue with my analysis, arguing that the term "denier" has far greater negative connotations than the terms "warmist" or "alarmist".

No argument there, obviously. But that's only a matter of degree. My point is that both terms are ad hominem arguments, which makes this a matter of kind rather than one of degree. Ad hominem arguments - arguments literally "against the man", rather than those that engage data, method, logic or analysis - have no place in a scientific debate, regardless of whether they are venomous or benign. If you engage an issue on any basis other than its author's observations, evidence and reasoning, then you are not doing science, you are doing something else.

This is the problem that genuine skeptics face regardless of which side of the debate they may be on. When you try to focus solely on data, the "white noise" of ad hominem nonsense from people who do not understand science, or from people who do but who consciously decide to ignore it, tends to obscure and overwhelm rational thought. 

In my view, the latter are far worse than the former. The ignorant can be taught; it's those who understand science and who still consciously decide to betray its most fundamental precepts that are the gravest threat to reason, the Enlightenment, and the future. Idiots deserve our pity; traitors, our contempt.