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So You’ve Decided To Be A Skeptic
These days we tend to think of skepticism as a bad thing. When you call someone a ‘skeptic’ or ‘skeptical’ everybody knows perfectly well you’re just being polite. What you mean is denier.
But does skepticism deserve its bad name?
Not necessarily. It turns out skepticism isn’t always antiscientific. It can actually play a legitimate—if small—rôle in the work we do.
At times, even a climate scientist has to resort to skepticism.
You’ve probably never heard of the scientist Michael E Mann. His most important work, published last century, was a relatively trivial footnote (albeit a groundbreaking one that fundamentally advanced our thinking about the climate).
Dr Mann’s true gift, however, is for communicating. He’s been teaching undergrads to think like climate scientists for almost two decades.
Being skeptical, Mann explains, is about questioning things for yourself.
It means thinking critically—by memorizing and asking, word for word, what he calls the Four Skeptical Questions in the order prescribed—before you believe a given idea.
For example, suppose Professor P claimed that A, citing reasons X, Y and Z in its support.
Being a good skeptic, you’d never just accept that A is true. You’d test the truth of A by asking:
- who funds P?
- is P an authority?
- does the majority agree with P?
- what political ideology is driving P?
Some advanced readers might be interested in knowing the rationale behind these questions, so Dr Mann elaborates:
“Who funds him?”
In other words, is Professor P transparent about his income sources—and if so, do they link him to industry?
As a rule, private-sector and special-interest money corrupts absolutely, and even more so when fossil-fuel dollars are in play. In terms of spending (and therefore bribing) power, an oil dollar is worth almost six regular dollars, according to top government scientists.
So if you thought Richard Lindzen was credible, think again. A long-running $2 million Greenpeace project to expose the contents of science-deniers’ trash cans found proof of a damning conflict of interest. It seems the retired Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at MIT recently tried to dispose of a “Loyalty Card” showing beyond doubt that his allegiance to a certain petrochemical giant entitled him to a discount at his local gas station.
The card even bears what scientists call anthropogenic fingerprints, leaving no doubt that it was used before being tossed.
(Greenpeace will soon have a whole website dedicated to this exposé and what it suggests about other deniers, most of whom evidently cover their tracks better than Lindzen. As always we’ll keep you posted as the science emerges.)
“Is he an authority?”
A skeptic only trusts authorities.
“How many people agree?”
Professor P might know everything there is to know about the topic at hand; he might have spent years actively going to conferences on it; but unless there are at least ten serious scientists saying the same thing (Mann is so skeptical he requires 100 or more), the good Professor’s argument is inherently weak—possibly even flawed.
“Are his claims driven by the facts, or by ideology?”
It’s crucial to keep politics from contaminating the discourse, which is why Dr Mann always checks his interlocutor’s politics right up front.
Recent work by Chris Mooney on the science of why we deny what the science tells us tells us that when someone has an extreme worldview (conservative, libertarian, pro-market or centrist politics), their brain can literally be every bit as immune to the scientific facts as it is to social reality.
It’s tempting, when “reasoning” with someone in the grip of an anti-reality bias, to overcompensate by adopting a pro-reality bias, but this will only damage your own credibility. The best way to avoid getting too real? Walk away as soon as you know the other person votes wrong.
So you see, skepticism: it’s not just for the skeptics!
NOTE This story has been revised to reflect the fact that while Professor Lindzen doesn’t deny smoking is carcinogenic, nobody can say for sure whether or not he’s sympathetic to ISIS.
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