The importance of skepticism

SkepticalTobyde omnibus dubitandum

That is my personal motto. Translated from the Latin in to English it means “everything must be doubted.” If I were going to get a tattoo, this would be on my short list, along with a soccer ball and perhaps an Eagle of Manwë from the Lord of the Rings (which may explain why I don’t get tattoos).  Being skeptical of claims is at the heart of what it means to be a good critical thinker.  It is that cognitive characteristic that tells us to do a bit more research, to ask a few more questions, to roll up our sleeves and do some deeper analysis.

The popular science writer and founder of  the Skeptics Society, Michael Shermer, wrote a fantastic piece in the Huffington Post a couple of years back called, What Is Skepticism, Anyway? In this piece, he explores what it means to doubt everything and to proudly wear this badge we call “skeptic,” a badge I’ve been wearing since I first pondered how it was physically possible for one slightly obese elf to deliver gifts via sleigh to every kid on the planet in a single night.

While the term “skeptic” sometimes accompanies the somewhat derogatory accusation of demonstrating an unwillingness to budge on a claim, as in, “What do you mean you don’t believe the Long Island Medium can communicate with the dead! You’re such a skeptic,” this is a slight misuse of the term.  One’s reluctance to accept claims which clearly conflict with the laws of nature, such as being able to talk to the dead, doesn’t really qualify them as a skeptic, inasmuch as it simply qualifies them as a rational person.

On the flip side of this coin, the positive connotation of term “skeptic” as a thoughtful realist, has been hijacked by those who want to shelter their scientific illiteracy from criticism.  Those who deny the reality of global warming for example, are quick to call themselves “skeptics.” They are not. They are contrarians. This is a vital and often misunderstood distinction.  Skepticism is not obstinate disagreement. A contrarian looks at a mountain of evidence, such as the evidence for global warming, and for reasons unrelated to the evidence, still refuses to budge. A skeptic looks at a mountain of evidence and after considering it for plausibility, accepts the claim. The former is willfully ignorant. The latter is intellectually honest.

Dr. Shermer says,

“Skepticism is not “seek and ye shall find,” but “seek and keep an open mind.” But what does it mean to have an open mind? It is to find the essential balance between orthodoxy and heresy, between a total commitment to the status quo and the blind pursuit of new ideas, between being open-minded enough to accept radical new ideas and so open-minded that your brains fall out. Skepticism is about finding that balance. Here is a definition of skepticism:

Skepticism is the rigorous application of science and reason to test the validity of any and all claims.

Skeptics question the validity of a particular claim by calling for evidence to prove or disprove it. In other words, skeptics are from Missouri — the “Show Me” state. When we skeptics hear a fantastic claim, we say, “That’s interesting, show me the evidence for it.”

Look at that final sentence. “That’s interesting, show me the evidence for it.” Those six words are powerful! As skeptics, this is how our critical thinking brains work. Just because we may like someone, and just because we may respect someone, does not mean we’re willing to simply take someone’s word for some truth claim, particularly if we happen to know that the truth claim is either demonstrably verifiable or conversely, if it’s unfalsifiable. We, in the spirit of intellectual honesty, demand that claimants own their burdens of proof.  We want to see the evidence, and oh by the way, by evidence we mean real, demonstrable, scientifically valid evidence.  One’s heartfelt feelings about a subject or one’s subjective experience about something do not meet the standard.

Why do we skeptics ask for evidence? Because we want to understand your claim. We want to learn about it for ourselves. We do not accept truth claims solely on authority. We eschew logical fallacies. We demand intellectual honesty from ourselves so we expect it from others.

Dr. Shermer lists a series of “I believe” statements that shouldn’t be a surprise to any scientifically or historically literate person:

• I believe in the germ theory of disease.

• I believe that vaccines are good for societal health.

• I believe that fluoridated water reduces cavities.

• I believe in the Big Bang theory of the universe.

• I believe that the theory of evolution best explains life.

• I believe that the theory of plate tectonics best explains the the continents.

• I believe that the periodic table of elements best explains chemistry.

• I believe that JFK was assassinated by a lone gunman named Lee Harvey Oswald.

• I believe aliens are probably out there somewhere but that they have not visited Earth.

All of Dr. Shermer’s “I believe” statements can also be reworded as “I understand how” statements. My piece, I believe in evolution because I understand why evolution is true, gets right to the heart of this way of phrasing a truth claim. In other words, when someone says, “I believe in vaccinations,” what they probably mean is, “I trust the medical community on the effectiveness of vaccines in preventing disease.”

On the other hand, when someone says, “I believe in ghosts,” they are resting that belief on an unfalsifiable claim to knowledge they don’t have, namely that ghosts are real. So while they might actually believe in ghosts, their belief has no basis in reality. Ghosts are the fictional creations of human imaginations. Never in the history of humanity has the existence of a ghost, any ghost, been verified, and neither Shakespeare’s Hamlet nor J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter count as evidence.

To further understand what it means to be a skeptic, I recommend reading Dr. Shermer’s book, “The Believing Brain” and I would add to your order, Carl Sagan’s “The Demon Haunted World.” Both of these books should be on every skeptic’s bookshelf. In fact, I argue both of these books should be required reading for every high school student in America.  Teenagers already mistrust what adults are telling them, so what a fantastic time to equip them with an even greater understanding of what their skeptical intuition is already telling them.

Remember, de omnibus dubitandum.

Scientific consensus and global warming

tin-foilSome of the most impassioned and frankly bizarre discussions I have do not involve politics or even religion. No, it seems that people are more than willing to become completely unhinged from reality whenever I discuss…wait for it…global warming.

Yes, global warming, that enormously elaborate, perfectly executed global hoax perpetuated over the course of several decades by the vast majority of physicists, chemists, astronomers, geologists, biologists and so on who study the climate, each with the nefarious sole purpose of getting rich off of grant money (irrespective of their academic credentials, affiliations, organizations or national origins).

Well, it’s either that or global warming is real.

But at any rate, the willingness of people to squeeze their eyes shut and close their ears to the evidence of global warming remains nothing short of astonishing.

Case in point. In a twitter argument I was in some time ago, a global warming denier accused me of asserting the reality of global warming without providing any evidence to support my assertion; to which I responded that I have the overwhelming consensus of the entire scientific community on my side. I added that on their “side” they have Fox News, right wing talk radio and blogs, Glenn Beck, and in fairness, a very small handful of scientific contrarians largely ignored by their colleagues at this point.  But no real science. Nothing in a peer-reviewed journal of note. None. Zilch. Zip. Nada.

Losing patience with this particular climate contrarian’s willful ignorance, I asked him to name a single scientific body of national or international standing that does not endorse the consensus on anthropogenic global warming. He gave me the Fraser Institute, Slovakia’s past president Vaclav Klaus, and something called Weather Canada. What?  Did I misspell “scientific body of national or international standing?” This type of false equivalence is endemic with climate change deniers. They do not understand what makes for a statement of credible science and for the life of me I can’t figure out why they don’t get it.

Clearly some people simply have no idea what constitutes a national or international scientific body, so allow me a few words to document my position more succinctly and hopefully in so doing, elucidate the term “scientific consensus” should any poor soul need to reference this page in the future:

I understand climate change is real not because I’m a climate scientist, but because I trust climate scientists and more specifically, I trust the scientific method to ferret out the invalid and leave the valid.

With that, let’s start with general science, physics, and chemistry:

American Association for the Advancement of Science: “The scientific evidence is clear: global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and it is a growing threat to society….The pace of change and the evidence of harm have increased markedly over the last five years.”

American Geophysical Union: “The Earth’s climate is now clearly out of balance and is warming. Many components of the climate system—including the temperatures of the atmosphere, land and ocean, the extent of sea ice and mountain glaciers, the sea level, the distribution of precipitation, and the length of seasons—are now changing at rates and in patterns that are not natural and are best explained by the increased atmospheric abundances of greenhouse gases and aerosols generated by human activity during the 20th century.”

American Chemical Society: “Careful and comprehensive scientific assessments have clearly demonstrated that the Earth’s climate system is changing rapidly in response to growing atmospheric burdens of greenhouse gases and absorbing aerosol particles.”

American Institute of Physics: “The Governing Board of the American Institute of Physics has endorsed a position statement on climate change adopted by the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Council:”

American science not good enough? What about scientific organizations in Europe?

The European Physical Society: “The emission of anthropogenic greenhouse gases, among which carbon dioxide is the main contributor, has amplified the natural greenhouse effect and led to global warming.

European Science Foundation: There is now convincing evidence that since the industrial revolution, human activities, resulting in increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases have become a major agent of climate change.”

Still not good enough? Let’s add a third continent then shall we?

Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies: “Global climate change is real and measurable. Since the start of the 20th century, the global mean surface temperature of the Earth has increased by more than 0.7°C and the rate of warming has been largest in the last 30 years.”

How about the people who in 2011, launched a 1-ton mobile laboratory on a 352 million mile journey and then landed it flawlessly with pin-point accuracy via a jet-propelled sky crane? You may know them as:

NASA:  “The industrial activities that our modern civilization depends upon have raised atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane to higher levels than at any point during the last 650,000 years. Scientists agree it is very likely that most of the global average warming since the mid-20th century is due to the human-induced increases in greenhouse gases, rather than to natural causes.”

How about meteorologists and oceanographers?

American Meteorological Society: “Human activities have become a major source of environmental change. Of great urgency are the climate consequences of the increasing atmospheric abundance of greenhouse gases.”

Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society: “Global climate change and global warming are real and observable … It is highly likely that those human activities that have increased the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have been largely responsible for the observed warming since 1950.”

And finally, what about our friends in paleoclimatology?

American Quaternary Association: “Few credible Scientists now doubt that humans have influenced the documented rise of global temperatures since the Industrial Revolution,” citing “the growing body of evidence that warming of the atmosphere, especially over the past 50 years, is directly impacted by human activity.”

Each of these organizations are comprised of hundreds if not thousands of experts in their respective fields; men and women who have spent decades refining their expertise through constant study, experimentation, peer-review, and analysis.  These are people who publish their findings as often as practicable, just so that their counterparts can tear it down if at all possible.  These are scientists.

That is what we mean when we say the scientific consensus is clear.  Global warming is real.

Challenging fringe ideas in the Op-Eds

skepticismMy first few posts here have actually been letters to the editor that were published in my local newspaper, the Marietta Daily Journal.  The MDJ has been published in Cobb County Georgia, a northern suburb of Atlanta, since 1866 and the paper has a daily paid circulation of approximately 17,000 readers.  That’s quite a few minds, and that excludes the thousands more who read the paper for free online.

I give the scope of my local paper for a simple reason; to illustrate that what you write might actually have a bigger impact than you think.

I’m reminded of something that Michael Shermer, author of The Believing Brain and founder of The Skeptics Society, as well as Editor in Chief of its magazine Skeptic, linked to on his twitter account a year or so ago. He had found and shared a piece from Dan Johnson, a University of Lethbridge geography professor, that had been published in the Lethbridge Herald under a column called, “Public Professor.”

Unfortunately that column looks like it was lost in a Lethbridge Herald site redesign, but I managed to grab a key quote when I first read it. In the column, Dan wrote about something he called “healthy skepticism.” His piece, “Healthy skepticism is a useful tool,” proceeded to explain frankly, the public good that comes from skepticism and the need each of us carries, as stewards of good citizenship, to dutifully question dubious claims. Dan wrote,

“I am a believer in people trying to influence their local communities, and maybe contribute to the healthy skepticism of the typical person. I think if every skeptic did that, in a thousand local newspapers, we would be ahead.”

And there it was, “in a thousand local newspapers.” In other words, we skeptics, we freethinkers, we champions of evidence and reason, can’t simply roll over and concede the Op-Eds and the letters to the editor to the energetic conspiracy theorists, the global warming deniers, the creationists, the theocrats, the political extremists; in effect, the lunatic fringe.

My market has more than its fair share of these poor deluded souls, all too eager to bombard the press with their particular brands of “bizarre,” and the local paper, being fully aware of its market, is all too eager to publish them. I’m quite certain that this same storyline is played out almost daily in newspapers across a Untied States sill struggling to embrace progress and leave the Dark Ages of intellectual backwardness resolutely in its past.

We, the rational among us, have to write. We have to fill those newspaper columns, those letters to the editor, and yes, even those online comment sections, with reason, logic, science, facts, and compassion whenever we get the opportunity.  The crazy claims which spring forth from the heart of irrationality have to be met head on with demands for evidence to substantiate them. Outrageous, absurd, paranoid, and scientifically illiterate truth claims will whither in the light of healthy skepticism and it is incumbent upon us to shine it. “If every skeptic did that, in a thousand local newspapers, we would be ahead.”