This is an archive repost, originally posted on the old blog shortly after Johnny Ball had made his first appearance at Nine Lessons And Carols For Godless People.
Skepticism — the movement and the everyday scientific method — is about vetting the new ideas that want to take up residence in our minds. It’s a critical thinking toolkit that is there to prevent us getting fooled. It’s not cynicism or stubborn disbelief, just a cautious and questioning approach to the claims of others. It’s knowing the fallibility of the human mind; it’s the opposite of gullibility.
The gold standard that a skeptic seeks in an argument is to be able to see and evaluate and understand the original science and data and statistical analyses that supposedly support the claims of that argument’s proponents. But one doesn’t always have the time or expertise to go around making such rigorous examinations of complicated arguments. In those situations it’s common to tentatively accept the conclusions of experts in the field who you believe to have made those rigorous examinations themselves and who you trust to have got those examinations right. Accepting the consensus of the experts without having rigorously examined their evidence yourself is an argument from authority — a “trick”, if you like, but one that is not entirely unacceptable.
But for an issue as important as climate change, where we’re talking about big risks and being asked to make big sacrifices, one wants to make a more rigorous examination of the arguments and evidence and to be more confident about the science than one would for matters of less consequence. But proponents and opponents of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) both claim to have the science and the data and the statistics on their side — they both claim to have applied skepticism and the scientific method — and the lay person perhaps doesn’t have the dozens of hours required to learn the maths and chemistry and physics behind the arguments. All they’re left with is picking the side with the most PhDs in climate-related sciences, right?
But the AGW proponents have one other important thing going for them: even if the skeptical lay person can’t independently evaluate the claims of the proponents, they can easily see the absurdity of the claims of the opponents.
For example, on this week’s Little Atoms, Johnny Ball embarrassed himself with this series of arguments:
- According to Ball, there is a scientific controversy because: “would you consider a qualified engineer to be a scientist? I think I would, and the majority of engineers don’t believe that we’re changing the climate.” Well, no, engineers are not scientists. Some engineers — a small minority — happen to also be scientists, but engineering is not a science, at least, not in the sense that matters. Many engineers know much about how physics and chemistry work, and most probably know more mathematics than the average scientist. They can apply some scientific facts about the way the world works. But they are not doing science. Science is a body of facts and theories about the way the world works, but far more importantly, it is a way of studying the world. Science is a process and a tool, a method of empiricism, critical thinking and skepticism. Engineering and science share facts about the world, but they are very different processes and very different tools. The two professions think in different ways, and are rarely taught anything about each-other’s way of working.
- Climate scientists are “cooking the books for grant money”. Yeah. It’s the scam of the century in which tens of thousands of individuals have abandoned their scientific principles to cooperate in successfully defrauding all the governments and funding agencies of the world. Also, did I mention that they are Reptilians? Dudes, have you still not realised how absurd you look making this claim?
- Ball points out that climate scientists ignore the sun-spots — we keep shouting “sun-spots” and they keep ignoring us! Uh. Except, he forgets that somebody went and invented Google. We can all now google about sun-spots and climate change, see just how climate scientists have ignored them by, er, studying them and incorporating them into their theories and models and papers and reports, and we can read the lay summaries of climatologists and astronomers explaining why sun-spots aren’t — and can’t be — more than a minor detail in climate.
- Finally, Ball compares climate change “sceptics” to Darwin and Faraday and Copernicus, while climate scientists are like eugenicists: when Darwin proposed evolution, the scientific consensus was against him, and it took a few decades for the rest of the scientific community to catch up. Ball seems to be proposing that, er, climate change scepticism is, uhm, a new science that the rest of the scientific community will catch up with over time. Did he somehow miss the last thirty years of climate scientists slowly convincing the scientific community into consensus?
The lay person can have some confidence that the climate scientists are right about AGW not merely by weighing PhDs and picking the authoritative argument. They just need to look at the sheer amount of money and effort poured into the argument by the denialists, and snigger at how embarrassingly piss-poor are the claims that effort buys. Zombie arguments and absurd conspiracies. The climate scientists might be giving us data and graphs and theories that we couldn’t possibly independently verify, but when the best the denialists can buy is a “rah rah rah look at the sun-spots” and a “help help, we’re being oppressed, like Copernicus”, I know which argument my skeptical mind is more persuaded by.
And this is also why Greenpeace need to shut up and let the grown-ups put the case for AGW.