Oct 21, 2011

Skeptics vs. deniers

A new study is apparently about to come out confirming, yet again, the basic conclusions of climate science. This would be old hat, except that the guy who set it up was openly critical of the field, and a lot of the funding was provided by the Koch brothers, of right-wing fame. Of course, anti-climate activists who had promised to accept the result of the study beforehand conjured up reasons to reject it. Blah blah blah.

Here's my beef. Check out this CNN story on the report. (It's pretty good.) What's the title? "New climate study deals blow to skeptics." Why does that chafe my strap?

"Skeptic" is a word that has been highly valorized by the scientific community, and rightly so. Skepticism is one of the main intellectual forces driving the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and scientific progress generally. In the skeptic's view, everything sensible (i.e., able to be sensed) must be tested and subject to scrutiny, and no scientific theory deserves to be accepted just because it was conceived by a one person or another. Always it's the data that make for the final judgment. The history of science is filled with people who had a good idea and overturned years, sometimes centuries, of longstanding theory. Obviously most people, and even most scientists, don't always live up to this ideal 100 percent, but that's the bar standard.

However, there comes a time when doubt slides into denialism. When the data are in, and everything looks pretty solid, then the skeptic accepts the conclusion—provisionally, of course, always with the thought that conclusions have a possibility of change—and she sets doubt down for a time. Doubt is a well-worn tool for the skeptic, to be sure, faded and grease-stained, with finger marks eroded into the handle. But for every Newton or Einstein, there have been—there are—a hundred thousand paranoid cranks, trembling with belief, whose relationship with evidence is completely predetermined. These people aren't skeptics, they're deniers.

Anthropogenic climate change is now at that point. Like the subjects of evolution, the Federal Reserve, the Holocaust, the moon landing, and vaccines, if you don't accept the consensus opinion, then you are a denier. A quack. Deserving of polite explanation, then sourcing, and eventually scorn and ridicule.

Therefore CNN should have written: "New study deals blow to climate deniers."

12 comments:

  1. But, of course, unfortunately it wouldn't deal a blow to them because their minds are already set. If it WAS actual skeptics and the theory was in an early stage, we'd be saying "No, this isn't a blow. This is a win for science. Now let's get off our asses and do something about it!"

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  2. Phil, you're assigning absolute values to relative attitudes. Words like "skeptic" and "believer" or "denier" and "heretic" are subjective. No side of an argument owns those words.

    And if rejecting the prevailing consensus constitutes quackery, then Copernicus, Newton, Einstein, Hubble were quacks.

    If you feel a possessive attachment to "skeptic", then just mentally substitute "doubters". For most journalists, those words are synonyms.

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  3. @Joe I did not say that rejecting prevailing consensus makes you a quack; I explicitly mentioned people like Newton who make revolutionary change not being such (though Newton was, in the end, kind of a quack with all that alchemy crap). I said that rejecting consensus opinion in the teeth of overwhelming evidence contradicting your position makes you a quack. Newton and Einstein and Copernicus-plus-Kepler and Planck had novel ideas for stuff science hadn't explained yet (e.g., the ultraviolet catastrophe).

    "Denier" is not subjective like "believer;" it carries a strong negative connotation. It's usually applied to people who believe crazy things, like the government is controlling their brains through mysterious waves, or we never landed on the moon, or vaccines cause autism. I call climate deniers "deniers" because they belong in that category. The crazy people own that word and I intend to make sure they don't forget it.

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  4. No, should have written: "New study deals blow to conservatism".

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  5. No, it should have written: "New study deals blow to conservatism."

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  6. Ryan, I can't fault CNN for their labeling. While I agree with your own classifications, the term "skeptics" in this context is probably more informative to the general public. I would be pleased but also very surprised for any mainstream media outlet to use the more appropriate "deniers" in this context.

    Andres, You make the same mistake as Rush and other over-the-edge conservative "pundits". Conservatism has nothing to do with climate change denial. The fact that most deniers happen to also be conservatives does not make climate change denial a precept of conservatism. Further, it is possible for a conservative to also be a good skeptic. Perry DeAngelis, late cofounder of NESS and The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast, comes to mind. As much as it may shock you it is even possible for a conservative to be a good person. Again, Perry comes to mind.

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  7. Ryan, I can't fault CNN for their labeling. While I agree with your own classifications, the term "skeptics" in this context is probably more informative to the general public. I would be pleased but also very surprised for any mainstream media outlet to use the more appropriate "deniers" in this context.

    Andres, You make the same mistake as Rush and other over-the-edge conservative "pundits". Conservatism has nothing to do with climate change denial. The fact that most deniers happen to also be conservatives does not make climate change denial a precept of conservatism. Further, it is possible for a conservative to also be a good skeptic. Perry DeAngelis, late cofounder of NESS and The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast, comes to mind. As much as it may shock you it is even possible for a conservative to be a good person. Again, Perry comes to mind.

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  8. No, there’s a problem there. Oh, not in this case, but not all denialists assume, even in their own vision, a conservative position. Sure, AGW-deniers are normally right-wing, but moon-landing deniers and Shakespeare deniers, for instance, perceive themselves as revolutionaries, not as establishmentarians.

    (In my opinion, the words “liberal” and “conservative” should be banned from all discourse. They have lost any meaning they ever had, and serve merely as irrational rallying cries.)

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  9. @Mike Young - A man's character doesn't so much rule on who knows what and who knows best, does it, as make use of them, and all past arguments, to fight unacknowledged ideological battles.

    My understanding is that the issue you're propounding hitherto generally involve matters of arcane interpretation that aren't, strictly speaking, reducible to left/right analysis – the initial issue in the US might be about plant and animal habitat versus a coal company; the court will rule about economic freedom. And yet...courts decide along ideological lines (as defined by those real world issues) a substantial majority of the time. Guns come to mind.

    I daresay it's the conservatives who do this most predictably; it's an intrinsically hierarchical racket, conservatism, and every conservatism owes real or vicarious fealty to someone more powerful. If they didn't, they'd be something other than conservatives. Authoritarianism tends to override any will to ethical coherence.

    My sense of the real world issue is this: s stem from the fact that it doesn't target the scientists. It targets everyone who tends to agree to the findings – and it does so pointedly and gratuitously, and in manner clearly less concerned with intellectual debate than with marginalizing and scapegoating the whole scientific community, and using this as a way of solidifying political support on the right. In this, it goes hand in hand with various recent conservative rhetoric.

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  10. Oops! Sorry for the 2x posting:)

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