Friday, February 09, 2007

Misplaced skepticism

I have this friend who's been up in arms since the 2007 IPCC report on global warming came out. He's a skeptic. He doubts that global warming is real, despite the IPCC findings. Is my friend a meteorologist or climatologist or even a volcanologist? No. Does he have a science degree? No. Has he provided empirical evidence that refutes the IPCC claims? No. He's only made claims. So should I give his skepticism weight?

Judging from his emails, what's really eating him is that atheists (I believe that for simplicity's sake he uses this term loosely to mean nonbelievers, rationalists, critical thinkers and the like) are skeptical of religious claims but are not being skeptical of the IPCC report. He's used "hypocrisy." I think he means prejudice and bias. In so many words he's saying that on the one hand we critique Christianity and dismiss it. We hardly listen to Church fathers and theologians (so called experts in religion). But when a bunch of scientists (so called experts in climate) pronounce that global warming is very likely already happening and very likely to be anthropogenic, we don't even switch our critical thinking faculties on but simply nod our heads wildly in toadyish assent.

Well, I have really been scratching my head over the past week. I don't understand what has gotten over this friend of mine who by the way still has one foot in Christianity. Sure, being skeptical of claims, even by scientists is good. We shouldn't believe anything just on the basis of authority. The problem though is that a good number of scientists, experts in climate change, have for many years been studying the evidence and in the latest international gathering have said that global warming is occurring and is caused by humans. I don't have a fraction of the expertise necessary to pore over the evidence--both for and against--to find out for myself whether there is indeed good reason to say that temperatures are or will be increasing. And neither does my friend. While it is fallacious to argue that since most scientists say X is true, therefore X is true, it is pretty strange to say that, being a layperson who has no expertise and has not examined the evidence, we should be highly skeptical of the claims of these scientists.

I have not studied medicine but I trust my doctor is going to help my body fight the disease I'm saddled with through the medication he's prescribed. I don't have the expertise to say whether his prescribed treatment is right or wrong. But when a second and third expert opinion are in agreement I tend to become quite confident of the treatment's predicted efficacy. Same thing with the recent IPCC report. When you have a good number of scientists (whom I presume have studied lots of data/evidence) come to conclusion that it is highly probable that there's warming and that we humans are to blame, and when they are even more confident today than when they isued their 2001 findings (90% versus 66% in 2001), then I tend to believe that anthropogenic warming is real. I have less (or little) reason to be skeptical.

In one of my earlier replies to my friend I shared the following heuristic by Bertrand Russell:

[T]he opinion of experts, when it is unanimous, must be accepted by non-experts as more likely to be right than the opposite opinion. The scepticism that I advocate amounts only to this: (1) that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain; (2) that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and (3) that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment.

It is not that when there's a majority consensus among scientists that what they're saying is therefore true. Rather, being nonexperts we can do no more than rely on those who know the subject matter far better than we do and who have the ability to analyze the data and evidence properly. It always is the case that our belief must be in proportion to the evidence. We nonexperts, however, can only depend on those who are qualified and who have examined the evidence. Think of these panel of scientists as consultants if you like.

So I find my friend's skepticism a bit puzzling. I find it disproportionate. I find it irrational even. He's mentioned Michael Crichton several times in the past during our phone conversations and I'm just wondering whether he's being skeptical on the basis of Crichton's skepticism. I should hope that he's got a more reliable source and foundation than a novelist.

Now moving on to what I think is really bugging him. My friend wrote:

My say is that if the skeptics of religion believe in global warming, they are applying a double standard because global warming deserves just as much skepticism.

To also say that global warming can and will be proven within the next decade or within the next century whereas religion such as Christianity cannot be proven because of supernatural claims is also deficient of reasoning.

It escapes my friend that there is a huge difference between empirical claims made by scientists studying the greenhouse effect and global warming and supernatural claims by theologians and Church fathers. For instance, most supernatural claims are nonfalsifiable, not least because religionists always posit an out--they provide ad hoc explanations to rationalize apparent disconfirmations. The greenhouse effect and global warming are observable events, can be measured, and are falsifiable claims.

Why should we be very skeptical of supernatural claims? Well, for starters up to now there is not a shred of good evidence for them. There has been no progress in the realm of theology. Not a single theological claim (and I'm talking of all religions) has been proved to be true. In contrast we know that the greenhouse effect is real. Just train your scopes on Venus to see what a runaway global warming can do. So, no, my friend. Theistic claims deserve more skepticism.

He then goes on to say that a majority of scientists now are of the opinion that global warming is for real. And because this is the majority opinion, atheists he says believe it as well. He continues:

If the atheist believes this line of thinking, then he is applying the double standard. For the atheist is a minority when it comes to religion. Majority of the world's populatiion believe in some kind of God or Gods. In the line of thinking that the majority should prevail in the interpretation of Truth, then the religious are right and the atheists are wrong.

The atheist as skeptic should question the climate change issue just as much as he questions the the religion issue.

He's asserting that if we are not be guilty of double standards and we believe scientific consensus then we should also believe the world consensus when it comes to the supernatural. Of course what he's advocating is that we commit the fallacy of argumentum ad numerum.

Scientists are experts in their respective fields, just as an oncologist is an expert on cancer. Is there any theologian who is an expert in the supernatural? Is there any nontheologian who is an expert in the same? No. For the very simple reason that no one, not even the best theologian has any evidence (or proof) that the supernatural is real, that any deity exists. No theologian, no theistic religion can even substantiate the most fundamental premise and truth claim they have. And needless to say there is no consensus among the menagerie of religions on what the supernatural is, how many deities there are, etc. On the contrary.

Those who believe in global warming and root their belief in expert opinion of scientists are being rational, not least because science has a reputable track record. Science works.

In his email today, among other things, he wrote:

Why should skeptics of global warming be saddled with the burden of proof for their doubts? Atheists argue that religious people should show evidence while the non-believers sit back in their armchairs and criticize?

I replied: Skeptics don't have the burden of proof. The thing is, if those claiming that global warming is real already have a litany of evidence in support of their hypothesis then the burden of proof shifts to those who are claiming that it is not occurring. Should there be a time in the future when warming skeptics gain the upper hand, then the onus shifts again. This is similar to what happened with evolution. The prevailing hypothesis before Darwin was religious creationism. But during and after Darwin evidence in support of evolution came pouring in such that by the 20th century the burden of proof had squarely shifted to the creationists to provide evidence for their hypothesis. Conspicuously, creationists have not been able to provide positive evidence. But what they've been trying to do is to produce/find confuting evidence against evolution. But this strategy is fallacious. If we find disconfirming evidence against hypothesis X, it does not imply that hypothesis Y then is true. This is a false dichotomy. If evolution is found false it does not mean creationism is true. Both could be wrong; some yet unproposed explanation being the correct one. Right now the burden of proof is most definitely on those who are skeptical of evolution, or for that matter, those doubtful of the theory of relativity, theory of electromagnetic radiation, ....

I don't exactly know what my friend has been reading that's made him so skeptical and critical of the IPCC and its findings. As I said above I find his skepticism disproportionate and even irrational. I--one who won't be able to pass a Metereology 101 exam--would be skeptical of my skepticism should there be a consensus among climate experts. So I find my friend's staunchly held position a bit arrogant. I find it really strange that he'd be so skeptical of global warming but not of the existence of the supernatural.


Anonymous said...

Is your friend a creationist? If not, ask what the difference is between his "skepticism" of global warming and the creationist "skepticism" of evolution. That parallel is much stronger than the one he is trying to draw.

If your friend is a creationist, then I fear that your questions about why he is so "skeptical" are largely answered: he's not very good with science and doesn't understand very well how science works and/or why it works well. If your friend is not a creationist, then he'll have a hard time distinguishing it from his own position. This might lead him to a bit of personal insight.

Thomas McLaughlin said...

I have a work colleague who is a creationist, and we have conducted many interesting discussions, culminating in an invitation to visit his church to listen to a lecture by a "scientist" who believes in creationism. Being a reasonable person, I was unable to resist the invitation.

The crux of the man's speech was that Darwinism was discrdited and indeed, heresy. During the question and answer session, I asked about carbon dating. The audience sighed audibly as I posed the question, and I quickly realised I was in a minority of one. The so-called scientist replied that carbon dating was "very far from accurate". He demonstrated this by dropping a pencil to the floor and claiming that it was impossible to exactly measure the time it takes for the pencil to hit the floor. I argued that the degree of error was so miniscule as to render carbon dating, when proportionately compared, to be inacurrate to such a samall degree as to still refute creationism, and I was the one who was accused of "playing with words".

He also talked about some scenario in South America where certain conditions caused layers of earth to be piled on top of each other in a matter of a few months. This was used as a basis for attacking the phenomenon of places like the Grand Canyon, where layers of earth show millions of years of development, implying that the Grand Canyyon "could have been created in a matter of days or months."

There is no reasoning with these people. I was eventually asked to leave for asking too many questions. My colleague told the rest of my colleagues that I had been a disruptive influence.

jre said...

The difference between rational skepticism and irrational denialism is not always obvious -- especially when it's our own convictions that have gone badly derailed. Michael Shermer makes the very apt point that "why other people believe weird things" is a less interesting question than "why we believe weird things."
In my view, the most useful heuristic is a test along the lines of "would I be just as happy if new information showed that my presently held beliefs are wrong?" If the answer is yes, then you really can't lose, so long as your understanding continues to improve. This is not, I think, true of the bulk of people who believe that (to cover a spectrum from the goofy to the less goofy):
the Moon landing was faked
the 9/11 attacks were faked
HIV doesn't cause AIDS
global warming is a hoax
For most denialists, "skepticism" is a set of passionately held and fiercely defended beliefs that you, as a dispassionate critic, will never, ever budge them out of. The "hoax" version of climate contrarianism is one form of this. In contrast, there is a whole complex of intellectually respectable positions holding (for example) that climate sensitivity to CO2 may be less than presently thought, that consequences of warming may not be extreme, that we may be able to mitigate or adapt to warming, etc. , etc. Those may deserve the name of "skepticism." Blindly and reflexively naysaying the scientific consensus does not.