What Is Skepticism? Week 3: Skepticism vs. Denial

The Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism (CASS) at the Centre for Inquiry Canada, in an effort to educate the public about the roles of critical thinking and the philosophy of skepticism, has produced a series of articles we have entitled “What is Skepticism?”  Over  four weeks we will be presenting them on Skeptic North and welcome your comments and discussion.

Last week we discussed the difference between science and the untenable position of scientism. This week’s article by Ryan A. Gray and Iain Martel of CASS discuss the philosophical conflict between ideological deniers and scientific skeptics.

Denial is Not Skepticism

    Everyone is a skeptic nowadays, or so it seems. From climate change to evolution to vaccination, large proportions of the population claim to be skeptical about many of the claims of mainstream science. So why are we, member of the skeptical community, not rejoicing? Why do we not join the mass of public opinion in skeptically rejecting claims of man-made climate change, or of the miracle of vaccination? The answer is simple: such “skeptics” are not true skeptics; mere denial is not skepticism.
    A skeptic, in popular discourse, is simply someone who denies a particular claim. But true skepticism, as espoused by philosophers and scientists for millenia, is more an intellectual attitude than a position on a specific issue. A skeptic is someone who always demands sufficient evidence or reasons before accepting a claim. This skeptical attitude – its opposite is credulity – leads skeptics to reject as unfounded any claim that cannot withstand the rigours of the scientific method, which includes controlled experimental testing. The more extraordinary the claim, the more rigourously it must be tested before a skeptic will be willing to accept it.
    The skeptical method leads to the rejection of many claims at the fringes of science. Take clairvoyance, for example. Many have claimed to be able to perceive the future, and have performed seemingly astounding feats of prediction. The skeptic, however, is not willing to accept such extraordinary claims on the basis of mere hearsay. Skeptics demand solid proof of clairvoyant ability, through carefully constructed experimental tests. And when purported clairvoyants fail these tests time and time again (or simply refuse to put their claims to rigourous test), skeptics conclude that clairvoyant claims are fraudulent.
    The scientific community also treats extraordinary claims from within its own ranks with this same skeptical attitude: witness the case of cold fusion, where a distinguished team of scientists claimed to have discovered the secret to unleashing almost limitless power from (heavy) water. The scientific community demanded proof before accepting these claims, and when the original experiments could not be replicated, the claims were rejected. Wishful thinking is not enough for belief, and most scientists today are doubtful that cold fusion will ever become a reality.
    But skepticism does not always lead to denial. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, but sometimes that extraordinary evidence can be provided. Einstein’s theory of relativity, which holds that matter can change the very shape of space and time, is an extraordinary claim, yet it has stood up to the most demanding of scientific testing. In countless experiments, the bizarre implications of Einstein’s theory, from light bending as it passes the sun to clocks slowing down at high speed, have all been strongly confirmed. And that most famous of all equations in physics, E = mc^2, was dramatically confirmed with the explosion of the first atomic bomb.
    How, then, should a skeptic approach the claims being made by the scientific community about global climate change? Here is a truly extraordinary claim, but what is the evidence? Scientists did not immediately accept the theory of man-made global warming when it was first proposed. Rather, it took decades of careful research, gathering data and developing models, before we reached the point today where the vast majority of climate scientists, having reviewed the evidence, are persuaded that this is a real and growing problem. They were persuaded by reams of data from multiple sources from around the world, which unambiguously indicate a rapid increase in global mean temperatures over the last century, reaching unprecedented levels in recent years; by sophisticated computer models, based on well-established basic science, which predict just such a warming pattern given the vast quantities of carbon dioxide and other pollutants which we have pumped into the atmosphere at increasing rates; and by the failure of any competing explanation of the climate record. The mass of evidence is, indeed, too vast and diverse to be adequately reviewed here. While legitimate doubt still remains about some of the details – such as the precise rate of future warming, and its effect on sea-levels, crops, etc. – the evidence points, with a very high degree of likelihood, to significant climate change in the coming decades.
    Now let us turn to the climate change “skeptics”. Are they just being more demanding than us in their skepticism? After all, nothing in science is ever certain; some room for doubt always exists. For that doubt to warrant disbelief in the face of all the positive evidence, however, skeptics would require significant contrary evidence, or a plausible alternative theory which fit the data. But climate change deniers have not provided any such evidence or theory (theories involving variations in solar activity simply don’t fit the data). Nor have they shown significant inclination to provide such evidence, generally being content to gesture frantically at any minor mistake, no matter how irrelevant, in the climate change literature. In fact, in denying climate change, these “skeptics” find themselves committed to claims no less extraordinary than the ones they deny, yet with far less evidence. Why, if there is no real climate change, is almost the entire scientific community in agreement? To answer this, we find deniers constructing elaborate conspiracy theories requiring the collusion of thousands of scientists in many countries in an elaborate hoax. But what could motivate such a hoax? How could it possibly be organised and maintained? A scientist can make a career by proving accepted theory wrong; why, if the skeptics are right, has some young revolutionary not emerged from within the climate scientists’ ranks to prove the establishment wrong? In the end, climate change denial requires a belief in far more unfounded claims than its acceptance. A true skeptic finds that it is the deniers’ conspiracy theories that are unbelievable, not the well-grounded science of the climatologists.

Author Bios

Iain Martel (CASS Co-chair)

Iain is slowly joining the real world after two decades in the ivory tower as a student and teacher of philosophy. His philosophical research was in the metaphysics of physics, focusing on theories of causation and time in the context of relativity theory and quantum mechanics. He is a British citizen, but did his graduate work in Colorado. Iain has been teaching at the University of Toronto for the last six years, including classes in logic, critical thinking, philosophy of science, and a class entitled “science and pseudoscience”.

Ryan A. Gray Ryan was a originally a computer science major at the University of Guelph before transferring into the school’s mathematical economics program.  After a couple of years having to deal with economics majors, Ryan dropped out of university and took a job at factory.  His time there made him realize that school wasn’t so bad, and in 2007 he returned to the University of Guelph to study ethics and political philosophy.  After graduating last spring, Ryan dreams of going to law school and one day becomming either a famous human rights attorney or the Bill Maher of Canada.  His interests include politics and environment science, in particular global warming.

About the Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism (CASS) and the Centre for Inquiry Canada (CFI): CASS is a national, fast response team which critically engages with scientific, technological and medical claims made in public discourse. We address factual inaccuracies and misinformation in public debates by promoting evidence-based science. CASS is a subset of CFI. CFI is the leading freethought organization in Canada promoting reason, science, secularism and freedom of inquiry. CASS can be followed on Twitter @CFICASS, or on Facebook on the CASS fan page.

7 Responses to “What Is Skepticism? Week 3: Skepticism vs. Denial”

  1. pcjohnson says:

    I consider myself a skeptic and a I as skeptical of the extreme edge of the climate change proponents as I am of the “deniers”. Groups on both sides of this issue have ignored the middle and hijacked the debate to advance their own agenda be it extremist eco lobbies, big oil, global income redistribution, or would-be emissions traders to name a few.
    Whenever a group or individual claims to be able to predict the distant future (50-500 years) with great accuracy we must be skeptical. Especially when those same people are saying they know the future and therefore we must immediately pay them.

  2. John Greg says:

    I like this series.

    Author said:

    “… true skepticism, as espoused by philosophers and scientists for millenia, is more an intellectual attitude than a position on a specific issue.”

    I find myself in a funny position here: I more or less agree with the flavour of the author’s statement, but I am a little uncomfortable with the claim of “true skepticism.”

    When the word “true” pops up I often cringe a wee bit because it is so absoute; so religious. If skepticism is simply an intellectual attitude, can it ever be absolutely true? If you see what I mean? Does it not change over time, and have variance and nuance? Do we not refine skepticism over time?

    Additionally, isn’t skepticism really more a methodological approach rather than an intellectual attitude, whereas doubt is itself more an intellectual attitude (rather than a position)?

    Lastly, author says “… as espoused by philosophers and scientists for millenia.” Isn’t that a bit of a timeline stretch? Millenia? Scientists? Contemporary skepticism?

    Or am I being overly pedantic again? That’s certainly a true possibility. ;)

    All that pedantry aside, as I say, I’m quite enjoying this series.

  3. Simon in Toronto says:

    “Rather, it took decades of careful research, gathering data and developing models, before we reached the point today where the vast majority of climate scientists, having reviewed the evidence, are persuaded that this is a real and growing problem.”

    That is as fine a piece of AGW propaganda as I have ever read. The truth is that there is no (as in none, nil, nada) true, unadultered data to indicate any warming, much less human-caused warming. There are only horribly mangled and manipulated meta-creations. Even those are so shoddy that the ‘models’ need to be hard-coded to show the desired ‘results’. Long suspected by the original ‘skeptics’, who could make neither heads nor tails of the wacky graphs the Warmists were publishing, that is no longer a matter of speculation. Correspondence among the lads at CRU, NASA-GISS, etc., revealed the truth.

    Please, don’t take my word for it. Do your own search for data. If you consider yourself a ‘believer’, prepare to be super ticked when you get to the truth.

    Also, the historical fact is that AGW began as a pro-nuclear industry/anti-coal theory, to which massive resources were committed. Those ‘models’ were meant to be predictive; as of yet, there has yet to be a model that actually predicted anything correctly. As close watchers will recall, they used to say that we had 100 years; then it was about 50; as the desire to motivate donors increased, the time we had left decreased. Now? It’s darned near too late, isn’t it? The hypocrisy and cynicism are seemingly without limit.

    If and when any hard data can be produced that indicates that any warming whatsoever is happening, then we can get to the second step, which would be to determine causes. Given how little we know about climate in general, the odds that we could distinguish human influences are very small. However, if we could do that (a very large ‘if’), that would be the time to start discussing our options.

  4. Simon in Toronto says:

    I wonder if you would have classified Professor Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan a ‘skeptic’ or a ‘denier’. Either way, it’s a good thing he was right and the ‘experts’ were wrong! Oh, if only we could learn from the past….

    http://www.ottawacitizen.com/health/Foredoomed+forearmed/3663193/story.html

    • Michael Kruse says:

      Thanks for your comments Simon. I will not address the issue of data to support AGW or even GW itself, as the consensus is that GW is occurring and that humans are most likely the cause of the current arming trend.

      I will however point out that your second comment is a classic non-sequitur logical fallacy – just because scientists were wrong about a trend in the past does not mean that other scientists will be wrong about GW currently.

      It is also clear from reading reviews of the original book and current prognosis on crop yields that due to the vagaries of weather, the global economy and population growth that anyone to speaks in absolutes is bound to be at least partially wrong.

      As well, I would encourage you to offer your evidence to support your position, instead of the classic lazy stance of saying “check the data.” You have to back up your position with evidence, it is not up to me to go out and find the evidence for your position. This article was not meant to prove global warming, only state the consensus opinion, which is stated in the opening of this comment.

  5. Composer99 says:

    I would encourage any readers of this article to check out websites such as Skeptical Science, which examines in detail contrarian claims regarding anthropogenic global warming and summarizes the current peer-reviewed evidence.

    Also, Spencer Weart’s history of climate science and how developments in that field show how scientists studying the Earth system came to the conclusion that AGW is taking place.

    I don’t know what the links policy on this site is before comments go into moderation, so I will include the links:
    Skeptical Science – http://www.skepticalscience.com/
    Spencer Weart – http://www.aip.org/history/climate/index.htm

    To summarize these two sources: there exists, today, as of this writing, a wealth of empirical evidence, directly observed in the Earth climate system, supporting the conclusion that human combustion of long-sequestered reserves of carbon are causing a positive energy imbalance, one of whose symptoms is warming. This present conclusion has come out of paleoclimatology and of Cold War-inspired research on contemporary climate.

    Claims otherwise regarding the positive evidence in favour of AGW are, quite simply, factually incorrect.

    The oft-repeated charge of a hoax or fraud requires that thousands, if not tens of thousands, of individual scientists, policy-makers, military & intelligence analysts, from countries across the world, be in collusion for years or decades. That charge is, suffice to say, unconvincing.

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  • Michael Kruse

    Michael is an advanced-care paramedic in York Region, just north of Toronto, Ontario. A semi-retired theatrical lighting designer as well, he re-trained in 2005 as an EMT-PS at the University of Iowa and as an ACP at Durham College, and is currently working towards a B.Sc at the University of Toronto. Michael is a founder and the chair of the board of directors of Bad Science Watch. He is also the recipient of the first annual Barry Beyerstein Award for Skepticism. Follow Michael on twitter @anxiousmedic. Michael's musings are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employer or Bad Science Watch.