25 October 2011


According to Eric Partridge, my word guru, "skeptic" is from Greek and means "doubt." Skepticism is a good thing. In science, it is crucial. Many confuse the meaning of the word with that of "cynic." Having been accused--many times--of being a cynic, I'm used to the mix-up. The ancients who called themselves Cynics ("the snarlers") were contemptuous of society's conventions but nonetheless strove for virtuous conduct. The modern meaning of cynic is one who doubts all motives but selfishness. That is, a person who does not believe altruism exists. This has nothing to do with asking good questions and demanding to see the evidence before making a conclusion. People don't like skeptics because skeptics don't like sloppy thinking. Skeptics like to account for all the possibilities before embracing a course of action. This often comes across as contrariness or obstructionism, but it is really just trying to see things as clearly as possible.

Those in the American political scene who doubt the science behind climate change are called skeptics, but this does a disservice to real skeptics. Real skeptics are not merely deniers. Real skeptics look for flaws in an argument and demand to be convinced with logic and facts. Deniers don't require that sort of rigor. They already have their minds made up and you won't get anywhere with them using silly things like evidence. One skeptical scientist--Richard Muller of UC Berkeley and Lawrence Livermore Lab--recently published a piece in the Wall Street Journal explaining what his current research has revealed about global warming. His was a sort of meta-research as his team looked at already-existing data and analyzed its reliability. They concluded that the numbers were good--global temperatures are on the rise. They made no statement about whether the cause is anthropogenic, but that wasn't the point of the study. Here's Dr. Muller:
When we began our study, we felt that skeptics had raised legitimate issues, and we didn't know what we'd find. Our results turned out to be close to those published by prior groups. We think that means that those groups had truly been very careful in their work, despite their inability to convince some skeptics of that. They managed to avoid bias in their data selection, homogenization and other corrections.
That's science in a nutshell. If the data is good, it will hold up to scrutiny. If the methods are good, the data is trustworthy. Transparency and openness lead to progress. This is exactly the opposite of politics, where lies and half-truths are the meat-and-potatoes of campaigning. Where secrecy, denial, and re-writing history are the essential skills candidates master. Where visceral responses are more important than analysis and where being brainy is a handicap. Screw politics and learn to think like a scientist!

Read some more about Muller and the BEST project here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Screw politics and learn to think like a scientist" -- I like that a good deal, Mark, and wish it were possible. To the point, as usual. N.