Data, Skepticism, Judgment

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollDec 16, 2009 7:50 PM


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In one of the comments to Daniel's post on the stolen climate emails, techskeptic points to a wonderful chart at Information is Beautiful. The author did a great deal of gruntwork to lay out the various arguments of "The Global Warming Skeptics" vs. "The Scientific Consensus." As far as I can tell, it's a legitimately balanced view of both sides, complete with citations. If you're confused about the various issues and accusations being bandied back and forth, there are worse places to start. This is a small piece of the full chart.

Of course, there is no such thing as a purely objective and judgment-free presentation of data, no matter how scrupulously the data itself may be collected; if nothing else, we make choices about what data to present. And a side-by-side comparison chart like this can't help but give a slightly misleading impression of the relative merits of the arguments, by putting the conclusions of an overwhelming majority of honest scientists up against the arguments of a fringe collection of politically-motivated activists. But it's certainly good to see the actual issues arrayed in point-counterpoint format. Still, there remains a somewhat intractable problem: when people are arguing about issues that necessarily require expert knowledge that not everyone can possibly take the time to acquire for themselves, how do we make judgments about who to believe? This problem has been brought home by the incredibly depressing news that James Randi has come out in favor of global-warming denialism (via PZ Myers). Randi is generally a hero among fans of reason and skepticism, so it's especially embarrassing to see how incredibly weak his reasoning is here. It basically amounts to: "The climate is complicated. And scientists don't know everything. And I admit I don't know much about the field. Therefore ... we have good reason to distrust the overwhelming majority of experts!" Why Randi chose not to apply his vaunted powers of skepticism to the motivations behind the denialists remains a mystery. This gets to the heart of why I've always been skeptical of the valorization of "skepticism." I don't want to be skeptical for the sake of being skeptical -- I want to be right. To maximize my chances of being right, I will try to collect what information I can and evaluate it rationally. But part of that information has to include the nature of the people making arguments on either side of a debate. If one side consists of scientists who have spent years trying to understand a complicated system, and the other is a ragtag collection of individuals with perfectly obvious vested interests in the outcome, it makes sense to evaluate their claims accordingly. By all means, we should apply our own powers of reason to every interesting problem. But when our reasoning leads to some conclusion at odds with the apparent consensus of a lot of smart people who seem to know what they're talking about -- whether it's on the nature of dark energy, the best way to quantize gravity, the most effective route to health care reform, or the state of the environment -- the burden is on us to understand the nature of that difference and try to reconcile it, not to take refuge in "experts don't know everything" and related anti-intellectual piffle.

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