The Sciences

Randi, skepticism, and global warming

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitDec 17, 2009 4:58 PM


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Yesterday, James Randi posted an entry on the JREF's Swift blog about global warming. In it, he expressed some doubt over the consensus that humans are causing global warming. He does not doubt that warming is happening, as he made clear, just the role of humans in that change. Unfortunately, one source he used in his essay was the Petition Project. This was an attempt by global warming denialists to muddy the climate issue, and one that has been thoroughly trashed -- it's really just as awful as the similarly ridiculous, and just as thoroughly nonsensical, attempt by the Discovery Institute to get a petition by scientists who doubt evolution. Randi also made a claim about the complexity of global warming, and how difficult it is to model, casting some uncertainty on it. As he said, this makes it very difficult for someone not well-versed in the field to come to a well-informed decision on climate change. I was unaware that Randi had just posted his essay when, yesterday, I wrote a post asking for donations to the JREF. Obviously, the comments focused on Randi's post. While some were fair, I was taken aback by the vitriol of many of the comments; some people were out-and-out calling Randi a denialist, which is ridiculous. Other comments were worse. Needless to say, this made quite a splash in the skeptical blogosphere as well. Posts and comments sprouted up everywhere about it. Some were thoughtful, others, um, not so much. I was surprised by how many skeptics were quick to vilify Randi, again accusing him of being a global warming denialist. I got emails from people fearing for the skeptical movement as a whole! Instead of rending my garments over this, I read Randi's post carefully, and then sent him a note outlining why the Petition Project is a crock, as well as saying that yes, mathematical models of climate are very complex, but that doesn't change observations indicating the reality of global warming or our role in it. Randi told me he was writing a followup, so I decided not to say anything about it here until his new post went up. I wanted to make sure I had all the facts before commenting. Randi posted that followup blog entry today. As I expected, he took the new information into account, admitting that he was unaware of the dubious nature of the petition, and re-affirming that he is not denying global warming is occurring. So what are we to make of all this? One is that anyone, everyone, is capable of making mistakes, from grand to minor, from basic ones we never should have made to ones that are inevitable. Skeptics make these same mistakes, too. Even noted skeptics. I've done it, Randi's done it, every human has done it. Apropos of exactly this, Michael Shermer changed his stance on global warming after sufficient evidence swayed him. Another is that even skeptics can be quick to jump to conclusions based on our own preconceived notions and methodology. Randi made an error, yes. Pointing that out politely and clearly is fine, as can be seen by the fact that he followed up on his post once he was given better data. But the ways in which many people attacked him were, in my opinion, unfair. If someone has a history of spinning the truth, of lying, of distorting reality for their own agenda, then sure, have at them. But when it's someone who has devoted their life to prying the scales from everyone's eyes, I think they've earned a modicum of decorum when they make a mistake. Of course, on blogs (either writing them or commenting on them) it's very easy to simply react. Again, we have all done this, and usually with some regret later. I've had to go back and retract things I've written when better evidence has arisen, or simply when someone has pointed out where I blew it. Part of being a skeptic -- and it's a big part -- is admitting when you're wrong. And finally, there is a really good takeaway point from this: when it comes to reality, no one and no thing is sacrosanct. If something is wrong, it gets called out. That's what skepticism is all about. If Randi makes a mistake, he gets called on it. If scientists do, or the Pope does, or anyone, then it is up to all of us to speak up. And I think that how we do it is just as important as the content of our claims. I've known Randi many years, and I know that for him, truth trumps all. May all of us be so inclined.

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