What Giraffe Taught Me About Skepticism

i-7003db10ceca9707402285a60e34329b-Giraffe_standing.jpgIn my recent blog entry “Skepticism and Informed Consensus“, I pointed out that a real member of the skeptical movement is not universally skeptical (as may seem evident when you first think of it), but follows scientific consensus. The entry has spun off a lot of side effects: a long supportive reply by Orac, loads of comments at both our blogs, a blog entry of mine about the discredited idea that gays are nuts, and the first troll banned from commenting on Aard (not because he was one of several people who disagreed with me, but because he was being obstinately rude to myself and one of his fellow disagreeing commenters).

In the following is a further clarification in response to a comment by Dear Reader Rob Koepp. Quoth Rob:

“You’re correct that creationists and neo-Nazis are not the sort of company I enjoy, but so what? When did the term ‘skeptic’ come to mean ‘someone who travels in the same social circles as I do’?

If creationists are skeptical about evolution, and neo-Nazis are skeptical about the holocaust, well, then they’re skeptics (of a sort). So from their perspective, I suppose members in good standing of your ‘skeptical movement’ aren’t ‘real’ skeptics. This talk of ‘real skeptics’ becomes just a matter of which club one belongs to, and the term has lost it’s connection to concerns about what sort of epistemic warrant attaches to knowledge claims.”

My original blog entry was in fact entirely intended as a statement about which club can call itself the real skeptics. It’s not about epistemology in the abstract, how “society knows things” or how “science progresses” — it’s about how individual amateurs in the skeptical movement should relate to factual claims without ending up with the denialists. Hands-on skepticism.

To explain what I mean, Dear Reader, let me tell you about the event that opened my eyes to the primacy of informed consensus.

I’m a co-editor of Folkvett, the quarterly journal of the Swedish Skeptics Society. It’s sort of a Swedish-language Skeptic Magazine. A few years ago we received a manuscript from a member of our society — I’ll call him Giraffe. The paper he had written was a thoughtful and reasonable-seeming piece of strong global warming skepticism, which was by this time already a highly controversial standpoint. Giraffe was no climatologist. Nor was any of us co-editors.

One or two of my co-editors said, “It’s crap, just tell him we’re not taking it.” But at the time I found this (as have many Aard and Insolence commentators) to be a profoundly unskeptical attitude: basically just argument from authority. So I replied, “Hey, I can’t actually find anything wrong in this guy’s reasoning. Shouldn’t we find out what’s wrong with it before we junk the piece?”.

And then the others explained to me, patiently, in approximately the following terms.

“We’re the Society for Science and Popular Enlightenment, OK? The first paragraph of our statutes says that we’re very strongly pro-science. So when an amateur like Giraffe writes something in a field that us editors don’t know much about, and he challenges the scientific consensus, then we don’t need to understand exactly what’s wrong with his work to know that it’s not for us. All we need to know is that our journal is not a forum for amateurs to challenge informed consensus in.

And why? Because that’s the only really good argument we have for not accepting Holocaust denialism, creationism etc. in our pages. None of us is either a 20th century historian nor a biologist, but we know that knowledgeable historians and biologists call those positions pseudoscience. If Giraffe has somehow made a big breakthrough in climatology (and let’s be fair, none of us is equipped to judge that), then he shouldn’t try to publish his work in an amateur journal put out in a minority language by a 2000-member skeptical society. He should send it to a respected peer-reviewed international academic climatology journal. If it’s accepted and published, then we can look closer at his manuscript.”

I found this convincing, and that’s where my thinking is still at on these matters today, a few years down the line.

(Incidentally, Giraffe soon decided that he did not in fact wish to remain our kind of skeptic: he left the society when we turned his manuscript down. A global warming denialist paper of his from 2002/03 is still on-line at his web site.)

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56 thoughts on “What Giraffe Taught Me About Skepticism

  1. And I argue that the skeptical movement should not pay any attention to the objections of unskilled people like you and I to the consensus among e.g. heart surgeons.

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  2. (Martin) “I believe (scientists [may] suppress inconvenient evidence which is counter to a prevailing consensus)”

    (brackets indicating composite quotation)

    and

    (Martin) “I argue that the skeptical movement should not pay any attention to the objections of unskilled people”

    As far as I can see, if the skeptical movement is genuinely interested in truth, these two statements can only be consistent if it’s impossible for unskilled people to detect suppressed inconvenient evidence which is counter to a prevailing consensus.

    Now this can of course be trivially true if by definition anyone who detects suppressed inconvenient evidence in some field is automatically promoted to being a “skilled” person (even if they have no previous history, qualification or position in that field) but that’s either circular or post hoc reasoning, both of which are fairly dubious.

    I’m sure Martin wouldn’t be guilty of such elementary errors of logic so I’d be interested in just how the two statements above can be reconciled.

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  3. I do believe it is impossible for unskilled people to detect suppressed inconvenient evidence which is counter to a prevailing consensus. If it’s sufficiently well suppressed, it’s impossible for skilled people as well.

    But I also believe that this is not a common problem in actual science. If I suppress stuff I find out, someone else will find it out too.

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  4. Martin: “I do believe it is impossible for unskilled people to detect suppressed inconvenient evidence which is counter to a prevailing consensus.”

    Please define “unskilled”.

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  5. Lewis, AFAIK you don’t see self-taught gentleman scholars publishing in Nature any more. Contributing to science takes a lot of study, not to mention all the expensive gear. I’d say that “unskilled” might be translated with “incapable of publishing in respected peer-reviewed specialist journals”.

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