Skepticism and Informed Consensus

A discussion in the comments section of the recent Skeptics’ Circle reminded me of something I learned only after years in the skeptical movement.

A real skeptic always sides with scientific consensus.

This may sound really unsatisfying and self-contradictory at first. Isn’t skepticism about critical thinking? About being open to any idea (or none) as long as it survives rational deliberation? Doesn’t this consensus thing mean that the whole movement is actually just kowtowing to white-coated authority? Well, yes and no.

To begin with, let’s remember that there are many people who are strongly skeptical of certain ideas, but who are not counted as part of the skeptical movement. Take Holocaust skeptics, global warming skeptics and evolution skeptics. In the skeptical community, we call them denialists. Why? Because their views go against scientific consensus.

Science presupposes that all participants have a skeptical frame of mind and arrive at conclusions through rational deliberation. If a large group of knowledgeable people working in this way arrive at a consensus opinion, then there is really no good reason for anybody with less knowledge of the subject to question it. Informed consensus is how scientific truth is established. It’s always provisional and open to reevaluation, but as long as there’s informed consensus, then that’s our best knowledge. Humanity’s best knowledge.

I’ve never studied the historical or archaeological record of the Holocaust. I know nothing about climatology. I have only high-school biology training. Yet I trust that thousands of hard-working scholars in these fields are not conspiring to trick me when they tell me that they have arrived at consensus. I’m a full-time research scholar myself, and I think you’re more likely to get reasonable information about Scandinavian prehistory from me than from, say, a professional homeopath dabbling in archaeoastronomy.

On many issues, of course, there is no scientific consensus. Here, skeptics have every reason to exercise critical thinking and arrive at an opinion of their own. Or to reserve judgement. Also, skeptics have an important mission to fill in publicly debunking claims and publications that are so far out that nobody working professionally in that scientific field pays them any attention.

So, to outskeptic a skeptic, you don’t take a panskeptical position and disbelieve everything you hear. The best skeptics are the most well-read, well-informed ones, who follow science and scholarship. By reading science blogs, for instance.

Update 27 December: Orac has responded with a long thoughtful post (his always are). He states that he doesn’t agree entirely with me, but I think that may just be because I haven’t gotten my point across very well to him. I agree with what he says. Skeptics only endorse the scientific consensus position when there is unambiguously such a position to endorse.

Update 1 January: A number of comments have opened my eyes to something I need to clarify on this issue, even though it may be deduced from what I’ve written above. When I speak about skeptics and professional scientists, I assume that they are two different groups. Professional scientists decide a consensus among themselves on any given scientific issue. Members of the skeptical movement relate to this from outside. A professional in one discipline will of course count among other skeptical amateurs when it comes to issues outside their area of expertise.

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Comments

  1. #1 Caledonian
    December 24, 2007

    A real skeptic always sides with scientific consensus.

    No. A real skeptic always sides with the preponderance of the evidence. Consensuses, even those within groups of scientists, do not necessarily follow such preponderance.

  2. #2 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    December 24, 2007

    The phrase I’m skeptical of the skeptics is a reliable sign that you’re dealing with a true crank.

  3. #3 bob koepp
    December 24, 2007

    It appears that the “no true skeptic” fallacy is alive and well.

  4. #4 "Q" the Enchanter
    December 24, 2007

    Calcedonian, the point is that at least when it comes to highly technical scientific questions, 99 times out of a hundred your typical skeptic isn’t qualified to assess the evidence. And even when qualified, she won’t necessarily have the time to undertake an independent review on a given issue. In such cases, consensus science is a better epistemic bet than independent judgment.

  5. #5 blf
    December 24, 2007

    Also, if the consensus doesn’t seem to follow from the data, then at least one of the consensus, the data, or the appearance of not following (i.e, the “skeptic”‘s understanding) isn’t correct. As Q points out, there’s a very reasonable possibility it’s mostly the latter.

  6. #6 Daniel Yokomizo
    December 24, 2007

    Evidence > Scientific Consensus.
    So the problem is either (as Q points out) we can’t properly assess the evidence or the consensus is wrong. Scientific consensus is problematic in complex issues because the parts also may not understand the full body of evidence, so it’s possible that the consensus arises from peer pressure or confusion. For example, if

    A implies C
    B implies C
    A contradicts B in subtle ways (or vice versa)

    proponentes of A and B may believe that both propositions are true since each believes they commited no errors in their research and both corroborate on correlating with C. Of course in the real world there are actually hundreds of pieces of evidence for something complex, so the degree of confidence in the conclusion should be related to how easy are to assess the independent pieces of evidence. Unfortunately people end up taking sides instead of thinking and believing there’s a single whole called science and we either have to accept all of it or refute all of it.

  7. #7 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    December 24, 2007

    I think it’s important to understand that usage of skepticism has changed over time. The early Greek skeptic movement, led by Pyrrho, held that it was impossible to be certain of anything; they were truly skeptical of everything. That was before the introduction of the scientific method (not to be confused with the rhythm method). Modern day scientific skepticism holds that belief should be apportioned according to the evidence. This is a much different concept.

  8. #8 martha
    December 24, 2007

    Okay, I’m not going to address this post at all, but…

    Happy Holidays, Martin!
    And a New Year full of satisfying skepticism. Whatever that means.

  9. #9 Sávon
    December 24, 2007

    I think that there is a big difference between social sciences and natural sciences, take as examples history and mathematics.
    History can be written with a special purpose, to create a feeling of belongingness, or the winner in a war (must not be a regular war) of political reason can write the history. Their scientists show that another scientist before had this or that opinion and everybody in the field agree so it becomes the truth. (And beware the poor whistleblower.)

    The natural sciences are more reliable, of course there can be frauds, but mostly the results can be proved. You can count on the result, and there are often many people who tries to solve and question a mathematical problem.
    To move this to the social sciences is a dangerous thing to do. I mean to think it is provable in the same way.

    Because many social scientists can be silenced by the “sitting” authorities. How to prove a history, that show a political stand, that all agree to (even if they know that the history isn’t quite so)? Sometimes one can see many of them together work on to “turn out the light”…

    And the cowardness to look for new alternatives, is more the way of the social scientist, than the way for the natural sciences.

  10. #10 Martin R
    December 24, 2007

    Q, I agree about the qualification issue.

    It appears that the “no true skeptic” fallacy is alive and well.

    Pardon? Please explain.

    Martha, thanks and likewise! The skeptical movement is sort of the antithesis of the New Age, spiritualism and alternative medicine movements.

  11. #11 Caledonian
    December 24, 2007

    Modern day scientific skepticism holds that belief should be apportioned according to the evidence. This is a much different concept.

    No, not at all. Skeptics recognize that the preponderance of the evidence can be wrong, and are always open to discovering new evidence that may strengthen or weaken their current conclusions. Everything is open to questioning.

    It would be nice if the community of scientists always applied the scientific method. Even better if they were also infallible, and not only carried out the method but always produced the correct conclusions.

    Unfortunately, we live in reality, where this is not the case. Not only can our conclusions be wrong, oftentimes people don’t even try to apply the method. Accepting something as true just because a bunch of scientists says so is an argument from authority and is invalid.

  12. #12 Martin R
    December 25, 2007

    Accepting something as true just because a bunch of scientists says so is an argument from authority and is invalid.

    No, that’s how scientific truth is arrived at. Drop a bunch of good scientists on a problem and wait until they agree what the answer is. From context I gather that you aren’t advocating complete epistemological relativism. Science does find out a lot of truth.

  13. #13 Lennart Nilsson
    December 25, 2007

    I think it would be useful to discuss this very important subject based on the three examples Martin used, holocaust skeptics, global warming skeptics and evolution skeptics. As I see it in these cases what the “skecptics” question is not so much the conclusions to be drawn from the evidence, although they will certainly to that when they have a chance, but more the evidence itself, labeling them as false in one way or another, in most cases because there is some sort of conspiracy that has an interest in leading humanity one way or the other. The problem is not so much the small number of idiots that put forward these ideas, but rather that there is ample funding to disseminate them, I suppose from vested interests that feel the need to “fog” a scientific consensus that threatens those interests.

    Sávon,
    I think you make to much out of the difference between “natural” and “social” sciences. Both has been influenced by political and cultural bias, which should be avoided by adhering to scientific methods. I think a more useful distinction could be drawn between science where the study itself, and its conclusion, affects the object of study, e.g. economics, gender studies, public health studies, or not, e.g. physics, history, archeology.

  14. #14 dave groom
    December 25, 2007

    you can-not make a Anvil out of warm butter.

  15. #15 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    December 25, 2007

    Glad Jul!

  16. #16 Mary P
    December 25, 2007

    A real skeptic always sides with scientific consensus.

    We sometimes need to ask the question, “Is the consensus
    justified by replicated research findings?”. Publications in epidemiology appear to be disproportionately criticised as a morass of poor statistical techniques; this is more likely to be an example of difficult controls and very real-world problems than any notion that epidemiologists can neither conduct good studies nor analyse their results correctly when examining anything more subtle than smoking and ill-health.

    Recently, there was some controversy in the UK when some specialists roundly condemned the statistical analysis that underpinned predictions for the future costs of obesity to the UK.

    It is understood that there are persuasive and plausible physiological mechanisms that support the widely-held belief that obesity is intrisically damaging to us. However, by the time that these findings make their way into the mainstream media they are devoid of all value. The same media that publicise photographs of a 90 lb woman and caption her a fat pig are none too helpful at assisting people to calibrate the differences between normal weight, overweight, obesity and morbid obesity and the health sequelae.

    I use these examples because media appear to relish epidemiological studies and their headlines as more attractive than fascinating indications that e.g., bodyfat may form another endocrine system or that it promotes/reduces some bio-markers of inflammation.

    Ioannidis warned all researchers that the first published accounts that address an interesting research question may report findings that were incorrect or exaggerated. Even when the authors offer appropriate caveats as to their findings, they are rarely reported more widely. Although Ioannidis is over-cited by those who engage in gotcha or tu quoque rhetoric his essential challenge to researchers seems to be that we should increase scientific rigour in the trials and studies that underpin evidence-based medicine. Further, that we should be ready to accept necessary revisions to the notion of valid study design and analysis.

    There is probably a need for more science-reporting to give an estimate of prior probability when evaluating a striking finding. Similarly, it might be helpful to have some indication of the level of scientific consensus on topic du jour such as the likelihood that some people need a Faraday cage to protect them from EMR and health conditions that arise from it. However, there are some areas of public concern where a scientific consensus can be a veneer that hides nebulous or well-formed doubts and flaws. It would be unfortunate if more scientists and commentators were apprehensive of revealing those misgivings for fear of being labelled a denialist or crank.

  17. #17 Martin R
    December 25, 2007

    Mary, yes, real consensus takes time to arrive at. First a result must be challenged, there must be some debate, experiments must be replicated, counter-experiments must be devised etc. Then a consensus can arise.

  18. #18 Caledonian
    December 25, 2007

    No, that’s how scientific truth is arrived at.

    Ha ha ha ha!

    No.

    Scientific truths are produced when hypotheses are tested and found not lacking. You’re confusing the general acceptance of scientific truths with their generation.

    If you really want to argue that truth is determined when lots of people agree, you’re free to join your compatriot in digging holes in archaeological sites and putting stones in them. Otherwise, you have a bit of a consistency problem.

  19. #19 Martin R
    December 26, 2007

    No, you’re seeing science in the abstract. In practical reality, no scientific result will be treated as true before it has convinced a majority of the individual, hairy, breathing, toilet-visiting experts in the field. There is an important reason why this is actually preferable: many results are hard to interpret and many experiments need to be repeated before truth can be recognised.

    As for my archaeoastronomical compatriot Bob, if I endorsed his interpretation, this would do nothing to scientific consensus. There will always be fringe crazies, and a 99.5% consensus is good enough.

  20. #20 Sávon
    December 26, 2007

    The Sexual Paradox. Might shake the world.
    Bye the way of “fringe crazies”…:-)
    Forgot to wish you…but…Happy New Year or in my language Buorre Bassi Dievvamánno!

  21. #21 Caledonian
    December 26, 2007

    No, you’re seeing science in the abstract. In practical reality, no scientific result will be treated as true before it has convinced a majority of the individual, hairy, breathing, toilet-visiting experts in the field.

    And what standards are they supposed to use to decide whether the arguments have convinced them?

    More importantly, where will you get the people to forward the argument and present it to scientists-at-large if no one treats the result as true until it is generally accepted?

    Consensus is a by-product of the scientific method. Because everyone uses (or is supposed to use) the same standards for evaluation, once a hypothesis meets those standards, everyone should agree.

    In practice, people aren’t perfect method-applying entities… but that is a flaw in the people, not in the standard of truth. Truth isn’t defined in terms of consensus – consensus arises once enough people recognize the truth.

    This is both rudimentary and obvious, Martin.

  22. #22 Mary P
    December 26, 2007

    First a result must be challenged, there must be some debate, experiments must be replicated, counter-experiments must be devised etc. Then a consensus can arise.

    So, in an emergent field, there is no consensus for some time, and sceptics do what under those conditions?

    Other areas may have many thousands of studies and a public consensus that is not wholly supported by some researchers. Obvious examples would be the demonisation of fat and the promotion of a low-fat diet. I’ve met people on both sides of the cholesterol consensus, similarly for statins etc. There may be some of those who would colloquially be categorised as cranks in those camps but there are serious researchers on both sides and some substantial reservations. So, it is not permissible for real sceptics to discuss cholesterol issues because the consensus there looks a little rocky at times?

  23. #23 Martin R
    December 26, 2007

    what standards are they supposed to use to decide whether the arguments have convinced them?

    Scientific method including rational deliberation.

    where will you get the people to forward the argument and present it to scientists-at-large if no one treats the result as true until it is generally accepted?

    Try publishing in Nature or Science. Not every interpretation that gets published there turns out to be true.

    So, in an emergent field, there is no consensus for some time, and sceptics do what under those conditions?

    “On many issues, of course, there is no scientific consensus. Here, skeptics have every reason to exercise critical thinking and arrive at an opinion of their own. Or to reserve judgement.”

    So, it is not permissible for real sceptics to discuss cholesterol issues because the consensus there looks a little rocky at times?

    I personally have no insight into this issue and the state of the consensus. But I’d say that a) discussing cholesterol issues and b) denying that cholesterol contributes to cardiovascular illness are very different things. Anyway, if I wanted to learn about the consensus, I would not turn to someone who dubs themself a “cholesterol skeptic”.

  24. #24 Caledonian
    December 26, 2007

    Scientific method including rational deliberation.

    And when a small group of people, or even a single person, applies the same thing – the result is not scientific truth?

    Try publishing in Nature or Science. Not every interpretation that gets published there turns out to be true.

    Not everything accepted by the group of scientists as a whole turns out to be true, either. So what? It is irrelevant to the point at hand.

    So, in an emergent field, there is no consensus for some time, and sceptics do what under those conditions?

    They look at the evidence, and follow it.

    So, it is not permissible for real sceptics to discuss cholesterol issues because the consensus there looks a little rocky at times?

    That’s not the question at hand. It is not permissible for skeptics to refuse to draw conclusions merely because there is no consensus. If the evidence itself lends itself to a conclusion, that is what skeptics accept, no matter what consensus does or does not exist, and if the evidence does not lend itself to a conclusion, the skeptics refuse to reach that conclusion, no matter what the consensus says.

    Reality is not democracy. The opinions of any number of human beings have no effect on its functioning.

  25. #25 Sávon
    December 26, 2007

    I think I must explain what I meant with the “Sexual Paradox”. It is the title of o book written by Christine Fielder and Chris King.

    By the way of consensus in a scientific field, it is possible to explain it via “The Prisoners Dilemma”, a game that works with “tit-for-tat”. If you give me this I´ll give you that… A marriage and bringing up children can also be looked at through this question of what you win or loose, and what the other wins or looses. Animal behavior; interest individual or the the species or art.

    The scientist or investigator is also in that game. As we saw earlier in Sweden, there was little opposition against rascist theories among historians (1800-1950(?)). With an educated guess I might count (with a computer maybe) the possibilities the historians had at that time to loose or win (work, living, publishing opportunities etc…)

  26. #26 Martin R
    December 26, 2007

    Caledonian, I think you’re underestimating the importance of specialist training to even understand the issues many scientists work with. I certainly don’t consider myself competent to evaluate research into astrophysics, endochrinology or formal logic.

  27. #27 Caledonian
    December 26, 2007

    I certainly don’t consider myself competent to evaluate research into astrophysics, endocrinology or formal logic.

    Then you shouldn’t have any positions on research in those areas. Otherwise you’re taking a position (that you can’t defend) on the presumption of authority, something skeptics are not permitted to do.

    I just know how much specialized knowledge is involved in the evaluation of some of the more obscure and arcane points of technical disciplines. That’s precisely why I don’t hold positions on them!

  28. #28 Martin R
    December 27, 2007

    Scotty, do you realise that your position would mean that only scientists and scholars could be part of the skeptical movement, and that each could only cover hes area of expertise?

  29. #29 Caledonian
    December 27, 2007

    Wrong.

    Man, you’re bad at this.

    Most topics in skepticism do not require specialized knowledge in any field. Specialized scientific topics, however, DO require expertise to understand, much less examine skeptically.

    No one has any interest in hearing your opinions on the high-temperature superconductor problem, for example, because you don’t know anything about materials physics, and so aren’t competent to assert any positions on the matter.

    Presumably you are qualified to hold positions on topics in archaeology… although the ability to reason abstractly is always the limiting factor.

  30. #30 Martin R
    December 27, 2007

    You’re really a piece of work, Scotty. I wonder if your remarkably abrasive manner comes down to you not realising that you offend people, or to you not caring if anybody’s offended. If the second is true, then I find it hard to understand why you spend so much time commenting on Sb. Why fraternise with people if you don’t give a shit about them?

  31. #31 Caledonian
    December 27, 2007

    I would be more impressed by your paeans to your injured feelings if you gave more signs of caring about whether your position is actually correct.

    Because it looks like you’re trying to change the topic away from an argument that you are losing, badly, to whether you are personally insulted by the fact that you’re being schooled.

    If you didn’t care whether the argument was right or wrong, why did you post it to ScienceBlogs?

  32. #32 Kristjan Wager
    December 27, 2007

    Maybe he is not more concerned about his arguments being correct Caledonian, because you haven’t offered any good arguments against them. You are just being your contrarian self, offering no real arguments, expect saying that everyone else is wrong.

    Martin is quite right that true skeptics will always be on the side of scientific consensus, because that’s the very position that evidence points to. For there to be a scientific consensus, then evidence must be in favor of that position – that’s how science and scientists work.
    Of course, new evidence might arise that changes this, but then, the scientists of the field will realize this as well, and there will no longer be a scientific consensus, until it has been worked out how the new evidence fits in.

  33. #33 Citizen Deux
    December 27, 2007

    Websters – a convenient Anglo reference for a Greek word – http://www.m-w.com/dictionary/skeptics / http://www.m-w.com/dictionary/skepticism – looks upon skepticism with the simplest eye. It is a position of doubt. If we accept this definition – recognizing Websters as the authority – then anyone who expresses doubt about a particular body of knowledge is a skeptic.

    Like most labels, a skeptic can be classified as either more or less credible. To express doubt over an unsettled area of knowledge seems hardly to be skeptical – as the definition would imply that there is a substantive body of knowledge to doubt.

    Thus individuals who express doubts over proposed theoretical aspects of emerging meso-American archaeology are not skeptics. An individual who doubts that the earth is round would (technically) be a skeptic, by definition. Someone who doubts the existence of God also classifies as a definitive skeptic.

    So, Martin, this would run counter to your posit that skeptics fall in line with scientific consensus. Just as the spectrum of political thought runs the gamut from extreme to benign, so does skepticism. It is only after a skeptic’s views are validated (either to be correct or horribly wrong) that they cease to be a skeptic and move into the realm of the status quo or delusional (wherein their viewpoint was refuted).

    The terms of denialist, crank and others are emotional invectives designed to negate a person’s viewpoint as completely erroneous. There is likely some validity to these labels, however, one must be cautious in their application. The risk of a Type II error is very real and we must always be prepared to admit the possibility of error.

  34. #34 Martin R
    December 27, 2007

    I assume that everybody knows the general dictionary sense of the word “skeptic”. Thus it should be clear that my entry isn’t about skeptics in that wider sense. It’s about members and supporters of such organisations as CSI, JREF and VoF — the so-called skeptical movement.

  35. #35 citizen deux
    December 27, 2007

    then you should be precise in your critique of these organizations. if you take issue with their aims or statements, address them. I find the generalization weakens your point, what it is I can not yet discern. as with many internet society there are variances. be clear.

  36. #36 Caledonian
    December 27, 2007

    Martin is quite right that true skeptics will always be on the side of scientific consensus, because that’s the very position that evidence points to.

    Scientists are human. They screw up. They let their egos blind them. They reject the unfamiliar, and embrace the familiar.

    It doesn’t follow that because a majority of scientists agree on a thing, the evidence must support that thing.

  37. #37 Martin R
    December 28, 2007

    then you should be precise in your critique of these organizations. if you take issue with their aims or statements, address them.

    You’ve got it backwards. I’m not criticizing the skeptical movement. In fact, I’m a board member of the VoF.

  38. #38 citizen deux
    December 28, 2007

    sent via mobile – I am sorry, perhaps the comments have confused me. my understanding of your point is that skeptics will always side with scientific consensus. as many do, in defense against the improbable and unlikely. the problem is this, are they skeptics because they side with science or skeptikcs because they challenge a proposed idea as true (esp, for example). you can not be a skeptic by any definition through agreement. I pose your skepticism is defined by your opposition to an idea. to argue that skeptics are defined by their agreement dilutes the purpose of such a philosophy. again, maybe I am dense, but your reasoning seems inverted.

  39. #39 Kristjan Wager
    December 28, 2007

    You are a skeptic if you demand evidence for claims, and go where the evidence leads you. Given the nature of science and scientists, this would be towards the scientific consensus. In cases where you don’t have the expertise to evaluate the evidence, a true skeptic will go where the scientific consensus is, because he/she understands how such a consensus is reached.

    This is not something that goes against the dictionary definition, but as Martin has explained, we are not talking about the broad definition used in the dictionary, but rather about the more narrow definition used in skeptic societies, and which is what posts need to live up to, if they should be included in the Skeptics’ Circle (which is the trigger to this whole debate). In other words, we are talking about the type of skeptics that’s opposed to denialists.

    citizen deux, your insistence on the broad definition, is (in this context) somewhat similar to peoples’ insistence on the broad (everyday) definition of theory when debating with scientists. It’s correct in other contexts, just not the one under discussion.

  40. #40 Citizen Deux
    December 28, 2007

    I think it is relevant to any discussion when you seek to alter the accepted defninition to meet a new standard. This is the sort of activity taken on by many who seek to shape the argument to their way of thinking (ID supporters, etc.).

    My issue is that Martin seems to want to lump all the “good” skeptics under the “skeptic” banner and everyone else under other, less neutral terms. I don’t know what I would label someone who is a defender of the scientific consensus – but skeptic is not a term I would use!

    For example I am skeptical of ID and creationist claims – not because they seem to contradict the accepted scientific norm – but because they are based on irrational, unsubstantiated beliefs. You state – and I mostly agree that

    You are a skeptic if you demand evidence for claims, and go where the evidence leads you. Given the nature of science and scientists, this would be towards the scientific consensus. In cases where you don’t have the expertise to evaluate the evidence, a true skeptic will go where the scientific consensus is, because he/she understands how such a consensus is reached.

    A skeptic does indeed demand evidence for claims. They will examine that evidence and failing the sophistication to understand it completely, would go to experts in the field or some other trusted, unbiased source. The rub comes in when we use the term consensus. Is it 50.1%? Is it 99.5%? What about the issue, raised here and on Orac’s site, that the possibility for error within the consensus exists?

    To me the issue is one of credibility. A skeptic of AGW is given very little credibility. A skeptic of ID is considered highly credible. A skeptic of the holocaust is arrested in Austria. If we seek to own the terms to define our debate, we should be prepared to be labeled as Orwellian in our control of the dialogue.

  41. #41 Kristjan Wager
    December 28, 2007

    We use the term ‘denialist’ for a very good reason. A so-called skeptic of AGW is not a skeptic – he is denying the evidence (the same goes for Holocaust deniers). Calling them skeptics grant them too much credibility, and is a misuse of language. In other words, it’s not just a matter of credibility – it’s a matter of accepting evidence or not.

    Skeptics just demand some kind of evidence for claims. E.g. if someone claims to have some kind of special power, we want to see evidence for it (under conditions that allow for proper controls).

    It’s true that it can be debated what a scientific consensus consists off, though among scientists, it’s pretty clear when there is one or not (no matter what denialists, pseudo-scientists, and outright anti-scientists try to make it appear like). Generally, it can be say to be the point where research takes it for granted, instead of having to state it each time (e.g. evolution in biology). Of course, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be wrong, just that it’s the best current explanation.

  42. #42 Kristjan Wager
    December 28, 2007

    As an aside: It should be clear that people can think that the scientific consensus is overblown, or hold similar opinions, without being either skeptics or denialists.

    Lomborg doesn’t deny AGW (publicly at least), but he argues that there are better things to use the money on, than to combat it. Of course, he cherry-picks and misrepresents science to try to convince other people, but that makes him a pseudo-scientist (or outright anti-scientist), not a denialist.

  43. #43 Lennart Nilsson
    December 28, 2007

    I thinki the correct term for people disbelieving those things should be labeled idiot, lunatic or weirdo, at least it makes it easier to explain to journalists what they are all about…

  44. #44 Caledonian
    December 28, 2007

    Skeptics DO understand the nature of scientists. Scientists are human beings – creatures that not only spend most of their time deluding others, but deluding themselves.

    A consensus among scientists that isn’t justifiably founded in the totality of available evidence is worth absolutely nothing. Simply assuming that because we label people ‘scientists’, they will always behave properly, is utterly absurd.

    This is precisely why science has always been objectionable to authoritarians: authority means nothing. There are no entities to which we can simply listen and accept their wisdom.

  45. #45 kc
    December 30, 2007

    There are no entities to which we can simply listen and accept their wisdom.

    …and do you carry an umbrella and sunscreen whenever you leave the house?

  46. #46 miller
    December 30, 2007

    I wrote a blog post agreeing with Martin and Orac. I touched on a few of the criticisms.

    Caledonian, how would you know if scientists are deluding themselves? And why wouldn’t the scientists know it if you knew it? How is deciding to “abstain” on all issues you don’t fully understand better than taking the side that is most likely to be correct?

  47. #47 Citizen Deux
    December 30, 2007

    Kristin, the you are guilty of Orwellian Newspeak. Changing the timbre of a word to grant status is a classic tool of your self-labeled denialists.

    You state;

    We use the term ‘denialist’ for a very good reason. A so-called skeptic of AGW is not a skeptic – he is denying the evidence (the same goes for Holocaust deniers). Calling them skeptics grant them too much credibility, and is a misuse of language. In other words, it’s not just a matter of credibility – it’s a matter of accepting evidence or not.

    Reread that paragraph. Picking up on the two references, which are inherently different. A debate about a historical fact is fundamentally different from a discussion of climate science. Failing to engage individuals in a discussion on their views relegates one to an indefensible position of arrogance and discrimination.

    I contend that individuals who claim the holocaust did not happen are likely acting for some other agenda than a discussion of the historical facts. However, a person discussing the ongoing development of climate science deserves at least a modicum of engagement.

    The dogma being spread on that topic (GW / AGW) in particular is filled with hyperbole on both sides and has polarized the discussion rather than enahnced or advanced it.

  48. #48 Caledonian
    December 30, 2007

    Calling them skeptics grant them too much credibility, and is a misuse of language. In other words, it’s not just a matter of credibility – it’s a matter of accepting evidence or not.

    There is the credibility that comes with strong, evidence-based arguments, and there is the credibility that is granted as part of social intercourse.

    The objection here seems to be that people who reject the social consensus ought not to have their first type of credibility acknowledged, because they are not granted the second.

    I don’t think I need to say that this is deeply misguided.

  49. #49 Sávon
    December 31, 2007

    Look at this nice blogg about skiing: http://saamiblog.blogspot.com/

    And Happy New really Scientific New Year!!!

  50. #50 bob koepp
    December 31, 2007

    It’s hilarious to see people claiming that a “real” skeptic won’t be skeptical about issues on which there is a scientific consensus. I think it was Einstein who observed that it only takes one fact to overturn a consensus. I’ll add the observation that scientists aren’t the only ones who bump up against facts.

    I’ll also note that scientists can be wrong for a lot of reasons other than ignoring or mis-reading empirical evidence. They regularly make inferential errors, resort to ad hoc maneuvers, propound non sequiturs, pursue red herrings, etc. And a lot of these failings can be spotted by people without special training in the particular field of science at issue.

  51. #51 Caledonian
    December 31, 2007

    It’s hilarious to see people claiming that a “real” skeptic won’t be skeptical about issues on which there is a scientific consensus.

    Hilarious? I think it’s terrifying.

    Especially since one of them is a chairman of a ‘skeptical’ organization.

  52. #52 grad
    December 31, 2007

    I think a more useful distinction could be drawn between science where the study itself, and its conclusion, affects the object of study

  53. #53 Martin R
    January 1, 2008

    Bob K., I think you’re getting the opinions of individual scientists and their collective consensus mixed up.

    I’m not saying I shouldn’t be skeptical of individual people’s opinions. I’m saying that if there is informed consensus in a field, and I’m not a specialist in that field, then there is no reason for me to question the consensus view.

  54. #54 Simon Anthony
    January 1, 2008

    The original piece seems to have some odd consequences. It claims that the “true skeptic” will follow the scientific consensus on any issue on which such a consensus exists and of which he isn’t an expert and accept that any contradictory views he may have are likely to be wrong and should be suppressed.

    If that’s really the claim, it implies that the TS doesn’t actually need any knowledge whatsoever of the issue on which he is to follow the consensus. In fact, it seems that complete ignorance is preferable because with a little knowledge the skeptic might come to a contrary view and then be in the uncomfortable position of claiming to follow the consensus while not genuinely believing it.

    So it seems the TS favours ignorance over being partially informed. He then has the meta-difficulty of assessing the quality of the experts making up the consensus. After all, since he knows nothing of their field of expertise, he can’t judge their excellence. By the logic of the piece, he must seek a further consensus to vouch for the first consensus.

    The TS shivers at the prospect of an infinite regress but recovers in time to realise that the ability of the experts is guaranteed not by a higher level of consensus but by those very same experts, who are the only ones qualified to judge one another. Unfortunately TS has escaped infinite regress only to fall into circular reasoning.

    How does the author propose to resolve such conflicts?

    I suggest that on any relevant issue he either tries to think for himself or withholds his opinion. To follow the consensus while by one’s own admission being unable to understand it, is to risk being taken for a fool by opponents of the consensus and a stooge by its proponents; both being fair judgements on the “true skeptic” of the piece.

  55. #55 Martin R
    January 1, 2008

    any contradictory views he may have are likely to be wrong and should be suppressed

    Likely to be wrong, yes, but I’m not suggesting that anybpdy’s free speech should be suppressed. I’m just saying that if you see me speak out against scientific consensus in molecular biology or national economics or the history of Asian music, then you’d better just ignore me. Because I don’t know shit about those subjects.

    the TS doesn’t actually need any knowledge whatsoever of the issue on which he is to follow the consensus … it seems the TS favours ignorance over being partially informed

    No, in order to even discover whether there is a consensus or not, a skeptic has to do a lot of reading.

    the meta-difficulty of assessing the quality of the experts making up the consensus. After all, since he knows nothing of their field of expertise, he can’t judge their excellence.

    Peer-reviewed research. And, of course, the assumption that there is no conspiracy among scientists to trick the public.

    To follow the consensus while by one’s own admission being unable to understand it, is to risk being taken for a fool by opponents of the consensus and a stooge by its proponents; both being fair judgements on the “true skeptic” of the piece.

    Who cares if Holocaust deniers and antivaxers think you’re a fool? It comes with being a skeptic.

  56. #56 Caledonian
    January 1, 2008

    I’m saying that if there is informed consensus in a field, and I’m not a specialist in that field, then there is no reason for me to question the consensus view.

    Sure there is. It’s called ‘critical thinking’, and it’s one of the foundational concepts of skepticism.

    The problem here is that you don’t seem to be a skeptic, Martin R, yet you’re claiming that title and the respect due skeptics.

  57. #57 Simon Anthony
    January 1, 2008

    Hi Martin

    Rather than respond in detail to your answer to my post, I’ll try and establish some common ground.

    I believe we agree that a “true skeptic” follows the evidence. Often – probably mostly – that evidence leads the skeptic to the consensus view. That’s the case even if the skeptic isn’t an expert in a field but nonetheless takes the time to understand the salient evidence and analysis. So skeptic follows evidence, looks up and finds himself with the consensus is hardly contentious.

    The difficulty comes when said skeptic follows evidence, looks up and finds himself against the consensus. What should he do?

    A genuine skeptic will follow one of two paths. One possibility is that he believes he has fully understood the salient arguments. He should then stick to his guns until either vindicated or else convinced by some new argument or evidence that the consensus is correct.

    I think we’ll agree that in this case if he were to do otherwise and publicly go along with consensus despite his private disagreement he’d be acting in bad faith.

    The second possibility is that he’s unable to understand some aspect of the argument or evidence. He may not be technically competent and may not have the time to become so.

    My view is that a genuine skeptic accepts in this case that he doesn’t know and reserves judgement.

    Your view (I think) is that he should defer to authority and accept the consensus.

    In practice, I wonder whether these approaches differ in their effects. In the first case, the skeptic remains silent. In the second case, he says he doesn’t follow the arguments but nonetheless agrees with the consensus. Such an opinion would rightly not be listened to because it adds nothing. Neither approach has any effect on the debate.

    However, there is an effect on the skeptic’s reputation. In the first case, we know we’re dealing with someone who is unwilling to give an opinion on a subject of which he has inadequate knowledge. In the second case, we have someone who’s quite prepared to give an opinion despite his inadequate knowledge.

    Which one do you find yourself inclined to trust?

  58. #58 Martin R
    January 1, 2008

    skeptic follows evidence … finds himself against the consensus. … One possibility is that he
    believes he has fully understood the salient arguments. He should then stick to his guns

    Indeed he should. Though you and I, Simon, will pay this skeptical bus driver’s opinions no attention unless we happen to share his obsession with the particular issue at hand.

    second possibility … he’s unable to understand some aspect … may not be technically competent and may not have the time to become so. My view is that a genuine skeptic accepts in this case that he doesn’t know and reserves judgement.

    If everybody followed your suggestion, there would be no skeptical movement. Science is complicated, far beyond the 17th century level when country parsons could publish recipes for horse medications in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. Most skeptics do not have detailed technical knowledge of the issues the movement likes to take on. But nor do their adversaries in altie meds, creationism etc.

    Which one do you find yourself inclined to trust?

    In the many areas where I have no expert knowledge, I am inclined to trust the consensus among scientific specialists. When a non-specialist skeptic makes pronouncements about scientific issues, I evaluate his claims on the strength of the specialist literature he quotes. I may only be able to understand the abstract of the paper, or it may be a popular account written by a specialist, but it will still lead me to at least provisional acceptance, not to agnosticism.

    Finally, one clarification. In my blog entry, when I said “A real skeptic always sides with scientific consensus.” I wasn’t making a recommendation. I was making an empirical observation, or perhaps setting forth a definition. Unskilled people who question scientific consensus are not in my opinion real skeptics in the CSI / JREF / VoF sense.

  59. #59 Simon Anthony
    January 1, 2008

    I’m not sure you’ve really thought this through or at any rate you don’t seem to have followed the evidence.

    You say:

    “…you and I, Simon, will pay this skeptical bus driver’s opinions no attention unless we happen to share his obsession with the particular issue at hand.”

    You also say: “A real skeptic always sides with scientific consensus.”

    I’ll leave aside the condescension dripping from your words (it wasn’t there in your earlier posts and when it appears it’s usually a sign that the author is becoming aware of the weakness of his position) and instead mention the following few of the more obvious examples of people in the sciences who apparently aren’t in your view “real skeptics”:

    Einstein – ether doesn’t exist; scientific consensus – ether does exist.
    Wegener – continents drift; SC – no they don’t.
    Margulis – modern cells are the result of invasion/symbiosis; SC – no they aren’t.

    None of these was, in your dismissive description, a 17th century country parson, nor, in your still more insulting phrase “obsessed bus drivers” . Also, none of them was, according to your definition a “real skeptic” as none of them sided with the scientific consensus.

    You also say:

    “Most skeptics do not have detailed technical knowledge of the issues the movement likes to take on.”

    Now perhaps you’ll claim that the above examples don’t correspond to your version of a skeptic as each was expert in their field. But this is only true in hindsight. Einstein, most famously, had no professional standing whatsoever. Margulis was a junior faculty member. Wegener was a minor academic who dabbled in different areas. None of them spoke from authority (or, fortunately, deferred to it as you would have your “true skeptics” behave). All of them questioned the prevailing consensus in profound ways from positions of inexperience and considerable ignorance of much of their fields. You would apparently have had them hold their tongues and bend their knees to the prevailing consensus.

    If your view of skepticism was taken seriously there would be no progress. Fortunately it doesn’t correspond to reality, as the above examples illustrate (and I’m sure you can think of many others if you give yourself time).

  60. #60 Martin R
    January 1, 2008

    Simon, your comments have opened my eyes to an ambiguity in my original entry, and so I’ve made an addition to it. See above.

  61. #61 Caledonian
    January 1, 2008

    When I speak about skeptics and professional scientists, I assume that they are two different groups.

    All squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles…

    Professional or not makes no difference whatsoever: scientists MUST be skeptics. Critical thinking is part of the definition of science.

    This “Scientists said it. I accept it. That settles it.” attitude has no place in skepticism or science.

  62. #62 Simon Anthony
    January 2, 2008

    Well, I’m trying to keep up with this slithering definition of “skeptic”.

    If I understand correctly you are now claiming that a “professional” in some field can’t be a skeptic in his own field (Does he have to be paid for current work in the field or just for work he’s done in the past or maybe for work he’ll do in the future? Or does he just have to have a qualification in the field even if he’s never worked in it? And what level of qualification would you decree?).

    Thus (I assume) you hope to deal with the otherwise difficult cases I mentioned above (Einstein, Wegener and Margulis – all skeptical of then current orthodoxy and none well-established in their fields).

    So now your claim is that a “true skeptic” has to be an outsider (unqualified? untenured? unemployed?) from the field of which he is skeptical and he must also agree with the consensus in that field.

    And for consistency, it must also be your contention that anyone who comes from outside, lacking qualifications, tenure or employment in a field who questions the prevailing consensus is – what? A heretic, a fool, an imposter, an “obsessive bus driver”? In any case, such a person is, according to your current definition, not a “true skeptic”. I assume you think such people can safely be ignored as they have nothing of value to contribute to a field.

    It would take only one counter example to refute your view and show the value of a skeptic from outside a field who disgrees with the field’s consensus and yet makes a significant contribution. After a minute’s thought, here are three:

    Physicist Luis Alvarez argued that an asteroid was responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs while the consensus among geologists was that volcanism was the cause.

    Astrophysicist Fred Hoyle argued for life arriving on Earth from elsewhere while the consensus among biologists is that its origin was local.

    Physicist Tom Gold argued for the abiogenic origin of petroleum while the consensus among geologists is that its origin is decayed vegetation.

    It doesn’t matter whether Alvarez, Hoyle and Gold turn out to be right or not. The point is that they were skeptical outsiders who followed the evidence, found that it could plausibly lead in a different direction to the consensus and stimulated further work in the field.

    I suspect you may now be tempted to revise further your definition of “skeptic” or to attempt to decry the work of the people I mentioned. For the sake of your credibility you’d be wise not to yield.

  63. #63 Martin R
    January 2, 2008

    Yes, I assume that all working scientists apply skeptical reasoning within their field by default and that their consensus will thus be the best available knowledge. They don’t need to organise in off-campus skeptical societies.

    As for whose opinions should be taken into account when scientific consensus is established, I believe peer-reviewed publishing to be a good metric.

    I don’t believe I’ve used the words “true skeptic”. What I’m discussing is the skeptical movement, which is largely made up of people who are not working scientists. Those members who are scientists are of course often consulted on issues where they have expertise, but their skeptical activities usually aren’t confined to that area.

    anyone who comes from outside, lacking qualifications, tenure or employment in a field who questions the prevailing consensus is – what?

    Is someone who should try to get his work published in a respected peer-reviewed journal before I’ll take much notice of it. I have a hard enough time keeping up with what real scientists are doing.

    Of the three men you mention, Alvarez is the only one who has to my knowledge changed a consensus. Being neither geologist nor palaeontologist, I’m happy to change my mind when the pros do, regardless of who originally came up with the idea.

  64. #64 Caledonian
    January 2, 2008

    I assume… that their consensus will thus be the best available knowledge

    As we have been so patiently trying to explain to you, that assumption is invalid.

  65. #65 Simon Anthony
    January 2, 2008

    I said:

    “I suspect you may now be tempted to revise further your definition of “skeptic” or to attempt to decry the work of the people I mentioned. For the sake of your credibility you’d be wise not to yield.”

    You said:

    “I don’t believe I’ve used the words “true skeptic”. What I’m discussing is the skeptical movement, which is largely made up of people who are not working scientists.”

    and

    “Of the three men you mention, Alvarez is the only one who has to my knowledge changed a consensus. Being neither geologist nor palaeontologist, I’m happy to change my mind when the pros do, regardless of who originally came up with the idea.”

    I’m almost invariably surprised when my predictions are correct, particularly so quickly.

    As I pointed out, it isn’t necessary for the outsider skeptic to change a consensus to make an important contribution. An important aspect of science is good criticism for it exposes weaknesses and obliges those who hold the criticized view to hone their arguments and evidence. It also takes time and the accumulation of evidence for any consensus to be overturned, often because of the reluctance of the members of the consensus to admit that they were wrong.

    Nonetheless you’ve now accepted that at least one outsider skeptic (one without experience or qualification in a field) – Alvarez – has overturned a consensus. Unless you want now to impose some further condition on a “real skeptic”, you should gracefully concede that your view is wrong.

    In fact I think your view is far more profoundly wrong and dangerous than this concession allows. An illustrative example of the disastrous results of following your prescription occurred in plant biology in the Soviet Union during the middle of the 20th century when the prevailing consensus – Lysenkoism – held that crop development should proceed by Marxist/Lamarckian principles. The result, as I’m sure you know, was widespread starvation.

    If you find it difficult to concede that there is no merit in following a consensus simply because it is the consensus – you may for example respond that Soviet scientists were following the “wrong consensus” or that dissent was suppressed more rigorously than you intend, or attempt some other wriggling – it would be best to remain silent.

  66. #66 Martin R
    January 2, 2008

    it isn’t necessary for the outsider skeptic to change a consensus to make an important contribution

    Be that as it may, the above blog entry is about the attitude of skeptics to scientific consensus. In the scientific journal I co-edit, we often publish contributions by part-time or amateur scholars. Their work rarely takes the form of a challenge to an established consensus, being instead contributions to on-going debates that will one day hopefully lead to such consensus.

    Do you believe that scientific consensus can only be established within the borders of a state or a language area? Lysenkoism was a minority view in the global perspective of biology. Science is universal. There’s a new Chinese dinosaur in every issue of Nature.

    I must say that your repeated references to Alvarez’s important contribution remind me of the common evocation of Galileo among cranks. An amateur who challenges scientific consensus is usually not a Galileo, but a Lysenko or a Luskin. The skeptical movement should in my opinion not aspire to be either Galileo or Lysenko.

  67. #67 Simon Anthony
    January 2, 2008

    You really do find it difficult to accept when you are wrong, I wonder whether science is the right career for you. It seems you would be happiest finding a consensus to which you could belong.

    The examples I gave refuted your argument. You now concede that “it isn’t necessary for the outsider skeptic to change a consensus to make an important contribution”.

    Hoyle and Gold have done that: in particular, several of Hoyle’s predictions on the presence of complex molecules on comets have been verified. Gold’s predictions that living creatures would be found deep below the Earth’s surface have also been verified. These are important discoveries; neither was part of the consensus, both came from outsider-skeptics. You have therefore conceded that these two examples again demonstrate the importance of the outsider-skeptic in disputing a consensus.

    You say:

    “In the scientific journal I co-edit, we often publish contributions by part-time or amateur scholars. Their work rarely takes the form of a challenge to an established consensus, being instead contributions to on-going debates that will one day hopefully lead to such consensus.”

    Well that’s just fine, but entirely beside the point. The issue is how to deal with outsider-skeptics who in some way challenge the consensus.

    You say:

    “I must say that your repeated references to Alvarez’s important contribution remind me of the common evocation of Galileo among cranks.”

    Ah, the old “tar with the crank label” ploy. I’ve mentioned Alvarez precisely twice – once to refute your original claim and the second time in response to a remark of yours about – Alvarez. As you first mention Galileo and then say that he’s commonly evoked by cranks, your argumentative tactics are shameful as well as almost comically weak.

    You ask (in reference to Lysenkoism):

    “Do you believe that scientific consensus can only be established within the borders of a state or a language area? ”

    In my earlier post I’d suggested:

    “you may for example respond that Soviet scientists were following the “wrong consensus” ”

    Perhaps the point was too subtle as you seem to have stumbled into the elephant trap; I’ll try to make it plain. Consensus whether local or global can be enforced gently or forcefully. It is in the vested interests of those who hold the consensus to do so. If you believe otherwise then your naivety is touching. Attitudes such as yours where you jeer at or deny a platform to dissenters while insisting that you favour free speech are welcomed by the encumbent consensus.

    In the Soviet Union it was very difficult to hear scientific opinions from outside their consensus. Had they been able to do so, their opinions might have changed (although I doubt it: the important thing for an ideology is imposition of a “consensus”, not truth). Yet your attitude is precisely to deny this possibility to the holders of current consensuses. You say you do this when the consensuses are “universal”, missing the glaringly obvious point that universally held opinions have time and again turned out to be wrong.

    You say:

    “An amateur who challenges scientific consensus is usually not a Galileo, but a Lysenko or a Luskin.”

    Again, so what? You throw out the baby with the bath water. The scientific method, critical thinking in general, when properly applied distinguishes gold and dross. Of course there are very few “Galileos” (that’s why he keeps getting evoked in discussions like this) and one must be careful not to crush them when they appear, unless of course one is part of the established consensus.

    You say:

    “The skeptical movement should in my opinion not aspire to be either Galileo or Lysenko.”

    Perhaps here, and in your other references to the “skeptical movement”, is the heart of your difficulty. You want skepticism to be part of a movement which has its own consensus on how to be skeptical. Surely you see the startling irony (it’s jumping up and down and shouting look at me)? Or perhaps you haven’t yet understood what skepticism means.

  68. #68 Martin R
    January 2, 2008

    Simon, are you aware that your latest comment is nearly twice as long as the original blog entry you’ve appended it to? You clearly have material enough for a blog in its own right! Please just try to be a little nicer. You’re being almost as rude as Caledonian, which is quite a feat!

    You now concede that “it isn’t necessary for the outsider skeptic to change a consensus to make an important contribution”.

    Actually, I said that amateur scholars can make valuable contributions to a discussion. If such a contribution challenges a consensus, the professional community will decide, in time, whether there is reason to modify the consensus. Usually, however, such contributions will not even make it past peer review.

    Consensus whether local or global can be enforced gently or forcefully.

    An enforced consensus is of course anti-scientific.

    missing the glaringly obvious point that universally held opinions have time and again turned out to be wrong.

    Sure, but the ones best equipped to spot any weaknesses in a scientific consensus (they are, after all, always provisional) are professional scientists, not amateurs.

    there are very few “Galileos” […] and one must be careful not to crush them when they appear, unless of course one is part of the established consensus.

    Galileo was pressured into recanting his work by the Church of Rome, not by scientific colleagues, a tenure board or peer review. The world has changed. The Galileos of our time aren’t being crushed, they direct labs at Harvard and Oxford.

    I think you have a highly romantic idea about the quality of amateur scholars. In my field, most of them are good ground workers, a few are absolutely bonkers, and none is likely to produce any startlingly good work if they were given a chair of archaeology.

  69. #69 Caledonian
    January 2, 2008

    You’re being almost as rude as Caledonian, which is quite a feat!

    Given the excruciating stupidity he’s trying to correct, I’d say he’s been remarkably patient.

    This is not necessarily a virtue on his part, of course.

    An enforced consensus is of course anti-scientific.

    So is an unquestioned consensus! If we change the definition of ‘skeptic’ so that they cannot apply critical thinking processes to scientists’ claims, we revoke the capacity to actually perform science. Scientists are not priests and they are not prophets – their proclamations are not unassailable dogmas which cannot be questioned.

  70. #70 bob koepp
    January 2, 2008

    Although I’m skeptical about the prospects for contributing positively to this discussion, I think it worthwhile to note that the “default” position for a skeptic is to withhold assent to both positive and negative assertions. As soon as one accepts some proposition, one has ceased to be a skeptic, at least so far as that proposition is concerned. Skeptics, in fact, are well known for arguing that even the most rigorous sorts of evidence-based reasoning lack a rational basis. So claims that “real” skeptics will embrace a scientific consensus represents, at best, a misappropriation of the name.

  71. #71 Simon Anthony
    January 3, 2008

    Well Martin, I’ll try to keep this post brief. At the risk of being again as rude as Caledonian, you share a characteristic with many politicians: you make a brave fight of it but you’ve essentially conceded or failed to mount a defence against all the points I’ve argued for, yet without ever actually saying so.

    You remind me of the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Though parted from his arms and legs by King Arthur’s sword, he still has the gumption to threaten the king with a nasty bite. King Arthur however has other things to do; and so, with some regret, do I. Perhaps I’ll return another day.

  72. #72 Martin R
    January 3, 2008

    Yeah, Simon, you’re definitely King Arthur… Who knows, that may not just be something you declare unilaterally — maybe there’s even an informed consensus among the skeptical readers that you’re right.

  73. #73 Caledonian
    January 3, 2008

    I second the nomination.

    There is now a consensus which Martin R by his own arguments is not qualified to question.

  74. #74 miller
    January 5, 2008

    Perhaps here, and in your other references to the “skeptical movement”, is the heart of your difficulty. You want skepticism to be part of a movement which has its own consensus on how to be skeptical.

    Perhaps I did not understand correctly, but it sounded for a moment like you were denying the existence of a skeptical movement. The skeptical movement has existed for several decades. If you haven’t heard of CSI, JREF or VoF (which were mentioned several times by Martin), you should look them up.

    And no, it is not necessary that skeptics agree on absolutely everything. Some, like yourself for example, disagree that we should always follow scientific consensus. But this disagreement is based on a few hypothetical situations that I contend are impossible. There are no skeptics who are actually disagreeing with the scientific consensus (or did I miss a counterexample somewhere?).

    Simon Anthony’s hypothetical:

    The difficulty comes when said skeptic follows evidence, looks up and finds himself against the consensus. What should he do?

    You cannot be an amateur with respect to a field of science and simultaneously understand the full field of evidence out there. Practically speaking, it is impossible. Modern science is far more complicated than can be covered in popular accounts. If you find a science that can be fully understood by amateurs, than I’d say you found an exception to the rule, and then I’d agree that skeptics need not follow the consensus in that situation.

  75. #75 Martin R
    January 5, 2008

    Simon and Caledonian, I’m tired of your uncouth behaviour. You are free to disagree with myself or commenters on this blog, but unless you clean up your acts and make an effort at being civil, you will be entered into the spam filter’s keyword list for automatic junking. I know that Caledonian, at least, is familiar with this procedure from other blogs.

    I am sending this message to your e-mail addresses as well.

  76. #76 bob koepp
    January 5, 2008

    About the “skeptical movement” — this is about skepticism with respect to particular issues; notably religion, spiritualism, new ageism, medical woo, alien abduction, etc., etc. It’s not about a general skeptical attitude. Hence Martin’s claims about “real” skeptics. A paradox arises, though, since there are a few people who take skepticism farther than the “movement” is able to follow, who won’t be counted as “real” skeptics. This is odd, to say the least.

  77. #77 Martin R
    January 5, 2008

    Well, Bob, creationists and neo-Nazis are highly skeptical in certain areas of inquiry. I’m sure you and I wouldn’t feel very comfortable in their company.

  78. #78 Caledonian
    January 5, 2008

    But this disagreement is based on a few hypothetical situations that I contend are impossible.

    Impossible? Not only are they logically possible, they are known to be quite common in scientific practice. The scientific consensus is not infinitely responsive to new data, scientists can be inflexible in their views, and as been famously remarked, sometimes the only way to get progress in a science is to let the old generation die off and open-minded newcomers take their place.

    Minority views often overturn consensus, and this happens only because small groups of scientists assert their positions against the consensus. Often they are wrong, and sometimes they recognize this eventually. Sometimes they are right, and their views are eventually adopted – but not without a long and difficult struggle.

    You are implicitly assuming that 1) scientists are ideally rational beings, basing their positions completely on impersonal reasoning and the totality of evidence, and that 2) the evidence can never lead us down an incorrect line of hypotheses.

    We know the first assumption is wrong simply because scientists are human. If we need further confirmation we need only look at the actual practice and history of science for examples.

    We know the second is wrong on logical grounds as well as empirical ones. If skeptics were truly never to go against the consensus, when they collected data contrary to that consensus, they would have to conclude that the data was invalid and discard it.

  79. #79 Martin R
    January 6, 2008

    Caledonian, I agree to a great extent, and I am glad that you now accept that the scientific method does not produce truth in isolation from the scientists involved.

    As I’ve said before, though, I believe you’re disregarding an important distinction between the larger movement of skeptical amateurs on one hand, and working scientists on the other. Because since it is in the nature of science that all ideas may be challenged, the one thing that separates skeptical amateurs from denialists is their respect for scientific consensus. (Not a veneration of any single individual in a lab coat.)

  80. #80 Martin R
    January 6, 2008

    Simon responded to my cease-and-desist message with a long offensive letter, so he’s junked now.

  81. #81 bob koepp
    January 6, 2008

    Martin – 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.

  82. #82 Martin R
    January 6, 2008

    Bob, I think you misunderstand me. I am, as I’ve said before, aware of the dictionary meaning of the word skeptic.

    I’m replying to your interesting comment in a separate blog post.

  83. #83 Caledonian
    January 6, 2008

    Caledonian, I agree to a great extent, and I am glad that you now accept that the scientific method does not produce truth in isolation from the scientists involved.

    ‘Now accept’? I think you’d better double-check the previous arguments, and who had made them.

    I believe you’re disregarding an important distinction between the larger movement of skeptical amateurs on one hand, and working scientists on the other.

    I KNOW that you’re disregarding the difference between ‘skeptic’ and ‘follower of the skeptic movement’. The skeptic movement or anyone belonging to it is not necessarily skeptical, just as ‘professional scientists’ do not necessarily follow the scientific method.

    Not only is going against the scientific not only possible but sometimes necessary for professional scientists in a field, the same holds for professional scientists outside of that field, non-professional scientists, and non-scientific skeptics. All of these possibilities are subsumed under the category of ‘skeptic’.

    Even if we accepted your redefinition of ‘skeptic’ to refer to followers of a movement, your claim would still be wrong; as it is, you’re doubly-wrong.

  84. #84 Citizen Deux
    January 9, 2008

    Martin, it seems the conversation has grown since I last checked! I hope you will appreciate the shaky ground you trod upon when you set out to corner the definition of a term.

  85. #85 Lewis
    January 9, 2008

    I added this to another thread, but it could usefully go here too…

    ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,’ it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’

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