Some helpful advice for skeptics and journalists

Not from me, but from Daniel Loxton of Skepticblog, who has been doing some thinking about what skeptics can learn from James Randi's missteps on climate science. His advice is bound to rankle the feathers of those who are innately distrustful of everyone and everything associated with "conventional wisdom," "expert consensus," or "recognized experts." But for the those who fancy themselves dragon-slayers of pseudoscience, it serves as a valuable reality check.

To begin, Loxton reminds us that "If we're serious about our science-based epistemology, we must be prepared to consistently defer to scientific consensus."

Why? Because:

The simple truth is that many skeptics have limited scientific qualifications. Yes, of course, there are towering, world-class scientists in the skeptical camp. But most skeptics are not working scientists.
...
That combination of stated commitment to science, limited qualifications, and weighty ethical responsibilities (as when we comment on medicine) place a very high due diligence burden upon skeptics.

Like Hoxton, I frequently equate good skepticism with good journalism. Neither avocation should be concerned with presenting "balance" as an end in of itself. Rather the goal is to shed light on mystery. If you're not an expert in the field, you have turn to those who are expert in search of answers. We have no option but to defer to others. So the trick (to use a frequently misunderstood term), is figuring out who qualifies as an expert. And if there is a "consensus" available, then you pretty well have to respect it.

Hoxton goes on to lay down some rules that he suggests should govern how skeptics approach debates concerning science. Here's a quick precis:

1. Where both scientific domain expertise and expert consensus exist...

Unfortunately, some lay skeptics have the idea that general critical thinking skills qualify them to critique professional science even in the face of wide agreement among domain experts. I submit that this is hubris -- and almost always a mistake. (It is also the exact argument that sustains anti-vaccine activism, creationism, and other fringe positions whose examples we might wish to avoid.)

2. Where scientific domain expertise exists, but not consensus...

...we cannot, as laypeople, responsibly wade into an area in which we are not expert and expect to settle expert controversies.

3. Where scientific domain expertise and consensus exist, but also a denier movement or pseudoscientific fringe...

On the straight science component, we are obligated to defer to the current state of the science. On the pseudoscience component, we are often able to make a contribution in our capacity as the best available experts.

Of course, the first two points require that we first determine whether a consensus among the experts actually exists. This can sometimes be challenging. Just where is the dividing line between a tiny minority of ostensibly qualified dissenters (as in the case in the anthropogenic global warming) and a small but significant community of genuine experts who are making valuable contributions by challenging the majority view?

It's not a black and white universe. Yesterday's expert can become today's crank. Take the example of Steve McIntyre, whose analysis of the statistical foundation of Michael Mann's original "hockey stick" (which illustrates the unprecedented warming of the last milennia) led to improvements in later versions of the graph. McIntyre's efforts did nothing to undermine the scientific consensus on climate change. If anything, they resulted in a slightly more robust way to treat the temperature record. One of the world's leading authorities on climate change, Judith Curry, even thought McIntyre's blog reputable enough to post a thoughtful essay on the stolen CRU email affair.

Yet many other climatologists consider McIntyre an annoyance who misrepresents and distorts the science of climate change. A review of his blog seems to provide plenty of evidence in support of that interpretation, what with myriad uncritical links to posts from pseudokeptics like Terence Corcoran and Larry Solomon, and easily discredited stories like the one about the Russian temperature data that the Hadley Center allegedly tampered with.

My own experience is perhaps instructive. After more than a decade as a working journalist specializing in the sciences, I feared I just didn't know what I was writing about. I never came across anything I had written that was flat out wrong. but I wasn't confident I had found the right sources or approached my articles correctly. Eventually, I found it necessary to go back to school for another degree -- just an undergrad -- to improve my ability to make those kind of judgment calls.

Not every science journalist or skeptic needs an academic background, of course. There are plenty of outstanding science journalists out there who have only philosophy or English degrees. But in my case it helped immeasurably. There are times I still have to turn to experts for advice on what experts to consult, but I think my journalism has benefited from being that much closer to the science. Indeed, how could it not?

The simple truth is we are not all equally qualified to evaluate scientific research. Those of us who are not experts are obligated to defer to those who are. Genuine skepticism does not require us to treat all opinions as equally valid --- or suspect. Deferring to experts is not the same as committing the logical fallacy of making an argument from authority, it's just acceptance of one's own ignorance, which is where every good skeptic should start.

To put it another way, "An open mind is a valuable thing, just not so open that you're brains fall out." (attribution disputed).

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So the trick (to use a frequently misunderstood term), is figuring out who qualifies as an expert. And if there is a "consensus" available, then you pretty well have to respect it.

As cogent and relevant a statement as I've seen in a while. Both this and Loxton's are valuable.

By Scott Belyea (not verified) on 22 Dec 2009 #permalink

1. I don't think it's hubris to believe that critical thinking skills qualify one to identify non sequiturs, ad hoc explanations, and a variety of other errors that even experts fall into quite regularly. (I've even encountered one of the Real Climate crowd claiming that criticism of a theory can be safely ignored if the critic doesn't have an alternative theory ready to hand. From the perspecive logic and critical reasoning, that's hocum.) If you've seriously studied the history of science and scientific controversies, this should not itself be controversial.

2. When there is even a small minority of experts who demur from a majority view, does the majority view warrant our acceptance? In general, I think not. A "tyranny of the majority" is to be avoided in science as well as in politics. Unless one can provide solid independent evidence that those in the minority have strayed from sound principles of reasoning, I think the only defensible position for non-experts is agnosticism.

By bob koepp (not verified) on 22 Dec 2009 #permalink

When there is even a small minority of experts who demur from a majority view, does the majority view warrant our acceptance? In general, I think not. A "tyranny of the majority" is to be avoided in science as well as in politics. Unless one can provide solid independent evidence that those in the minority have strayed from sound principles of reasoning, I think the only defensible position for non-experts is agnosticism.

How does this agnosticism manifest itself at the ballot box or in other expression of citizen opinion? Sounds mighty like a copout to me. Is there any issue where all experts are on the same side?

A "tyranny of the majority" is to be avoided in science as well as in politics.

I suggest that you miss a key point - the tyranny of the majority becomes a tyranny when the majority is uneducated or uninformed or misled. That's not the case in science, and therefore going with a strong majority opinion seems to me to be the best choice. Global warming/climate changes seems to me to be an excellent example.

By Scott Belyeano… (not verified) on 22 Dec 2009 #permalink

"How does this agnosticism manifest itself at the ballot box or in other expression of citizen opinion?"
If your concern is with politics, why worry about such epistemic niceties as whether to be agnostic or a true believer?

I don't think I missed any key points. Tyranny is tyranny whether it's ignorant or informed, malevolent or benevolent, enforced by a minority or a majority. I repeat, tyranny is tyranny.

By bob koepp (not verified) on 22 Dec 2009 #permalink

Tyranny is tyranny whether it's ignorant or informed, malevolent or benevolent, enforced by a minority or a majority. I repeat, tyranny is tyranny.

Satisfying rhetorically, perhaps, but I don't find much useful here.

To be specific - for me as a layperson to go with the majority opinion on climate change and to act accordingly is not submitting to "tyranny" by any definition of the word which makes sense to me.

By Scott Belyea (not verified) on 22 Dec 2009 #permalink

SB - When Mill warned against the tyranny of the majority, he assumed his readers were intelligent enough to understand that 'tyranny of the majority' and 'majority' are not synonyms. Apparently reading skills have deteriorated in the past 150 years.

By bob koepp (not verified) on 22 Dec 2009 #permalink

Sagan's maxim that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence suffices for most garden-variety 'skepticism' and denialism and contrarianism. For journalists, if you're writing about how someone fell off a building you don't call up someone who disputes gravity to get the "other side of the story." Coverage of climategate was ridiculous because most of the journalists "covering it" did not even bother to look at the substance. They just grabbed some quotes and attached a prefix of "Critics say ..." to them without even looking for themselves to see if there was any substance to what they were quoting. That's stenography, not journalism.

BK - I had the same question as Scott, but that reference to Mill makes it all clear. Thanks! And down with TYRANNY!

Too often, journalists seem to think 'balance' means showing both sides as being equally likely. 'Some say babies are born from human mothers, others, that they are brought by storks. You decide!'

I wonder now whether that false balance is brought about because the person doing the reporting really doesn't know whether it's mothers or storks. A lot of things can seen plausible if you don't understand the topic at hand very well. In that case, the easiest thing to do is to state all 'possibilities'.

I have to agree with Bob. Perhaps there is a Dunning-Kruger effect at play here. I believe that I am generally competent to identify logical fallacies, rhetorical tricks and propaganda. One can recognize these things whether they are expressions of a majority opinion or a minority fringe. Likewise one can recognize sound reasoning and criticism from a fringe that challenges a majority view. Granted that is not the same as being "qualified to evaluate scientific research." I think the point is, one needn't always evaluate the research where the bullshit is thick and obvious... one can evaluate the bullshit as a fairly reliable proxy.

Controversies such as over evolution or global warming do not generally call for tricky evaluations of technical details that require highly qualified opinions. On most issues, most of the time, such close calls are not urgent for most 'skeptical' citizens. For a journalist, of course, the story is different. Even on close technical calls you need to write something, so you need to make a determination. By all means, consult the experts. Most of us (wishful thinking?) are competent to know when we are out of our depth technically and are quite willing to defer to the experts. But there is no better tool for sorting the experts from the poseurs than a good crap detector.

A degree in a field of science is also useful, no doubt. But I would say it is secondary to a drive to get a personally satisfying explanation devoid of bullshit and a willingness to do some basic fact checking and cross referencing. Journalists willing to write on subjects they know they don't understand, who skimp on the background research, fact checking etc., will not be helped much by any number of degrees. That might even give them a false sense of thinking they know more about the subject than they actually do know. But even a lame journalist will be ahead of the game who has a developed sense of who is conning and who is a straight shooter. Where honest controversy exists between straight shooters on different sides, reporting the controversy is exactly the right thing to do.

Having said all that, I must admit I do have a degree in a scientific field, and I do rely on that training to evaluate claims related to my field and in some cases methodological matters across fields. But it was not getting my degree that developed my crap detector. That came pretty much from realizing that there are distortions of reality in almost all aspects of social life and culture that generally go unchallenged unless one raises the question oneself. No one else can do it for you.

I think Kathy has hit the nail on the head.

Journalists (at least the generalists), tend to get their information from press releases, etc. Have a look at Nick Davies's book http://www.amazon.co.uk/Flat-Earth-News-Award-winning-Distortion/dp/009… for an analysis of this trend, and why its so dangerous.

If you have no idea as to whether the scientific consensus is correct, you cannot be bothered to find out, or increasingly, you just don't care as long as its a dramatic story, then you report both sides, call it balance, and your done. You can even defend this view because you are a 'skeptic' (in the Woodward/Bernstein mould), and thus take nothing official for granted. This is actually a crock of .... but it allows an increasing number of journalists to sleep at night.

The mainstream media's general laziness with science has lead to the eqivalent of what is often called 'the Right Wing Echo Chamber'. Think tanks and PR flacks put out nonsense, which bounces around the internet and into the mainstream press, which in turn moves the debate rightwards. Its how Bjorn Lomborg and the like get to be represented as moderate voices - they are 'skeptical', which sounds a bit like 'balance' to a harassed, overworked and not very scientifically literate news editor.

Personally, I think that both this article and Daniel Loxton's should be required reading for every journalist - but I suspect that they wouldn't bother. Who needs knowledge about a subject when you have the internet?

On a number of alarmist websites & on last weeks Radio Scotland "big debate" with the Scottish Green leader & 2 other MSPs on the panel I have asked anybody to name 2 prominent scientists, not funded by government or an alarmist lobby who have said that we are seeing a catastrophic degree of warming & none of them have yet been able to name even one. I extend this same invitation to Scotsman readers & indeed journalists.

There is not & never was a genuine scientific consensus on this, though scientists seeking government funds have been understandably reluctant to speak. The whole thing depends on a very small number of people & a massive government publicity machine, both very well funded by the innocent taxpayer.

Neil Craig:
How about OIL companies warning of catastrophic global warming?
http://www.earthsky.org/presspost/shell-lead-scientist-speaks-on-global…
In fact, ALL major oil companies, except Exxon, acknowledge AGW and its dangers.

And why would insurance companies warn for global warming, if it is all a hoax anyway?
Or the medical industry, which has no (funding) benefits to warn for global warming?
http://solveclimate.com/sites/default/files/Lancet-Health%20and%20Clima…
Why would Bush Sr. and Jr. have their government vehemently protect the oil industry, anger the world by not entering Kyoto, and at the same time fund thousands of scientists who all point to CO2 emissions as a major danger? The logic is far away when ideology hits Neil Craig's fan!

Marco,

"And why would insurance companies warn for global warming..."

Are you joking? Do you understand how insurance works? The idea is to convince enough people that there is a threat that they will buy enough policies that the insurance company will make a profit on the difference between the money they take in and the money they spend to reimburse losses from that threat.

If the threat is perceived to be much greater than the actual damage caused by that threat it is easy to raise premiums and make much greater profits.

If you can convince people that there is a new threat that justifies raising premiums but doesn't actually raise payouts you have hit the lottery.

"The simple truth is we are not all equally qualified to evaluate scientific research."

Absolutely true.

"Those of us who are not experts are obligated to defer to those who are."

Absolutely NOT true.

Accepting that we do not know does not obligate us to defer to the opinion of an expert.

Credentials help us winnow the chaff and select those whose opinions we apply our critical thinking, not to select those we will listen to without analysis.

If the threat is perceived to be much greater than the actual damage caused by that threat it is easy to raise premiums and make much greater profits.

If you can convince people that there is a new threat that justifies raising premiums but doesn't actually raise payouts you have hit the lottery.

Yes, and when they drop coverage then they really, really, really increase revenue by tremendous amounts, tremendous, I say!

"If circumstances change due to global warming that alter the level of risk, insurance companies need to be free to reflect that risk," says David Snyder, vice president and assistant general counsel for the American Insurance Association (AIA). "The reality is that in some places the risk is so severe that [these locations] are uninsurable."

I have asked anybody to name 2 prominent scientists, not funded by government or an alarmist lobby who have said that we are seeing a catastrophic degree of warming & none of them have yet been able to name even one.

Note the deception! Can you even name two prominent scientists in any field at all who are not funded by government or an organization that accepts the basic conclusions of the field?

I sure can't.

I don't think it's possible. After all, the vast majority of scientists are funded by governments, especially when you're looking for a way to discredit them and declare academic connections to be government funding. And most of the rest are funded by corporations - but the only corporations with real interest in climate change are corporations which are hurt by the existence thereof.

Niel's argument would only be valid if it were possible to do major science with no funding ... presumeably during your spare time from growing your own food by hand.

By Michael Ralston (not verified) on 24 Dec 2009 #permalink

I think the key thing is that sceptisism is a logical position but global warming denial is now an emotional position and they two are very, very different. the nature of the conspiracy theory it itself designed to ensure that it is unprovable. It has removed any and all possibility of being disproved, which is why now it has been disproved (oddly enough the email hack did that showing no conspiracy and no nefarious plotting, just the very human to-ing and fro-ing of science) but that will not impact on emotional position any more than going though the fossil record piece-by-piece would persuade a creationist. See: http://anarchist606.blogspot.com/2009/12/understanding-mind-of-denialis…

James Hrynyshyn's argument that those "who are not experts are obligated to defer to those who are." and "Deferring to experts is not the same as committing the logical fallacy of making an argument from authority." That is so in science only if the hallowed "experts" can be proven to have not just some kind of credential, but that their theories and models can be shown to have some relevance to the real world. Are they truly predictive? That is the important element that is really missing from Mann's hockey model, etc. While we can give weight to credentials and hard work, the proof is in the putting. Absent actual replication and predictive power Hrynyshyn's argument must be seen a appeals to authority and inverse ad hominem argumentation.

Paleontology a nascent branch of science. As an integrated science drawing on multiple disciplines, it is to be expected that retired or nearly retired scientists from fields which feed paleontology might offer useful criticism. Steve McIntyre, as an example, cited dismissively here had an extensive background in statistical analysis. McIntyre uncovered problems with Mann's model which resulted in a serious critical inquiry by the National Academy of Science. More over, McIntyre continues to find errors that have been corrected by other contributors to the GISS, NASA, et. al.

By ShashNahalin (not verified) on 28 Dec 2009 #permalink

I hate believing a thing without being able to say how I know it. Believing the catastrophic consequences of excess co2 is a very very large thesis to sign on to unskeptically and without thought. While I accept many points of the global warming argument (Keeling data, greenhouse gas, etc.) there are some big holes in my complete knowledge of the topic. Clearly, believing a thing because Mann and Jones believe it no longer works for me. One gap for me is the precise number that represents climate sensitivity due to co2. Another is all the mechanisms of the feedbacks - both positive and negative. A third thing I have trouble with are tipping points - they strike me as very ad hoc, polemic, and speculative. A fourth thing that I feel is overlooked is a full assessment (good and bad) of the consequences of global warming. To me a greater danger than global warming would be a freeze akin to those experienced in the 19th century (in particular the night of June 4, 1859). One large sulfurous volcano such as experienced in 1815 could set humankind back quite in a quite unacceptable way - meaning famine. As much as I believe that change wrought by humans is not good for the environment, I don't believe in capital "N" Nature so much that I would claim it is a sensible or realistic idea that interfering with it is, of necessity, not good. Wishing that humankind would return to a state of nature and that all done to change nature is fundamentally bad is wrongheaded in a deep kind of way. The best we can hope to do is to adopt realistic goals and methods that will conserve in nature what we like in it.

By Hank Henry (not verified) on 28 Dec 2009 #permalink

Glad to see Hank Henry talk about his semi-religious beliefs on one side or another of science, even though science shows only one side ...

And, like, oh a large volcano might be a PITA that we can't control so we should ignore the PITA we can control ... oh my ...

dhogaza:

I think you make a fair point saying we shouldn't ignore a global warming threat just because other threats exist. The interesting thing to me regarding CO2 as a pollutant is that it does have this other beneficial side to it. It's not quite a pollutant in the way dioxin, lead, or mercury is. Even the EPA's technical support document explores this beneficial aspect of CO2 and addresses it by saying that only "excess" CO2 in the atmosphere is considered pollution. As someone who sees food and farming issues up close, these are the issues that most concern me. I was totally surprised to learn that there was an extensive June frost in the 19th century over what is now the cornbelt. That never happened in the 20th century, but, believe me, if it happened now there would be food riots in more places than just Haiti (as we saw in 2008).

As far as my semi-religious beliefs are concerned, what I was driving at is that when we undertake to control excess CO2 we are effectively undertaking to engineer the climate. I see no need to be squeamish about this. If we are going to engineer the climate, lets be sure to set the level at which CO2 in the atmosphere becomes excess CO2 high enough so we never accidentally get a year that has both a June frost and a September frost where the nation's corn is grown.

By Hank Henry (not verified) on 30 Dec 2009 #permalink

The interesting thing to me regarding CO2 as a pollutant is that it does have this other beneficial side to it. It's not quite a pollutant in the way dioxin, lead, or mercury is.

It's more like water. Necessary, but you can drown in it.

But if you want to follow your intuition to its fullest, feel free to argue against life vests, ship design standards, coast guard safety regulations, etc.

Even the EPA's technical support document explores this beneficial aspect of CO2 and addresses it by saying that only "excess" CO2 in the atmosphere is considered pollution. As someone who sees food and farming issues up close, these are the issues that most concern me.

Adding CO2 is a very effective form of fertilization.

This is why farmers are always adding CO1 nitrogen compounds to increase plant growth.

I was totally surprised to learn that there was an extensive June frost in the 19th century over what is now the cornbelt. That never happened in the 20th century, but, believe me, if it happened now there would be food riots in more places than just Haiti (as we saw in 2008).

Well, you know, warming means ... warming.

As far as my semi-religious beliefs are concerned, what I was driving at is that when we undertake to control excess CO2 we are effectively undertaking to engineer the climate.

And, of course, when we pour CO2 into the atmosphere we are also undertaking to to engineer the climate. We're engineering the global climate to be much warmer.

If we are going to engineer the climate, lets be sure to set the level at which CO2 in the atmosphere becomes excess CO2 high enough so we never accidentally get a year that has both a June frost and a September frost where the nation's corn is grown.

The typical denialist crap that 1) the United States is the world and 2) some simplistic intuition about what increased CO2 might do to regional climate is better than science.

dhogaza, Crap? Oh my. Anyway, humankind's destiny is to burn all available fossil fuels. You know it as well as I do. Us arguing isn't going to change it. So I guess that's the end.

By Hank Henry (not verified) on 31 Dec 2009 #permalink

I agree with Loxton that only informed debate is useful in scientific matters. But I'd phrase his hierarchy of scientific debate slightly differently:

1) If someone has clearly done less reading up on the subject than me (e.g. someone saying that evolution cannot add new information, which I know from studying information theory is complete mince), I will vocally disagree with them.

2) If someone has clearly done more reading than me (e.g. they're a Professor of Atmospheric Dynamics at a reputable uni), I will quietly challenge them in the hope that they'll help me improve my understanding. If they appear unable to do so then I'll jump to step #4.

3) If someone appears to have roughly the same level of knowledge as me, I'll aim to trade information with them via debate until we can reach a consensus.

4) If I can't judge whether someone is more or less competent than me, I'll go away and read basic science textbooks until I can judge. (Or I'll shut up.)

I'm currently at step #4 with my dad on climate change. He's normally more scientifically literate than me, but he's also an AGW skeptic, which seems to go against the consensus. I think it's likely he's just been getting information from dodgy third-hand sources, but I've been getting my information at third hand as well so I can't really protest about that. Yet.

I'm at step #2 with my actuarial science course notes. I have a suspicion that basically the entire financial economics community is taking an approach of "these are the kind of mathematical models we know how to use, therefore we'll assume finance behaves like that". But I need to do a lot more background reading and questioning, in a state of humility, before I can say for sure.

What hierarchies do you guys use?