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James Randi, global warming and the meaning of skepticism

Posted in Rationally Speaking by Skepdude on December 17, 2009

READ THE FULL ENTRY AT RATIONALLY SPEAKING

James “the Amazing” Randi is an icon of skepticism. The man has done more — over a span of several decades — to further the cause of critical thinking and to expose flimflammery of all sorts than arguably anyone else in the world, ever. That is why I was struck with incredulity and sadness yesterday when I read Randi’s latest take on global warming. He begins by stating that, contrary to scientists’ own self-image as almost preternaturally objective human beings, “religious and other emotional convictions drive scientists, despite what they may think their motivations are.” Well, true, to a point. Many philosophers and sociologists of science have said that before (and documented it), but your baloney detector should go up to at least yellow alert when someone starts a commentary on global warming with that particular observation.

The following paragraph is perhaps one of the most astounding I have ever seen penned by a skeptic. It reads in part: “some 32,000 scientists, 9,000 of them PhDs, have signed The Petition Project statement proclaiming that Man is not necessarily the chief cause of warming, that the phenomenon may not exist at all, and that, in any case, warming would not be disastrous.”

Wow, Randi fell for the old “thousands of scientists are against science” trick! First off, I’d like to see the 32,000 signatures (there is no link from the essay). Second, last time I checked, in order to be a career scientist you have to have a PhD, so how come only 9,000 of the signatories did? Did the rest not manage to finish graduate school? But more importantly: were the 32,000 climate scientists? Because if not, then it doesn’t matter how many of them signed the petition. I can easily get thousands of medical doctors (are they “scientists”?) to sign a petition to the effect that evolution doesn’t occur, or an equivalent number of assorted PhDs to express doubts on quantum mechanics, and so on. Having a PhD in a particular field provides no expertise whatsoever in another field, and Randi, of all people, should have known this.

“History supplies us with many examples where scientists were just plain wrong about certain matters, but ultimately discovered the truth through continued research” continues the essay. Another logical fallacy. Yes, the history of science has documented many blunders made by scientists, which usually are redressed by the built-in self-correcting mechanisms of science itself. But to imply that therefore the idea of human-caused global warming is another of these mistakes is like saying “Van Gogh was a great artist and he died penniless; I am penniless, therefore I am a great artist.” It is a non sequitur.

READ THE FULL ENTRY AT RATIONALLY SPEAKING

Randi, skepticism, and global warming

Posted in Bad Astronomy by Skepdude on December 17, 2009

READ THE FULL ENTRY AT BAD ASTRONOMY

Yesterday, James Randi posted an entry on the JREF’s Swift blog about global warming. In it, he expressed some doubt over the consensus that humans are causing global warming. He does not doubt that warming is happening, as he made clear, just the role of humans in that change.

Unfortunately, one source he used in his essay was the Petition Project. This was an attempt by global warming denialists to muddy the climate issue, and one that has been thoroughly trashed — it’s really just as awful as the similarly ridiculous, and just as thoroughly nonsensical, attempt by the Discovery Institute to get a petition by scientists who doubt evolution. Randi also made a claim about the complexity of global warming, and how difficult it is to model, casting some uncertainty on it. As he said, this makes it very difficult for someone not well-versed in the field to come to a well-informed decision on climate change.

I was unaware that Randi had just posted his essay when, yesterday, I wrote a post asking for donations to the JREF. Obviously, the comments focused on Randi’s post. While some were fair, I was taken aback by the vitriol of many of the comments; some people were out-and-out calling Randi a denialist, which is ridiculous. Other comments were worse.

Needless to say, this made quite a splash in the skeptical blogosphere as well. Posts and comments sprouted up everywhere about it. Some were thoughtful, others, um, not so much. I was surprised by how many skeptics were quick to vilify Randi, again accusing him of being a global warming denialist. I got emails from people fearing for the skeptical movement as a whole!

Instead of rending my garments over this, I read Randi’s post carefully, and then sent him a note outlining why the Petition Project is a crock, as well as saying that yes, mathematical models of climate are very complex, but that doesn’t change observations indicating the reality of global warming or our role in it. Randi told me he was writing a followup, so I decided not to say anything about it here until his new post went up. I wanted to make sure I had all the facts before commenting.

Randi posted that followup blog entry today. As I expected, he took the new information into account, admitting that he was unaware of the dubious nature of the petition, and re-affirming that he is not denying global warming is occurring.

READ THE FULL ENTRY AT BAD ASTRONOMY

I Am Not “Denying” Anything

Posted in JREF by Skepdude on December 17, 2009

Randi Responds

READ THE FULL ENTRY AT RANDI.ORG

Well, my piece on AGW — Anthropogenic Global Warming — has elicited a huge response, both positive and negative. The subject, dealing with the influence of our species on the observed increase in overall temperatures around the globe — said to be about 0.7º Celsius — is apparently a matter of great contention, and I almost regret having entered into it. Almost…

I must say that much of the commentary I see refers to “about one degree” without specifying Celsius or Fahrenheit scales. I’m so old-fashioned and fuddy-duddy that I sometimes refer to the Celsius scale as Centigrade, though it was Swedish astronomer Anders Celsius — almost two centuries ago — who came up with the plan to divide the span between the temperature at which water ice melted, and water boiled, into 100 parts. Only at -40º do the Fahrenheit and Celsius thermometers agree, but life is complicated, and we have to deal with such facts. Since about 1980, Celsius has become fashionable. For some perverse reason, and at risk of another storm of comments, I rather think that the USA should drop Fahrenheit — a German/Dutch scientist even more dead than Celsius — along with inches, pounds, quarts, miles, yards, furlongs, and other cute but incompatible units we inherited from the UK. But then, I’m a confirmed fuddy-duddy, as you know.

Back to business. Somehow, my AGW commentary was seriously misunderstood by some. Part of the reason for that is probably due to the fact that I took a much longer, 5,000-word piece, and cut it down to about 1,400 words to better fit Swift‘s needs. Along the way, some clarity was lost. For that, I apologize. But here are a couple of the typical negative comments I received, which are unfounded:

“Randi just came out against the science that indicates that Global Warming is happening, that it is man made, and that it will harm our biosphere (and is currently doing so).”

“I was also saddened by Randi siding with the GW denialists. He seems to have fallen for a number of logical fallacies, and apparently prefers self-deception and ignorance when it comes to this issue. Very, very sad.”

Sad? Yes, if it were true. But it’s not. There were a good number of other, similar comments, all quite wrong. I do not, and did not, deny the established fact — arrived at by extensive scientific research — that average global temperatures have increased by a bit less than one Celsius degree. My commentary was concerned with my amateur confusion about the myriad of natural phenomena that obviously bring about worldwide climate changes and whether we can properly assign the cause to anthropogenic influences. Yes, I’m aware of the massive release of energy — mostly heat — that we’ve produced by exhuming and burning oil, natural gas, and coal. We’ve also attacked forests and turned them into fuel by converting them into paper at further energy expense, paper that is also burned, in turn. My remarks, again, are directed at the complexity of determining whether this GW is anthropogenic or not. I do not deny that possibility. In fact, I accept it as quite probable. I remain respectful of science and its participants. I stand outside the walls of academe, in awe.

READ THE FULL ENTRY AT RANDI.ORG

Why I love skepticism

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on December 17, 2009

I love skepticism. I think it’s not a secret to anyone who has been reading my blog. Yesterday I had my feelings reinforced. James “The Amazing” Randi wrote an entry where he laid out his doubts about the belief that human activities are directly affecting our climate and contributing to global warming. It was a surprising post to say the least. I don’t know much about the issue myself, so I can’t say exactly if he was party wrong or right, but I thought that the scientific consensus was that human activities do lead to increased levels of CO2, and that increased levels of CO2 directly affect global temperatures. So you can imagine how surprised I was to read Randi’s entry.

But that’s not the point I intend to make here.  The point is how the reaction in our community to Randi’s post reinforced my love for skepticism. Now anyone who knows anything about our movement, knows that when it comes to venerable figures Randi is most likely our number 1 most liked, most “worshiped” skeptic. He is the undisputed leader of our movement. Period. Yet, somehow, even that power status did not shield him from criticism from our community. Now take a minute to fully appreciate the repercussions of that. Try to think of any other group that is ready and willing to criticize even it’s “leaders” without fear, the moment they “slip”.  Can you think of any?

PZ Myers had his say.  The Quackometer had its say. The Island of Doubt had his say.  Countless others did. Just look up @Daniel_Loxton on Twitter and look at his links to various other posts yesterday and you’ll start to get an idea at the immediate “hold your horses” reaction that the community had to it’s leader’s off the cuff remarks. And that’s what makes this movement amazing, our committment to facts and logic above all else. No idea is shielded from the critical eye; no person gets a get-out-of-jail-free card, not even Randi. We are committed to the truth not ideologies; we don’t pretend not to see or hear things that inconvenience us. And I am sure it was with deep emotional reservations that the above mentioned bloggers took on Randi’s post, trepidation even most likely, but they did anyway and they have all my respect for that.

As far as Randi goes, he’s my hero; he’s all of these folks hero. And if I know him at all he’ll follow reason, logic and evidence to whatever conclusion it leads. And he’s not afraid to change his mind or admit when he makes a mistake, if indeed he made one with some of his remarks in his entry yesterday. It is out of deep “reverence” for this man’s intelligence and out of utter lack of knowledge of the facts on this issue that I cannot myself have any strong opinions on this; so I am not equipped to say if he did or didn’t make a mistake. As such I’ll leave it to others, better equiped than myself to sort this out with Randi, but I have one thing to say about this whole damned thing:

I LOVE ME SOME SKEPTICISM