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James Randi, global warming and the meaning of skepticism

Posted in Rationally Speaking by Skepdude on December 17, 2009


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.


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