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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:


12 Responses

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  1. Jim Lippard said, on December 17, 2009 at 11:51 AM

    While I agree that this demonstrates a good thing, it’s not quite the ideal demonstration, since this is an instance where a skeptical leader expressed dissent with the mainstream and got criticized for it. A genuine appreciation for self-criticism would be shown where a skeptical leader made a mistake *in support of* the mainstream skeptical view (i.e., a bad argument for a good conclusion), and got criticized for it.

    I hope to see some sort of correction from Randi, which will be another good demonstration–a willingness to correct mistakes.

    • badrescher said, on December 17, 2009 at 11:59 AM

      A willingness to correct mistakes is, imo, the benchmark of reason. I think it’s good when people step in it once in a while, especially people who stand on a pedestal (even when they deserve to be there).

      Skepdude – you’ve captured my feelings about it fairly well.

    • Skepdude said, on December 17, 2009 at 2:10 PM

      It’s a good point. It’s easy to spot a fallacy when one doesn’t like the conclusion and it is progressively harder to spot the fallacy when one agrees with the conclusion. Damn that human nature. But I guess that’s a role that the opponents are meant to play no?

  2. CharlesP said, on December 17, 2009 at 11:58 AM

    For me the flip side of it was that SO many of the responses weren’t “hold your horses” reactions and more screams of denialist/sellout/taking money from big oil (or the other side saying “YEAH! He’s a REAL skeptic now because he agrees with us on this issue”). It was sad for me to see the willingness for so many in the community (or at least in the commenting section of the community) to grab a pitchfork and a torch.

    Granted, I don’t think any of the primary blog posts on it were calling for his head. Most of the nasty was in the comments, which is par for the internet course I guess. But, still a bit disheartening.

    • Skepdude said, on December 17, 2009 at 1:57 PM

      Agreed, some of the critiques did go a little too far.

  3. Nerdista said, on December 17, 2009 at 12:07 PM

    I just don’t like the “I don’t have all the evidence so I can’t really be mad at Randi” excuse. That never works for people who don’t know that much about evolution so “they really can’t say.” Its disappointing to see someone I respect so much seemingly switch his whole set of rules, but I do agree that I love he has not been spared crticism.

    • Skepdude said, on December 17, 2009 at 2:01 PM

      The point I wish to make is not that I don’t have ALL the evidence, but that I am very ignorant of ANY evidence about AGW so I am not in a position to be mad at him or be glad for what he said.

      That said, he did employ the logical fallacy of the Argument from personal Incredulity and used a bit of a straw man/ad hominem attack on scientists in general when he said that they kowtow and stuff like that, and he’s been taken to task for that, especially by Orac.

  4. Greg said, on December 17, 2009 at 8:44 PM

    I’m sorry, this is nonsense. Randi took a position which was diametrically opposed to scientific consensus, and further absolutely contrary to the argument being put forth on a regular basis by other skeptics such as Phil Plait and P.Z. Myers. There was no other option for them but to criticise Randi – it was either that or be hypocrites.

    What would be a better test of the skeptical community is if they pulled Randi up for speaking nonsense about more fringe topics. Which he does on a regular basis. And the silence is deafening.

  5. redrabbitslife said, on December 20, 2009 at 6:24 PM

    I have to admit, I don’t follow Randi’s stuff. I’ve heard of him obliquely, and from what I’ve absorbed, debunking magicians seems to be his raison d’etre.

    So, I find it kind of difficult to get worked up about him getting it wrong on AGW. It’s not what he does. Granted, he needs to do his research before he opens his mouth if he wants to remain a big shot on the pro-science circuit, but really? Meh.

    The evidence for AGW is pretty overwhelming. The evidence for James Randi? Not so much.

    @ Greg: Intrigued… what does he have to say about more fringe topics that you think he needs spanking over? Because that can be arranged.

    • Skepdude said, on December 21, 2009 at 9:58 AM


      Randi is the face of the skeptical movement today, probably what most skeptics view as the undisputed, albeit unofficial, leader. That is why you see such an uproar on our circles when he’s the one to use fallacious logic so flagrantly. Most of us are not so much concerned of his skepticism about AGW, as we are about the way he went about it, by using a straw man to mischaracterize scientists and relying on an argument from personnal incredulity as if those two fallacies on their own were enough to cast doubt upon the scientific consensus. He appears to have made a booboo and its only because of his high reputation that he’s getting such a response.

  6. wpolscemamymocneseo said, on January 11, 2011 at 4:17 PM

    I love reading your blog. I’ve you bookmarked your website in order to check out the latest stuff.

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