What, If Anything, Can Skeptics Say About Science?
As many skeptics know by now, legendary skeptical trailblazer James Randi set off a firestorm last week with two Swift blog posts about global warming. His first post carried his strong suspicion that consensus science on climate change is incorrect, while his followup post wondered “whether we can properly assign the cause to anthropogenic influences.”
Skeptical bloggers were swift to respond. Critics (including PZ Myers, Orac, Sean Carroll, and James Hrynyshyn) chastised Randi for speaking outside his domain expertise; for dissenting from current consensus science; and for lending his name to the disreputable “Oregon Petition Project.” Others, like Phil Plait, corrected Randi while sensibly reminding us that “anyone, everyone, is capable of making mistakes.” And, inevitably, global warming deniers seized upon the event. (One headline, at Britain’s Telegraph.co.uk, gleefully crowed “James Randi forced to recant by Warmist thugs for showing wrong kind of scepticism.”)
But, of the many posts to respond to Randi, two in particular caught my attention. SkeptiCamp pioneer Reed Esau asked,
So what happens now? That uneasy feeling you are now experiencing may be the implications of the situation setting in. … Most of us are laymen who don’t have the professional experience and analytical skills to properly evaluate the data and the methods. To pretend we do (or to reject it on a hunch) separates us from the very scientific enterprise we skeptics purport to value.
Similarly, according to Skeptical Inquirer columnist Massimo Pigliucci, “we need to pause and think carefully about the entire skeptical movement in light of episodes like this one.”
So, What Happens Now?
I’ve long argued that our patchy and lukewarm acceptance of mainstream climate science is skepticism’s greatest failure. I’ll return to that argument in future posts, but today I’d like to concentrate on the general question raised by Esau and Pigliucci: what is skepticism’s appropriate relationship to consensus science? What — if anything — may skeptics responsibly say on mainstream science subjects?
Organized skepticism has always talked about science. Certainly, we use science-informed arguments when critiquing paranormal claims. We use techniques from science (and from other investigatory disciplines, such as history and journalism) when digging into strange stuff. The promotion of scientific literacy is also a core part of our traditional mandate (as I argued in the essay “Where Do We Go From Here?”).
Nonetheless, it’s my opinion that there are severe limits on the kinds of scientific arguments into which skeptics may responsibly wade. If we’re serious about our science-based epistemology, we must be prepared to consistently defer to scientific consensus. As Esau puts it,
That consistency is essential, because without it people like myself will ask “So, what’s the point?” To waver from that consistency risks calling the entire enterprise into question.