Skepfeeds-The Best Skeptical blogs of the day

Do climate change sceptics give scepticism a bad name?

Posted in News by Skepdude on February 22, 2010


There is a crucial difference between scepticism and non-belief in the face of overwhelming evidence

Consulting a dictionary
What’s in a name ? Scepticism has been described as a method rather than a position

In January a group of self-declared “sceptics” hit the headlines with an attention-grabbing publicity stunt. If you instinctively interpret that sentence as a reference to the battle-scarred topic of climate change, then it is a mark of how successfully those opposed to the scientific consensus on climate change have appropriated the term sceptic”.

In fact, the event in question is the mass homeopathy “overdose” staged by the Merseyside Skeptics. Do the Merseyside Skeptics (and hundreds of other groups like them) share much common ground with the army of Freedom of Information requesters currently swarming around climate science databases? Or could it be that climate change sceptics are giving wider scepticism a bad name?

Over the past three months climate change scepticism seems to have reached new levels. The Guardian’s investigation into the emails hacked from the University of East Anglia has shone a rather uncomfortable light into the sock-drawer of science. But it has revealed nothing that challenges the fact that the climate is changing – or that human activity is responsible. Trust has been diminished, embarrassing exchanges have been revealed, but the clunking wheels of the anti-climate change lobby have gone into overdrive, falsely claiming that the case for human-caused climate change has been discredited.

Climate change sceptics often position themselves as the antidote to the hysterical, exaggerated claims of climate scientists and environmentalists, adopting the tools and language of “rational enquiry”. But something is missing from this picture – where are the voices of the truly sceptical thinkers that the climate sceptics claim to represent?

The website of the long-running US magazine Skeptic describes scepticism as a method rather than a position, and one that is embodied in the scientific method. A search of the magazine’s online archives reveals not one article disputing the science of climate change. However, there are several debunking unsubstantiated claims that climate change sceptics have made. The not-for-profit organisation UK Skeptics is even less welcoming to climate sceptics, with a helpful note stating:

We are nothing to do with opposition, activist, or denialist groups who wrongly refer to themselves as ‘skeptics’ because they adopt a position of non-belief (eg global warming skeptics, vaccine skeptics, etc).



Galileo, Semmelweis, and YOU!

Posted in Denialism by Skepdude on August 11, 2008


To wear the mantle of Galileo, it is not enough to be persecuted: you must also be right.
–Robert Park

I used to spend a lot of time on the websites of Joe Mercola and Gary Null, the most influential medical cranks of the internets (to call them “quacks” would imply that they are real doctors, but bad ones—I will no longer dignify them with the title of “quack”). I’ve kept away from them for a while in the interest of preserving my sanity. Unfortunately, Orac reminded me this week of the level searingly stupid and dangerous idiocy presented by these woo-meisters.

In light of this, it seems reasonable to reexamine the Galileo gambit. When a “discoverer” of some new medical “miracle” is dismissed by the medical establishment, they often invoke the ghosts of Galileo and of Ignaz Semmelweis.

Galileo and Semmelweis are a pair of historical figures that share a common story—they both made significant scientific discoveries, documented the evidence for them, and were reviled by certain authorities, but eventually honored.

Ideas are cheap. I believe that my idea to use a flow sheet to track my diabetics’ care leads to better outcomes. I have precisely NO evidence to prove this, but it doesn’t harm me or my patients, and there is at least peripheral evidence elsewhere that this is a good idea. There is also a plausible hypothesis behind this—if I have one piece of paper that contains the critical data for a diabetic, I can see right away if their blood pressure or cholesterol are above optimal levels, I can see what their weight is doing, and I can see if they have engaged in proper preventative care, such as eye and foot exams. There is also a small body of data to support the practice. It would not surprise me if someone studies this in the future and finds my method lacking, especially vs. electronic health records. When necessary, I’ll happily modify my practice in a way that benefits my patients.

Let me summarize the characteristics of a “good” clinical science thinking, in this context (no, I’m not gonna go all Popper on y’all):

    Relevance: an idea should bear directly on a real clinical problem
    Testability: it should be possible to test the idea to see if it has merit (this includes Popperian falsifiability).
    Plausibility: the idea should have some basis in reality and should not have been birthed de novo from between someone’s buttocks. It should not require a “suspension of disbelief” or “open-mindedness”.
    Abandonability: the poser of the question should be willing to abandon the idea if it is proved false. Moving the goal posts, invoking a conspiracy, or any other deus ex machina is never necessary for a good idea.
    Modifiability: an idea can be rationally modified and retested if it may still contain a kernel of truth despite failing one or another tests. Any idea that is held so tightly that reality must be modified to fit the idea should be highly suspect.

There is an enormous literature on what constitutes science, etc. This is just a little guide to reading on quackery, crankery, and other idiocy.

When you encounter possible medical crankery, a couple of questions to ask yourself are “cui bono“: who benefits? Is the answer “patients”, “medical science”, or “one dude with a P.O. box”?

The other question is, “where’s the evidence?” (remember, no conspiracy theories or you violate Pal’s Law).

Or, as Dawkins so acerbically put it:

If you are in possession of this revolutionary secret of science, why not prove it and be hailed as the new Newton? Of course, we know the answer. You can’t do it. You are a fake.