Be your own skeptic; if you can’t become an expert, learn to think like a scientist

We’re in an age of big, politicized science, dirtied by the knowledge that almost everyone will “trust the experts,” and buy 90% of whatever the press publishes as a false consensus in their name, or whatever “scientific” bombshell tickles their fancy. People believe whatever best plays to preconceptions, or their paranoia, fear, contrariness, obedience, need to be reassured, or need to be entertained, and this is well known by those who prepare press releases, agitate for political causes, and collect money for their scientific credentials.

In this age, everyone needs to be a scientific skeptic and stop uncritically trusting claims from sources (big and small, independent and professional) on any contentious issue: evolution, GMO, fracking, climate change & its causation, HIV/AIDS, vaccine risks, you name it.

Some of these many claims will be bourn out by repetitive investigations in time, and some will shown to be fabrications and frauds, many shameful, many politicized, many embarrassing for anyone to believe in hindsight. Some will be designed to bring about a result through fear and even panic—sometimes a result so against the grain that few would otherwise accept it.

That doesn’t make facts, and it’s not proper science.

Proper science isn’t just technical procedure, or institutional respect in academia, or “scientistic” presentation. Science is a way of thinking. Science demands skepticism, above all.

Just one thing to add: how many people who were afraid of Y2K bug scenarios at the time will admit they were wrong to believe as much as they did, and overreact out of fear? (raises hand) I’ve tried to learn from that experience (and others like it that testified to gullibility). I’ve tried to learn how to develop more healthy skepticism, and an understanding of what makes for reliable scientific evidence, substantive argument (true or not), and substantiated information. I highly recommend you do the same.

8 responses to “Be your own skeptic; if you can’t become an expert, learn to think like a scientist

  1. I applaud your support for scientific skepticism, but I would like to point out few errors, if I may.
    The science behind climate change, Darwinian evolution through natural selection, the link between HIV and AIDS, and the relative safety of vaccinations cannot be characterized as in any way contentious from a scientific perspective. Each of these issues have a clear scientific consensus, despite some non-scientific groups arguing passionately otherwise. In order for an issue to be scientifically contentious, there needs to be a body of science that represents an alternative hypothesis, and none of these issues have that.
    Also, one could argue that the fact that there was no disaster in 2000 is exactly because of the precautions that were taken, although of course we’ll never really know with that one!

  2. You have missed my point in that I was not claiming these were all equally scientifically contentious—merely that they have been among contentious issues, and furnished potentially-scary “unknowns” either now or in the past. I was talking about what people hear about science and the impressions they get. You have provided a good example, in that you are misinformed about climate change not having multiple explanatory hypotheses with vigorous scientific activity behind them (with solar mechanisms lately gaining tremendous ground) and considerable argument about how much warming has stalled, and the relevant data methods. Climate science could not be more contentious these days. And finally, the word “consensus” really has no validity in proper science. It’s not part of the method. If one scientist had been able to offer evidence to break the hypothesis of HIV causing AIDS, he could have (but all the scientists who tried, failed, though there certainly have been critics of the hypothesis who were not “non-scientific”). The fact is that those who work directly in the field or have had contact with it (as I have) are able to learn precisely why claims like “there’s no HIV in late-stage AIDS patients” are easily dealt with by citing experimentally-established facts, but others must obtain information through a filter that can be manipulated called the science media, that talk about things like “consensus” instead of explaining the important details of scientific evidence. Some contrary claims are simply wild, and some aren’t—and the way to discern them is not as easy as the “consensus” of big science media.

    On your final point, one cannot argue that precautions were successful, for a number of reasons; for one, multiple bureaucracies in the US failed to meet their targets, and for another, most other countries’ governments did nothing to revamp their systems, with much the same results.

  3. I’m in no way supporting some kind of science media consensus, or even a consensus among science journalists, and I’m aware that consensus is not part of the scientific process, but in many cases it can legitimately be used as a defense from disruptive and unscientific arguments. For example, the website RealClimate explains the views of working climate scientists. Every contributor is a working climate scientist. There is a wide variety of opinion regarding the rates of change and where to exactly assign responsibility for the changes, but there is a clear consensus supporting AGW. To deny that is not being skeptical, it’s being a denier.
    Just because there may be some data to suggest that the Earth has not increased in temperature over the last five or so years, this does not yet alter the clear evidence of dramatic warming over the last thirty odd years.
    Regarding y2k, like I say, different arguments can be made, but IMO it’s not possible to claim with any certainty what would have happened if nothing had been done.

  4. Oh, btw, I think the wiki explains my point better than I can, and even includes AGW as an example –
    I personally disagree with the Feyerabend perspective on this, but the Popper and Kuhn arguments are both interesting.

  5. Perhaps sixteen years, IIRC, not five—completely contradicting former alarmist AGW models, and thus falsifying those hypotheses (according to proper science) as well as hysteria like “our children will never know snow.” Gradual, long-term warming (luke-warming) is still a perfectly supportable theory, of course, but not rapid warming if the data has disproved it.

    This is to say nothing of data fraud and the verified smoking gun emails in which some famous “working climate scientists” talked about how they have to manipulate data to achieve the proper result, because the data wasn’t there.

    This is also to say nothing of other baseless claims made about weather, like an increasing number of storms (false) supposedly from global warming, claims which are clearly designed to scare people and sound like they have scientific credibility even though they are unscientific, and based on the assumption that rapid warming was definitely happening and AGW was true.

    Climate science is very complicated and still full of conjecture; it has no equivalent of the law of gravity like this. It’s simply duplicitous for any modern scientist in climate-related fields to claim certainty regarding conjecture about causation in complex systems, given that predicting them is incredibly challenging even over a very short time (that’s why meteorology becomes less precise as t increases). A decent scientist ought to expect that any computer models for complex systems will make bad predictions, because we’re on the far side of complexity science, post determinacy.

    “Denier” is a term borrowed from Holocaust issues for a reason. I see no reason for me to further debate skepticism over science if you would prefer to defend *ideology* (not a scientific theory if no matter what happens, it still must be true) from moralizing and biased sources, instead of giving any equal time to any of the many scientists who disagree with them; you can alternately examine some counter-arguments (and reams of commentary and criticism on data available) and endeavor to make up your own mind, as a skeptic should. Disagreement inherently implies disrupting “consensus”—a term which is almost exclusively used to prevent further argument, not at all what science is about. Science thrives on disagreement, not on stifling it.

    Science doesn’t include a mission to pillory or shut up crank scientists who choose to disregard more popular views among colleagues and doing their own work, whether those cranks happen to turn out correct (e.g. the discovery of stomach ulcer causation by bacteria) or incorrect (e.g. critics of HIV causation of AIDS). Science certainly doesn’t include a mission to shut up the layman for disbelieving, whether correctly or incorrectly, theories that (presently at least) lack evidence to support them; that’s the Medieval Church, and I think it’s better for everyone if we do not confuse the two.

  6. I’m in no way attempting to silence the cranks, I quite agree that fringe science ideas should be heard. The sensible approach to me still appears to point towards considering what most of the experts in the field say, like I suggested, at the RealClimate website, where all contributions are run by actual, working climate scientists. All of your concerns regarding the much repeated denier myths are answered in detail.
    The term denier is used for anyone who cherry picks data, moves the goalposts, indulges in conspiracy theories, and uses other fallacious arguments, not specifically to any one form of denial. Taking offense about the use of this perfectly descriptive term is, in itself, a distraction. You can choose to call me an alarmist a warmer, an ecofascist, whatever you want, I don’t think it alters the debate.
    Did you not read the wiki page for scientific consensus? It’s only short.
    You may well have the best intentions, I don’t doubt them for a moment, but I do have to question your claim to be thinking like a scientist.
    I quite agree about the complexity of climate change, and I disregard any arguments suggesting otherwise. Does that mean that we have a consensus that it is complex? Am I wrong to disregard those who say it’s simple?
    You also suggest that you see no reason to further debate, and you accuse me of defending an ideology. Where have I done that? If my position is wrong, surely this should motivate you to continue the debate, to point out my fallacies, no? I’m actually quite scrupulous about trying to keep my prejudices away from my approach to science, following the scientific approach described by Karl Popper.
    The climategate emails don’t appear to hold any kind of smoking gun. After a great deal of quote mining, a few sentences were pulled out that didn’t look that good out of context, but are really even quoted by the denialists because of the lack of smoke.
    Unless I’m wrong. Perhaps there has been a conspiracy, I’ve been completely fooled, and all the denier websites are hiding their smoking gun link from me, in which case, you don’t even need to debate with me further, you just need to post one link.

  7. *”rarely” not “really even quoted…”

  8. “It’s simply duplicitous for any modern scientist in climate-related fields to claim certainty regarding conjecture about causation in complex systems”
    I can’t resist pointing out this straw man. No climate scientist is claiming certainty regarding conjecture.
    I would urge you to look up some of the points made here
    I hope you find some helpful in your attempts to get up to speed with the science.

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