How to be a real sceptic

Scepticism is often discussed in connection with climate change, although the concept is often abused. I therefore thought it might be interesting to go back and see what the epitome of 20th Century sceptics, Bertrand Russell, had to say on the subject. This is extracted from the Introduction to his ‘Sceptical Essays’ (1928):

I wish to propose for the reader’s favorable consideration a doctrine which may, I fear, appear wildly paradoxical and subversive. The doctrine is this: that it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true.

First of all, I wish to guard myself against being thought to take up an extreme position. … [Pyrrho] maintained that we never know enough to be sure that one course of action is wiser than another. In his youth, … he saw his teacher with his head stuck in a ditch, unable to get out. After contemplating him for some time, he walked on, maintaining that there was no sufficient ground for thinking that he would do any good by pulling the old man out. … Now I do not advocate such heroic scepticism as that. I am prepared to admit the ordinary beliefs of common sense, in practice if not in theory. I am prepared to admit any well-established result of science, not as certainly true, but as sufficiently probable to afford a basis for rational action.

….

There are matters about which those who have investigated them are agreed. There are other matters about which experts are not agreed. Even when experts all agree, they may well be mistaken. …. Nevertheless, the opinion of experts, when it is unanimous, must be accepted by non-experts as more likely to be right than the opposite opinion. The scepticism that I advocate amounts only to this: (1) that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain; (2) that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and (3) that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment.

So does this provide any clarity? Russell clearly doesn’t support an extreme where everything must be continually doubted and nothing can ever be known. As he later suggests, that kind of position would make it philosophically troubling to ever get out of bed in the morning. This extreme attitude does however rear up in climate discussions where an interesting debate on the impacts of human-related increases of greenhouse gases on, say, the atmospheric circulation, often becomes bogged down in how do we know that GHGs are increasing at all, whether they are affected by human activity, and how it’s all down to the sun anyway. Since all of these things have been discussed ad nauseum here, here and elsewhere, that kind of ‘scepticism’ (more accurately described as contrarianism, or ‘la-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you’-ism) serves only to waste time. Since working scientists are all busy people, this is usually why we tend to cease communication with such contrarians very quickly.

If we relax the above-mentioned constraint requiring ‘all experts’ to agree (something never achieved in practice) to ‘the overwhelming majority of experts’, we can substitute in the IPCC for ‘experts’ in the quote. It’s important to note that Russell does not claim that if all experts are agreed, then one must agree with them, but solely that being certain of the opposite opinion in such circumstances is not wise. It is implied by his opening statement then that having ‘all experts’ agree something is reasonable grounds for supposing something to be true. Similarly, if the IPCC concludes that something is highly uncertain (such as the magnitude of changes in aerosol indirect effects), then there are no good grounds for assuming otherwise.

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