How to be a real sceptic

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.

Can someone be productively sceptical? Of course. Firstly, one needs to be aware that scepticism about whether a particular point has been made convincingly is not the same as assuming that the converse must therefore true. Sometimes scientists just don’t use the best arguments they could (particularly if they are a little out of their field of expertise) and these points can, and should, be challenged. One example would be the use of an incorrect ‘correlation implies causation’ argument. For instance, the strong correlation of CO2 and temperature in the Antarctic ice core records does not in and of itself imply that CO2 has a radiative impact on climate. However, additional analyses that look at the factors controlling temperature during the ice ages give strong grounds for believing that CO2 does play an important role. Therefore while the use of the correlation argument alone is wrong, the converse of the conclusion is not necessarily true.

Secondly, it helps to have done the homework. It is highly unlikely (though not impossible) that the sceptical point in question has not already been raised in the literature and at meetings. If a particular point has been argued to death previously and people have moved on (either because it was resolved, moot or simply from boredom), there is little point bringing it up again unless there is something new to talk about. Obviously, a good summary of how the point was dealt with can be educational though. Arguments about whether the current CO2 rise is caused by human activity fall clearly into this category.

Thirdly, scepticism has to be applied uniformly. Absolute credence in one obscure publication while distrusting mountains of ‘mainstream’ papers is a sure sign of cherry picking data to support an agenda, not clear-thinking scepticism. Not all papers get the peer review they deserve (or require) and the literature has many examples of dubious logic and unsupported interpretation. Sometimes this becomes very clear (for instance, the Soon and Baliunas saga at Climate Research), and sometimes it goes uncommented upon. But what about Galileo? Wasn’t he an obscure scientist persecuted by an entrenched mainstream? Yes, but Galileo is celebrated today because he was correct, not because he was persecuted. If an idea is right, it will be supported by additional evidence and will lead to successful predictions – at which point it will likely be accepted. The ‘Galileo’ defence (and its corollary the ‘establishment conspiracy’) are usually a sign that the additional evidence and the successful predictions are lacking.

Finally, it should be understood that constructive scepticism is a mainstay of the scientific method. The goal of science is to come closer to a comprehensive picture of how the real world works, with scepticism essential to toughening up scientific ideas, though alone, it is insufficient to move understanding forward. It isn’t essential that every true sceptic have an alternative theory ready to go, but they should bear in mind that our picture of how the world works, though incomplete, rests on many different foundations. If it sometimes seems that the scientific consensus is resistant to new ideas, it is because that consensus has already been tested in many ways and yet still stands.

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