Skeptics and Science

Daniel Loxton has written an interesting post over at Skepticblog about the role of skeptics in science. There’s quite the lively discussion going on in the comments of the post, as you can imagine.

For the most part, I agree with him. I’m in an interesting position as a skeptic with just enough science education (woohoo, undergrad degree!) to make me dangerous, so to speak. I find it fascinating that the skeptic movement has come up swinging when it comes to evolution denial, whether in the form of Intelligent Design or good old Creationism, but seems to be chasing its own tail when it comes to the science surrounding climate change. Now, I think part of the problem here is that the climate science is relatively new – at least in our understanding of it – compared to evolution, or geology, or medicine. Part of it may even be the subconscious realization that the climate science is saying something very scary about the way we live and the future that may be in store for us. I’ve honestly found it rather infuriating.

This actually makes me think of the little speech that Dr. Farmer gave at the department graduation last week. He told us that part of the importance of having our degrees is that it means we don’t have to take anyone’s word for it. We have the tools necessary to think for ourselves. Now, I’m sure this sentiment could be interpreted as something that supports the climate change deniers, for example. They’re just refusing to take the scientists’ word for it. Fight the power!

I couldn’t disagree with that more.

Having critical thinking skills and an understanding of basic science doesn’t mean that within us all is the power to take raw data and interpret is perfectly, or come to a reliable expert opinion after staring at tide gauge graphs for a couple of hours. What it does mean is that we don’t have to take, say, Al Gore’s word that climate change is a real thing and is happening. Rather, because we know how science works, we know where to go looking for the papers and the research. We can find a reliable body of experts in their field, such as the IPCC, because we know what sort of methodology and review are indicative of robust research.

This leads to how I often respond to just about any scientific issue that doesn’t involve geology (and many that do, since I’m certainly no expert); well, I don’t know enough to have my own opinion, but these other guys (e.g. the IPCC) have some good credentials and evidence, so I’ve got to go with them. The real pitfall here is that it’s very easy to get caught in the same trap as Randi did with the “Petition Project.” Some denialists are quite well camouflaged, and when they’re saying what you’d like to hear anyway, it becomes something of a siren song. Determining just who you ought to be listening to because you lack the necessary scientific background on your own is a gargantuan skeptical task in and of itself.

Skepticism works best when we’re going after pseudoscience because pseudoscience is at its heart bullshit lovingly dressed up in a lab coat. It takes twenty minutes on Google to become an expert (so to speak) on why homeopathy is crap because the base claim is so ridiculous in the face of reality. Psuedoscience and the paranormal often have only a lack of critical thinking or a dearth of common knowledge to support them; we bring in the “big guns” of basic scientific thought, and we win. The only expertise you need for these fights is in the field of critical and scientific thinking.

Once you get in to something like climate science, however, it’s time to admit that just one’s expertise at being a skeptic is no longer sufficient. When you’re wading in to a scientific field hip deep, you actually need expertise in that field to understand its subtleties and its messy parts, its strange interpretations and incredibly counter intuitive bits. At that point, whether you like it or not, you start relying on consensus and experts in the field. Or, I suppose, you can start sounding like an arrogant jerk who thinks that he understands tidal fluctuations when coupled with changes in the Earth’s geoid better than some schmoe who just (psh, whatever) did his PhD in it.

Critical thinking skills don’t give you the expertise to interpret data in a field that you haven’t been trained in. But it does give you the ability to detect that whiff of bullshit on the wind when an anti-vaccinationist waves around a study with a pathetically small sample size and some very dubious methodology in it. To rephrase what Dr. Farmer had to say, having a good science education means discerning just whose word is worth taking.

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