What does it mean to be skeptical?

Here’s the etymology of the word:

skeptic (n.) Look up skeptic at Dictionary.comalso sceptic, 1580s, “member of an ancient Greek school that doubted the possibility of real knowledge,” from French sceptique, from Latin scepticus, from Greek skeptikos (plural Skeptikoi “the Skeptics”), literally “inquiring, reflective,” the name taken by the disciples of the Greek philosopher Pyrrho (c.360-c.270 B.C.E.), from skeptesthai “to reflect, look, view” (see scope (n.1)). The extended sense of “one with a doubting attitude” first recorded 1610s. The sk- spelling is an early 17c. Greek revival and is preferred in U.S.

Skeptic does not mean him who doubts, but him who investigates or researches as opposed to him who asserts and thinks that he has found. [Miguel de Unamuno, “Essays and Soliloquies,” 1924]

I was reading the blog of a well-known Australian climate change denier recently – Jo Nova – and a recent post is titled, “Major 30% reduction in modelers [sic] estimates of climate sensitivity (skeptics were right)”. She calls herself skeptical and she’s written a book for skeptics called, “The Skeptic’s Handbook”. Yet if you visit her blog, there’s very little of the inquiry and reflection that you would expect from someone who calls herself skeptical and absolutely no sign of self-doubt. Instead she asserts in this post that “skeptics were right” and “the deniers were ahead of the climate experts”. I am reminded of a Bertrand Russell quote:

“One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.”

Scientists *are* full of doubts but Jo Nova is not. According to her she’s been right all along. She also mocks scientists for expressing their own doubts. Here’s what she says in response to a section in the paper in which the authors describe the uncertainty:

Translated: we weren’t very sure of things, and we still aren’t, and our new estimates are lower, but we didn’t completely rule this out in the past, so therefore we were really right all along in a vague kind of way.

The most ironic thing about her post is that the paper which she thinks proves that skeptics are right, is a paper that attempts to put a number on how much warming we can expect as a result of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.  That’s right, a paper that accepts human-caused global warming and attempts to quantify predictions, is somehow proof that (pseudo)skeptics were right.

The paper is called Energy budget constraints on climate response which was published in Nature Geoscience this week. For a good summary of the paper, I recommend this piece in The Guardian by Miles Allen (one of the authors): Matt Ridley has joined the real climate debate or this one by Alexander Otto on the Met Office website.

I don’t think there’s anything in the paper that warrants the salivating response from psuedo-skeptics like Jo Nova. Yes the Earth is warming, yes we’re causing it and yes there’s uncertainty as to exactly what the new temperature will be.

16 thoughts on “What does it mean to be skeptical?

  1. There are basically two kinds of skeptics: those who doubt conventional knowledge and seek to answer their doubts using the scientific method, and those who doubt conventional knowledge and answer their doubts by using the opinions of the like minded as proof. It would seem that Jo Nova is firmly in the latter group 🙂

  2. I appreciate all that you have written Rachel. One has to sceptical, but not cynical, to be a scientist. All scientific knowledge can be challenged, as it should be, and will be.

  3. Very worthwhile reading Rachel. Always thoughtful and well supported argument. Like most “words” and “terms” over time, they evolve and are subsequently purloined or misused by those with little insight into the pure meaning. That seems most applicable with the current sceptics on climate change and human contribution to it. One argument which amuses me, is the confusion over the difference between climate change and weather change which is often quoted in sceptic’s argument.

    1. Yes, the word has been purloined! Suddenly it is the namesake of people who sit in armchairs and decide they disagree with something without having conducted any experimentation themselves.

  4. Rachel,
    1. The received dogma of the UN IPCC is that the world is becoming inexorably,dangerously and unprecedentedly warmer and that the main driver of this increase is man-made CO2 emissions.” Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperature since the mid- twentieth century is very likely (= 90% probable) due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations “(4AR,2007).
    2.The proper attitude of any scientist is to be sceptical of any received dogma.Happily an increasing number are .
    3. There is little evidence that climate scientists are “full of doubt”.In recent planning for the next IPCC Assessment Report due in 2015,Senior UK Hadley Centre and IPCC lead author, Dr. Martin Parry,is reported as saying ,” The case for climate change,from a scientific point has been made .We’re persuaded of the need for action So the question is what action and when.” No sign of doubt there .”The debate is over”. “The science is settled.”
    3.As a result President Obama recently tweets on John Cook’s false consensus study ,” Ninety seven % of scientists agree: Climate change is real, man made and dangerous.” No doubt by policy makers ,because the science is settled.Otto et al is an attempt by some climate scientists to ” walk back ” from an untenable position.
    4. The IPCC statement above does not say directly that a human global warming influence has been identified and measured for the very good reason that it hasn’t.The null hypothesis that natural variability is the major influence on climate has never been falsified.
    5. Lastly from Bertrand Russell, my favourite philosopher,-
    “Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them.This is of course ,a mistake.”

    1. Bertrand Russell or no Bertrand Russell sadly, the positions are nullified because the sceptics so “loud”ly deny the science. Science has the “quiet” voice and is perhaps more difficult to comprehend and therefore more readily dismissed by the general population. Unfortunately, oftentimes, it is more comfortable and therefore politically convenient to go with the loudest voice. aka Lord Charles Monckton et al.

      1. Why do so many people believe Christopher Monckton? It really is a mystery because so much of what he says is incorrect. He does have a loud voice and a posh accent and a title. Could that be it?

  5. The Dunning-Kruger Effect might be invoked here, http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/scienceshow/the-dunning-kruger-effect/3102360 (listen to the audio or download the transcript). Robyn Williams recounts the event that led Justin Kruger and David Dunning of Cornell University to write their famous research paper, ‘Unskilled and Unaware of it: How difficulties in recognising one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessment’.
    In short, some people are so ignorant that they do not understand how ignorant they are.
    To quote Robyn Williams: “Bertrand Russell once said, ‘In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.’ From his essay ‘The Triumph of Stupidity’, published in 1933”.

    1. Great summary on ABC radio, thank you! I had thought about the Dunning-Kruger Effect and wondered how I might include it in this post as it seemed relevant. But I am also mindful that it’s not possible to exclude oneself as a sufferer. 😉

  6. The Otto et al paper that you cite puts Transient Climate Sensitivity at 1.3 degrees, Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity at 2.0 degrees.

    Nic Lewis, one of the co-authors of the paper, concurs with the 1.3 TCS value but puts ECS at less than 2 degrees.

    On this basis, the likelihood of there being any dangerous warming is getting to be fairly small.

    Furthermore, there are now several papers suggesting low climate sensitivity to CO2. These studies are based on observational data, so in my view hold more weight than those based on models

    1. A low climate sensitivity does not make the problem go away. We are headed for a great deal more than just a doubling of CO2. It’s possible that CO2 will be almost four times higher than preindustrial by the end of the century if we continue with business as usual.

      The paleoclimate record provides another method of estimating climate sensitivity and it does not rely on the short time frame instrumental record. A recent paper – http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v491/n7426/full/nature11574.html – puts it at 2.2 – 4.8K per doubling. I think the fact that the Earth’s temperature has swung considerably in the past, from snow ball to hot house and back again, is very strong evidence that our climate has a higher rather than a lower sensitivity. It the climate had been rock solid in the past, with little variation, then this would be evidence for a lower sensitivity.

      1. The Paleo estimates of senstivity are less tightly constrained than the ones based on observational data

        As for the log term issues, I don’t really believe that we’ll be using large scale fossil fuels by the end of the century. I have been looking at Thorium which has a lot of potential, and trying to persuade people to take a look at that e.g http://energyfromthorium.com

        I guess I follow the Lomborg school of thought on this matter

        Renewables sound great in principle but wind and solar have some fairly major issues,

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