Thursday, December 17, 2009

Why are otherwise sensible skeptics susceptible to AGW denialism?

First it was Penn Jillette, now it's James Randi. Why do otherwise sensible skeptics seem to be prone to buying into the claims of anthropogenic global warming denialists?

Okay, a sample size of two doesn't necessarily mean anything, but I think there is something to this. In my opinion, the reasons are twofold:

First, unlike most of the "hot topics" in the skeptical community, AGW is goddamn hard to understand. When it comes to creationism, anti-vaccination, alternative medicine, religious and paranormal beliefs, even as a layman I can pretty handily explain why it makes no sense. (On a side note, some of the anti-vaccination propaganda is somewhat harder to debunk, which may help to account for folks like Bill Maher) With AGW, on the other hand, pretty much the best I can do is point out that the vast majority of people with legitimate credentials say it's real, so I have to trust them on it. Of course, it helps that when AGW denialists show the graphs that are supposed to show that warming doesn't track with CO2, I think they show a pretty strong correlation given how noisy climatology data is... but I really don't know very much about the topic, and to be able to guess whether the predictive models are accurate or not, well that takes a lot of knowledge I don't have.

Second, and I think this is important because Randi alluded to this in his statement, environmentalism is a pseudo-religious endeavor for many of its adherents. For those who view it this way, often their goals end up being laudable anyway, but the reasoning is sometimes sloppy or just outright wrong.

"We taught a lion to eat tofu!"
I watched Wheel of Time the other night, which contains several interviews with the Dalai Lama (incidentally, I think the Lama is a bit of a douche... he pays lip service to a lot of good causes, I suppose, but anybody who refuses to deny that they are a god is pretty much an asshole automatically). At one point, Hertzog asks him what his message would be to the world. Most everything he said was positive, but when he talked about protecting the environment, he pretty much summed up exactly what I am talking about: He said the objective was to "keep the environment pure." I had to roll my eyes at that one... And indeed, it seems to me that for a lot of people who support environmentalism, it's not about sustainability or ethics, it's about a metaphysical idea of purity.

A "supersense" of purity is the driving force behind a lot of religious intolerance, it seems. It also feeds a substantial amount of the appeal of alternative medicine: Don't "pollute" your body with those "unnatural" pharmaceuticals. Flush those toxins which are "contaminating" your health. Etcetera.

So should we really be surprised that some skeptics, as soon as they get a whiff of something being associated with a purity campaign, immediately put their bullshit detectors into overdrive -- to the point that it sometimes scores a false positive?

You could even argue that this may have fed into Jillette's ludicrous denial of the dangers of secondhand smoke (which he has since at least partially retracted). When the subject of smoking came up on the denialism blog, I was shocked at how much vitriol some of the commenters had for smokers. It was as if, rather than smoking just being a public health hazard, they thought it was a horrible sin, and that anyone infected with the sin must be an evil despicable person.

I also think a supernatural sense of "purity" feeds into some of the the stricter outdoor smoking regulations... There is no doubt that prolonged exposure to secondhand smoke is hazardous, but it is weird to me that someone who is bothered being ten feet away from a lit cigarette has no qualms about waiting minutes at a crosswalk at a busy intersection. I'm no scientist, but I have trouble believing the former is as harmful than the latter. (Try this experiment sometime: Ride a bike down a fairly busy road where traffic mostly flows at a pretty decent clip, but where there are a number of widely-spaced traffic lights. Smell the air in between intersections, and at the intersections. Mmmmm, that intoxicating scent of exhaust mixed with burning rubber and melting brake pads -- gotta love it!)

So the moral is: As skeptics, we must be careful not to let the smell of zealotry become a primary indicator of trueness or falseness. Though they may be garner the support of superstitious fanatics using fallacious reasoning, AGW and the risks of secondhand smoke are both quite real.


  1. First, I think it's a mistake to conflate "denialism" with "skepticism." And anyone who is a "skeptic" on any topic is (almost by definition) "prone to" the claims of both proponents and denialists.

    With AGW, on the other hand, pretty much the best I can do is point out that the vast majority of people with legitimate credentials say it's real, so I have to trust them on it.

    This is an intrinsically "unskeptical" position, and you shouldn't be shocked when "skeptics" disagree with you on it.

  2. This is an intrinsically "unskeptical" position, and you shouldn't be shocked when "skeptics" disagree with you on it.

    I'm not sure I agree that it's intrinsically "unskeptical". Nobody -- no matter how skeptical they may be -- can possibly become educated about every single topic there is to learn about. There's just too much out there. Hell, I already waste a lot of time at work getting up to speed on things like vaccination :D

    So sometimes it's necessary to, at least tentatively, take the "experts'" word on it. How willing I am to do that depends a lot on how the experts become experts, what kind of accountability they have, etc. In the case of climate scientists, the process appears transparent enough to me that I am willing to tentatively trust it.

    Randi has since clarified his position, that he is really just trying to say he doesn't know. And if his gut intuition says it's phoney, I'm okay with that. I think his initial announcement came across more like, "Well, I'm not qualified, but because a bunch of engineers signed a petition I think the scientific consensus must almost certainly be wrong!"

    If I said that the Voyager probes were a hoax, because the slingshot effect they used to get them up to speed wouldn't mathematically work out with the planets aligned they were at the time, would you just shrug and say you don't know, because you aren't a rocket scientist? Or would you say I was probably full of shit, because the experts all say the Voyager probes are real? Would the latter be an intrinsically "unskeptical" position?

    I dunno, I see your point, but in the end I think I disagree.

    As far as your first paragraph, I was careful not to say Randi (or Jillette) were denialists, only that they were "susceptible to" this type of denialism. I think that more or less agrees with your first paragraph. Their gut intuition is leading them astray on topics they know nothing about. Randi made a couple of denialism-esque arguments in his initial controversial post, but just the fact that he issued a humble clarification, rather than responding with vitriol and ad hominem and fallacious arguments of all sorts, sets him far apart from your average denialist.