Friday, July 27, 2007

Skepticism: It's all about the method

Tony Jones of ABC Australia recently hosted and directed a dicussion panel that focused on the flaws of the highly controversial (and if the US and British media is any indication - highly popular) documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle, written and directed by Martin Durkin.

Watching the documentary, I felt sick. While the movie was obviously intended to "refute" the basic science behind anthropogenic global warming, and as such was obviously intended to be a "skeptical" attack of the "dogmatic" establishment, it missed the fundamental point of skepticism: skepticism is not simply a position, but is a method. And the method, like any method concerned with interrogation, should be robust and should aim at getting at the truth.

Many of the flaws (yes, there were many flaws) of the documentary stemmed from the fact that it simply did not interrogate the other side well, and it certainly was not aimed at getting at the truth of the matter (as a foray into Jones' interview with Durkin will show). That is, it's method was flawed. In this way, it's skepticism was not good at all. And in this way, the position that Durkin took was not very skeptical (despite that fact that it was trying to raise doubt). Yet, many viewers of this documentary see it as skeptical simply because it raises its fist and goes against mainstream scientific thought. But so do many aspects of religion and junk science, but we wouldn't call them skeptical, would we?

Just because a position seems to be the result of skeptical inquiry doesn't make it skeptical.

Even Tony Jones fell into the skepticism as position trap when he seemed baffled by Dr. David Karoly's (IPCC contributing scientist) assertion that he was "still" a global warming skeptic. The apparent contradiction is solved when you see that, as a scientist, Karoly can adhere to the mainstream view but still approach it with caution. And indeed, he can be skeptical of other global warming theories - like the solar-forcing hypothesis that Durkin, amongst others, have put forth. The apparent contradiction further disintegrates when you consider that Krowley (and many other proponents of the mainstream view) approach the issue with the correct method, which includes getting the facts correct and interpreting competing arguments charitably, something that Durkin - the so called "skeptic" - in many cases didn't even bother to do.

No, a skeptical position is built upon a logically robust and reasonably robust method. Nor are skeptical positions reserved only for those that are outside the mainstream; indeed, skepticiam has usually been associated with the refutation of pet theories or pseudo-scientific views, most of which are usually in the minority.


Magnus Andersson said...

Hi, I made some nice comment on the blog Bad Astronomy (where I found your blog link), here...

..and it took me several minutes to write them (about open science), but they were all erased by the blogs owner, Phil Plait.

My comments were just nice and with facts, but he probably find the facts opposing his views on things I guess?

Just wanted to tell you, because I think Phil somehowe shall be punished for what he did.

Thanx if you allow this protest, otherwise, I don't mind...

Magnus Andersson said...

I'm blocked on Phils site now, without any reason that I can see!

Justin said...

I'm not quite sure what you mean, as your comments are on display there for me to see.