Just a quick note of reminder: despite my role as Editor-in-Chief of Skeptic North, the words/opinions expressed on this blog are entirely my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of Skeptic North.  Skeptic North is not taking a position on this issue, but people have asked me what I think of the Randi/AGW controversy.  So here it is, the non-Skeptic North stance on the issue, as told by me, Some Canadian Skeptic (which was here first!).


By now, you all know what happened: James Randi wrote an entry at the Swift blog expressing his concerns, confusion and doubt with the idea of global warming being anthropogenic in nature. (AGW: Anthropogenic Global Warming). After a ker-huge uproar in the skeptic community blogs, Randi wrote a followup, as did Phil Plait, and a whole slew of others.  The list of names is so comprehensive and obvious that I think I hardly need provide any more links.

What really fascinates me in this whole story is the degree to which people are taking this personally. I expect that part of this is because we all identify with Randi: the man that most of us cite as one of the primary causes for our journey into organized skepticism.  If James Randi can make such an amateur mistake, then what does that say about the entire movement?  Another part of this is probably because since the Skeptic community is so small, many people got to meet him in person, and have an additional relationship with him, on a personal or professional level, so it's a bit like having a friend announce during Christmas dinner that he just doesn't trust Italians and Jews.  Lots of people feel personally affronted by this, and I can understand that feeling (I share some of it), but it's important that we all take a valuable lesson here:

James Randi is our hero, but he is not our priest.  He does not interpret scripture for us.



When Randi posted his article, the skeptic blogs tore it to pieces!  This is a very, very good sign that maybe we're maturing as an intellectual / popular movement. If Randi had posted something like this in 1997, it would have set the agenda for the entire JREF, and maybe would have set the tone for the whole of organized skepticism.  But people like Carl Sagan, James Randi, and Michael Shermer have taught us very well, and we generally have a good understanding that no one is above criticism or scrutiny, and even the best skeptics can express some profoundly un-skeptical analysis from time to time.

If this Randi ordeal has taught us anything, could it be that maybe organized skepticism is no longer a top-down community, but a bottom-up movement?  It strikes me that the leaders and spokespeople no longer get to set the agenda by virtue of their position, eloquence, and skill.  Just like in the meat-grinder that is the peer review process in the scientific community, an idea in the skeptic community must pass-muster.  Skepticism 2.0, for all the dangers of amateurism, also brings to the table a base-level of amateur-peer review, one that which not even the mightiest among us are capable of contravening.

AGW denialism (yes, denialism)  is, in the words of a prominent Canadian skeptic, the greatest shame of the skeptical community, and this uproar has shown that most of us accept AGW.  It's up to the rest of us to start stamping out this AGW denialism fire that goes against the existing scientific consensus.

It's important to remember that most of us are NOT climate scientists, and we should NEVER argue for or against the science if we're unqualified.  The default position of every non-expert skeptic should be to accept the given scientific consensus at the time.  Not everyone needs to have an opinion on every issue, and I think it was irresponsible, foolhardy and hasty for Randi to cite his lack of understanding (his words), and then truck-in with the fringe.

The role of the non-expert skeptic should always be to argue the argument, not to argue the science. 

I think that the skeptic community was forced to take a long, introspective look at itself this week.  I wonder  that we may be at the turning point in the skeptic zeitgeist: we're graduating from the top-down, leadership and organization-based community of decades-past, and becoming a grassroots-level movement.  We have powerful intellectual tools at our disposal, and we're getting so good at using them that even the hero to us all can be forced to look square into the scrutinizing light of peer review.

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9 comments:

Thanks for posting this. I was thinking long the same lines.

This incident has shown, very clearly, that we are not a bunch of wide-eyed acolytes serving at the alter of Randi, Shermer, Myers, et. al.

This was, actually, a pretty positive thing for the skeptical community in the long run.

Icepick said...
December 18, 2009 at 12:04 PM  

Nice post Steve.

I had similar thoughts and emotions - perhaps it's that we've been talking - over on my blog.

Here: http://assholeskeptic.blogspot.com/2009/12/randi-boner.html

and here:
http://assholeskeptic.blogspot.com/2009/12/randi-gate-part-ii.html

December 18, 2009 at 12:11 PM  

Wasn't Randi demonstrating the TRUE nature of skepticism by questioning the received scientific truth about AGW? Isn't that exactly what the true skeptic does - question EVERYTHING?

Anonymous said...
December 18, 2009 at 12:22 PM  

@ Anonymous (please don't comment anonymously):

No. Randi effectively said "I don't understand this issue, therefore the answer is in line with the fringe of the scientific community".

If you don't understand the issue, then the onus is on you to either a) learn the issue (which isn't always possible, especially in the case of climate science), or b) default to the experts that DO understand.

Skepticism is a great deal more than "question everything".

Steve Thoms said...
December 18, 2009 at 12:26 PM  

Good post Steve.

You said "If you don't understand the issue, ... default to the experts that DO understand."

While I fully agree with that option -- this is going to sound awfully weak, I know -- I think the reasons behind it need to be spelled out (not here, just out there in the general whateversphere).

What I mean is, while I intuitively (innately?) understand the rationale behind the option, I don't know how I would effectively explain it to a doubter -- how I would articulate it. These days it's not enough to just say "Because they've studied it; they know."

If a doubter said to me, "All right pal, why, do we need to default to the experts?" I'm not at all sure how I would respond.

The option sounds, to me at any rate, obvious on the surface, but I am not sure it is so obvious when looked at with a critical eye. Do you see what I mean? Or am I being to vague?

SPF

SicPreFix said...
December 18, 2009 at 1:04 PM  

Eeek!?! I made the "to / too" mistake.

I hang my head in humbled apple oagies.

SicPreFix said...
December 18, 2009 at 3:15 PM  

Good points, but I sort of disagree with your conclusion there. I've been around the skeptical movement since 1992 and I've never seen a whole lot of leader-following. We always felt very free to disagree. People up and left, moved allegiances, had uproars. (You might want to look up the history of CSICOP.) There were always remarks about how we did not favor so-and-so's position on such-and-such, this one was too old, this one was too bold, yadayada. Many people thought Randi was too abrasive. He's mellowed with age, methinks.

It's very true that it's NOT good to follow. That leads to group-think and lots of "yes"-men and women. The hero-worship thing is here in skepticism alright. I don’t find it appealing. I love the big names but STILL have my beefs with P&T, Shermer and some of the cliquey stuff that goes on. I can't back any org or personality 100%. Something will always sit a little wrong and that's life. Nothing is perfect.

I think of the skeptical movement as a lot of people walking in the same direction dependent on the best knowledge they have, not what their idol said. We aren't following because we have no ordained leader.

All that said, I would not put it past Randi to have done this as a test. Just to see how big a kerfuffle could be generated. It sure has generated some outstanding conversation.

I Doubt It said...
December 18, 2009 at 7:05 PM  

"It's very true that it's NOT good to follow. That leads to group-think and lots of "yes"-men and women. The hero-worship thing is here in skepticism alright. I don’t find it appealing."

Agreed. As someone who has 'done her own thing', been burnt for questioning the group-think that does exist in skepticism - I've found more independence in 'going my own way' and not aligning myself with any official group beyond an independent podcast. I hope that many, especially women, find their voices to be heard without the need to be labeled.

I do doubt that this is 'Randi's test' however. I've seen this kind of behaviour before.

Podblack said...
December 18, 2009 at 11:18 PM  

well and let's argue the topic, not the person. It's like I think Penn is a good skeptic and overall does good work. Do I agree with the Libertarain stuff? No. But do I attack Penn, or do I attack his Libertarian stuff? Point is, the need is there for us to engage in debate at a different level than the religious infighting we see as a bad example. We are different, and let's not be a hobbying or grass roots type of organization. Let's be professionals. Time to take skepticism out of the interwebs blogger era and into center stage, a stage where we are admired for our clarity of our arguements, not our silliness of stuff like "Stick a fork in Randi" comments.

Kitty said...
December 19, 2009 at 1:13 AM  

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