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, thenon-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.
The opinions expressed on this blog do not necessarily reflect those of Skeptic North, any of my past/present/future employers, or any of my past/present/future academic colleagues. These words are entirely my own.