Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Dismissive Skeptics

I have been reading a number of sites recently put out by formal organizations of "skeptics", as should be obvious form the number of posts I have recently posted on the topic of skepticism ("My Irritation with Supposed Skeptics", "Inquisition to Galileo - 97% of Scientists Support Geocentric Theory of the Universe", "A Bit of Support From the Skeptics"). In general, I find I am in agreement with skeptics on a number of topics. I agree with them on conspiracy theories. I tend to agree on quack medicine (though I do not believe in regulatory cures -- see "Medical Regulations" and  "Medical Regulation II"). I am in agreement with their take on predictive frauds such as astrology. I agree that current evidence for ESP, precognition and other parapsychological topics shows no evidence they exist. (Though, to be fair, I am less dismissive of the possibility they might exist. I took a few courses from Dr. Stephen Braude as an undergaduate and agree with some of his -- and others' -- criticisms of using laboratories to study volitional behavior. But that is a topic for another essay*.) In short, I agree with about 80-90% of what I read on skeptic sites, and where I disagree, often it is because I believe individuals should be free to make errors, and thus do not agree in using the state to regulate behavior, even to prevent people from making what seem obvious mistakes.

But there are a few items of, what I can only call skeptical orthodoxy, that trouble me. For example, while not the most devout individual, and often given to bouts of agnosticism, I still believe that the existence or nonexistence of God, as well as related matters, such as the existence of souls, the survival of the soul after death, and so on, are matters which can be neither proved nor disproved, and thus, as a practical matter, are not fit subjects for skeptical inquiry, since any position adopted will have to be one adopted without proof. Granted, one can argue "Ockham's razor argues a world without this extra spiritual dimension is the simpler answer", but that is really just bias. After all, a completely sound argument can also be made that a creator is a simpler explanation for the order of the universe than random chance producing such an orderly outcome. Both are simply attempts to make of one's prejudices the "simplest" explanation**. And thus, I am as put off by aggressively atheist skeptics as I would be by aggressively proselytizing skeptics.

The argument, or rather orthodoxy, which troubles me the most is the effort by many supposed skeptics to paint those who do not believe global warming is mostly man made, and is proceeding at a catastrophic pace, as anti-science "deniers". This is simply little more than bullying on their part, either preaching to the choir of believers, or trying to convince those who know little that no other position is valid. But, despite nonsensical claims about 97% support (or more), the truth is, many scientists doubt the current models, believe the feedback values are far too high, deny man as having a primary role, and in a few cases even see warming as a positive potential influence.

Nor am I basing this on any faith, or political bias. I am, more than the supposed rational skeptics, basing this on science and reason.

For example, the IPCC "hockey stick" graph shows flat temperatures, for the most part from 1000 AD to 1800-1900 AD. However, history records both a rather significant warm period and an even more serious little ice age in that time. Thus, I have to argue, since the supposedly accurate chart contradicts historical records, that the numbers and smoothing algorithms used were false. Since the people who designed the hockey stick have refused to reveal their methodology and sources, as criticized by several scientists, how can it possibly be more rational to believe in the IPCC chart than the evidence of many thousands of individual testimonies by people who lived centuries too early to have a stake in the AGW argument?

Then there is the fact that the computer models upon which this theory relies have proven pretty poor predictors of actual temperature. Not only do they poorly predict the future, but when run backward, they do not match past temperatures either. In short, the models relying on heavy feedback effects, and minimizing natural buffers such as increased plant growth, solubility of CO2 in water and so on, just do not accurately model the real world. Again, is it scientific to persist in believing in failed models when actual evidence points to a different conclusion?

I am sorry, but so long as supposed skeptics cling to this orthodoxy, and refuse to admit there are scientific reasons to be skeptical about claims of massive, catastrophic man made warming, I cannot take seriously their claims to be open minded and rational. Instead, I will see them as individuals, who, while right in a number of cases, are also blinded by their prejudices every bit as much as those they debunk.

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* The basic argument is that, because it is a voluntary action, test subjects may produce inconsistent results. One may produce contrary results, scoring consistently lower than chance would predict. Another may show runs of higher than chance results, followed by periods of mediocre results. Because humans do not respond in a pure stimulus-response manner, it is impossible to say that inconsistent results are proof of nonexistence. I am still skeptical of most claims of ESP, but I can see the arguments offered that the current methods for testing are far from ideal. Unfortunately, no better means exist, leaving us with no alternatives to these unsatisfactory tests.

** This is why I find Ockham's Razor such a poor philosophical tool. What is less complex, simpler or otherwise the version to be preferred is often open to special pleading, and thus, especially in questions where people are quite attached to their prejudices, Ockham's Razor tends to be used to make the case one's beliefs were right all along. And, in truth,being based on a rather nebulous foundation, there is no other way it could be used in many arguments. Thus, I find it, while not completely worthless, at best a minor additional confirmation, provided I have a good sized body of other evidence pointing in the same direction. I certainly would never use it as my sole, or primary, proof.

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UPDATE (2016/02/04): I have seen the argument made that last year being "the warmest on record" is proof of AGW. Well, not really. First, even if true, it could simply be an outlier, especially as the years before showed a mild cooling trend, inconsistent with constant, catastrophic warming.  But there is more. One, it is only the warmest year if one uses NOAA's oddly chosen, very biased ground samples, supplemented by some odd choices for sea measurements. This is not some political argument, many scientists, even those supporting AGW have criticized NOAA's approach in the last year.  See this, this and this. granted, the sources are largely conservative, but given that AGW has become a liberal article of faith, is that surprising? Do you expect to find proof of successful free market solutions in the Washington Post? As I said, media bias is a reality, and we should accept it, so just because conservatives publish something does not make it any less reliable than liberals, and the scientists involved are no less reputable. (See "The Path of Least Resistance", "The Press Versus the Nation", "Some Thoughts on the Media", "The Impossibility of Unbiased Reporting", "Intellect and Politics", "Selfishness as Reason - "Wants", "Needs", "Fairness" and Other Guises for Arbitrary Decisions" and "The Death of Impartial Media".)


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