Monday, April 8, 2013

The difference between skepticism and disbelief

One of the myriad subjects that's been bouncing around my cranium recently has been the nature of scientific skepticism.  I suppose I should admit what brought this about: one of my housemates is an alumna of Bowdoin College, a liberal arts college in Maine, which recently came under attack by the Neocon pressure group National Association of Scholars for exemplifying what they believe has "failed" about modern liberal arts education.  Reading the report is a sometimes hilarious, sometimes soul-crushing reminder of the non sequitors that build up in a movement that only listens to itself*. But rather than dismissing the entire report as simply another episode of "Those Neocons say the darndest things!" I found myself thinking about one point that was often (shrilly, bleatingly) raised.  I am paraphrasing, but the report repeatedly implied that Bowdoin failed to teach students any sense of academic skepticism using two different examples: first, by proceeding from an unexamined assumption that gender is an inherently social construct (rather than being determined by "biology") and second, by not teaching any of the controversy over global warming.

I don't want to discuss either of these issues in this post.  Instead, I want to discuss how the nature of skepticism in each of these issues is different, and why it's impossible to apply the label of "skepticism" as expressed by the anti-AGW movement to scientific issues like climate change, the safety of GMO foods, or many other inherently technical controversies.

The traditional nature of skepticism in the classical sense is interesting because it evolved in an era where all education was largely identical, most students had the same background, and a proposition could be debated on an even footing by most students.  Even if it was a meta-issue, everyone could approach it and any reasonably intelligent person could follow and propose arguments for and against, examine the strength of the proposition, and decide for or against it.  The importance of skepticism in this setting is to not prima facie accept any assumption, argument, or proposition but to question and examine its strength before lending it credence.

This kind of environment sounds familiar to me.  It's the environment of today's philosophy class, or of parliamentary debate.  In both cases, all students are on more-or-less the same footing (parliamentary debate explicitly restricts the topics to those "that a well-read college student" can speak about) and implicitly encourage commentary and conflict.  In this environment, gender assumptions (such as the ones the NAS favors or dislikes) can be openly debated and skepticism can come into play - in fact, I think in most gender studies such skepticism is actively encouraged.

If we contrast this with what the NAS would characterize "skepticism" on climate change, however, we run into a problem.  The essential pre-condition of a skeptic - that he or she be able to consider propositions on an intelligent level and accept or reject them based on evidence - is missing for the vast majority of people.  The entire proposition turns on an understanding of atmospheric dynamics and climatology that requires at least 4, probably up to 10 years of dedicated study in order to look at intelligently.  As a result, opinion on the issue is, for the vast majority of people, reliant on uninformed common sense or argument from authority.

The formiddable barrier to understanding climate change theories posed by a needed background climate science and climatology is just one example of why, for the general public, traditional philosophical skepticism has basically no relevance to the NAS's position on "climate skepticism," and science "skepticism" as a whole.  Within the fields of climatology, learned people with similar backgrounds can (and do) argue furiously over each other's propositions with an attitude close to the skepticism one deservedly expects from a rigorous academic field.  Outside of the field, however, such approaches become impossible without devoting extreme amounts of time and energy to the subject.

I can give another example, one much closer to my own work.  In my office, there is a major debate about processes involving fermentations of syngas, where living organisms digest mixtures of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and hydrogen.  I and some of my colleagues are highly suspicious of anybody who claims to have accomplished this kind of process economically for some very arcane technical reasons involving mass transfer, pressure vessels, and the like.  Chances are, after reading those previous two sentences, unless you have a significant background in bioprocess engineering your eyes will have glazed over and you would have no meaningful input to the debate, nor any meaningful position on it.  Once again, inside my specialized field, most everyone that tries to promote syngas fermentation approaches a highly skeptical community - as it should be.  Outside of my field, the best someone can do is apply common sense or appeal to authority.

In terms of the nature of skepticism, the only difference between the climate change debate and the syngas fermentation debate is the relevance of each to public policy and daily life.  For the former, the impact is potentially enormous; for the latter, the average joe couldn't care less.

"Skepticism" in the context of any advanced field for a layman is impossible.  Instead, what we as people do in these situations is either to trust or to distrust authority figures on the subject, or (more likely if the subject has no relevance to our lives) politely decline to take any position. 

All of this brings me back to the NAS and how it castigates Bowdoin College for not teaching "skepticism" about climate change.  In that case, "skepticism" is nothing of the sort.  It is impossible to be properly skeptical of a proposition when one doesn't have the background to engage it.  No, what the NAS wants and is encouraging Bowdoin to teach is not "skepticism" but naked disbelief.  In an environment in which basically the only arguments that can be made are either citing or parroting those of authority figures, there is no skepticism or its opposite, unchallenged acceptance. There is only belief or disbelief, or, too often, our authority figures or theirs**.

Ultimately, that's what the NAS wants - their authority figures placed on the same pedestal as those with actual expertise.  Calling it "skepticism" cloaks their crusade with a veil of academic integrity, but in reality is simply a cynical game of our-guys-versus-theirs.  Translate this same naked authority game to other debates where the public is unable to engage the issue without significant background, like GMO crops, oil and gas policy, or chemicals regulation, and you see advocacy groups trying the same tactic.

Frankly, I am tired of so-called "skeptics" on all scientific issues weighing in when their arguments simply boil down to I think my authority figures are more convincing than yours, accompanied by the still worse I think your authority figures are in a conspiracy to discredit mine.  All the parroted statistics and out-of-context, out-of-date arguments don't matter.  Let's call a spade a spade, and stop pretending fanatical believers are skeptics, of any position.

* To make it clear, at this point my views on higher education, secondary education, streamlining, testing and all that jazz more closely resemble a moderate conservative's than those of the American left wing.  However, the NAS goes far and beyond reasonable education reform and careens from railing against "stifling political correctness" (a meme that I have serious problems with), misplaced nostalgia for the core curriculum ca. 1900,  to wild-eyed claims that Bowdoin actively promotes sexual assault by not condemning sexual activity among its students.  It has placed itself firmly at the top of my list of things that allow me to document the unjustified assumptions and logical fallacies that pervade the dark corners of the conservative movement.  All in all, a piece of disgusting propaganda.

**In fact, if we focus in a little more on the climate change issue, we'll find something remarkable.  Within any academic field, for basically the entirety of the experts on a subject to coalesce around a single theory is remarkably rare, indicative of a large-scale shift in thinking to a theory that better explains all observed phenomena.  For those who wonder where the skeptics are in climatology, you have to look no further than most of the current academic chairs and department heads, who went into the field during the turbulent 1970s and 1980s, approaching climate change hypotheses with the same rigor that they applied to their own research, and were eventually convinced (some of the last remaining holdouts in the early '90s, for example, worked at MIT, where there is basically only one skeptic professor left).  As a result, there are basically no authority figures left in the field with any credibility, which is why the authority figures the anti-climate change movement has cooked up have credentials unrelated to climatology - not that it stops them from claiming that they're experts.

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