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The Skeptical Disconnect Redux PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Kyle Hill   

“I think I have you skeptics figured out,” he said with a cautious smirk. “For you this isn’t about the science. It’s more of a political agenda. The science isn’t settled and it isn’t a popularity contest. Why can’t you see that?”

I feigned an understanding smile. This was the third time in so many days that I had to confront a denier of anthropogenic climate change (AGW) at the James Randi Educational Foundation’s 10th annual Amaz!ng Meeting.

“Politics has nothing to do with it. We have multiple lines of evidence all pointing towards the same conclusion: the Earth is warming and humans are the main cause. Nearly everything else has been ruled out,” I said.

“But the science is not settled…” he began.

         “Let me put it this way: do you accept evolution?” I interjected.

“Yes, I do” he said with noticeable hesitation.

“Would you say the fact that nearly 100% of biologists agree with the theory of evolution, based on multiple lines of evidence and a century of study, lends credibility to the theory?” I asked.

“Yes, I think so,” he said.

“Apply that same fact to climate change and climate scientists,” I said, nearly cutting him off.

“But the science is not settled. And we found out how unethical those scientists were behaving with ‘Climate Gate.’ I thought this conference about skepticism…”

**********

Last week I attended TAM 2012, the largest meeting of skeptics of its kind in Las Vegas, Nevada. TAM 2012 was definitely a success, meshing great speakers with even greater camaraderie. Yet, like my last conference outing where I discovered the disconnect between skeptics and atheists, I ran into a good number of skeptics who divulged to me that although they were die-hard skeptics, AGW was a hoax. Of course, it wouldn’t be a problem if AGW was an emerging or tentative theory in climate science, but it is not. The planet is warming, and humans are the main cause.

For over 100 years, climate scientists have been noticing warming trends in our climate, based on everything from tree rings to ice cores, thermometers to polar melts. All the evidence points in one direction: a rate of warming since the industrial revolution that cannot be accounted for by the urban heat island effect, solar cycles, inconsistent temperature recordings, or previous cycles of warming and cooling.

It is not my purpose here to outline the evidence behind AGW (other resources on the web do a fantastic job of that), but to say that for skeptics, this should be a settled issue. Remove all of the other variables that mask the AGW conclusion, like political pressures, propaganda campaigns, and outspoken decriers, and you are still left with all the evidence pointing towards the same end.

So again, we have a disconnect. The most likely answer for this is political orientation. Indeed, we find that AGW denial is not linked to scientific illiteracy, but to “cultural identity” (i.e. political and economics identities). Furthermore, this gap in AGW acceptance based on political orientation reveals that republicans are behind democrats in nearly every issue concerning the acceptance of AGW, and that conservatives attribute recent bouts of warm weather to AGW far less than democrats, just to highlight a few examples.

As was the case in the previous article, I am using anecdotes to make my case, but the lack of significant AGW acceptance in the skeptical community baffles me. Why don’t the skeptical notions of weight of evidence, scientific consensus, and independent confirmation hold sway on this issue? Again I suspect that politics is the answer. For example, the man who came up to me and engaged in the dialogue above noted that he was an outspoken libertarian, as if that was supposed to also imply that libertarians do not accept AGW.

Peruse even the most skeptical websites long enough and you will find comments from “skeptics” like this one, which I pulled from an article on Skeptic.com:

I was going to subscribe to your site and newsletter, but I see you have no more rational way of dealing with belief-driven drivel than do people like Graham Hancock or Billy Graham.

Where’s your skepticism when we, the consuming public, need it the most? Why do you accept the test data as factual, when so many of the testing stations have been PROVEN to give fundamentally flawed readings? Why are you just accepting, as dogma, the IPCC reports? Where’s your healthy skepticism of the data?

By your standards, David Copperfield has harnessed the real power of magic because video cameras don’t lie.

How incredibly disappointing to see an article like this on a site that prides itself on its rational thinking.

Our in-group fighting employs the dirty tactic of turning our own values against us. Skeptics will argue amongst themselves about dogmas and data, but it boils down to a fundamental disagreement that cannot be overcome by accusations of irrationality. The data backs up AGW; appealing to a skeptic by calling them in effect a bad skeptic does not change this. My only recourse is to assume that some other variable, namely politics, grossly overshadows the skeptical principles that would otherwise lead us to embrace climate science.

But those of us who already accept AGW know this to be the case. We know how divided people are on AGW based on politics (as the polls show above), and because skepticism does not necessarily equate to any one political position, there is little reason to believe that skeptics would not be divided as well. But as we divide ourselves along party lines, climate science progresses, and the real questions about what can we do to mitigate the effects of climate change, and how to deal with its consequences, pass us by.

It’s time for the skeptical community to embrace its own values and to accept climate science. It is one of the most important issues of our time, and certainly not inconsequential or “alarmist” to acknowledge. We have the data, we have consensus in the scientific community, we actually see the effects slowing taking shape in the form of intense wildfire seasons, rising sea levels, and national heat waves. It’s time to drop the chains of ideology and be proper skeptics, supporting the science we put so much value in.

Let the accusations of my incomplete skepticism commence in the comments below, keeping in mind that it only proves a point.

 

Kyle Hill is the JREF research fellow specializing in communication research and human information processing. He writes daily at the Science-Based Life blog and you can follow him on Twitter here.