Climate change and the traditional skeptics: An opinion study

Introduction
One group of organized, regimented individuals has enjoyed popularity in the past three years or so, inciting resurgence in an otherwise insular public body called the skeptics. Traditionally, skeptics have been involved in the study and ‘debunking’ of various non-institutionalized forms of healing, prediction, spirituality, religious practice, theism and ‘paranormal’ activity. Within their circles opinion seems to be divided whether to confine activities within this sphere, or to extend its range to other contentious areas of public debate and policy. Reasonably comprehensive sources of information on the methods and history of the skeptics are available[1, 2].

The reasons for the recent skeptics’ resurgence appear to be two-fold. Firstly, there has been an infusion of new blood. High-profile individuals, in pursuit of their own objectives have allied themselves to the ‘skeptical cause’ picking targets that are common. In some of these instances, a large mass has then arisen following their issues closely and providing them support and monetary donations. A good example of this phenomenon is the Simon Singh-BCA affair[3]. Historically as well, prominent and charismatic individuals have played an important sustentacular role within the movement, although the reasons for this remain unknown. Secondly, there has been a big push to utilize ‘new media’ in reaching out to more people and this has met with a degree of success[4].

The question that concerns us here is the skeptics’ attitude toward one area of contentious science-related public debate: global warming and climate change. As skepticism and a rational attitude can be expected to ‘spill over’, it was inevitable that members of this group would express opinions on this matter [5-10]. Driven largely by a questioning attitude, requests for open data availability and efforts at critical examination of consensus assessments—attributes they can well be expected to have in common with the traditional skeptics—another group the climate skeptics, has recently acquired public prominence. The reactions from traditional skeptics towards skepticism in the climate change debate however have largely been negative and members of this group often appear to hold skepticism in the area of climate change in dim regard[11].

An understandable problem in this type of study remains: how does one identify ‘the traditional skeptic’ or ‘the official skeptic’? How best can one attempt to obtain a diverse yet representative sample of individuals who are allied with the movement, ranging from those that are central to the movement, to those entirely peripheral in involvement? One answer would be to take advantage of a process of self-selection and identification.

Caveats
At the outset, it should be made clear that studies of this sort carry many constraints which are integral to their conduct and conclusions. Firstly it is recognized that the group – ‘traditional skeptics’ is not a well demarcated one, however clear its contours may appear to those outside it. Membership is voluntary, fluctuating and highly overlaps with entities with similar objectives. Secondly it has to be made clear that a study of this type is not a guide to the level of scientific, technical or analytic expertise of its subjects. Lastly the study’s sample is not random. Indeed it is stressed that it is not intended to be one.

Methods
The blogger Crispian Jago[12] has created a compilation of traditional skeptics with accompanying artwork. Called the ‘Skeptical Trumps’, the list is comprised of a wide array of individuals who have made contributions to skepticism and rationalism, as selected by Jago[13]. The ‘Skeptical Trumps’ list was accessed to obtain the ‘traditional skeptics’ sample.  The search engine Google was employed to identify articles containing opinions expressed, if any, by members of this list using names in conjunction with the phrases “global warming” and “climate change” as search terms. Results were assessed for the search target which was the consensus position, summarized (colloquially) as follows: ‘the globe is warming, humans are the cause and we have to do something about it’.

For example, in order to identify the science writer Simon Singh’s views on climate change, the search string “Simon Singh climate change” was employed. Where not available straightaway, search results were pursued until it was reasonably clear that the subject has not expressed readily accessible opinion on the subject; this endpoint was arbitrarily chosen when the first 20 results failed to show relevant material. Results were classified as follows:

  1. Authors’ blog posts, newspaper articles, TV interviews, speeches, audiovisual media appearances or statements or ‘Twitter’ messages in support of the consensus position
  2. Position favorable to the above consensus
  3. Expressed doubt of any kind and magnitude in the consensus position.

Results
71 subjects were studied. Seven members were identified as being primarily entertainers (comedians, singers and a magician), and were excluded. A total of 64 subjects were therefore included in the final analysis. Indication of some kind of the subjects’ views on anthropogenic global warming was available for 46 individuals.

Of the above, 6 were ‘favorably disposed’ to the consensus position (category B), 38 expressed views more directly supporting the consensus position on climate change (category A), whereas two expressed some form of doubt. In both instances, these individuals later partially withdrew from their respective stances[6, 14] (this has however not been taken into account in this classification).

In all, about 68.7% of those studied expressed views directly or indirectly supporting the consensus position on climate change. This figure rose to 95.6% if the percentage was calculated to include only those whose views were available (i.e., 44/46). 3.1% of subjects expressed doubts. Lastly, no information about their position on global warming or climate change could be discerned on ~28% of individuals.

Traditional skeptics and AGW

Conclusion
It is evident that a substantial fraction of the traditional skeptics in a self-identified sample, directly or indirectly support the consensus position on the theory of anthropogenic global warming. More significantly, only a minuscule minority expressed skeptical views on the topic. These groups display a significant level of societal engagement in matters relating to public understanding of science. Consequently, attention is drawn to the finding that none of the traditional skeptics appear to hold openly and consistently articulated views differing from the consensus on climate change science or policy. The reasons for this are perhaps deserving of investigation.

References
[1]  Hansen, G., CSICOP and the Skeptics: An Overview. The Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 1992. 86(1): p. 19.

[2]  Some notes on Skepticism. http://replay.web.archive.org/20090408153123/http://www.suppressedscience.net/skepticism.html.

[3]     Ederyd, C. Don’t Panic > Magazine > Simon Singh wins libel case Acclaimed science writer’s victory for free speech.    http://www.dontpaniconline.com/magazine/politics/simon-singh-wins-libel-case.

[4]     Grothe, D. CSI  Skepticism 2.0.    http://www.csicop.org/si/show/skepticism_2.0.

[5]     Lambert, T. Was Johnny Ball really victimized by environmentalists? : Deltoid.    http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/2011/02/was_johnny_ball_really_victimi.php.

[6]     Randi, J. I am not “denying” anything.    http://www.randi.org/site/index.php/swift-blog/806-i-am-not-qdenyingq-anything.html.

[7]     Delingpole, J. The curious double standards of Simon Singh  James Delingpole.    http://jamesdelingpole.com/blog/the-curious-double-standards-of-simon-singh-1290/.

[8]     Faux Skeptics – Blogs – UK-Skeptics forum (Discussion on David Allen Green’s views on climate change).    http://www.ukskeptics.com/forum/entry.php/6-Faux-Skeptics.

[9]     Shermer, M. The Flipping Point: Scientific American.    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-flipping-point&print=true.

[10]  Coates, S. and M. Henderson. C4’s debate on global warming boils over – Times Online.    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/science/article1517515.ece.

[11]  Orac. James Randi, anthropogenic global warming, and skepticism : Respectful Insolence Blog.    http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2009/12/james_randi_anthropogenic_global_warming.php.

[12]  Jago, C. Crispian Jago Website.    http://www.crispian.net/.

[13]  Jago, C. Skeptic Trumps.    http://www.crispian.net/page3/page3.html.

[14]  Jillette, P. Penn Jillette Global Warming | ‘I don’t know’ — and that’s no act – Los Angeles Times.    http://articles.latimes.com/2008/jul/03/opinion/oe-jillette3.

Study Search data is available at: http://nigguraths.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/search-results-data-climate-science-and-the-traditional-skeptics-snc2.pdf

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20 comments

  • need a way to tell between the skeptics as free thinkers from the consensus-obsessed Defenders of Science (say, Singh). I surmise that all free thinkers will have at least one topic where they think differently than the scientific elites .

  • Thanks, Shub, for a great read and an interesting study – and for a new word to add to my lexicon, “sustentacular”. And here I thought it was a typo … thank heavens for Google, which put me out of my ignorance! But I digress …

    Based on my own experiences – and even virtual acquaintanceship with one whom you’ve cited, above – I am not surprised by your findings.

    What never ceases to surprise me, though, is that so many of those on your “A” list really should know better.

    The only “excuse” I can find for them is that, in addition to being, well, “blinded by science”, they’ve fallen into the logic trap of – not appeal but – acquiescence to authority, without doing any of their own homework and due diligence.

    Hulme and Alcamo set the “consensus” ball rolling in the days before Kyoto, when they sent off their virtual chain letter, asking scientists to endorse a 1997 EU “Statement of European Climate Scientists on Actions to Protect Global Climate”. (This discovery in the Climategate emails was the subject of my very first blogpost!)

    It’s a strategy that obviously worked. They succeeded in hoodwinking their colleagues, and this “consensus” by acquiescence ball just kept rolling along (and gathering lots of moss!)

  • That is surprising indeed. Skeptics are supposed to question, unpleasant social consequences notwithstanding, anything that is laid out in front of them. Instead what we have seems to be an unquestioning acquiescence indeed.

    I mean, how much effort does it take today, some 250 years post-Enlightenment, to direct supposedly earth-shattering questions at the crumbling remnants of the edifice of astrology, homoeopathy and belief in a God? Almost all of these things have reached a residual state of subjective and secretive preservation in which state they stay on alive, rather than being the very basis for social integrity, cohesiveness and its well-being, as they once were.

    Instead, we have new forms of scientific-political thought and ideology, rushing to fill the emerging void – the doctrinairre cult of the false interdisciplinarists of global warming stand at its head. And yet, not a single skeptic has seen through this? But there is all the time in the world to fill the air with the hoary cries of ‘infamy’ against some imagined monsters (like reiki and feng-shui)?

    I don’t believe it.

  • YES. Skeptics follow Appeals to Authority far too easily.

    But one answer to your study is the deep political divide over AGW, reflected among skeptics. Polls of skeptics show that around 70% self-identify with the left, and maybe less than 15% with the political right. (Shermer addressed this on his blog a year ago or so – it is very relevant to him since he IDs as libertarian.)

    And the left (ie, Democrat voters) follows official IPCC-style AGW tup o 80% levels, while the right maybe 70% – up from 50% pre climategate. Thus, skeptics reflect the former;s intransigence much better than the latter’s born-again skepticism through corruption.

    I explained the fallout from climategate to a PhD educated columnist for “The Skeptical Inquirer” who just moved to Denver from Berkeley last January. She had no clue about the forthcoming Berkeley Earth Surface Stations study organized by Richard Muller, depite having lived there. She had no idea what it was or why Muller found it necessary to do.

    Orthers like Kendrick Frazer (sp?) display all the biases of other American science writers (SEE Skeptical Inquirer, July/August 2010 for instance), ie, capture of the Society of Environmental Journalists by the enviro-wacko activists. Thus, after 2007, balancing stories – where one scientist says ‘AGW is alarming, but some scientists dispute the claim’ – are unofficially rejected. The Science is Settled. And so climategate got little or only rare play in the US print media last year.

    Nevertheless, I’m astounded at how easily Shermer found AGW-data in plural anectdotes. He is going to have to shamed into modifying his stance soon. I see no other future for him on the subject.

    There is a crying need for a popular science book entitled :Global Warming Lies” to explain the many cases of obscurantism and data-blocking, cherry picking of evidence, and goal-post moving that warmers have become infamous for. Meanwhile, climate science is clearly stalled out, sliding into a dive, much as Lindzen has explained.

    I’m trying to make t plain to skeptics – who naturally do care about scientific progress.

  • I’m trying to make t plain to skeptics – who naturally do care about scientific progress

    I am not so sure any longer, Orson. Many of the activists are former believers in all sorts of strange stuff, so the climate disaster for skepticism might just be an indication that they replaced one True Belief with another.

  • Let me reiterate my first and latter points. The progressive Left is nothing if not about the moral superiority of establishing the Rule of Experts (TM), and IPCC-style AGW is nothing if not the same. Therefore, given the political sociology among skeptics (above), this result is not surprising.

    What is necessary is appealing to skeptics critical thinking perspectives which ought to militate against easy acceptance of AGW-conformism. But no one in AGW-skeptic crowd has yet done so.

    One test of this theory might be how skeptics review and respond to Patrck Moore’s new memoir cum environmental manifesto, “Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout: The Making of a Sensible Environmentalist.” In the opening, he reminds people that science news that reads “maybe..” also means “may not be.” This simple crticial reading skill seems missing among skeptics as the climate news goes towards the evermore patently hysterical! (AGW causes East coast blizzards?….Southeast tornado swarms? etc) It has become increasingly rediculous,

    Moore’s chapter on climate change quickly lays out the problems with climate science, and comes down solidly on the skeptic side. But will skeptics read it? Will skeptic reviewers twist and trash it? Thus, the test it poses for skeptics faith in rule by experts.

  • In other words, most skeptics prefer the Rule of Experts, over practicing skeptical science

  • Surely the rank and file skeptic who contributes time and money attending their conferences and buying their magazines do not see themselves as ‘data-blockers’! But there seems to definitely be a top-level failure’ – the leading lights do not represent the virtues of their own followers.

  • Yes Orson, the Left has a long history of doing the “science demands…” type of arguments.

    But the specific group here – the skeptics – are different in certain ways.

    Firstly, when they argue against magical tricksters, numerologists, iridologists and the like, the garb that is worn is one of rational argumentation and reasoning. In this realm, they clearly understand that authority and emotional appeal will not convert audiences like a well-timed revelatory maneuver – the expose, can.

    Inside this area, they certainly do not seem to say: you reiki practitioner, are wrong, because Michael Shermer said so.

  • The second form : when certain members who, in my opinion, have hijacked the skeptics for their own self-aggrandizement.

    Look at this page, for example:

    http://www.philosophical-investigations.org/British_Science_Fascists

    An excerpt:

    But do they deserve to be called ‘Fascists’, after the 20th century political movement? The term is bandied about carelessly elsewhere. But we use it very, ah ‘scientifically’, as these reactionary thinkers share with the original fascists

    • a superficial and ideological commitment to Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection, which they attempt to adopt for political ends
    • an inappropriate and dangerous reverence for scientific ‘progress’, coupled with an unwillingness to accept an ethical dimension to science
    • an objectionable version of the history of science
    • an even more objectionable distinction between ‘Rational Man’ and ‘irrational deviants’, with an often vicious antipathy towards the latter.

  • Shub~ THANKS for your reply.

    I suspect we are framing the question differently), or different frames of reference (ie, just who are the skeptics in the movement), or maybe coming at the topic with ; thus we come up with overlapping but different (incompatible?) answers?

    It’s a Sat night out to be social. I’ll get back Sunday~hopefully, with a better response.

  • Very interesting post. I have recently been pondering the stance of skeptics on climate science and blogged about it here :

    http://zone5.org/2011/02/climate-change-will-the-real-skeptics-please-stand-up/

    Over the past few years I have been influenced by the skeptics and have joined them in tackling what I see as the rise of irrationality in society, but especially within the environmental movement which seems inexorably joined with New Age religion including homeopathy and Gaia worship. For a long time I repeated the same mantra as the rest of “the science is settled” on AGW etc, but is slowly dawned on me that AGW is practically the ONLY environmentalist cause that IS (ostensibly) supported by science: nearly every other topic (viz. organics, GM crops, nuclear) is not supported by science, which is generally percieved as being part of the problem in the post-modern mindset of many.
    It was only when I looked closely at Gore’s film, and read Lomborg (rather than dismissing him as a fraud as I was told) that I realised there is much more going on. I dont know why the traditional skeptics are so uncritical of the “consensus” but I still think their work on quack medicine and the paranormal is important: it is after all part of what has brought me to where I am today.

  • Graham,
    Thank you for the link to your post on the topic. I remember reading your blog some time back, I think, on the Delingpole-Nurse issue.

    Yes, I did not editorialize on outcome of this small study because I do believe, contrary to what it shows, that the skeptical community at large is made up of a vast array of different kinds of people, all of them very likely individualistic in their approach and assessment of science and social issues. Which is why the sheer homogeneity of the results was so surprising for me. You can take a look at the pdf file: the names from the skeptical Trumps list come from the entire spectrum of public intellectuals.

    You cannot estimate how grateful I am for a few details I learned from your post: that Massimo Pigluicci is a former colleague of Stuart Pimm at the University of Tennessee. If Pigluicci’s intellectual affinities are anywhere near Stuart Pimm’s and Jeff Harvey’s, then he has completely misrepresented himself to the skeptical community, in more ways than one. Firstly, Pimm and Harvey are what can reasonably be termed, passionately militant ecologists (as their anti-Lomborgian tirades should surely speak). Secondly, when Pigluicci criticized Randi for speaking against the climate consensus, his main advice was: ‘don’t get into topics you don’t have expertise in, stay within your bounds (which presumably consists solely of debunking homoeopaths and magicians) and know your limits’, advice he does not seem to have heeded himself.

    Why, did Pigluicci use his influential position inside the skeptics movement to declare questioning of the consensus on AGW off-bounds, when by his own admission, he was himself in no position to evaluate the veracity of its claims?

  • Shub: “he was himself in no position to evaluate the veracity of its claims?”
    and by the same token the homeopaths could perhaps justifiably argue that only homeopaths are qualified to question their results! This idea that we should trust the scientists is very dis-empowering- what is needed is for a greater public understanding of science, which requires actually reading some of the papers- and examining the behavior of scientists and their reactions to criticisms- which is what many climate skeptics are doing so admirably I think.

  • ‘But there is all the time in the world to fill the air with the hoary cries of ‘infamy’ against some imagined monsters (like reiki and feng-shui)?’

    People usually concern and exercise themselves about that which they believe they understand, or are capable of understanding, don’t they?
    I’m told there are lot’s of job opportunites for feng-shui debunkers…

  • You’re not too far out Chuckles. When Singh tells people to believe the experts he’s basically saying he doesn’t understand the topic…and therefore why would anybody follow his lead and believe the experts? 8-)

  • This is partly a reflection of the fact that the skeptical movement has recently been hijacked (media-wise, at least) by a bunch of ‘Johnny-come-lately’ left-wingers and minor pop-sci celebs. It’s also partly a reflection of the fact that Jago’s list is very unrepresentative of the active skeptic movement, and is clearly heavily skewed by his own political prejudices.

    In fact, most of the people on the list have never been involved in the skeptical community — even Dawkins has never had that much to do with the skeptical movement, apart from attend the occasional conference when guaranteed a star spot and payment.

    The only ‘old-timers’ there are Randi, Blackmore, Kurtz, Scott, French, Wiseman and Shermer (who, admittedly, was always rather pompous and self-important).

    Ian Plimer, you’ll notice, doesn’t appear on that list, even though he was a stalwart member of the National Committee of the Australian Skeptics for a very long time, and a star figure for years in the international skeptic community.

    But, having made that partial defence, there is no doubt that the sceptic movement is heading in the wrong direction, especially in the US.

  • Vince Whirlwind

    I attend skeptics meetings. They’re a great bunch of diverse people. Occasionally a climate-change denier comes along, too, calling himself a “sceptic” and spouting unasked-for inexpert opinions that are clearly of no value.

    Most commenters above don’t seem to understand the difference between being skeptical and being an anti-science ideologue. The stuff they believe is ludicrous and inherently contradictory.

    As a skeptic I was less convinced in the reality of AGW by the published science on the issue (which is extensive, wide-ranging, and complex) than I was convinced by the sheer stupidity and simple illogic of the denier arguments.

  • Vince, you say:

    I attend skeptics meetings. They’re a great bunch of diverse people.

    I agree they may be a diverse bunch, but look at the results of the study – it indicates complete homogeneity with respect to the question of anthropogenic warming.

    It would be very interesting to see results of surveys conducted by the more prominent skeptical organizations with their membership, about their views on AGW.

    What about those you term ‘deniers’? Giving them that label isn’t very helpful get an idea as to what they really said.

  • Pingback: If The Skeptic Society Were Not Fast Asleep On AGW (Anecdotes Do Not Make A Science) « The Unbearable Nakedness of CLIMATE CHANGE

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