Climate change and the traditional skeptics: An opinion study
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
The blogger Crispian Jago 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. 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:
- Authors’ blog posts, newspaper articles, TV interviews, speeches, audiovisual media appearances or statements or ‘Twitter’ messages in support of the consensus position
- Position favorable to the above consensus
- Expressed doubt of any kind and magnitude in the consensus position.
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.
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.
 Hansen, G., CSICOP and the Skeptics: An Overview. The Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 1992. 86(1): p. 19.
 Some notes on Skepticism. http://replay.web.archive.org/20090408153123/http://www.suppressedscience.net/skepticism.html.
 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.
 Grothe, D. CSI Skepticism 2.0. http://www.csicop.org/si/show/skepticism_2.0.
 Lambert, T. Was Johnny Ball really victimized by environmentalists? : Deltoid. http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/2011/02/was_johnny_ball_really_victimi.php.
 Randi, J. I am not “denying” anything. http://www.randi.org/site/index.php/swift-blog/806-i-am-not-qdenyingq-anything.html.
 Delingpole, J. The curious double standards of Simon Singh James Delingpole. http://jamesdelingpole.com/blog/the-curious-double-standards-of-simon-singh-1290/.
 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.
 Shermer, M. The Flipping Point: Scientific American. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-flipping-point&print=true.
 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.
 Orac. James Randi, anthropogenic global warming, and skepticism : Respectful Insolence Blog. http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2009/12/james_randi_anthropogenic_global_warming.php.
 Jago, C. Crispian Jago Website. http://www.crispian.net/.
 Jago, C. Skeptic Trumps. http://www.crispian.net/page3/page3.html.
 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