Frank Swain on skepticism

As is somewhat obvious, skepticism, in certain circles, is not so much about skepticism at all but rather the belligerent and noisome reaffirmation of orthodoxies. Whether it be in modern medicine, organized religion or in climate science, this brand of skepticism and its practitioners know the answers. There is none of the questioning attitude, the natural curiosity, the poking and the prodding that one would reflexively associate with a skeptic. Instead, what one sees is something curious – a deference to authority and the ‘cult of the expert’ when it comes to certain topics.

Consider the Australian Skeptics Society, for example. It says on its website that it has over 4000 members from ‘all walks of life’. On its front page, it displays its ‘twitter stream’ prominently — ‘Homoeopathy is not medicine – Simon Singh’, declares one message; ‘Pizza looks like Jesus? Richard Saunders says its no miracle’, says another. In other words, the usual skeptic stuff.

Australian Skeptic tweets

Travel to its ‘position statement’ on climate change, however, and one sees this:

People who are not experts in fields related to climate science should seek the best available evidence, as judged by those who are experts in relevant fields. While everyone is entitled to their own opinion, not everyone is entitled to be taken seriously. On the very important and very complex questions of climate change and its causes, only the carefully formed opinions of relevantly qualified experts should be taken seriously.

So, if it were not strange enough that these groups prefer deferring to authority in certain matters, that this affirmation takes on a unpalatable form makes things stranger. One such afflicted circle, the British skeptics whom we alluded to before, has recently risen to public prominence by the sheer charisma of its stars. The good thing however is that some, in this group, are aware (or have been made aware) of the insularity and closed high-mindedness affecting their camp.

Speaking at one of their regular meetings, was Frank Swain – ‘science writer and speaker’, who addressed these very points. It is a talk worthy of a listen for several reasons: it gives opportunity to reflect on the affectation of ‘skepticism’ and how convincing others can fail if one is too busy convincing oneself.

It is perhaps good fortune that in the climate change debate, the garb of thick-headed arroganceobnoxiousness and censorhip is resolutely cornered and taken over by those who wish to support the consensus. The talk, as it tackles the situation with the present strand of skepticism in the UK, highlights how things could just be the other way around as well.

Note: Video created from talk available here. A detailed text-version of the talk is available here. Though video states the talk to be given in August 2010, it was actually delivered in October the same year, at Winchester.

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6 comments

  1. mike williams

    I used to be a member of the Australian sceptics..bunch of twits they are..a large portion of their “journal” was devoted to..literalism/or not.. of the bible..go figure. 🙂
    And..they have a cringe inducing advocacy of using ad hominems/ appeals to authority and of course..special pleading..

  2. True Skeptic

    The true skeptic asks questions. And then asks more. ‘Facts’ are only hooks for the questions. Nullius in verba

  3. Ted

    I also used to be a member of the Oz Skeptics years ago. They were a good bunch who followed the evidence, and their magazine certainly was not largely devoted to Bible literalism (occasionally they would run such a piece, usually a very entertaining read). I doubt any of them would have any truck with AGW, but I don’t know what the new lot are like.

    It is true that these days the US sceptic community seems to be full of aggressive leftist agitators who are more interested in politics than science. I don’t think the same is true in the UK. Although I’m less involved these days the grassroots skeptic community is rather different from the circle of smug celebrities who have recently jumped on the skeptic bandwagon and who are giving it a bad name. Simon Singh is not involved in the UK skeptic world in the same way that Chris Mooney is in the US, and many people in the movement have a more critical attitude than he does towards things like AGW.

  4. BBD

    Interesting.

    I enjoyed the illustration from the linked transcript of Swain’s talk:

  5. Alain

    please note the situation in france:
    a “pseudo-science skeptic” association in france, called “AFIS”(french association for scientific information, AFIS ), friend of “skeptical science” , is (unlike skeptical science in US, who defend IPCC consensus) defending an “openmind” skeptiocism about AGW and IPCC consensus.

    it is strange because in france the consensus is very strong and press is closing the debat strongly, like the politicians.

    maybe is it in fact the cause of the behavior of that small, amateur, non profit organisation .

    maybe also do they learn their skepticism about ecologist deliria, though the delirant debat on GSM wave, pesticides, holy nature, GMO…