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.
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 arrogance, obnoxiousness 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.