Defining skepticism

David Gorski gets into a rather long post on Science-based medicine, skepticism, and the scientific consensus.

For a skeptic and supporter of science-based medicine, in matters of science it is undoubtedly true that the scientific consensus is always the best place to start when evaluating unfamiliar issues. … [but] Not all scientific consensuses are created equal because, in different fields the strength of scientific consensus can vary quite markedly depending upon the topic or even the subtopic within the topic.

What is missing is the role of skepticism in science that misplaces science from a learning activity to a collection of knowledge. Missouri picked up a nickname that is pertinent. It is called the “show me” state. Science is plebeian. If you are an authority, I can be, too. If you have an idea, show me why you think its a good one. Skepticism is about learning as science is about learning.

This is why the FOIA resistance and the use of labels such as “denier” for those asking questions are important. Whether the topic is evidence based medicine or climatology, skepticism is about one side trying to learn and the other trying to explain. If you posit something, then you had better be prepared to explain it to others. You need to teach them why it is a valid idea or conclusion and show them how they could achieve the same idea themselves.

It’s more about tactics and how evidence is used to support an argument. Scientific skepticism looks at the totality of evidence and evaluates each piece of it for its quality. Cranks are very selective about the data they choose to present, often vastly overselling its quality and vastly exaggerating flaws in current theory, in turn vastly overestimating their own knowledge of a subject and underestimating that of experts. … They also tend to leap to confuse correlation with causation. … there is often a strong sense of being underappreciated—persecuted, even—among cranks, leading them to view their failure to persuade the mainstream of the correctness of their views as being due to conspiracies or money.

What a lot of this distinction boils down to is that crankery, denialism, pseudoskepticism, or whatever you want to call it tends, either intentionally through ideology or unintentionally through an ignorance of the scientific method, to conflate and/or confuse emotiona, nonscientific, and/or ideological arguments with scientific arguments.

As Richard Feynman once famously said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.”

What Gorski misses is Feynman’s caution. He falls for the ‘denialist’ label on those skeptical of climate alarmist claims. He fails to note that many of the behaviors he describes as belonging to the camp of the cranks are expressed by the self proclaimed consensus creators in climatology.

It is all about learning, about thrashing out ideas, showing why an idea is valid, answering questions, exploring accuracy and precision of measure, and realizing that even the teacher learns by teaching. When data is hidden, questions not answered, challengers labeled with derogatory terms, … that is when it is not science and not skepticism.

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