Monday, November 23, 2009

When Did "Skeptic" Become An Epithet?

Skepticism is at the root of science. It's the fundamental kernel that science is built upon, the demand of 'show me'. And yet, in some circles (yes, I'm referring to the CRU data leak again), 'skeptic' has been as a derogatory epithet. This saddens me.

Science and its presentation falls to the errors of driven agendas as much as any other human endeavor. I'm going to outline some of the tells that the science reporting you're getting is skewed, intentionally or not, for a particular agenda.

A Penchant for Secrecy

If the presenters do not show their work to the general audience, it's likely that they're afraid of what would happen when this occurs. Now, as scientific inquiries get politicized, dealing with every nitpicking question will eat tremendously into the time of the researchers. Even worse, should the issue formally reach 'hot potato' status, or be the subject of an Oscar winning documentary, the number of kooks and cranks trying to get an oar in - even if it's only to 'ride the controversy' and get publicity for themselves, will grow asymptotically.

So I have sympathy - a lot of it - for the scientists who get stuck in that position. It's not fun being the person making assertions and getting the rocks thrown at you, and once the ravenous beast of controversy has sunk its teeth into you, it's nigh impossible to get back to what you really want to do - which is gather data, analyze it, and look for anomalous results.

The answer to this is to give up the gatekeeper role. It's your job to publish your raw data sets and analytical tools (including their source code) to the widest array possible. While the open source maxim is "All bugs are shallow with enough eyes", that truism is harder to press into mathematically rigorous sciences or sciences with Very Large Data Sets.

It's OK to say "This is very technical in its details, here's the simple summary - and here's the data and methodology for you to replicate our result."

The Doomsaying of Sybil

This one should, in theory, be too obvious to be worth mentioning. It isn't. Scientific sounding twaddle cloaks itself in the medium of disaster movies. "We're all gonna die..." gets headlines. Science reporting saying that unless you stop driving your car, Manhattan will sink like Atlantis gets headlines - and gets ratings on news organizations. So does science reporting saying that anything new (that materially improves the lives of people) always has a hidden cost.

Scientific reporting telling about the Coming Doom (Resource Shortages, Population Explosions) are almost always exaggerations. The sorts of things that ARE significant problems (overfishing, wild catch population decline, the mechanism by which methylated mercury from coal plants accumulates in ocean caught fish) tend to get published in obscure journals and debated quietly.

The Cloak of Consensus

Science isn't about consensus. It's about checking your data and hypotheses against the real world. If the real world says your hypothesis doesn't work, you make a new one to explain the data. Anyone aiming to do consensus based science is trying to deflect attention from secret data, methods or processes, by cutting off inquiries before it begins.

Should you see any of these three signs (Secrecy, Doomsaying, Consensus), it's right to be skeptical. Skepticism is not saying "They're wrong automatically because they're saying this".

Skepticism is saying "I wish to see the data and follow the reasoning for myself."

Any honest scientist welcomes skepticism and the chance to show off their work.


  1. Very much agreed. Skepticism is important, too, not only in science for the sake of science (i.e. to avoid listening to those who agree with you too much and thus getting the results you want to get), but in politics based on science, and especially there, the issue being not "I got the wrong answer and caused some problems for researchers" but "I got the wrong answer and pushed a huge, invasive policy change over it".

  2. I have a personal dislike of "Coming Doom" style news. I even know when it started.

    One of the local news stations where I live was running a special on Y2K. Naturally they needed to grab the viewers attention so what did they do? Showed pictures of TVs exploding.

    Wait what?

    For starters, 10 years ago TVs were generally not smart enough to even notice Y2K (they may have had clocks if you were lucky but certainly no dates were involved). And even if by chance you had one that did notice... explode? No it's not going to explode. It's going to tell you it's the wrong day.

    Ever since then, any time I see declarations of doom on the TV I immediately assume they're about as correct about them as they were about Y2K.

  3. Skeptic isn't a bad word.... I prefer "Climate Denier".

    Climate Denier is a bad word because it associated with a large group of people I KNOW lie to me (because I've caught them at it) including (but not limited to) Exxon, The Chamber of Commerce, and the Republican Party.

    When there are 1000 atmospheric chemists on one side of the debate and an economist and a paleontologist on the other side..... giving both sides of the debate equal time in your newspaper isn't balanced reporting... its simple laziness on the editors part.

    I have NEVER EVER EVER met or read something from an atmospheric chemist that did not agree with Global Warming/Climate change. I can't recall that any of them thought it was anything but man causing most of the effect.

    There is no forgiveness in science for publishing a wrong data set. Wrong conclusions you can survive but if your methodology is whacked, or god forbid, you are simply WRONG and should have caught it, no one will ever listen to you again. See Pons and Fleshman for one hell of an example for how to flush a carrer down the toilet.