Judith Curry: What Is Skepticism, Anyway?

judith curryFor a while now I’ve been really busy with different projects so it took me some time to finally respond to Judith Curry’s blog post. She wrote a response to my Skeptical Science article The Skepticism In Skeptical Science that I published in June of last year.

I wrote that Skeptical Science article as there’s a significant group of science deniers that present themselves as sceptics; which they aren’t. Basically, what they do is take advantage of the different meanings and connotations surrounding the words “sceptic” and “scepticism.”

A common usage of the word “sceptic” is in the context of doubting if a claim or story is true. It is also a very negative usage of the term scepticism: you’re dismissive of a claim because you disbelieve what you’re being told. This type of scepticism also tends to end with doubting and dismissing the story. Most of the time no attempt will be made to find out if it was true. You will just continue with your day as if nothing happened.

The scepticism I talked about in my article is a very different type of scepticism: one that uses research, evidence, and is focused on learning.

This type of scepticism is something very different from doubt. It’s about curiosity and a willingness to learn. It’s about asking questions, asking for evidence, and judging arguments and evidence on their merits. It doesn’t matter if what you learn proves your original stance or idea wrong, this is the entire point of this way of thinking. What matters is getting a correct answer and basing how you view the world on information that is as correct as possible. A sceptic knows that they can have personal biases and preconceived notions, but they are aware of them and don’t let this make them reject valid evidence.

It was Carl Sagan who coined the term scientific scepticism for this type of scepticism. It acknowledges that, for sceptics, evidence and sound reasoning matters, just like it matters for scientists in their usage of the formal scientific method. Scientific scepticism is basically the scientific method for lay people to help them apply critical thinking (think of it as ‘scientific method lite’).

Real sceptics avoid premature conclusions, recognize uncertainty, search for real data, and change their minds. Sure, sometimes it starts with doubting if a claim is true, but a sceptic then investigates if this doubt was warranted.

This is of course not the part that Curry disagrees with, after all this is how she views herself. It’s when I dive into the terms so-called sceptics and pseudo-sceptics that she objects.

When I use the term so-called sceptics I’m referring to people who are often just misinformed or lack the information to come to the right conclusions. They might call themselves sceptics, but this is the doubt-oriented form of scepticism. However, they aren’t unreasonable, and if you explain the science to them they will listen to you. It might take them some time to process what you told them, but they then will either happily return with more questions so they can learn more, or engage you based on this new knowledge.

However, the pseudo-sceptics group is vastly different. This group actively portrays themselves as promoting science based sceptical thinking. But this isn’t what they’re doing. They approach climate science with their minds already made up. To them, it doesn’t matter what you show them, the chance is extremely small that they’ll ever change their minds. They never reached their current stance through reason, and they often do their best to undermine sound reasoning. This makes it almost impossible to reason with them, you’ll need different tactics to communicate the science in those situations to have a chance. As Thomas Paine once said, “To argue with a person who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead.”

Curry responds to this by raising something that was never the subject of my Skeptical Science article:

JC comment:  Uh, there’s a third category of skeptics – scientists (like me)  doing their job to provide critical scrutiny to consensus scientific claims.  Here is a litmus test for SkS skepticism:  can you find any critical statements on SkS about Michael Mann’s research?

My article is about non-experts and is aimed at the public. It never dives into the nitty-gritty details of scientists, scientific research, and possible issues of scientists rejecting valid science. I only reference the scientific process to give some context about scientific scepticism.

Scientists can also be subject to confirmation bias or some form of ideological thinking. Roy Spencer is a prime example of ideology informing a scientists viewpoint. He described what he does as follows: “I view my job a little like a legislator, supported by the taxpayer, to protect the interests of the taxpayer and to minimize the role of government.” That’s an ideologically motivated stance, not an evidence based one.

This ideology based behaviour also makes him reject a well established scientific theory, the theory of evolution. He has publicly defended his support of creationism and has wondered why “so many people defend [evolution] so fervently.” He wants creationism taught in schools under the name of Intelligent Design (this is just a rebranding of creationism to disguise it as something scientific). Creationism is a faith and has nothing to do with science, but Spencer wants to force the teaching of this unscientific subject.

Of course this doesn’t mean you can dismiss Spencer’s scientific research, but it does raise questions about him as a scientist and his ability to follow the evidence. Which then brings me to Curry, who also displays similar behaviour.

Take for example her litmus test question about Michael Mann, I could easily turn it around and ask her if there are any positive statements about Mann’s research on her website. If there aren’t, does that mean I should dismiss her arguments based on that?


Neither can you do that with Skeptical Science for what she sees as positive statements. The materials on Skeptical Science are a balanced overview of the research Mann has done, the criticisms raised, and what was done to incorporate said criticisms. Why be critical when there is now a hockey stick team all showing similar results while using different data and methodologies?:

Source Skeptical Science.

Source Skeptical Science.

Being critical about good research is not something you should do, but Curry is critical about good research. There are multiple lines of evidence and good research showing where the extra CO2 in our atmosphere is coming from. If you then claim that the “uncertainties are substantial” about the source of the extra CO2 in our atmosphere that’s not providing criticism, that is an unsupported speculation. It makes you look bad when you try to defend someone like Murry Salby when we already know that his arguments don’t have merit.

Or going after “consensus scientific claims” about global warming when that research also has withstood scrutiny by fellow scientists. Most of the critiques I’ve seen towards consensus findings about global warming have been lacking. Doesn’t stop her from using anything or anyone that tries to cast doubt, no matter how gremlin riddled their attempts at critiques are. Especially when this turns into accusations of conspiracy so that you can dismiss research.

These are all indicators that Curry doesn’t know, or can’t recognize, what scepticism is. Which becomes quite clear when you read her reaction to Michael Shermer’s article in the Huffington Post:

• Does the source of a claim often make similar claims? Pseudoscientists have a habit of going well beyond the facts. JC comment: Assessment of a claim should be about the argument, not about the source.

Shermer had the following to say about this:

[…] of course our evaluation must ultimately be about the argument and not the source, but the latter does matter in our overall assessment of a claim. Our baloney detection alarms should go off when a source is constantly making claims that go far beyond the evidence, as it is a sign that something else is driving the inquiry, such as ideology.

Which is exactly the problem with Judith Curry. Unquestioning scepticism about established science, but uncritically accepting anything that attacks said established science. That’s not scepticism, that’s going into science denialism territory.

Collin Maessen is the founder and editor of Real Skeptic and a proponent of scientific skepticism. For his content he uses the most up to date and best research as possible. Where necessary consulting or collaborating with scientists.