Michael Mann’s narrow definition of “Skepticism”

Climate Scientist MM continues his dogged defence of the climate consensus at Thinkprogress.

Consider the following statement

Make no mistake: Skepticism is fundamental to good science. Whenever a conclusion is drawn or a proposition is made, the demand that it stand up to scrutiny is the self-correcting machinery that drives us towards a better understanding of the way the world works. In this sense, every scientist should be a skeptic. Good science responds to good faith challenges, and to contradictory evidence that is presented, and climate-change science should be no different.

The spirit of the following statement is at first beguiling, and the spirit is something that many would agree with, although “good faith challenges” allows for discrimination against people you disagree with. However, it is his meaning of “scepticism” that I want to take issue with here.

Mann’s definition is most clearly expressed by John Cook of “Skeptical Science“, but also supported by (amongst others) Tamino of “Open Mind” blog. The clearest expression is in the article “Are you a genuine skeptic or a climate denier?

Genuine skeptics consider all the evidence in their search for the truth. Deniers, on the other hand, refuse to accept any evidence that conflicts with their pre-determined views.

Compare this with a more established source of word definitions – the Oxford English Dictionary. I don’t have the full 20 volume edition, but I think my 1983 book club edition of the Shorter OED will do well enough. There are a number of definitions of “sceptic” on page 1900.

Definition 1 pertains to a school of philosophy after the Greek Pyrrho, which doubts the possibility of knowledge of any kind.

Definition 2 is someone who doubts the validity of knowledge claims in a particular area of inquiry. This includes, but is not confined to the natural sciences. In the area of climate is the Climate Realists like Tallbloke, who doubt the greenhouse gas theory.

Definition 2.1 “one who maintains a doubting attitude with reference to a particular question or statement“. The OED has this as the popular definition.

Definition 3 is one who doubts the truth of Christianity. An older definition, not applicable here.

Definition 4 is one who is seeking the truth. That is “an inquirer who has not arrived at definite convictions“. This is only occasionally used, at least in the late 20th century.

Cook’s definition is at odds with all the definitions in the dictionary. There is nothing there about how much evidence a genuine skeptic must consider. Indeed, it by his own definition Cook is not a skeptic. More seriously, Cook is disagreeing with the experts in their field. According to Cook’s definition, a skeptic is someone who formerly had a doubting attitude as in 2.1, but now has fallen into line. The philosophers are a school of deniers. (Desmogblog will no doubt now unearth evidence that they were in the pay of big olive oil producers.) Some who still doubts the truth of climate change will not have “considered all the evidence” yet. For those who have read the evidence, this category ceases to exist. The doubter of Christianity is irrelevant, whilst the seeker of truth is someone who is behind the curve.

But then who do you believe on the definition of “skeptic / sceptic”. A consensus of the world’s leading experts, or a group of dogmatic people using language for partisan purposes?

NB. I use sceptic with a “c” to denote the expert definition, and with a “k” to define the partisan definition. However, I quite realise the use of “c” was probably as a result of King George III trying the separate Britain from the revolting colonies by means of a common language.

With respect to Dr Mann, I may have got him totally wrong. Maybe he does not realise that skepticalscience.com is based on a misrepresentation. If Dr Mann (or a nominated associate) would like to clarify that he follows expert opinion, I will be more than happy to distance him from the polemicists who allegedly support him.

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18 Comments

  1. Brian H

     /  29/04/2012

    Science is belief in the ignorance of experts. Feynman.

    That’ll do. With regards to ‘Climate Science’, such belief is easy to arrive at.

    Reply
  2. Reblogged this on BIGTIX.

    Reply
  3. Brad Keyes

     /  22/04/2014

    You let John Cook off too easily.

    You’ve omitted a crucial sentence from the excerpt which makes his claims even more cretinous: he precedes them with the exhortation, “Consider the following definitions.”

    The problem is, the “following” are NOT “definitions” at all (let alone correct ones).

    “Genuine skeptics consider all the evidence in their search for the truth. Deniers, on the other hand, refuse to accept any evidence that conflicts with their pre-determined views.”

    Whatever the truth of those statements, they’re statements—not definitions. Look at their form: they don’t even pretend to tell us about the words “skeptic” and “denier.”

    So what’s going on here?

    Either Cook is so uneducated that he’s unclear on the definition of “definition” (and not one of his readers, in the many years since he posted his non-definitions, has had the mental wherewithal to correct him)…

    Or he’s cynically and fallaciously passing off a polemical stereotype as a definition, so as to prove to his more suggestible readers that there’s something wrong with their opponents a priori. In high school debating we used to call this “defining your opponents out of the debate.” Our Religious Ed teachers used to do it all the time, and think we didn’t notice. But the ruse is transparent to any reasonably intelligent schoolchild. Fortunately for Cook he has a captive audience of stunted cultists.

    Reply
    • manicbeancounter

       /  22/04/2014

      But my objective is not to pummel someone into the ground. It is to encourage people to think for themselves. That means comparing and contrasting with other viewpoints. The simplest way is on definitions. Look at Skeptical Science blog. They set themselves up as authorities on not just a small area of applied science, but on science in general, statistics, economics and even on language. A basic check is the language that is used. The World’s longest dictionary, and possible it’s greatest, is a far greater authority than a small group of dogmatists. It takes five minutes to see that John Cook is wrong.

      Reply
      • Brad Keyes

         /  15/01/2016

        I can’t disagree with any of your comment.

        It’s worth adding, probably, that in lexicography, consensus and truth are almost interchangeable. If 97% of English speakers think a word means a given thing, that means they’re right. It means that thing, because they think it does.

        Whereas in science, consensus means squat. It’s meaningless.

        Reply
        • manicbeancounter

           /  16/01/2016

          Brad,
          Thanks for coming back to an old comment thread. Definitions have long been a bugbear of mine, and I should write on this further. For now, in the interests of stimulating a discussion of the topic, consider the term Climate Science, (as defined by Wikipedia) does not include.
          Climate Science does not include knowledge of all areas of science, whether physics or chemistry though as an applied subject and a sub-branch of a branch of geography includes knowledge of results.
          Climate Science does not include knowledge of economics, ethics, or public policy making. They are quite separate subjects.
          Climate Science does not even include proven understanding of climate. In physics and chemistry there are many hypotheses that are tantamount to being proven in the real world. Using the term has failed to be falsified might be philosophically accurate (and reminds scientists there is always more to understand) but used in everyday language can lead to a totally exaggerated perception of scientific controversies. So when an academic scientist speaks on basic ideas in their scientific specialism, for practical purposes they are imparting knowledge of the real world. But Climate Science has failed to demonstrate any understanding of the real world. It will always be an imprecise empirical subject, but as a subject there is no demonstrated expertise in terms of predictive ability.
          The lack of definition of Climate Science lets people with a science PhD claim expertize not only in climatology (where there is no understanding), but in areas of opinion and belief where they have not studied the controversies. This means scientists they end up making statements in areas that are nonsense, whilst denigrating those with better understanding.
          I realize I need to convert this to a blog post.

          Reply
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