The Logic and Boundaries of Scepticism

In response to a couple of my recent postings, William Connolley has made what I consider to be some pretty absurd statements. The lack of logic and the imprecision of language he uses have elements in common with the more mainstream believers in “climate science”. I consider some of these below, along with other statements.


Consider the statement

You’ve failed to realise that using the label “skeptic” doesn’t actually make you a skeptic.

Equally it does not mean that a person is wrong in using the label. Given the word has multiple broad definitions, demonstrating that another is not a genuinely a sceptic1 is extremely difficult.


I am sceptical of the statement “the majority of twentieth century warming was caused by the increase in GHGs“. In a respected dictionary I find two definitions that both apply to my scepticism

  1. a person who questions the validity or authenticity of something purporting to be factual.
  2. a person who maintains a doubting attitude, as toward values, plans, statements, or the character of others.

If someone states a different definition of “sceptic“, (which they may have made up) it does not mean I am not sceptical. It just means that they are playing with words.

If someone says the statement is proven by scientific evidence they are wrong. Scientific statements are never proven, just failed to be falsified by the evidence.

If someone says that there is overwhelming scientific evidence in support of the above statement then they are wrong. There is insufficient data to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt at the moment. There may never be the evidence, as much of stored heat energy of the climate is in the oceans. Most of the twentieth century data necessary to establish the hypothesis is missing.

If someone says of the statement I am not sceptical, but instead denying the scientific consensus they would be wrong. Firstly, the consensus IPCC does exclude the possibility that a minority of the warming was increased by greenhouse gases. Check out the 2013 AR5 WG1 SPM to verify. Secondly, even if they did make the claim, given that the IPCC has in the past made knowledge claims that it no longer holds to (e.g. radiative forcing components and the hockey stick), I am justified in being sceptical of their abilities to get it right this time.

Further, if someone says of the statement I am not sceptical due denying the scientific consensus, they are using an evaluation criteria that I reject. They are free to believe it is a valid criteria, but I believe it is equivalent to “hearsay” evidence in law.

My rejection of the claim that the statement “twentieth century warming was human caused” as being essentially true does not make me unsceptical of the weaker first statement. Nor is it sufficient to claim that I reject the IPCC Consensus, as they make even weaker statements.


If someone were to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that a statement were true, then I would cease being sceptical. Personally I would accept the scientific evidence at a much lower level than that in support of the statements “smoking causes lung cancer”2 or “HIV causes AIDS”3.


On reflection the last statement is not quite correct when applied to climatology. In the past I would have accepted a scientific statement based on expert opinion, or reasonable scientific evidence. But on many levels the climate community have breached the trust which any reasonable member of the public might bestow on an expert. They have failed to draw upon the accumulated wisdom of other areas, such as philosophy of science, decision theory, diplomacy or public choice economics. They have rejected things I value, such as comparing and contrasting different viewpoints, recognizing one’s own bias and listening to others. They have embraced principles I dislike, such as marginalizing opponents, and censoring of opposing opinions. But most of all many will never countenance the possibility of their own fallibility.


If someone does not reject out of hand statements of Murray Salby (who rejects the notion that the rise in CO2 levels is human caused), it does not automatically mean they accept wholeheartedly what he says. Neither does posting articles on their blog mean they believe in what Salby says. There are a number of alternative reasons. For instance, they could feel that his sacking was not justified. Or they could mean the website owner is a pluralist in science, who believes that you should not reject new ideas out of hand. Or they could believe in academic freedom. Or they could be trying to act as a forum for different ideas. Instead, using that, or similar arguments shows an inability to consider other possibilities, or to countenance that those you oppose may have valid alternative positions. It is a normal human failing to deny the humanity of others, and one that I believe we should strive to counter. Further, those with high intelligence, coupled with dogmatic beliefs, are often those most guilty of casting those with opposing beliefs as being incapable of understanding their viewpoint.


Claims that doctorates in climatology (or related subjects) confer special skills or abilities, that non-scientists do not possess is just bluster. The subject has no established track record of understanding the climate system, but has plenty of excuses for failure. It ignores many distinctions learnt in other empirically-based subjects. But most of all, the subject demands belief in a particular scientific hypothesis. Any criticism of that hypothesis, or contradictory evidence, undermines their core beliefs. Thus being too close to the subject may be a positive disability in engagement. To counter this more traditional sciences have promoted belief in the scientific method rather than belief in the scientific hypothesis. Those areas with strong ideological beliefs, such as economics and politics, have in free societies recognized the values of pluralism.

Kevin Marshall

  1. In Britain, “skeptic” is spelt “sceptic”. So I use that spelling, except when quoting others.
  2. I discussed the evidence from Cancer Research UK here following an article at “The Conversation“.
  3. AVERT, an HIV and AIDS Charity based in the UK, gives a long and through article on the case for “HIV causes AIDS“. In terms of communication of their case, there is a lot that the climate community could learn from.

Understanding the role of Peer Review

In “Newton, Einstein, Watson and Crick, were not peer reviewed“, Jo Nova questions whether peer review is valid at all. I think the answer is somewhat more nuanced. This is an extended version of a comment made.

Before dismissing peer review, we should ask are the boundaries of peer review. That is what peer review can achieve and what it cannot.

Proper peer review should check that the thesis of paper is original and properly references other works in the field. It should also make sure that the claims made are coherent, not demonstrably false, have a reason (or reasons) for originality, and all assumptions are clearly stated. It might also check to ensure that certain ethical boundaries are not breached. There is more basic checking, like that of an editor.

Peer review cannot determine if the following criteria are valid:-

(1) The ultimate truth. Make sure that the claims made are the last word on the subject. That is the thesis will never be falsified, contradicted, or supplanted by more general theories.

(2) The best to date. Determine that the thesis is superior to what is already available. There is a place for literature reviews to compare and contrast the existing body of knowledge.(i)

(3) That every point is correct, or every assumption known and stated.

(4) That every conjecture that the paper is built upon is correct, or every assumption is valid. Certain stated hypotheses or conjectures might be themselves based upon other conjectures. Assumptions might be accepted, but be false or exclude other, contradictory but quite valid, lines of enquiry.

(5) That a paper is hugely significant, or of little consequence.

(6) That a paper is of outstanding quality, against mediocre.

(7) That the absence of, superior, contradictory views in the academic literature is not a demonstration of the truth or quality of a research program.

Academic study is a combination of building on the work of that has gone before, whilst noticing the empirical or logical gaps and anomalies. It can be quite valid to making conjectures upon conjectures, as long as you do not lose sight that the falsification of a root conjecture will partially or completely undermine every piece of work built upon it.(ii) In climatology the vast majority of papers are built upon looking at the consequences of the catastrophic warming hypothesis. Falsifying CAGW will mean entire research programs will be null and void. That includes many studies in other areas such as economics and public-policy making.



  1. For instance, the Journal of Economic Literature has long-performed this service in economics.
  2. Until Andrew Wiles proved Fermat’s last theorem, large areas of mathematical proofs relied upon a conjecture. Watch the video here.

Ed Davey’s anti-science, anti-British and anti-Liberal attack on Climate Sceptics

Ed Davey, Secretary of State for Climate and Energy has, according to the Telegraph recently said

“Of course there will always be uncertainties within climate science and the need for research to continue.

I agree that there are uncertainties with climate science. But if you only allow believers in that “science” to contribute, without any training in decision-making under conditions of uncertainty, then the conclusions drawn out of that research will be wrong.

“But some sections of the press are giving an uncritical campaigning platform to individuals and lobby groups,”

Such as the Guardian, the BBC, or central government departments? It can work both ways.

“This is not the serious science of challenging, checking and probing.”

Are you speaking of sceptics or of climatology? You must first establish that climatology is not just a science, but is a science of the highest standards.

“This is destructive and loudly clamouring scepticism born of vested interest, nimbyism, publicity seeking contraversialism or sheer blinkered, dogmatic, political bloody-mindedness.”

Matthew 7:3-5 says

Why do you stare at the splinter in your neighbour’s eye, but ignore the plank in your own? How can you say to your neighbour “Here – let me get the splinter out of your eye,” when you’ve got the plank in your own? You’re just play-acting! First take the plank out of your own eye, then you’ll see clearly to take the splinter out of your neighbour’s eye.”

These two thousand year old words, translated by Tom Wright (Britain’s leading New Testament Scholar and former Bishop of Durham), show the issue of climatology. Professor Stephan Lewandowsky or Bob Ward, or desmogblog are some of the “planks” that deliberately blind and prejudice people from examining the evidence, moral and political arguments for themselves. Putting in a milder fashion, you cannot say that people are wrong, or have a massively inferior argument, if you cannot first demonstrate that you are on the side of truth, or encourage others compare and contrast your arguments with the opponents. As I posted last week, there is a strong lack of a positive case for the science. As I posted last week, this should be a combination of trumpeting the short-term predictive successes, showing that climate science build on the traditions of the greatest scientists and philosophies of science and also of the moral case covered below.

“This tendency will seize upon the normal expression of scientific uncertainty and portray it as proof that all climate change policy is hopelessly misguided.”

Rubbish. Criticism of policy is often for separate reasons to scientific uncertainty. The argument is that the costs of policy are far greater than then benefits. Some of the policy might be totally ineffective, or in trying to reduce CO2 emissions may make people less capable of dealing with the impacts, through making them poorer.

He added: “By selectively misreading the evidence, they seek to suggest that climate change has stopped so we can all relax and burn all the dirty fuel we want without a care.”

Sceptics say that climatologists selectively read the evidence. Many would say that increased CO2 provides net benefits, and I do not come across any blog that we should create general pollution without a care. Many of the leading sceptic blogs (WUWT, BishopHill, Jo Nova) accept that increased greenhouse gases will lead to some level of warming, but not a significant one. As put by Warren Meyer, most sceptics deny the catastrophe, not the basic science.

“Those who argue against all the actions we are taking to reduce emissions, without any serious and viable alternative, are asking us to take a massive gamble with the planet our children will inherit, in the face of all the evidence, against overwhelming odds.”

I believe that morally politicians should act like medical professionals. They should have a duty of care towards the patient. That duty should be based on the reasonable expectation that treatment will leave the patient better off than not being treated at all. If anyone claims that climatology and public-policy making have the same level of knowledge of diagnosis and treatment as medical professionals and pharmacy on such ailments as common cancers or arthritis, then they are wrong. I would say that climate “ethics” needs to catch up with medical ethics as well.

Finally, let me point to four areas where Ed Davey is severely out of line.

First, my late father voted for the Liberal Party for over 50 years at every election – bar at one local election where no Liberal was standing. Then he voted for the underdog Conservative candidate. He believed in the consensus through seeking the middle ground, a thoroughly British trait. This middle ground was the opposite of the extremism of climatology, which is increasingly about demeaning the opposition and denying them a platform to speak.

Second, a virtue of English Common Law is that of letting the accused have the same rights of presentation, and to have the same rules of evidence as for the prosecution. This is not in the belief that the most notorious criminals can get off scot free. It is because the most guilty who proclaim their innocence will most convince an independent jury of their guilt as their lies and ridiculous stories unravel. On the other side, if the prosecution, convinced of the guilt of the accused perverts or supresses the evidence, the later unravelling of the case will undermine the rule of law. It did with the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six, men falsely sentenced for heinous crimes that they did not commit. Another example is that I strongly believe that those who do not accept that around six million Jews were massacred in the Nazi genocide should not be silenced. Rather, comparing their evidence will the overwhelming evidence of the historical truth will demonstrated that there is no debate, and those deniers are have an inability to assess the evidence. Silencing such views will lead to false conspiracy theories that there is something to hide.

Third, is the British sense of fair play. The very British idea of having a level playing field is not unconnected to the fact that most major sports are British inventions, or have been strongly influenced by British rule-making. Winning is not at any cost is not the point. It is playing the game to the best of one’s ability. There is a lesson in life as well. Somebody might be far superior in a sport, or in science, or in any intellectual field, than anyone else alive. But it is only by going head-to-head with others that everyone will be convinced. But in losing in sport, we go back and try harder. If we are beaten in science, we are forced to re-examine our conclusions, and may improve. Finding out where we went wrong, or how to improve from failures is a general lesson in life. Within wider society it leads to improvement.

Fourth is something very anti-British. The most evil powers, whether governments, religious cults or tribal gangs, are those who assert their power by belittling and silencing others. Ed Davey and climatologists are not in their league by any means. But they fall into a false sense of superiority by demeaning others. It is a very human trait to practice this, but has mostly held back humanity.

The previous Secretary of State, Chris Huhne, earlier this year convicted of perverting the course of justice, was similarly dogmatic. Why there should be two ministers so at odds with the older philosophy of the moderate Liberal Party traditions is the subject of the next post.