William Connolley’s “correction” of the dictionary

William Connolley, at Roy Spencer’s blog, claims that those who disagree with him are not skeptics.

He hyperlinks to his 2004 posting “Septics and skeptics; denialists and contrarians

Consider his definition of the word “skeptic”

the true definition of skeptic in this context is something like: 

skeptic [Gr. skeptiko`s thoughtful, reflective, fr. ske`ptesqai to look carefully or about, to view, consider] 1. One who is yet undecided as to what is true; one who is looking or inquiring for what is true; an inquirer after facts or reasons. 

(I got that from here and edited it lightly (update 2004/12/11: but! they’ve changed the page. Argh. OK, so for the moment you can get the version I saw from googles cache, and if that fails, the original source is Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary. I’ve also created an entry atwictionary in frustration; and the same defn is also available from BrainyDictionaryAnyway you know what I mean…)). 

I got that from here and edited it lightly” is a confession that he manipulated the definition to suit his purposes.

The “light editing is from to dictionary.com, whose current definition is.

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.

3. a person who doubts the truth of a religion, especially Christianity, or of important elements of it.

4. (initial capital letter) Philosophy.

a. a member of a philosophical school of ancient Greece, the earliest group of which consisted of Pyrrho and his followers, who maintained that real knowledge of things is impossible.

b. any later thinker who doubts or questions the possibility of real knowledge of any kind.

The first definition is about questioning something “purporting” to be factual. If somebody makes a claim that they earnestly believe to be true, they may not comprehend how anybody can be somewhat sceptical (or even incredulous) about those claims. Those who believe in alien abductions, for instance, may present “overwhelming” evidence to support that belief. If you try to convince them otherwise, you will be called stupid, or even as part of the conspiracy to discredit the truth.

The second definition is about a doubting attitude. There is nothing in those definitions that demarcates between good and bad scepticism. There can be a huge number of reasons for the doubt. For instance, a good marriage depends on trust. If one party has an affair, there will likely be a breakdown in that trust. The betrayed will now questions every statement and every motive. Once lost, that trust, it is very hard to regain – a point that Dale Carnegie makes in “How To Win Friends And Influence People“. Shifting blame, or failing to acknowledge fault, will only make matters worse.

However, given that it is worth having a healthy scepticism to any claims on the internet, a more reliable source is the printed word. My dictionary is a Shorter Oxford English Dictionary 1983 reprint edition. William Connolley, with a Dhil from Oxford, can hardly dispute its authority. This is what I wrote a couple of years ago:-

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.

Definition 2.1 is “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.

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.

Like with the dictionary.com definitions, there is no implied demarcation, between scepticism and denial of the truth. William Connolley’s definition is nearest to 4, implying that scepticism is transitional stage on the road to enlightenment or denial. But the oldest definition is denial of knowledge in general, and doubts of the truth of Christianity, can be a static state.

There are a huge number of possible reasons for the doubt that is scepticism. For instance, a good marriage depends on trust. If one party has an affair, there will likely be a breakdown in that trust. The betrayed will now question every statement and every action. Once lost, that trust it is very hard to regain – a point that Dale Carnegie makes in “How To Win Friends And Influence People“, although mostly with business relationships in mind. Shifting blame, or failing to acknowledge fault, will only make matters worse. William Connolley has helped betray the trust that people bestow on the authority of Wikipedia and in the authority of science. Rather than trying to restore that trust, he just makes comments that confirm people’s scepticism.

Kevin Marshall

 

 

George Monbiot’s narrow definition of “charlatan”

Bishop Hill quotes George Monbiot

I define a charlatan as someone who won’t show you his records. This looks to me like a good [example]: http://t.co/5hDF57sI

Personally, I believe that for word definitions one should use a consensus of the leading experts in the field. My Shorter OED has the following definition that is more apt.

An empiric who pretends to wonderful knowledge or secrets.

Like John Cook’s definition of “skeptic“, Monbiot’s definition is narrower and partisan. Monbiot was referring to maverick weather forecaster Piers Corbyn. If someone has a “black box” that performs well under independent scrutiny, then they are charlatan under Monbiot’s definition, but not the OED’s. This could include the following.

  • A software manufacturer who does not reveal their computer code.
  • A pharmaceutical company that keeps secret the formulation of their wonder drug.
  • A soft drink manufacturer, who keeps their formulation secret. For instance Irn-Bru®.

The problem is that these examples have a common feature (that Piers Corbyn would claim to share to some extent). They have predictive effects that are replicated time and time again. A soft drink might just be the taste. Climate science cannot very well replicate the past, and predictions from climate models have failed to come about, even given their huge range of possible scenarios. This is an important point for any independent evaluation. The availability of the data or records matter not one iota. It is what these black boxes say about the real world that matters. I would claim that as empirical climate science becomes more sophisticated, no one person will be able to replicate a climate model. Publishing all the data and code, as Steve McIntyre would like, will make as much difference as publishing all the data and components of a mobile phone. Nobody will be able to replicate it. But it is possible to judge a scientific paper on what it says about the real world, either through predictions or independent statistical measures of data analysis.

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.