Pseudoskeptics Are Not Skeptics


Genuine scientific skepticism is not just the unmoving rejection of evolution or climate change by fake skeptics, called pseudoskeptics.  The real thing avoids premature conclusions, recognizes uncertainty, motivates searches for good data and causes real skeptics to change their minds,  as put succinctly by John Maynard Keynes:

“When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?”

Martin Gardner and Carl Sagan were famed skeptics, but most of the time, most scientists and many others must be, too, including contributors  at DeSmogBlog or Skeptical Science. Gardner and Sagan were among the cofounders and illustrious Fellows of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, which has long promoted science and open-minded skepticism via its journal Skeptical Inquirer (SI)other publications, workshops and reports such as  “Ranking Member’s Senate Minority Report on Global Warming Not Credible.”

SI Editor-in-Chief Kendrick Frazier kindly offered use of this SI essay, issue 33(3):17, May/June 2009, by a fine climate scientist who worked for better communication of uncertainty, in IPCC reports and for the  public, whose questions he answered with great patience.

Climate Change: Skeptics vs. Deniers
Stephen H. Schneider is a climatologist whose first book about climate and world problems was published way back in 1976 when he was at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. He is now professor for interdisciplinary studies and a senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University. He has long been active in climate policy issues. At this year’s AAAS meeting, he was the invited discussant at the session on media coverage of climate change (see main article). The SKEPTICAL INQUIRER invited him to elaborate briefly on thoughts he expressed there about skeptics vs. deniers.
All good scientists are skeptical: I changed my mind from cooling to warming in 1974 when the preponderance of evidence shifted—and is now well established. I changed my views on nuclear winter making it “nuclear autumn” in 1984, incurring the wrath of the peace movement—again because the preponderance of evidence shifted with study. That is a skeptic—what all scientists should be. But real skeptics still accept a preponderance of carefully examined evidence even when some elements of a complex systems problem remain unresolved—and do not pretend that when there are loose ends some well-established preponderances don’t exist—that is beyond skepticism to denial—or political convenience often. So a skeptic questions everything but accepts what the preponderance of evidence is, and a denier falsely claims that until all aspects are resolved we know nothing and should do nothing—often motivated by the latter. If you deny a clear preponderance of evidence, you have crossed the line from legitimate skeptic to ideological denier.   —STEPHEN H. SCHNEIDER

No one can be an expert on everything, so many skeptics might just check the nature of any mainstream consensus and just use that by default.  Some want to dig deeper, so find and read credible sources**, enumerate reservations, work through them, and if resolved, accept the consensus and its uncertainties.  They do not just read blogs and keep moving the goalposts.  Especially-interested skeptics seek out contact with relevant scientists, attend lectures and even the week-long AGU meetings, as do people involved with SI, DeSmogBlog or Skeptical Science.  

However, consistent skeptical thinking is always a challenge for humans, even for SI readers. In 2007,  Stuart Jordan’s straightforward climate articles istirred a small firestorm of angry cancel-my-subscription letters.  He later wrote:

“Science does not offer certainty. The results of modern science are typically presented in the language of statistics and probabilities. This is especially true of scientific studies of complex phenomena, of which climate science is an excellent example, even though these phenomena remain rooted in the basic laws of nature. Nevertheless, the existence of “uncertainty” has led some individuals less familiar with science to interpret any uncertainty as evidence for “a major scientific controversy” even when there is none.”

What happened? At least on this topic, a few long-time SI readers turned out to be pseudoskeptics.

Pseudoskepticism or fake skepticism:  immovable rejection
Many, but not all, {climate contrarians, deniers, dismissives*} or “lukewarmers” proclaim*** themselves skeptics, generally, but especially of the mainstream consensus seen in this study or this one. Their underlying goal always seems to portray as skepticism the rejection of meaningful action to reduce CO2 emissions. Observed behavior far better fits the long-established term pseudoskepticism. Richard Cameron Wilson expressed it well in 2008:

“In a sceptical age, even those disseminating wholly bogus ideas – from corporate pseudo-science to 9/11 conspiracy theories – will often seek to appropriate the language of rational inquiry. But there is a meaningful difference between being a “sceptic” and being in denial. The genuine sceptic forms his beliefs through a balanced evaluation of the evidence. The sceptic of the bogus variety cherry-picks evidence on the basis of a pre-existing belief, seizing on data, however tenuous, that supports his position, and yet declaring himself “sceptical” of any evidence, however compelling, that undermines it.

Among the demons that haunt the world is Morton’s Demon:

 “stands at the gateway of a person’s senses and lets in facts that agree with that person’s beliefs while deflecting those that do not. This demon is used to explain the phenomenon of confirmation bias.”

Some not only fend off unwanted data****, but search widely to cherry-pick anything supportive, no matter how absurd. How else can one explain any strong regard for the climate views of non-scientist Lord Monckton?

Someone may claim to be a scientist, a Member of the House of Lords or a real skeptic, but mere claims prove nothing.  ScottishSkeptic asserts:

“This is the blog of Mike Haseler and what you may wish to know about me is that I am a Climate Scientist as I am more of a scientist than most who work on climate.

Neither web page nor Google Scholar offer much evidence to support that, but one thread hinted at the presence of a powerful Morton’s Demon:

 ”William Connolley says: November 15, 2013 at 6:17 pm
> In line with the convention for scientific work we will refer to Professor Salby in this work as Salby.
Salby isn’t a professor. You know that. Why are you still pretending that he is one?

Scottish Sceptic says: November 15, 2013 at 8:21 pm
I’ve checked and anyone can make anyone a professor,. so we’ve decided to make him and honorary professor of the Scottish Climate and Energy Forum.”

Pseudoskeptics are rarely even “skeptics”
“Skeptic”  can be interpreted ambiguously, as though someone might possibly belong with Gardner, Sagan, Schneider and legions of real scientists.  Skeptics give new questioners the benefit of the doubt as possible skeptics trying to learn, but if it exists, pseudoskeptic behavior appears eventually.

If one acts like a pseudoskeptic, talks like a pseudoskeptic and writes like a pseudoskeptic, they probably are a pseudoskeptic, not skeptic or even “skeptic” as though they might belong with Gardner, Sagan or Schneider.

Last year’s SalbyStorm offered a cornucopia of pseudoskeptical behavior, mixed with conspiracy thinking and perhaps defamatory comments. A detailed analysis should finally appear within a month, plus more backstory on the downfall of Murry Salby.  Pseudoskeptic dismissives embraced him, some even after crucial history was revealed here at DeSmogBlog, as in this, this, and this.

* “Dismissive” is one category of the Yale/GMU Six Americas research studies, whose latest is November 2013.  The first in 2009 defined the term, PDF p.5:

The Dismissive are sure that global warming is not happening (Figure 2). They say the issue is not at all important to them personally (Figure 3) and are not worried about it at all (Figure 4). The Dismissive, however, say that they have thought some about global warming and believe they are wellinformed about the causes, consequences, and potential solutions – i.e., that there are none, because it doesn’t exist (Figures 6 & 7). They are very certain about their views, saying they are very unlikely to change their minds about the issue (Figure 5). Many flatly reject the proposition that global warming is happening, while a majority believe that if global warming is happening, natural changes in the environment are the primary cause (Figure 8). Likewise, a majority believe there is a lot of disagreement among scientists over whether global warming is occurring, while over a fifth of the Dismissive believe there is a scientific consensus that global warming is not happening (Figure 9). They overwhelmingly say that global warming will not harm them personally or future generations at all (Figures 10 & 11). Finally, they believe global warming will never harm people in the United States.’

** Dammit, Jim, I’m a neurobiologist, not a climatologist!” is a fine example of the way a real scientific skeptic approaches a field far outside his own.

UPDATE 04/20/14:

***Joanne Nova  posted in 2010 We reclaimed the word Skeptic — next we reclaim the word Scientist  and commented in 2013:

We own the word skeptic. I’m not giving it up. ;-) A skeptic is “A person inclined to question or doubt all accepted opinions.” They tried to turn it into a poisonous term of dismissive scorn. But I won’t lose yet another word to the wordsmiths.”

**** In Defamation By Internet? Part 1 – Murry Salby’s Short-Lived Blog Storm  the pseudoskeptic blog network rapdily propagated desired news, while rejecting the unfavorable or just ignoring it completlry, as done with Top Physicist Withdraws Support..., all evidence of a distributed Morton’s Demon.  Dan Vergano tweeted this post, triggering quick insults from one of the bloggers that inspired this topic.

UPDATE:05/18/14 For more, see Pseudoskeptics Exposed In The SalbyStorm.

Image Credit: Stuart Miles / Shutterstock.

Related Posts


After a 2022 frack out, residents report rashes, and foul methane-spiked water. EQT denies responsibility, offering water for silence from residents.

After a 2022 frack out, residents report rashes, and foul methane-spiked water. EQT denies responsibility, offering water for silence from residents.

But experts say carbon capture technology is unproven and could hurt the region’s shift to tried-and-true renewables.

But experts say carbon capture technology is unproven and could hurt the region’s shift to tried-and-true renewables.

New documents show the close financial relationship between Conservative Party patrons and anti-climate think tanks.

New documents show the close financial relationship between Conservative Party patrons and anti-climate think tanks.

DeSmog catalogues how oil and gas firms have forged ties with the highest levels of government, the media, and influential think tanks.

DeSmog catalogues how oil and gas firms have forged ties with the highest levels of government, the media, and influential think tanks.