It’s like thinking but it’s not thinking

LightbulbClive Jame has something to say about scepticism. It’s a “light-hearted” something, says the strap, which is a handy because you might otherwise have thought it was “emptily provocative” or “quite stupid”. Clive James wants you to know that he’s a sceptic, and not one of your fairweather sceptics who’ll research something and then come to a provisional conclusion: “What remained constant was my scepticism, which is surely, as a human attitude, more valuable than gullibility.” That sounds about right, doesn’t it? Question everything! Stick it to the gulls, CJ!

But these are hard times for the sceptic, continues James:

Since [the time of Montaigne], a sceptical attitude has been less likely to get you burned at the stake, but it’s notable how the issue of man-made global warming has lately been giving rise to a use of language hard to distinguish from heresy-hunting in the fine old style by which the cost of voicing a doubt was to fry in your own fat.

Whether or not you believe that the earth might have been getting warmer lately, if you are sceptical about whether mankind is the cause of it, the scepticism can be enough to get you called a denialist.

It’s a nasty word to be called, denialist, because it calls up the spectacle of a fanatic denying the Holocaust.

Holo-what-now? I thought we were being light-hearted. Now we’re accusing people who agree with the scientific consensus on global warming of secretly wanting to set fire to those who differ from them. But what is the consensus anyway? Maybe we’ve been mislead by our media, and the existence of climate change (and its cause, if it does exist) is more disputed than we realise:

I still can’t see that there is a scientific consensus. There are those for, and those against. Either side might well be right, but I think that if you have a division on that scale, you can’t call it a consensus.

But Clive, you haven’t told us what the scale of the disagreement is! Just the existence of an unspecified, unnamed number of dissenters with unknown evidence is enough to undermine a consensus. Perhaps by now you’re thinking that James’ approach is a bit empty, that he doesn’t seem to be familiar with any research of any kind, and he’s being just a tiny bit flippant about a potential global catastrophe. Well, you would be wrong to do so, because James cares more than you will ever know, with your craven preference for “data” and “analysis”:

Sceptics, say the believers, don’t care about the future of the human race. But being sceptical has always been one of the best ways of caring about the future of the human race. For example, it was from scepticism that modern medicine emerged, questioning the common belief that diseases were caused by magic, or could be cured by it.

So, to recap: if you accept that climate change is both ongoing and caused by humans, then you’re a gullible person with a taste for immolating your enemies, and you probably think the squinty-eyed lady up the road is trying to kill you with her mind. If you disagree with the widely-held opinion of climate scientists, then you’re going to save the human race with the power of pure thought. QED. Now go and turn all the lights on so you can illuminate this darkening world with your exquisite scepticism.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009. Photo by beana_cheese, used under Creative Commons.

6 thoughts on “It’s like thinking but it’s not thinking

  1. Given that this is the same man who, if memory serves right, poked fun at Bernard Levin’s irrational talking up of Uri Geller and his “some-scientists-are-closed-minded-and-there’s-room-for-doubt” sophistry… oh dear, oh dear, CJ. He didn’t get where he is today by being so woolly-headed, did he?

    This para alone has two big problems:

    …and there are plenty of highly qualified scientists ready to say that the whole idea is a case of too many of their colleagues relying on models provided by the same computers that can’t even predict what will happen to the weather next week

    Firstly, what does he think `plenty’ means? Is he not sceptical about what his use of that word betrays? Secondly, and no doubt CJ would dismiss this as quibbling over rhetoric, in dynamical systems it’s quite conceivable that it will be easier to predict mid-to-long term trends (ceteris paribus as CJ might say) than to predict the short term. So cracking wise about short-term errors isn’t being sceptical, it’s being ignorant.

    Ooh, almost forgot to say: nicely written post.

  2. I don’t think CJ would be in any position to tell anyone that they’re quibbling over rhetoric. He’s the supreme quibbler.

  3. being sceptical is the way science should be done. That is why asking for a consensus in a theory is wrong and a sign that something is not right.

    As Einstein said ‘No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.’ These people who are in the climate change industry seem to ignore or at least dislike that idea – and maybe that is where the idea of ‘unbeliever’ is coming in!

    There are plenty of research papers which point to the idea of man made global warming being more of a political argument than fact. When flaws are being highlighted, its because the researcher is in the pay of some large ‘bad’ organisation – when did we start shooting messengers?

    History will show that the shrill of the global warming fanatics was very hollow, however, who wants to admit they were wrong? Just look at the people who believed in Eugenics at the start of the 20th century!

  4. No, testing evidence is the way science “should be done”. “Being sceptical” is the lazy person’s way of looking clever without having to do any reading.

  5. SD is right, Mr F, and your first sentence is so egregiously off-base that I wonder if your extensive scientific training must have taken place somewhere rather odd. (Try overturning the consensus on electromagnetism and see where you get, if that doesn’t cause the semiconductors in your keyboard to blow.)

    There are plenty of research papers which point to the idea of man made global warming being more of a political argument than fact.

    Ah, this word “plenty”again. Of course, even if we assume that there are “plenty”, however many that may be, not all research papers are as valid as each other. Strange how we’re supposed not to be so “sceptical” of those ones, eh?

  6. Science questions everything, so it would be fair to say it is sceptical. Science produces theories, and the AGW theory is now pretty much consensual, apart from a few geriatric oddball engineers.

    Science cannot dictate policy. Politicians do that, and they are now pretty much on board with AGW theory, though they are still shy of taking the necessary action, partly because only 75% of the electorate are convinced, due in no small measure to the influence of journalists like CJ, Richard Littlejohn, and Melanie Phillips.

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