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.