Am I a Skeptic?

I've been called a lot of things in my life, most of them not very nice. It usually doesn't bother me. People can call me what they will. It doesn't affect what I am. The problem is sometimes it's necessary to pick a "side" in a conflict. This point was brought to mind recently by Anthony Watts at Watts Up With That when he asked:

Is it time for an “official” climate skeptics organization, one that produces a policy statement, issues press releases, and provides educational guidance?

But I didn't give it much thought. Then I discovered Richard Tol apparently rewrote a couple parts of the latest IPCC report to downplay global warming concerns and promote his own work. The responses I got to pointing that out were disheartening. I tried to shrug it off, but then I got an e-mail from a self-declared skeptic referring to it which said (in part):

It looks like you're right but it's better for us if you don't talk about it.

That was my breaking point. I can accept whatever labels people want to give me, but the idea I should refrain from pointing out abuses of science because of what "side" I'm on is obscene. If that's what it takes to be a skeptic, I don't want to be one.

So now I'm stuck with the question, am I a skeptic?

I don't know the answer.

I know I'm unconvinced global warming will ever cause catastrophic effects. I know I'm unconvinced we've seen any weather patterns which can be attributed to global warming in any significant way. I know I have a hundred simple questions about global warming I can't find an answer to.

At the same time, I know I believe the greenhouse effect is real. I know I believe the planet's sensitivity to a doubling of carbon dioxide levels is at least one degree Celsius. I know I believe it is likely at least a bit more. The reason I believe these things is I found answers to 95 out of a hundred questions I had about them (many on one site).

Maybe that makes me a "lukewarmer." I gather they're people who believe global warming is real but the planet's sensitivity is on the lower end. I think they say it's somewhere between 1.5 and 3 degrees Celsius. I'm not sure though. I don't have any particular reason to dismiss the idea the planet's sensitivity is on the higher end.

So what am I? Normally I'd say I'm a skeptic. After all, I'm skeptical of almost everything I hear. I have hundreds of questions I've tried to find the answer to. I have a thousand more I haven't even attempted to answer. That sounds like a skeptic to me. It just doesn't sound like the "skeptics" I see.

I criticized Steven Goddard for saying the "NOAA is either completely incompetent or committing fraud – or both." The reason? Goddard had claimed the NOAA adjusts it's current data set far more than it admits to. To make this claim, he compared raw data from an obsolete data set made over a decade earlier to the adjusted version of an updated data set. He claimed the differences showed the adjustments made to the new raw data set were greater than the documentation says. I pointed out that was baseless as the new data set had far more data so we should expect its raw data to be different from the old data set's raw data.

Any skeptic should support pointing out such an obvious mistake. Nobody should accuse another of fraud based upon such a flimsy argument. Instead, the responses I got were more like:

That's disturbingly similar to responses I got when I tried to call attention to Richard Tol rewriting parts of the IPCC report to favor his personal views. For example:

Brandon agree very strongly with Steve here.
Richard Toll appears to be asking for the IPCC to be brought to task.
Any minor problems are just that, minor.
I realise that there may be a lot of history here but would beg you to be charitable, magnanimous even, kind hearted and forget the past. Run with Richard’s major contribution and leave the nit picking to some future date

That's not how a skeptic should behave. A skeptic doesn't keep quiet because the person who is wrong does good things. A skeptic doesn't keep quiet because keeping quiet helps a cause. Or at least, I didn't think a skeptic did. Maybe a skeptic does.

After all, I didn't get support when I criticized Richard Tol for examining sorted data then claiming its properties proved the order of a randomized version of that data would have certain inappropriate patterns. The one person who agreed about such an obvious point originally responded to my disbelief by saying:

“Why does anyone still think Richard Tol’s claims deserve consideration?”

Because Richard is a climate science rock star and you are not?

What kind of skeptical attitude is that? I appreciate he was open to the possibility what I said was true, but why didn't a single skeptic begin with genuine skepticism? And why is it the only other person I've ever seen acknowledge my point was Tom Curtis, a person who helped get my banned from Skeptical Science and has openly accused me of lying:

This is most obvious when you purport to analyse the order of data, known to be ordered by date and alphabetically, and known to have been rated randomly, and pretend you can find out information about the order of rating....

Nobody with half a brain can take your analysis seriously after you say something like that. You ought to be a laughing stock, and it is to Brandon’s credit that he not only recognizes it, but says it.

Interestingly, Tom Curtis and I agreed on another point. When I discovered what kind of person Christopher Monckton, a popular public figure in the skeptic movement, is, I had to say:

It seems Monckton can say and do practically anything and still be accepted by many people. That’s ridiculous and embarrassing. Now that I’ve seen a number of posts he’s written for this site, I’m embarrassed to have ever submitted posts here.

Extremists like Monckton are a blight. I welcome participation from people regardless of their views, but nobody should welcome the poisonous, vile diatribes he posts. At the very least, they’re as strategically unsound as anything can be.

I stand by that. Monckton's behavior is inexcusable. People should be embarrassed to be associated with him. Instead, he's promoted as a popular figure within the skeptical movement.

But it's not just him. The first paragraph of that quote fits Richard Tol perfectly. He made an obviously absurd argument to criticize Cook et al., and instead of laughing at him, people praised him. I showed Tol distorted the IPCC process to change a report in order to promote his own views and work to the exclusion of other, more recent work. That proved the IPCC process is still as flawed as skeptics said it was five years ago.

What did they do with this great talking point? Nothing. One person wrote a post acknowledging the issue had even been brought up. Practically nobody said anything remotely positive (in public). The silence of the skeptics was so deafening an ardent defender of the IPCC and all consensus science remarked:

In this case faulting Tol is more damaging to the skeptic cause than the benefit of faulting the IPCC. So no this won’t become big deal. It won’t be discussed or investigated ad nauseum over countless blogs. It will be ignored. You already see the “forces of ignore” trying to get you to ignore it too.

That stayed on my mind for a while until I found this troubling comment:

I really don’t understand people like Chad Wozniak (above, at 8:24 pm) who write off Richard Tol because of what he says about a carbon tax. Sure, I don’t think there should be such a tax either, but given Tol’s eminence and his inside knowledge of the IPCC and its processes, he is one of the anti-IPCC movement’s brightest hopes. It is people like Tol, AND ONLY people like Tol, who can act as the media-acceptable figureheads we need.

Carry on firing broadsides at everybody who disagrees with you on anything, Chad, and you’ll end up in a movement with exactly one member.

That seems to sum up the problem. Self-declared skeptics seem to feel they "need" Richard Tol. They "need" Christopher Monckton. Maybe they even "need" Steven Goddard.

But I don't. I'll disagree with anyone if I think they're wrong. I'll criticize the behavior of any person I feel acts inappropriately. That's what a skeptic should do. It's practically built into the name. If skeptics stop being skeptical, what are they?

And more importantly, what am I? I'm not a skeptic who'll actively call for people to avoid criticisms of the "movement's brightest hopes." I'm not a skeptic who can express indifference to such criticisms. I'm not even a skeptic who can sit idly by and ignore those criticisms. If there were "an 'official' climate skeptics organization," I could never be in it.

So what am I?


  1. So what am I?

    You are argumentative. You can't argue with that 🙂

    This is a useful post, because warmies often say that sceptics aren't sceptical of their own side. I'm collecting examples to show they do, including Watts on the 'dragons', Rog Tallbloke criticising Watts, the furious arguments on Watts 'getting organised' thread, and your criticisms of Goddard and Tol.

  2. Brandon: it sounds to me like you know who you are. I personally appreciate your efforts to highlight issues. Doesn't matter to me if those issues are with Mann or Monkton. I learn from the experience, I get introduced to subjects that I may not have previously known about or better understand some subtlety that I had not fully appreciated. What is personally interesting to me is reading a post or a message, then starting the process of exploring the information discussed in the message to gain more information and hopefully better understanding of the topic.

    BTW: I think it would be helpful to have people participate in whatever organization comes from Anthony Watts efforts to be willing to call people to account when needed. It is generally easier to change organizations from within than from without.

    Just my $0.02.

  3. Paul Matthews, when you believe the whole world is insane, you've got two options: go crazy or be argumentative. I'm struggling to avoid the former.

    bdaabat, I'm glad to hear my efforts are appreciated. As for joining an organization, my problem is I don't know what my "common ground" would be with the group.

    Carrick, of course. I'm pretty sure nothing you may think is true is worse than what I hear on a regular basis.

    For everyone, you should check out the new post at Judith Curry's blog. Two highlights:

    First, note these key points about the IPCC process: the L.A. is allowed (a) to have essentially complete control over the text, (b) sit in judgment of his/her own work as well as that of his/her critics and (c) to have the option of arbitrarily dismissing reviewer comments since he/she is granted the position of “authority” (unlike peer-review.)
    So, to summarize, an L.A. was given final say over a section which included as its (and the IPCC’s) featured product, his very own chart, and which allowed him to leave out not only entire studies that presented contrary evidence, but even to use another strategically edited data set that had originally displayed contrary evidence. This led to problems that have only recently been exposed. This process, in my opinion, illustrates that the IPCC did not provide policymakers with an unbiased evaluation of the science, whatever one thinks about the Hockey Stick as a temperature reconstruction.

    You could replace references to Michael Mann with Richard Tol, and the case would be almost the same. The main differences are Tol was prominent before the report he oversaw, and his section was not destined for greatness like Mann's.

  4. There are no sides in science and skepticism. That is a major problem in the climate debate, as seen in the blogosphere and the media. In that world there are two sides, you choose your side and you go into battle.

    Given there are two sides in the blogosphere & media, not following a side is a good start. But people don't necessarily demonstrate a skeptical mindset by disagreeing with side A over one point and disagreeing with side B over another point. On the plus side it demonstrates that person is not a total sheep - a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for being a skeptic.

    There is no independent test that can be carried out to demonstrate to the world you are a skeptic. If you don't care where different sides place you then that is a big help.

    Paul says (first comment above):

    This is a useful post, because warmies often say that sceptics aren’t sceptical of their own side. I’m collecting examples to show they do..

    This is a different use of the word "sceptic". This use has a common meaning relating to "people who aren't convinced of the climate science consensus", and is just a camp. Side B, if you will, in the climate wars.

    To be a skeptic means to ask questions, to request evidence, and not to accept a point of view just because "everyone else does". There isn't a camp of skeptics.

    I think the writer of this article agrees (?) and that's a good thing.

  5. "There are no sides in science and skepticism." Big thumbs up for that!

    I will add that the "two sides" characterization -- or two camps, or two tribes -- is also corrosive in that it promotes viewing the "other side" as monolithic. The usual outcome is that outrageous attitudes of the outliers are associated with the group at large, and then used to denigrate the group as a whole. I don't think there's a need to enumerate examples of such over-generalizations.

    That's one reason why I don't like the idea of an "official" non-consensus group. It encourages the perception of a single "camp" and associates everyone on that "side" with the views of the leader(s) of that group. While it's harder to think in terms of a multiplicity of opinion -- and I think that's why the media prefer a simplistic "two sides" interpretation, it's much easier to present -- it avoids the lazy approach of just ignoring the other tribe.

  6. scienceofdoom, thanks for your comment. Not only do I agree with what you've said, I wanted to make those very points with this post. I couldn't find a way to write the points out without sounding preachy or combative so I decided to ask questions and let people reach the conclusions themselves.

    At this point, the "skeptic" side of the global warming debate seems to just be co-opting the term. I can't see much connection between skepticism and the views they hold. It's akin to what happened with the term creationism. The word originally just referred to any set of beliefs, even non-religious ones, which held some form of creation by an external force had taken place.

    Then a certain group of religious fundamentalists decided to take the label as their own to make themselves seem more credible. At least they had the courtesy to label themselves "Creationists" with a capital letter to pretend to keep a distinction. Most people don't recognize the distinction anymore, but there is still some small measure of it.

    Maybe that's what global warming "skeptics" ought to do. They could say, "I'm not a skeptic, I'm a Skeptic!"

  7. HaroldW, I agree. Another problem is once you divide people into two groups, the groups cease to have any real meaning. Look at political parties in the United States. The values of the Democrat and Republican parties have shifted enormously in the last fifty years. The title and the views the group hold have basically no connection to one another.

    If they did, we wouldn't have things like conservatives advocating for government control of marriages in order to prevent gay marriages. That violates their stated support of personal freedom, religious freedom and small government. It's like if Skeptics started supporting Cap and Trade because some businesses thought it'd be profitable and co-opted the movement.

  8. scienceofdoom:

    Given there are two sides in the blogosphere & media, not following a side is a good start. But people don’t necessarily demonstrate a skeptical mindset by disagreeing with side A over one point and disagreeing with side B over another point. On the plus side it demonstrates that person is not a total sheep – a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for being a skeptic.

    I absolutely agree with this, especially the emboldened part.

    Somebody could attack another person from nominally the same camp without skepticism playing any meaningful role in why they are attacking that person. Reasons could include ego, "protecting my territory" or personal animosity towards the target of their "skepticism". Or, for example, if you are constantly driven by the need to prove yourself smarter than everybody else, you probably aren't a skeptic. I dare say there are plenty that fall into that later group on the internet. Judith Curry's blog seems filled with them in the comment sections.

    To be a true skeptic, you need to constantly challenge your own beliefs, be open to ideas from other people, and be willing to change your views as new data that contradicts your prior beliefs become available.

  9. The part that I meant to embolden was this "But people don’t necessarily demonstrate a skeptical mindset by disagreeing with side A over one point and disagreeing with side B over another point. "

  10. Sadly, the theme I use at this blog screws up HTML tags inside blockquotes. That's why I used to use a smaller font for the text of the body of my posts instead of the texts of the quotes themselves. The theme is supposed to make it so you can't change the size of quoted text. Fortunately, I found out it's possible to get around that. Similarly, you can control the italics of quotes. The trick is to insert closing tags into the post to break the theme's default setting for the quote (e.g. starting a quote with /font to break its default font setting). I don't know if it works in comments. I also don't know if it works with regard for bolding. I haven't messed around with that one.

    Ideally, I would switch to a better theme. Unfortunately, there are only a few free ones. I don't intend to pay $100 or whatever it is for better options. If I were going to pay that much, I'd just switch to self-hosting. I don't mind the extra effort of that, but I waste enough time blogging already. I don't need to spend my money on it too.

  11. For what it's worth, this is one of the few climate sites I read regularly (my current list is McIntyre, Montford, Liljegren and you). I don't normally post because you normally make your points rather well and I have little to add.

    Like you I have no interest in an official skeptics organisation, and for very similar reasons. And yes, Monckton is a menace: reminiscent of Mann in some ways.

  12. Jonathan Jones, thanks for the comment. I'm happy to happy to hear that.

    Except the part about this being a "climate site[]." That just reminds me how much I've wound up focusing on climate here. I hadn't intended to.

  13. In the context of the CAGW religion, you are most definitely a skeptic. To be a believer, you must have faith in a long chain ranging from the basic physics through amplifying effects all the way to team-approved policy responses. Skepticism of any component within the whole system of beliefs seems to qualify you for a scarlet "S" by the high priests. While I don't think the believers are as uniform and monolithic as they like to appear, they seem to purge any dissent with predjudice so that they appear to speak with one voice. Skeptics should not emulate that behavior. Skeptics should not need to.

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