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Skepticism’s Proper Target

March 06, 2014

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Skepticism’s Proper Target

This year is the centenary of the late great pop mathematician Martin Gardner (1914-2010). A posthumous autobiography (you don’t see that phrase often) appeared last fall.

In 1957, Gardner published a book titled Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, debunking things such as extrasensory perception and Dianetics. I read the book in my teens. It instantly cured me of my infatuation with the then-popular “worlds in collision” theories of Immanuel Velikovsky. I fondly think that it also left me with a proper balance of respect for, on the one hand, scientific orthodoxy, and on the other, rebels against that orthodoxy.

As Gardner points out in his first chapter, the rebels are sometimes right. For example, science long pooh-poohed the idea that rocks could fall from the sky:

Even the great French Académie des Sciences ridiculed this folk belief.…Not until April 26, 1803, when several thousand small meteors fell on the town of L’Aigle, France, did the astronomers decide to take falling rocks seriously.

“Trust science, but don’t necessarily trust scientists.”

That proper balance of respect is essential for anyone who wants to say intelligent things about science. Without it you get sucked into one of two lethal whirlpools, their names dogmatism and relativism. As the quip goes: Keep your mind open, but not so open that everything falls out.

For a layperson, the point of balance is damnably hard to find. Try hanging out with working scientists and listening to them talk. You realize that while they may, like the French academicians, ultimately prove to be wrong, you will never know as much about their specialty as they do, so you are much more likely to be wrong.

To make matters even worse, the rebels are often as well-credentialed as the orthodox. Gardner gives examples:

Crehore rejects the accepted view that the electrons of an atom…have orbits about the nucleus. He thinks instead that the electrons are part of the nucleus itself.…Crehore’s books are universally considered worthless by his colleagues. On the other hand, Crehore was formerly assistant professor of physics at Dartmouth, with…a distinguished record as a teacher and inventor. So, one hesitates to be dogmatic.

What’s a layperson to do? (And even a scientist, please note, is a layperson outside his own specialty. A geologist’s opinions about neuroscience are probably worth a little more than yours or mine, but not by much.)

I offered my own recommendation in a column five years ago. Executive summary: Trust science, but don’t necessarily trust scientists.

All this is on my mind because: (a) a few weeks ago I wrote a piece about the “intelligent design” business; and (b) around the same time I passed what I thought were some bland, diffident remarks about global warming. The emails are still coming.

Creationists are no problem: I just give them a link to the TalkOrigins Archive.

Global-warming skeptics make a better case. Some do, at least. Others just chide me for believing something Al Gore and Barack Obama believe, to which I make the obvious rejoinder: A belief isn’t responsible for the people who hold it. Hitler was a vegetarian, etc.

Some others say I am a contrarian on race and IQ: I’m not. Still others tell me that consensus means nothing in science: That’s nuts.

After a few encounters with the more thoughtful skeptics, a pattern emerges.

First, a skeptic tells me the Warmers don’t take into account, say, urban heat islands. I diligently go off and Google it. It turns out the Warmist websites are all over the subject. How about the 2013 IPCC working report? I contemplate downloading the whole 375 megabytes but decide against it. I do, however, download the 0.4-megabyte glossary of the terms used in the report. “Urban Heat Island”? Yep, they know about it.

Now, my skeptical correspondents will come back with: “OK, they know about it, but they haven’t properly calculated the effect! See, if you allow for placement of detectors…,” and we’re off to the races again, but at a lower level of detail. Googling this finer point, it seems to me that the skeptics have put some spin on the relevant findings. When I say so, they tell me I’m missing something one further level of detail down, and so ad infinitum.

Infinite regresses show up a lot in these jousts. Adam Gopnik captured this aspect of creationism in a recent New Yorker article:

Experience shows that those who adopt [the “God of the Gaps”] strategy end up defending a smaller and smaller piece of ground. They used to find God’s hand in man’s very existence, then in the design of his eyes, then, after the emergence of the eye was fully explained, they were down to the bird’s wing, then they tried the bacterial flagellum, and now, like [Stephen C.] Meyer, they’re down to pointing to the cilia in the gut of worms and the emergence of a few kinds of multi-cellular organisms in the Cambrian as things beyond all rational explanation. Retreat always turns to rout in these matters.

Alas, with all respect to Mr. Gopnik, it doesn’t. The thing about infinite regresses is that they’re infinite. These little nut orchards can be tended forever. Martin Gardner, in that 1957 book:

Mencken once wrote that if you heave an egg out of a Pullman car window anywhere in the United States you are likely to hit a fundamentalist. That was twenty-five years ago.…

Pullman cars are long gone, but the creationists are still with us, blathering on about tornados in junkyards and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Is it any wonder that biologists roll their eyes and run for the exit when a creationist opens up?

I’ll rest on my prescription of five years ago, concentrating my skepticism on the shyster politicians ever scheming to grab away my liberty or property. In science I’ll go with the magisterium. They may be wrong, but that’s not the way to bet.

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