I commented recently on why I believe those often referred to as “climate deniers” should more appropriately be considered “committed sceptics”. They are, after all, not denying climate changes or that there isn’t a climate at all, but rather committed to the conclusion that climate is unaffected (at least dangerously) but our actions, leaving them unquestioningly sceptical of any information that challenges that conclusion. If it were otherwise, they would take the time to learn one of the various fields of science, rigorously test the fundamental hypotheses and show, convincingly, within the proper peer-viewed scientific literature, why such conclusions that have convinced almost the entire expert community in the field of anthropogenic climate change are wrong.
Such a finding would be immensely important and the accolades would be more wondrous to the researchers involved than many that came before it. They would be global heroes whom saved us the otherwise necessary upheaval of many of our primary activities to ensure the longevity of resources and infrastructure that we owe to future generations (as was given to us).
The silence in this arena (compared to the noisy blogosphere and town hall) is telling. This breed of scepticism isn’t scientific in any nature and people like Alan Jones do a massive injustice to the name of a brilliant mind, Galileo Galilei, by using it for a completely unquestioning (at least, in a scientific sense) movement.
How such people, standing for the status quo in the face of obvious error, can use the name of someone who challenged the status quo based on obvious error can do such a thing with a straight face is beyond me. However, as I’ve covered previously, the fox indeed smells its own scent first and such people tend to make claims 180o to reality to support idea that themselves are 180o to reality.
The Spectrum of Reasoning
What I’ve come to realise is that reasoning is actually a spectrum on which we all slide upon. There are those committed sceptics on topics such as climate, evolution, vaccination, the moon landing, alien / UFO visitations whom are unmoveable regardless of contradiction. However, on the other side of this spectrum, we have other groups many science communicators also challenge.
It’s all about the “other ways of knowing”. It’s the New Age thinking.
For them, it’s not committed scepticism, but rather about a mind unbuttoned, free to explore all possibilities. For them, it’s not about holding an idea – which to everyone else it may seem to be, and is the case with the previous group – but rather holding onto the possibility. Anything short of this, to such an individual, is simply closed minded. That we can never be entirely 100% certain about most, if not all matters, this, to such an individual, means that all possibilities thus require equal consideration.
Dead in the centre of this spectrum is scientific methodology. Science demands the will to entertain any idea, but also rigorous testing, aimed not to prove the idea, but instead disprove it, to merit its validity.
You need not only the possibility of ideas, but also the cool-handed rejection of ideas that just don’t stand up to scrutiny. Equally, you don’t get by on hardcore scepticism of new or challenging ideas, because it’s clear that our intuitions have limitations. The natural universe is weirder than anything we could imagine.
New From the Credulous
It might be easy for those of us trained in science whom approach those heavy on either side of the spectrum with what looks to be an air of arrogance (whether intentional or not). We must remember however that none of us have it completely right. Each one of us were by our very nature once little people; inquisitive dreamers of all possibilities. Where we find ourselves today on that spectrum is the result of our history.
Even the very best of us at obtaining that central pivoting point have our moments. When a loved one passes away, we muse about them around us. In times of hardship, we wish or pray for assistance, guidance and/or strength. We see meaning in random events that our better training signifies as a statistical streak and nothing more.
At this point, I’m certain the committed sceptic could take the previous paragraph to confirm gullibility in those whom suggest new ideas are far more likely than previous ideas, based on strong evidence, while the unbuttoned mind would use it to confirm that “deeper understanding” is innate within us all, but trained out of us by the short-sighted and those of us that hover around the pivot point will be frustrated – even seeing this article as apologetic. The point of the matter is; we are all new from the credulous side of the spectrum, both as a species and individually.
The enlightenment refined the tools of inquiry so that we could build confidence in our assertions and as unfortunate as it may seem, each birth is a new start along the road of understanding; we are forced to learn from scratch what took a life time for others to appreciate. That both slows down the process of developing an understanding of the natural universe and demonstrates just how fragile the acquired knowledge can be; it takes great educators to ensure nothing is lost down the line.
The latter point sits behind the concerns of aging experts of any generation whom chastise “the abysmal level of education nowadays”.
The Science Communicator
I’m certain that our approach as science communicators fails to cause ripples among those heavy to either side of the spectrum because we fail to address where they are coming from. We also grow frustrated due to the same reason and condemn one group as fanatical believers to an “absolute truth” and the other as “off with the fairies”. Such attitudes and perceived arrogance does education no favours.
Instead, it may pay to put the obligation back on them to validate their reasoning.
Indeed, as Hamlet said (and quoted endlessly by some), “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
No-one knows better than a scientist just how odd and counterintuitive the natural universe is. Perhaps acknowledging and demonstrating this could capture their imagination… before pulling the conversation in with justification as to why we know such things and hold so much confidence in their validity.
Maybe take it a step further and muse their ideas following an attempt to test its validity in the same fashion. The universe would remain a weird and wonderful place, but just maybe some of your audience may shift a little closer to the pivot point; they might get why you test ideas and enjoy the genuine confidence they hold in these new assertions while maintaining their sense of wonder and majesty in the universe.
Admire the mind strict and trained to demand compelling evidence. Ask them why they believe what they believe. Ask them what it may take them to question the validity of these beliefs. I hinted at it above; get them test their ideas and your own. Work with them from the ground up. Expose them to a new form of confidence not based on simply being strongly held, but instead tested until it stands regardless what you do to it. Maybe they too may shift a little closer to the pivot point and enjoy the exploration of thought.
We are all in this together. We have reached a point that our impact on the world is far greater than that we ever gave to any god. We remove mountains. We are changing the global climate. We are causing a mass extinction event and degrading our resource base. We have an arsenal able to destroy our species along with many others.
It may be fun for some and fundamental for others to knock others down because of conflicting ideas, but it isn’t helping anyone. Especially now that we have the tool set to chisel out information in great detail and with great confidence. We need to change our approach or else we’ll still be squabbling, knee deep in salt water with little left to defend.