Be a bit sceptical about the new breed of doubters
In The Bible, Doubting Thomas famously put his hand into Jesus’ wound and had a good grope around to convince himself that the son of God had truly risen from the dead.
He was the only sceptic among the Disciples, the only one who didn’t rely on blind faith. He demanded evidence of an improbable event. For this, he copped it a bit. According to John 20:29:
“Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”
In the post-Enlightenment era, Doubting Thomases are looked upon more kindly. Theoretically, at least, we are in the Age of Reason, the age of rejecting superstition and embracing rationality.
We’re encouraged to poke around a bit when someone tells us something that flies in the face of the established science.
It’s healthy to be sceptical, to demand evidence, to test and contest ideas.
But there is a new ‘scepticism’ afoot that is untethered from science. It’s a form of pseudoscience.
Pseudoscience imitates science. It steals or creates big, sciencey-sounding words. Its practitioners assume sciencey-sounding titles, and publish their work in sciencey-sounding rags.
Pseudoscientists cloak their ideas in the garments of science and try to pass it off as the real thing. They put their ideas in a nest with better ideas, and by the time they are exposed as cuckoos it is often too late, and the idea has hatched and spread its wings.
Or to pick another avian metaphor (and why not?) they are lyrebirds, skilled at mimicking the real thing, but full of lies.
One of the most successful pseudosciences is Creation Science.
One of the reasons for its success is that it has used the techniques of scepticism to create doubt about evolution as an explanation for mankind’s existence.
Creationists have been remarkably successful in the United States with their ‘teach the controversy’ plea. They are battling for equal time in classrooms with evolution.
They may never achieve that, but in a way they have already won one battle, which is to claim a false equivalency in some minds. They’ve created the impression that there is a choice, that the jury is still out, that there are two different but valid explanations.
Much of their energy, rather than being spent on supporting their hypothesis that God created the Earth and everything on it not so long ago, is now spent on generating doubt about the scientific theory of evolution.
They cherrypick details that scientists disagree on or that Charles Darwin hadn’t worked out yet; they deliberately misunderstand the use of the word ‘theory’. They use a clusterbomb approach, throwing so many questions into the mix – how did something as complex as the human eye evolve from mutations? – that they make it appear as though the fact of natural selection is under serious question.
They want you to believe that the science is not settled.
You can see where I’m going with this, right?
Those who would have you believe that climate change is not happening, or that human activity has nothing to do with it, follow the Creationists’ textbook.
Rather than putting forward a theory they rely on their own brand of scepticism. They cherrypick factoids and data and gleefully seize on disagreements between scientists.
They use ‘experts’ who are not experts in climate science to attack the climate science. They bombard the airwaves and the interwebs with irrelevancies and strawmen.
Where the Creationists ask how it is possible for evolution to have led to something as complex as a human eye, they ask how it is possible for carbon dioxide, the ‘friend to plants’, to have dire consequences.
Their aim is to raise enough questions about the established science to give their perspective a false equivalency, to implant doubt.
This would be just fine if they were using science to test science. But they’re not; they’re using the words of shock jocks and anti-carbon-taxers to create doubt. They don’t have the published, peer-reviewed articles to show that the vast majority of climate scientists are wrong. Extraordinary claims (and it is extraordinary to claim that the world’s institutions and journals and scientists are almost uniformly wrong) require extraordinary evidence – which they don’t have. They are false sceptics.
This is the new branch of pseudoscience we have to dismantle: pseudoscepticism.
Poking around on Twitter: @ToryShepherd
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