There are many examples of words that mean different things depending on whether they’re used in a casual or common manner, or whether they’re used in a scientific manner. The word theory, for example, is often used as a synonym for guess or hunch in common usage, and in everyday talk, this is usually perfectly alright. But in science, the word theory means something very different. The National Academy of Sciences defines a scientific theory as a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences and test hypotheses – that’s quite a bit different than a guess or a hunch. This, of course, causes no end of grief to people who are opposed to certain scientific theories (particularly opponents of the Theory of Evolution), because while they would like to presume that even scientific theories are open to a lot of guesswork, the simple fact is that they are not, which makes the opposing argument quite a bit harder. In fact, they are the exact opposite of a guess – they are well-substantiated, and are not put forth until they meet certain criteria of factual accuracy. The plain truth is, a scientific theory requires considerably more vetting than a mere guess, or even an educated guess. It must be supported by evidence, so it is actually anything but a guess.
Similarly, the word skeptic is commonly thrown around with a meaning that includes anyone who questions a claim, for any reason. For example, a person might be skeptical that the police officer who pulled them over correctly calculated their speed, or that someone playing the bar trivia game actually got the answer right and earned their free mug of beer. But again, in science, we find a definition of skeptic that is quite a bit more rigorous than simply questioning a fact, and again it has to do with the skepticism being well-substantiated. Scientific skepticism (or rational skepticism) is when one questions the veracity of a claim that lacks empirical evidence, or questions a claim based on the existence of empirical evidence to the contrary. These qualifications are key, because in common usage, anyone can question anything based on whatever they want, but that doesn’t mean the skepticism has any veracity of its own. It’s easy to be a simple contrarian. True skepticism is much like a scientific theory in this way – what is the point if you can’t determine if the skepticism has any merit or not? And how can you determine if it has any merit if it doesn’t make testable predictions of its own, just like a scientific theory does? Just saying that you don’t believe something (skeptic) isn’t any better than simply stating that you think something is true (theory). Either way, you need to back it up with hard data, or else it’s just a waste of everyone’s time.
And so we come to global warming skepticism…but is it really skepticism? Many people opposed to the idea of anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming take objection to being called global warming deniers, but I think that this is the far more accurate term. The thing that I notice about the arguments of global warming deniers is that they are rarely based on science, but instead usually based on political or religious ideology. Note that most global warming denial comes from political and social conservative camps, largely composed of Republicans (with some Libertarians, who share the Republican ideal of small government, thrown in for good measure). Most other political affiliations do not have an issue with accepting anthropogenic global warming (AGW) as true (although the tactics used by deniers to plant seeds of doubt are definitely having an effect, unfortunately. I’ll be devoting a future article to this topic shortly). This is further evidenced by the deniers’ seeming obsession with Al Gore, as if he were the main source of the climate science affirming AGW, which of course, being a non-scientist, he is not. Lastly, most of the denial arguments do not reference any scientific basis for skepticism – they point to no lack of evidence of AGW, and they point to no peer-reviewed scientific evidence to the contrary. Instead, denial arguments frequently reference political, ideological and religious sources for the basis of their doubt. The science of global warming is rarely refuted with more science.
When someone is motivated by political ideology rather than science, then that person is not a true scientific skeptic, and is more fairly called a contrarian or a denier. When someone continues to repeat arguments that have long ago been debunked, that person is not a scientific skeptic, but a denier. When someone cherry-picks facts with the intention of winning an ideological debate, rather than with the intention of establishing whether or not something is true, that person is not a scientific skeptic, but a denier. The denier is not a scientist who is interested in examining nature to determine how it works from an unbiased perspective, but an ideologue. They are wedded to a philosophical concept, and the truth of the matter is not as important as staying true to the ideological system they adhere to. Whereas a scientist investigates nature and reaches conclusions based on his investigations (and always leaves the conclusion open to reinterpretation based on further investigation), the ideologue reaches his conclusion first and then bases his position on the context of that framework, without giving any regard to facts or evidence to the contrary.
What deniers and ideologues don’t understand is that no one – not Al Gore, not “liberals” – invented anthropogenic global warming. Like all other scientific theories, it was discovered. It was already there, waiting for us to figure it out. There is a difference between invention and discovery, and I attribute the failure to understand the distinction to a misunderstanding of the scientific method and how it works. Scientists do not invent theories – they don’t make them up out of thin air and then search for evidence to confirm them. They do exactly the opposite: they investigate the natural world, examine the evidence that they find and accumulate, and then draw conclusions based on that. The conclusions are often unexpected and go against the pre-conceived biases of all the humans that work on them (scientists, after all, are human too). But we don’t get to pick and choose what’s real and what’s not based on our predilections and desires. There are no choices here. What’s real is what’s real, whether we like it or not.
Carl Sagan said, “Those afraid of the universe as it really is, those who pretend to nonexistent knowledge and envision a Cosmos centered on human beings will prefer the fleeting comforts of superstition. They avoid rather than confront the world. But those with the courage to explore the weave and structure of the Cosmos, even where it differs profoundly from their wishes and prejudices, will penetrate its deepest mysteries.” I could not have put it any better.