You all know James Randi. He’s the world famous Psychic Investigator whose rigorous scepticism has been the undoing of many a fraudulent spoonbender, dodgy faith-healer and ouija-board-wobbling spiritualist.
Randi is the expert magician and escape artist who is offering $1 million in his Paranormal Challenge “to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event.” No one has yet come close to claiming it because that’s the kind of fellow Randi is: an utterly fearless seeker-after-truth; the kind of guy who, if you cut him in half – the result of a stage trick going wrong maybe – you’d find the word “Sceptic” right through his middle. Except, of course, being as he’s American it would be spelt Skeptic.
Sadly, it seems that there’s one form of scepticism that not even the great James Randi can be permitted. And that is scepticism towards the existence of Al Gore’s mythical creation ManBearPig, aka Anthropogenic Global Warming.
Randi discovered this to his cost when he tried posting on the subject at his James Randi Educational Foundation website. And it’s not as though he was outing himself as a full-on “denier”. All Randi was trying to do was express a note of caution about the notion of “consensus” within the world of science.
An unfortunate fact is that scientists are just as human as the rest of us, in that they are strongly influenced by the need to be accepted, to kowtow to peer opinion, and to “belong” in the scientific community. Why do I find this “unfortunate”? Because the media and the hoi polloi increasingly depend upon and accept ideas or principles that are proclaimed loudly enough by academics who are often more driven by “politically correct” survival principles than by those given them by Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and Bohr. (Granted, it’s reassuring that they’re listening to academics at all — but how to tell the competent from the incompetent?) Religious and other emotional convictions drive scientists, despite what they may think their motivations are.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — a group of thousands of scientists in 194 countries around the world, and recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize — has issued several comprehensive reports in which they indicate that they have become convinced that “global warming” is and will be seriously destructive to life as we know it, and that Man is the chief cause of it. They say that there is a consensus of scientists who believe we are headed for disaster if we do not stop burning fossil fuels, but a growing number of prominent scientists disagree. Meanwhile, some 32,000 scientists, 9,000 of them PhDs, have signed The Petition Project statement proclaiming that Man is not necessarily the chief cause of warming, that the phenomenon may not exist at all, and that, in any case, warming would not be disastrous.
Happily, science does not depend on consensus. Conclusions are either reached or not, but only after an analysis of evidence as found in nature. It’s often been said that once a conclusion is reached, proper scientists set about trying to prove themselves wrong. Failing in that, they arrive at a statement that appears — based on all available data — to describe a limited aspect about how the world appears to work. And not all scientists are willing to follow this path. My most excellent friend Martin Gardner once asked a parapsychologist just what sort of evidence would convince him he had erred in coming to a certain conclusion. The parascientist replied that he could not imagine any such situation, thus — in my opinion — removing him from the ranks of the scientific discipline rather decidedly.
History supplies us with many examples where scientists were just plain wrong about certain matters, but ultimately discovered the truth through continued research. Science recovers from such situations quite well, though sometimes with minor wounds.
Just the kind of rational, questioning, thoughtful approach we’ve come to expect from James Randi.
But the eco-fascists among his readership weren’t having it one bit. Here are some of the comments which swiftly appeared below his heretical post:
“It would be hard to imagine Randi siding with one of the many similar petition projects against evolution instead of accepting the consensus of biologists.”
“The thing is, Climate Scientists aren’t publicly attacking anyone. Rather, they are under pernicious attack themselves. The East Anglia CRU have had their lives and reputations assaulted by people who were not prepared to spend the few seconds it would take to check the facts.”
“What disturbs me is the phrase, “Warming will not be disastrous”. Tell that to the millions in Pakistan, India, and South America whose river sources will die with the glaciers from which they spring. Tell that to the thousands of parents whose children will die of malaria, dengue fever, and the other tropical scourges whose ranges are increasing as the climate warms.”
“Objections to Randi’s position have been duly noted here and elsewhere, and they are not new — and neither is Randi’s cynicism disguised as skepticism. The logical fallacies are numerous in his post, and easy to identify, should someone wish to play a game of AWG-denial Bingo.”
“I was also saddened by Randi siding with the GW denialists. He seems to have fallen for a number of logical fallacies, and apparently prefers self-deception and ignorance when it comes to this issue. Very, very sad.”
and this one from an especially self-righteous fellow called John Huntingdon:
“I was at my computer today considering where to put my year-end charitable donations. I had solicitations from at least four skeptical
organizations, and was struggling to decide where to put my money. And so, I took a break and checked my Google reader, and saw PZ Myers’
posting on your foray into climate science. After reading your post in full, I removed the JREF from my donation list.”
Actually, when you read through all the comments, you discover that there at least as many in Randi’s favour as there are against him; and also, that much of the nasty stuff is the handiwork of a small group of (not desperately well-informed) eco-zealots, among them a horrid little tic named Arthur.
All the same it was too much for Randi. The poor fellow felt compelled to issue a semi-apology in a post headlined “I Am Not Denying Anything.”
Somehow, my AGW commentary was seriously misunderstood by some. Part of the reason for that is probably due to the fact that I took a much longer, 5,000-word piece, and cut it down to about 1,400 words to better fit Swift’s needs. Along the way, some clarity was lost. For that, I apologize.
Rather bizarrely, Randi ends his light grovel by quoting a journalist named James Hrynshyn (who he?) who, he says, “was kind enough to call our office yesterday to discuss the evidence for and against AGW.” What this Hrynshyn character apparently told him was:
“While we are both amateurs, I think it behooves us to give in to those who have devoted their professional lives to understanding this complex subject. And what they have to say can be boiled down to this: the world is warming and humankind is responsible for at least half of that rise in global average temperatures.”
Randi’s response to this piece of bullying?
To which I can only say:
UPDATE: Just found the site of this James Houyhnhm. Check out the photograph. At one point, he actually has the gall to suggest that Randi’s lapse may be the result of illness: “Could it be that the fact he is currently suffering through chemotherapy for intestinal cancer explain the lapse?”
Then he reports proudly on how he bullied an old man into submission:
I wondered if perhaps Randi, who is very good at finding simple explanations for chicanery masquerading as magic, is just too skeptical of anything that requires a post-graduate degree to understand. I pressed for a reason why those of us who are basically amateurs shouldn’t grant those who have devoted their lives to understanding the subject a little respect and take them at their word when they say we’re responsible for at least half of the observed warming. I am please to report that he replied that, yes, perhaps he has more thinking to do.