Wednesday, December 16, 2009

We are Doomed..

I'm going to quote almost all of Sean Carroll's post on Cosmic Variance.

A model of well reasoned response to what should be, at least in public, a non issue.
The comments that follow make me despair for the very survival of the planet.  Read them for yourself. HERE
Money talks. Science and reason have to pay for a pass just to get let in the door.
The whores and corporate pimps win in the short run, and everybody dies in the end.
We are fucking doomed. Venus Syndrome... not even cockroaches are gonna survive.

Of course, there is no such thing as a purely objective and judgment-free presentation of data, no matter how scrupulously the data itself may be collected; if nothing else, we make choices about what data to present. And a side-by-side comparison chart like this can’t help but give a slightly misleading impression of the relative merits of the arguments, by putting the conclusions of an overwhelming majority of honest scientists up against the arguments of a fringe collection of politically-motivated activists. But it’s certainly good to see the actual issues arrayed in point-counterpoint format.

Still, there remains a somewhat intractable problem: when people are arguing about issues that necessarily require expert knowledge that not everyone can possibly take the time to acquire for themselves, how do we make judgments about who to believe?

This problem has been brought home by the incredibly depressing news that James Randi has come out in favor of global-warming denialism (via PZ Myers). Randi is generally a hero among fans of reason and skepticism, so it’s especially embarrassing to see how incredibly weak his reasoning is here. It basically amounts to: “The climate is complicated. And scientists don’t know everything. And I admit I don’t know much about the field. Therefore … we have good reason to distrust the overwhelming majority of experts!” Why Randi chose not to apply his vaunted powers of skepticism to the motivations behind the denialists remains a mystery.

This gets to the heart of why I’ve always been skeptical of the valorization of “skepticism.” I don’t want to be skeptical for the sake of being skeptical — I want to be right. To maximize my chances of being right, I will try to collect what information I can and evaluate it rationally. But part of that information has to include the nature of the people making arguments on either side of a debate. If one side consists of scientists who have spent years trying to understand a complicated system, and the other is a ragtag collection of individuals with perfectly obvious vested interests in the outcome, it makes sense to evaluate their claims accordingly.

By all means, we should apply our own powers of reason to every interesting problem. But when our reasoning leads to some conclusion at odds with the apparent consensus of a lot of smart people who seem to know what they’re talking about — whether it’s on the nature of dark energy, the best way to quantize gravity, the most effective route to health care reform, or the state of the environment — the burden is on us to understand the nature of that difference and try to reconcile it, not to take refuge in “experts don’t know everything” and related anti-intellectual piffle.

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