Well, there were other things I was hoping to get around to blogging about today. But I’m only one (lazy) man, and the Randi-centric climate change fiasco is still rendering my gears thoroughly ground.
The man himself posted some follow-up remarks today. Here are some of the things he said, to clarify his position on the question of anthropogenic global warming:
My remarks, again, are directed at the complexity of determining whether this GW is anthropogenic or not. I do not deny that possibility. In fact, I accept it as quite probable. I remain respectful of science and its participants. I stand outside the walls of academe, in awe.
So the scientific consensus position is, in Randi’s eyes, “quite probable”. That’s not denial. That’s a long way from denial. It’s not quite the opposite extreme, and he’s inching nearer to equivocation than most actual scientists on this point, but he’s still broadly, tentatively, accepting the science.
Regarding the Petition Project, of which he said yesterday: “I strongly suspect that The Petition Project may be valid”, based on his “admittedly rudimentary knowledge”, Randi now says:
I admit that I was unaware of the true nature of the Petition, and I thank Dr. Plait — and several others — who pointed me to this reference and a much better grasp of the situation.
Phil Plait had pointed out to Randi that the project had been examined and found wanting by e-skeptic, among other sources. Randi seems to have taken this on board, expanded his knowledge to a slightly less rudimentary state, and adjusted his views accordingly. That’s not really what denialists do.
Many have commented that this is the kind of thing Randi ought to have known about before publishing his article in the first place, and I think they’re right. I think he made a mistake in conducting insufficient research before espousing a position. But being neglectfully unaware of evidence is a very different mistake from wilfully disregarding important evidence when it’s presented to you. I was willing to give Randi the benefit of the doubt that he wouldn’t be guilty of the latter, and so far it doesn’t seem that he has.
When the awesomely named James Hrynyshyn corrected him on some technical data he’d referred to, Randi responded:
I’m still trying to find where I discovered this gem of text. I suspect that “cooled” should have been “warmed,” but my currently chemo-altered encephalon stumbled… Both my enecephalon and I stand corrected.
Again, he made a mistake, and accepts the correction. He’s aware that recent health problems may have left him in a less than optimal condition to fully analyse all the data and make a truly effective skeptical assessment of the situation, and admits that he slipped up.
Some are saying that, if he knows he’s not on top form right now, he shouldn’t be posting controversial articles that go against the scientific mainstream and haven’t been rigorously checked for factual soundness. This may well be so, but it’s still not this particular criticism that’s bothering me.
What bugs me is the degree to which people abandon nuance, or any attempt to be measured, and are still calling him a denialist.
In particular, I think PZ is way off.
This was a case where Randi ought to have either a) admitted simple error, or b) recused himself from the argument, citing a lack of information.
Well, I’m pretty sure I saw him do the former several times, in today’s follow-up article, the one we’re both talking about.
PZ also talks about the “pernicious tactics” of denialists, and the way they…
…falsely state that there is a respectable middle ground of “the scientists aren’t sure” when the science hammers home over and over again that they are pretty damned sure.
And while this is certainly an infuriating tactic often used by the intellectually dishonest, I cannot fathom what he thinks Randi’s doing that’s so pernicious. I have every confidence that Randi is doing his best to call it how he sees it, and assimilate new information honestly along the way. This isn’t to say that how he sees it and how he’s calling it right now don’t have some serious flaws, but he’s clearly not trying to surreptitiously argue a case against global warming and disguise it with insincere skepticism. Sometimes people who say “I don’t know” actually don’t know.
I quoted the Lay Scientist yesterday, who was kind enough to comment here:
I don’t think Randi is a denialist…the real problem here isn’t that Randi has expressed doubt on climate change, it’s that he’s done it in such a poor way.
That seems like a better position from which to respond. Working from there, someone who knows more about climate change science than I do can give Randi some credit for most likely being smart but suffering a critical research failure, and help explain the facts. That seems the reasonable approach. Phil Plait is one person reacting well to all this. Error should certainly be called out, but some of the reactionary rhetoric going on isn’t helping, and the word “denialist” is tasting more and more bitter to me the more it gets carelessly bandied around.