The ReThink Blog

Starting from scratch in politics and science


Modern Witch-Hunts: When Skeptics Become "Deniers"

The Mythbusters @ TAM6
Yep, those are the two guys and hot girl from "Mythbusters," and the Santa-esque dude on the left is James Randi

For several years now, I have felt more and more at home amongst the skeptical movement. Embodied by larger-than-life personalities like Adam Savage, Penn & Teller, the SGU, and the incomparable James Randi, the skeptical movement has gained considerable traction in the last decade, though it has been around since the days of Carl Sagan. It is a home for those interested in hard science and those who are unswayed by widespread beliefs in the supernatural or pseudoscientific. While there is an organized skeptical movement that just finished holding one of its annual conferences in Las Vegas, one does not have to be a member of this group to be a bonafide skeptic. All you need is some critical thinking, a willingness to question your own beliefs, and the eagerness to shine an unbiased light on the strange.

Unfortunately, there is an unpleasant side effect. For every pseudoscience or alleged supernatural phenomenon, there is a horde of true believers, people so dedicated to an unprovable belief that they will hate you for questioning it. If you confront somebody who believes they have been abducted by aliens and recovered the memory of it through hypnotic regression therapy, for instance, there is almost nothing you can say to that person to get him or her to question that belief. Similarly, if you confront somebody who is absolutely dedicated to the notion that evolution is false and that pure creationism is the only alternative, you'll be wasting your breath. However, at the same time, you have to resist the temptation to become a true believer yourself, someone who absolutely refuses to believe that anything supernatural or unprovable is at work in the universe.

You do not have to throw away your religion entirely, though you will certainly be required to reflect on it in a critical way. Many skeptics are actually people of faith, though many others are atheists and all of them have confounding questions for organized religion and religious thought. Contrary to popular conception of skepticism, it is not a mindset that forces you to deny everything; skepticism leaves plenty of room for belief and faith, and tends to trust in things that are easy to prove (evolution, the Holocaust, etc.). A true and fair skeptic has to maintain an open and agnostic mind--even about metaphysical things--lest he becomes the very thing he is fighting against.

Witch burning
This is what happens to people who propose that maybe it took longer than a week to create the universe

The problem is that, every so often, an unprovable belief creeps in to popular culture and is embraced by millions. Usually, these idiosyncratic beliefs are harmless. Sometimes, they even turn out to be true. But every once in a while, this belief is dangerous, frightening, and alarming, causing people to grab their pitchforks and torches and wage war. True skeptics, when this happens, become hated, vilified, and even persecuted.

In Michael Shermer's excellent skeptical manifesto, Why People Believe Weird Things, Shermer identifies several such moments in recent human history, including the satanic cult panic of the 1980's and the repressed memory craze of the 1990's. The latter is especially significant, because when a parent in the 90's was accused of sexual abuse of their child because the child "remembered" the abuse under hypnotic regression, there was nothing the parent could do to alleviate suspicion against him or her. Thousands of people were sent to prison as sex offenders--swearing they had done no wrong--before the methodology was questioned and the concept of confabulated memory was explained in courtrooms.

But this drive to ignore skepticism (until it is too late) is hardly a recent cultural phenomenon. In his book, Shermer quotes Hugh Trevor-Roper, who wrote this about the witch-hunts of the seventeenth century:

To read these encyclopaedias of witchcraft is a horrible experience. Together they insist that every grotesque detail of demonology is true, that scepticism must be stifled, that sceptics and lawyers who defend witches are themselves witches, that all witches, "good" or "bad," must be burnt, that no excuse, no extenuation is allowable, that mere denunciation by one witch is sufficient evidence to burn another. All agree that witches are multiplying incredibly in Christendom, and that the reason for their increase is the indecent leniency of judges, the indecent immunity of Satan's accomplices, the sceptics.
Cobb County Evolution Disclaimer
Funny how they won't advocate putting a similar disclaimer in the Bible [NOTE: as of late 2006, Cobb County, Georgia, has stopped requiring this retarded disclaimer on science textbooks]

There are obvious modern analogues for this. As Shermer points out, there seems to always be at least one witch-hunt underway at any given time. Today, we can see it in creationsists who are trying to subvert evolution in the science classroom, practitioners of homeopathic medicine who are trying to replace modern medicine with useless tonics and magic, and of course global warming (oh, my bad, I mean "climate change") alarmists who think that all skeptics are denying the obvious truth that mankind is responsible for a coming apocalypse.

Even the skeptical movement is divided on that last one, and there is a shocking correlation there between true believers in anthropogenic global climate change and affiliation with the Democratic party. I find it greatly disturbing that a scientific hypothesis can be so entwined with political posturing that the two feed off each other. How can it be a coincidence that advocates of big government (Democrats) are so willing to accept anthropogenic climate change, while advocates of smaller government (Libertarians) are so unwilling to accept it? How come we are supposed to be shocked that those arguing against global warming (oh sorry, that's "climate change") have right-leaning political connections while simultaneously ignoring the fact that alarmists (Al Gore, for instance) have left-leaning ones? If the truth were as black and white as some claim, there shouldn't be so much obvious political bias on both sides.

ITT tower in Antarctica
ITT built a power transmission line in Antarctica in the mid 1960's with towers that stood 115 feet tall; now only the top 30 feet is visible due to the constant thickening of the Antarctic ice sheet

Science itself is divided on the issue (almost all scientists agree that manmade greenhouse gas emissions have an effect on climate, but they don't all agree on the severity, importance, or ramifications of those effects, whether we can measure the effects, or whether they are even a problem), and yet there are notable skeptics--including current president of the James Randi Educational Foundation, Phil Plait--who treat anthropogenic climate change as a fact as well understood as the laws of gravity. Some even join the bandwagon of calling global warming skeptics "deniers." These skeptics are some of their own, and many are climatologists!

What has happened here? How can people who have honest questions about the hypothesis of anthropogenic climate change be grouped with the kinds of people who strive to prove that the Holocaust never happened? How can even some of the most ardent skeptics of our time be amongst the alarmists who refuse to accept the possibility that the hypothesis is wrong? Are we really ready to burn at the stake people who point out that Antarctica seems to be growing at the same rate that the North Pole is allegedly melting?

Killer jellyfish
If you don't buy a hybrid, vote Democrat, and stop exhaling carbon dioxide, these guys are going to take over the Earth!

On April 9, 2006, Christopher Shea wrote in the Boston Globe, "More and more environmentalists...have been making the point that 'objective' journalists are doing as much as forestall action on global warming." Indeed, in a mainstream press that is so quick to talk about balance and journalistic integrity, the news outlets are surprisingly quiet on any news story that raises doubt about the idea that mankind is responsible for global warming (oh crap, I meant to write "climate change"). Indeed, it is now taboo in the mainstream press to raise doubts about anthropogenic climate change, and it has a lot to do with the possible consequences if the hypothesis turns out to be true rather than how likely the hypothesis is to be true. Many journalists now believe they are being responsible by ignoring the skeptics, because it would be better to scare the crap out of people than it would be to actually share all the facts. There are even journalist workshops going on around the globe that explain how journalists can put weather and climate in the "proper context" of the "settled science" of anthropogenic climate change, and how granting any time at all for doubt or skepticism is tantamount to raping Mother Earth yourself.

This is the "sceptics must be stifled" part of the witch-hunt, but it goes even deeper. A simple search for all the possible consequences of anthropogenic global warming (oh dammit, that's supposed to read "climate change") will turn up a shocking list, from an explosion of killer jellyfish to worldwide beer shortages! Alarmists and true believers claim that every single one of these consequences is real, and that fulfills the "every grotesque detail of demonology is true" requirement.

Climate Cops!
Do you know what public schools are teaching your kids now?

What about the "lawyers who defend witches are themselves witches" and "the indecent leniency of judges"? Well, if you pay attention to the likes of James Hansen (see my Top 5 Heroes & Idiots of 2008 to see where I put him), it seems we should be treating skeptics and those who defend them as heretics and punishing them with the full force of the law. He recently said, "CEOs of fossil energy companies know what they are doing and are aware of long-term consequences of continued business as usual. In my opinion, these CEOs should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature." His opinion is hardly uncommon; many true believers await the day when the world can put skeptics on trial for crimes against the world.

We like to think that witch-hunts are something to be found solely in the pages of a history textbook, but they are here now and they are as dangerous as ever. With so much being done on a political level in the name of stopping global warming (oh, silly me, they changed that to "climate change"), and with the recent passage of the economically devastating "cap-and-trade," we need to be aware of the potential damage we are doing to ourselves if the scary hypothesis turns out to be nothing but paranoia. Skeptics need to let their voices be heard before it is too late, assuming it isn't already.

As Marc Sheppard of American Thinker writes, the witch-hunters believe "that human salvation demands a coerced return to a less modern, less industrialized society and blind acceptance of fanatical dogma which can currently be neither proved nor disproved. Perhaps they'd enjoy entertaining an analogous group with similar traits that calls its heretical enemies 'infidels' rather than 'deniers.'"

-e. magill 07/13/2009

  • Hurricanes and Climate Change
  • Rethinking Anthropogenic Global Warming, Part 1
  • Michael Dowling's IQ is Irrelevant