Skeptics Debate Credibility of Environmentalists’ Claims

Published October 1, 2006

On June 2-4 at the California Institute of Technology, the Skeptics Society held an eclectic “Environment Wars” conference on the state of environmental science. Conference participants talked about the meaning of scientific skepticism and asked when the debate over global warming can be considered to be settled.

The Skeptics Society is an educational organization of scientists and scholars offering what they see as clarification and scientific viewpoints on controversial ideas and claims.

Debating Causes for Debate

During the debate, novelist and medical doctor Michael Crichton was asked how much evidence would be necessary to end the debate about predictions of catastrophic climate change.

“Isn’t there some point when debate should shift, if not end?” Crichton was asked. “Are there not some questions, perhaps such as the existence of evolution, that should be beyond debate?”

Crichton responded, “”If people want to continue to debate evolution, it’s okay with me. I’m tired of it.”

Crichton said he believes in evolution but would like to see actual evidence of the process of speciation. Even in suggesting he was tired of the evolution debate, Crichton implied that it could, and perhaps should, continue.

That echoed the theme of his keynote address, in which he faulted science and society for falling too easily in line with asserted hypotheses. Mass movements, Crichton said, tend to operate on the notion that “there is no debate; there is a consensus.” However, he noted, “there is a debate about everything.”

Arguing for Warming Skepticism

Conference host Dr. Michael Shermer started from a similar frame of reference, arguing that declarations of the end of a debate should be treated skeptically.

On the specific question of when a debate should end, Shermer suggested this formulation in a post-conference interview with Environment & Climate News: When you have only a handful of skeptics, he said, “no one says they have no right to speak, but people lose interest in what they have to say.”

That naturally led me to ask Shermer if he had lost interest in the global warming debate and if that was evidenced by his very public recent announcement of a conversion from skepticism about the claimed causes of global warming, to a newly expressed belief that the global warming alarmists had convinced him they were correct. He insisted he hasn’t sided with the alarmists but has simply lost interest in the debate. He said he has focused his interest instead on finding “market solutions” to greenhouse gas emissions.

Shying from Commitment

Skeptic magazine has devoted several issues in the past to environmental questions and has supported the notion that alleged negative human impacts on the environment are often overstated and should not be taken at face value. Shermer himself has opined at length about the nostalgic yet misguided mythologizing of historic cultures as benign with regard to the environment in comparison to malignant modern society.

But the magazine’s skepticism seems to have been wobbling in discussions of global warming. When Skeptic publishes environmentally skeptical pieces, it seems it always invites a direct article in response. Bj√∂rn Lomborg’s essay in Volume 9 No. 2, for example, was accompanied by a critique from David Pimental. An interview with Julian Simon was juxtaposed with an essay by modern Malthusian Elie Shneour.


Brian Bishop ([email protected]) is Rhode Island State Director for the Alliance for America and director of Rhode Island Wise Use.