Debunking the debunkers

There should be more to scepticism than angry rants about stupid religious people or New Age mysticism.

Responding to the apparent rise and rise of ‘bunk’ – creationism, homeopathy, fad diets and bad science – a new movement of sceptics is mobilising to defend the world against an ‘attack on science’ in public life. But does this army of professional and armchair scientists and philosophers challenge strange ideas about health, the universe and everything to paint a rational picture of the world, or does it sometimes share them?

Writing on his website about a recent article that complained about medical research being dominated by a ‘scientific research paradigm… acting as a fascist structure’, Godfather of scepticism and debunking, James Randi said: ‘If this is indeed serious, it’s an attack on rationality, on the scientific method, on reason, by people who should know better.’ Indeed they should know better, but is not knowing better really an ‘attack on rationality’ or simply irrational? Randi seems to have lost faith in rationalism’s power of explanation and be worried that people lack the ability to make up their own minds. So what is scepticism then?

‘Swoopy’, the presenter of Skeptic Magazine’s podcast, tells us that you are a sceptic ‘if you think that a lot of the things that you see on the TV and the media are just wrong, and if you think that you’re getting the wrong message from pretty much everything all around you and your voice isn’t being heard’. This kind of scepticism seems to owe more to Swoopy and Randi’s personal anxieties and infantile dysphoria than any real threat to the world. After all, it could just as well be the homeopathic practitioner who considers himself voiceless, freethinking, and a victim of the wrong messages in society. The problem seems to be less about the actual substance of certain ideas, and more that the way that minds have been made up is the result of campaigns executed by religious zealots, greedy people, private interest, and even the Republican Party. It’s as though the world’s ills could be explained by the cynical exploitation of the general public’s scientific illiteracy by a network of agendas.

Reducing the world’s problems to a ‘pathology’ of thoughts, schemes to ‘promote science’ through PR and education are seen as the way to ‘immunise’ the public against ideas that are not in their interest. That certainly seems to be how Californians Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell see it. In 2004, they set up the brights movement with the intention of creating a positive label for a ‘worldview free of supernatural or mystical deities, forces, and entities’ and avoiding the stigma attached to atheism in the USA. ‘The time has come for us brights to come out of the closet’ says Daniel Dennet, professor of philosophy and an ‘enthusiastic bright’. ‘As an adult white married male with financial security, I am not in the habit of considering myself a member of any minority in need of protection… But now I’m beginning to feel some heat, and although it’s not uncomfortable yet, I’ve come to realize it’s time to sound the alarm.’ Rather than advancing a positive vision of how the world might be, brights seem to be about appealing for victim status because the world doesn’t recognise their identity, which like ‘gay’ ‘black’ and ‘disabled’ ought to entitle them to ‘a voice’. The brights tell us more about what they don’t believe than what they do believe.

The view of scepticism that emerges is that it feels impotent, is terrified of the world, and lacks trust in other people’s ability to determine their own interests or make their own decisions. The leading thinkers of the loose movement of sceptics end up coming across not as confident individuals who have radical visions about how to use their rationalist outlook to change the world, but rather as timid souls, keen to advance the idea that that world is a dangerous place, made all the more dangerous by ideas themselves.

Bad ideas are surely poison, but the sceptic movement is unable to offer us a great deal of insight as to why people actually swallow them. Instead of attempting to understand why ideas may take purchase in the public from historical, social, or material perspectives, many leading sceptics prefer to explain the take up of bad ideas as the transmission of ‘memes’. According to Susan Blackmore, author of The Meme Machine and former parapsychologist, ‘the self is not the initiator of actions, it does not “have” consciousness, and it does not “do” the deliberating.’ Just as many of today’s social problems such as addiction, violence, and criminality are frequently blamed on genes, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet and Susan Blackmore explain the failure of rationalism and success of religion in metaphysical terms of agents competing for resources in the environment of our collective mind. This idea that the self, its autonomy, and consciousness are illusions allows sceptics to reduce humans to mindless beings which lack an understanding of their own interests and therefore need to be controlled. Such determinism, though, is exactly what creates the ideas that scepticism should want to confront. The idea that ‘units of cultural information’ have their own drives which humans are subject to, is as irrational as the idea that destiny is governed by the configuration of stars, or balances of energy within our bodies, or the visitations of aliens.

The idea that we need to be told what we can believe is a theme throughout the sceptical movement. ‘[W]e are the watchmen who guard against bad ideas in order to discover good ideas, consumer advocates of critical thinking who, through the guidelines of science, establish a mark at which to aim’ writes Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic Magazine, and director of the Skeptics Society.

Far from seeking rationalism, scepticism is increasingly a search for authority. There are no clear ideas about why it is wrong to believe in a god that does not exist, nor why it is wrong to believe that aliens have landed in Area 51, other than it is simply not true, and may therefore give somebody who doesn’t deserve it some kind of authority or influence. In seeking to explain the irrationality of the world, the sceptical movement does little to confront the fears, anxieties, paranoia and sense of powerlessness, which irrational movements seem to gain currency by. It indulges the same fantasies, and the same appeals to external truths to answer existential questions about life, and begs for authority to answer the world’s problems. Where fad diets appeal to our fears about our health, debunkers appeal to the idea that the body is vulnerable, and so the fad is dangerous. Where religious ideas seek existential comfort, scepticism too searches for certainties to explain why we are here. Where bad ideas are used to exert undue influence over our decisions, good ideas also seem to defer to authority.

Where science once sought to explain the natural world, it is now more a tool of introspection. The role of science has been diminished to providing narcissistic comfort from the terrifying nightmares it constructs about how we are bad for ourselves. The president of the Royal Society, Sir Martin Rees places his bets that by the year 2020, either bioterror or bioerror will have caused a single event resulting in the deaths of over a million people and that by the year 2100 the chances of human extinction will be 50/50. Rees can think of more reasons not to do science than reasons why we should. There is little between his alternative visions of the future – tragic apocalypses on the one hand, or mere survival on the other. He is charged with doing science’s PR, but his words look more like blackmail.

When scientific leaders are not brilliant individuals whose insight and learning can fashion a better future, but merely people who project their own insecurities downward, there is little to wonder about why people turn off from science, don’t do physics A-levels, and buy into hocus-pocus to make themselves feel better. It’s open season on making stuff up, and Lord Rees seems to be doing as much of that as Gillian McKeith.

Sceptics and rationalists ought to be taking a look at their own ideas to find out why they fail to find purchase in the public imagination. Putting science and rationalism back on the map is going to take more than PR, angry rants about stupid religious people, or teaching kids that ‘science is cool’. We don’t need a police force to protect us from bad ideas. We just need better ideas.

A chilling climate for science

‘Art was made to disturb, science reassures.’

Like all the best quotes, this one from cubist painter Georges Braque makes you think, but it doesn’t quite ring true.

Both science and art have the capacity to disturb and reassure. Scientific breakthroughs – like the discovery that the Earth is not the centre of the Universe, or Darwin’s theory of natural selection – can upset the same social orthodoxies that some art, produced for the purposes of religious and political propaganda, seeks to uphold.

But Braque had a point. In general, science tries to explain the world, and the better something is understood, the less frightening it becomes. Art, by contrast, seeks new, unconventional ways of looking at anything and everything – asking more questions than it answers.

How times have changed. While art seems to be increasingly concerned with the trivial and the mundane, scientific knowledge has become a major source of disturbance in the Western world – nuclear power, genetic modification and embryo transfer technologies spring to mind, as does the science of climate change.

So perhaps I was fooling myself when I visited London’s Science Museum – the UK’s flagship institution for the communication of science – with high hopes for its new climate change exhibition (1). I thought it would give a clear, accessible and balanced account of the science behind the headlines, distinguishing the harder facts from the flimsier fictions. I thought it would be, well, reassuring.

The introductory display panel promised all of that. ‘You’ve heard the hype’, it said. ‘Now find out the facts.’ If I hadn’t been so full of mindless optimism, I might have taken more heed of the four words that followed – ‘…and then take action’. These were a far better clue as to what was really in store.

Burning Issue: Climate Change opened on 19 March 2002. Despite its high-profile space in the museum’s new Wellcome Wing, the exhibition is rather modest, both in size and content. You can get round it all in 30 minutes – or 90 if, like me, you want to write everything down.

The most prominent feature is one inviting visitors to contribute their own thoughts on climate change. The comments then ‘flow’ along a vast network of criss-crossing pipes (symbolising the interconnectedness of global ecology or something), which soars upwards into the stratosphere of the roof space.

Back at ground level, information is provided on display boards, and is pretty much duplicated – but with added theme-park effect, in interactive installations.

Most of the ‘facts’ are presented in the form of statements from scientists (complete with smiling photos to remind us that scientists are humans too), environmental activists and spokespeople from non-governmental organisations. Most are simply worst-case scenarios backed up by little or no evidence.

Take extreme weather events, which feature heavily in the exhibition. A display board tell us that, ‘The weather is going wild. Scientists now agree that the climate just isn’t following the rules any more’. But the link between such events and climate change is almost entirely anecdotal. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the observed variation in storm activity and drought shows ‘no significant trends evident over the last century’ (2). Yet still Mike Hulme of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research (3) is quoted as saying: ‘The world’s already seeing heavier rainstorms and more severe flooding which could be the result of the industrial revolution.’

Here are some more ‘facts’ from the exhibition: ‘Disaster – millions suffering in Africa with widespread droughts.’ ‘Destruction – whole ecosystems under threat as the Amazon overheats.’ ‘Deluge – 20million people at risk from floods as sea levels rise.’ All lack further elaboration.

Though the exhibition presents some evidence that the world is warming up, there is no evidence to show that this is linked to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. And it doesn’t tell us much about the possible positive consequences of climate change (unless you count expansion in the ranges of turtle doves and nuthatches). There is no mention of longer growing seasons, or the expansion of agricultural land. The possibility of a shift towards a Mediterranean climate in the UK is mentioned only in the context that it will create increased traffic jams as tourists head for the south coast.

The question of whether the best strategy is to ameliorate climate change or adapt to it also receives scant attention. We are assured, however, that ‘Kyoto is a step in the right direction’. But as the spiked/NERC debate on the Kyoto Treaty showed, there is still a lot of controversy about the science in all these areas (4). The Science Museum has missed an opportunity to bring these debates to a wider audience.

Instead, the political agenda is pushed further with the advice: ‘If you want to lobby for strong action, you can contact your MP. And you can also make your international views known.’

The message seems to be that we have to decide between good and evil rather than between alternative strategies for progress. ‘We have a choice’, says David Vincent of the Carbon Trust (5). ‘Stop abusing our environment and leave a decent planet for our children. Or carry on as we are, destroy the planet and become evolutionary history.’

As you work your way around the exhibition, the worst-case scenarios just keep on coming. Apparently, by 2050, malaria and Colorado beetles will be rife in southern England; the UK will experience increases in the incidence of algal blooms, food poisoning, gales and flooding; we will lose the mountain ringlet butterfly, the capercallie and the dwarf willow; and in the Antarctic, tens of thousands of baby penguins will face starvation, as environmental change affects their food supply and habitat. You soon start wondering whether the ‘euthanasia machine’ on show nearby – used to assist in the suicides of four people in Australia – is not just for display purposes.

And the conclusion to all this ‘science’? Climate change is ‘a global problem and we’ve all got a part to play in sorting it out’.

Cue the lifestyle advice: ‘In Britain, we all add to carbon dioxide emissions by the choices we make – how we travel, power our homes and choose the food we eat. Are you willing to change your lifestyle?’

The advice on ‘changing your lifestyle’ ranges from installing low-energy light bulbs to putting lids on pans when cooking, from turning your thermostat down to not leaving your TV in standby mode. There is a lot of advice, but nothing we haven’t heard many times before.

‘[Fifteen] per cent of the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions come from cars, and a quarter of our car journeys are less than two miles long’, states Brenda Boardman of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute (6). ‘Public transport emits less than half as much carbon dioxide per passenger. Taking a walk is better still.’

The irony here is that the consequences of walking or bussing it for a few extra miles will pale into insignificance against the changes brought about by new, cleaner, more efficient technologies such as hydrogen fuel cell-powered cars. According to the UK Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, such cars will likely be available at mass-market cost by 2015 (7). Indeed, the exhibition has a Ford Focus FC5 fuel cell vehicle on show.

In fact, in its next breath, the exhibition seems to concede the fruitlessness of all these lifestyle changes: ‘We can’t stop climate change. We’d better get ready for whatever the weather throws at us – rain or shine.’

So there you have it: the planet is on a trajectory to ecological annihilation (but don’t expect to see any evidence), and you are urged to adapt your lifestyles accordingly (but this is unlikely to actually help matters). I could have spent my train fare on a few pints and heard all this propped up in a bar, talking to the regulars.

There is worse to come. The exhibition has an interactive computer game called ‘Battle for the Planet’, which seems say, we may heading for a global ecological catastrophe, but hey kids, global warming can still be fun! ‘In 2100 life is far from pleasant’, reads the introduction. ‘Climate change has brought the Earth to its knees. Life… has changed for the worse. Back in 2002, people ignored the warnings and kept up their fuel-thirsty lifestyles, belching out more and more planet-warming carbon dioxide. Now it’s payback time. You have been chosen to set things right. Your mission is to travel back in time to see if the choices you make about the way we live will affect the environment of the future. Good luck.’

Oh well, I might as well enjoy myself, and have a go at Battle for the Planet.only my chosen wayward lifestyle results in environmental ‘meltdown’. The virtual townscape becomes choked with black smoke, dumper-trucks work overtime carrying waste to the landfill site, fires rage. Strangely, one of the cartoon townsfolk is being held at gunpoint by another (a mugger? Or a well-intentioned eco-activist trying to convince his neighbour to change his wicked ways?) – and, even more strangely, a cigarette advert appears from nowhere on the roof of a skyscraper. This really is hell. Something must be done!

I play the game again. But this time I do everything that is expected of me. I wash in the sink instead of taking baths and showers (‘by far the most climate friendly option…as long as you remember to put the plug in and fill the basin’); I go on a coach holiday rather than fly to the tropics (‘Bus tours aren’t just for grannies. It’s great to be chauffeured around in style!’); I recycle my beer cans; I forego my crispy, oven-baked potato, and settle for a soggy microwaved one; and I walk or cycle everywhere (‘transport makes up 25 percent of the UK’s emissions of greenhouse gases…And you can get road rage stuck in all that traffic’).

With a warm glow of self-righteousness, I hit the return button. There are no muggings or cigarette adverts this time – but, hang on, the thick black smoke is still there, and what’s this? ‘The climate has changed for the worse’, I’m told, ‘but there’s still hope. You’re trying to be climate-friendly but there’s still room for improvement’. What do you have to do to save the planet around here?

What you have to do is make such severe sacrifices to your quality of life that even the computer can’t bring itself to recommend them. Only by not washing (the computer kindly reminds us to wash sometimes, otherwise ‘you’ll pong before long’) and never going on holiday (‘Even eco-warriors need to get away sometimes! Relax a little’, says the computer) can the destruction really be stopped. But it’s all worth it in the end. At last, lambs frolic in the fields as white fluffy clouds bob overhead. ‘Thanks to your sensible choices, the Earth is in good shape.’ Hurrah for me!

Reassuring? Far from it. Disturbing? Yes. But not because it presents scientific information that challenges any prevailing orthodoxy – it is the prevailing orthodoxy. It is disturbing because this is the Science Museum, and yet there’s a good chance you’ll find more science at the Tate Modern.

(1) Climate Change: The burning issue, 19 March to September 2002

(2) Climate change 2001: the scientific basis, IPCC 2001

(3) Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research

(4) See the spiked-science debate: Global warming

(5) The Carbon Trust

(6) Environmental Change Institute

(7) Powering Future Vehicles: Draft Government Strategy, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, 2001