Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The limit of scepticism

Phil Plait, who writes the Bad Astronomy blog and has just stepped down as President of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), recently linked to this account of an unusual teaching technique:

What made Dr. K memorable was a gimmick he employed that began with his introduction at the beginning of his first class:

“Now I know some of you have already heard of me, but for the benefit of those who are unfamiliar, let me explain how I teach. Between today until the class right before finals, it is my intention to work into each of my lectures … one lie. Your job, as students, among other things, is to try and catch me in the Lie of the Day.”

And thus began our ten-week course.

This was an insidiously brilliant technique to focus our attention – by offering an open invitation for students to challenge his statements, he transmitted lessons that lasted far beyond the immediate subject matter and taught us to constantly check new statements and claims with what we already accept as fact.
Plait described this as "lying for skepticism" and commented:
This is a wonderful story, and I think makes an effective teaching method. And it forces students to pay attention… while making them eager to do so!
The anecdote reminds me of a teacher I had at school. One day he came into our Medieval history lesson and asked of me, out of the blue, a very simple question, something like "When was the Battle of Hastings?" I replied, and the teacher asked "How do you know?" I pointed at a text book on the shelves and said the information was in there. "That's a secondary source," replied the teacher. "It was written in the 1960s. How did the author know?"

Both teachers were making the same point in different ways: check for yourself. Don't accept the word of an expert. Geoffrey Elton, at a talk given to my school's Historical Society, went further. History is, he argued, the essential study because it is a bulwark against tyranny. The study of history IS the process of refusing to accept the word of other people, even famous historians, even contemporary accounts of events. The habit of questioning, when applied to the present, protects us against would-be tyrants.

Now compare these attitudes with the following:
... it’s my opinion that there are severe limits on the kinds of scientific arguments into which skeptics may responsibly wade. If we’re serious about our science-based epistemology, we must be prepared to consistently defer to scientific consensus.
This last post and its conclusions have been welcomed by some from that part of the political spectrum most susceptible to climate alarmism. It was published on skepticblog.org. Yet it is entirely incompatible with the sceptical approach recommended by the teachers in the earlier examples.

For the author, and unfortunately for Phil Plait too, the limit of scepticism isn't science, or science about which the sceptical commentator is not an authority. It's climate change. With that single subject, according to the contemporary sceptical movement, scepticism is not allowed.

And that, surely, is the problem.


dearieme said...

They're plonkers, the Global Warmmongers. And they claim Plonkal Infallibility.

Jeff Wagg said...

Very well said, and thank you for saying it.