During the holidays, while zapping from one channel to another on television, I came across a documentary about the life of James Randi. While I have never been much interested in magicians or escape artists, I found this nevertheless an interesting program to watch. I didn’t really know much about Randi until that point. I vaguely remembered that he had something to do with the debunking of Uri Geller back in the 1970s. The part where I landed into the program was when he made a list of points to take into consideration when Geller wanted to do his tricks, effectively stopping one of Geller’s performances in its tracks. He also revealed a number of charlatans and tried to educate the public about critical thinking. What I remember from the documentary is a man in search of the truth with a scientific approach. A researcher who didn’t just believe in everything he has been told, but relied on the facts.
After I saw the documentary, I became curious: he didn’t seem to be the person to mindlessly agree with a consensus, so how would he think about the global warming controversy? Would he “believe” in it or not? So I found myself googling and it didn’t take long before I landed at his article AGW revisited at the James Randi Educational Foundation site (if you haven’t read it yet, recommended). The article dates from December 2009. Quite some time ago, back then my skepticism was only a year old and this blog wasn’t even a thought in my mind. In that article he displayed a nuanced an humble view. He agrees that our Earth is warming, he agrees that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, that we increasingly emit it in our atmosphere, that the issue is however very complex, that there is not much historical data, that science is not done by consensus, that we should occupy us with current problems and so on. That is the critical thinking Randi I saw in the documentary.
To me it didn’t look controversial at all. On the contrary, it seems more or less in line with how I think about it. He just asked whether we currently have the means of knowing with any certainty that global warming is caused by humans. He didn’t even claim that global warming didn’t exist or that humans couldn’t have some effect in it, yet apparently he got labeled a “denier” by the very people that celebrate him. He got such strong negative reactions that he wrote a follow-up: I am not denying anything (if you haven’t read it yet, also recommended to do it now).
In his follow-up he just repeated that he didn’t deny anything (which should have been clear for everybody reading the article) and the only thing he rejected was his endorsement of the Oregon Petition Project (which, according to me, was not central in his discourse anyway). So as far as I could see, he stood by his views.
This kind of consternation is something that is recognizable. Even now, six year later. This is the same consternation as when people skeptical of the consensus getting a voice in the media. Then the inevitable reaction comes that the person is a “denier”, yet at the same time the central issue (like for example uncertainty) isn’t even touched. In this case it went a bit further because Randi seems to be considered as one of “theirs” and it definitely wouldn’t look good when someone who dedicated his life to debunk pseudosciences, was skeptical towards the conclusions of the consensus scientists.
The skeptical view is misunderstood by alarmist minds. Anyone stating doubt in the consensus is immediately labeled as a “denier”, even if it is someone they respect. It seems more like a dogma to me. What is it in the global warming issue that makes people lose their mind?
In the end, it seemed weird to me. Here we had someone who was celebrated for his skepticism and critical thinking, but when he used it to explore an issue they strongly believed in, then they apparently rather would like him to embrace the consensus instead…