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Smart people. Strange ideas.

When Michael Shermer revised his book Why People Believe Weird Things for its second edition, he added a chapter titled "Why Smart People Believe Weird Things". His point was that even people who are quite competent and rational in their thinking about some or even most matters can hold opinions or beliefs which are not supported by science, logic or even in some cases common sense. The usual example of this is religious scientists who manage to comfortably believe in miracles and supernatural beings, but I'm with Stephen Jay Gould on this – religion and science are different and faith is about belief without evidence. My concern here is people who are selective about the science they accept.

Many of my skeptical friends can be quite scathing in their criticism of television programs like CSI for the way they misrepresent the reality or the practice of science. Simultaneously, these people are great fans of science fiction in which the laws of the universe can be comfortable ignored and the ability of scientists comes very close to miraculous. This isn't normally a problem, but occasionally they seem to confuse fiction and reality. The specific example I've seen recently is that the colonisation of Mars became a real possibility when Elon Musk's SpaceX organisation managed to recover a booster rocket. I thoroughly enjoyed Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles and I think Life on Mars was David Bowie's best song, but the sort of problems that could theoretically be solved by humans moving to Mars can be solved much more feasibly, practically and affordably right here on Earth.

Mention of Elon Musk reminds me of another strange aspect of the world of skepticism – hero worship or the cult of personality. There are some people criticism of whom can attract a hostile reaction. I was severely reprimanded once by a group for commenting on the overuse of logical fallacies in Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion, and you have to be very careful if you want to suggest that Ray Kurzweil's predictions of the imminent hybridisation of humans and computers or that Tesla cars and batteries are about to solve the world's transportation and energy problems have about them an air of fantasy.

The person I've seen most recently enthusing about Mars colonisation is a very strong proponent of the use of renewable energy resources in the battle against climate change, which brings me to another anomaly – smart people who are climate change deniers. I'm always amazed when people will accept, for example, that the science of vaccination is settled despite there being doubters but who are suspicious of claims that climate is changing and that humans might have something to do with this. In an extreme case, one state branch of Australian Skeptics devoted almost all its website to denialist claims.

It's not just scientists or real skeptics who exhibit this inconsistency. I participate in some face-to-face philosophy forums where people address and consider quite difficult problems in logic, ontology and epistemology.

After a recent talk someone mentioned climate change. I commented about the systematic changes in plant flowering and animal reproduction occurring as rainfall and temperature patterns changed over the last few decades. He said "Weather", which should have been a red flag. I mentioned that one of the major power stations in the Snowy Mountains Scheme has been mothballed because the change in snow distribution has meant that there isn't enough water to keep it running. He said "Weather" even louder.

Within minutes I was surrounded by four people talking over each other with denialist clichés, each repeating what the others had said in case I hadn't heard it the first time. Here are some of the things said, claims which are sadly very familiar to anyone who has followed this non-debate for any length of time

  • There has been no warming of the planet for the past 17 years.
  • Atmospheric scientists who spoke the truth about the hoax would lose funding
  • If a volcano went off it wouldn't matter what we did.
  • Weather!!!
  • It is not possible for humans to affect weather or climate.
  • Reports of global warming are based on faulty measurements.
  • The majority of scientists agree that climate change is not happening.
  • 30,000 scientists signed a petition.
  • The climate has always changed, just as it is doing now.
  • Maverick scientists are persecuted and their freedom of speech compromised.
  • It's based on modelling, and the models aren't 100% accurate.

It was all there – the cherry picking of data, the paranoia about suppression, the inconsistencies, the fallacies, the  hopelessness of any action, the rejection or misrepresentation of facts, … .

At least they didn't call themselves "skeptics", although I wouldn't be surprised if they reached a consensus of victory over this "warmist" when I finally gave up and walked away.

This article was published as the Naked Skeptic column in the May 2016 edition of Australasian Science

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