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The Skepticism In Skeptical Science

Posted on 4 June 2014 by CollinMaessen

At Skeptical Science we spend a lot of time reading the scientific literature and listening to experts. Without that we wouldn't be able to create the accessible and accurate articles and rebuttals on this website. It's a lot of work, especially when you do this with a critical eye. We, after all, want that what we write to reflect the scientific literature on a subject as accurately as possible.

Yet, often you hear the unfounded criticism that everything published on this website is biased, or that we aren't skeptical about man-made global warming. This is based on a misunderstanding of what skepticism is and how it often is used. Basically, what these critics do is take advantage of the different meanings and connotations surrounding the words "skeptic" and "skepticism." Being skeptical about something doesn't necessarily make you a skeptic. I know this sounds odd, but bear with me for a moment, there's a point here.

Being skeptical

A common usage of the word "skeptic" is in the context of doubting if a claim or story is true. One can, for example, be skeptical about Morgan Freeman knocking on your friend's door to ask for directions. Doubting if that story is true is a natural response in that situation; after all, it is a very unlikely scenario. It is also a very negative usage of the term skepticism: you're dismissive of a claim because you disbelieve what you're being told.

This type of skepticism also tends to end with doubting and dismissing the story. Most of the time no attempt will be made to ascertain if it was true. You will just continue on with your day as if nothing happened. Unless the doubt is removed by your friend showing you a picture of Morgan Freeman standing on his porch.

It should be now obvious that this is not the type of skepticism that the name Skeptical Science refers to. It's a very different type of skepticism: one that uses research, evidence, and is focused on learning.

Scientific skepticism

Real skepticism is something very different from doubt. It's about curiosity and a willingness to learn. This type of skepticism asks questions, asks for evidence, and judges arguments and evidence on their merits. It doesn't matter if what you learn proves your original stance or idea wrong, this is the entire point of this way of thinking. What matters is getting a right answer and basing how you view your world on information that is as accurate as possible. A skeptic knows that they can have personal biases and preconceived notions, but they are aware of it and don't let this make them reject valid evidence.

To distinguish this type of skepticism from the more cynical/doubt-oriented definition of skepticism is the reason why Carl Sagan coined the term scientific skepticism. It acknowledges that, for skeptics, evidence and sound reasoning matters, just like it matters for scientists in their usage of the formal scientific method. Scientific skepticism is basically the scientific method for lay people to help them apply critical thinking (think of it as 'scientific method lite').

Skeptics often have spirited discussions on subjects or might ask experts difficult questions. But this isn't because they are approaching a subject with a distrust of results or experts. It's part of a process to learn more about the wonders that science has found. Skeptics do not fear saying "I do not know" or referring to experts to help someone understand a subject. As Carl Sagan so eloquently once put about scientific research, it's the journey of discovery that matters:

The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what’s true. We have a method, and that method helps us to reach not absolute truth, only asymptotic approaches to the truth—never there, just closer and closer, always finding vast new oceans of undiscovered possibilities. Cleverly designed experiments are the key.

Real skeptics avoid premature conclusions, recognize uncertainty, search for real data, and change their minds. Sure, sometimes it starts with doubting if a claim is true, but a skeptic then investigates if this doubt was warranted.

Cue the climate 'skeptics'

There are basically two types of climate skeptics: those that I call the so-called skeptics and the pseudo-skeptics. Neither hold themselves to the rigorous thinking that scientific skepticism asks of them. But one is just doubtful about claims or has been given incorrect information, ehich means rational discussions are possible. You just have to break through preconceptions and/or misinformation. With the second group, you can't have a rational exchange most of the time.

So-called skeptics

The so-called skeptics are often just misinformed or lack the information to come to the right conclusions. They might call themselves skeptics, but this is the doubt-oriented form of skepticism. However, they aren't unreasonable, and if you explain the science to them they will listen to you. The important thing to remember is that, just because they might be wrong or are doubtful, it doesn't mean they're stupid or not willing to learn. That's why you should always approach people with the benefit of the doubt and treat them with respect. Let them see the joy you have for explaining scientific subjects. Enthusiasm is always infectious and helps with building bridges.

They might not always like the answer or the consequences of what you're telling them. This might result in a hostile response. After all, it's no fun discovering that you're mistaken. Give them time to think about what you've told them. They will accept it if given some time to internalize it. They will then either happily return with more questions so they can learn more, or engage you based on this new knowledge to discuss what this means for politics or our society.


However, the pseudo-skeptics group is vastly different. This group actively portrays themselves as promoting science based skeptical thinking. But this isn't what they're doing. They approach climate science with their minds already made up. To them, it doesn't matter what you show them, the chance is extremely small that they'll ever change their minds. They never reached their current stance through reason, and they often do their best to undermine sound reasoning. This makes it almost impossible to reason with them. As Thomas Paine once said, "To argue with a person who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead."

The 'Global Warming & Climate Change Myths' page here on Skeptical Science lists perfect examples of this. It contains examples of misinterpreting science, misrepresenting research, attacking scientists and scientific organizations. Some of these myths have been around for decades, yet they are still repeated by pseudo-skeptics. That's because pseudo-skeptics reject scientific findings that are inconvenient for how they view the world. But, at the same time, they accept any small piece of evidence, no matter how dubious, to confirm their world view.

There's some interesting and very elegantly done research that looks into this ideologically motivated reasoning. It ranges from confirmation bias: you tend to more readily accept information or evidence that confirms your current stance. To cognitive bias: where you create your own subjective reality. Adam Savage popularized the line "I reject your reality and substitute my own!" from the movie Dungeonmaster via his show MythBusters. He used it as a joke when he was challenged about his earlier predictions of the likelihood of a myth being valid, but it is a very apt description of this type of behavior.

One study (Kahan 2013) very elegantly showed the effects of confirmation bias on your ability to do math:

What this study did, and the above video explains in a very accessible way, is investigate how beliefs can undermine your math skills. When participants that were in favor of more gun control were presented with fictitious results that showed banning guns doesn't reduce crime, they performed worse than when presented with the same data on a neutral issue like hand cream. The same result was found when those opposing gun control were presented with fictitious data that showed that gun control reduced crime (using the same numbers, just different framing). Both groups did just as well on neutral questions with the same numbers. And those that were bad at math were consistently bad no matter what the question was.

There's a lot of research out there investigating this kind of behavior. This same research also explains why pseudo-skeptics are so distrustful of experts and scientific findings that endanger their 'reality'. Yet at the same time have no problem accepting opinions that aren't based on evidence. As long as those opinions confirm their world view. Their distrust of any scientific research that contradicts how they view the world leads them to the conclusion that scientists are incompetent, dishonest, or are colluding to find the answers they want. It's also the reason why pseudo-skeptics reject the scientific consensus on global warming. Their distrust of anything inconvenient to their position means they reject the scientific findings this consensus is based on.

The combination of this behavior is why they are pseudo-skeptics. They dismiss and reject results based on a held belief, and they're not letting research and evidence inform their beliefs. The very opposite of what a true skeptic would do.


Skepticism is an incredible tool that can help you understand the world. It can truly give you an appreciation of the hard work and dedication scientists put into their work and is the basis for the incredible discoveries they make. Skeptics are often the greatest allies of scientists as we help spread scientific knowledge and counter pseudoscience. The skeptic community has a proud tradition of working together with scientists to weed out bad science and translate what scientists and experts say into accessible information.

This is a very important task as, on the subject of global warming, there's a lot of misinformation being spread, with the odd bad science thrown in. It's this that creates the environment that allows such a mismatch between what experts and scientists say, and what the public thinks they say.

This is what makes Skeptical Science and what we do so important. Our goal is "to explain what peer reviewed science has to say about global warming." To us, it matters what the peer reviewed literature has to say. We also examine the peer reviewed literature with a critical eye and ask tough questions. We do this because we enjoy learning new things and want to accurately represent scientific findings. It's also why we are so skeptical about the claims of climate 'skeptics,' as they don't display any of those characteristics.

That's the skepticism in Skeptical Science.

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Comments 1 to 9:

  1. This is an excellent article and will be a handy resource to link to every time someone gets pedantic about SkS and the meaning of "skepticism."

    This article is concise, engaging and--I think--convincing. However, it has a tremendous number of grammatical errors and awkward wordings. The first part especially could do with more liberal use of commas. It really should be combed over if this article is intended to be a long-term reference. I wouldn't mind doing it myself, but I'm not sure the best way of submitting a proofread version.

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  2. You can always submit what you have via the contact page:

    If you submit It there I will eventually receive your feedback. You could also directly contact me via my website and start an email exchange with me about this:

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  3. An excellent article, in my wholly unbiased opinion. :-)

    "Unless the doubt is removed by your friend showing you a picture of Morgan Freeman standing on his porch."

    And there lies the point where we discover the difference between Collin's "so-called skeptics" and the "pseudo-skeptic." 

    The so-called skeptic will rejoin with something along the lines of "I'll be; Morgan Freeman on your porch! Who'd a thunk it?" 

    The pseudo-skeptic will often follow the general path of first accusing you of having altered the photo, and then when you show it to be unaltered output from your digital camera will hypothesize that the digital camera manufacturer is in cahoots with you.  More generously, they might offer that Morgan Freeman is an astounding artifact of camera malfunction.

    Numerous variations abound on the overall theme of pseudo-skepticism, having in common the feature of starting as a straight line and then if necessary adopting the topography of a Klein bottle if that is what is necessary to avoid acknowledging the simply obvious. 

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  4. CollinMaessen - Thanks a bunch for the help. I've sent an edited version through the Contact page. Hopefully the raw format isn't too inconvenient.

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  5. Thanks, enjoyed this.  Readers might also be interested in what ethicist Lawrence Torcello has to say on this

    Torcello points out that "actual skepticism is about positive inquiry and critical thinking, as well as proportioning one’s beliefs to the available evidence (not to mention being willing to alter those beliefs if and when the evidence changes significantly). Pseudoskepticism, on the contrary, makes a virtue of doubt per se, regardless of other considerations, and is therefore irrational.
    he also says
    (1) Ethical obligations of inquiry extend to every voting citizen insofar as citizens are bound together as a political body;
    (2) It is morally condemnable to put forward unwarranted public assertions contrary to scientific consensus when such consensus is decisive for public policy and legislation;
    (3) It is imperative upon educators, journalists, politicians and all those with greater access to the public forum to condemn, factually and ethically, pseudoskeptical assertions without equivocation.
    Thus healthy skepticism includes refusing to condemn something as false unless it can be shown to be false. Someone with healthy skepticism may doubt something if it has not been proven to be true, but he would not condemn it as false unless he obtained verifiable evidence that it is false."


    What Judith Curry has to say?  Perhaps less inspiring?

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  6. Thanks heb0, I'm leaving on a short vacation tomorrow. I'll take a look at it as soon as I'm back.

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  7. This is indeed a thorough and clear presentation clarifying the intent of Skeptical at Skeptical Science.

    However, the challenge remains that many people will be strongly inclined to believe something that suits their interest. And that confirmation bias, the tendancy to seek out and accept information suiting a pre-determined belief and disbelive anything contradicting thtt preferred belief, can be very stong in a person who wants to obtain the most possible benefit from the burning of fossil fuels. And if that person also strongly believes that "everyone else has their own equally strong confirmation bias", then they can discount or dismiss this entire presentation as just an extended biased presentation.

    That potential for the development of a strong bias in people who want to benefit from clearly unacceptable activity appears to be the best explanation for the ease with which the deliberate misleaders get "traction" for their rather weak and easily refuted criticisms of the science. It would also explain the persistence of many of the weakest and most thoroughly debunked criticisms of the science, including the criticism that Skeptical Science is not unbiased because equal space is not given to criticism of the best understanding to date. All that happens on Skeptical Science can be seen as criticism of what strongly biased people prefer to believe.

    A person cannot be convinced of anything against their will. But it would be nice if leaders stood up and spoke out to better inform the entire population, even if doing so could be "unpopular" among their hoped to be relied upon votes of support.

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  8. I wish to clarify that a person wishing to dismiss climate science because of a strong desire to obtain personal benefit can firmly beleive that everyone else is similarly motivated. Their perspective could be that everyone else is just as strongly motivated to pursue the most possible benefit any way they can get away with. They would tend to seek out any possible evidence of such motivation, including believing that any action that would increase the cost to them of what they want to enjoy is just a devious unjustified action by those they have to fight against.

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  9. The current summation of the Skeptical Science site is "Getting skeptical about global warming skepticism".

    Perhaps adding something to define that skepticism would help, like: "Providing climate science information for people who are willing to change their mind based on all of the available information and its validity."

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