The limits of skepticism

The brilliant Penn Jillette makes a living from being a skeptic. Skepticism, he reports in the LA Times, isn’t good enough for the “reality based community,” however — not on matters central to the canon:

[S]omeone asked us about global warming, or climate change, or however they’re branding it now. Teller and I were both silent on stage for a bit too long, and then I said I didn’t know.

I elaborated on “I don’t know” quite a bit. I said that Al Gore was so annoying (that’s scientifically provable, right?) that I really wanted to doubt anything he was hyping, but I just didn’t know. I also emphasized that really smart friends, who knew a lot more than me, were convinced of global warming. I ended my long-winded rambling (I most often have a silent partner) very clearly with “I don’t know.” I did that because … I don’t know. . . .

The next day, I heard that one of the non-famous, non-groovy, non-scientist speakers had used me as an example of someone who let his emotions make him believe things that are wrong. . . . Later, I was asked about a Newsweek blog she wrote. . . . She ends with: “But here was Penn, a great friend to the skeptic community, basically saying, ‘Don’t bother me with scientific evidence, I’m going to make up my mind about global warming based on my disdain for Al Gore.’ … Which just goes to show, not even the most hard-nosed empiricists and skeptics are immune from the power of emotion to make us believe stupid things.”Is there no ignorance allowed on this one subject? . . . You can’t turn on the TV without seeing someone hating ourselves for what we’ve done to the planet and preaching the end of the world. Maybe they’re right, but is there no room for “maybe”? There’s a lot of evidence, but global warming encompasses a lot of complicated points: Is it happening? Did we cause it? Is it bad? Can we fix it? Is government-forced conservation the only way to fix it? . . .

[T]he climate of the whole world is . . . complicated. I’m not a scientist, and I haven’t spent my life studying weather. I’m trying to learn what I can, and while I’m working on it, isn’t it OK to say “I don’t know”?

Skepticism has been turned on its head; doubt becomes a thought crime. What is it called when that happens, exactly? I have always liked this guy.

I can’t give Jillette all the credit in the world for this thinking, however. His skeptical principles of knowing when not to know only go so far. Perhaps it really does matter whose ox is being Gored, because when it comes to other important matters arguably at least as complicated as global warming, Jillette is bold in his ignorance when in, fact, being so makes him feel good — that is, when he uses his lack of study, knowledge or understanding to assert that there is no God. Read the rest of this entry >>

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