NPR logo Skeptics, Deniers And How To Tell The Difference. Part I: Blues Jam


Skeptics, Deniers And How To Tell The Difference. Part I: Blues Jam

Not unlike a scientific debate: New Orleans Social Club in action. Rick Diamond/Getty Images hide caption

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Rick Diamond/Getty Images

Not unlike a scientific debate: New Orleans Social Club in action.

Rick Diamond/Getty Images

Science is a lot like the blues. Actually it's a lot like a blues jam. It's all about call and response.

Listen to a good blues band (this happens in jazz too) and you'll often see the players play off each other. The guy with harp blows a riff and the guitar sends it back with a variation. The harp takes that variation, modifies it a bit and the guitar, once again, responds. Back and forth it goes, building and rising and building to the delight of the audience and the musicians.

I have played blues harp for years and jammed with lots of folks. But it was my brother-in-law Hendrik Helmer — (a professional guitar master in NYC) — who taught me how a really good musician listens deeply to what's happening in the band. And that is where the link between music, science, skepticism and denial occurs.

True scientific skepticism, unlike like an aggressive and entrenched denial, is all about listening. Most of all its all about curiosity. If you are truly a scientific skeptic then you are truly curious about what comes next in the call and response.

This is how it works.

I write a paper with a new description for some phenomena. It be could be about reconstructing a climate temperature record or, for arguments sake, it could be about how stars form from collapsing clouds of gas. You think I am wrong and so you write a paper in response showing how my analysis of the data or my mathematical treatment of the cloud collapse idea went astray. I read your paper and then show how your analysis of my analysis is flawed.

I show, for example, how the assumptions you used in setting up your equations differ from the ones I used in my original paper (those assumptions might relate to how the collapsing cloud was formed in the first place). I then show how your assumptions don't match the data but mine do. Thus, I claim, your entire critique of my idea is wrong. You respond by writing a new paper about the proper initial conditions for the analysis opening up an entire new direction of argument.

Back and forth this call and response goes. If the topic is interesting to the broader community, then other researchers will join the "jam" and lots of papers will be flying around with different ideas and different treatments of the data and the equations.

While all this is going on, I may grumble behind your back about what a numbskull you are. I may think you are rude and have bad taste in your analysis methods. I may even think your critiques are getting kind of stupid. That's fine. But as long as you are playing by the scientific rules (submitting to edited journals, responding to peer review, etc.) I am obliged to answer your critiques.

Most importantly, as a true scientific skeptic (as all scientists should be), I am interested in what you have to say in the scientific sense. I want to know how you will respond to my response. I am curious about the call and response. Most importantly, if you have shown me that I was wrong in paper 3 of our back-and-forth, then I can't keep referring back to that work as if your paper number 4 never occurred.

That is true skepticism. That is how science flourishes.

Denial is when I ignore the fact that your paper number 4 responded to my claims in paper number 3 and go on as if I can keep making those claims. Denial is when there are 50 papers responding to the claims in my paper number 3 and they all show how I was wrong, yet I still act as if those claims are valid.

Denial, in short, is when you stop listening. It's an absence of curiosity. That very dangerous state appears to be what is happening with climate science and it does not bode well for a technological society that must have an independent means of evaluating technical/scientific claims.

There is lots of room for skepticism in climate studies, or any science. But once you stop listening to the call and response because your mind is made up about nature, you have turned your back on the music that defines the greatness of the scientific process.