For too long now, the term "skepticism" has been used in the climate debate in an almost pejorative manner. Time to start a series of reflections on skepticism as a virtue, of something we cannot do without in science.
To start with, I want to borrow a nice story from the "Chronicle of Higher Education" blog by Peter Wood: "Skepticism and Tradition". He uses the example of the initiation rites among the Baktaman in New Guinea, as reported by the anthropologist Fredrik Barth, to make an argument for more tradition in our Western education systems; I want to focus on the other end of the pair and use it as an argument for more skepticism in the natural sciences (and especially in the climate sciences).
The Baktaman tribe "had evolved an elaborate system of initiation grades. Having passed though one grade, a young man could look forward to many more, if he lived long enough." In this series of initiation rituals, the already initiated elders introduced the young men into the secrets of the Baktaman culture:
But by far the most interesting secret was the revelation that the secrets revealed at the previous initiation were false. They had been a deception necessary to protect deeper truths for which the novices were not yet ready.Of course, the young novices found out the trick, but this did not undermine their willingless to learn more about the real secrets:
It simply underscored that the deepest knowledge would be long in coming and difficult to attain and that it might be best to cultivate a certain sense of provisionality. The Baktaman initiated their young men into skepticism, or more precisely, they initiated them at one and the same moment into both respect for tradition and doubt about it.
Peter Wood finds a nice way to translate this perplexing story into a metaphor or model for our own culture and education: "We create a spider web anchored between a rock and a slender stem, between fixed tradition and uncertainty."
Here it is time to part from Peter Woods, who makes an argument to strengthen "tradition" in the American educational system. Instead, I want to pick up the other end of this powerful metaphor, uncertainty and skepticism, and adapt it to climate sciences. Climate sciences, once in a mode of defense against skeptical attacks, tend to completely hide behind the walls of "traditional" knowledge with its milestones "evidence", "truth", "objectivity" and so on, angrily rejecting skepticism and any attempts to question certainties, traditions, or pureness even where they don't exist.
In doing so, many scientists tend to neglect another interesting fact which the anthropologist Fredrik Barth reported from the Baktaman tribe, as Wood sums up:
No people can live entirely within a static tradition. Even the Baktaman in their rain forest fastness are constantly improvising, adapting images from other small tribes, forgetting some details and adding others, reinterpreting as they go. (One of Barth’s signal accomplishments was to capture this buzz of micro-innovation on the fly.)As we know from recent discussions even on the level of the IPCC, uncertainty is especially important in climate science, where knowledge gained about the climate system in "traditional" ways is permanently challenged by exactly uncertainties. Once not under (ideological, political or institutional) pressure, most climate scientists readily admit this.
Thus, I want to change just one word when Peter Wood laments "These days, the idea that tradition has a rightful claim on the university has little support" - I just replace "tradition" with "skepticism": These days, the idea that skepticism has a rightful claim on the natural sciences has little support, too.
Maybe it is time to pay more respect to the climate blogosphere for keeping skepticism alive, which is as vital to culture as is tradition:
The Baktaman initiation system doesn’t really have a termination. There are always new layers of knowledge to be uncovered, deceptions to be overcome, and coherencies to grasp. To advance, the Baktaman must gain a sense of how skepticism deepens tradition and tradition deepens skepticism.