Thursday, December 17, 2009

Randi-gate Part II

And the skeptical community breathes a sigh of relief... sort of.

Not surprisingly it didn't take too long after the skeptical blogosphere went pyroclastic from Randi's "AGW Denial" - which I dealt with in my last post - for Randi to follow up with a response and clarification.

Okay... whew, Randi isn't a global warming denier.

I'm actually not terribly surprised by that.  I'm glad to know that the impression was a result of having whittled down his first draft to publishable size.  Certainly his original post does seem consistent with that explanation.


There are still issues associated with the original post.

For starters, its out there in the first place, and it came from one of the most important voices in skepticism.  The deniers - the pseudoskeptics - will be happy to quote the original out of context as it serves their purposes, never including any of the important clarifications of the second part.  That can't be undone.  Hopefully I'm wrong about that.  Hopefully the pseudoskeptics aren't that intellectually bankrupt; or aren't savvy enough to take advantage of the circumstance.  (Yeah, good luck on that.)  If they mention the follow up at all, I can pretty much guarantee that it'll be presented in terms of "Look what happened when he was brow-beaten by his peer-group" - a sentiment that only undermines us all.

In his follow-up Randi doesn't retract his final points of his original post - that we have more important things to concern ourselves with.  I cry bullshit.  I accept that it's not the sole concern of skepticism.  I will accept that there is at least one issue in our domain that is of comparable concern when you consider that our real purview is science-outreach (I am thinking of Anti-Vax, BTW.) and not doing the actual science.  But there is NOTHING more important than working towards getting a grasp of this issue in all it's complexities and getting the reality of the situation conveyed effectively to as many people as possible.  On this level I am still muttering "Oh for fuck's sake, Randi!"

Yesterday I was trying hard to see the silver-lining.  Trying to use the opportunity as a chance to demonstrate to myself at least that our skeptical idols are fallible and that the movement is - to it's strength - not in lock-step.  I still think that lesson is relevant an valuable, but I have to admit that today I'm not feeling so rosy.  I don't know that anything Randi could have said would have totally satisfied me.  I still think that his original post was a colossal blunder.

It is one thing for a foul-mouthed buffoon like myself, with an audience of about three and no reputation to speak of, to run-off half-cocked about something I don't know enough about... and for the record, I generally try to avoid that or at least qualify it when I do.  But for one of our luminaries to speak up on such an important issue - with such bad timing, what with Copenhagen being at the top of the news - it's disappointingly sloppy.  If Randi were known as a loose cannon it would be something all together different.  Let's face it, when Penn Gillette - who these days is even more visible than Randi - offers up a tepid "I'm just saying 'I do not know'" defense, we grumble and shrug, but it's in character, so we let it slide (a bit) and laugh it off with an "Oh that Libertarian Ideologue, Penn!  Whadda-guy!"  But Randi is not Penn.  I just can't help myself.  I still feel disappointed.  Indeed, at least before he responded there was still a Shrodinger's chance that I wouldn't be disappointed by his follow up, but now the cat is out of the hermetically sealed quantum box.  And clearly I am not alone.

So then, what do I walk away with this time?  I don't want it to be all 'bad taste in my mouth'...

Yesterday when commisserating with fellow SN bloggers I mentioned Dr. David Brin's notion of CITOKATE.  I even tried to find an appropriate way to show-horn it into yesterday's post, but it wouldn't have fit well.  I knew a better opportunity would arise - and at least on an introductory level, this is it.

Citokate is an acronym for "Criticism is the only known antidote to error."  It's a notion that I am surprised has yet to gain traction in skepticism.  Though admittedly it does have more political ramifications than skeptical/scientific ones as it is practically an inherent part of the proper scientific process.

I don't know that citokate is provable, but it certainly rings true upon any degree of reflection and evidence suggest that it is true.

Citokate, (though not by that term) is at the core of the scientific process of discovery. The practice of peer review is itself the pure embodiment of the notion. The essential self-correcting tenets of science – where shortcomings in a theory are shored up by future discovery without a dogmatic adherence to what has been written in the books... so long as the evidence is convincing.

Pardon if a political example/metaphor fits my intent best...

The most despotic regimes of the past – from Nero, through Hitler, Stalin, Pol-Pot and Hussein – made it a central policy of their tyranny that dissent would be crushed. Presumably they believed that having cracks in their own overarching vision showed weakness and must be eliminated. To suggest an avenue for improvement was an anathema to the leadership. This cocooning of intellect was intended to vouchsafe the dictatorship from political disintegration... and it may have actually worked in the short term. But there is a critical failure in the policy – What if there really are weaknesses in the structure of the society in question? Well, political problems are more likely to compound than dissipate. Eventually the practice of "LA! LA! LA! I'm not listening to you!" allows minor issues to fester into poisonous ones, and poisonous ones to become fatal. Note that all of the examples (and admittedly specifically selected for their adherence to the needs of example) mentioned above eventually fell – all as symptoms of their own failed policy.

In some cases the Tyrant at the forefront of the regime in question would themselves never even hear the criticism – let alone ignore it. The 'yes men' of the inner circle would be accustomed to not defy their glorious leader and themselves would head off (sometimes literally) any suggestion of opposition. The leader wouldn't even get the chance to consider the value of the criticism. Any 'public' appearance would be closely controlled so that only the faithful would be in attendance – not simply for security. The media would be visciously limited – anything resembling a press conference would be peopled strictly by those 'on-side' who would ask only prepared questions. Sounds kind of hauntingly familiar doesn't it? I speak not of Randi (I shall get back to that before I am done here.), but of a recent (though not current) presidential administration - or the current Provincial leadership here at home in British Columbia.  Consider it a cautionary tale.

The benefits of listening to criticism carefully are almost self-evident. A devil's advocate policy will help fine tune decisions and discoveries both in advance and as they are put in practice, making the results more reliable and open to improvement in areas where they fail. 

Clearly Randi listened when we shouted.  He heard the plaintif cry and acted.  He asked for more learned help - significantly from Phil Plait as is evident from his post - and took a step towards ammending the perception of his position.  He is taking the right path for a skeptic of his calibre - any calibre, really.

There is much left to say on this, but this post is getting absurdly long.  I'm going to finish up by quoting Dr. Plait, who has finally spoken up on the matter.  I recommend reading his post.  He is saying much of what I have, but in more succinct fashion - and from closer to the eye of the storm.
Part of being a skeptic — and it’s a big part — is admitting when you’re wrong.
And finally, there is a really good takeaway point from this: when it comes to reality, no one and no thing is sacrosanct. If something is wrong, it gets called out. That’s what skepticism is all about. If Randi makes a mistake, he gets called on it. If scientists do, or the Pope does, or anyone, then it is up to all of us to speak up. And I think that how we do it is just as important as the content of our claims.
I'm going to try to take that to heart in the most postive of ways.  'Cause how I've been feeling is close to an intellectual equivalent of inconsolable.  I'm not alone.  Watching the Twitter responses to this over the past few days you would think that;

"There is no joy in Skepti-ville— the mighty Randi has struck out."

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