On being a responsible sceptic

I’ve been mulling over the weirdness of public conversation about climate change, trying to figure out what ‘sceptic’ means in this context. Mark Bahnisch  on the Overland blog and more succinctly on his home turf at Larvatus Prodeo proposes, scarily and almost certainly accurately, that ‘there is no public sphere of reason to which we can unproblematically appeal’. That means, for example, that it doesn’t advance any cause to say that denialist senator Nick Minchin also chose not to believe the science linking smoking and lung cancer, or that Tony Abbott was mildly nonplussed when a TV interviewer pointed out that the scientific paper he was quoting actually arrived at a conclusion completely at odds with the one his selective quotes appear to support. Belief does come into it. The belief that reason will triumph, Mark says, is ‘also a belief – and it’s one that will only come true if it’s fought for’.

So here’s a little tale about a man who did believe in reason.

My friend and teacher, H–, loved full cream milk. He drank a glass with every meal. He loved food fried in butter. He ate lots of ice cream. He also had heart problems – he’d had severe angina for years, then a massive heart attack and open heart surgery. When people urged him to go easy on the saturated fats because they were bad for his heart, he would – either politely or with a snarl – tell them to stop nagging him. When they said he was in denial and just didn’t want to give up his food addictions, he harrumphed that most nutrition advice in the public domain was corrupted by vested interests, and he simply didn’t trust the consensus on this matter.

Two friends who happened to be doctors realised that ‘nagging’ wasn’t going to get anywhere. It may even have been at his suggestion, in fact: they scoured the scientific literature for the major studies that established the link between heart disease and saturated fats, and presented him with a stack of paper about a foot high, saying that he should read the science for himself and then decide what made sense. One of H–’s central and most admirable qualities was his commitment to living rationally, to acting on the basis of what he reasoned out to be right rather than on impulse, on the bidding of emotion or the dictates of authority. They’d backed him into a corner. He read the literature – grumpily no doubt – saw that there was indeed strong empirical evidence that his eating was seriously risky, and became a man of salads, grilled lean meat, and just occasionally a single bite from an ice cream cone.

I cherish his example of what it means to be a sceptic – as opposed to a denialist – when the stakes are high.

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