In a lengthy post about the two climate science communications efforts getting so much ink this week, Judith Curry includes an eloquent quote from Nullius in Verba (can’t find the link) on the nature of scientific skepticism and respect for other people’s thoughts:
“As I tried to make clear, if I met a flat-Earther I would still consider them to be incorrect, and I would not have any high expectation of being persuaded otherwise. And if I was not inclined at the time to engage in a long diversion into eccentricity I might well ignore them or put them off. But I wouldn’t call them a ‘denier’ or ‘irrational’ or ‘anti-science’ or a ‘crank’ or ‘McFraudit’ or any other epithets until at the least I had determined why they thought as they did, and whether there was any justification for it.
And if I am going to categorise someone that way, I do it on the basis of the fallacies they rely on, not the conclusions they draw.
As I said, if a person does not know, or has not been told what the real reasoning and evidence is even for something like whether the world is flat, then I would find scepticism-out-of-principle to be a perfectly acceptable stance, not at all deserving of being named “denier”. If some thought had been put into it, I might even consider it slightly superior to that of a person who insisted forcefully that the world was round, but didn’t have a clue why – although so long as they don’t claim their belief to be on scientific grounds I would have no objection to that either. On many other topics I am just as ignorant – I am in no position to throw stones.
It is perhaps a case of taking the scientific philosophy to extremes. I consider skeptics to be a valuable resource to science, to be nurtured and encouraged. We need such people, even to ask the stupid questions, and definitely to ask the more intelligent ones. If somebody turns up on your doorstep, motivated to study your work and check the details, for free no less, then you make sure they’re taught what they need to know and you set them to work. Whatever they’re capable of and willing to do.
Regarding skepticism in and of itself, even of long-standing and strongly confirmed theories, as somehow undesirable in science seems to me to get it backwards. It’s not the scientific conclusions that are most important, it’s the scientific method. So it depends on their reasons for disagreement.”