Skeptics are Antiseptics

 It's a tragedy that the word "skeptic" is often conflated with "denialist" and all the strong emotions that go with it. Calling yourself a "holocaust skeptic", or a "global warming skeptic" can get you dirty looks and worse. But a skeptic is merely a person who holds judgement on new claims until evidence has been presented and checked, nothing more. But this is also like saying penicillin is merely a peptidoglycan antagonist or that iodine is just a cytoplasmic oxidizer. It's technically true, but it says nothing about the effect that they have.

 Skeptics are used to clean and sanitize both science and everyday commerce, and the result is a system that runs better. When a skeptic approaches a new theory or claim, the objective is not to kill it, but to clean it. This can mean that initial work has to be thrown out and re-done, sometimes leading to a different conclusion, but this is normal in the everyday world as well.

 In science, a good skeptic can eliminate many spoiling factors, including:
  1. poorly stated hypotheses,
  2. doctored or improperly corrected data,
  3. numbers pulled out of someone's ass,
  4. processes without proper controls,
  5. processes that don't eliminate the effect of complicating variables,
 and more.

 Skeptics can be seen as part of the QA (Quality Assurance) process, and it's unfortunate that the methods they have to use can generate a great deal of resentment, not just among the people doing work that comes under a skeptic's attention, but to the cheerleaders and impatient beneficiaries. It's important to have faith that when a skeptic tears apart a badly prepared report and sends everyone back to the drawing board, the final result will be better and more effective in the long run.

 Skeptics are like antiseptics in a hospital operating room. They make sure the room, table and instruments are all sanitized, or else the patient might die of a post-op infection. When science gets politicized, as it has happened with anthropogenic global warming (AGW), it's like letting a germ warfare agent into the operating room. You'd need extra strong, heavy-duty antiseptics to make sure the patient doesn't get an infection, and in politicized sciences you need extra strong, heavy-duty skeptics to prevent the science from being killed and its corpse animated for political ends.

 AGW is a magnet for politicians because it can be used to justify huge spending projects on one hand, and as a pretense for crippling the economy of nations on the other. Since the stakes are literally measured in hundreds of trillions of dollars over the next century, it will be necessary to employ the strongest, thickest-skinned skeptics to keep the science as contaminant-free as possible. The consequences wouldn't just be as bad as a dead patient, it'd be as bad as millions of dead patients if we spend all of our resources on the wrong measures and melt the ice-caps anyway. Our worst outcome is if the climate-change deniers are wrong, but we still wasted our efforts on the wrong remedies.

 This means placing skeptics at the source of AGW research as well as in the public forum. A good QA agent isn't afraid to offend the chef when he sees a fly in the soup. He'll send it back to the kitchen before the customer has a chance to see the fly and reject the whole restaurant altogether. In the politicized global warming debate, however, this is very difficult to do. The skeptic will point out the fly in the soup and say, "that's a fly in the soup", while the global warming cheerleaders wave their pom-poms and say, "no, that's extra protein."

 One of the flies in Al Gore's soup "An Inconvenient Truth", for example, is actually a mosquito. In his film he presents the case of Nairobi and an increase in malaria, which he claims is due to global warming bringing warmer temperatures--and with it mosquitoes--to a city that used to be "above the mosquito line". Alas, while other examples of AGW in the film may be defensible, this one is bunk. An inconvenient consequence, now, is that spectators are rejecting the movie, the book, and sometimes the whole message because they don't know what to believe. This could be a disaster if the core claim of AGW turns out to be true.

A toolkit for good skepticism

 While I've chosen AGW as my main example, skepticism is something that you should practice every day for every claim, not just scientific or propaganda claims. It's a major critical thinking skill that will make you smarter in less than a day. The following are the basic steps, with some examples:
  1. Remain as emotionally distant from the issue as you can
    1. Resist the instinct to be on any particular side
    2. Resist the urge to apologize for any opinions you currently have
    3. If you do already have an opinion, be prepared to change your mind
    4. Be aware of attempts to cast the issue in emotional terms ("Global warming killed my son")
  2. Check the hypothesis for bias
    1. Is it a straw-man argument?
    2. Is it phrased as a leading or loaded question? ("Do you agree that socialized medicine would lead to 'death panels'?")
    3. Does it take something for granted that has not been established scientifically, yet? ("Is 20C or 30C the most appropriate dilution for homeopathic medicine?")
  3. Check the process for any mistakes
    1. Did they forget to use a new container for each sample?
    2. Did they omit a control group, or chose a poor control group?
    3. Did they fail to eliminate the effect of complicating variables? (malaria studies are complicated by local immunity, population migration, availability of vaccines, etc.)
    4. For drug studies, were they conducted as randomized double-blind trials?
    5. Did they publish the source code for any computer models?
  4. Check for unrepresentative samples
    1. Is the pollster only talking to rich people about a concern that bridges class?
    2. Did they eliminate samples without providing a criteria or justification for doing so? Or was the criteria invalid?
  5. Check for distortion or modification of the results
    1. Graphs can be plotted with non-linear axes to make small spikes appear bigger
    2. Results can be presented selectively, omitting data that doesn't agree with the conclusion
    3. Researchers can fail to use standard statistical error correction methods that control for false positives
  6. Look for alternative theories that fit the data better
    A study of schoolchildren found that an increase in shoe size correlated with improved reading ability, therefore bigger feet cause better reading skills. Or... is it just that as children get older their skills improve and their feet grow?
 And always ask lots and lots of questions.