Scientists like classification schemes and, especially, the jargon that comes along with them. Of course, this in part due to the fact that such schemes allow us to flex our intellectual vanity through the ritual abuse of dead languages. More legitimately, classification schemes and terms that are agreed upon within a particular field increase both the ease and precision of communication.
At the moment, I am writing at my patio table, peering with some concern (due to the threat to my ripening raspberries) at a bird hopping around the back garden. This bird is all black, with a relatively straight black beak; it is larger than a sparrow, but smaller than an eagle; and, as mentioned above, moves on the ground by hopping. Alternatively, I could communicate all that information, probably with even greater accuracy, by making use of our shared vocabulary for bird classification and tell you that I am looking at a carrion crow. Two words not only substitute for a tedious, run-on sentence of description, but also reduce confusion about the bird’s characteristics.
Good classification schemes summarize significant amounts of information by identifying many definitive characteristics through classification. Bad classification schemes convey no additional information other than the classification group.
When this type of classification scheme is applied to more complex problems than defending my raspberries, we are left with time and energy to devote to non-definitional questions, as well as avoiding the waste of that time and energy on misunderstandings stemming from confusion over definitions.
Complex issues are complex. This means that there are a multitude of points on which people can agree, disagree, express belief, or express doubt. Fortunately, we can classify these points into a few simple categories and by evaluating an individual’s “doubt” for widely understood consensus positions on these points for a particular issue. This scheme allows the positions of dubious individuals to be informatively identified in a clear and concise manner.
For a potentially controversial scientific topic, the claims can be separated into four, hierarchical categories. The scale becomes hierarchical when one considers that being dubious of one claim implies either doubt about the subsequent claim or the position that the subsequent claim is rendered irrelevant. I like to call this scheme:
The Dubiosity Scale
- Phenomenon – This describes the fundamental phenomenon that is occurring and needs to be addressed. This refers to things like sighting of large, brown animals in the Pacific Northwest, not the explanation that it is a reclusive, gigantic, bipedal primate, namely Bigfoot. If one doubts the existence of a phenomenon, then all further considerations of its direct importance (as opposed to the secondary effects of people believing in the phenomenon), mechanism, or corrective action become irrelevant.
- Relevance – This describes how important the phenomenon is considered to society. While most people do not think that the legends of Mokele-mbembe, a supposed sauropod still living in the Congo, are critical to society at large, a particular group of young earth creationist cryptozoologists for some particular reason are convinced that this is critical evidence refuting evolution and geology. If the phenomenon is not considered important, then considerations of the mechanism or corrective action are correspondingly irrelevant.
- Mechanism – This describes the proposed explanation for the phenomenon. This refers to the explanation aliens as an explanation for the observation of unexpected lights in the sky. The dubious often propose alternative mechanisms to explain the phenomenon.
- Action – This describes the position on proposed actions to deal with the phenomenon.
An area of great societal interest in desperate need of definitional rigor is the Global Warming slap fight. Terms like Global Warming Skeptic and Global Warming Denier are used with the only distinction between the two is whether the speaker approves or disapproves of the position. This terminology represents the Global Warming debate as a false dichotomy between supporters of the consensus position and deniers, when the issue is complex and has multiple facets on which people can choose to agree and disagree.
A Global Warming Dubiosity Scale
- Phenomenon – Average global temperatures have been increasing. George Will is dubious that this phenomenon exists based on the supposed decrease of the rate of increase of temperatures over the past decade (aka a statistical fluctuation).
- Relevance – Increasing average global temperatures could contribute to extinctions and increasingly violent storms. James “The Amazing” Randi appears to take this position in his article “AGW Revisited“, in which he argues that humanity faces far more serious problems than Global Warming.
- Mechanism – The primary driver of global warming is human production of greenhouse gasses. Roy Spencer is dubious that greenhouse gasses are the primary driving force, instead favoring a mechanism based on changes in cloud cover.
- Action – Stopping global warming requires a worldwide reduction in the production of greenhouse gasses through the use of alternative fuels. Freakonomicists Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt are dubious that alternative fuels will provide a solution. Instead, they have advocated for the consideration of dramatic geoengineering proposals.
Now you are equipped to separate your “global warming skeptics”, or doubters of any kind, into useful categories that will help you organize your counter-efforts. Remember, not all the doubtful are created equal.
1: And, then you have the Worldwide Skeptical Movement, who is just wicked pissed that an unlicensed position is using their word.
2: He’s also dubious about evolution:
I came to the realization that intelligent design, as a theory of origins, is no more religious, and no less scientific, than evolutionism. . .