Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

Skepticism Used to be a Scientific Virtue

Twenty years ago, scientific superstar Carl Sagan urged us to use our brains – to be actively skeptical.

sagan_demon-haunted_coverCarl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, impressed me favourably when I read it more than a decade ago.

According to the marketing material on, this 1995 book demonstrates “how scientific thinking can cut through prejudice and hysteria and uncover the truth.”

Yesterday, blogger Steven Goddard reminded me of the book – and that there was once a time when scientific celebrities revered skepticism. Rather than telling members of the public to sit down, shut up, and respect the scientific consensus, we were instead urged to use our own brains.

Imagine an era when skepticism was considered healthy, necessary, and vital to a vibrant democracy. Imagine a time when challenging the opinions of “established institutions” and “those in power” was applauded. Here’s a paragraph from p. 416 of The Demon-Haunted World:

The business of skepticism is to be dangerous. Skepticism challenges established institutions. If we teach everybody, including, say, high school students, habits of skeptical thought, they will probably not restrict their skepticism to UFOs, aspirin commercials, and 35,000-year-old channelees. Maybe they’ll start asking awkward questions about economic, or social, or political, or religious institutions. Perhaps they’ll challenge the opinions of those in power. Then where would we be?

And here’s how it originally appeared (highlighting by me):


click for source

Sagan died in 1996, a year after this book was published. Eighteen years later, “those in power” openly denigrate climate skepticism. US Secretary of State John Kerry recently declared that

We should not allow a tiny minority of shoddy scientists and science and extreme ideologues to compete with scientific facts.

It’s worth observing that Kerry is not a scientist. Moreover, since he is a career politician, he comes closer than the vast majority of climate skeptics ever will to deserving the label “extreme ideologue.” Now that he’s in power what is he doing with that power? Smearing and marginalizing scientists who dare to disagree with “established institutions.”

The day before Kerry uttered his remarks, the head of the Green Party in England and Wales was demanding that skeptical government ministers and advisors be purged from their jobs.

As in: if you disagree with established institutions such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), you deserve to be cast out on the street without a pay cheque. Your family deserves to suffer financially. No skepticism must be tolerated. No challenging of “the opinions of those in power” can be permitted.

It’s not clear when, precisely, things shifted – when skepticism fell out of favour. Back in 2009, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was already accusing IPCC skeptics of intellectual dishonesty (see p. 6 here). Similarly, former Norwegian PM and UN official Gro Harlem Brundtland was declaring that it was

irresponsible, reckless and deeply immoral to question the seriousness of the [climate change] situation we are in. [see p. 2 here]

Amazing, isn’t it? Democrat John Kerry, UK green leader Natalie Bennett, Labour PM Kevin Rudd, Labour PM Gro Harlem Brundtland – they’re all leftists. What in Hades happened to the left in recent years? The same political parties that used to talk about the importance of questioning authority now demand that we bow down to these authorities. Those who resist are immoral.

I’ll remain true to my old values, thank you. Just because left-leaning political parties have abandoned those values doesn’t mean we all have to.

Whether skepticism is considered noble – or something to be denounced from political pulpits – is important. It cuts to the heart of what kind of society we inhabit. Because, as Robert Tracinski wrote recently:

If it is a sin to doubt, then there is no science. If it is a crime to dissent, then there is no politics.



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