By Dan Johnson
When we first planned the Public Professor column, in co-operation with the Lethbridge Herald, the intention was to provide readers with some examples of the diversity of academic topics being investigated, with the University of Lethbridge as an example. The areas of interest vary widely, and include questions with immediate application, as well as some that are mainly theoretical. Some tools and approaches are common to many fields of study, for example, recognition of the provisional nature of knowledge and the need for evidence to demonstrate truth and value.
One of the most useful tools of thought is a healthy level of skepticism. It is extremely valuable in research, but also in everyday life, for consumers, parents, students, voters, and anyone who has to decide whether they believe what they are hearing, seeing or reading. And yet skepticism is usually misunderstood, and sometimes mistaken for unfair criticism. If overapplied, it can become an excuse for a chronic contrary attitude, despite the evidence. The term has been incorrectly applied to some people who are not skeptics at all, but who sidestep the evidence when it is presented, and fall back on successive excuses for denial. A true skeptic, in the best sense, will not believe a claim or conclusion too quickly, but will slowly become convinced if the evidence does support it.
In some cases, the first statement of an idea may seem impossible, almost crazy. Whether it turns out to be true depends entirely on the quality and coherence of the evidence. An example would be the theory of plate tectonics. When I was in elementary school, I and other students noticed that the continents on the globes we used in school seemed to look like puzzle pieces, and we were told “no, it only looks that way.” At the time, we were looking at it with open minds, but the adults thought they knew better. Slowly, science produced the evidence, such as the ages of rocks on the seafloor, the alignment of fossils across continents, magnetic records in the geological strata, ancient glacial deposits, and so on, which confirmed that the continents do indeed float on huge plates, and have slowly separated and moved. It was correct to be skeptical at first, but the new theory became accepted as fact. Alberta was once on the equator, after all.
Another example is climate warming related to the greenhouse gases that are known to keep Earth’s surface warm enough for our existence. Increasing levels of carbon dioxide and methane can result in a gradual shift in the heat budget of the atmosphere as it retains slightly more of the sun’s heat. As James Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, pointed out lately, this is not a prediction. It is happening now. Some self-described climate skeptics first denied the warming trend, blaming it on “urban heat island effect,” or incorrect satellite data. When this was refuted, they blamed the sun, or sunspots. When the changes in the sun were found to be in the wrong direction, or insufficient, they blamed something else, while also saying warming would be good for us. Such denial comes from cynicism and contrary attitudes, not from healthy skepticism.
In some cases, continuing skepticism is well justified. Sadly, homeopathic medication is still for sale on the shelves with real medicine, and even advertised as medicine for children. The products contain only water and a little sugar, backed up by baseless claims that says a concentration of duck liver equal to a molecule in a swimming pool from here to the moon can help you. Such ideas do not belong in the current century, and hopefully the public will adopt healthy skepticism as a tool that will allow us to accept evidence and move beyond anecdotal beliefs.
Dan Johnson is a professor in the department of geography at the University of Lethbridge, and teaches data analysis, biogeography and environmental science.