The other night I met someone who referred to himself as a skeptic.
It turns out that he wasn’t the good sort of skeptic.
He was in one the bad types. Like global warming skeptics, or evolution skeptics.
I met the skeptic at an excellent talk organised by Science London. The talk was given by Super Kamiokande physicist Ben Still (#ff !) and was about a particle called the neutrino. It was not an event at which you’d expect to meet a bad skeptic.
Neutrinos are fundamental particles in physics. Their existence was first proposed when scientists observed a process known as β-decay, in which a neutron decays into a proton and an electron. Physicists noticed a problem with the decay. The starting energy of the neutron, calculated using E=mc2, didn’t match the sum of the released energy carried away by the electron and the proton. The physicist Wolfgang Pauli proposed that the missing energy was accounted for by a new particle called the neutrino.
Of course, scientists didn’t just accept the existence of this new particle. It had to be detected. And a few years later it was. The hypothesis was demonstrated experimentally to be valid.
Since then, many experiments have been devised to detect and measure the neutrino.
Neutrinos are weird, almost massless particles that travel at the speed of light. Billions of neutrinos from the Sun have just passed straight through your head and you didn’t feel a thing.
What has this got to do with bad skeptics?
After the talk, Ben happened to join us at our table and we all discovered a new type of skeptic. Someone at our table informed Ben that he was a “Neutrino Skeptic”.
Ben was stunned. Nearly speechless. The OMG Cat is a pretty accurate representation of the expression on Ben’s face. Ben had just met someone that thought that a fundamental particle of physics, that Ben studies and works with every day, didn’t actually exist.
He had basically been told that a job description of “Neutrino Scientist” was equivalent to a job title of “Unicorn herder”.
Ben rapidly went into the reasons how scientists know that the neutrino does indeed exist. If it didn’t, all discoveries made in particle physics over the previous decades were wrong. All the models would be wrong. Physicists do experiments all the time that detect and measure neutrinos. If neutrinos didn’t exist, all our theories on how the Sun generates energy would be incorrect. Our understanding of nuclear physics would be invalid.
The neutrino skeptic was undeterred. He continued:
“Yes, but it’s all still just a matter of faith that the neutrino exists”.
Yes, he used the word “faith”.
Ben now had to explain that he, as a scientist, doesn’t just believe in something based on faith. If it can’t be demonstrated experimentally, and if the experiment can’t be repeated, he is not going to just accept it.
You get the picture. And this brings me to my point.
I think we (the good skeptics) need to reclaim the word “skeptic”. We need a rebranding exercise.
The person we met the other night is not a “neutrino skeptic” – he’s a “neutrino denier”.
Skepticism involves looking for, and relying on, evidence. Denialists are not the same thing. They don’t believe in something despite the evidence. They deny that the evidence exists, or that the evidence is valid.
So, the next time you hear someone use a phrase such as “Global Warming skeptic”, please correct them:
“I think you meant to say ‘Global Warming Denier’”.
The “Numpty” Edit
I have just returned from QEDCon at which I attended an excellent talk by Simon Singh. He suggested that we stop calling people denialists and came up with a (tongue-in-cheek) alternative: the Scottish word “numpty”.
Here is the Urban Dictionary definition of numpty:
Someone who (sometimes unwittingly) by speech or action demonstrates a lack of knowledge or misconception of a particular subject or situation to the amusement of others.
I quite like that.
So, perhaps the final sentence of this post can be updated:
“I think you meant to say ‘Global Warming Numpty’”.