In his 1975 book Thinking About Thinking, philosopher Anthony Flew outlined a form of argument that he dubbed the “No True Scotsman” fallacy:
Argument: “No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”
Reply: “But my uncle Angus likes sugar with his porridge.”
Rebuttal: “Ah yes, but no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”
Although this fallacy can be found in almost any debate, it is particularly prone to be bandied about on matters of politics, science, or—as has become increasingly common—politicized science. In fact, the argument is used so often on issues such as climate change that we could call it the “No True Scientist” fallacy.
The phrasing of the argument generally ranges from the bold to the subtle. But as the Climategate emails have shown, there are a significant number of scientists who are open about excluding anyone from the fold who disagrees with the party line. To anyone following the controversy over anthropogenic global warming (AGW), this is nothing new. The No True Scientist fallacy has been in effect for years, if not decades.
Back in 2006, while explaining why he didn’t attend a recent Congressional hearing on global warming, Dr. James E. Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told journalists:
I would get out of my sickbed to testify to Congress on global warming, if they were ready to deal responsibly with the matter. But obviously they are still in denial, inviting contrarians to ‘balance’ the science of global warming.
The “contrarian” Hansen refers to is John Christy, professor of Atmospheric Science and Director of the Earth System Science Center at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and one of the lead authors of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Christy isn’t even a skeptic about AGW, though he is critical of claims about catastrophic outcomes. But for Hansen and his ilk, Christy is a contrarian and friend of denialists since No True Scientist could dispute even the apocalyptic predictions about climate change.
In that same year Richard Lindzen, the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT, sounded the alarm about what was happening to to those who didn’t conform to the consensus opinion:
Scientists who dissent from the alarmism have seen their grant funds disappear, their work derided, and themselves libeled as industry stooges, scientific hacks or worse. Consequently, lies about climate change gain credence even when they fly in the face of the science that supposedly is their basis.
One of the ur-myths of science is that the community of scientists is open to dissenting views and unique perspectives. Galileo would probably disagree, as would Georges LeMaitre (Big Bang theory), Stephen Hawking (black hole evaporation), Theodore Maiman (the laser), and Mitchell J. Feigenbaum (chaos theory). All of these scientists had their ideas rejected because they did not fit into consensus view of the scientific community.
As the late novelist Michael Crichton noted, “Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you’re being had.”
Science requires the collection and interpretation of data. Consensus, therefore, requires that there be no significant dispute on either the data (e.g., its relevance) or it interpretation. On readily testable theories such as gravity, consensus is possible. On disputed matters such as whether man is the primary cause of global climate change, consensus is neither possible nor necessarily desirable.
The scientific community is not infallible, which is why disagreements over data and its interpretation should be robust and thoughtfully engaged. While claiming that “No true scientist believes X” or “No true scientist doubts Y” may be the easiest way to dismiss dissenters, it is often counterproductive. The slow-witted and simple-minded may be dazzled by academic credentials and institutional affiliations but most thoughtful people are harder to fool. They recognize that No True Scientist should fear honest inquiry and solid arguments—even when their colleagues disagree.