We find ourselves hard pressed to identify and analyze all of the fallacies in one post that are woven into George Will’s editorial on global warming today. As our readers will know by now, Will operates at the cutting edge of fallacious reasoning, continually pushing the envelope as he seems to discover new fallacies for us to describe and analyze. Today he advances an interesting and ridiculous reason for scepticism concerning the occurence and dangers of global warming:
While worrying about Montana’s receding glaciers, Schweitzer, who is 50, should also worry about the fact that when he was 20 he was told to be worried, very worried, about global cooling. Science magazine (Dec. 10, 1976) warned of “extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation.” Science Digest (February 1973) reported that “the world’s climatologists are agreed” that we must “prepare for the next ice age.” The Christian Science Monitor (“Warning: Earth’s Climate is Changing Faster Than Even Experts Expect,” Aug. 27, 1974) reported that glaciers “have begun to advance,” “growing seasons in England and Scandinavia are getting shorter” and “the North Atlantic is cooling down about as fast as an ocean can cool.” Newsweek agreed (“The Cooling World,” April 28, 1975) that meteorologists “are almost unanimous” that catastrophic famines might result from the global cooling that the New York Times (Sept. 14, 1975) said “may mark the return to another ice age.” The Times (May 21, 1975) also said “a major cooling of the climate is widely considered inevitable” now that it is “well established” that the Northern Hemisphere’s climate “has been getting cooler since about 1950.”
He seems to be arguing that we should distrust current scientific beliefs because in the past scientists held different beliefs. Undoubtedly, somewhere in some version of this claim there is a glimmer of a reflection of a truth, at best. Scientififc controversy implies that the arguments and evidence advanced for a hypothesis have not yet persauded the scientific community. In a conditon of controversy we may do best to withold judgment and decision until the controversy is resolved. But, in the form that Will needs the premise in order to support his beliefs about global warming, this argument is flat-out absurd. Will does not argue here that there is controversy today among climate scientists–in fact, the vast majority seem to conclude from the relevant evidence the standard view of global warming–but that today’s scientists disagree with past scientists
One might as well argue that since scientists in the past thought that the past belief in the geocentric solar system suggests that we should not believe the current helio-centric theory: or, that since atoms were thought to be indivisible that we should doubt current belief in sub-atomic particles.
The closest I can come to categorizing this fallacy is as a version of the fallacy from ignorance. That isn’t exactly correct, since Will’s argument is really that because there has been disagreement about an hypothesis, we should not accept the arguments in favor of the hypothesis.
There are difficult questions about the nature of scientific reasoning and theorizing that such changes in scientific belief prompt. But, Will uses this change fallaciously to suggest that it provides reason for scepticism concerning the truth of the current view, and so he avoids the serious work of responding to serious arguments advanced by a seemingly vast majority of the climate scientists around the world.