Adding to earlier diagnosis of the ad infantem fallacy: The argument the author over at the WaPo is making seems to me to be that the worry
over climate change is disproportionate to the danger or the likelihood
of the threatened harm. It is an increasingly common reaction to
climate change warnings as the straight-up deniers seem to be
retreating to their Hummers. It rests on a reasonable premise:
- Concern should be proportional to risk, where risk is proportional to magnitude of harm and likelihood of occurence.
Then you attack Al Gore for hyping the risk, while presenting a
posture of cool headed calm in opposition to Goreís climate hysteria
(and benefiting the children as well!). It generally depends on making one of two claims:
- the harm will be less severe than Gore predicts.
- the harm is less likely than Gore claims .
Arguing these claims would require scientific argument/evidence.
This editorial flails around in the proximity of these claims but
settles on the related claim:
3. we donít know what the likelihood or severity of the harm is.
The author supports this claim with
- an argument about the inability of climatologists to predict the
weather in August. Therefore it is unlikely that they can predict the
weather in 2100.
- an argument about the ďcontroversiesĒ surrounding whether storms
are exacerbated by climate change or not. (Committing what we might
call the fallacy of appeal to a single uncontextualized scientific
study. Well, to be fair she doesnít really commit this ďfallacyĒ since
all she wants to do is suggest that we donít know.). On this see the
debate over here or the related discussion here. We can also add that this is not exactly the most significant part of the harms imagined in the IPCCís 4th report. (In fact itís barely mentioned). Finally, as pointing out in the first link, contrast her use of this study with the WaPo’s own reportage.
These very weak arguments for 3, then allow the author to suggest
that we shouldnít be too alarmist about climate change and certainly
not scare the children! Al Gore should be ashamed! Until you are
certain, donít scare the children.
This sort of editorial probably takes about 5 minutes to write.
Really all thatís going on is
- find some disagreement in the
- therefore we shouldnít worry too much.
Somewhere in there is something akin to the appeal to ignorance. It
isnít quite an appeal to igorance because the conclusion isnít simply
the negative conclusion:
a) climate change isnít a risk
but rather, something like:
b) we donít know whether it is a risk, so we should treat it as though it isnít a (big) risk.
Thereís much more to be said about this latter step, as clearly sometimes it is a perfectly good inference. In environmental ethics we discuss something called the "precautionary principle." Roughly this is a principle that shifts the "burden of proof" to those who advocate a policy that is potentially very dangerous. For example, the advocates of a policy might have to demonstrate that the risk is minimal, or manageable, etc.
The sort of argument that we are analyzing here seem to rest on a "caution to the wind principle" which seems to suggest that in the absence of conclusive demonstration of certain and determinate harms, we shouldn’t worry too much, and we definitely shouldn’t upset the children.