Tag Archives: Climate Change

The inevitability of straw men

Not all newspaper op-eds are straightforwardly argumentative. Some trend explanatory. The ones that are argumentative face a kind of dilemma. On the one hand, they can present an argument that’s engaging, conclusive, and therefore probably wrong because it’s a straw man or some other easily diagnosed fallacious argument form. On the other, they can present a fair, rigorous, and analytical piece that won’t have time or space to get to a conclusion. Most argumentative ones opt for the former.  Few people, outside of academics, want to read anything like the latter.

An illustrative example of this came up over the weekend. Background: The New York Times, in an effort to diversify its op-ed page, hired another white, male, conservative with predictable conservative views. This naturally includes thinking the science behind climate change to be wrong. To this end, he made the following argument:

Let me put it another way. Claiming total certainty about the science traduces the spirit of science and creates openings for doubt whenever a climate claim proves wrong. Demanding abrupt and expensive changes in public policy raises fair questions about ideological intentions. Censoriously asserting one’s moral superiority and treating skeptics as imbeciles and deplorables wins few converts.

And there’s your problem. No one who is a serious participant in the science-based conversation around climate change makes that argument (call it the Cartesian Certainty Claim). For those keeping score at home, this is a weak man. That’s not how science works (it’s more Humean certainty). To be charitable to Stephens, maybe he is thinking of the no doubt many confused individuals who make these sorts of claims at rallies and such. They truly could use this clarification. But that’s probably not what he means. And it would also leave standing the idea that he means to criticize. And so the problem:  it’s not fun to argue fairly and honestly. And you can’t do it in the space of an op-ed. In matters of science, you can’t do it even in the space of many many publications. It takes a long time to rock and roll, as it where.

There was a serious uproar over his hiring that again flared up this weekend. There were many good responses. The best response, I think, is this one :

A decent touchstone for newspapers to apply to opinion writers of all ideological persuasions would test whether they engage in that kind of sophistry, and a decent rule would be to not publish them if and when they do—basically, to hire good editors for their editorialists. It would be ideologically cocooning for newspapers to censor the opinion that climate change isn’t worth doing anything about, but it is neither partisan nor biased to insist that the supporting arguments be factual, logically rigorous, and sincere.

Easy enough, but it’s surprising to me how difficult it is to get newspaper types away from the idea that only single factual assertions can be the subject of editing (BTW, the one factual assertion about climate change in Stephens’ piece was wrong–the Times issued a correction).

Climate science with the Gorgias

Gorgias

George Will, the world’s worst climate scientist, reminds us of a passage from Plato’s Gorgias as he once again ventures into climate science.  At least this time he isn’t confusing a work of actual fiction with actual non-fiction science.   You can read whatever he says at the link.  Here is relevant passage of the Gorgias:

Soc. Let me tell you then, Gorgias, what surprises me in your words; though I dare say that you may be right, and I may have understood your meaning. You say that you can make any man, who will learn of you, a rhetorician?

Gor. Yes.

Soc. Do you mean that you will teach him to gain the ears of the multitude on any subject, and this not by instruction but by persuasion?

Gor. Quite so.

Soc. You were saying, in fact, that the rhetorician will have, greater powers of persuasion than the physician even in a matter of health?

Gor. Yes, with the multitude-that is.

Soc. You mean to say, with the ignorant; for with those who know he cannot be supposed to have greater powers of persuasion.

Gor. Very true.

Soc. But if he is to have more power of persuasion than the physician, he will have greater power than he who knows?

Gor. Certainly.

Soc. Although he is not a physician:-is he?

Gor. No.

Soc. And he who is not a physician must, obviously, be ignorant of what the physician knows.

Gor. Clearly.

Soc. Then, when the rhetorician is more persuasive than the physician, the ignorant is more persuasive with the ignorant than he who has knowledge?-is not that the inference?

Gor. In the case supposed:-Yes.

Soc. And the same holds of the relation of rhetoric to all the other arts; the rhetorician need not know the truth about things; he has only to discover some way of persuading the ignorant that he has more knowledge than those who know?

Gor. Yes, Socrates, and is not this a great comfort?-not to have learned the other arts, but the art of rhetoric only, and yet to be in no way inferior to the professors of them?

Soc. Whether the rhetorician is or not inferior on this account is a question which we will hereafter examine if the enquiry is likely to be of any service to us; but I would rather begin by asking, whether he is as ignorant of the just and unjust, base and honourable, good and evil, as he is of medicine and the other arts; I mean to say, does he really know anything of what is good and evil, base or honourable, just or unjust in them; or has he only a way with the ignorant of persuading them that he not knowing is to be esteemed to know more about these things than some. one else who knows? Or must the pupil know these things and come to you knowing them before he can acquire the art of rhetoric? If he is ignorant, you who are the teacher of rhetoric will not teach him-it is not your business; but you will make him seem to the multitude to know them, when he does not know them; and seem to be a good man, when he is not. Or will you be unable to teach him rhetoric at all, unless he knows the truth of these things first? What is to be said about all this? By heavens, Gorgias, I wish that you would reveal to me the power of rhetoric, as you were saying that you would.

Can someone please send Mr.Will a copy of this book?

via Thinkprogress (where you can find a thorough discussion of just how bad Will’s piece was).

Man gave names to all the animals

I shouldn't feel like I'm nutpicking when I talk about the views of the Republican frontrunner of the week.  Nonetheless, I do.  That's because it's Rick Santorum.  Here's his take on environmentalism (via TPM):

When you have a worldview that elevates the Earth above man and says that we can’t take those resources because we’re going to harm the Earth; by things that frankly are just not scientifically proven, for example, the politicization of the whole global warming debate — this is all an attempt to, you know, to centralize power and to give more power to the government,” Santorum said.

The "no scientific proof stuff" is standard fare for the climate-change-denier wing of the Republican party.  But Santorum mixes this "I'm not convinced by the science" perspective with Biblical imperatives about who rules what (answer: man rules the earth).  Who rules what, however, is a political question.  So isn't Santorum politicizing the global warming debate by invoking the claims of a religious subgroup?

Arguers arguing

My sense is that critical thinking and informal logic classes stress the evaluation of arguments, not arguers.  This is fine as a starting point, but as a long run strategy, it ignores the fact that we have very often to evaluate arguers.  Someone who makes good ones, like someone who can throw good pitchers, is a good arguer; someone who makes bad ones, is a bad arguer.  It's a kind of skill.  The judgement about the person arguing strikes some, however, as having too much of an ad hominem character.  But ad hominems are not by their very nature fallacious.  They're fallacious only when the ad hominem judgement has no relevance to the truth or falsity or reliability or whatever of what a person is saying. 

In light of this, consider George Will's latest attack on his favorite hollow man, "progressivism."

In 2011, for the first time in 62 years, America was a net exporter of petroleum products. For the indefinite future, a specter is haunting progressivism, the specter of abundance. Because progressivism exists to justify a few people bossing around most people and because progressives believe that only government’s energy should flow unimpeded, they crave energy scarcities as an excuse for rationing — by them — that produces ever-more-minute government supervision of Americans’ behavior.

and then later:

An all-purpose rationale for rationing in its many permutations has been the progressives’ preferred apocalypse, the fear of climate change. But environmentalism as the thin end of an enormous wedge of regulation and redistribution is a spent force. How many Americans noticed that the latest United Nations climate change confabulation occurred in December in Durban, South Africa?

Let's put this another way.  A person who makes up phony opponents (hollow men) merely in order to knock down their imaginary arguments with demonstrable scientific falsehoods is a very sorry arguer.  That's an ad hominem.

via Washington Monthly 

Argumentum ad imperfectionem

The argumentum ad imperfectionem is a kind of fallacious argument advanced by lazy meta commentators.  It consists in alleging that the imperfections in the arguments of certain peripheral exponents of a particular view justify the weak-manning of the opponents of those views.   

So for instance, some less than responsible or scientifically accurate characterizations of the family of views known as climate change justify the wildly erroneous allegations of global warming deniers.  Here's an example from the Washington Post's Dana Milbank:

As a scientific proposition, claiming that heavy snow in the mid-Atlantic debunks global warming theory is about as valid as claiming that the existence of John Edwards debunks the theory of evolution. In fact, warming theory suggests that you'd see trends toward heavier snows, because warmer air carries more moisture. This latest snowfall, though, is more likely the result of a strong El Niño cycle that has parked the jet stream right over the mid-Atlantic states.

Still, there's some rough justice in the conservatives' cheap shots. In Washington's blizzards, the greens were hoist by their own petard.

For years, climate-change activists have argued by anecdote to make their case. Gore, in his famous slide shows, ties human-caused global warming to increasing hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, drought and the spread of mosquitoes, pine beetles and disease. It's not that Gore is wrong about these things. The problem is that his storm stories have conditioned people to expect an endless worldwide heat wave, when in fact the changes so far are subtle. 

Other environmentalists have undermined the cause with claims bordering on the outlandish; they've blamed global warming for shrinking sheep in Scotland, more shark and cougar attacks, genetic changes in squirrels, an increase in kidney stones and even the crash of Air France Flight 447. When climate activists make the dubious claim, as a Canadian environmental group did, that global warming is to blame for the lack of snow at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, then they invite similarly specious conclusions about Washington's snow — such as the Virginia GOP ad urging people to call two Democratic congressmen "and tell them how much global warming you get this weekend."

That's just nuts.  Gore and the climate change activists are correct (Milbank doesn't doubt that), but examples used in their arguments may give lazy or just plain dishonest people the wrong idea.  It's their fault, in other words, that they have used anecdotes to illustrate claims about the consequences of a warming atmosphere.  Giving examples, anecdotes in other words, is one way a view can be communicated.  These anecdotes, by the way, are not perfect.  They are not perfect especially in the hands of people with no particular scientific training or real grip of the view they hold.  A view, in this circumstance, which turns out to have a sound justification. 

Misrepresenting the scale or significance of the imperfect anecdote in order to undermine the view is what we call "weak manning," that is, distorting a view by selection of its weakest justifications.  There likely are lots of these.  But this does not justify the dishonesty of people who know of better arguments.  And the existence of weak exponents of a particular view does not entail that the view itself is weakened.

They’re just nihilists

The Washington Post has given tenured spots on its page to a serial climate change denier (George Will), a conspiracy theorist (Charles Krauthammer), and they have offered up guest spots to the likes of Sarah Palin and other alleged global warming skeptics.  Today, finally, a little bit of balance.  Eugene Robinson goes after Palin's latest op-ed, and Anne Applebaum reaffirms the obvious and well-known facts about global warming. However, as if a part of some weird conspiracy to exacerbate the problem of the doubters, their arguments blow. 

Robinson's entire piece is directed at the alleged change in Palin's position.  As governor of Alaska, Robinson points out, Palin seemed to affirm the reality of climate change, but now she denies it.  But that's not what Robinson says:

In her administrative order, Palin instructed the sub-Cabinet group to develop recommendations on "the opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from Alaska sources, including the expanded use of alternative fuels, energy conservation, energy efficiency, renewable energy, land use management, and transportation planning." She also instructed the group to look into "carbon-trading markets."

But in her op-ed last week, Palin — while acknowledging "natural, cyclical environmental trends" and the possibility that human activity might be contributing to warming — states flatly that "any potential benefits of proposed emissions reduction policies are far outweighed by their economic costs." What she once called "carbon-trading markets" she now denounces as "the Democrats' cap-and-tax proposal."

Is there nobody at the Post who can point out that this is not a contradiction.  She instructed a group to "look into" not to "endorse" carbon trade proposals.  She's clearly unhappy with the ones offered.  Robinson is so gleeful in the discovery of his alleged contradiction that he doesn't realize he hasn't found it.  Besides, what does it matter?  She can change her mind if she wants.  Further, who cares what she thinks?  She is neither a scientist nor an elected official of any consequence. 

By contrast, Anne Applebaum has found the real culprit in the whole climate change debate: scattered crazy enivronmentalists.  And she goes in the for the full weak man.  She begins, ominously enough:

There is no nihilism like the nihilism of a 9-year-old. "Why should I bother," one of them recently demanded of me, when he was presented with the usual arguments in favor of doing homework: "By the time I'm grown up, the polar ice caps will have melted and everyone will have drowned."

When I was a kid it was nuclear war.  Anyway, what lesson does she draw from this.  No, not that for many kids this will be a reality.  Rather, people who point this out are a big bringdown:

Watching the news from Copenhagen last weekend, it wasn't hard to understand where he got that idea. Among the tens of thousands demonstrating outside the climate change summit, some were carrying giant clocks set at 10 minutes to midnight, indicating the imminent end of the world. Elsewhere, others staged a "resuscitation" of planet Earth, symbolically represented by a large collapsing balloon. Near the conference center, an installation of skeletons standing knee-deep in water made a similar point, as did numerous melting ice sculptures and a melodramatic "die-in" staged by protesters wearing white, ghost-like jumpsuits.

Danish police arrested about a thousand people on Saturday for smashing windows and burning cars, and on Sunday arrested 200 more (they were carrying gas masks and seem to have been planning to shut down the city harbor). Nevertheless, in the long run it is those peaceful demonstrators, the ones who say the end is nigh, who have the capacity to do the most psychological damage.

The second group of people have nothing to do with negative messaging.  She goes on and on with examples of nutty environmentalists who just make you feel bad with all of their blaming and hyperbole (the veracity of which she doesn't question).  All of this, however, is a silly distraction.  The law of probability has it that global warming will attract no small number of people who say crazy things (if in fact they're guilty of that).  Can you really blame them, however, when you have well-paid people on the staff of the Post–not sign-carrying nutters in the streets–who deny well-established facts. 

Who is the real nihilist?  The one who says we're doomed if we do nothing?  Or the one who alleges it's all a big communist lie?  

 

Shut him down

Once again someone needs to explain to Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor of the Washington Post, the importance of making "inferences."  Yesterday in an online chat session (courtesy of TPM) there was the following exchange between Hiatt and a reader:

Boston: This doesn't relate to Obama but would you care to address the whole George Will global warming column controversy? Is there any concern that lax standards for accuracy hurts the prestige of The Post opinion page more generally?

Fred Hiatt: Happy to, because we don't have lax standards for accuracy. He addressed the factual challenges to his column in detail in a later column. In general we do careful fact checking. What people have mostly objected to is not that his data are wrong but that he draws wrong inferences. I would think folks would be eager to engage in the debate, given how sure they are of their case, rather than trying to shut him down.

We have talked about this issue here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here).  Two quick things.  First, "inferences" in this case are part of the "facts."  As one arrives at all "facts" other than perhaps those immediately obvious to you, by "inferences."  Believe it or not, I make an "inference" regarding all facts about the past.  I ate breakfast this morning, I so conclude, on account of the fact that there is an empty bowl of cereal with spoon in it on my desk.  Ok that is an easy one, but you get the point.  It is a fact that I ate breakfast, but it is a fact I believe on account of the evidence for it.  So it's not so easy to separate "facts" from "inferences." 

Second, I would argue that the Post excludes people with "inferences" all of the time–and rightly so.  The Holocaust denier can claim merely to be making historical "inferences" between "facts".  Such inferences are preposterous, of course.  Drawing this distinction, in other words, is absurd.

A couple of items

In case one is interested in how philosophers have reacted to David Brooks' piece (mentioned here yesterday), then they can go over to the Leiter Reports and comment.

In case one is interested in bad arguments in general–as we are–then one can go badarguments.org to practice identifying them.  Have fun.

Finally, if one has been following George F. Will's scientific escapades (discussed by us here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here), one might be interested in the following article published in yesterday's Washington Post.  Here's a critical passage:

The new evidence — including satellite data showing that the average multiyear wintertime sea ice cover in the Arctic in 2005 and 2006 was nine feet thick, a significant decline from the 1980s — contradicts data cited in widely circulated reports by Washington Post columnist George F. Will that sea ice in the Arctic has not significantly declined since 1979.

If only the article were distributed as widely as Will's various factually and logically challenged op-eds.  Here's Tom Toles (of the Washington Post!) on George Will:

 

Practice with scientists

While I was away the Washington Post finally got around to posting responses to the two factually and logically challenged George Will pieces on global climate warming change (discussed by us here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here).  One of these, a letter from the World Meteorological Organization, patiently points out that Will has no business interpreting scientific data.  They write:

It is a misinterpretation of the data and of scientific knowledge to point to one year as the warmest on record — as was done in a recent Post column ["Dark Green Doomsayers," George F. Will, op-ed, Feb. 15] — and then to extrapolate that cooler subsequent years invalidate the reality of global warming and its effects.

The second of these, an op-ed by science writer Chris Mooney, while detailing the specific factual failings (legion they were) of Will's two recent columns, made a more general point about the Post's attitude toward facts.  He writes:

Readers and commentators must learn to share some practices with scientists — following up on sources, taking scientific knowledge seriously rather than cherry-picking misleading bits of information, and applying critical thinking to the weighing of evidence. That, in the end, is all that good science really is. It's also what good journalism and commentary alike must strive to be — now more than ever.

We would suggest (for the nth time) that enforcing this recommendation ought to be the job of some kind of grown up, like say an editor.

State of Ignorance

The editors of *Thenonsequitur.com* would like to apologize for their rather long vacation, which they enjoyed doing their regular jobs. The editors also apologize for not posting a notice to that effect. The fact is, however, they never intended to take a vacation; it took them. But, in addition to that, they have to admit that op-eds have been much less argumentative lately. After the election, David Brooks even apologized for one of his numerous distortions of Kerry's record. And Will has taken a turn to frequent reportage. Today a wikipediaen discussion of the theory of relativity for the enjoyment of the habitues of the *Washington Post*.

Continue reading State of Ignorance