Tag Archives: Global Warming

The Attack on Truth!

Fun article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on willful ignorance, science denial, etc.  Here’s a fun paragraph:

The philosopher Andy Norman and others have criticized this theory [that what matters is persuasion, not reason, eds.] by pointing out that it relies far too heavily on the idea that rhetorical skills are valuable within an evolutionary context, irrespective of the truth of the beliefs being advocated. What if the reasons for your beliefs are not true? In a response to Mercier and Sperber, the psychologist Robert J. Sternberg pointed out that while reason and argument are closely related, “persuasive reasoning that is not veridical can be fatal to the individual and to the propagation of his or her genes, as well as to the human species as a whole.”

It’ll get you killed.

Climate science with the 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).

Anecdotal evidence of global warming

Will Oremus has reported at Slate that more people nowadays are believing in global warming, because more people have experienced extreme weather recently.   

What accounts for the rebound? It isn’t the economy, which has thawed only a little. And it doesn’t seem to be science: The percentage of respondents to the Yale survey who believe “most scientists think global warming is happening” is stuck at 35 percent, still way down from 48 percent four years ago. . . .  No, our resurgent belief in global warming seems to be a function of the weather.  A separate Yale survey this spring found that 82 percent of Americans had personally experienced extreme weather or natural disasters in the past year.

Pat Robertson changed his mind about global warming, too, because he reported a few years back that his back yard was noticeably hotter. (Note: Robertson more recently said he's not a "disciple of global warming" because there are no SUV's on Mars, so there's that… if you hold your views on weak evidence, it's easy for other weird thoughts to influence you.)  And, do you remember how the warming denialists went crazy when D.C. had that big snowstorm?

And so we see the problem with anecdotal evidence: it is certainly relevant, but it is not systematic, often not representative, regularly selective, and too often framed by how the question was asked or by the intensity of the event reported.

Final Exam

It's final exam day here in my world–Critical Thinking is the course.  A friend on Face Book posted this article about being a Republican who believed climate change to be a real thing.  Actually, the article is about understanding what the claim about climate change entails, in particular the difference between climate and weather.  This difference being somehow more difficult to grasp than Fermat's Last Theorem. 

Some grafs:

Climate science shows that over a long period of time, the statistics have changed. Things that used to happen a lot, like consistent winter snow cover, are happening less reliably. Things that happened every now and then, like droughts and wildfires, are happening more reliably. And things that almost never happened — such as the 15,000 new U.S. temperature records in March — sometimes now do occur. And they can’t be explained with purely meteorological reasoning.

The changes we’re seeing, far more than I can list here, seem like an accumulation of coincidences. Pieced together, reveal the full puzzle: There’s more heat and moisture in the atmosphere, and our emissions are largely responsible for keeping it there.

The millennium’s first decade was the warmest on record and included nine of the 10 hottest years. Greenhouse gas levels are at their highest in 800,000 years. Less heat is escaping the top of the atmosphere in the wavelengths of greenhouse gases. For the first time, scientists have recorded both hemispheres are warming – and the global temperature spike can’t be linked to an astronomical trigger, such as solar variability. Great Lakes peak ice has seen a 71 percent drop since 1973. Winters are shorter. Lakes melt earlier. Plants are moving north.

Worldwide, 95% of land-based glaciers are losing mass. September Arctic sea ice has lost 10 percent of its area every decade. Sea levels are rising. Oceans are 30 percent more acidic. Flooding and extreme storms are spiking in frequency and intensity. Last winter was the 4th warmest on record, despite the cooling influence of a La Nina phase in the Pacific.

Extremes are becoming more extreme. And none of it has anything to do with Al Gore.

Very sciency stuff here.  Anyway, the fun begins with the commenters.  A couple of samples.

Here's one disconnected from fact:

But because of the politics of the Obama Administration, all funding for Hydrogen research was cut to the bone in 2009. If you want to look for politics interfering with technological solutions to CO2 pollution — don't look at the Republicans…we tried!  

Here's one that thinks a work of fiction is a rebuttal (in the commenter's defense, George Will thought the same thing):

Did you read Michael Crichton's STATE OF FEAR? It really helps you understand that GLOBAL WARMING, renamed "climate change" is a 100% sham.

Here's your classic straw man:

Oh, no!!

Drowning polar bears???

Polar ice caps falling into the sea???

Despair, despair!!!

Hey, kids!! It's Kool-Aid time!!!

And now the tu quoque featuring Al Gore:

Well, at least Gore sets a good eexample by not flying private jets.

What? What do you mean he flies private jets? Isn't that a mega-polluter?

Well, at least he doesn't own a McMansion.

What? He owns one of those too?

I try to do what I can to reduce CO2, but Gore is single-handedly burning the planet up.

And this is just the top few of them. 



He forgot to mention that he is fat

We got twenty feet of snow around here, complete with thundersnow, so what better day could there be for a global warming post.

"Al Gore is fat" is shorthand for all of the ad hominem (meanie-meanie-bo-beanie variety) that people have heaped up on Al Gore for his attempt to explain the science of global warming to a science-disliking nation. 

Now our new Senator, Mark Kirk, has found a new way to achieve the same basic goal:

Another Republican blasted from both sides of the spectrum for his record on emissions, Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, said he is "not terribly concerned" about taking heat from green groups for his criticism of EPA action on carbon emissions.

"The consensus behind the climate change bill collapsed and then further deteriorated with the personal and political collapse of Vice President [Al] Gore," Kirk said in a brief interview last week.

The thought goes something like this.  Al Gore's (personal characteristic) makes me doubt the scientific consensus behind global warming, because who would believe something that a (personal characteristic of Al Gore) believes.  


Then, FWIW, there's this funny item.

There’s no modern Socrates, so you must be…

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist of some standing.  But he, unfortunately, isn't much for logic. Or, perhaps, simple consistency.  His recent article, "The New Sophists," over at National Review Online, exemplifies these two traits in spades.

Hanson's thesis is that there's just so much double-talk and empty rhetoric, especially from the left, and more especially regarding global warming.  Al Gore "convinced the governments of the Western world that they were facing a global-warming Armageddon, and then hired out his services to address the hysteria that he had helped create."  And the recent record snowfalls in the Northeast are clear evidence that global warming is a sham.  When climate scientists explained that events like this are not only consistent with global warming, but to be expected, Hanson retorts:

The New York Times just published an op-ed assuring the public that the current record cold and snow is proof of global warming. In theory, they could be, but one wonders: What, then, would record winter heat and drought prove?

It's not just climate science that has the double-talk, though.  Hanson sees it with discussions of the Constitution:

One, the Washington Post’s 26-year-old Ezra Klein, recently scoffed on MSNBC that a bothersome U.S. Constitution was “written more than 100 years ago” and has “no binding power on anything.”

To all of this, Hanson makes his analogy with classical Athens and the problem of the sophists:

One constant here is equating wisdom with a certificate of graduation from a prestigious school. If, in the fashion of the sophist Protagoras, someone writes that record cold proves record heat, . . . or that a 223-year-old Constitution is 100 years old and largely irrelevant, then credibility can be claimed only in the title or the credentials — but not the logic — of the writer.

OK. That's a nice point, at least if it were true about the cases he was discussing. (Did Hanson not read the reasons in the NYT article he never cites as to why we'd get crazy snowfalls because of global warming?  If he's going to talk about the article, talk about its argument, too.  Sheesh.  And Klein said it was over 100 years old, and that it's not binding, … but that doesn't matter to Hanson, I guess).  But it's on this point about sophists run amok that Hanson bemoans our fate:

We are living in a new age of sophism — but without a modern Socrates to remind the public just how silly our highly credentialed and privileged new rhetoricians can be.

So we don't have a modern Socrates.  So what's Hanson doing, then?  By that statement, he can't think he's Socrates or doing the job of criticizing the new rhetoricians, can he?  So what is he?  I think I know:  He's another sophist.

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.

I admire those who are wrong

The other day the Washington Post published a piece by a professor of politics at the University of Virginia (Gerard Alexander) called "Why are liberals so condescending?" (we discussed it here).  It remains today a few days later one of the most emailed articles on the Post's website, so it's worth looking at it in more detail.  To be fair to this juvenile piece, however, would be a labor of many days, so I'd just like to point out a few quick items. 

First off, the title has the ring of a complex question: that is two questions, one unfairly assumed to get to the other.  What the author ought to establish is whether liberals are more condescending than conservatives (in similar circumstances), or whether liberals are particularly condescending.  Once he established this, then he can ask the follow up question: why are they this way to such a degree (as we have established)?  His failure to understand this elementary logical notion makes me look down on him.

Second, the author is silly.  Not to be an even-hander here, but I think liberals are no less "condescending" than conservatives.  I'd suggest, in fact, that such labels and broad generalizations are really meaningless.  Turns out, in fact, that such equivocal terms were used to great effect by this author.  You see, liberals are one solid group, each one guilty of the sins of the other, while conservatives were always able to avoid group guilt.  Here's an example:

This liberal vision emphasizes the dissemination of ideologically driven views from sympathetic media such as the Fox News Channel. For example, Chris Mooney's book "The Republican War on Science" argues that policy debates in the scientific arena are distorted by conservatives who disregard evidence and reflect the biases of industry-backed Republican politicians or of evangelicals aimlessly shielding the world from modernity. In this interpretation, conservative arguments are invariably false and deployed only cynically. Evidence of the costs of cap-and-trade carbon rationing is waved away as corporate propaganda; arguments against health-care reform are written off as hype orchestrated by insurance companies.

Before I comment on what I wanted to comment on, here and throughout the piece the author doesn't bother to counter the claims against "conservatives."  Perhaps he takes it as self-evident that what Mooney said (in his well-documented–I didn't say "true"–book) is false.  I can think of a couple of Republicans, for instance, whose ignorance of science is concerning.  Here's Republican Senator Jim DeMint on the snowstorm this past week in Washington:

It's going to keep snowing in DC until Al Gore cries "uncle"

I find myself looking down on Jim DeMint, an extremely wealthy, powerful, and capable man for the idiotic thing he said.  It's obvious that he doesn't know jack about the science behind global warming.  This same claim of many other prominent "conservative" and "Republican" leaders and intellectuals. 

Back to what I think I was going to comment on (it's now several hours from when I wrote that line above, so I don't really remember what I was going to say)–Alexander's characterization of Mooney's book disregards its content in order to criticize its form.  This, I think, is a hopelessly dumb and unproductive way of interacting with people with whom you disagree.  Not only does Mooney have an argument, but, judging by the numbskull policies of the last eight years, he might even have a good one.  But you can't really tell that, of course, until you actually look at the argument.  Alexander maintains, of course, that you don't need to look at the argument, because he knows what it says.  That, I think, is just what Mooney was complaining about.

No doubt, as I've said many times before, many liberals condescend to conservatives.  Many conservatives condescend to liberals.  The narrative, however, is that liberals are intellectual snobs, when conservatives are not.  I think that's hardly the case as a matter of fact.  It's also almost a matter of logic (I said "almost") that when you say someone's view is wrong, you're bound to appear snobby to them.  Especially when that person, such as is the case with Alexander here, doesn't seem to know what makes a view right or what makes it wrong.

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.

Evidence versus inference

The following line from the Columbia Journalism Review strikes me as an extremely odd position to take.   

But his point about the wiggly, lawyerly language is especially germane because this is a classic case of evidence versus inference. The Post can argue that, technically, all of the evidence Will presents passed fact-checking; and Will can then infer what he wants about that evidence—even if his inferences differ drastically from those of the scientists who collected the evidence—without journalistic foul.

If I read this correctly, CJR is asserting that the only commitment journalists have is to the facts in the narrowest possible sense of the term.  As an op-ed writer, I can assert any two facts, and, so long as they are true, I can draw any inference I want between them.  I think this is kind of dumb for a number of reasons.

One, it's the job of an Opinion-editorial writer to make inferences between facts; they're not journalists.

Two, inferences are evidence.  Will used those inferences between facts as evidence for the claim that global warming hysteria is sweeping the nation.

Three, inferences vary in type and degree.  Some of them are objectively bad, some objectively good, and some are objectively in the middle. 

Four, it does not violate anyone's freedom of conscience to deny their inferences a public forum.  Holocaust deniers, racists, and the rest make their cases with inferences between things that are facts.  The problem often lies with the inferences they draw from the available facts.  Holocaust deniers will fix on the absence of some one particular kind of evidence in order to infer–got that, INFER–that the Holocaust is a sham.  George Will has fixed on two isolated facts (which weren't as he said they were, but any, for the sake of argument) and drawn a similarly ridiculous conclusion.

Five, for the above reasons, I infer (1) that the Post ought to do a better job of editing, and more importantly (2) the smart guys at CJR ought to take a basic critical reasoning course.