Bicameral poxism

In the category of sloppy pseudo-balance-driven reporting today, we have the following comparison between George Will's making stuff up and Al Gore's exaggerating a consequence of a well-established phenomenon.  The New York Times' Andrew Revkin writes:

In the effort to shape the public’s views on global climate change, hyperbole is an ever-present temptation on all sides of the debate.

Earlier this month, former Vice President Al Gore and the Washington Post columnist George Will made strong public statements about global warning — from starkly divergent viewpoints.

Mr. Gore, addressing a hall filled with scientists in Chicago, showed a slide that illustrated a sharp spike in fires, floods and other calamities around the world and warned the audience that global warming “is creating weather-related disasters that are completely unprecedented.”

Mr. Will, in a column attacking what he said were exaggerated claims about global warming’s risks, chided climate scientists for predicting an ice age three decades ago and asserted that a pause in warming in recent years and the recent expansion of polar sea ice undermined visions of calamity ahead.

Both men, experts said afterward, were guilty of inaccuracies and overstatements.

In the first place, George Will is on record for denying that global warming is taking place–he's not just denying its risks.  

Gore, on the other hand, engaged in hyperbole about the risks of global warming, a phenomenon qualified scientists justifiably believe to be taking place.

The difference, seems to me, is fairly obvious.  Is what Gore says wrong?  Probably.  But obviously not in the same Will is wrong.

Here's some prescience by Revkin:

In a paper being published in the March-April edition of the journal Environment, Matthew C. Nisbet, a professor of communications at American University, said Mr. Gore’s approach, focusing on language of crisis and catastrophe, could actually be serving the other side in the fight.

“There is little evidence to suggest that it is effective at building broad-based support for policy action,” Dr. Nisbet said. “Perhaps worse, his message is very easily countered by people such as Will as global-warming alarmism, shifting the focus back to their preferred emphasis on scientific uncertainty and dueling expert views.

But Dr. Nisbet said that for Mr. Will, there was little downside in stretching the bounds of science to sow doubt.

Criticism of Mr. Will’s columns, Dr. Nisbet said, “only serves to draw attention to his claims while reinforcing a larger false narrative that liberals and the mainstream press are seeking to censor rival scientific evidence and views.”

Indeed, perhaps Nisbet could add that a primary cause of doubt in the public's mind is reporting of this variety.  Perhaps it is Revkin's job to help us see the difference between Al Gore's occasional and not wholly unsupported exaggeration and George Will's dishonest rejection of well-established science.  George Wil, in other words, is to blame for making stuff up.  This is not somehow Al Gore's fault.

10 thoughts on “Bicameral poxism”

  1. At least tu quoque arguments try to be arguments, so: I make things up, well you do too. Here, the strategy seems to be: I make things up because you do too. Is this the Al Gore made me do it defense?

  2. Looking only at the piece quoted, it strikes me that Gore’s rhetorical extravagance centers on the word “unprecedented.” The consensus view seems to be that such events as Gore pointed to will become statistically likelier and bigger (which does not necessarily make them “unprecedented,” particularly depending on the time scale of one’s precedents).

    So it seems like the tu quoque argument one might assign to Will would have to be something “grander” than just that: Will’s move seems more like “Anything you can do, I can do better …”

    (“Bicameral Poxism” — I love it …)

  3. “chided climate scientists for predicting an ice age three decades ago”

    Revkin goes out of his way to say this, but FAILS to say that its a LIE.  These predictions were speculation in the popular press and were never part of any serious climate analysis.

    So its even worse… an example of repeating lies told by republicans.

  4. Good point, Kevin. Perhaps the layers of falsehoods, half-truths, and poor reasoning by the popular media have something to do with people being unsure or hostile to scientific explanations or predictions. What bugs me about the Nesbit piece (if you read the link) is that he’s basically offering an analysis of what sort of rhetoric is effective in manipulating public perception. Hey, Al Gore! Propaganda Fail!

  5. That’s right Kevin.  That was a claim made by the popular press–one Will has cited frequently in support of global warming denial.  Revkin indeed should have noted this fact.

  6. The one thing to watch out for is that we do not dismiss Al Gore’s hyperbole by attempting to downplay it via a false dichotomy between his own statements and George Will’s or Nesbit’s.  There is also an unfortunate misconception that global warming and man-made global warming are one in the same.  The saddest part of this situation (in my opinion) is that because Al Gore and others heavy relied on heavy-handed statements that seem very akin to fear mongering and propaganda, it gives a perception of credibility to outright denial of global warming (by individuals like Will) that really shouldn’t be there considering the evidence.

  7. Andrew,

    I think you missed the point of the post.  First, no one alleged any kind of false dichotomy because that doesn’t apply.  Second, George Will’s fabrications and absurd denials of well established phenomena cannot be blamed on Al Gore’s occasional exaggeration.

  8. I’ve read the original article, and I don’t get it. What is Revkin trying to argue here? I love these “well-thought-out conclusions” … exaggeration is a pitfall. It’s almost as good as Forest Gump saying: My momma always said: lying is bad.
    So, yes I get the bad equivalence here; however, this whole article is a mess. And, I’m not yet sure that there is an argument anywhere in here.

  9. jcasey,

    I was not attempting to suggest that the post created a false dichotomy.  I was stating that the views presented by (what I classify as) global warming denialists and catastrophe environmentalists plays into the notion of a false dichotomy and that is perhaps most destructive aspect of this type of rhetoric (as it leads to an overly-simplified conversation on the topic, something this site identifies as a consiquence of poor media quality.)  I was attempting to identify the nature of the false dichotomy that this creates regarding this issue.  An individual can fully accept the current temperature trends and recognize global warming, while being unsure as to how related it is to human activities (as an example.)

    And no, I am in no way trying to defend George Will.  Al Gores statements in no way justify his ignorance, just as you pointed out the exaggerations apparent in Al Gore’s approach, and I’m sure you don’t excuse those as a nessesary evil on behalf of environmentalism.

  10. Andrew,

    That’s not a false dichotomy in the sense one uses it in logic.  It seems to be two opposing views each of which are false.  Now I might point out that it’s not, as was the point of the post, Al Gore on the one end and George Will on the other.  George Will is a global warming denialist–one who stakes his claim either on the work of science fiction authors (I’m not making this up) or his own incorrect interpretation of the data.  His view, by any reasonable measure, is an absolutely silly one that has no business being published in a major newspaper.  Al Gore on the other hand, and this is the point of the post, was shown to be guilty of asserting a stronger causal connection than the scientists in question were comfortable with.  They didn’t, in fact, deny such a connection exists, they were merely uncomfortable with his version of it.  That makes him wrong about a minor point.  That people cannot distinguish a minor error such as that from a complete fabrication such as Will’s is the fault of Will and the people who publish such nonsense.

Comments are closed.