Contra populum

One final post on George Will’s spectacularly dumb piece on global warming (later we will discuss the recurring Will canard that contractual benefits constitute “welfare”).

We should remind the reader that the whole point of Will’s essay is to challenge *the truth* of the claim of those white-coated types–also known as scientists–that the earth’s atmosphere is warming. We stress “truth” because as evidence *against* this claim, Will points out that many people *believe* it to be true:

>Eighty-five percent of Americans say warming is probably happening, and 62 percent say it threatens them personally. The National Academy of Sciences says the rise in the Earth’s surface temperature has been about one degree Fahrenheit in the past century. Did 85 percent of Americans notice? Of course not. They got their anxiety from journalism calculated to produce it.

Clearly the best explanation for why many Americans believe a claim to be true is that it’s false! Aside from that stunning non-sequitur, this is the flipside of another fallacy: the argumentum ad populum. Under normally fallacious circumstances, the devious and dishonest arguer will suggest that the sheer number of people who hold a belief is evidence of that’ belief’s truth (or moral goodness, or whatever), when that truth does not depend on a vote. Global warming is obviously a question for experts (so the number of non-experts who believe it or not doesn’t constitute evidence for or against it).

Will’s claim has a kind of tinfoil hat quality to it: if a lot of people believe something, then not only is it false, but it’s the product of a mass conspiracy:

>About the mystery that vexes ABC — Why have Americans been slow to get in lock step concerning global warming? — perhaps the “problem” is not big oil or big coal, both of which have discovered there is big money to be made from tax breaks and other subsidies justified in the name of combating carbon.

>Perhaps the problem is big crusading journalism.

The weird thing about this conspiracy, however, is that it’s stunningly effective and ineffective. Just compare the two passages (from the beginning and end of the piece): Americans have been slow to recognize the threat of global warming because of the success of journalism calculated to produce recognition of such threats, so therefore the problem is journalism. For once in my life I’m confused.