Weird Science

Yesterday in my seminar on the philosophy of religion we had a discussion about burden of proof. Burden questions seem to be a tricky mix of psychology, politics, and epistemology–to name a few things. And this goes back to the second feature of critical thinking–at least the second one we came up with here (yesterday)–i.e., know where you stand. This doesn’t mean of course that you should know and defend where you stand, and be aware of the status of the questions before you (the first step–maybe). So, where do you stand relative to the burden of proof on any given topic? On some topics determining where the burden falls is hard, on others, it’s easy. Just ask the people who know better. Say, I don’t know, scientists on scientific questions.

So if your knee-jerk reaction to a scientific question is to question it, then you ought to know that you have a high burden of proof to overcome. Someone please tell George Will:

>Climate Cassandras say the facts are clear and the case is closed. (Sen. Barbara Boxer: “We’re not going to take a lot of time debating this anymore.”) The consensus catechism about global warming has six tenets: 1. Global warming is happening. 2. It is our (humanity’s, but especially America’s) fault. 3. It will continue unless we mend our ways. 4. If it continues we are in grave danger. 5. We know how to slow or even reverse the warming. 6. The benefits from doing that will far exceed the costs.

>Only the first tenet is clearly true, and only in the sense that the Earth warmed about 0.7 degrees Celsius in the 20th century. We do not know the extent to which human activity caused this. The activity is economic growth, the wealth-creation that makes possible improved well-being—better nutrition, medicine, education, etc. How much reduction of such social goods are we willing to accept by slowing economic activity in order to (try to) regulate the planet’s climate?

Hard to know what George Will, famous climate skeptic (see also here), could mean by “clearly true” in this instance. But I think it’s something like “not even I–who read Michael Crichton’s science fiction novel about global warming hysteria–can doubt that one any more.” I know that’s a little mean. But Will doesn’t bother even trying to support his claim–clearly at odds with current qualified scientific consensus–with any evidence (at all–not even bad evidence). Instead he changes the subject:

>We do not know how much we must change our economic activity to produce a particular reduction of warming. And we do not know whether warming is necessarily dangerous. Over the millennia, the planet has warmed and cooled for reasons that are unclear but clearly were unrelated to SUVs. Was life better when ice a mile thick covered Chicago? Was it worse when Greenland was so warm that Vikings farmed there? Are we sure the climate at this particular moment is exactly right, and that it must be preserved, no matter the cost?

That’s an argument from ignorance! Who knows–maybe global warming will be good for us. We could farm in Greenland. Since we can’t tell either way, let’s do nothing.

13 thoughts on “Weird Science”

  1. here’s a few more gem’s from will’s piece:

    “How much reduction of such social goods are we willing to accept by slowing economic activity in order to (try to) regulate the planet’s climate?”

    ah, yes. the straw herring, a will classic. instead of arguing against the evidence offered by those serious about global warming, will treats their argument like child’s play and mounts an assault on those evil tax-and-spend democrats who erode our economic base.

    “Nothing Americans can do to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions will make a significant impact on the global climate while every 10 days China fires up a coal-fueled generating plant big enough to power San Diego. China will construct 2,200 new coal plants by 2030.”

    limiting greenhouse gas emissions is lame. rampant industrialization without care for the environment is awesome. all the cool kids are doing it. see, check out china’s new toy. awesome. if they don’t want to fix the environment, neither do we. perhaps a bit of the tu quoque, george? nah, just some totally awesome factory buildin’.

    “Another reason, he says, is U.S. imports of oil from unstable nations. Our largest foreign source of oil is turbulent Canada. Our second largest is Mexico, which is experiencing turbulence because of the soaring cost of tortillas. ”

    woah. slow down, little red corvette. our Beloved Leader didn’t claim that “unstable nations” were our largest source of oil, only that we do, indeed, import oil from said “unstable nations,” which is “clearly true.” this entire claim about our imports of oil from our neighbors to the south and the north is simply missing the point–and the crack insinuating mexico’s gdp is corn tortillas is mildly bigoted and ignorant of the fact that some do consider mexico a dangerous trading partner due the mexican government’s continued refusal to imprison the high level government officails complicit with the murderers of kiki camarena, a murdered dea agent and the soft-peddling the mexican federal police seem to give to the drug flow from mexico ot the u.s. ye gods.

    “Two of them are John Kerry and Barbara Boxer. That is an inconvenient truth.”

    wow, george you really got ’em there. how dare mr. kerry and mrs. boxer change their minds in the face of contrary evidence. they are so hypocritical and dumb. perhaps they stay the course with steely resolve to accomplish the mission.

  2. Wow. And what about a bit of an appeal to the precautionary principle here? Given what we do know about the future effects of global warming it would be irrational to require the kind of certainty that Will seems to think is required. Our ignorance of the future states of affairs does not absolve us of moral responsibility for our actions in the present. By Will’s sort of reasoning we would have no duty to future generations for example, no duty to act with caution—after all we don’t really KNOW (like Will’s Really True) what the future will be like.

  3. Here, Will makes the first mistake of critical thinking, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. So often conservative detractors of global warming simply don’t understand what it consists of. It is not simply a matter of temperature, but rather a change in the composition of our atmosphere. All one needs to look to is Venus, which has already experienced the “run away” green house effect that has made its atmosphere poisonous (98% CO2), and the surface temperature in the day well over 400C. We also know that CO2 is produced by human industrial activity, so we are, deductively contributing to global warming. Nowhere in the argument (if you can call it that) does he confront the effect of increasing the CO2 in the atmosphere. Instead he shelves his argument, for a discussion about the economic costs of confronting global warming. This is the same reason why Kyoto failed to pass the Senate in 1997. It was not, contrary to popular belief, the result of serious spepticicm among democrats. It was simply understood that introducing counter-warming measures would curb economic growth and threaten to make our exports less competitive on the global market. That argument is no longer valid in the 21st. We have a great example of an ecnomy that has implememted small “conservative” measures to combat global warming resulting in a 55percent decrease in its per capita Co2 production. That economy is the state of California. We are not going to throw our nation into recesssion with a cap-system on emissions, as Will is so convinced of. No more excuses.

    *On a side not, I’d like to share a quote from Colbert a couple of weeks ago – “No, John, I’m saying that I dont believe in a Climate. Its just liberal weather”

  4. This piece strikes me as a straw man more than anything else, i.e. where did he get this list of six things? Are these six things published by any respectable scientist in any respectable journals? or is he simply pulling talking points out of the air (or from someplace else)? Before he can even make an argument, he must confront an actual position, not one he conveniently makes up for his own (mis)use.

  5. With the media, the average person has the presumption that persons in the news organizations are in ‘the position to know’. Their business is research and reporting. This has the effect of lightening their burden of proof. The average person has the presumption that other people, in general, are honest or are good people. A couple of aspects of theories of influence takes advantage of these presumptions. Robert Cialdini calls them ‘Social Proof’ and ‘Authority’.
    Since you mentioned your “philosophy of religion” I will say that there are presumptions (I will leave that to the reader to infer) in religions that have effect of lightening the burden of proof for the religion.
    Lay people need to use the skills they were taught in high school for how to write an essay. One needs a conclusion and supporting statements (premises). And one needs to expect them from others whether in an article or in a discussion.
    Yesterday I had a discussion about this with a friend (she likes Bill O’Reilly and Fox news a lot). i showed her ‘yet another Bill bashing’ book that hit the market recently. She made her usual defense that he is going after pedophiles. I said I appreciate that but his methods reduce his credibility. She said they are all like that, he is no different and what he is doing has value. She doesn’t care about burden of proof.
    I think it is likely that media persons know this and take advantage of it. While it seems that some in the media knowingly violate those two presumptions or do it through negligence, it doesn’t seem to me that a lot of people mind.
    And yesterday I got some feedback that my habit of asking for reasons in a discussion makes people uncomfortable. And for some reason, recent commenter ‘Nic’ has barred me from his blog. All I did was ask critical questions, and did not make one comment or assertion. I see these two cases as evidence of ‘confirmation bias’ and the latter as additionally violating the ‘rules’ of a critical discussion established by Frans Van Eemeren & Rob Grootendorst.

  6. sorry, I meant ‘philosophy of religion class’. I try to get the bugs worked out in a word processor before I post, but it doesn’t catch everything.

  7. Also on the topic of ‘burden of proof’. Proof is in the eye of the beholder.
    In the past six months I have had notable conversations with two persons whom consider themselves ‘critical thinkers’ . The first showed me his favorite website for critical thinking,, and the other I could not convince that the pyramids could have been built by people. It was not until he saw Mel Gibsons new movie that he thought people building pyramids was plausible. Before that, a more plausible explanation was extraterrestrials.

  8. I was mistaken. I have to retract. Nic did not bar from his site. Though the server told me I was not allowed to participate in his discussions anymore,
    he recently sent me an invitation, and I have since been participating again in discussions there.

  9. Dear Lee,

    I’m glad to hear that the problem over at Nic’s was merely technological–I wouldn’t have thought otherwise. Spam filters can be tricky–I’m certain that some people have been booted here and I never found out about it.

    I think Nevyn is correct in what he said earlier (I can’t remember the post). Critical thinking is not so much an activity as a way of orienting oneself. Now having said that, how to orient oneself raises a lot of questions.

    One fundamental thing, I think, is not to confuse critical with criticism or critique (was that Jem who said that?).

  10. no, it wasn’t jem, it was me. i know analytic-esque distinctions are usually his bag, but i dip my toes in that pool occasionally, too. it seems to me that much of what passes for “critical thinking” is really just criticism and critique. we have conflated what a critical thinker does with what a critic does–and the two are vastly different.

  11. There’s a difference between critical thinking and cynical thinking. The former requires skill, the latter requires spleen, and like some other subequatorial orifice, everyone has one of those.

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