“Caution-to-the-wind Principles”

Adding to earlier diagnosis of the ad infantem fallacy: The argument the author over at the WaPo is making seems to me to be that the worry
over climate change is disproportionate to the danger or the likelihood
of the threatened harm. It is an increasingly common reaction to
climate change warnings as the straight-up deniers seem to be
retreating to their Hummers. It rests on a reasonable premise:

  1. Concern should be proportional to risk, where risk is proportional to magnitude of harm and likelihood of occurence.

Then you attack Al Gore for hyping the risk, while presenting a
posture of cool headed calm in opposition to Gore’s climate hysteria
(and benefiting the children as well!). It generally depends on making one of two claims:

  1. the harm will be less severe than Gore predicts.
  2. the harm is less likely than Gore claims .

Arguing these claims would require scientific argument/evidence.
This editorial flails around in the proximity of these claims but
settles on the related claim:

3. we don’t know what the likelihood or severity of the harm is.

The author supports this claim with

  1. an argument about the inability of climatologists to predict the
    weather in August. Therefore it is unlikely that they can predict the
    weather in 2100.
  2. an argument about the “controversies” surrounding whether storms
    are exacerbated by climate change or not. (Committing what we might
    call the fallacy of appeal to a single uncontextualized scientific
    study. Well, to be fair she doesn’t really commit this “fallacy” since
    all she wants to do is suggest that we don’t know.). On this see the
    debate over here or the related discussion here. We can also add that this is not exactly the most significant part of the harms imagined in the IPCC’s 4th report. (In fact it’s barely mentioned). Finally, as pointing out in the first link, contrast her use of this study with the WaPo’s own reportage.

These very weak arguments for 3, then allow the author to suggest
that we shouldn’t be too alarmist about climate change and certainly
not scare the children! Al Gore should be ashamed! Until you are
certain, don’t scare the children.

This sort of editorial probably takes about 5 minutes to write.
Really all that’s going on is

  1.   find some disagreement in the
    scientific literature
  2.   therefore we shouldn’t worry too much.

Somewhere in there is something akin to the appeal to ignorance. It
isn’t quite an appeal to igorance because the conclusion isn’t simply
the negative conclusion:

a) climate change isn’t a risk

but rather, something like:

b) we don’t know whether it is a risk, so we should treat it as though it isn’t a (big) risk.

There’s much more to be said about this latter step, as clearly sometimes it is a perfectly good inference. In environmental ethics we discuss something called the "precautionary principle." Roughly this is a principle that shifts the "burden of proof" to those who advocate a policy that is potentially very dangerous. For example, the advocates of a policy might have to demonstrate that the risk is minimal, or manageable, etc.

The sort of argument that we are analyzing here seem to rest on a "caution to the wind principle" which seems to suggest that in the absence of conclusive demonstration of certain and determinate harms, we shouldn’t worry too much, and we definitely shouldn’t upset the children.

3 thoughts on ““Caution-to-the-wind Principles””

  1. After reading her piece, I thought as I was reading your critique that to say –

    (I) “The argument the author over at the WaPo is making seems to me to be that the worry over climate change is disproportionate to the danger or the likelihood of the threatened harm.”

    – seems to suggest that the author is making claims to knowledge about said likelihood. I mean she’d have to have that knowledge in hand before making a judgment as to whether the present public mood (to be general) is overly worrisome or not. It seems like she knows that too.

    Is there a difference between (I) and saying, possibly –

    (II) The argument the author over at the WaPo is making seems to me to be that the worry over climate change is disproportionate to the **actual range of debate within the scientific community over the nature and significance of statistical data regarding climate change.**

    I don’t think this is quite nit-picking. It seems relevant. What do you think?

    Seems like (I) accords much better with the title of your critique than (II) does though.

    And while she does seem to be making the claim – (3) – that you attribute to her, I don’t know that it’s fair to call her citing of the hurricane connection debate a “fallacy of appeal to single, uncontextualized scientific study,” provided that she is only citing the study as exemplary of the “range of the debate” mentioned in (II).

    It seems like she employs that example for just that purpose. It seems unrealistic to expect that she cite every single exemplary instance of that range of debate in a single op-ed. And that being the case, calling such an example fallacious seems misguided.

    I’m not real versed in this issue, obviously, it just struck me that your report of her aim seemed a small bit caricatured. Or do you possibly not seen in importance in a distinction between (I) and (II)?

  2. I have no idea why that one portion of text showed up so small. It should just be a standard paragraph in my reply. Apologies.

  3. I’m not sure concern should be proportionate to the amount of scientific debate over an issue except insofar as that debate rests on the likelihood or severity of the harm being considered. So with a suitable limitation, I think that claims I and II might be identical.

    I think claim I, however, is crux of the argument and she takes (b) uncertainty over hurricanes and (a) the temperature next august as evidence of I. If she wanted to argue for II then (a) isn’t really relevant, as it doesn’t support II (or we could reinterpret it as a rhetorical aside or having some other non-argumentive function), and (b) is weakened even further since she would be demonstrating the “range of scientific disagreement” with a single uncontextualized (and seemingly not very precisely interpreted) study. You’re right that (b) might be an illustration rather than evidence. If so, then she is merely asserting the the “conclusion” II and illustrating it. This would suggest that she isn’t making an argument, just illustrating a broad and unsubstantiated claim with a marginal example.

    My point about the single scientific study (and suggesting it might almost rise to the level of a sort of fallacy) is primarily to draw attention to the way that some people argue against the “scientific consensus” about climate change. They appeal to particular studies out of context and often misrepresenting their conclusions. I certainly do not claim to understand the current situation of climate science and its related disciplines. But, if I read the WaPo’s reportage on the study she is referring to:

    The eastern Caribbean has experienced periods of intense hurricane activity during centuries of unusual cold as well as unusual warmth — suggesting that ocean temperatures are not the only, or most important, factor determining how the storms are spawned and how strong they become.


    In their paper in the journal Nature, Jeffrey P. Donnelly and Jonathan D. Woodruff conclude that the issue remains unsettled — that the occurrence of intense hurricane activity even when global and ocean temperatures are relatively low does not necessarily mean that global warming will not lead to greater hurricane dangers. Rather, they say it means that patterns of hurricane intensity can change significantly without a global ocean temperature rise, and that with the increase the effect could be greater.

    Contrast this with what she says:

    A study from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution last month, looking at 5,000 years of Atlantic hurricanes, found “large and dramatic fluctuations in hurricane activity, with long stretches of frequent strikes punctuated by lulls that lasted many centuries” — with the stormier periods occurring during cooler ocean temperatures. But talking about Earth’s constant, and still inexplicable, climate changes and cycles is not useful if you’re trying to shock.

    So she seems to take the claim that ocean temperatures are not the only or most important factor in determining severity of storms as something more akin to a claim that hurricane activity is not made worse or caused by global warming. (She doesn’t outright say this, but her suggestion is that we should be talking about climate cycles rather than anthropogenic climate change in the last sentence.) This seems curious on the face of it, though I don’t know the science to be able to comment beyond pointing out that picking a single scientific study and not contextualizing its argument within the field of climate sciences is a favorite tactic. As far as I understand it, there is, in fact, significant disagreement among scientists over the connection between storms and global warming. The review that I linked to from RealClimate gives the background I’m relying on here. But, the reference to the article the author cites does not provide very strong reason to believe this, or the claim she would need to make to strengthen the argument. Even further, the fact that this hypothesized harmful effect of climate change is disputed says relatively little about the broad panoply of possible dangers that are connected with rising global temperatures.

    Your suggested revisions are much more “charitable” to the author than my rendering of the article. However, I think, my less friendly reading provides the author with the closest that she is getting to an argument. You are right that we can interpret this as a non-argumentative text that is simply asserting a series of claims, rather than trying to offer evidence for them. I think she is trying to persuade us that we shouldn’t worry so much about climate change, but I find little that supports this claim (even on the strongest reading) in her text.

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