State of Ignorance

The editors of ** would like to apologize for their rather long vacation, which they enjoyed doing their regular jobs. The editors also apologize for not posting a notice to that effect. The fact is, however, they never intended to take a vacation; it took them. But, in addition to that, they have to admit that op-eds have been much less argumentative lately. After the election, David Brooks even apologized for one of his numerous distortions of Kerry's record. And Will has taken a turn to frequent reportage. Today a wikipediaen discussion of the theory of relativity for the enjoyment of the habitues of the *Washington Post*.

With that out of the way, let's open a new year of logical analysis with a late December piece by George Will, in which he argues, on the strength of a fictional novel, that all the talk about global warming–we mean "climate change"–is only so much hot air. The novel of course is Michael Crichton's–no, you heard it right, the author of *Jurassic Park* and the creator of *ER*–*State of Fear*. What sets this thriller apart from the ever thickening treacle of the genre of ecothrillers (cf. such films as *AI* and *Day after Tomorrow*) is the auctoritas of its author. Yes, Michael Crichton has a degree in Medicine (which we suppose makes him an expert in science-related things). But not only that, he seasons his book liberally with charts, graphs, footnotes and appendices:

"State of Fear," with a first printing of 1.5 million copies, resembles Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" — about 6 million copies sold since 1957 — as a political broadside woven into an entertaining story. But whereas Rand had only an idea — a good one (capitalism is splendid), but only one — Crichton has information. "State of Fear" is the world's first page turner that people will want to read in one gulp (a long gulp: 600 pages, counting appendices) even though it has lots of real scientific graphs, and footnotes citing journals such as Progress in Physical Geography and Transactions — American Geophysical Union.

Naturally all of this research for the fictional novel is meant to establish the credibility of the authors real non-fictional scientific conclusions. Our colleagues in the sciences–the non-fictional ones–assure us, however, that the mere presence of charts, graphs, appendices and footnotes does not alone suffice to justify conclusions of scientific merit. This is the case even if those conclusions are seconded, as they are in Will's piece, by the added authority of journalists for respected conservative British publications:

Climate-change forecasts, Harvey [of the *Financial Times*] writes, are like financial forecasts but involve a vastly more complex array of variables. The climate forecasts, based on computer models analyzing the past, tell us that we do not know how much warming is occurring, whether it is a transitory episode or how much warming is dangerous — or perhaps beneficial.

From a strictly logical point of view, the really interesting thing about this op-ed piece is its unique one-two of oft-neglected fallacies of informal reasoning. As we can see from the above, Will has concocted a pretty obvious appeal to unqualified authority, or what the Latins call the *argumentum ad verecundiam*, with his attempted credentialing of Michael Crichton, TV producer and author. And now he attempts to tip the balance away from the world's scientific community (and towards Crichton) with a fairly transparent appeal to ignorance. Scientists cannot claim with geometrical certainty that something is the case, so therefore it must be the case that it's not the case: 

One of the good guys in "State of Fear" cites Montaigne's axiom: "Nothing is so firmly believed as that which least is known." Which is why 30 years ago the fashionable panic was about global cooling. The New York Times (Aug. 14, 1975) reported "many signs" that "Earth may be heading for another ice age." Science magazine (Dec. 10, 1976) warned about "extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation." "Continued rapid cooling of the Earth" (Global Ecology, 1971) could herald "a full-blown 10,000-year ice age" (Science, March 1, 1975). The Christian Science Monitor reported (Aug. 27, 1974) that Nebraska's armadillos were retreating south from the cooling.

We might offer, however, that that is just the way that science works. Just because the *New York Times* or perhaps even *Science* seem to have gotten a few things wrong in the past in their environmental reportage, does not at all mean that they are likely to be wrong now. They could, of course, be wrong. But they're having been wrong about something in the past does not mean that they are wrong *now*.

8 thoughts on “State of Ignorance”

  1. “This is the case even if those conclusions are seconded–as they are in Will’s piece–by the added authority of journalists for respected by conservative British publications:”

    “… with his attempted credentialing of Michael Crichton, TV producer and author.”

    You forgot to consider the considerable auctoritas of George Will himself. Didn’t you know that he was educated at Princeton? The argument by authority may be weak under normal conditions, but when dealing with an author of Will’s stature, it becomes most persuasive.

  2. Allow the masses to stand in awe of the power of scientific knowledge. He has graphs, by george, so he must be legitimate.

    This fixation on scientific research and its ‘authority’ is becoming a problem, because it paves the way for scientists to say whatever fits their agenda, and actually have people believe it. Also, what happens when scientists are uncertain? “Scientists cannot claim with geometrical certainty that something is the case, so therefore it must be the case that it’s not the case…” These conclusions have scientists seeming confused; however, it also has grave ramifications for the public. This is because if their official sources, with all their Princeton degrees and years of scientific research, are not certain, there is no way the public can hope to make an educated decision about issues such as global warming. At least, that is the prevailing attitude in many cases.

  3. Pingback: The NonSequitur

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