Tag Archives: Climate Change

Arguing with Children

The other day the New York Times ran an op-ed about Greta Thunberg, the teenage environmental activist. The TL;DR is that activism, particularly the activism of Ms.Thunberg, is “at odds with democracy.”

Many on Twitter wondered how attempting to persuade people to take an interest in an issue could be undemocratic. It seems, if anything, just like how you do democracy.

What the author really means, however, is that her argument methods are no good. He writes:

Her politics rests on two things. First is simplification. “The climate crisis already has been solved,” she said at a TED Talk in Stockholm this year. “We already have all the facts and solutions. All we have to do is wake up and change.” Second is sowing panic, as she explained at the World Economic Forum in Davos last winter.


Normally Ms. Thunberg would be unqualified to debate in a democratic forum. Since a 16-year-old is not a legally responsible adult, she cannot be robustly criticized and, even leaving aside her self-description as autistic, Ms. Thunberg is a complicated adolescent. Intellectually, she is precocious and subtle. She reasons like a well-read but dogmatic student radical in her 20s. Physically, she is diminutive and fresh-faced, comes off as younger than her years, and frequently refers to herself as a “child” — about the last thing the average 16-year-old would ever do.

Kids her age have not seen much of life. Her worldview might be unrealistic, her priorities out of balance. But in our time, and in her cause, that seems to be a plus. People have had enough of balance and perspective. They want single-minded devotion to the task at hand.

Pointing out in an argument with a child that they’re a child and you can’t really argue with them is pretty much the same thing as arguing with them, only it’s way more dishonest because it’s patronizing, self-contradictory, and itself pretty much fallacious. For, in the first place, you’re actually arguing with them, you’re just not doing it right by calling into question the truth of the premises or the logic of their conclusions. Instead, you’re pointing out that they’re children who, because of their fragile nature (I won’t even point out the other thing he mentions–see how I can be ironic too!), cannot be criticized by adults.

Still more perplexlingly, and equally ironically, the author argues that drawing negative conclusions about people’s behavior is not allowed:

Increasingly, climate agitators want action, not distraction. That often requires demonizing anyone who stands in the way. In July the climate editor of the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad complained that Paris’s declaration of a “climate state of emergency” on July 9 had not been accompanied by a ban on automobile traffic in Paris or by a dimming of the lights on the Eiffel Tower. In Germany the word “Flugscham” is one of the last year’s more interesting coinages. It means not fear of flying but shame of flying, and of the pollution it brings about. The German economist Niko Paech urges shaming people for booking cruises and driving S.U.V.s, too.

I’m supposing that the people making such arguments should be ashamed of themselves. Geez. It’s pretty much an inescapable feature of disagreements that the people with whom you disagree are doing something wrong. That’s just the way it’s done. When the disagreement concerns actions, then it follows that the claim will be that doing that action is wrong, and so should not be an action that is done. Pointing this out is just how you do arguments in a democracy. Maybe, just maybe, the extremity of the wrongness is exaggerated. If so, that’s something that’s pretty easy to point out.

To end on a rather more general note, this is another example of what Robert Talisse and Scott Aikin call the Owl of Minerva problem. The argument is so often not about what to do or what to believe but about what are legitimate arguments concerning what to do or what to believe.

Sadly, sometimes it’s pretty easy to have an argument about first order issues. Even Greta Thunberg, a mere child, can direct you to that.

The inevitability of straw men

Not all newspaper op-eds are straightforwardly argumentative. Some trend explanatory. The ones that are argumentative face a kind of dilemma. On the one hand, they can present an argument that’s engaging, conclusive, and therefore probably wrong because it’s a straw man or some other easily diagnosed fallacious argument form. On the other, they can present a fair, rigorous, and analytical piece that won’t have time or space to get to a conclusion. Most argumentative ones opt for the former.  Few people, outside of academics, want to read anything like the latter.

An illustrative example of this came up over the weekend. Background: The New York Times, in an effort to diversify its op-ed page, hired another white, male, conservative with predictable conservative views. This naturally includes thinking the science behind climate change to be wrong. To this end, he made the following argument:

Let me put it another way. Claiming total certainty about the science traduces the spirit of science and creates openings for doubt whenever a climate claim proves wrong. Demanding abrupt and expensive changes in public policy raises fair questions about ideological intentions. Censoriously asserting one’s moral superiority and treating skeptics as imbeciles and deplorables wins few converts.

And there’s your problem. No one who is a serious participant in the science-based conversation around climate change makes that argument (call it the Cartesian Certainty Claim). For those keeping score at home, this is a weak man. That’s not how science works (it’s more Humean certainty). To be charitable to Stephens, maybe he is thinking of the no doubt many confused individuals who make these sorts of claims at rallies and such. They truly could use this clarification. But that’s probably not what he means. And it would also leave standing the idea that he means to criticize. And so the problem:  it’s not fun to argue fairly and honestly. And you can’t do it in the space of an op-ed. In matters of science, you can’t do it even in the space of many many publications. It takes a long time to rock and roll, as it where.

There was a serious uproar over his hiring that again flared up this weekend. There were many good responses. The best response, I think, is this one :

A decent touchstone for newspapers to apply to opinion writers of all ideological persuasions would test whether they engage in that kind of sophistry, and a decent rule would be to not publish them if and when they do—basically, to hire good editors for their editorialists. It would be ideologically cocooning for newspapers to censor the opinion that climate change isn’t worth doing anything about, but it is neither partisan nor biased to insist that the supporting arguments be factual, logically rigorous, and sincere.

Easy enough, but it’s surprising to me how difficult it is to get newspaper types away from the idea that only single factual assertions can be the subject of editing (BTW, the one factual assertion about climate change in Stephens’ piece was wrong–the Times issued a correction).

Climate science with the Gorgias

Gorgias

George Will, the world’s worst climate scientist, reminds us of a passage from Plato’s Gorgias as he once again ventures into climate science.  At least this time he isn’t confusing a work of actual fiction with actual non-fiction science.   You can read whatever he says at the link.  Here is relevant passage of the Gorgias:

Soc. Let me tell you then, Gorgias, what surprises me in your words; though I dare say that you may be right, and I may have understood your meaning. You say that you can make any man, who will learn of you, a rhetorician?

Gor. Yes.

Soc. Do you mean that you will teach him to gain the ears of the multitude on any subject, and this not by instruction but by persuasion?

Gor. Quite so.

Soc. You were saying, in fact, that the rhetorician will have, greater powers of persuasion than the physician even in a matter of health?

Gor. Yes, with the multitude-that is.

Soc. You mean to say, with the ignorant; for with those who know he cannot be supposed to have greater powers of persuasion.

Gor. Very true.

Soc. But if he is to have more power of persuasion than the physician, he will have greater power than he who knows?

Gor. Certainly.

Soc. Although he is not a physician:-is he?

Gor. No.

Soc. And he who is not a physician must, obviously, be ignorant of what the physician knows.

Gor. Clearly.

Soc. Then, when the rhetorician is more persuasive than the physician, the ignorant is more persuasive with the ignorant than he who has knowledge?-is not that the inference?

Gor. In the case supposed:-Yes.

Soc. And the same holds of the relation of rhetoric to all the other arts; the rhetorician need not know the truth about things; he has only to discover some way of persuading the ignorant that he has more knowledge than those who know?

Gor. Yes, Socrates, and is not this a great comfort?-not to have learned the other arts, but the art of rhetoric only, and yet to be in no way inferior to the professors of them?

Soc. Whether the rhetorician is or not inferior on this account is a question which we will hereafter examine if the enquiry is likely to be of any service to us; but I would rather begin by asking, whether he is as ignorant of the just and unjust, base and honourable, good and evil, as he is of medicine and the other arts; I mean to say, does he really know anything of what is good and evil, base or honourable, just or unjust in them; or has he only a way with the ignorant of persuading them that he not knowing is to be esteemed to know more about these things than some. one else who knows? Or must the pupil know these things and come to you knowing them before he can acquire the art of rhetoric? If he is ignorant, you who are the teacher of rhetoric will not teach him-it is not your business; but you will make him seem to the multitude to know them, when he does not know them; and seem to be a good man, when he is not. Or will you be unable to teach him rhetoric at all, unless he knows the truth of these things first? What is to be said about all this? By heavens, Gorgias, I wish that you would reveal to me the power of rhetoric, as you were saying that you would.

Can someone please send Mr.Will a copy of this book?

via Thinkprogress (where you can find a thorough discussion of just how bad Will’s piece was).

Man gave names to all the animals

I shouldn't feel like I'm nutpicking when I talk about the views of the Republican frontrunner of the week.  Nonetheless, I do.  That's because it's Rick Santorum.  Here's his take on environmentalism (via TPM):

When you have a worldview that elevates the Earth above man and says that we can’t take those resources because we’re going to harm the Earth; by things that frankly are just not scientifically proven, for example, the politicization of the whole global warming debate — this is all an attempt to, you know, to centralize power and to give more power to the government,” Santorum said.

The "no scientific proof stuff" is standard fare for the climate-change-denier wing of the Republican party.  But Santorum mixes this "I'm not convinced by the science" perspective with Biblical imperatives about who rules what (answer: man rules the earth).  Who rules what, however, is a political question.  So isn't Santorum politicizing the global warming debate by invoking the claims of a religious subgroup?

Arguers arguing

My sense is that critical thinking and informal logic classes stress the evaluation of arguments, not arguers.  This is fine as a starting point, but as a long run strategy, it ignores the fact that we have very often to evaluate arguers.  Someone who makes good ones, like someone who can throw good pitchers, is a good arguer; someone who makes bad ones, is a bad arguer.  It's a kind of skill.  The judgement about the person arguing strikes some, however, as having too much of an ad hominem character.  But ad hominems are not by their very nature fallacious.  They're fallacious only when the ad hominem judgement has no relevance to the truth or falsity or reliability or whatever of what a person is saying. 

In light of this, consider George Will's latest attack on his favorite hollow man, "progressivism."

In 2011, for the first time in 62 years, America was a net exporter of petroleum products. For the indefinite future, a specter is haunting progressivism, the specter of abundance. Because progressivism exists to justify a few people bossing around most people and because progressives believe that only government’s energy should flow unimpeded, they crave energy scarcities as an excuse for rationing — by them — that produces ever-more-minute government supervision of Americans’ behavior.

and then later:

An all-purpose rationale for rationing in its many permutations has been the progressives’ preferred apocalypse, the fear of climate change. But environmentalism as the thin end of an enormous wedge of regulation and redistribution is a spent force. How many Americans noticed that the latest United Nations climate change confabulation occurred in December in Durban, South Africa?

Let's put this another way.  A person who makes up phony opponents (hollow men) merely in order to knock down their imaginary arguments with demonstrable scientific falsehoods is a very sorry arguer.  That's an ad hominem.

via Washington Monthly 

Argumentum ad imperfectionem

The argumentum ad imperfectionem is a kind of fallacious argument advanced by lazy meta commentators.  It consists in alleging that the imperfections in the arguments of certain peripheral exponents of a particular view justify the weak-manning of the opponents of those views.   

So for instance, some less than responsible or scientifically accurate characterizations of the family of views known as climate change justify the wildly erroneous allegations of global warming deniers.  Here's an example from the Washington Post's Dana Milbank:

As a scientific proposition, claiming that heavy snow in the mid-Atlantic debunks global warming theory is about as valid as claiming that the existence of John Edwards debunks the theory of evolution. In fact, warming theory suggests that you'd see trends toward heavier snows, because warmer air carries more moisture. This latest snowfall, though, is more likely the result of a strong El Niño cycle that has parked the jet stream right over the mid-Atlantic states.

Still, there's some rough justice in the conservatives' cheap shots. In Washington's blizzards, the greens were hoist by their own petard.

For years, climate-change activists have argued by anecdote to make their case. Gore, in his famous slide shows, ties human-caused global warming to increasing hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, drought and the spread of mosquitoes, pine beetles and disease. It's not that Gore is wrong about these things. The problem is that his storm stories have conditioned people to expect an endless worldwide heat wave, when in fact the changes so far are subtle. 

Other environmentalists have undermined the cause with claims bordering on the outlandish; they've blamed global warming for shrinking sheep in Scotland, more shark and cougar attacks, genetic changes in squirrels, an increase in kidney stones and even the crash of Air France Flight 447. When climate activists make the dubious claim, as a Canadian environmental group did, that global warming is to blame for the lack of snow at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, then they invite similarly specious conclusions about Washington's snow — such as the Virginia GOP ad urging people to call two Democratic congressmen "and tell them how much global warming you get this weekend."

That's just nuts.  Gore and the climate change activists are correct (Milbank doesn't doubt that), but examples used in their arguments may give lazy or just plain dishonest people the wrong idea.  It's their fault, in other words, that they have used anecdotes to illustrate claims about the consequences of a warming atmosphere.  Giving examples, anecdotes in other words, is one way a view can be communicated.  These anecdotes, by the way, are not perfect.  They are not perfect especially in the hands of people with no particular scientific training or real grip of the view they hold.  A view, in this circumstance, which turns out to have a sound justification. 

Misrepresenting the scale or significance of the imperfect anecdote in order to undermine the view is what we call "weak manning," that is, distorting a view by selection of its weakest justifications.  There likely are lots of these.  But this does not justify the dishonesty of people who know of better arguments.  And the existence of weak exponents of a particular view does not entail that the view itself is weakened.

They’re just nihilists

The Washington Post has given tenured spots on its page to a serial climate change denier (George Will), a conspiracy theorist (Charles Krauthammer), and they have offered up guest spots to the likes of Sarah Palin and other alleged global warming skeptics.  Today, finally, a little bit of balance.  Eugene Robinson goes after Palin's latest op-ed, and Anne Applebaum reaffirms the obvious and well-known facts about global warming. However, as if a part of some weird conspiracy to exacerbate the problem of the doubters, their arguments blow. 

Robinson's entire piece is directed at the alleged change in Palin's position.  As governor of Alaska, Robinson points out, Palin seemed to affirm the reality of climate change, but now she denies it.  But that's not what Robinson says:

In her administrative order, Palin instructed the sub-Cabinet group to develop recommendations on "the opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from Alaska sources, including the expanded use of alternative fuels, energy conservation, energy efficiency, renewable energy, land use management, and transportation planning." She also instructed the group to look into "carbon-trading markets."

But in her op-ed last week, Palin — while acknowledging "natural, cyclical environmental trends" and the possibility that human activity might be contributing to warming — states flatly that "any potential benefits of proposed emissions reduction policies are far outweighed by their economic costs." What she once called "carbon-trading markets" she now denounces as "the Democrats' cap-and-tax proposal."

Is there nobody at the Post who can point out that this is not a contradiction.  She instructed a group to "look into" not to "endorse" carbon trade proposals.  She's clearly unhappy with the ones offered.  Robinson is so gleeful in the discovery of his alleged contradiction that he doesn't realize he hasn't found it.  Besides, what does it matter?  She can change her mind if she wants.  Further, who cares what she thinks?  She is neither a scientist nor an elected official of any consequence. 

By contrast, Anne Applebaum has found the real culprit in the whole climate change debate: scattered crazy enivronmentalists.  And she goes in the for the full weak man.  She begins, ominously enough:

There is no nihilism like the nihilism of a 9-year-old. "Why should I bother," one of them recently demanded of me, when he was presented with the usual arguments in favor of doing homework: "By the time I'm grown up, the polar ice caps will have melted and everyone will have drowned."

When I was a kid it was nuclear war.  Anyway, what lesson does she draw from this.  No, not that for many kids this will be a reality.  Rather, people who point this out are a big bringdown:

Watching the news from Copenhagen last weekend, it wasn't hard to understand where he got that idea. Among the tens of thousands demonstrating outside the climate change summit, some were carrying giant clocks set at 10 minutes to midnight, indicating the imminent end of the world. Elsewhere, others staged a "resuscitation" of planet Earth, symbolically represented by a large collapsing balloon. Near the conference center, an installation of skeletons standing knee-deep in water made a similar point, as did numerous melting ice sculptures and a melodramatic "die-in" staged by protesters wearing white, ghost-like jumpsuits.

Danish police arrested about a thousand people on Saturday for smashing windows and burning cars, and on Sunday arrested 200 more (they were carrying gas masks and seem to have been planning to shut down the city harbor). Nevertheless, in the long run it is those peaceful demonstrators, the ones who say the end is nigh, who have the capacity to do the most psychological damage.

The second group of people have nothing to do with negative messaging.  She goes on and on with examples of nutty environmentalists who just make you feel bad with all of their blaming and hyperbole (the veracity of which she doesn't question).  All of this, however, is a silly distraction.  The law of probability has it that global warming will attract no small number of people who say crazy things (if in fact they're guilty of that).  Can you really blame them, however, when you have well-paid people on the staff of the Post–not sign-carrying nutters in the streets–who deny well-established facts. 

Who is the real nihilist?  The one who says we're doomed if we do nothing?  Or the one who alleges it's all a big communist lie?