Tag Archives: pseudo skepticism

Blinded by expertise

I asked my house guest, a real philosopher and therefore likely some kind of liberal, which major or even minor scientific view, endorsed by a majority of competent scientists working in their specific field of expertise, he doubted.  He said that he couldn't think of one.  Nor really can I.  For in the first place, I don't think my judgement in those matters so acute that it outweigh the work of all of those people working independently across time and space.  Secondly, I wonder why I would be so acute as to notice the faults of one particular view, without at the same time suspecting the every similar scientific activity be subject to the same kinds of failures.  But that's just me, and perhaps my house guest.

Now comes George Will, noted global warming denier.  His scientific acumen is so sharp–on the subject of global warming–that the Post continually allows readers to consider his judgement to stand alone, often without fact checking and usually without rebuttal.  And who says arguments are dialogues.

Today's global-warming-advocates-are-eating-crow provides yet another example of our newly discovered fallacy, argumentum ad imperfectionem–the argument from imperfection.  For more on that, see here.  Briefly again, the argument from imperfection, operates in the following way.  A person finds completely normal relatively minor errors (or inconsistencies, etc.) in a particular view, such as climate change, and alleges that those errors (consistencies, etc.) justify a kind of disproportionate skepticism.  So, for instance, the disagreement among scientists (which is what they do!) on the contours of this or that matter do not open the door to global skepticism. 

First here's Will in the only section of his op-ed that makes reference to evidence:

Global warming skeptics, too, have erred. They have said there has been no statistically significant warming for 10 years. Phil Jones, former director of Britain's Climatic Research Unit, source of the leaked documents, admits it has been 15 years. Small wonder that support for radical remedial action, sacrificing wealth and freedom to combat warming, is melting faster than the Himalayan glaciers that an IPCC report asserted, without serious scientific support, could disappear by 2035.

Jones also says that if during what is called the Medieval Warm Period (circa 800-1300) global temperatures may have been warmer than today's, that would change the debate. Indeed it would. It would complicate the task of indicting contemporary civilization for today's supposedly unprecedented temperatures.

Last week, Todd Stern, America's special envoy for climate change — yes, there is one; and people wonder where to begin cutting government — warned that those interested in "undermining action on climate change" will seize on "whatever tidbit they can find." Tidbits like specious science, and the absence of warming?

If you follow the links, you'll learn that Phil Jones has been grossly misrepresented (that reference to 2035 was a typo, by the way, and not integral to the case for anthropogenic climate change).  Here is Jones (read the entire thing):

G – There is a debate over whether the Medieval Warm Period (MWP) was global or not. If it were to be conclusively shown that it was a global phenomenon, would you accept that this would undermine the premise that mean surface atmospheric temperatures during the latter part of the 20th Century were unprecedented?

There is much debate over whether the Medieval Warm Period was global in extent or not. The MWP is most clearly expressed in parts of North America, the North Atlantic and Europe and parts of Asia. For it to be global in extent the MWP would need to be seen clearly in more records from the tropical regions and the Southern Hemisphere. There are very few palaeoclimatic records for these latter two regions.

Of course, if the MWP was shown to be global in extent and as warm or warmer than today (based on an equivalent coverage over the NH and SH) then obviously the late-20th century warmth would not be unprecedented. On the other hand, if the MWP was global, but was less warm that today, then current warmth would be unprecedented.

We know from the instrumental temperature record that the two hemispheres do not always follow one another. We cannot, therefore, make the assumption that temperatures in the global average will be similar to those in the northern hemisphere.

H – If you agree that there were similar periods of warming since 1850 to the current period, and that the MWP is under debate, what factors convince you that recent warming has been largely man-made?

The fact that we can't explain the warming from the 1950s by solar and volcanic forcing – see my answer to your question D.

I – Would it be reasonable looking at the same scientific evidence to take the view that recent warming is not predominantly manmade?

No – see again my answer to D

Now of course if you read only those portions of the discussion that confirm your pseudo-skepticism, you might take Jones to be dismantling his entire case.  But it ought to be obvious that the disagreements about the data, to Jones and the rest of actual scientists, are well known and do not constitute grounds for doubting the entire thesis, as non-expert skeptics such as WIll maintain.  Perhaps, however, Jones is blinded by his own expertise. 

But of course Jones is fully aware of the disagreements around the edges of the science.  That's what science is for those who don't know.

Methodological individualism

David Brooks has discovered that human behavior is more complicated (and the science more uncertain) than some headlines he vaguely remembers seem to have suggested:

It wasn’t long ago that headlines were blaring about the discovery of an aggression gene, a happiness gene or a depression gene. The implication was obvious: We’re beginning to understand the wellsprings of human behavior, and it won’t be long before we can begin to intervene to enhance or transform human life.  

But, alas.  

Few talk that way now. There seems to be a general feeling, as a Hastings Center working group put it, that “behavioral genetics will never explain as much of human behavior as was once promised.”

"Behavorial genetics" seems kind of scientific.  What conclusion can we draw from the new-found skepticism about the glories of the scientific mind:

Today, we have access to our own genetic recipe. But we seem not to be falling into the arrogant temptation — to try to re-engineer society on the basis of what we think we know. Saying farewell to the sort of horrible social engineering projects that dominated the 20th century is a major example of human progress.

We can strive to eliminate that multivariate thing we call poverty. We can take people out of environments that (somehow) produce bad outcomes and try to immerse them into environments that (somehow) produce better ones. But we’re not close to understanding how A leads to B, and probably never will be.

This age of tremendous scientific achievement has underlined an ancient philosophic truth — that there are severe limits to what we know and can know; that the best political actions are incremental, respectful toward accumulated practice and more attuned to particular circumstances than universal laws.

Wholly crap!  "Aggressive behavior in an individual" might be the subject of behavorial genetics (worthy of all well-informed (not Brooksian) skepticism), "poverty" is not a genetic property but rather a (relative) social and economic one.  One whose causes, by the way, are largely well known: lack of financial resources, etc. 

By linking poverty with behavorial genetics (whatever that might mean exactly), Brooks seems to claim the explanation for poverty lies mainly with the individual poor person.  But Brooks is then too respectful of the deep human mystery to inquire further about it.

So Brooks' pseudo-skepticism masks a very dogmatic adherence to the claim that individuals are largely responsible for their social destiny.  And that's not very skeptical.


*minor edit for "cogency"