Examining a Global Warming Denial Letter

First, let us set some terms.

Global warming, and more specifically man-made or anthropogenic global warming, is an actually occurring phenomenon, supported by the peer-reviewed findings of approximately 97% of the world’s climate scientists; scientists who have published greater than 50% of their recent peer-reviewed papers on the subject of climate change.

Global warming denial is a political response to a scientific finding, not a scientific response.

In a recently published Wall Street Journal Op-Ed piece, Robert Bryce of the Manhattan Institute, claimed by his title that there are “Five Truths About Climate Change,” with a subtitle that said, “during the decade that Al Gore dominated the environmental debate, global carbon-dioxide emissions rose by 28.5%.”

Given our previous two definitions, let’s assume that by climate change, Mr. Bryce means man-made global warming.  He recognizes that science indicates CO2 levels have increased dramatically over the last decade (although he didn’t attribute this number to a source, so I can’t verify its accuracy).  He also recognizes that Al Gore dominated (let’s say, escalated) the issue of global warming.  However, it is less clear why Mr. Bryce decided to connect those two items in the same sentence as they are unrelated.

But you, the critical reader, should already have an understanding of the purpose of this opinion piece, based on the title and subtitle. Here is a writer, speaking of the “truths” of global warming, so we should clearly be looking for references to peer-reviewed scientific findings throughout this piece to support his truths.

Let us begin.

Point 1:  Mr. Bryce I believe is implying that it is futile to regulate or incentivize the reduction of CO2 emissions because the global demand for electricity is increasing.

Counter: The “truth” in this statement is that global demand for electricity is increasing.  Now, the “truth” about mitigating climate change is a little less clear.  It would appear that he is using the statement to advocate a policy position, which in this case is to do nothing; an odd position if an increase in global demand is occurring.  His position would be more defensible had he suggested that humanity must regulate or incentivize the reduction of CO2 emissions due to the increasing global demand for electricity.

Point 2: Mr. Bryce says, “of whether it’s getting hotter or colder—or both—we are going to need to produce a lot more energy in order to remain productive and comfortable.”

Counter: First, I believe it is impossible to get both hotter and colder at the same time.  But given now the pattern of these “truths,” we can now be certain that this is not a piece about climatology, rather a piece on Mr. Bryce’s view of energy policy.  So ignoring the both hot and cold logic gaffe, he’s recommending more energy production which is fair enough; increased energy production does not necessarily equate to increased dependence on fossil fuels.

Point 3: Mr. Bryce says that carbon-dioxide emissions are now a global problem.

Counter: I think most informed people around the issue have understood that this was always the case.  Our pesky atmosphere has never wanted to honor our terrestrial national borders.  So he may actually be saying that the green-house effect is a global problem and needs some sort of international accord or framework from which to tackle it.

Point 4: Mr. Bryce says that we must get better at converting fuel in to energy rather than leaking off otherwise valuable wasted energy via technologically deficient plants, processes, and people.

Counter: No argument from me.  Pretty basic second law of thermodynamics so no matter the fuel source, technological gains should strive to reduce entropy.

Point 5: If Mr. Bryce would have stuck with his policy positions in points 1-4 and provided a bit more guidance on his intentions, then he may have come out of this Op-Ed ok.  But alas he did not.  And included as his crescendo, this zinger of a non-sequitur, quoted here:

The science is not settled, not by a long shot. Last month, scientists at CERN, the prestigious high-energy physics lab in Switzerland, reported that neutrinos might—repeat, might—travel faster than the speed of light. If serious scientists can question Einstein’s theory of relativity, then there must be room for debate about the workings and complexities of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Counter: Wow.  This statement makes Mr. Bryce’s Al Gore to carbon emissions non-sequitur in the first paragraph look like a young second cousin twice removed compared to this doozy.   By suggesting that one un-tested, un-proven, un-published result of one experiment in quantum physics which still has months if not years of validation to go in order to stand up on its own, means that we should throw out an entire body of another, separate body of science, is, well, silly.

What Mr. Bryce implies in his point 5, is that scientists stop looking.  Clearly he does not understand the scientific method; otherwise, he would know that scientists are the natural world’s skeptics and their only true currency is credibility. By definition, they never stop asking questions.

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argumentum ad ignorantiam

argumentum ad ignorantiam (i.e., argument to ignorance). This is the argument that says something must be true because it has never been proven false.

On its face, this sounds like it might be a fairly reasonable tactic.  Why is that?  Because it’s really a question of who holds the burden of proof. In the case of argumentum ad ignorantiam, the burden of proof should fall to the person employing the tactic.

For example, one might say that Sasquatch is real, because no one has proven that Sasquatch does not exist.  Of course, given the lack of evidence for Sasquatch, the burden of proof falls on the one making the claim of Sasquatch’s existence, to prove it by evidence.  You can see the appeal of this argument when claiming the existence of the supernatural, because clearly it can’t be proven; therefore the burden of proof is fallaciously shifted to the skeptic by suggesting that the phenomenon has never been proven not to exist; therefore it must.

argumentum ad verecundiam

argumentum ad verecundiam (i.e., argument to authority / appeal to an expert). This is the argument that cites someone of authority who is in support of a position; and becomes a fallacious argument when that authority figure has no expertise in the subject under question.

For example, this is the old “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV, so I recommend you treat your hemorrhoids with product xyz, just like me!” Ok, so that is a fairly lighthearted example, but in practical use, the appeal to authority requires the listener to hold the claimant accountability.  In other words, one needs to recognize the employment of the argumentum ad verecundiam and push for the qualifications of the expert being cited.

We see this tactic being used quite frequently in anthropogenic global warming debates. Rarely are actual climate scientists cited by those who deny global warming; rather scientists whose areas of expertise lie outside of climatology are cited. Even worse, authors such as Michael Crichton, due to his fictional novel the “State of Fear”, may be cited as evidence of a global warming hoax.

The Farce of “Islamizing” Public Schools

The Marietta Daily Journal, a local newspaper based in Cobb County, Georgia, ran a story in September about a public school parent’s complaints regarding the “promotion” of Islam in his child’s middle school social studies class.

Apparently during the session on geography of the Middle East, material was presented to represent how a fictional Muslim woman might communicate to someone in America and as such, show her preference for sharia law, the only law she knows, over constitutional law.

Unfortunately, the parent in question seemed to somehow conclude that the lesson was meant to promote Islam; rather than seeing it as an opportunity to discuss why a young woman in an Islamic country might view Western democracy as a threat to her culture – and might ultimately lead to a discussion on the genesis of Islamic extremism, the problems of a society whose people live without protection of individual freedom, and the dangers of theocracy.  When the complaint reached Area Superintendent Dale Gaddis, rather than push back in the name of academic freedom, he folded and suggested that they (the school system) worked with that particular teacher to understand how the material should be used.

Given that backdrop, Marietta Daily Journal columnist Laura Armstrong ran a follow up opinion piece actually titled, “Parents Must Band Together and Say No to the ‘Islamizing’ of Public Schools.”

In this piece, not only does she reach the same erroneous conclusion that the aforementioned parent reached, but she goes on to suggest with a straight face that this was just one of many instances of “creeping shariah, stealth jihad and encroachment of Islamic tenets into America’s public schools.”  She cites as evidence, the work of seemingly paranoid blogger, Pamela Geller.  A quick skim of Ms. Geller’s alarmist website to even the most casual observer, should fairly quickly indicate her affinity for fringe thinking, and by extension, Ms. Armstrong’s as well.

To suggest that a lesson on the Middle East could avoid an examination of Islam is quite frankly ludicrous.  Equally ludicrous is to suggest that an examination of Islam is equivalent to proselytizing the religion.  One only need to look at the relevant Georgia Performance Standards to see the intention:

SS7G8 The student will describe the diverse cultures of the people who live in Southwest Asia (Middle East).
a. Explain the differences between an ethnic group and a religious group.
b. Explain the diversity of religions within the Arabs, Persians, and Kurds.
c. Compare and contrast the prominent religions in Southwest Asia (Middle East): Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.
d. Explain the reason for the division between Sunni and Shia Muslims.
e. Evaluate how the literacy rate affects the standard of living.

Sadly, a review of the comments on Ms. Armstrong’s piece reveals that a majority of those who took the time to post, agree with Ms. Armstrong and have little regard for a proper examination of the Middle East.

argumentum ad hominem

argumentum ad hominem (i.e., argument to the person).  This is the argument that attacks the person or some characteristic of the person making the argument, rather than the argument itself.

For example, someone saying, “your pro vaccination views are obviously biased because you work for the CDC,” is an ad hominem implying the person making the pro vaccination claim is impartial.

Rather, the evidence that actually informed the person’s views on vaccination may have been gained entirely by their trust in their child’s pediatrician as well as public health success stories such as the eradication of Polio; irrespective of that persons employer.

argumentum ad antiquatatem

argumentum ad antiquatatem (i.e., argument to antiquity / appeal to tradition).  This is the argument that essentially says, “x is right because x has always been done that way.”

For example, a plantation owner in 1859 Georgia may have said, “slavery has been a part of our heritage for decades, we need it to keep our way of life alive.”  While there may be some truth in the second half of the sentence, clearly the owner is ignoring the human suffering caused by enslavement of one man over another which should necessitate a dramatic change in that “way of life.”

Another more timely example may be heard in the debate over the recent repeal of don’t ask don’t tell.  For example, a proponent of the policy may suggest that, “the policy worked for years; therefore we have no business changing it.”  However, the data suggests that sexual orientation has no measurable impact on military effectiveness; which renders the policy superfluous and creates an unnecessary environment of fear among gay and lesbian service members.

Intelligence vs. Intellectualism

I was discussing my fear of a rising spirit of anti-intellectualism in America with a friend and the conversation sort of indirectly turned to what it means to be an intellectual in the first place.

The specific point he was making was that one can be both a religious fundamentalist and intelligent at the same time.  We were writing so I didn’t get the chance to save him from his unnecessary proof.  In other words, I agree with him to a certain extent.  Nevertheless, he went on to describe a business colleague who is a first rate software developer, a college graduate, a world traveler, a speaker of multiple languages, etc., who given his obvious intelligence, still insists that the Earth is approximately 6000 years old.

My response of course was that I don’t believe intelligence and intellectualism are necessarily synonymous and that there are many obviously smart people, such as our well traveled software developer, who will still wall off knowledge that is uncomfortable.

So being an excellent practitioner of a skill that requires a certain level of mental nimbleness, does not make one a student of ideas derived from knowledge and reason, which is essentially my definition of an intellectual.

I wondered as a follow up if this fellow graduated from an evangelical university, which would explain his absence of knowledge on fundamental biology, anthropology, paleontology, and geology.

Stay tuned for hopefully there is more to the story.

Theory (in conversational English)

We’ve discussed what scientists mean when they speak of a theory.  By knowing the proper definition of a scientific theory, we can now easily see that using the dismissive phrase, “x isn’t true because it’s just a theory” as an argument against “x” doesn’t make sense anymore.

The mistake gets made because theory in common conversational English means nothing more than an assumption or an idea.  Not only that, often it denotes something that doesn’t work in practice!  For example, someone in an office environment might say that, “If I run the numbers this way, in theory we should always get this result, but that’s rarely what happens.”

So now we are suggesting that theory doesn’t represent reality; which is almost the opposite of theory in science!

Theory (in science)

In debates about science, particularly about evolution, one often hears the phrase, “it’s just a theory.”  This is an example of argumentum ad nauseum in that it is meant to dismiss the science of evolution by using the often repeated phrase.

So where did the “just a theory” phrase come from?  Essentially it’s a substitution of the scientific use of the term “theory” with the daily use of the term “theory.”

A theory in science is an accepted principal used to explain phenomena.

Here’s what the US National Academy of Sciences has to say on the matter:

The formal scientific definition of theory is quite different from the everyday meaning of the word. It refers to a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence. Many scientific theories are so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter them substantially. For example, no new evidence will demonstrate that the Earth does not orbit around the sun (heliocentric theory), or that living things are not made of cells (cell theory), that matter is not composed of atoms, or that the surface of the Earth is not divided into solid plates that have moved over geological timescales (the theory of plate tectonics). One of the most useful properties of scientific theories is that they can be used to make predictions about natural events or phenomena that have not yet been observed.

The Scientific Method

What makes science so, well, awesome?  In a nutshell, it’s the method by which scientists make sense of the world and ultimately add to the body of human knowledge.

It’s the method that allows other scientists to critique, challenge, replicate, poke holes, etc. in anything new.

Ladies and gentlemen, we present, the one, the only, scientific method!

Step 1: Make an observation (i.e., grass grows outside)

Step 2: Ask a Question (i.e., I wonder if grass needs sunlight in order to grow)

Step 3: Do Background Research (i.e., Let me learn a bit about what other scientists say about photosynthesis)

Step 4: Construct a Hypothesis (i.e., Only light from the sun can make grass grow)

Step 5: Test Your Hypothesis by Doing an Experiment that is Repeatable (i.e., I’ll grow two pots of grass: one outside in sunlight, and one inside under artificial light)

Step 6: Analyze Your Data and Draw a Conclusion (i.e., hmmm, turns out grass grew in both instances – therefore I reject my hypothesis)

Step 7: Communicate Your Results (i.e., Dear world, grass does not need sunlight in order to grow)

There it is.  The scientific method.  That’s certainly a ridiculously simple example – but the point is, that’s how scientists do it regardless of what country they’re from or what language they speak.

To make the whole thing work, the results must be shared and the experiment (Step 5) must be repeatable.  If neither of those conditions are met, then you can feel free to dismiss the results with a big skeptical resounding boot to the keister!