The internet is at its best when it offers a forum for the robust interchange of ideas and information.
But it is at its best-est when it offers a platform for bludgeoning one’s ideological opponents with infographics and flowcharts.
Enter Slate’s entry into the arsenal of bad argumentation, How to Win a Climate Change Argument. (The headline used for link-bait is even more chuckle-inducing, but I decided to use the flowchart title in order to give it the benefit of the doubt.)
I unwittingly came across this while accidentally using my wife’s Facebook account because of an After Effects render that was taxing nearly all of my system’s resources. She is Facebook friends with a lot of classmates from her days at KU, and I must admit that one of the reasons I use Facebook is that there are lots of people who link to really stupid things as if those really stupid things have something meaningful to say. Anyway, given that she has a wider swath of friends than I, her News Feed is often a veritable repository of fisk-able material.
As someone who makes his living from the visual arts, I am well aware that a graphical presentation of any sort of idea or argument is necessarily limited in scope due to the nature of the medium. This limitation, however, does not entail that the presentation of the idea nor the argument for it need be poorly done or thought out.
At any rate, a brief perusal of the flowchart immediately led me to have suspicions, and further inspections revealed this to be a feature, rather than a bug. While I am not inclined to argue the merits of the scientific information (or what is presented as the scientific information) in this piece, the logic of the argument leaves enough to be desired to merit a thorough fisk-ing.
Ask Your Question, Bridge Keeper, I’m Not Afraid
The initial question is enough to invalidate the entire flowchart, for several reasons.
First, the term ‘climate’ has no real significance as a physical phenomenon, but is actually the way in which certain physical phenomena are evaluated statistically. If the metrics of what counts towards the definition of ‘climate’ within any statistical model are changed, added, modified, subtracted, etc., one would thus have some measure of climate ‘change.’ Temperature, to take one metric, is a description of the experience of weather, not necessarily of climate. The term ‘climate’ can thus only be applied statistically to a series of observations about weather.
At that point, of course, the sample of experiences and measurements of weather becomes extremely important, in that it hardly is obvious that the observation of weather within a certain time frame is meaningfully indicative of anything beyond the phenomena of the weather under observation.
Second, if we take ‘climate change’ in the looser sense of ‘changing weather patterns over a period of time,’ then it would seem to be a pointless question that is really only meant to be an ideological cudgel. After all, knowing as we do that the ‘climate’ has been different at different points of time and in different places even within recorded human history, there would seem to be no one who doesn’t believe in climate change in this looser sense, which is actually the only way in which the opening question can be meaningfully understood.
Given the argument points that the flowchart makes as it moves along, it becomes clear that the rather innocuous term ‘climate change’ is actually assumed to mean climate change that is primarily caused by human activity, and more specifically by certain human activities; that is, CO2 production.
As we move into the first question, we are given only two possible answers: Yes or Hell no! The author seems to be suffering from an astonishing lack of imagination, for one can immediately imagine several possible alternatives:
- Yes: Climate is a statistical interpretation of certain observations of weather, and we have evidence of relative changes through history in the metrics which comprise certain statistical sets
- Yes: Changes in certain physical weather phenomenon, either short-term or long-term, are a natural part of the earth’s weather system, which is itself of course a theoretical taxonomy we have developed to describe certain phenomena over-against others
- No: While changes in certain weather phenomena occur, it is questionable as to whether the assumptions underpinning the question have any veracity
- No: The ‘climate’ (in its loose sense) is changing, and humans obviously have some impact on the earth, but it is not clear the extent of that impact over-against or in contribution to other factors, either unknown or hitherto undiscovered
As is easy to see, I was able to effortlessly come up with four alternate answers. Naturally that would make for a rather lengthy flow-chart, but the point is more that these types of productions are intelligence-insulting in that they condense the complexity of an argument- which may or may not be good- into a really terrible and fallacious argument.
Given the fallacies already evidenced, one is not left with much confidence in what is to follow. In the interests of a more amusing fisk, however, I will bravely soldier on.
For the Hell no! line of reasoning, we are then presented with two options:
- I don’t trust politicians
- I don’t believe the science
What is interesting about #1 is that the author of this flowchart decides to expand it, demonstrating that he wants nothing to do with any form of intellectual seriousness:
Al Gore is a goose-stepping Trotskyite engaged in a leftist conspiracy!
While I have no doubt that there are those who would be inclined to utilize some form of the argument, and as sympathetic as I am to the seemingly uncontroversial notion of not trusting politicians, it is somewhat amusing that this is presented as one of the two options for the no position. Remember, of course, that this is billed as How to Win a Climate Change Argument, not How To Win a Climate Change Argument Against Someone In a Tin-Foil Hat.
The second Hell no! position is intriguing, as the author assumes that science is some magically self-evident body of truth that can only be dis-believed at one’s peril. This is probably the height of naiveté, for it presumes that if something has the label of ‘science’ it therefore is a definitive explanation of any physical phenomenon.
This is actually another logical fallacy, in that it assumes that any theory, explanation, etc., which comports to some extent with observation or experience is thus identical with the reality it is describing, when in fact it may only coincide with that reality in appearance. For example, although Copernican cosmological models initially had better predictive value and were more adept at saving the appearances of the cosmological phenomena, Tycho Brahe’s newer, more accurate data led to his geocentric model having more fidelity to the observational data and thus better predictive utility. Galileo was inclined to argue for the actuality of the Copernican model over against geocentric models, forgetting the very important and fundamental point of logic that simply because a model is practical does not make it actual. While he was right (to the extent that we can determine such things, having no absolute position from which to observe) that the earth goes around the sun, his Copernican model was wrong in lots of other ways, just as Brahe’s was inaccurate even though it comported better with the observable data.
All that is to say that using the terminology of ‘belief’ in regards to scientific data is misguided from the start. Further, one could actually wholly agree with the data as it is and interpret it in one way over against another. There may be merits to interpreting it in one way over-against another, but that has little to do with whether one believes it or not. If belief is going to be employed as a term at all, it is far better to phrase it as whether one believes that a certain model, theory or explanation has more fidelity to observational data than another.
We now move on to the arguments by the imagined interlocutor against the notion that human-produced CO2 is the primary driver of global warming, or more loosely stated, climate change.
Sure, I believe it is. But the world is always warming and cooling. It’s natural.
As far as the flowchart goes, this is actually under the Yes position line of argument. The intriguing thing though is that the author wholeheartedly agrees with this argument as well, even more boldly stating the premise: Hello ice age.
He then decides to abandon all critical thinking, for in one sentence he admits drastic temperature changes in earth’s history, but then singles out a particular century for scrutiny. The amusing bit here is that a rise of 1.5 F is cause for concern and evidence of the real culprits, but the drastic shifts in other times (Hello ice age) are natural. One might wonder why a rather gradual shift in global temperature over a century is deemed bad and caused by one particular thing, but plunges into ice ages that are ‘drastic’ (his words) are agreed upon by everybody to be something that just happens.
One might also question why temperature is singled out as a determining metric, or further query the utility of comparing temperatures that we might have a reasonable idea of over a relatively short period of time against temperatures we do not know over a relatively much longer period of time.
However, even if the temperatures (read: our ability to measure them) are completely accurate over the past century, one still has not demonstrated that a temperature that is ‘the hottest on record’ is of any meaning whatsoever in regards to ‘climate change,’ since the only sample we have is the one from the period we have measured. It could be that the record temperatures are low compared to the past, it could be that they are high.
The rest of the counter-argument is pointless, as predictions of what could occur given a certain set of circumstances have no meaning in regards to either the observational data or our ability to accurately interpret them. The number of people signing on to an assessment is equally meaningless, since predictions of what might occur given x are not evidence for x.
The rejoinder to this is that it’s the volcanoes or the sun. The counter-argument is then more question-begging:
Humans: it’s us.
The author apparently feels that reasserting an argument is in itself an argument. Without going into any of the arguments for or against the role of volcanoes or the sun in ‘climate change,’ there are two notable fallacies at play here.
First, the author assumes that the actual temperature of the sun is the only reason there might be some interplay between the sun and ‘climate change,’ or the only reason that someone might make such an argument. There could be others which would render the counter-example meaningless. The same is true in that the author assumes that volcanoes spewing CO2 is the only possible reason they might have an effect.
Secondly, the author asserts that there is a consensus as to humans being the driving force, the question-begging notion of our burning fossil fuels being the dominant cause. Actually, humans could logically be the driving force for other reasons, but the author seems stuck on the CO2 thing, so we’ll let him run with it. Amusingly he states that fossil fuels and the burning thereof contributed to unprecedented levels of CO2 in the 20th century.
Unprecedented, you say? The argument is thus this:
Even though we have no way of knowing with any real accuracy what the CO2 levels have been in the past, we know that they are unprecedented in the 20th century, and that burning fossil fuels is the unquestioned cause of such unprecedented levels.
Circle, meet argument.
We are then mercifully treated to this final delightful nugget, which reminds us that the author is not without a sense of humor:
Ten of the warmest years have occurred since 1995, and seven of the eight warmest on record have occurred since 2001.
What!!!! Really? Within a set of the warmest years an arbitrary number of the the warmest years occurred? I’m shocked!
If the Hell no!, tin-foil hat line of argument was followed, we come to the first argument:
Scientists fudge data. There’s no consensus. Remember that email scandal?
There are a number of unrelated statements here, but the author once again rebuts an argument with an assertion: Scientists agree. We are then informed that ‘big reports’ found no evidence of wrong-doing.
The use of terminology here is interesting, since ‘wrongdoing’ implies some sort of moral breach. It is not clear that fudging data would necessarily be a case of ‘wrongdoing,’ and thus this rebuttal seems a bit meaningless. Additionally, scientists, like any other humans, are prone to their own biases, blind spots and such, and thus what might be considered ‘fudging’ by someone might be considered entirely legitimate by another. One could also fudge data without intentionally doing so or without being aware it was happening. None of these would fall under the category of ‘wrongdoing,’ and thus a study discovering no wrongdoing tells us very little about any of the situations in question.
The bigger question is the over 97% consensus that climate change is driven by humans. Respecting yet again the limitations of a flowchart, phrasing it in such a way gives the impression that all the of the assertions made throughout the flowchart are thus signed onto en toto by the scientists in the mystery 97%. However, there could very well be nuances in that understanding which might broadly serve this figure while at the same time contradicting it.
For example, that humans ‘drive’ climate change could mean anything from ‘are primarily responsible’ to ‘have some measurable impact.’ And even within the ‘primarily responsible’ category there are yet again more options, ranging from burning fossil fuels (which is what the flowchart is implying) to land use and anything in between.
Further, ‘scientists’ do not all have the same competencies or expertise. Such a figure tells one nothing about the competencies of the scientists in question, nor are we even told the number of scientists from which this 97% is drawn. The flowchart attempts to compress widely divergent views on a still not-well understood phenomena into a consensus about a particular understanding of that. However, as we have seen earlier, consensus about a particular model which may or may not have particular utility in regards to observational data and the interpretation thereof does not therefore guarantee that the model has any significant fealty to the reality it attempts to describe.
That IPCC reports assert a very high confidence that ‘unequivocal’ warming is caused by humans is probably the most yawn-worthy assertion. Humans obviously have some effect on the surrounding environment, and anyone driving from Tucson to Phoenix can affirm the unequivocal effect that cities have on the surrounding temperature. In that sense some warming is unequivocal, but that does not therefore mean that unequivocal can be legitimately expanded to include whatever causes (CO2, in this case) one might want to predicate of human activity.
It is also worth noting that having a ‘very high confidence’ does not equate to having ‘any veracity in regards to reality.’ Climate models can only be as good as the data they are provided and the parameters in which they are programmed to model. Unless there is a way to independently verify the relationship prescribed in the models (which would require more accurate data from the past or longer period of time for observation, among other things), we could have high confidence that the model is internally consistent, but less that it is an accurate representation of reality.
One of the other (and for my purposes final) arguments to be rebutted by the flowchart is that:
Co2 is harmless, and good for us and plants!
The exclamation point is of course a nice touch, but one might wonder if this argument is one that, in the hands of the author of this flowchart, doth protest too much. There is little in the world that is an unmitigated good, as too much of anything is usually deleterious. And it is certainly not the case that in all situations CO2 good for us; after all, if you are in an airtight room it quickly becomes bad for you, not necessarily because of what it is but rather because you can’t breathe it.
But in the sense that plants use it and produce oxygen it is definitely a good thing, for without it life on our planet could not exist as it is. The author’s rebuttal of this is as such:
Negative outweighs positive.
This is hardly self-evident in regards to anything, let alone CO2. But as we get more into the argument, it gets even more implausible. While we certainly could not expect plants to absorb an infinite amount of CO2, the question is exactly how much they could absorb, and then further whether or not we have any idea what that is. Even though the author fallaciously assumes there are currently unprecedented levels of CO2, it could be the case that in the past they were higher. And as we have no means of accurately ascertaining the extent of foliage on the planet relative to the amount of CO2 in the past, we currently have no way of knowing what sort of levels are high, low, near saturation, etc. As such, this speculative rebuttal is rather specious and meaningless.
He then states that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, and then conveniently skips to the notion that too much warming has severe impacts on the planet. Two problems with this argument:
First, that CO2 functions as a greenhouse gas does not therefore make a straight line between the amount of CO2 and the amount of warming. There may be a correlation, but that does not necessarily indicate that CO2 is a dominant cause. There could be other factors that contribute (more, less, the same) to the same phenomenon.
Secondly, the notion that we have any way of determining what constitutes too much warming is fallacious, as it assumes:
- There is an optimal temperature for the earth
- We have any way of knowing what that is
Since both assumptions are unwarranted, the claim that this state of affairs of which we have no knowledge is responsible for x is simply speculation without any evidential basis. That the US Army employs these fallacious assumptions in making threat assessments is interesting from a certain perspective, but does not lend any evidential weight to the argument. The notion that given conditions x, y might result is potentially a self-consistent argument, but not an argument that has any necessary relation to reality.
The End Is Coming Sooner Than Expected
As we reach the end, the author feels that the numerous fallacies employed throughout will lead to one question: So what do we do then? His answer:
Well, that’s another flowchart.
Given the absurdity of the argument here, let’s hope that’s all.