There is a continuing debate about global warming and about climate change, despite the cries that ‘the science is settled’. It is, in my view, a most sloppy debate, mostly because of the argumentative style of many of those who involve themselves in it. My own rule is to look at the arguments and see if they are backed up by good evidence. I was taught so as an undergraduate, and it has been the basis of my scholarly work. But there are other styles, most of them fallacious in whole or in part. Indeed, there are scores of them (you can see a long list here). My advice is to recognise them, and never consciously to use them, in discussions about global warming or indeed about anything else. Here are a few. They’re easy to recognise.
Attacking the person and not the argument (ad hominem)
There’s been a lot of that on this website. Why would anyone go to WUWT, or read anything by Jo Nova? To which the counter is Why would anyone go to SkepticalScience? I’ve said myself that I regard SkepticalScience as mostly worthless and hypocritical, and I’ve explained why. But I have certainly gone there to read their arguments. In fact, if you are going to take part in a debate you have to know what the other side thinks, and why it thinks the way it does. Not to go there, and not to read their stuff, is intellectually empty.
Moving the goalposts
There’s been a good deal of this one, too. If you successfully address some point, you are told you must also address some further point. This can go on for some time. It is an argument by distraction. I think the underlying trouble with so many of these false argumentative forms is that the user is trying to win. It is better to take part in order to discover what you yourself think, and why you think that way. You will not convince most people, anyway, whatever you say, but you will be a lot more confident about your own position.
Incidentally, you can sometimes see the goalposts lowered rather than shifted. I take Vitamin C, have done for years and years, and rarely have colds. But if were to catch a cold I might be tempted to say (I hope I wouldn’t do this!) that my cold would have been a lot worse had I not taken Vitamin C. You can see variants of this one frequently.
Changing the subject
Another familiar ploy in the Comments section could also be called the arrival of a red herring, or just misdirection. You say something substantial, and your opponent picks you up on a spelling issue, and by the time you have dealt with that the issue has gone. You use a particular verb, and your opponent asks you to define the meaning of that verb, or asks whether or not you are aware that Marx/Hitler/Mao also used the verb in that way. Avoid those people!
Using numbers without context
You will come across people telling you that five trillion tons of ice have melted, or that 70 per cent of the Great Barrier reef is dead, or the we’ve passed 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide — as though these numbers have significance in themselves. They don’t, of course. What is the context? How much ice is there, anyway? How well have we sampled the Reef? In what sense is coral dead?And so on. The context usually puts the large number in proper perspective.
The Fallacy Of The Crucial Experiment
This one is widespread. You will say something, and your opponent says, ‘Oh, Bloggs debunked that ages ago!’ It is sometimes called ‘the smoking gun’ or ‘the canary in the coal mine’. The media frequently report scientific papers in this fashion, if only because to do so makes a better story. I remember being told by an elder and better, when I was enthusing to everyone about my first paper published in a leading journal, that the test would be if anyone remembered it ten years later. In fact, only one of about a hundred papers I have written was ever given much recognition later on, but at least that one had lots, and was reprinted in two different collections.
Argument From Authority
I’ve dealt with that one in two essays in this set. The supposed fact that 97 per cent of climate scientists think whatever they think, or that leading academies support them, means nothing. Science is not based on authority, but on questioning and testing theories with experiments or observations. A variant is for your opponent to point to your apparent lack of authority — ‘What would you know about it?’
Argument By Repetition (Argument Ad Nauseam)
If people say something often enough, other people will begin to believe it. ‘The science is settled’ is just such a slogan. It isn’t true, and doesn’t stand up to more than a few seconds’ scrutiny, but it has been widely accepted, nonetheless.
Statement Of Conversion:
The speaker tells you that he used to believe in AGW, but he doesn’t now or, conversely, that he used to discount AGW, but not any longer, not since — and then you are likely to get one or other of the bad arguments listed here. The only good basis for such a statement is a straightforward and fact-filled account of the basis of one’s current view with no appeals to authority. Familiar versions of this one are ‘I used to think that too, when I was your age…” People of my generation need to resist that one!
Burden Of Proof
A familiar version of this one is the claim that whatever has not yet been proved false must be true (or vice versa). Essentially the arguer claims that he should win by default if his opponent can’t make a strong enough case. I call this one the Steven Mosher ploy, because Steven says (correctly) that until sceptics come up with rival theory to explain global warming the orthodoxy will continue to win. That doesn’t mean that the orthodoxy is right, for it is easy to point out all sorts of problems with the AGW scare. But in this case the burden of proof is reversed, and placed on the sceptics. It oughtn’t to be there, because the one with the theory is the one who needs to show that it must be right. Maybe some day sceptics will have a rival theory. I wouldn’t hold my breath.
An underlying problem here is the supposed need to know. Some things are not known properly, and in my view AGW is one of them. CO2 is cited as a necessary cause of warming, because the models can only reproduce warming if CO2 increases are factored in. But that implies that we know everything there is to know, which is plainly not the case.
There seem to be an insistent need, also, to be sure, to be confident, so that governments can make the right decisions. In my view the right decision is to do nothing, and deal with other more important problems. We will know more in due course. But I am not part of the orthodoxy.
Here an apparently sensible proposition slides into something much more objectionable, and the best example I know is the so-called precautionary principle. The Wikipedia summarises it like this: if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public, or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus (that the action or policy is not harmful), the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking an action that may or may not be a risk. Sounds reasonable? The problem is that the same caveat ought to be applied to the absence of action, or the proposed cure. Shouldn’t we look hard at the consequences of a carbon tax, which on the face of it will make no difference of any discernible kind to temperature, but will cost everybody more?
There are many more poor argumentative styles, but these I think are the important ones. I hope setting them out like this helps, and that readers recognise when they are about to employ one — and resist!