When I came across the Christoff post in The Conversation, which I referred to yesterday, I was struck once again by the poor quality of the arguments in the comments section. What I found were nearly 200 comments of which only a few could be described as  productive and useful. Most posters  were passionate adherents of the AGW scare, and their general tactic was to reject outright anything offered that was not consistent with their beliefs.

Further, a few of them seemed to spend their lives on the computer, waiting for another opportunity to reject. At a rough count, 35 people took part in the discussion, 26 from the orthodox side and nine dissidents. One or two were hard to place. I’ll come back to the discussion in a moment.

I wondered how many of those who took part had any real sense of how to argue about something, and I offer the following diagram, which is a visual version of Paul Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement. Graham is a programmer, venture capitalist and essayist, and I


think his little schema is an excellent way to look at the forms of argument we find both on the Internet and in general conversation, letters to the editor, and the like. There are other ways of setting out the many faults in argument (the argument from ignorance, the argument from authority, the argumentum ad hominem, and so on), but I like this one.

I accept that without having read Christoff’s book it is unfair to speak against it, but then Christoff has written about it at least twice, so I think I know what he is on about. If I’m wrong someone is sure to tell me. He is not, so far as I can make out, a climate scientist, but a policy person, as I am. Again, as far as I can see, he takes for granted the rather more extreme version of the orthodoxy of global warming, and then asks what will happen to Australia if this turns out to be the case, and what should we do about it now.

My response is ‘counter-argument’: wouldn’t it be sensible first to see how likely it is that there will be a 4 degree C rise in temperature? Because the evidence doesn’t seem to support it. I gave the evidence yesterday and in earlier posts. If the likelihood is small or even tiny, why should we worry about it — and why should we do something now to avoid it? I said the same about the Garnaut Report, and would have done about the Stern Report earlier had I been interested in the issue then. All three take for granted a scientific position which, on the evidence, is shaky at best, and full of ‘ifs’.

Perhaps Dr Christoff would have a response to my counter-argument, though none is evident in what he has written. Counter-argument was the approach of one or two sceptics who entered into the debate on The Conversation. Their approach did not engage the defenders. What any reader observed were responses like these:

[It is]Time to acknowledge th[at] climate sceptics belong to the same cluster of creationists, anti-vaccination activists and the like. We give no credence to the those fringe believe[r]s, nor should we [to] the deniers…

Please stop spreading lies…

 … you should be apologising to your grandchildren.

The REAL science is summarised well at http://www.skepticalscience.com/

The last one is an example of ‘contradiction, while the first three sit at the bottom of  Graham’s pyramid. I’m sad to say that a couple of the sceptics went down these lamentable paths themselves:

[Dr Roy Spencer is]more qualified to speak on these matters than at least 99% of the alarmist zealots you warmies like to quote…

You warmers are the real deniers.

I gave up on The Conversation when I realised that all you would get in discussion there was abuse, and that the political culture of the organisation was supportive of the need to ‘combat climate change’. Indeed, it doesn’t matter much where you go — it is difficult to find a place where you can engage in a question-and-answer dialogue with people who hold quite different views.

And I think the reason is that these days we all see ourselves as experts in something, and confident of our own knowledge. My position is always to try to find the evidence. If I have to judge something or someone, I need to find out everything I can, not just assume that the first story I heard is the real one. (You only have to get into trouble once, when acting as a judge, to discover that great truth.)

It’s a hard ask, arguing politely and reasonably, listening to the other person’s point of view, and weighing your own. That is why I think of myself as an agnostic in this business, rather than as a sceptic. I hope I am generally sceptical, and in the case of global warming, I can concede that adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere ought, other things being equal, lead to an increase in temperature.

But other things are not necessarily equal, and warming seems to be good for the biosphere, rather than bad. I await compelling evidence that a dire future awaits us, and in the meantime I do my best to operate in the top three sections of Graham’s pyramid.



Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • PeterE says:

    I like this. I liked those university examination questions which ended ‘give reasons for your answer.’ Unfortunately, there are not a few ‘intellectuals’ who will stoop to all sorts of tricks to enforce their views, such as ‘laughing off’ the other point of view, or ‘raising an eyebrow’, or ‘the knowledgeable chuckle’ indicating a forgiving indulgence of the stupidity of the opponent. If these fail they can be followed by ‘incandescent rage,’ which is quite powerful. In some societies you can have a ‘night of the long knives’ in which the opposition is simply liquidated (check out what is happening in North Korea right now). A glance at history will reveal many episodes of human herd behaviour, especially in times of revolution when the fancy of the moment results in appalling behaviour. When I consider ‘AGW’ I see many parallels with this behaviour and lemming-like rushing to the edge of the cliff. During the Vietnam War I argued until I was blue in the face that the war was justified. Later I realised that this was a waste of breathe. Nothing would make my opponents change their view. I think that all you can do is to continue to state the facts in a polite, unflustered manner, give reasons for your answer and, of course, be prepared to change your view if someone can demonstrate where you may be wrong.

  • Peter Lang says:


    Thank you. Interesting. I like Paul Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement and your discussion of it. I agree with you about The Conversation

    I’d like to comment on your points about the point at the end of your post on the climate change debate :

    in the case of global warming, I can concede that adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere ought, other things being equal, lead to an increase in temperature.

    But other things are not necessarily equal

    I agree. There are other drivers of climate change than CO2. It’s acknowledged we don’t know all the other drivers. We don’t know much about the natural variations and cycles. But that’s not the issue with the effects of anthropogenic CO2 because our emissions are not influencing the natural variations. We are influencing the GHG forcing. The best information is that equilibrium climate sensitivity (2xCO2) is somewhere around 2 to 3 C. That means a doubling of CO2 will lead to roughly an increase of 2 to 3 C on top of whatever the natural variability does. Projections suggest we are likely to double or more than double CO2 concentration by 2100 if the projected trends in population growth, GDP/capita and CO2/GDP are correct.

    So AGW may be good, it may be bad, it may prolong the time or shorten the time to the next sudden climate change. That is what the real issues is, in my opinion.

    But even more important is: what are the impacts of warming? We know cold is very bad. But I don’t see persuasive evidence to say warming is bad.

    I think we should focus our efforts on improving our understanding of the impacts and the economic consequences of bad policies.

  • Mike O'Ceirin says:

    I was going to reply to your previous post but it was difficult to quickly
    find the supporting evidence to what I was going to say. I thought you were being
    courageous in writing what you did but could not quite see the logic of it. As
    you know it was swamped by those who are more interested in making any exchange
    unpleasant. They wish to squash any opposition and this helps minimise the

    If I say Christ only exists in minds of Christians and as such is not an historical
    person mostly there will not be reasonable discussion. There are rational
    reasons for to hold the view but you do not get far because that is threat to their
    belief system. You get the bottom four of your triangle. Changing to those of
    Green persuasion it is mostly the bottom two.

    What puzzles me is this truly all they have or some sort technique shut
    communication down. Is it an effective way to progress their cause? I certainly
    have my doubts but you see so much of it.

    BTW I greatly appreciate the triangle.

  • Michael Cunningham says:

    Don, your post was flagged at Climate Etc, in a related
    discussion which covered tolerance. Here’s
    my CE post:

    Tolerance implies the capacity to accept that the views and
    beliefs of others may differ from one’s own view of the world, and that your
    wisdom might not be absolute. But that
    does not mean suspending discernment: the other’s view might be inimical,
    without foundation and harmful to society, and should be opposed rather than
    tolerated. This distinction seems too
    often to be misunderstood or ignored.

    In terms of this thread, the question is how to engage
    constructively with those with different views, given the impact of different
    views on policy in the alleged CAGW field.
    If your opponent/person of a different view won’t engage (“The science
    is settled!”), then it’s very difficult to engage them: instead, one must
    engage with third parties if you seek to influence opinion and policy; e.g.
    with media input, blog posts and discussion.
    If there is scope for engagement, you need to proceed with openness,
    honesty, integrity and humility, to appreciate that the other person’s view may
    be sincere even if you think it misguided.
    (Although in the CAGW case, I don’t think that is always the case, the
    issue is clearly used by many activists as a cloak or vehicle for pursuing
    political and economic agendas which would not win support if plainly
    stated.) And, of course, be across the

    I fear, however, that there are too many entrenched
    positions, that many people have too much invested in what they have proclaimed for a long time [IMHO, mainly on the warmist side] for sensible discussion to take place: efforts need to be directed to those who might be amenable to argument, and to the broader population if you feel, as I do, that the pursuit of so-called solutions to the alleged CAGW problem has been harmful and promises to cause much more harm, and that policies more amenable to human well-being should be adopted.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Thanks, Michael. I was reading it as your post came up! And the traffic on my site went up nicely in consequence. I thought that many of the comments were sensible, too, and I have in mind to write my own essay on the topic.


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