The perpetuation of bad arguments

I thought I’d take a bit of a break for a change of pace. At the risk of falling flat on my face, I’m going to wander far afield from the usual medical and biological topics of this blog into an area that I rarely say much about. The reason is an incident that happened nearly two weeks ago when I was in Chicago. Lately, I’ve been becoming increasingly interested in how bad scientific arguments make it into the collective consciousness and stay there. While it’s true that there are such things as astroturf campaigns and paid flaks whose job it is to get such messages in the medium and keep them there, but it’s more than just that. I shudder to use the dreaded M-word here, but it’s probably appropriate. What happened two weeks ago showed how these sorts of memes can propagate in even the least expected places.

I had looked forward to see my sister and cousin during my brief sojourn in Chicago. It turns out that on my free night, they had plans to see a friend of my sister’s named Tim Slagle who has been a stand-up comic for a long time and who just so happened to be slated to perform at a local comedy club that night. It wasn’t my first choice of activities for the evening, but I figured, why not? It’s not as though I had a better idea. Besides, my sister, her husband, and two of my cousins would be there, one of whom I hadn’t seen in quite a long time. Although I had met Tim before, I had never seen his act before and, quite frankly, didn’t know what to expect, other than that I had been told that he had fairly prominent Libertarian views (which I had vaguely remembered butting heads with in the distant past), to the point that David Touretzky’s famous quote about big-L Libertarians came to my mind.

The act started amusingly enough, and with the help of a couple of beers I was generally having a good time–until a point in the middle part of the show, where Slagle started ranting about Al Gore and global warming.

Before I go on, let me preempt an expected criticism right now by pointing out that I do not expect scientific analysis in a standup comedy routine at the late night Friday night show at Zanies. Even I’m not that unrealistic when it comes to skepticism and critical thinking. In fact, I don’t expect scientific analysis at all, because when comics take on science, more often than not it results in the comic embarrassing himself, particularly if it’s done in the context of a comic political screed, and this show was no exception. I do, however, expect some humor, and when a political rant is combined with logical fallacies and no substantive criticism I find that it annoys the hell out of me.

But, then, maybe that’s just me. I shudder to think how annoyed I would have been had I not been fairly well-lubricated with around three beers by that point.

In addition, my pique wasn’t really because I like Al Gore so much. I don’t, and have even mocked him myself for at least one rather dubious analogy. In any case, whatever entertainment and momentum the show had been building seemed to come to a screeching halt when the rant about Al Gore and global warming began, at which point the audience noticeably quieted. In retrospect, I wonder if his logical fallacies and bad arguments would have annoyed me so much if that part of the routine had actually been funnier, but that’s another issue. Basically, his comic “arguments” boiled down to these elements. I decided to discuss them one at a time because the provide a succinct case study in bad reasoning and how right wing talking points show up in the most unexpected venues. Moreover, Tim clearly truly believes them, because he repeated some of them to me at a nearby bar after the show. The fascinating thing about these bad arguments is that, even if human-caused global warming were actually invalid science, they would still be bad arguments:

1. Ad hominem attacks on Al Gore.

These consisted of the usual attacks: Al Gore is a fanatic; Al Gore is fat; Al Gore is an alarmist; Al Gore is a hypocrite, etc.

Now don’t get me wrong. Al Gore is a ripe target for comedic routines, and I like a good shot at Al Gore as much as the next guy. His manner of speaking is almost as easily parodied as Ronald Reagan’s, Bill Clinton’s, or Jimmy Carter’s. However, all of these attacks are non sequiturs. Whether Al Gore is a fanatic or not has nothing to do with the scientific validity of the science behind global warming or what science suggests that we should do about it, if anything. Nada. Zip. Or, more properly stated, the scientific validity of global warming science does not depend on Al Gore. He has merely taken it on as his personal cause; he’s a P.R. man for it. Should we judge the validity of other scientific claims by the personality of publicists rather than the actual science? I say no (although I fear that in this case we do). Of course, Al Gore does represent an easy target to attack, and it’s easier to lampoon a person than it is to address the science. Moreover, because Al Gore is the most public crusader on the issue, if he can be discredited, then perhaps public support for political action to decrease CO2 emissions would not increase.

Of course, what worries global warming denialists is that, whatever his other faults, Al Gore usually gets the science mostly right.

2. Global warming can’t be true because it’s invoked to explain droughts in some parts of the world, storms in other parts of the world, hotter temperatures here, and cooler temperatures there. ( I seem to recall the line being something along the line of “global warming can cause anything.”)

This line of attack relies, of course, on a misunderstanding of global warming. The climate is complex. It is simplistic in the extreme to think that alterations in the climate would have uniform effects around the planet, which seems to be the fallacy underlying this particular misconception. It does, however, play into a comedy routine of “look at those silly scientists, they blame everything on {insert here: global warming, fatty foods, smoking, or pick your bête noire},” a favorite staple of comics for decades. A variant on this is the old routine going, “Scientists said that X causes cancer; then they say that X doesn’t cause cancer. Now they say X does cause cancer. Can’t they make up their minds?”

3. Scientists’ envy. Basically, this was a little rant about how climate scientists were geeks in school who couldn’t get laid who later grew up to be scientists, still can’t get laid, and don’t make enough money to afford those big, gas-guzzling SUVs and McMansions Libertarians are so enamored of. Because scientists are envious of the good life that they can’t have, they don’t want anyone else to have it either.

This is, of course, another form of ad hominem attack, whereby the geekiness and supposed enviousness of scientists is used to make them objects of ridicule and therefore less believable. It’s also a bit of poisoning the well, because it attributes undesirable qualities and less than honorable motives to the scientists who believe that human-caused global warming is a reality as a means of preemptively discrediting their message.

It wasn’t the least bit funny, either. No doubt Tim will say I feel that way because I am one of those geeky scientists. But I’m also a surgeon, which, as we all know, means that I have a God complex, people look up to me, and that I used to get all the chicks when I was young. Just ask anyone in my family, like my sister. She’ll tell you that at least one of the three is true. Which one, I’ll leave to you to guess.

4. Because the weather last winter in Tim’s neck of the woods was considerably colder than usual, global warming must not be real.

This one is so bad that I trust any of my readers could dismantle it with ease. It’s so stupid that Tim should know better. In fact, I suspect that he does know better and just used it for laughs–which, again wouldn’t have bothered me as much if it were actually funny. (Perhaps my perception was colored by my knowledge of his political views.) Of course, what we’re looking at is long-term trends, not individual year-to-year variation. We’re looking at planet-wide trends, not random fluctuations in one small area of the planet. Of course there will be fluctuations! No trend in anything in nature progresses up or down without random fluctuations along the way, and when you’re looking at something like the climate, those fluctuations can be over the course of years or decades.

5. Al Gore claimed that sea levels would rise as much as twenty feet and has portrayed cities like New York as underwater, while another study came out that estimated the maximal rise in sea level as only 23 inches.

This one stuck in my mind. In fact, I remembered very distinctly that exact figure, 23 inches. I also remember this because it was the only bit of science that was mentioned in the whole tirade, as if the whole of global warming stood or fell on this one fact, and that Tim repeated it later in the bar. Indeed, he even challenged me to show that what Gore said was feasible or possible, and that was the genesis of this post. (As I tell people who challenge me about science, be very careful what you ask for; you just might get it.) I also remember wondering, “What does this have to do with anything?” After all, even it’s true that Al Gore said 20 feet and some scientific report or other said 23 inches, that would not have any bearing whatsoever on whether the scientific consensus regarding global warming is true. It’s just a factoid (actually, I wasn’t even sure was a fact) designed to make Al Gore look bad. When Tim repeated the same factoid to me in the bar after the show and then challenged me on it, my curiosity was sufficiently piqued that I had to figure out where the claim came from. So, upon my return home, I did a little digging and asked around a bit.

Fortunately, fellow SB’er Tim Lambert pointed me in just the right direction. As I suspected, this “20 feet versus 23 inches” canard comes from a press misrepresentation of a scientific report. It turns out that Slagle’s version of this story probably comes from a New York Times article by William Broad (or perhaps blog posts regurgitating it) that both Tim, RealClimate, and David Roberts have debunked.

Here’s the quote from Broad:

Some of Mr. Gore’s centrist detractors point to a report last month by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations body that studies global warming. The panel went further than ever before in saying that humans were the main cause of the globe’s warming since 1950, part of Mr. Gore’s message that few scientists dispute. But it also portrayed climate change as a slow-motion process.

It estimated that the world’s seas in this century would rise a maximum of 23 inches — down from earlier estimates. Mr. Gore, citing no particular time frame, envisions rises of up to 20 feet and depicts parts of New York, Florida and other heavily populated areas as sinking beneath the waves, implying, at least visually, that inundation is imminent.

Pretty damning and it sounds eerily like the claim that Tim made, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it’s a misrepresentation of the actual story, as Tim Lambert explains:

The IPCC report absolutely did not say the maximum sea level rise this century would be 23 inches. Gore talks about the changes in ice flows in Greenland and Antarctica and states that if half of the ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica melted, sea levels could rise 20 feet (6 metres). The maximum sea level rise that Broad quoted does not include this effect.

Models used to date do not include uncertainties in climate-carbon cycle feedback nor do they include the full effects of changes in ice sheet flow, because a basis in published literature is lacking. The projections include a contribution due to increased ice flow from Greenland and Antarctica at the rates observed for 1993-2003, but these flow rates could increase or decrease in the future. For example, if this contribution were to grow linearly with global average temperature change, the upper ranges of sea level rise for SRES scenarios shown in Table SPM-2 would increase by 0.1 m to 0.2 m. Larger values cannot be excluded, but understanding of these effects is too limited to assess their likelihood or provide a best estimate or an upper bound for sea level rise.

The report also states:

The last time the polar regions were significantly warmer than present for an extended period (about 125,000 years ago), reductions in polar ice volume led to 4 to 6 metres of sea level rise.

So sea levels could rise by 6 metres as Gore suggests. And the scientists don’t know how long it would take, so Gore did not present a time frame for the rise.

Thanks, Tim (Lambert, not Slagle, that is)! I also forgot to mention that Tim (Slagle, not Lambert) also appealed to the old “science has been wrong beforegambit (even going so far as to mention the whole “demotion” of Pluto issue), but I don’t remember if he used that one in his act or merely repeated it to me in the bar after the show.

You might wonder why I bothered with this exercise. After all, as I mentioned at the beginning, it’s just a comedy routine. It’s not as though I’m foolish enough to expect any sort of scientific rigor in a comedy routine. On the other hand, this is a comic who specifically represents himself as being a “skeptic,” and perhaps it is because I expected more that I was so disappointed. Be that as it may, I relate this little anecdote because it shows how global warming denialism has so penetrated the national zeitgeist that it still surprises me by popping up in the most unexpected of places and continues to spread through the media and the entertainment industry–in this case, even at he expense of killing the momentum of the show. In fact, the talking points in Slagle’s routine are merely exaggerated versions (and in some cases they’re not even that exaggerated) of talking points I’ve heard for years on right wing talk radio, Fox News, and a variety of other outlets hostile to any action over climate change. Slagle would have been better off sticking to political routines like the funny one in which he advocated using Halloween to teach your kids what taxation means by confiscating a percentage of their candy or a pretty amusing observational routine about the differences between bachelor and bachelorette parties and staying away from science.

The other reason I mentioned these attacks is because bad arguments are bad arguments regardless of the validity of what they are attacking. Even if global warming is, in fact, a “swindle,” as some self-styled skeptics have labeled it, these would still be bad arguments and logical fallacies. (Given that one of the recurring themes of Slagle’s comedy is how politicians twist science to their own purposes, I find it particularly ironic that he seems oblivious that he’s serving up even worse arguments as entertainment.) That the scientific consensus overwhelmingly favors the contention that global warming is indeed due to a significant degree to human activity is not controversial in strictly scientific terms. The areas where controversy remains are over how much the earth is warming, how much of it is due to human activity, and whether and how much decreasing CO2 emissions would slow or reverse it, not whether anthropogenic global warming is happening. I also point out that there are two questions here, the scientific question (again, “Is anthropogenic global warming a reality?” “How much is caused by human activity?” “How fast is it happening?” “Can reducing CO2 slow or reverse the process?”) and the political question (“What policy changes can we or should we institute based on the science?”) Global warming “skeptics” often conflate the two. I will also say that I am somewhat sympathetic to the view that global warming represents a “crisis” may be overplayed. Even so, I accept the scientific consensus on this issue, and my take on it is much like Ed Brayton’s, who happens to be a libertarian as well.

But there was one other thing that this incident provided me. Another part of Slagle’s routine had to do with indoor smoking bans. I will admit that the part where he described the “Chicago approach” to indoor smoking bans and how it was quashed by an Illinois state law was rather funny. Unfortunately, later at the bar, Tim also solemnly assured me that “some had told him” that the evidence doesn’t really show that second hand smoke causes any health problems. You’re right; I can’t resist the big, fat target that that statement represents, but that’s a story for another day, probably next week. As with the “20 foot versus 23 inches” canard, if I’m going to take the time to look up the data, I might as well use the results in the blog. Such is the all-consuming nature of blogging. Besides, doing so will allow me to review the most recent data again to update my knowledge about the present state of research on this issue, which is a side benefit, as it will enhance my own personal knowledge base.

Also, in order not to close on too snarky a note (yes, I know that’s never stopped me before, but Tim is generally a friend; wrong on global warming and a lot of other things, but a friend nonetheless), I’ll also thank Tim for providing me material for not one, but probably by the time I’m through two blog posts. Blogging, I suspect, is somewhat like comedy in that good material is at a premium, and I never fail to show my Respectfully Insolent™ gratitude when someone provides me with good blog fodder. So, I’ll do two things. First, I’ll refer Tim to some good sources of information on climate change and global warming:

  1. RealClimate
  2. Deltoid
  3. Stoat
  4. Climate Change: A Guide for the Perplexed

They’ll be better than World Climate Report, which seems to be Tim’s present preferred source. At least they’ll give him another view.

Next, I’ll ask you all to take a moment and visit Tim’s website, particularly the Gallery of Hair.

Now that‘s funny.

ADDENDUM: If Tim shows up in the comments, as I suspect he might, please play nice.