28 February 2012

How To Make a Bad Argument


Someone had sent me a 2008 Pew report documenting the intense partisan divide in the U.S. over the reality of global warming.. It’s a divide that, maddeningly for scientists, has shown a paradoxical tendency to widen even as the basic facts about global warming have become more firmly established.
Those facts are these: Humans, since the industrial revolution, have been burning more and more fossil fuels to power their societies, and this has led to a steady accumulation of greenhouse gases, and especially carbon dioxide, in the atmosphere. At this point, very simple physics takes over, and you are pretty much doomed, by what scientists refer to as the “radiative” properties of carbon dioxide molecules (which trap infrared heat radiation that would otherwise escape to space), to have a warming planet. Since about 1995, scientists have not only confirmed that this warming is taking place, but have also grown confident that it has, like the gun in a murder mystery, our fingerprint on it. Natural fluctuations, although they exist, can’t explain what we’re seeing. The only reasonable verdict is that humans did it, in the atmosphere, with their cars and their smokestacks.
Such is what is known to science--what is true (no matter what Rick Santorum might say). But the Pew data showed that humans aren’t as predictable as carbon dioxide molecules. Despite a growing scientific consensus about global warming, as of 2008 Democrats and Republicans had cleaved over the facts stated above, like a divorcing couple. One side bought into them, one side didn’t—and if anything, knowledge and intelligence seemed to be worsening matters.

Let’s consider the various components of the argument one by one:

The basic facts about global warming have become more firmly established.”  Someone has apparently forgotten all about East Anglia, and how a decent amount of temperature data was fraudulently altered massaged into proving global warming.  Furthermore, in the US at least, there is a strong heat bias among the vast majority of weather stations, which means that the assertion of global warming is overrated.

Humans, since the industrial revolution, have been burning more and more fossil fuels to power their societies, and this has led to a steady accumulation of greenhouse gases, and especially carbon dioxide, in the atmosphere.”  While the first premise is true, the second premise has not been proven.  In fact, the second premise cannot be proven, at least if one follows the scientific method.  In order for an hypothesis to be acceptable, it must be testable, which means that it must be falsifiable.  As such, no scientific claim can be considered true; it can only be considered unfalsified.  (Note that a theory can be reliable if it has been properly and extensively tested without ever being falsified).   Additionally, the only link between burning fossil fuels and the accumulation of greenhouse gases is correlative, not causal.

At this point, very simple physics takes over, and you are pretty much doomed, by what scientists refer to as the “radiative” properties of carbon dioxide molecules…to have a warming planet.”  The physics of CO2 is pretty well-esablished at this point, but the practical, real-world effects of increased CO2 levels haven’t actually materialized, which is to say that surface temperatures haven’t actually increased by the predicted amounts. The reason for this is pretty simple:  though scientists have apparently found a workable model of the direct effects of CO2 concentrations, they have not yet found a predictable model for the feedbacks of CO2 concentrations. (See here for proof of this paragraph’s assertions.)

Natural fluctuations, although they exist, can’t explain what we’re seeing.”  This is a logical error, known informally as an appeal to ignorance.  That scientists cannot model a potential causal relationship between natural fluctuations and temperature doesn’t prove that such relationships don’t exist, it only proves that scientists are apparently incapable of constructing a model that explains a potential relationship between natural fluctuations and temperature.

Such is what is known to science--what is true.”  Since I’m on the subject, I may as well pick a nit or two.  Science is not living entity, and cannot know anything in any meaningful sense.

Despite a growing scientific consensus about global warming…  This is the fundamental flaw of the entire argument.  Consensus proves nothing, and this assertion is nothing more than the appeal to authority fallacy.  A million scientists claiming that global warming is occurring stands as proof of fact to the same extent that a million scientists claiming that liberals are retarded sub-humans does.  The human element of science is exactly why it cannot be trusted implicitly.  To simply measure things without regards to what they mean is mere statistics.  To interpret the meaning of data is science, and said interpretation requires human analysis.  And, unfortunately, human analysis has the exact same problems as humans:  biases, prejudices, imperfections, and the limits of finiteness.

One side bought into them, one side didn’t—and if anything, knowledge and intelligence seemed to be worsening matters.”  I completely agree.  Being moderately intelligent often has the unfortunate effect of causing one to be overconfident, and succumbing to the pretense of knowledge.  The problem is not the absence of knowledge and intelligence, the problem is an incomplete amount of knowledge coupled with a finite amount of intelligence.  Quite simply, the proponents of global warming are not intelligent enough to recognize the limits of their knowledge, nor can they account for it.  They readily grasp the argument for global warming, but simply are not intelligent enough to consider its fallacies and shortcomings.  They are too clever by half.

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