Flame war: an argument between Internet users who repeatedly provoke each other with personal attacks.
I happened upon a remarkable twitter war today. It is remarkable because it was two scientists using logical fallacies to argue about a logical fallacy. For anyone looking for two people whose job and training it is to be reasoned and logical drop to human emotion in a political spat, this is the place to look.
I mean, wow! Two damned good scientists arguing about a logical fallacy. And using logical fallacies to do it.
On one side is Bart Verheggen, a Dutch atmospheric scientist. According to his blog, “I will try to add a voice, grounded in science, to the popular debate, to hopefully help narrowing this gap (between popular and scientific understanding).” That’s his stated mission – to be grounded in science. Didn’t do it this time.
On the other side is Richard Tol, a Dutch economist with a professorship in England. Richard Tol has taken on the role of one who challenges the idea of devastating climate change. But economists are scientists, too. He should know better.
Needless to say, the “science” in this debate was lacking. During the course of it it even seems as though both realized what they were doing. But were seemingly powerless to stop it.
Briefly, a couple of years ago, there was a paper released by Cook, et al, which attempted to quantify the scientific consensus that climate change was man made. This resulted in the popular “97 percent” number, which provides the notion that 97 percent of published research supports anthropogenic climate change.
This paper has become pretty much a cultural phenomenon. The other side has spent a great deal of time attempting to discredit the paper, point out issues, etc. And even going through their own review and coming to different results.
Enter Richard Tol, who sought to compare Cook’s results to the results of other reviews. Tol attempted to show the consensus was less than the 97% figure indicated.
Logical fallacies have been identified since the days of Aristotle, who himself identified thirteen. Logic, by its nature, requires taking a material point and providing evidence to prove that point. Example: All cars have steering wheels. A Corvette is a car. Therefore, all Corvettes have steering wheels.
Another example: “CO2 absorbs and reflects longwave IR radiation. An increase in IR radiation increases the measured temperature of an atmosphere. Therefore, an increase in CO2 increases the measured temperature of an atmosphere.” Simple stuff. Want to provide evidence that an increase in CO2 increases global temperatures, there you go. It’s way more complicated than that, but it’s the gist. Put a lid on a pot of water on a stove, the water will get hotter than without a lid. Try it yourself. CO2 is like a lid.
A logical fallacy occurs when something does not follow those points. It is the introduction of something that is not relevant to the point. Example: “There is something in the sky and I don’t know what it is. It is an unidentified flying object. Therefore it is a ship with aliens to come and attack us.”
Another term for “logical fallacy” is “rhetoric.” Rhetoric does not appeal to the rational mind. But it sure as hell applies to to subjective passions. For example, let’s say a woman has five speeding tickets in the last year. She gets cited for speeding again. At a trial, the prosecutor wants to tell the jury that she has these tickets. She objects and it gets sustained, because we all know that having sped before doesn’t mean she was speeding this time. Put out the evidence that she was speeding right then.
The Cook Paper was a Logical Fallacy – Consensus Belief does not Mean Truth
There is a whole category of fallacies called “red herring” fallacies. Historically, it was based upon training dogs to find foxes. The trainers would attempt to lure the dogs away from the trail by placing red herrings along the way. This would distract the hounds and they would lock onto the red herring, which was a tempting side issue. The red herring fallacies are intentional fallacies and are not dependent on language (ie a play on words or a pun).
As stated, the Cook paper sought to quantify the beliefs of scientists. The point of the paper was that since 97% of scientists supported the concept, it is therefore true. At least, this is how it has been marketed, even by one of the authors – Dana Nuccitelli. The paper itself is a mixture of at least two red herring fallacies: (1) Argumentum ad populum (bandwagon); and (2) Appeal from authority.
The bandwagon fallacy is quite simple: it seeks to persuade people into a belief because the majority believe it. It’s that simple. “The majority of cosmologists believe in a steady state universe.” – 1940. Just because the majority believe it does not mean it is correct.
The appeal from authority is similar. Fred Hoyle is a renowned cosmologist. Fred Hoyle dismisses the theory of some big bang. Therefore, you should not believe it.
We can have a mixture of these and see it quite often. The consensus of renowned cosmologists, including Einstein himself, believed in a steady state universe and George LeMaitre – some ordained priest – proposes a moment of creation. Who is he? You shouldn’t believe him. All the scientists disagree and he’s pulling religion into this.
Cook et al’s paper did just this. Took an appeal to authority (scientists) and added a bandwagon to it – 97% of scientific papers/scientists agree. This is a logical fallacy.
Tol And Verheggen Use Logical Fallacies to Fight About a Fallacy
“The good thing about science is it’s true whether or not you believe it.” Neil DeGrasse Tyson. From a logical and scientific standpoint, the issue of what scientists believe is beside the point. An economist and an atmospheric scientist should both know this. Yet they are compelled to engage in this argument.
Tol has some comments about the scientific validity and methodology behind the paper. Yes, scientific method can be used to lend support for a fallacy. Cook did a great job of compiling data and analyzing it. Regardless, consensus is not evidence of truth. Tol attacks the findings and makes the point that Verheggen himself found a low consensus in his sample size. Because Verheggen also took a look at this data and decided to have his own take on the logical fallacy.
Then on come the responses from Verheggen. Understandably, Verheggen wanted to correct Tol. He knows his findings better than anyone. But Verheggen responds not as a scientist defending his science, but as a man defending himself (which he was!):
Verheggen wrote, “That’s the outcome for outspoken contrarians.” This is a mixture of fallacies. Guilt by association (contrarians argue this conclusion, therefore you are a contrarian) and ad hominem (contrarians are bad and therefore you are, too). And this is just getting going.
Then Verheggen goes with appeal to authority. https://twitter.com/BVerheggen/status/643381699590639616?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw
These are not publishing scientists. Therefore they should be disregarded. This is a No True Scotsman fallacy. They aren’t real scientists. Then Verheggen, to his credit, catches himself and admits to being sarcastic.
Richard Tol then calls out the Verheggen’s fallacy, not quite understanding the whole debate is about a fallacy.
Verheggen takes the bait. And comes up with Heartland (guilt by association).
Tol then goes on to a “you did it first”:
This kept on going. It was remarkable because it was a series of fallacious statements about methodologies and results of a scientific analysis of a logical fallacy. Really. Look through this whole discussion/argument/flame war and find something substantive about the science of climate change. I couldn’t find any.
There is a good reason why there was nothing about the science of climate change. The argument is not about science. The argument is about subjective emotion and preference. At it’s core, the argument is about support of policy positions, and policy arguments inevitably devolve to rhetoric.
Scientists as Advocates
Scientists are people. Just like anyone else. They have their strong points. They have training and knowledge. And they have (in my mind they’ve earned it) egos. Find a surgeon without an ego. Indeed, in many things we want people who are confident in themselves. We don’t want a nervous surgeon. We don’t want want pilots who are scared about flying blind.
However, advocacy is a different world. Advocacy is not about what the science says. Advocacy is about what the SCIENTIST feels. Science is objective. Policy is not.
The science of climate change is true regardless of whether 100% or 97% or 3% believe it. Period. Consensus is a creature of politics. It is a creature of society. That’s why bandwagon is not logic.
When scientists start advocating they lose their cloak of objectivity. A scientist can choose to be work in obscurity and perform research, publish results, and let others decide what to do with it and remain objective n public eye. A scientist may also be an advocate for science. Neil DeGrasse Tyson does a pretty good job of this, his passion for science creating passion in others.
But when scientists move into policy advocacy, they are taking subjective beliefs and arguing supremacy. Of course they are letting their human side show! A climate scientist involved in a scrap with an economist is totally understandable. They approach issues from different perspectives. A patient who sees a surgeon for an issue can expect to obtain an opinion that surgery is the best option. An internist may recommend medication or even dietary changes. The internist and the surgeon will disagree. And it’s understood that they have different perspectives.
But this whole Tol/Verheggen scrap was high school in its approach. They are arguing over rhetoric with more rhetoric. They are both so much better than this.
It’s a microcosm of the whole climate debate. Scientists cannot separate politics from the science. The only way to proceed is for one or both sides to put on the brakes. Just stop. Can we agree on the science? Okay. Can we agree on the ramifications of it? Okay. What are the open questions? Let’s agree.
Does Verheggen have different priorities than Tol? Yeah. Does Tol value some things more than Verheggen does? No doubt. Do Tol and Verheggen want each other to see things their way? No doubt. Maybe they can agree to that. And they can agree to disagree.
Once we can agree to disagree then we can collaborate on solutions. And once it becomes less about personalities then it becomes more about the search for truth.
Even Larry Flynt and Jerry Falwell became friends. Because they ended up realizing how much they had in common, They were both just people.