climate change · Climate communication · climate science · Rhetoric · subjective

Puffery Part II: How to turn an Undisputable Fact into a Disputable Argument –

You are entitled to your own opinion but not to your own facts. Nor are you entitled to treat your opinions as facts.

I was perusing the blogosphere and came upon a posting by a scientist and communicator whom I have great respect.  He was posting about a documentary that purported to show several sides of the climate debate.  Now, my life goal is solving disputes.  I’ve been around them all my life, been in the middle of them all my life, and I’ve learned a few things about how to make disputes worse.

One of the cardinal sins of resolving disputes is calling a subjective opinion objectively “indisputable.” I saw the following quote by Hand von Storch:  “The fact that CO2 has a significant influence on climate is indisputable.”

I found myself again shaking my head because a damned good factual point got destroyed once again by the insertion of unnecessary opinions.

Can you, the reader, tell the difference between these statements?

(a) “The fact that CO2 has a significant influence on climate is indisputable.”
(b) “The fact that CO2 has an influence on climate is indisputable.”
(c) “CO2 influences climate.”
(d) “Evidence has me convinced that CO2’s influence on climate is significant.”

Opinions are Almost Always Subject to Legitimate Dispute – Especially if the Audience is Unfamiliar with Jargon

The first statement is a rhetorical minefield. Look at what is being said.  Not only is CO2 an influencer of climate, but it is a significant influencer of climate.  It’s also a fact. Not just is it a fact it’s indisputable.

Statement (a) contains a couple of things that are bound to cause disagreement.  The first is that it contains an opinion. “Significant” may have some meaning that the climate scientists agree upon as an objective measure.  This is where it would rise to the point of “jargon” – which is nothing more than terminology used by specific groups that is difficult for others to understand.

“Significant” may indeed have some meaning to the scientific community on par with the term “soup” in the Army.  I could be quoted as saying, “The Raiders secondary was soup today” and most people would not be specifically aware of the jargon definition of “soup.” Even though millions do.

Nevertheless, the statement “significant” would indeed require some degree ef explanation should it be merely the argot of the climate science community.  The reason is that as a non-scientist, I see the word “significant” and begin to think, “why is it significant?  Significant compared to what?” Etc.

The reason is simple: what one person deems to be significant will be trivial to others. If a person argues that something is significant it immediately requires the recognition that facts should support that contention and that reasonable minds can differ.

The additional stated issue is that the argument is “indisputable.” Let’s be frank here: the whole climate dispute revolves around public understanding. We are also faced with a public who is often willing to dispute something simply because a person says that it is indisputable.

The Inclusion of Opinion was Unnecessary and Made a Strong Statement Weak

 

As much as it seems rough for people, statement 3 above is always going to be the most difficult statement to oppose. It is short and factual.  There is no ego involved. There is no judgment.  Denying that statement is a mush more difficult thing to do.

Find someone who will deny that statement and we know that the person can be ignored. But once individual or even group judgments come into play, i.e., “CO2 is the primary driver of climate change” or “more extreme weather.” The more adjectives and adverbs are involved the more room there is for legitimate dispute.

fact opinion

Meanwhile, a terse factual statement has impact. It is powerful. It does run the risk of letting the hearer make his or her own judgment about the factual statement. However, the more factual the statement the clearer it will be. Which is more attention grabbing and convincing?  “The facts are that he obviously was driving recklessly and at an excessive speed when he tortiously caused the car accident.” Or, “He was doing 67 mph in a 45 mph zone. He did not stop at the stop sign and collided with the other car.”

The latter gives facts and let’s the hearer make the conclusion. The former provides the conclusion but few facts.  The latter is terse and objective – what people want to hear. The former is ranting and subjective – which is what people want to say.

If There is Personal Opinion Involved, then Honesty REQUIRES that the Comment be Personalized

“This show is boring.” I’ve heard this before because I like watching documentaries and the like because I find real life far more interesting than fantasy life.  So I would respond, “I don’t think it’s boring. I am fascinated by it.”

Yes, it’s my ego at play. I am human, too, and when somebody insults my taste in entertainment I take it a bit personally. This is especially so when the opinion is stated as an objective fact.  Thus I would end up saying, “You think that this show is boring. I think that it’s fine if you do. But please don’t tell me that like it’s universal.”

All that had to be done is to put “I think” in front of “this show is boring.” Now it’s an individual’s feelings and personal thoughts.  It would then be silly of me to correct that person. “You don’t think this is boring. You love it.” This would be as insulting as if the statement was, “That this is a significantly boring show is indisputable.”

Had Von Storch said, “CO2 affects climate” then there would be no argument. Had he said, “the weight of the evidence has convinced me that CO2’s effect on climate is significant” then he has let is be known that this is his personal opinion, and opinions are never provably wrong.

Likewise, opinions are never provably true.  Once an adjective or an adverb is put into a statement, opinion is involved.

A fact is a fact. An opinion is an opinion.  Facts are powerful. Opinions are useful.

This is my opinion.  If anyone cares to dispute, please speak up. I may learn something.

 

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