Monday, April 09, 2007

Solar System Warming

When it comes to the moral crime of epistemic negligence, you don’t have to disagree with somebody else’s conclusions to recognize that they are guilty. Their guilt is found in how they reach those conclusions (and the degree to which people who hold such conclusions are a threat to the welfare of others), not in the conclusions themselves.

An Example of Reckless Thinking

For example, you do not have to believe that a person is innocent of a crime to find fault with the man who says, “I know he is guilty because he is black.”

It’s just like with any other type of negligence. You do not have to believe that there is something inherently immoral with driving a car to recognize that the person who drives down a residential street at 80 miles per hour is being reckless.

Imagine that a person has just flipped a coin 10 times. Another person then goes to him and asks, “Can you give me an example of five times when the toss came up heads?” The coin tosser answers, “Yes. For example, the second, third, fourth, seventh, and tenth tosses were heads.” Other coin tosses could have been heads; the questioner simply did not inquire about those. We have reason to suspect that the coin tosser would have announced any other coin toss as heads if they were heads, and his silence weakly implies that they were not. However, let us just pretend total ignorance with respect to the other tosses.

Now, our questioner suddenly exclaims that this is an amazing result. He insists that for these five tosses to come up heads, there must have been some exotic force acting on the coin. Suddenly, he exclaims that all five of them could have been influenced by the wind – and insists that we should consider the wind the cause of these five tosses turning up heads.

He says this, even though he is standing next to a device that measures wind speed, and it shows that there was no wind.

Actually, it would be difficult to describe this as an instance of epistemic negligence. It has more of the qualities of insanity.

Now, let’s add a few things. Instead of talking about something as mundane as the flipping of a coin, we are talking about an event that threatens the lives, health, and well-being of billions of people. In a room filled with people working tirelessly to understand this threat, there is this lunatic in the corner shouting, “The coin came up heads five times because of the wind!” Shouting back at him that the devices for measuring wind shows that there was no wind does not deter him.

In addition, let us also add people who, evidence suggests, may be responsible for costing billions of people their lives, health, and well-being. These people wish to deflect blame. More importantly, they wish to continue to act in ways that threaten the lives, health, and well-being of billions of people; presumably because the well-being of others is not important to them. They have the capacity to enjoy their own life in complete indifference to suffering that they may well be causing others.

To protect themselves from these accusations, they hire a public relations firm to make the questioner more convincing. The PR firm buys him a suit and cleans him up, performs market research that tells them how to market the story so that people are more likely to believe it. They coach him, then use their contacts to give him an audience among people who do not know any better. They use focus groups and surveys to make the most attractive package possible for this product. Then they sell it to the very people whose lives, health, and well-being their clients put at risk.

Now, we have gone from an insane person making insane claims, to a group of people covering up a moral crime on a magnitude not seen since the Nazis.

It does not matter whether these people are guilty in fact. The fact remains that they are trying to divert the public attention away from a potential threat to billions of lives. They do not want an honest and objective evaluation of the facts. They want to hide the truth behind clouds of false uncertainty and confusion.

The Sun

In the real-world version of this story, it is the sun, rather than the wind, that is being made the scapegoat.

In the real world case, some skeptics have noted that, on 5 of the 10 planets in the solar system that have climates, the temperature is rising. Therefore, they assert, the sun is responsible for global warming. They ignore the fact that the same sun shines on all 10 planets with climates, and the sun would also affect the surface temperatures of planets without climates.

They ignore the fact that we have had instruments measuring solar output for several years now and that they record no such increase. In spite of these facts, they dress up their skeptics and send them out to create a diversion – to distract the population from a potential threat to the lives, health, and well-being of billions of people – because from their death, sickness, and suffering, comes profits.

I have seen this argument emerge and grow over the past several months. Most recently, I found the argument discussed in an online article at; “Hot Times in the Solar System,” by Oliver Norton.

In his rebuttal of this argument, Norton mentions the responses I gave above. He also pointed out that the same science of climate change that attributes our global warming to human activity also explains the temperature rise found on these other planets.

Pluto, for example, has just passed by its closest approach to the sun. On Earth, we see that the hottest days in the year are not the longest days. They occur considerably later than the longest day. This is because a climate has inertia. It takes a while for shorter days to slow down the warming of summer and start the cooling of winter. The same is true on Pluto, which is still being warmed by the fact that it is closer to the Sun than it usually is.

On Mars, global winds have exposed black basaltic rock in the southern hemisphere. Black rock absorbs heat, and makes the climate warmer.

These facts mean that our coin tosser story is still missing an important component. It turns out that the coin tosses were filmed in slow motion. Each case that the coin came up heads, scientists have an explanation in terms of initial position, angular momentum, distance traveled, the force of gravity determining travel time, and the like. Yet, even with this, those who value money and are indifferent to the death and suffering they cause continue to guiltlessly cloud the issue with brightly packaged absurdities.

So what these disparate observations actually tell us is that the scientific community — the scientific community that enjoys a firm consensus on the causes of Earthly climatic change — has a fairly impressive grasp of the fundamentals of how weather works elsewhere, as well. It's a rather inspiring insight. But it is not the lesson that climate skeptics want their readers to learn.

This brings me to the one thing missing from Norton’s article, which really should have been there.

He addressed the scientific absurdities, but he did not address the deserved moral condemnation of those who make these arguments.


In the past, I have compared epistemic negligence to the crime of drunk driving. Both types of negligence evidence the same moral crime. The drunk driver and the reckless thinker are indifferent to the death and suffering that might come from their actions. A person who cares will take steps to protect the innocent from harm. Those who do not take these steps, we may conclude, do not care. That is what makes them evil.

Note that the drunk driver does not intend to kill the people that he ends up killing. He only wanted to get home. Only, he did not care that the method he was using to get home put others at risk.

The global-warming skeptic does not intend to harm billions of people. He only wanted to make some money. Only, he did not care that the method he was using to make money put billions of others at risk.

In comparing these two, we should not think of the reckless thinker in terms of an average drunk driver. Think of the drunk school bus driver, with a bus load of children, deciding to race a train through a railway crossing. Even here, you would have a person who would be a saint when compared to the reckless thinker who advances this particular argument.


Well, there is a limit to the number of children that one can fit into a school bus. Quite frankly, the drunk school bus driver can’t kill nearly as many children.

In case I have not made this point clear yet, it does not matter if the drunk bus driver actually beats the train and the children are not killed. We certainly would not forgive the driver and sigh, “No harm, no foul” unless there is an actual collision. He took an unwarranted risk with the lives and well-being of others. That is enough.

Fred Thompson

Before closing this blog, I want to point out that one of the people who embraced this argument is a potential Republican candidate for President, Fred Thompson.

In an article called, “Plutonic Warning”, Thompson repeated the argument in a most derogatory and arrogant manner.

This has led some people, not necessarily scientists, to wonder if Mars and Jupiter, non signatories to the Kyoto Treaty, are actually inhabited by alien SUV-driving industrialists who run their air-conditioning at 60 degrees and refuse to recycle.

Thompson is not a scientist. One might want to suggest that he be forgiven for listening to idiots. Yet, we have to ask, with so many scientists making claims on this issue, why did Thompson decide to accept this argument? What does it say about Thompson – what does it say about the type of President he would be – that he thinks that the insane coin tosser is worth listening to?

It is quite clear that he would be yet another Republican who comes to an opinion first, and looks for evidence later. In looking for evidence, he will accept anything, no matter how insanely stupid, that suggests support for his opinion. He will cherry-pick the data, and has no capacity even to judge the quality of the cherries.

We see the effects of living for six years under such an idiot. We have two more years to go under this idiot. We do not need to follow him up with somebody who will carry his idiocy into the next decade.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

“No harm, no fowl” is only appropriate if the bus driver is playing Chicken with the train. Otherwise, it's "foul."

Your point, however, is excellent.