Friday, September 09, 2011

Intellectual Recklessness on Climate Change

We have more examples of people misunderstanding the science of climate change because it suits a political ideology.

This time, I am prompted to write in response to an article in the Wall Street Journal, The Other Climate Theory

Again, I am not objecting to the fact that people have objections to the science of climate change. I object to the fact - when it us a fact - that certain people don't care enough about the potential loss of life and well-being of others to actually understand the subject they are writing about.

A decent human being would say, "Okay, given these potential costs, I might make a mistake, but I will not allow it to be a dumb mistake. Or, if it is a dumb mistake, I will be acutely embarrassed and ashamed of myself. I have enough of a moral conscience to recognize, where lives and widespread destruction are the possible consequences of error, any self-respecting person will take pains to avoid dumb mistakes.

The dumb mistake I am referring to here involves claiming that, because of the potential effects of sunspots, cosmic rays, or the like, we can dismiss claims about the human contribution to climate change.

These people treat the issue of climate change as a crime scene investigator would treat the discovery of a body. In the latter case, the CSI agent has a body and searches for a cause of death. In the former case, the critic admits to climate change, and asserts a potential cause.

This is an understandable mistake for somebody just starting to learn about the subject. However, it is a mistake that a morally responsible person who actually wants to understand the subject will quickly discover and avoid – typically before that person even puts a finger to keyboard to write on the subject. Or, if that person failed this test, she would feel such acute embarrassment (and a severe blow to her credibility among morally decent human beings) that no amount of apology or regret would seem quite sufficient.

A more accurate way of depicting the science of climate change is not to imagine a body for which a cause of death must be discovered. Instead, one is looking at a study that shows, for example, if you were to move a lever (called a trigger) at the base of a gun, it will cause a hammer to strike a percussion cap, causing a chemical reaction that will turn solid gunpowder into a high pressure gas that will project a bullet into the body of another person in such a way that it would shred the heart and kill that person.

There is no body. Nobody has pulled the trigger yet. However, we know – or we have good reason to suspect – the possible consequences of pulling the trigger. And we have a person standing there, gun in his hand, claiming that he will shoot.

As he is standing there ready to shoot, we see just how stupid it is for somebody to jump up and assert, "But a person can also die if you pass a large current through his body." We would look at this person and think, "You are such an idiot. This has nothing to do with the fact that if the gun bearer pulls the trigger in these circumstances, he will kill the person struck by the bullet."

Another daft critic might assert, "Oh, look. Here's evidence of a whole bunch of people who died, none of whom were actually shot!" This describes those arguments that assert that there has been warming in Earth's past and on other planets that was not caused by human greenhouse gas emissions. The moral person's response would be, "Are you seriously suggesting that your evidence proves that it is okay for this man to pull the trigger? Are you seriously suggesting that your ‘evidence’ calls my prediction of what will happen when he pulls the trigger into question? You are SUCH an idiot!”

Or, in a perfect display of indifference over the fact that somebody could be killed, the critic asserts, "How can you say that pulling the trigger us dangerous? We don't even have a body yet." This is comparable to saying that the climate is not yet changing - a claim that, even if true (which it isn't), would not be relevant.

A morally responsible person, just starting to understand the subject, could think for a few days or weeks that these could be legitimate responses. This will last until she understands the subject she is writing about. Then, she will see them for the stupid irrelevancies that they are. Morally responsible people know that mistakes and misunderstandings such as these are possible, and will consciously set out to discover and avoid them. Morally irresponsible people do not care to go to the effort.

Yet another morally outrageous argument that doesn't fit in the categories above that we still often hear takes the form of, "It is my gun and I have a right to pull the trigger and all of this evidence about what might happen when the bullet enters his body just is not morally relevant. We are a talking about my freedom to pull the trigger. You people are trying to deprive me of my God given right to pull the trigger of my own gun. That is my right - regardless of the potential consequences."

Or, along the same lines, “I am going to consider it permissible to pull the trigger until you can demonstrate beyond all possible doubt that doing so will result in this person’s death. If there is even the slightest chance that he will live, then it is okay to pull the trigger.” We can imagine the drunk saying, “You can’t prove that I will kill somebody if I try to drive home, so it is perfectly legitimate for me to try to drive home.”

These are moral assertions that almost nobody actually believes, but which we still find in the climate science denial literature.

None of this implies that criticism of the science of climate change is itself immoral. There are legitimate criticisms that a morally concerned person on the other side of the discussion would have to consider. The two most applicable are, "Your model is mistaken - here is evidence that pulling the trigger will not kill or even injure the person struck by the bullet," or "Even though this person will be killed by the bullet, doing so will produce benefits that justify killing this person."

When I read these types of responses, I can at least give the critic the benefit of a presumption that she is a morally responsible person who has made an attempt to understand the subject matter and knows what counts as a legitimate response.

When I read anything containing the other arguments I described previously, I know that I am reading the work of a morally defective individual who does not even care enough about others to take the time to understand the subject she is writing about.


Najwalaylah said...

May we add the case where the person with the gun in his hand swears he believes that his God put him in charge of that other person, to be shot or not shot as he sees fit, and will soon utterly destroy that other person, in any case?

mojo.rhythm said...


Do you have an opinion on the civil disobedience demonstration currently taking place at the moment with respect to the Keystone XL pipeline?

I think it needs to be given as much exposure as possible.

Raymo said...

Climate science has nothing to do with morality. It is simply a matter of science and statistics. And neither the science nor the statistics suggest within a reasonable margin of error that human activity is causing the changes we see. Could human activity cause climate change? Yes. Does the evidence support that hypothesis? No. Until it does, it would be foolish to spend billions of dollars fixing what might not be a problem.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Your comments, though false, are irrelevant to the topic of this post. I do not argue for or against any conclusions regarding climate change. I argue that certain forms of argument illustrated in this post are intellectually reckless, and as such a morally responsible person would avoid those arguments when writing or speaking on the issue of climate change.

So . . . do you agree or disagree with those propositions?

And, for the record, the evidence substantially supports the hypothesis that human greenhouse gas emissions will contribute to warming - in the same way that the evidence substantially supports the hypothesis that if you fire a bullet through somebody's heart you will kill him.

However, I did not argue that issue in this post.

Furthermore, even though the evidence supports that conclusion, this does not in itself justify spending billions of dollars. That conclusion would require additional evidence also proving that the costs of climate change are greater than the costs of avoidance.

Yet, this is all a digression - a red herring.