How Sex, Politics, Money and Religion are Killing Planet Earth

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Fallacious Criticism, Climate Change Conspiracies and Other Inadequacies of Contemporary Discourse

In simpler times, it was considered a breech of etiquette to discuss money, sex, religion and/or politics in mixed company. Lately, because of a few conversations both online and in social scenarios, it has come to my attention that science has now joined the ranks of taboo subjects. The Age of Enlightenment that reveled in man’s ability to place reason above myth and truth above ignorance and ushered in the founding of the United States, the Industrial Revolution and all the other great advancements over the past few hundred years, now appears to be coming to a close.

Of course science denial is nothing new. Galileo Galilei, the father of modern science, learned this the hard way. After discovering that the earth orbited the sun, laying to rest forever the notion of an earth-centered universe, the Catholic Church (who were the political authority at the time) sentenced him to house arrest for his discoveries for the remainder of his life. Today we scoff at the blatant misuse of power exercised by the Church and their attempt to silence Galileo in order to maintain their hegemony as an obvious power grab. But as we fast-forward 450 years to today, we find ourselves in a not-dissimilar situation.

Once again scientists are being tarred with the brush of heresy. As scientists go about their day to day lives trying, usually with inadequate funds, to separate fact from fiction and find real solutions for what plagues the world, anti-science voices, with much better funding than the scientists, are now actively at work to silence the voice of reason. As funding for public education dries up, a population with limited scientific ability becomes less-equipped to be able to separate out scientific fact from fabricated fiction. Conspiracy theories abound.

I recently had the pleasure (seriously) of getting an in-depth synopsis of the climate change denial platform. First, I passed a pleasant evening in the company of an intelligent man with a degree in Meteorology. We had a respectful conversation during which he laid out some of the basic arguments, with reasonable scientific basis, against climate change. Then, I had a less than pleasant experience online (1) where I commented on a piece by Mother Jones that discusses the planned dismantling of the EPA by the GOP. While I did not mention climate change (at all), my comments elicited a Pandora’s box of personal attacks by a lively group of respondents.

I was charged with being a 911 conspiracy theorist, a homophobe, a communist, stupid, an indoctrinated liberal, mentally-diseased, a hypocrite and a wingnut. It was suggested that I get a lesson in Economics 101 (as part of my Environmental Science degree I was forced to sit through Micro and Macro Economics classes in addition to Environmental Economics, all taught according to Chicago School, neoliberal doctrine. I got A’s in all three classes) and take my head out of the sand. Two out of the tens of responses actually reflected on my actual statement. To those two and to my dinner companion, I say ‘thank you’ for respecting my position enough to offer constructive criticism just as I respect yours and offer the same.

It is a shame that in the United States our philosophical differences have become so vitriolic and apparently personal (In the interest of full disclosure, I will say that my comment to Mother Jones was somewhat inflammatory). How did we degenerate from a country that was established on the principles of reason and respectful debate into such a quagmire of personal attack, vitriol and passionate misinformation? I subscribe to few conspiracy theories, but my guess is that it behooves the power elite to divide us and keep us ignorant.

A lack of information leaves one with no tools other than to react emotionally (and predictably). A public that reacts emotionally rather than intellectually can be easily manipulated with clever propaganda and by hitting predictable hot buttons. For example, 80% of the American public consider themselves Christian. A full one-third of the American people believe the Bible is literal truth, that the Earth is approximately 6,000 years old and that the world will end (soon) in Armageddon as described in Revelation. A one-third block is a substantial constituency that can be easily swayed with carefully-crafted propaganda that frames the debate as an issue between God and non-believing scientists who are inspired by the devil himself. Add to that a further 50% who identify with Christian values, and you have yourself a swung election.

For the fraction of the population that cannot be swayed by the prospect of eternal damnation, the problem is further exacerbated by a media of television, internet and talk radio that floods citizens with a plethora of both fabricated and factual information. Much of the fabricated information appears on the surface to be “scientific.” Official and professional sounding people are associated with the “research,” and the public are so confused that they go with their gut, often reciting like parrots the fabricated information used to confuse them and thus perpetuating a vicious cycle.

The climate change debate is case in point. First one must acknowledge that there are vested interests on both sides of the issue. On the anti-climate change side, powerful interests that thrive off the oil, gas and coal industries have a strong economic incentive to maintain the status quo. These entities, spearheaded by the Koch brothers (billionaire oil tycoons) to name a few have actively funded most of the “research” that disputes climate change. A rational view would insist that one at least acknowledge the potential for conflict of interest interfering with scientific integrity. This is particularly true in light of the fact that corporations such have Exxon, have conducted research with the explicit stated purpose of manufacturing doubt. On the other hand, Al Gore certainly has financial interests in some alternative energy technologies. Whether or not this is simply investment in what he believes in or conspiratorial, only Al Gore knows. Again in full disclosure, I invested a (very) small sum in a Chinese solar technology start up company. Since the Chinese alternative technology industry does not have any outside forces trying to squash it, it flourishes, and so has my investment. The economic implications of the Chinese alternative technologies boom is fodder for another blog but is something free market advocates who are also virulently anti-global climate change should consider.

What shouldn’t be in doubt is the credibility and integrity of average scientists who are simply doing their jobs and do not stand anything to gain from their positions on global climate change. There is no conspiracy here folks. First of all, nobody becomes a scientist for the money. If they do, they are foolishly barking up the wrong tree. Most scientists, including myself, are somewhat nerdy types drawn to the discipline from a very early age and who simply cannot imaging doing anything else in life. Since money is obviously not the motivating factor, rather a thirst for knowledge and truth is what characterizes the vast majority of us.

With the above in mind, I will outline my rebuttal to those who refute the authenticity of scientific credibility, which is overwhelmingly in support of the theory of anthropogenic (human caused) global climate change. The anti-climate change platform has as its basic premise the idea that global fluctuations in temperature are natural phenomena that have occurred as long as the earth has existed and are not related to CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere.

Several factoids are cited as “proof” of the above claim. One thing I have noticed is a surprising uniformity and reoccurrence of citations among climate change skeptics. I.e. they are all citing the same information, which makes it easy to check their information. Below are some of their claims:

(From Mother Jones commenter poet 756)

The rise in temperature occurs a full 800 years before the CO2, which is logical since the increased temperature causes of evaporation of our oceans which then releases CO2.

Poet756 then gives a reference for his statement (2).

First of all, the above framed argument is a classic post hoc logical fallacy. Poet756 and those who concur with his ideas would like us to believe that if the earth heats without increased CO2, then increased heating of earth cannot be related to increasing CO2. If A happens, then B happens, then A must cause B. This type of logical fallacy requires more support than simply B came after A.

Climate scientists do not refute (and never have) the idea that the earth warms due to a number of astronomical events including axial wobble, solar flares, volcanic activity and a number of other influences. It would be unscientific and stupid to subscribe a complex phenomenon like climate change to a singular factor. The models that climate scientists use incorporate a number of parameters and still are admittedly woefully inadequate to take in the potentially infinite number of variables that affect climate.

More disturbing, is the fact that poet756 is citing a scientific article which he obviously did not read in its entirety. The author of the article, Jeff Severinghaus, explicitly states that warming without CO2 does not preclude the very real probability of increased CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere causing a negative feedback that increases warming even further, which is exactly what the geological record shows.

Another “proof” cited by climate change skeptics is the fact that during the Ordovician Period (approximately 430-490 million years ago), CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere were as high as 4,400 parts per million (we are at approximately 380 ppm today) and the Earth still experienced a period of glaciation (which poet756 refers to incorrectly as “the Great Ice Age”).

The Ordovician Period is indeed characterized by very high concentrations of CO2. It was also one of the hottest periods in earth’s history. Across the entire era, global temperatures were on average 2̊C above the modern level, but at several junctures, the average global temperature was well above that level. Oceanic temperatures were as high as 45̊C (113̊F). Understandably, the hot ocean was much more voluminous than it is today, 180 meters (approximately 550 feet) above the current level to be exact.

The flooded earth was vastly different than the world we know today. The southern continents, South America, Africa, India and Australia were a single landmass called Gondwana. The northern continents, North America, Europe and Asia were similarly joined. Due to high ocean levels, the northern continent, Laurentia, was almost completely submerged underwater. Complex land organisms were non-existent.

During the end of the Period, Gondwana migrated to the South Pole, where it did experience some glaciation (not a “great ice age”). This glaciation resulted in a minor retreat of the oceans to approximately 140 meters above current levels. Rather than disproving climate change theory, the Ordovician Period illustrates exactly the world that climate change advocates are warning against. Using the presence of glaciers for a small portion of the entire era as supporting “proof” against climate change is classic missing the point logical fallacy.

Finally, those who are skeptical of global climate change are fond of citing natural solar activity as the primary cause of climate change. The “evidence” has been compiled almost exclusively by a scientist, Khabibullo Abdusamatov, a Russian astrophysicist and climate change skeptic. Abdusamatov contends that all of earth’s recent warming can be directly correlated to increased solar activity over the past 100 years. He also contends that the earth’s atmosphere does not act as a “greenhouse” and that gasses in the atmosphere do not trap heat or warm the surface of the planet.

Abdusamatov enjoys ad populum celebrity with climate change skeptics, and indeed his pedigree does look impressive at a first glance. He is an astrophysicist after all. But his claims unfortunately do not hold up to either scientific or logical scrutiny. His entire hypothesis is fallacious by begging the question. Admitting that the earth has indeed warmed over the past 100 years, Abdusamatov circularly-reasons that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses do not contribute to warming, which he then offers as proof that the warming is caused by increased solar intensity without providing any substantive data for the latter claim. Further undermining his credibility, Abdusamatov lists data for apparent solar activity over the past 100 years without detailing any credible methodology for obtaining his figures. A list of numbers on a piece of paper does not prove anything unless other scientists can replicate the results. Without a detailed methodology, this is impossible. It is no small wonder that all of the world’s professional scientific organizations and 97% of the world’s scientific professionals dismiss Abdusamatov as a charlatan.

We could all do ourselves and our democracy a favor by educating ourselves before we speak. Most people, myself sometimes included, have adamant opinions about issues without having researched independently the data supporting our opinion. We then spout our positions with the talking points provided to us by our choices of media without considering the inherent bias provided to us by the deliberately polarizing media. A little bit of digging to review both sides of an argument before drawing a conclusion can often provide enlightening information.

The claims, refutations and arguments presented both in the media and in my online discussions also make clear to me the desperate inadequacies of our public education systems. One of the primary focuses of education must be teaching people to develop and defend well-formed arguments. The information free-for-all has disintegrated into a quagmire that reads like an English 101 case study of logical fallacies. Sadly, the public is apparently not equipped to even notice that the vast majority of arguments do not hold any water at all when subjected to even the most basic of scrutiny.

Finally, public debate is meaningless and antithetical to our combined interests if we stoop to the level of ad hominem and tu quoque attacks that serve only to inflame passions and do nothing to further the uncovering of facts.

I have learned a lot from some of the information provided to me by climate change skeptics, although none of the data provided has changed my position. I am sure the same holds true for those I have engaged in respectful debate with. We should all look forward to the day when educating one’s self is prized over slandering those with whom we disagree. Then we will have the truly democratic society our forefathers, in the Age of Enlightenment, envisioned.


Further Recommended Reading


  1. Well said and well written. I'm in the climate change camp. Don't have much scientific proof, but only logic. Can mankind continued to pump pollutants into the atmosphere at unprecedented levels and expect our Mother to just suck it up??

  2. I must admit that I am one who allows her emotions to get the best of her in these days of outrage. It's so much more satisfying to call someone an ignorant asshole, spit, and turn and walk away, than to engage them in logical debate. I just have no more patience for throwing pearls before swine.

    HOWEVER, this piece is so powerful that you've re-shown me the error of my ways.

    This is beautiful and you have become my new mentor. Your comment to a commenter in another post (the abortion/sanctity of life post from March 11) really gave me pause.

    I'll try harder next time but I can't make any promises.

    Anyway, thanks again.

  3. hansi, logic is a good thing. It's too bad more people dont use it. The evidence that humans can make a real mess of the earth is all around us.

    Once upon a time, the earth's first organism, a cyanobacteria, lived on an earth that had almost no oxygen in the atmosphere, which was good for the cyanobacteria, because it was an anaerobic organism. Over time, the little bacteria sucked most of the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and via photosynthesis converted it to oxygen. In doing so, the little bacteria made a world that it could no longer live in, except in places like the bottoms of swamps, where oxygen is scarce, but it created the atmosphere we have today. That was the first global climate change caused by an organism. I think we are doing at least as well as the bacteria. The good news for the bacteria is that when we are done, the world will be a good place for them to live again.

    Thanks for your comment.

  4. tsisageya, your comment made me laugh. It might interest you to know that I am a lot more reasonable on paper than I usually am in person. While I try to take deep breaths, sometimes I just cannot control myself when exposed to certain provocations, and I am a frequent victim of foot in mouth disease. We are all just works in progress, but thank you for reading and for your positive feedback.

  5. Republicans wage war on science
    on behalf of their corporate clients,
    ...while exalting their greed,
    ...deny those in need,
    their contempt must be met with defiance.

  6. Good one Rhymer, and too true! I think when they started cutting hard-earned pensions from teachers and fire fighters they over-played their hand. Time will tell. Thank you very much for your delightful rhymes.

  7. I'm glad you like them. We share a similar view and understanding of what's happening to the world, but I learn a lot of little details in your posts. Feel free to use my rhymes whenever you think they would help to get a point across.

    Though I thought Dumbya Bush was a cad
    whose decisions were usually bad, we're stuck with the curse
    ...of a House that is worse,
    that's driving the world to go mad.

    Lower taxes means raising the debt,
    for the rich it means better yet,
    ...with intent to inflame, unions the blame,
    dividing to conquer, their bet.