We are what we repeatedly do

April 11th, 2012 <-- by Richard Rood -->

Form of Argument: Adventures in Rhetoric

In 2009 I received some questions from Westview High School in San Diego, California (see here). A few weeks ago I heard from the same teacher, Bob Whitney, and he was curious about how I would respond to the issues raised in this posting on Rogues and Scholars. This is a long exchange of postings between two engineers, Burt Rutan and Brian Angliss.

In my blog, for better or worse, I have tended away from engaging in the type of discussions that are represented by this exchange. A couple of reasons: One, this line of argument that works to discredit climate change is at this point political, and as I argued here, engagement in this argument is not productive. Two, while it is necessary to address the factual inaccuracies that are stated in this type of discussion, it has been done repeatedly and well by many others (look around, for instance, at Real Climate). That said – what do you say to students who have the discussion between Rutan and Angliss at hand and want to make sense of it all?

When I look at the words used by Rutan, I see words anchored around fraud, dishonesty, alarmist – this is an argument that relies on discredit and personal attacks. Such an attack quickly raises the emotion and takes the discussion away from a knowledge base. It is the sort of attack that has become pervasive in our political conversation in general, and it is an excellent diversionary tactic. It raises the specter of distrust.

I tell students to look for the form of argument. So, first, does it rely on discredit? In this case, it does rely on discredit, and it relies on discrediting thousands of scientists, writing many thousands of papers, over many years, from many countries. It is fundamentally conspiratorial, and not only is it conspiratorial it requires that many years before climate change emerged as an important environmental problem, that the foundation for the conspiracy was being laid down. To me, this lacks any credibility in reason, but if conspiratorial beliefs are held, then it is virtually impossible to provide convincing counterarguments to the person who holds those beliefs. If the form of argument relies on conspiracy, then it is immediately suspect.

One way to address, rationally, issues of dishonesty and conspiracy is to seek external review and, ultimately, judgment. The body of climate science research has been subject to extensive external review. Governments, the National Academy (here as well), non-climate-science scientists, and lawyers have reviewed climate science. They have all affirmed the results to be well founded and based on proper scientific investigation. The studies have documented that scientists have foibles and that peer review captures the vast majority of errors and prejudices and that there are no fundamental shortcomings in the conclusions that the Earth has, at its surface, on average, warmed and with virtual certainty will continue to warm. But if you dismiss climate science on the principle of conspiratorial malfeasance, then it is simple to dismiss external review. If you stand on only your own review and have the foundation to dismiss all external review because of conspiracy, then you are always right. Hence there is no discussion. There is no possible way forward for the student other than looking at the evidence and behavior and form of argument and standing as judge.

Does the argument rely on invoking moral levers of trust and distrust based on the belief of conspiratorial fraud?

Does the argument pull out single pieces of information and ignore other pieces of information? Does the argument rely on planting belief and disbelief by reaching for metaphors outside of the field? Does the argument assert that broad claims are made when there is no evidence to support such assertion?

So for the student – you have to think about the whole, not just isolated points that are meant to be provocative and planted to grow on an emotional state fueled by claims of amoral behavior.

Yes, carbon dioxide acts as a fertilizer, but is that the complete story of the vigor of plants? Is there any denial of this role of carbon dioxide in the climate literature? Can you find quantitative, science-based studies of the carbon dioxide fertilization effect?

Yes, there was a lot of carbon dioxide when there were dinosaurs; it was warm – what is the relevance of that argument? Does that establish that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant? Can’t things that are natural also be a pollutant? Isn’t that why we don’t want mine tailings in our drinking water? Isn’t that why we manage our sewage?

There is a wealth of information out there. There are ways to analyze that information, to evaluate its validity. If this sort of argument is encumbering, then there is a need to synthesize, personally, that information to form defensible conclusions.

If you look at the form of argument that relies on emotion, picks out pieces of information to support the argument, ignores pieces of information that do not support the argument, paints moods by long reaching metaphors, and ultimately relies on a belief that a field is corrupt, and that corruption requires a conspiratorial organization extending across decades and all nations – if that is the form of argument, then how is that robust? How is that believable? It is a prejudicial form of argument directed only at making someone believe the person making the argument; it is not seeking knowledge-based understanding.

That’s how I would look at that discussion.


Figure 1: A summary figure I use after I walk through about 10 lectures on the basics of climate science and global warming.

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