Carbon Brief, the website of one of many climate-alarmist organizations, wants to make sure you aren’t a victim of “climate change misinformation.” To that end, it published, last month, an erudite-sounding article titled “How climate change misinformation spreads online.” It is an exercise in bogus critical thinking.
The authors—Kathie Treen, a Ph.D. candidate in computer science; Dr. Hywel Williams, a professor in data science, and Dr. Saffron O’Neill, a professor in geography, all at the UK’s University of Exeter—set up their discussion by writing, “Perhaps more than any other topic, climate change has been subject to the organised spread of spurious information.” They “define misinformation as ‘misleading information that is created and spread, regardless of whether there is intent to deceive’.” They explain, “In the context of climate change research, misinformation may be seen in the types of behaviour and information which cast doubt on well-supported theories, or in those which attempt to discredit climate science.”
The article is a great example of what might variously be called “proof by intimidation” or “blinding with science.” The authors use a variety of technical terms to describe things that are, at bottom, pretty simple, and the technical terms come in such a blizzard, one following hard on the heels of another, that many readers will think, “Well, I don’t actually understand all of this, but obviously these writers must be really intelligent, so there’s no way I’m going to argue with them!”
Then, too, it’s a great example of the fallacy of begging the question—that is, assuming as a premise what’s actually in debate. That’s apparent in their defining climate-change misinformation as “behaviour and information which cast doubt on well-supported theories, or in those which attempt to discredit climate science.”
This begs the question in two ways: first, with reference to “well-supported theories,” and second with reference to “climate science.”
In the former instance, characterizing such behavior and information as misinformation presupposes (1) what theories are well supported, and (2) that those theories are true. Anyone familiar with the history of science (e.g., by reading Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions), knows that many “well-supported theories” have been overturned in the past—and that it usually has taken a good while for them to be overturned in part precisely because so many scientists have resisted new evidence because of their prior commitment to those theories. It is of the very nature of scientific endeavor to be skeptical, to test, to test again, and to be ready to test yet again when some new facts, or alleged facts, arise that might bring some “well-attested theory” into question. To define casting doubt on well-supported theories as misinformation is to beg the question.
In the latter instance, referring to “climate science” as if it were a field in which disagreements were relatively few and inconsequential also begs the question. Are there, or are there not, many and consequential disagreements in “climate science”? Do all climate scientists—and the category, by the way, has become quite broad, encompassing not just meteorologists and climatologists but also oceanographers, geographers, solar physicists, astrophysicists, biologists, ecologists, and a host of others who do what they consider “climate science”—do all climate scientists agree, for instance, on what is probably the most critical question about “greenhouse” warming, namely, how to quantify “equilibrium climate sensitivity” (ECS) that is the amount that global average atmospheric surface temperature will rise, at equilibrium, in response to a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration? University of Alabama Principal Research Scientist in climatology Dr. Roy W. Spencer calls this the “holy grail” of climate science, and the fact that even the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change hasn’t managed to narrow its estimate of ECS to anything less broad than 1.5–4.5 deg. C suggests that they don’t. There are scores to hundreds of questions on which bona fide climate scientists disagree. Hence, to “discredit climate science” is an accusation that can be hurled against anyone who challenges any of hundreds of answers to such questions.
The authors assert that monied interests are behind much “climate-change misinformation.” Yet here again they argue fallaciously. Rather, they commit two fallacies.
On the one hand, they commit the motive fallacy—rejecting an argument not because one has proven one or more of its premises false or its inferences invalid but because one asserts that the person who makes the argument has some motive to embrace its conclusion. (To be more precise, in this instance this is the fallacy of ad hominem circumstantial: X has something to gain if others believe his conclusion, therefore one needn’t rebut his argument. Try that one when your oncologist diagnoses you with cancer and recommends surgical removal of the tumor, a procedure he might perform, at considerable profit.)
On the other hand, this is the fallacy of playing favorites, that is, applying a standard to one side in a debate but not to the other side. Certainly, some individuals and groups (e.g., those connected to the fossil fuel industry) have something to gain financially from undermining belief in catastrophic anthropogenic global warming. But some individuals and groups (e.g., those connected to the wind and solar energy industries) have something to gain financially from promoting such belief. That these authors raise this objection only to one side in the debate is evidence of their bias.
And of course, there’s significant threat to the values of freedom of speech and of the press in the notion that fines and imprisonment could be used against those who practice “misinformation.” We can take some comfort, though, in the authors’ explicit caution that such “can be a blunt and risky instrument,” that it jeopardizes the “democratic right to free speech,” and that it has “overtones of ‘Big Brother’.” Attempts by the likes of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and others to criminalize “climate skepticism” have generally backfired, with the much of the public quickly recognizing the danger involved in such policies. That doesn’t mean they’ll give up, but ultimately I don’t think they’ll get very far with those. Cornwall has addressed the problem repeatedly:
The upshot is that the article focuses on communication process rather than the truth or falsehood of what’s communicated.
I prefer simply to keep plugging away at the truth questions: Does computer climate model output match well with real-world observations? Is equilibrium climate sensitivity as high as the alarmists claim, or might it be lower? Would the benefits of mitigation outweigh the costs, or the reverse? What are the comparative benefits and costs of mitigation versus adaptation? Etc.
Those are the really consequential questions. All the hand wringing about process is largely distraction.
Featured image adapted from a photo by Christian Lue on Unsplash.