Shepherding the Earth: Fallacies That May Destroy Us All

I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts called The Hidden Brain on NPR and they were talking about the climate change situation in a great episode called Losing Alaska.  Basically they were saying that scientific arguments have little merit anymore in talking about climate change.  I would have to say that I agree.  As WhiteEarthWhite EarthAlaskaMuirGlacierDisappearingFast194120040001Asomeone who holds a Ph.D. in the Atmospheric Sciences I can most certainly say that few people that I have debated with on the subject truly understand the problem scientifically and I don’t claim to be the smartest person in the world, this is simply the truth.  My field is applied math and physics.  Not only that, the climate system is complex.it   Involves interdisciplinary knowledge as well in chemistry, oceanography and geology.  To change someone’s mind from a scientific point of view, it would take a lot of study and learning.  Now you may be saying, wait I accept man-made climate change, and it it’s pretty obvious.  Well I would argue that you don’t really understand it, but it’s easier for you to accept because it already fits in with your ideology.  And I don’t say that to be demeaning, especially I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad ideology to have.  Specifically the one in which we recognize that something is very complex and we don’t have years to study it on our own so maybe I should listen to what experts are saying.  Much like we tend to believe our doctor when they tell us we have cancer as opposed to learning the requisite knowledge we need in order to test ourselves.

Instead of a Heavenly Father, maybe a Mother Earth isn’t a bad person to start worshiping.

But more to the point it really does come down to our personal ideology whether we accept the science, because let’s face it the science is telling us some pretty harsh things.  Not only is the Earth in a lot of trouble, but we actually might be responsible for it all.  And in order to combat the problem we are causing we are going to have to give up a great deal.  Transitioning away from a fuel source we heavily depend on will require large shifts in business and industry affecting the jobs of many.  And of course such a transition cannot be made overnight, but even at a moderate pace will require a cultural change at a rate faster than many of us would have a hard time adjusting too.  That of course does not make it any less compulsory.  Interestingly this podcast made the argument that we all are capable of great sacrifices at times of war or crises, and that dealing with man-made climate change requires an approach that is used by religion rather than one that is used by science.  I find myself having a hard time disagreeing.  While I would love to live in a society where science had a much more powerful influence on changing minds ultimately it does seem that we need to change minds at an emotional level over an intellectual one (which is to me what the podcast suggested by saying a “religious approach”).

In that vein, I wanted to address some of the main arguments I see used by climate change deniers, which tend to be more ideologically based instead of arguments that attack the scientific data on the subject.  They are more dangerous to me, because they seem reasonable.  They seem irrefutable.  This is not the case.

Science had been wrong before, why should we trust scientists?

                          The Geocentric Universe

This is quite true.  Scientists have been wrong before.  In fact progress is actually built on that very premise.  But notice the word “progress”.  It always strikes me as strange that people overlook this aspect of science.  Much like we learn from our own mistakes and grow and get better as people, this is how science works as well.  So we do get things wrong, but we also get a lot of things right.  Your daily lives in this modern world are a living result of that.  From the car you drive to the device in which you are punching out your arguments.  Now you could be right that someday we will discover that we were all wrong about this, but if we do, it will not because we were willfully trying to mislead people, but rather a new discovery has allowed us to view the world in a different way thus disproving our theory.  So unless you’ve got that said discovery I can guarantee you that our assessment about the state of the climate system is based on the best available knowledge we have about how it works.  And personally I see no shame in acting in the best interest of all on this planet based on what we know of it.

Finally, just because you don’t trust science or want to focus on the things it got wrong makes it your problem, and not science’s problem.  To refute climate change science on those grounds is to commit the genetic fallacy.  Directly address the assertions being made by those advocating the position in terms of their conclusions analysis of their data.  That is really your only option.  To explain it more simply “Al Gore is a democrat, and I hate democrats.  Al Gore gives evidence for why man-made climate change is happening, but since he is a democrat, he must be wrong.”  That’s not how it works.  Sorry.

Scientists are just doing it for the money. IPCC is corrupt.  Liberal media…

This argument is the same as the genetic fallacy because it is again an attempt to discredit to the reliability of the source to simply argue away what the source has to say.  I’ll admit that in such instances I will use the same fallacious argument back, because, quite honestly two can play that game, and I can play it better.  Let’s say all of us scientists are ego driven money-grubbing bastards.  My options are renewable energy companies and liberal governments, or oil companies.  Hmmm…I wonder who has more money.  Not only that with all the other scientists clearly in the wrong camp, all that sweet oil money could be mine (as it was for Wei-Hock Soon) as there are even less people to share it with.

In terms of fame, the fallacious argument made by deniers fall even shorter.  If I had definitive proof that all the other scientists were wrong.  I would be the one who was famous.  I’d be on all the news programs, giving talks around the world on a sweet oil company payroll, and even the liberal media would have me on their shows even to abuse me while I valiantly stuck to my guns with the full conviction that I was doing my science right.  I would be the hero of deniers everywhere.

Sometimes even fallacious arguments are hardly worth the effort.

The climate has changed before when humans weren’t around.  It’s natural.

7wG9WakThis is the first part of an argument constantly used.  It’s also known in logic as a type of naturalistic fallacy.  Just because something can happen naturally, doesn’t mean it can’t happen unnaturally.  Do floods happen naturally?  Sure.  Can floods also happen because of human activities?  Absolutely.  Natural selection happens in evolution.  But you know what also happens?  “Unnatural selection”.  The fruits and vegetables we eat, the dogs and cats we have as pets, and the horses we ride are all examples of this.   The same thing can happen with or without intention.

We cannot have an impact on something as big as the Earth.

                                                       The ecosystem formerly known as rain forest.

This argument is made without any substantiation at all.  It is often also used by people who are trying not to be religious but would rather take the James Inhofe argument that God controls the climate!  Of course examples of how we have changed climate locally can be found all over through the building of structures like dams on rivers, cutting down forests and poor farming practices.  In terms of the climate change issue specifically this person does a pretty nice break down of looking at how the amount of carbon we produce can quite easily explain the increase in carbon since pre-industrial levels.  There is no reason to believe that we couldn’t have such a global impact.  In fact that argument always seems to me a way of insulting or discrediting scientists again because it’s a pretty important question to answer before we would even start putting out evidence about climate change.  I mean if the amount of carbon we produce paled in comparison to the amount of increase we’ve seen then I am not sure how the scientific consensus could be developed in the first place.  It’s like when people say, the warming is being caused by the sun, and I think to myself “Oh my…we scientists all forgot to take into account the sun.  I better make a few calls.  Can’t believe we missed that one!”.

The Earth will survive.  We’ve had major disasters before and life persists.  Whatever is going to happen is going to happen.

This is the most insidious arguments, because it’s not fallacious at all in a logical sense.  However it is apathetic and immoral.  A lot of times people will say things like…”we’re just another species.  Whatever we do is natural, and whatever happens will happens.”

Let’s say you are an emergency manager who works at a national park in a mountainous area.  The weather is starting to warm and there has been heavy rains in the mountains and typically when such rains occur, especially in combination with some ice jams in the water flash flooding occurs.  It’s not a guarantee, but likely.   A town at the foot of the mountain in which the river runs through is going to get flooded, people could easily die if they are not warned.  This is a natural event, it was going to happen whether humans are around are not do you warn them?

I think most people would answer that they would.  To me arguing that doing nothing is the only option we have because the Earth is just going to do is thing is tantamount to doing nothing in this example, and simply letting people die.  Many people who accept the fact that the climate is changing but don’t think man is responsible still must accept the consequences to this warming.  Some of the one’s we are more sure of are:

  1. Rising sea levels drowning coastal populations and increased damages and deaths from coastal hazards such as tropical storms and tsunamis
  2. Increased heat waves and droughts
  3. Increases in extreme weather events as climate patterns shift
  4. Increased severity of extreme weather events.

What’s more is that these types of things will adversely impact the most vulnerable of the worlds population.  People who are in poverty.  People who depend on subsistence farming.  When local hazards happen communities do make sacrifices, and do look for solutions, through re-zoning laws, construction improvements, and other engineering solutions to try and make the world safer and have less loss of life.  So even if man has nothing do with the problem it doesn’t mean that we don’t have a responsibility to act to come up with a solution.

One can be logically sound but be ethically and morally irresponsible.  Ignoring what experts are saying, making sweeping and unsubstantiated statements that there is nothing we can do, that it’s just nature, and the Earth will be fine is really the same as having the power to do something to save lives and not doing it.  And this is why I agree that the conversation about climate change has to shift away from science and facts and be more about compassion, about love for our fellow human beings, valuing equality so that we all have the same chance to adapt and survive the changing climate, and about taking responsibility for the home that sustains us all.  These are important values regardless of what is causing the climate to change and these are things we can address and even already have some solutions for.  Of course I know that is even overly idealistic to think that such a solution of addressing people on an emotional level might work.  Hell it’s difficult to find a religion that unanimously agrees poverty is something we should do something about. I feel pretty bleak in general about us actually doing something about climate change.  It requires people to move beyond nationalism, beyond their own religious beliefs and worldview, which tend to not be very worldly at all.  Maybe we can’t win against the forces of nature, but it sure would nice if we could overcome the forces that divide us as a species.  We can try.  Maybe in the end it really is easier to move mountains.