Communicating risk (Pt 2) – fallacious arguments

06/12/2009 — Leave a comment

The Newcastle 2007 storm

In the first part of this post on Drew Warne Smith and James Madden’s article on climate change, The science is in on sea-level rise: 1.7 mm, I dealt with the factual basis of their argument.

The moment we want to believe something, we suddenly see all the arguments for it, and become blind to the arguments against it.

George Bernard Shaw

In this second part I want to spend some time looking at both the logical and psychological tricks of their argument (such as it is) and how the authors use these fallacious elements to sway the unwary or uneducated readership. Note that I have based the taxonomy of argument upon that proposed by Thoulesss (1934) (1).

Don’t let logic get in the way of scoring a point

Logical fallacies are errors in the construction of an argument that render the conclusions invalid. Sometimes these errors are innocent and un-intended and sometimes their intent is more malign.

If you can’t answer a man’s arguments, all is not lost; you can still call him vile names.

Elbert Hubbard

The future will be the same as the past

Simply put while historical data indicates a lower average rate of sea level rise, historical data does not demonstrably disprove an increase in sea level rise rates in the future (2) and belongs to the class of of fallacious argument known as non sequiters (3).

Assuming what needs to be proved

Supporting Smith and Madden’s central non sequiter are a series of assumptions stated as a ‘facts’:

  • that the CSIRO predicted increase in the rate of sea level rise is within the bounds of natural variation,
  • that only a thin layer of the ocean is warming,
  • that the polar caps melting was a contributor to sea level rises, and
  • that future temperature predictions were exaggerated due to underestimates of water vapour effects.

Of course these are really assumptions and need to be justified (proved) as much as the authors conclusion itself. The use of such assumptions belongs to the class of logical fallacy known as begging the question (4).

Psychological tricks, or it ain’t what you say, but how you say it

Psychological fallacies are introduced to disturb, distract and divert the reader from the real issue and make people less sceptical in their analysis of an argument. Smith and Madden’s article contains the following psychological sleights of hand:

  • Use of honorific titles for sceptics but ommiting those for the mainstream scientist supporting sea level rise also quoted in the article is a subtle ad hominem argument (5),
  • Burying the response of the scientific community on the second page, while using the headlines such as “Science is in on sea-level rise: 1.7 mm”  when the assertion is the position of the authors not the scientific community, is an argument by confident assertion (6),
  • Using the statement by a local resident ‘nothing much changes here’, an appeal to ignorance argument (7),
  • Introducing polar cap melting as a significant cause of sea level rise and then dismissing it, is a red herring argument that is used as a straw man (8),
  • Selectively picking sea level statisitics and neglecting to state the contradictory data is an example of a cherry picking or proof by selected instance argument (9),
  • Introducing the potential impact upon land owners is an example of argument to the consequences (10), and
  • The failure of the authors to address the consequences of continuing current land usage practices as sea levels rise and the risk that poses is a diversion to a side issue argument (11).

Conclusions

As can be seen from the above examples, Smith and Madden rely heavily upon fallacious styles of argument (read tricks) to convince the reader of the truth of their assertion. I think it’s safe to say that the author’s have an agenda and should be treated as polemicists rather than journalists. This is of course a little ironic given the climate sceptics communities current frothing over ‘tricks’ in the leaked CRU hack emails (12).

In the Next Post

Communicating Risk – (Pt 3) Memes and the Media.

Notes

1.  A classic on fallacious arguments and how to detect and combat them, highly recommended for anyone involved in public debate on contentious issues.

2.  And as I noted in the first part of this post the author’s conflate this flaw with a series of other material and logical fallacies.

3.  In non sequiters the conclusion, which may itself sound reasonable, is simply not supported by the premises.

4. In begging the question the conclusion is based on a premise which is in need of proof as much as the conclusion, for example ‘it is beyond doubt that the man is guilty’ assumes that it is in fact beyond doubt.

5.  Attacking the man not the argument. There are many ways in which this can be done, in Australia were a strong culture of egalitrianism exists a classic ad hominem argument is to imply that your opponent is an elitist. In the case of Smith and Madden’s argument counterpoiniting the views of an abstract ‘goverment’ against that of a regular beach goer represents such an attack.

6.  Stating and restating in a confident manner the central assertion, this is sometimes known as the ‘big lie’ theory of propaganda.

7.  An appeal to ignorance is an argument on the basis of a lack of evidence for or against a proposition. In this case there is no perceived evidence of sea level rise therefore  there is no sea level rise. Unfortunately a lack of evidence by itself is no evidence.

8.  A red herring argument is one that distracts the audience from the issue in question through the introduction of some irrelevancy. A straw man argument is a type of red herring argument in which a weak ‘straw man’ argument is set u so that it can be defeated rather than addressing the real argument or issue.

9.  Cherry picking of data involves using individual cases or data that confirm a particular position, while ignoring a significant related cases thatcontradict that position.

10. Another type of red herring argument that in this case refutes the argument because of the bad consequences.

11. Diversion to another question or issue using an irrelevant objection.

12. As a BTW the ‘trick’ in question was to plot instrumental records along with the reconstruction of temperature so that the context of the recent climate warming was clear  (RealClimate: The CRU hack).

References

Thouless, R.H., Straight and crooked thinking, Pan Books, 1934.

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