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On arguing by analogy

Filed under: — gavin @ 2 September 2014

Climate blogs and comment threads are full of ‘arguments by analogy’. Depending on what ‘side’ one is on, climate science is either like evolution/heliocentrism/quantum physics/relativity or eugenics/phrenology/Ptolemaic cosmology/phlogiston. Climate contrarians are either like flat-earthers/birthers/moon-landing hoaxers/vaccine-autism linkers or Galileo/stomach ulcer-Heliobacter proponents/Wegner/Copernicus. Episodes of clear misconduct or dysfunction in other spheres of life are closely parsed only to find clubs with which to beat an opponent. Etc. Etc.

While the users of these ‘arguments’ often assume that they are persuasive or illuminating, the only thing that is revealed is how the proposer feels about climate science. If they think it is generally on the right track, the appropriate analogy is some consensus that has been validated many times and the critics are foolish stuck-in-the-muds or corporate disinformers, and if they don’t, the analogy is to a consensus that was overturned and where the critics are the noble paradigm-shifting ‘heretics’. This is far closer to wishful thinking than actual thinking, but it does occasionally signal clearly who is not worth talking to. For instance, an article pretending to serious discussion on climate that starts with a treatise about Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union is not to be taken seriously.

Since the truth of falsity of any scientific claim can only be evaluated on it’s own terms – and not via its association with other ideas or the character of its proponents – this kind of argument is only rhetorical. It gets no-one closer to the truth of any particular matter. The fact is that many, many times, mainstream science has survived multiple challenges by ‘sceptics’, and that sometimes (though not at all often), a broad consensus has been overturned. But knowing which case is which in any particular issue simply by looking for points of analogy with previous issues, but without actually examining the data and theory directly, is impossible. The point being that arguments by analogy are not persuasive to anyone who doesn’t already agree with you on the substance.

Given the rarity of a consensus-overturning event, the only sensible prior is to assume that a consensus is probably valid absent very strong evidence to the contrary, which is incidentally the position adopted by the arch-sceptic Bertrand Russell. The contrary assumption implies there are no a priori reasons to think any scientific body of work is credible which, while consistent, is not one that I have ever found anyone professing in practice. Far more common is a selective rejection of science dependent on other reasons and that is not a coherent philosophical position at all.

Analogies do have their place of course – usually to demonstrate that a supposedly logical point falls down completely when applied to a different (but analogous) case. For instance, an implicit claim that all correct scientific theories are supported by a unanimity of Nobel Prize winners/members of the National Academies, is easily dismissed by reference to Kary Mullis or Peter Duesberg. A claim that CO2 can’t possibly have a significant effect solely because of its small atmospheric mixing ratio, can be refuted as a general claim by reference to other substances (such as arsenic, plutonium or Vitamin C) whose large effects due to small concentrations are well known. Or if a claim is made that all sciences except climate science are devoid of uncertainty, this is refuted by reference to, well, any other scientific field.

To be sure, I am not criticising the use of metaphor in a more general sense. Metaphors that use blankets to explaining how the greenhouse effect works, income and spending in your bank account to stand in for the carbon cycle, what the wobbles in the Earth’s orbit look like if the planet was your head, or conceptualizing the geologic timescale by compressing it to a day, for instance, all serve useful pedagogic roles. The crucial difference is that these mappings don’t come dripping with over-extended value judgements.

Another justification for the kind of analogy I’m objecting to is that it is simply for amusement: “Of course, I’m not really comparing my opponents to child molesters/food adulterers/mass-murderers – why can’t you take a joke?”. However, if you need to point out to someone that a joke (for adults at least) needs to have more substance than just calling someone a poopyhead, it is probably not worth the bother.

It would be nice to have a moratorium on all such analogical arguments, though obviously that is unlikely to happen. The comment thread here can assess this issue directly, but most such arguments on other threads are ruthlessly condemned to the bore-hole (where indeed many of them already co-exist). But perhaps we can put some pressure on users of these fallacies by pointing to this post and then refusing to engage further until someone actually has something substantive to offer. It may be pointless, but we can at least try.

Unforced variations: September 2014

Filed under: — group @ 2 September 2014

This month’s open thread. People could waste time rebunking predictable cherry-picked claims about the upcoming Arctic sea ice minimum, or perhaps discuss a selection of 10 climate change controversies from ICSU… Anything! (except mitigation).

IPCC attribution statements redux: A response to Judith Curry

Filed under: — gavin @ 27 August 2014

I have written a number of times about the procedure used to attribute recent climate change (here in 2010, in 2012 (about the AR4 statement), and again in 2013 after AR5 was released). For people who want a summary of what the attribution problem is, how we think about the human contributions and why the IPCC reaches the conclusions it does, read those posts instead of this one.

The bottom line is that multiple studies indicate with very strong confidence that human activity is the dominant component in the warming of the last 50 to 60 years, and that our best estimates are that pretty much all of the rise is anthropogenic.



The probability density function for the fraction of warming attributable to human activity (derived from Fig. 10.5 in IPCC AR5). The bulk of the probability is far to the right of the “50%” line, and the peak is around 110%.

If you are still here, I should be clear that this post is focused on a specific claim Judith Curry has recently blogged about supporting a “50-50″ attribution (i.e. that trends since the middle of the 20th Century are 50% human-caused, and 50% natural, a position that would center her pdf at 0.5 in the figure above). She also commented about her puzzlement about why other scientists don’t agree with her. Reading over her arguments in detail, I find very little to recommend them, and perhaps the reasoning for this will be interesting for readers. So, here follows a line-by-line commentary on her recent post. Please excuse the length.
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How much methane came out of that hole in Siberia?

Filed under: — david @ 13 August 2014

Siberia has explosion holes in it that smell like methane, and there are newly found bubbles of methane in the Arctic Ocean. As a result, journalists are contacting me assuming that the Arctic Methane Apocalypse has begun. However, as a climate scientist I remain much more concerned about the fossil fuel industry than I am about Arctic methane. Short answer: It would take about 20,000,000 such eruptions within a few years to generate the standard Arctic Methane Apocalypse that people have been talking about. Here’s where that statement comes from:
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Unforced variations: Aug 2014

Filed under: — group @ 5 August 2014

This month’s open thread. Keeping track of the Arctic sea ice minimum is interesting but there should be plenty of other climate science topics to discuss (if people can get past the hype about the Ebola outbreak or imaginary claims about anomalous thrusting). As with last month, pleas no discussion of mitigation strategies – it unfortunately does not bring out the best in the commentariat.


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