Montreal, May 15, 2005 • No 154




Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness.




by Bradley Doucet


          It is hard, sometimes, to know what to believe. Take, for example, the controversial issue of climate change. Kyoto supporters and dissenters alike accuse each other of spreading disinformation. Words like "propaganda," "pseudoscience," and "crank" get bandied about on both sides. How is one to make sense out of this confusing mess and arrive at some sort of conclusion?


          According to Chris Mooney, the very fact that one might still consider global warming a debatable matter is a major victory for climate skeptics who seek to undermine the scientific consensus. Mooney, whose article, "Some Like It Hot," is the central article of a feature in the June 2005 issue of Mother Jones, writes that very few scientists question the global warming consensus, and of those who do have doubts, several have received funding from ExxonMobil. The argument seems to be that those in the skeptical minority are therefore the ones who are spreading disinformation, sowing doubt any way they can in order to please their industry funders. Unfortunately, the authors of the Mother Jones feature do not examine specific examples of this supposed disinformation in any depth, choosing instead to focus their energy on making specious arguments.

Logical Flaws

          The argument being advanced is that scientists and think tanks receiving funding from ExxonMobil are thereby irretrievably compromised. This might sound persuasive if one believes that the people who run large corporations in general (and ExxonMobil in particular) are concerned only with their own short-term material gain to the exclusion of concerns about the environment which underwrite those gains in the long term. As a matter of personal opinion, my view is that the desire for long-term profit actually directs private corporations to respond to the desires and interests of society, at least insofar as the market is free and everyone's property rights are fully respected. Since we live in a mixed economy, this mechanism is partially defeated, but the above argument still has much less impact on me than it might on some other people.

          As a matter of logic, however, no one should be persuaded by the above argument. It is more of an insidious implication than an argument, really, since it is never explicitly spelled out in the feature, despite the fact that it is clearly the feature's main thrust. Impugning someone's character by questioning his or her motives is not only insulting; it is also a logical fallacy, an error in thinking. Logicians call this an ad hominem attack. It is an evasive manoeuvre used to distract attention from the arguments being made, focussing it instead on the people making them. The most that can be said for speculations about base motives is that they should perhaps make one more alert to the possibility of deception or error, but as professor of philosophy Anthony Flew writes in his book How To Think Straight (Prometheus Books, 1998), "material interest by itself does not constitute good or even any grounds for concluding that those representatives' claims must be false and their arguments must be invalid." (p. 66, emphasis added.)

          To know whether the statements and arguments being made by global warming skeptics or Kyoto skeptics are true and valid or false and invalid, we must examine the content of those statements and arguments, as well as the content of their opponents' statements and arguments, and we must judge how well any of these fit with other knowledge. This takes a lot of work, of course, and it is much easier just to dismiss outright one side of the debate.

          A further objection to these particular ad hominem attacks, if one were needed, is that they get the likely motivation wrong. It may be that some researchers have compromised themselves by adjusting their views to suit their funders. It is far more probable that there simply are certain people who, for a variety of reasons, are skeptical about global warming and Kyoto. Given their views, it makes sense for skeptics to get funding from other skeptics, just as believers get funding from others who believe. What Mooney and Mother Jones are implying is analogous to complaining that a husband and wife agree just because they are married, whereas it seems far more likely that people get married (in part) because they agree a lot.

The Appeal To Consensus

          That the Mooney article and the shorter accompanying pieces dwell at such length on ad hominem attacks is bad enough. The second most frequently repeated "argument" in the feature, though – the aforementioned consensus of most scientists – is equally specious. As Michael Crichton (author of the controversial new novel State of Fear which challenges environmental myths) has pointed out in his eloquent 2003 "Caltech Michelin Lecture," science is not about consensus. The consensus has been spectacularly wrong before, as when everyone believed the Earth was flat, to take only the most obvious example. Furthermore, as Crichton writes, "Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough… Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way."

"Science is not about consensus. The consensus has been spectacularly wrong before, as when everyone believed the Earth was flat, to take only the most obvious example."

          According to the Mother Jones feature, however, not only should we believe the consensus, we should barely hear from the dissenters at all. Solely based on the fact that skeptics are in the minority, Mooney and his collaborators want reporters to stop balancing their stories between believers and skeptics. Ross Gelbspan, in an accompanying article, explicitly states that when a reporter writes about global warming, mainstream scientists (by which he means those scientists who toe the consensus line) should get 95% of the article, with skeptics getting a paragraph or two at the end. This is patently absurd. Statements and arguments should be judged according to their merits, not according to the number of people who subscribe to them. If 50 million people say a stupid thing, it is still a stupid thing. Mooney and his associates complain that most reporters have neither the time, nor the curiosity, nor the professionalism to actually check out the science. Sadly, this may be true, but the alternative they offer is a poor one indeed.

Just How Much Consensus Is There?

          To the small extent that it matters at all, how significant is the scientific consensus? In the Mother Jones article, Mooney mentions Naomi Oreskes, a science historian who recently reviewed close to 1000 scientific papers on global climate change, and "was unable to find one that explicitly disagreed with the consensus view that humans are contributing to the phenomenon." (p. 48) Notice, however, the weakness of the claim being made: humans are contributing to climate change. Elsewhere in the feature, the consensus view is represented variously as humans "causing the earth to overheat" (p. 36), and as climate change "threaten[ing] the earth more profoundly than anything since the dawn of civilization." (p. 35) Presenting the scientific consensus on global warming in these widely divergent ways is an example of another well-known logical fallacy, commonly referred to as the bait and switch.

          Interestingly, the Oreskes study actually made the news just recently, and not in a good way. The Telegraph reported that several other scientists whose results refute or conflict with Oreskes's findings have been refused publication by prestigious journals. One scientist, Professor Dennis Bray of Germany, found that "fewer than one in 10 climate scientists believed that climate change is principally caused by human activity." Now, "principally caused" and "contributing to" are hardly equivalent, but notice what different pictures Bray and Oreskes paint. Professor Bray's study was refused publication by Science. (No word on whether Bray has ever received funding from ExxonMobil.)

          The article in The Telegraph also mentioned that Dr. Chris Landsea, an expert on hurricanes with the United States National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, resigned from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change this past January. Landsea, in an open letter to the scientific community said he was extremely concerned that one of his colleagues had utilized the media "to push an unsupported agenda that recent hurricane activity has been due to global warming." He said the IPCC process was "motivated by pre-conceived agendas" and was "scientifically unsound," and he therefore withdrew his participation. Why is Mother Jones not investigating this story?

The Questions Remain

          To my mind, here are some of the general questions that remain: (1) Is global warming really happening? (2) If it is, then a) how much warming can we expect? b) what portion of it is human-caused? and c) how much of it is preventable or reversible? (i.e., are we just shouting at the wind?) Furthermore, (3) how bad would global warming be anyway, taking into account often-ignored counter-balancing benefits? And finally, (4) if the negative consequences of global warming would in fact outweigh the positive, then would the benefit of trying to stop or slow it be worth the cost, or would our resources be better spent in other ways? The answers to all of these questions are uncertain, to varying degrees.

          To the extent that the Mother Jones feature actually addresses some small part of the real controversy (briefly discussing the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, as well as the infamous "hockey stick" graph), it focuses not on the main criticisms raised by skeptics, but on disparaging those skeptics' credentials and motives. This is unacceptable. Instead of attempting to silence debate by impugning the integrity of their opponents and repeating that they are only a skeptical minority, Kyoto supporters must answer the skeptics' questions, even if they may feel they have done so before.

          It is possible, of course, that the skeptics are wrong about global warming. Maybe there is less objective uncertainty than I think there is. Maybe it is true that ExxonMobil has been sowing doubt by funding shoddy research. If this is the case, then I want to know it, but in order to know it, I need to see why the research is shoddy.

          My beliefs about global warming are subject to change, given new information or arguments. The rules of logic, however, are not subject to change. Indeed, logic is what skepticism is all about. Unfortunately, due to its serious and pervasive flaws, this Mother Jones feature will not help anyone interested in separating fact from fiction in this important debate.