Climate Illogic: industrial climate disruption is not a popularity contest

For more posts in this series, please click here.
UPDATE: see updated definition in Footnote #1 below

from Doran & Zimmerman 2010

from Doran & Zimmerman 2010

Appeal to consensus,” also known as the “bandwagon fallacy,” is an illogical argument that something must be right because it’s popular. For example, “2 + 2 = 4” would still be mathematically true even if everyone believed that the right answer was 5. Other examples of the bandwagon fallacy are less obviously absurd. For example, there is a popular movement afoot these days which claims that vaccines are dangerous. But while the claim is popular, it’s just as illogical as “2 + 2 = 5” – overwhelming scientific evidence has demonstrated that vaccines are far safer than the diseases prevented by the vaccines.

People who deny that industrial climate disruption often illogically claim that genuine climate realists (those who respect the scientific data demonstrating industrial climate disruption) are simply joining the climate bandwagon. The error is even more common in discussions about the overwhelming consensus of climate experts and peer-reviewed studies. The problem is that climate disruption deniers are fundamentally misunderstanding and misapplying the bandwagon fallacy.

If a large majority of people accept industrial climate disruption as true because of the evidence, then claiming that industrial climate disruption is true is similarly based on the evidence. The fact that industrial climate disruption is “popular” is inconsequential. The reasons for the consensus matter, as does the expertise of the people who make up the consensus.

In the case of industrial climate disruption there are good reasons to believe that the consensus position1 is correct . There is a massive body of empirical data that describes how the global climate has changed in the past. There are the physical properties of compounds like carbon dioxide and water vapor. There are the many accepted scientific theories that would have to be dramatically wrong for industrial climate disruption to be incorrect. And there are climate models that combine all of the above to project the most likely course of the rest of this century. There is a consensus on industrial climate disruption because the science demonstrates that industrial climate disruption is real. Referring to that consensus is simply a way to refer to the science by proxy.

The expertise of the people who make up a consensus matters too. If someone were to use popular opinion among veterinarians as support for a claim that industrial climate disruption is real, that might well qualify as a bandwagon fallacy. After all, vets in general have no more expertise on the subject of climate disruption than any other educated member of the public. But publishing climate scientists2 are understood to have expertise on the subject of industrial climate disruption simply because they are the people who know the empirical evidence, physical properties, and scientific theories supporting industrial climate disruption the best.

The actual argument would go something like this: “The most knowledgeable people in the world on the subject of climate have overwhelmingly concluded that industrial climate disruption is real, therefore you should too.” This argument is all about expertise, not popularity, and so it’s illogical to label this argument a bandwagon fallacy.

Evidence and expertise matter. And when genuine climate realists refer to the consensus on industrial climate disruption, they’re arguing by proxy that the body of evidence in support of industrial climate disruption is so strong that individuals, businesses, and governments should be factoring it into their decision making. Doing so is the only logically defensible position.

1 The consensus position is that the climate is changing, that the emission of greenhouse gases by human industry is the dominant driver of those changes, and that the changes will almost certainly be disruptive to human society and global ecology. [italicized section added following discussion in the comments below]
2 I include scientists who publish papers on climate-related fields of chemistry, geology, physics, optics, et al. For example, an oceanographer with expertise on the carbon cycle in the ocean and thus expert knowledge of the sources of ocean acidification would qualify as a “climate scientist” for the purposes of this discussion. Similarly, a physicist who studies carbon isotopes and publishes about the changing isotopic ratios due to the burning of fossil fuels would also qualify.

34 replies »

  1. Ironically, in Australia, the leading climate denier newspaper, The Australian, routinely attacks postmodernism as the source of evil in society – then takes the view that science has no absolute standard and can be interpreted to suit your point of view. So postmodern.

  2. There is also a feeling abroad that experts don’t really know any more than you do. Which is kind of strange, because they so obviously do…

  3. Angliss’ argument is just the usual pig (argumentum ad authoritatem) with a lipstick (evidence and expertise matter). I would have hoped we were long past that.

    Suffice it to say that there are many experts in the Etruscan language but this doesn’t mean they can read it all.

    In fact, Angliss then moves to a completely specious definition of the consensus, including the totally antiscientific “the changes will be disruptive to human society and global ecology”.

    Twenty-three years of IPCC, for nothing.

    • I’m afraid that you haven’t demonstrated why my anything in my post is incorrect, Omnologos. You didn’t address any of my arguments, after all, and actually relied on yet another example of climate illogic in thh process. Specifically, you misused the argument from authority fallacy.

      There’s nothing inherently flawed in arguing via the authority of someone else so long as the someone in question truly is an authority. It’s only inherently fallacious if the authority in question, has none.

      For example, say I’m arguing some point about sea level rise and I reference something that an expert on pine bark beetles and forest ecology said to support my argument. There is a good chance that my reference would be fallacious because there’s no reason to expect that a forest ecologist would be an expert on sea level rise. On the other hand, if I were to refer to something said by an expert on sea level rise (say, Gary Mitchum of the University of South Florida), that reference would not be fallacious because there is every reason to believe that Dr. Mitchum is a true authority on the subject.

      And I don’t mind if you take issue with my definition of the consensus, but if you want to be taken seriously, you’ll need to offer logical argument and evidence, not mere assertions. I could assert that the moon was made of green cheese but that wouldn’t make it true. And until you can demonstrate otherwise, your assertion that my definition is somehow “specious’ and “antiscientific” is no different.

      • Brian – I did make the Etruscan language example, and it’s you who by-passed it completely.

        Here’s another one: we could put together in a room all the experts in the Antikythera mechanism. Unfortunately, whatever consensus they may reach, and however authoritative their opinions, we know that they do not know what the mechanism was exactly for, how it worked, etc etc.

        They might come back with reasonable guesses, even convincing ones. But their authority, reasoning, even scholarship effort mean little, because simply nobody knows enough about the Antikythera mechanism to state unequivocally what the mechanism was exactly for, how it worked, etc etc.

        So when you say “There’s nothing inherently flawed in arguing via the authority of someone else so long as the someone in question truly is an authority” you are making the mistake of not realizing the huge assumption that the “authority of someone else” is based on a sufficient level of knowledge on the part of the “someone else”.

        Likewise, all the Etruscan language experts in the world can’t be certain about more than a few words and sentences. If you rely on their authority for definitive statements of the forms “has been”, “is” and “will be” about the Etruscan language, you are using a flawed argument.

        Likewise, all climate science experts in the world cannot be relied on as authorities unless you assume that they know enough about climate science to be able to be relied on as authorities.

        ps I am not saying anything here about if the climate science experts you want to cite as authorities have or don’t have enough knowledge to be able to make definitive statements. What I just demonstrated is that your “There’s nothing inherently flawed…” is a flawed statement. In fact…as we all know, arguing by authority is wrong. Full stop.


        As for your definition of the consensus, more than two decades of hard IPCC work about likelihoods got collapsed (=disappeared) in your definitive statements, eg “the change will be disruptive”.

        That’s why your definition is both anti-scientific (you’re going against what the scientists say about the science) and specious (you’re making up a definition of consensus that may sound right only to those unfamiliar with all the IPCC work, and in general with all the issue of climate change as a risk management exercise).

        Your definition proclaims certainty where there’s risk. I am not going to illustrate how fundamentally different the two concepts are, especially from a policymaking point of view.

        The two points (you cannot argue by authority, not even if you try; and your definition of the consensus is specious and anti-scientific) actually relate to each other, but I think there are enough logical arguments already, in this comment.

        • I bypassed your Etruskan language analogy cause it was related to your illogical use and erroneous claim of the argument from authority fallacy. Your logic remains erroneous and your counterargument is so bad that it’s not just flawed, it’s wrong.

          First, both analogies you use (the Antikythera mechanism and the Etruscan language) are only applicable if you’re claiming that climate scientists know as little about how the Earth’s climate operates as Etruscan linguists and Antikythera historians know about the language and device respectively. The available evidence demonstrates that this is not the case. As such, they represent an unrepresentative sample – outliers that don’t represent the mean. Thus, your weak analogy is not applicable to the argument at hand.

          Second, I couldn’t have made a “mistake of not realizing [a]huge assumption,” as you claim, because I explicitly pointed it out.

          There’s nothing inherently flawed in arguing via the authority of someone else so long as the someone in question truly is an authority. It’s only inherently fallacious if the authority in question, has none. (emphasis added)

          Furthermore, we don’t need to assume that climate experts know enough climate science to be relied upon as experts. The mass of data, large number of established scientific theories, measured physical properties of materials, and climate models that all agree with each other within a certain degree of uncertainty eliminate the need for such assumptions. Similarly, while no proxy is perfect, a “sufficient level of knowledge” has long been established via such proxies as a formal education and/or advanced degrees related to the topic in question, peer-reviewed papers on the topic, experience working on the topic, etc. Such proxies are regularly tested for their accuracy on an individual basis, and so again, assumptions are not necessary.

          Third, you write that relying on the expertise of Etruscan linguists for “definitive statements of the forms ‘has been’, ‘is’ and ‘will be’ about the Etruscan language” is a flawed argument. This is yet another example of illogic on your part, namely a black and white fallacy. There are always definitive statements that can be made about anything, even if the statements are no more than “the Etruscan language existed” or “The Etruscan language is not presently readable.”

          Putting this in terms of climate, there are things that are definitively known about the climate. It is definitively known that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, for example, and it is definitively known that it is a greenhouse gas because of its quantum mechanical properties. It is definitively known that there is a greater percentage of water vapor at higher temperatures than at lower temperatures. These are observed, objective facts about which definitive statements may be made.

          Just because scientists can’t make definitive statements about everything in climate science does not prevent scientists from making definitive statements about anything.

          Finally, let’s put this “argument from authority” discussion into set notation. I’m claiming that A, the set of arguments from authority that are misleading and thus fallacious, is a subset of B, the set of all arguments from authority: A ⊂ B. You are claiming that A = B. Fundamentally, your claim is more difficult to prove, as I only need to present a single example where A ≠ B to disprove you, but you must fashion a universal argument. Alternatively you can claim that A = B is axiomatic, but doing so is a tacit admission of it’s illogic, since axioms are unprovable.

          To sum up, you’ve used two inapplicable analogies, you’ve incorrectly claimed I made an unstated assumption in contradiction to my own words which you quoted yourself, you’ve claimed that scientists essentially need perfect knowledge to make definitive statements, and you’ve failed to craft a universal argument as you would be required to do in order to prove your statement. Each of the sections of your argument is wrong, therefore your argument against my point about an appeal to a misleading authority is also wrong.

          Now, as for my definition of the consensus, let’s start from the dictionary definition of the word “disruption.” Merriam-Webster online defines the word as

          1 a : to break apart : rupture
          b : to throw into disorder
          2 : to interrupt the normal course or unity of

          The most recent IPCC report found that industrial climate disruption is projected to increase the intensity of precipitation (rain and snow) and the intensity of droughts (WG1 10.3.6), the reduction of diurnal temperature range due to warmer nights (WG1 10.3.2), the reduction of Arctic sea ice leading to a large increase in Arctic temperatures leading to deeper permafrost thawing (WG1 10.3.3), increased ocean acidification (WG1 10.4.2), and changes to seasonal monsoons with some getting stronger and others getting weaker (WG1 10.3.5). Without mitigation, these physical changes are expected to increase crop losses due to both drought and intense precipitation (WG2, to increase heat stress on vulnerable populations during more frequent heat waves (WG2, to shrink tundra ecosystems and stress the wildlife populations that rely upon them (even as other populations benefit) (WG2 as well as stressing the human populations dependent on stressed wildlife for food and on stable permafrost for settlements (WG2, to threatening the Arctic and Southern Ocean ecosystems due to undersaturation of aragonite (WG2 4.4.9) to changing the timing of planting and harvesting crops to correspond to changes in seasonal monsoons (WG2 3.4.1). Dozens if not hundreds of other examples exist, but I trust you get my point.

          Each of the changes I describe above qualify as an interruptions in the normal course of things. Some will create more disorder than others, but each of them is definitionally a “disruption.” Put them all together (especially in combination with even a small subset of the other examples to which I alluded) and it’s entirely possible and reasonable to claim that the IPCC has actually claimed that climate changes will be disruptive in the future, and did so using exactly what the scientists said about the science.

          Similarly, since I just demonstrated that my definition is in line with the IPCC work, your claim that my definition is specious is also wrong.

          It seems to me that you’ve chosen to define “certainty” as an abstract in this case – 100%. Anything less cannot be said to be definitive or certain. In strictly logical, abstract terms, that is certainly true, and I’ll grant that to you. But we’re talking about reality here, not abstractions, and in reality there is always a threshold over which you can claim certainty. Scientists have demonstrated, repeatedly and at length, all three parts of my definition of the consensus. And simply asserting otherwise will not change that fact.

        • 1. You claimed I had made no logical argument, but now you say you by-passed it because you felt like it

          2. You claimed there was nothing “inherently flawed” but now felt the urge to explain (a) that you assume they know a good lot about the world’s climate (=that was my point, thank you) and (b) that you don’t even rely on their authority, but on your perception of “the mass of data etc etc”.

          Therefore you are relying on their authority and at the same time you are not relying on it. I suspect that is because you know there is no way to rely on authority.

          3. You’re also assuming the laboratory properties of, say, CO2, function just the same in the free atmosphere. Well, in the lab hot gases go upwards, but in the free atmosphere the higher you go, the cooler it is. If things were always that simple, all the fashion about combating free radicals in cells would have brought us something more tangible than fashionable “cures”.

          Once again I am not claiming CO2 is not a GHG in the free atmosphere. It likely is. I am pointing the unstated assumptions that you seem quite reticent to admit.

          4. “climate disruption is projected to increase”…can’t you see the difference with “climate disruption will increase”? If you can’t, you can’t, and I can’t help you. The fact that there are many bullets in the gun might make the chances of dying at Russian roulette higher, but your list isn’t of items as independent as one bullet from another.

          Furthermore if the IPCC had wanted to use your “is” and “will be” they would have done so. Your definition remain specious and wrong: it is obviously illogical to describe an explicitly-written consensus by making “reasonable claims” (reasonable, according to you) about it, rephrasing it on the basis of your volition.

          5. We’re talking reality alright, a reality where climate change affects policymaking, and where the difference between absolute certainty and risk management is thousands of tree fallen in tropical forests to absurdly make Palm oil. Simply asserting that “projected” means “will be” will not change this fact.

        • Omnologos wrote: “You claimed I had made no logical argument, but now you say you by-passed it because you felt like it.”
          No, I wrote previously that I bypassed your argument because it was illogical and inapplicable, and I’ve demonstrated that it is both:

          I bypassed your Etruskan language analogy cause it was related to your illogical use and erroneous claim of the argument from authority fallacy (emphasis added)

          As I demonstrated in my previous response, it was a faulty analogy by way of being an unrepresentative sample.

          Omnologos wrote “You claimed there was nothing “inherently flawed” but now felt the urge to explain (a) that you assume they know a good lot about the world’s climate (=that was my point, thank you)”
          No, your point was that I was making an unstated assumption, which I demonstrated in my previous response was not correct.
          According to Merriam-Webster online, an “assumption” is

          a fact or statement (as a proposition, axiom, postulate, or notion) taken for granted

          How do you do get to work every day, Omnologos? The car you drive (or bus/train you ride) is assumed safe based on the authority of the engineers who designed it and the technicians who tested and certified it. You have to assume that there was no corruption in the signing of the safety certificates, that the safety data wasn’t falsified, that the particular vehicle you’re in was assembled correctly, that the electronics won’t fail, and so on. And in every step of the way, you have to assume that someone has the authority (knowledge and experience) to verify each and every one of those items. Unless you’re a hermit who grows his own food and built his own home, your existence relies on arguments from authority every minute of every day.

          The difference is that you know that the design is good because your vehicle isn’t the only one like it out in the world, and if there were a major safety flaw you would have likely heard about it (recall notices, for example). You know that, if there was corruption, it wasn’t so significant as to compromise the overall safety of the vehicle, at least to date. You know that your vehicle was built correctly because you know that each vehicle is required to pass a common set of inspections that are approved and certified by independent third parties. So even though you are making assumptions about the safety of your vehicle, those assumptions are reasoned ones that are backed by evidence.

          Given the definition of “assumption” I quoted above, I could probably argue that all the safety evidence means that you’re not actually taking for granted your vehicle’s safety, and thus what you’re doing is not actually an assumption. But while I could make that argument, I’ll settle for pointing out that not all assumptions are equal, and assuming that someone whose authority is based on evidence and has been independently verified is an entirely reasonable thing to do.

          Omnologos wrote “You claimed there was nothing “inherently flawed” but now felt the urge to explain… (b) that you don’t even rely on their authority, but on your perception of “the mass of data etc etc”.”
          I’m not sure where you even got this from. I’m saying that their authority is derived from their knowledge of their understanding of the science, data, etc. and that they retain their authority only so long as their knowledge of said science, data, etc. is regularly verified. And as I wrote in the OP, “[r]eferring to that consensus is simply a way to refer to the science by proxy.”

          Or, if you prefer, “EPA is not required to re-prove the existence of the atom every time it approaches a scientific question.”

          Omnologos wrote “You’re also assuming the laboratory properties of, say, CO2, function just the same in the free atmosphere. Well, in the lab hot gases go upwards, but in the free atmosphere the higher you go, the cooler it is.”
          Actually, in the free atmosphere your statement only applies to the troposphere. Above the tropopause the temperature increases in the stratosphere until the stratopause, at which point the temperature cools again in the mesosphere up to the mesopause, and then it goes up again through the thermosphere. The free atmosphere ultimately become so rarefied that it’s no longer possible to call it an atmosphere and its temperature becomes essentially meaningless.

          Hot gases always rise in a gravity well unless something actively prevents them from doing so, lab or no lab – just ask a hawk riding a thermal. So hot gasses on the Earth rise even in the free atmosphere. Other factors (adiabatic cooling due to expansion of gases as they rise) are the reason for tropospheric cooling.

          And I’m assuming nothing about the physical properties of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide absorbs energy in the infrared wavelengths whether or not it’s in a lab environment or in the free atmosphere. There will be different chemical reactions and energetic collisions in a free atmosphere than in a lab, but if you reproduce the conditions of the free atmosphere in a lab precisely enough, carbon dioxide WILL behave the same in the lab as it does in the atmosphere, and vice versa. For any material, not just carbon dioxide, to behave otherwise goes against the laws of physics (conservation of mass and energy for starters).

          Finally, if you honestly hold any doubt whatsoever that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas in the free atmosphere, you’ve just lost all credibility on the topic of climate and much credibility on the subject of science in general.

          The rest of your comment relates to the definition again, so let me sum up your counter-argument against my previous post – you misrepresented what I said about your Etruscan analogy, you repeated a claim that I made an unstated assumption when it was clearly stated, and you made a couple of scientifically-provably wrong (and possibly credibility-destroying) claims about carbon dioxide. You did not provide a universal argument as you are required to do given your position and you did not defend your analogies. At this point I think it’s fair to say that you failed to produce a coherent counter-argument and are instead continuing to assert, without anything resembling the level of proof required, that argument from authority is always, in all cases, fallacious. Your turn.

          Moving on to the definition issue again.

          Omnologos wrote “‘climate disruption is projected to increase’…can’t you see the difference with ‘climate disruption will increase'”
          I most certainly can. My point, which you appear to have understood but rejected, is that in the real world there is always a threshold over which a “projection” essentially becomes certain.

          As for that rejection, you also wrote that “if the IPCC had wanted to use your ‘is’ and ‘will be’ they would have done so.
          Ahh, clearly you didn’t go digging into those examples I gave you. You should have, because while not all of them used “is” or “will,” many did.

          Hot days, hot nights and heatwaves have become more frequent (IPCC, 2007a). Heatwaves are associated with marked short-term increases in mortality (Box 8.1)…. Heatwaves in South Asia are associated with high mortality in rural populations, and among the elderly and outdoor workers (source)

          Where soils are adequate for forest expansion, species richness will increase as relatively species-rich forest displaces tundra (see Figure 15.3; Callaghan et al., 2005). Some species in isolated favourable microenvironments far north of their main distribution are very likely to spread rapidly during warming. Except for the northernmost and highest-Arctic species, species will generally extend their ranges northwards and higher in altitude, while the dominance and abundance of many will decrease. (source

          Polar and sub-polar surface waters and the Southern Ocean will be aragonite under-saturated by 2100 (Orr et al., 2005) and Arctic waters will be similarly threatened (Haugan et al., 2006). Organisms using aragonite to make their shells (e.g., pteropods) will be at risk and this will threaten ecosystems such as the Southern and Arctic Oceans in which they play a dominant role in the food web and carbon cycling (Orr et al., 2005; Haugan et al., 2006). (source)

          And even many of those that did couch their language did so in a way that leaves things pretty explicit. Here’s perhaps the best example of what I mean

          Uncertainty in these projections due to potential future climate change effects on the ocean carbon cycle (mainly through changes in temperature, ocean stratification and marine biological production and re-mineralization; see Box 7.3) are small compared to the direct effect of rising atmospheric CO2 from anthropogenic emissions. Orr et al. (2005) estimate that 21st century climate change could possibly counteract less than 10% of the projected direct geochemical changes. By far the largest uncertainty in the future evolution of these ocean interior changes is thus associated with the future pathway of atmospheric CO2. (source)

          There comes a point, Omnologos, when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We’re way past that point with respect to climate disruption. Here’s a mathematical example using information from the IPCC Synthesis Report, section 3.3.1 and Table 3-2. I culled 12 statements that qualified as “disruptive” and which had been given IPCC uncertainty designations (“very likely” equals a >90% chance of happening, or “high confidence” equals an 80% chance of the statement being correct, for example) from those two places whose likelihoods varied from as low as 50% to as high as > 99%.

          When I calculated actual probabilities based on those statements, I found that the probability of none of those 12 statements was vanishingly small: 0.0000000668%. The probability of at least one of those statements occurring is simply 1 minus the probability of none of them happening, or 99.9999999332%. Essentially certain. The probability of at least two of those statements occurring is 93.08%. And that number can only go up with adding more possibly disruptive effects.

          There’s no practical difference between a definition that says “climate change will almost certainly, to a 99.9999999332% likelihood, be disruptive” and a definition that says “climate change will be disruptive.”

          And when you consider that those items include increased risk of species extinction, falling crop yields due to droughts flooding, malnutrition due to lower crop yields, population migrations due to droughts and greater incidence of storm surge flooding, lower freshwater availability due to saltwater intrusion, infrastructure losses along coastline, and the like (and that focuses only on global effects, not regional effects which may be more severe locally), my definition is not only correct, your rejection of it is indefensible.

        • we’re near an agreement on the first point. Your argument isn’t based “on authority”, rather on “trusted, partial authority”. You trust they know what they’re doing, but that trust is based on something else than their authority.

          and we’re still light years apart on the “will be” vs “could likely be” front. Examples about the ipcc describing the past don’t apply, as climate change is about managing future risks. Your probability computation is meaningless: you may want to run it past a statistician and/or ask an ipcc author why they haven’t used it themselves, or if it’ll be in AR5.

          Hopefully one day you’ll admit the future is especially difficult to predict 🙂

        • That’s what I’ve been saying all along, Omnologos. I’m glad to see that you’re finally realizing that. But that’s still an appeal from authority, and so it seems to me that you’ve nearly come around to accepting my point that not all arguments from authority are inherently fallacious.

          As for my definition again, you clearly still haven’t looked up any of my references, even after I provided links to some of them, because each of them is in reference to model projections. And you’ve focused on the one quote I provided that talked about both past and future effects and not the other three that are specifically and exclusively about the future.

          Finally, I don’t need to run my probability theory past a statistician – it’s basic, 1st semester undergraduate probability theory that every engineer I know took as a requirement to graduate. It’s as simple as p(A&B) = p(A)*p(B) and p(Ac) = 1 – p(A). Nothing advanced about it (although I don’t know your math background, so maybe it’s not be familiar to you). And it demonstrates why my definition is fine.

          I’ve defended my definition repeatedly, Omnologos, using multiple approaches that have, individually and collectively, demonstrated that your attacks on it are baseless.

        • 1. I find it oxymoronic to claim an argument is based on authority when the authority is actually given by the claimant to the authorities (via trust – in fact the argument works only as long as you trust those authorities).

          2. You keep mentioning projections, but that’s not what I was arguing against. I would have had no objections had you defined consensus as

          The consensus position is that the climate is changing, that the emission of greenhouse gases by human industry is most likely the dominant driver of those changes, and that the changes are projected to be overall disruptive to human society and global ecology.

          What’s wrong with the above? (who knows)

          3. If you’re so sure about your probability skills, don’t waste time on me, get in touch with an IPCC author at once. Or be quiet about absurdist, logic-defying zero point zero zero zero percents.

        • Um, the “argument from authority” only works if the claimant thinks that the person they’re referring to is an authority. The trust is implicit in the claim in the first place. If the claimant knows that the person they’re referring to isn’t an authority, it’s not a logical fallacy, it’s a deliberate deception.

          If you’re so convinced that I’m not actually making an argument from authority, what would you claim I’m doing?

          There is nothing wrong with your proposed definition, except that it understates what I consider to be the level of certainty. It’s entirely possible that climate scientists would prefer it, given that it offers wiggle room that I don’t feel is necessary. Who knows – maybe at some point I’ll change my mind and adopt your revised definition (or something very similar), but I doubt it. The simple fact is that the science supports my definition precisely because I’ve intentionally made it broad enough to be widely applicable.

          As for my math, put up or shut up. Dispute it directly by demonstrating that I made a math error (in which case I’ll happily run a correction) or stop disputing it. I told you how to replicate it, after all. Continuing to imply some mathematical impropriety on my part will do nothing more at this point than demonstrate that you’ve stopped debating in good faith.

        • 1. You claimed there was nothing inherently flawed in making an argument from authority. We have discovered that the authorities are authoritative iff you think so (you trust them, you trust their knowledge to be detailed and deep enough, etc). Now, who will be receptive of an argument based on those authorities? Obviously, and only, the people that confer those authorities a similar level of trust as you do.

          Will those people need your argument at all? If they trust those authorities, they are very likely to have reached the same conclusions as you did. But then, what kind of argument is the one made to people who are already convinced? You are in effect proposing no new logical conclusion starting from some premises, so yours isn’t an argument, rather a tautology.

          This seems to me another very big flaw in the argument from authority.

          2. You say is entirely possible that climate scientists would prefer [my definition of the consensus]. I would add (again) that it is illogical to use a definition of the consensus that is not preferred by a consensus of climate scientists. Here’s another version that avoids the pitfalls of the future tense of “to be”:

          The consensus position is that the climate is changing, that the emission of greenhouse gases by human industry is most likely the dominant driver of those changes, and that the changes are projected with a high degree of certainty to be overall disruptive to human society and global ecology.

          I would also add that those projections are for the years after 2040.

          3. As for your math…think about it. Here you are in a side comment on a blog post of yours, demonstrating that the probability of no disruption is 0.0000000668%. That’s one part in 1.5 billions. It’s “basic statistics” everyone should be familiar with, yet it has escaped untold numbers of brilliant scientific minds focused nevertheless on advancing climate science.

          I say, if you really believe that, I am totally unworthy of being the only one to know about it, and you should RUN to get it added to the IPCC AR5, where it will close down all uncertainty arguments for good.

          So it’s your turn to put up or shut up, not mine. And rest assured I won’t throw any obstacle in your path to worldwide recognition.

        • Let me summarize our discussion about the “argument from authority” to date:

          1. In the OP, I claim that the expertise of the people who form the consensus matters.
          2. You claimed that this was an “argument from authority” fallacy and provided an analogy for why.
          3. I disputed your labeling it a fallacy because it’s completely reasonable to refer to someone’s expertise when that someone is actually an expert.
          4. You disputed #3 and provided two analogies that you felt supported your claim, namely the Etruscan language and Antikythera device. You also said I was making an unstated assumption that the suspected expert actually was an expert.
          5. In response to #4, I demonstrated that your two analogies were inapplicable due to being unrepresentative samples. I also demonstrated that I had explicitly stated my assumption. At the same time I indicated that there are proxies such as advanced degrees, peer-reviewed papers, years of experience working in a field, et al that serve as verification methods for someone’s expertise. I also pointed out that your claim about definitive statements was a) false and b) an example of black and white thinking. And I demonstrated that you have the higher burden of proof given your claim of universal applicability of the “argument from authority” fallacy.
          6. In response to #5, you misrepresented what I said with respect to your Etruscan analogy and you failed to acknowledge my point about the inapplicability of your analogies. You also insinuated that I was being dishonest with respect to my arguments that not all appeals to authority are inherently fallacious. And you attempted to contradict my claim that some things in science are definitive.
          7. In my response to #6, I again pointed out that your analogies were inapplicable. I then used an analogy of my own to demonstrate that everyone makes reasonable assumptions based on the expertise (authority) of others all the time, and that those assumptions are reasonable precisely because there is evidence to justify them. I also disproved your suggestion that there are no definitive statements in science with a specific example (carbon dioxide) and I indicated that this was a credibility-defining issue.
          8. In your response to #7, you indicated that we were nearing agreement on the “argument from authority” issue based on my arguments about trusted authority. You did not, however, acknowledge either that your analogies were inapplicable or that some things in science may be definitively stated.
          9. In my response to #8, I pointed out that even an argument from “trusted, partial authority” was still an argument from authority, and that thus you appeared to be agreeing with my claim that not all arguments from authority were fallacious.
          10. In response to #9, you said it was self-contradictory to claim that an argument from authority could only be based on trust given by the claimant to the expert.
          11. In response to #10, I pointed out that the trust of the claimant was implicit in any argument from authority – making a claim without that trust would be a lie, not a logical fallacy. And I asked you to explain what you thought I was doing.

          So far you’ve misrepresented my words, implied that I’m lying (or at least deceiving myself), refused to acknowledge the correctness of any of my arguments to date, failed to make the universal argument that your high burden of proof requires, and made a statement that implies you have an insufficient knowledge of science in general (and of climate science in particular) to be credible on scientific subjects.

          And your most recent response is yet another logical fallacy, namely a red herring. Who the audience is does not matter as to whether or not an argument is fallacious.

          Given all this, I’m not sure there’s any point to continuing our discussion.

        • As for my math, I did run it by a couple of people who do climate science for a living and they did indicate that I’d missing something. Specifically, I treated all the terms as independent when there are a significant number of interdependencies just among the 12 things I found in the Synthesis Report. And they indicated that doing this kind of a calculation would be intractable, which I interpret to mean that if I could figure out a way to do it robustly, it would be publishable.

          So until such time as I or someone else chooses to do such a calculation, I’ll back off on the projection part of my definition a bit. See the OP for the updated definition.

  4. Science is never “done.” All theories are provisional.

    As Galileo observed, ‘In science, the opinion of thousands is not worth the spark of reason in one man.’

    In the 1970’s many climate scientists and experts predicted a new ice age was imminent:

    “the world’s climatologists are agreed” that we must “prepare for the next ice age.” –Science Digest, Feb 1973

    “There’s a new Ice Age coming!” Windsor Star, 09/09/72. Quoting Prof Hubert Lamb, director of climate research at the University of East Anglia: “We are on a definite downhill course for the next two centuries. The last 20 years of this century will be progressively colder.”

    “The world could be as little as 50 or 60 years away from a disastrous new ice age, a leading atmospheric scientist predicts. Dr. S. I. Rasool of NASA and Columbia University says…” – Washington Post, Times Herald, July 9, 1971.

    “Get a good grip on your long johns, cold weather haters-the worst may be yet to come. That’s the long-long range weather forecast being given out by “climatologists.,” the people who study very long term world weather trends.” – Washington Post, Times Herald Jan 11,1970.

    “New Ice Age Coming…Ocean floor sediment holds clues to future new ice age on way.” L.A. Times, Oct 24, 1971.

    If you had written your article in the 70’s, you would have probably warned that “The overwhelming consensus of climate experts…” agree we are heading for Global Cooling.

    Additionally, there are examples of how political the nature of the climate change debate has become, which does not allow alternative views to be published.

    The hypothesis that cosmic rays and the sun hold the key to the global warming debate has been Enemy No. 1 to the global warming establishment ever since it was first proposed by two scientists from the Danish Space Research Institute, at a 1996 scientific conference in the U.K. Within one day, the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Bert Bolin, denounced the theory, saying, “I find the move from this pair scientifically extremely naive and irresponsible.” He then set about discrediting the theory, any journalist that gave the theory credence, and most of all the Danes presenting the theory — they soon found themselves vilified, marginalized and starved of funding, despite their impeccable scientific credentials.

    It took almost a decade of negotiation, and who knows how many compromises and unspoken commitments, to convince the CERN bureaucracy to allow the project to proceed. And years more to create the cloud chamber and convincingly validate the Danes’ groundbreaking theory.

    Yet this spectacular success will be largely unrecognized by the general public for years because CERN remains too afraid of offending its government masters to admit its success. CERN formerly decided to muzzle Mr. Kirby and other members of his team to avoid “the highly political arena of the climate change debate,” telling them “to present the results clearly but not interpret them”

    After all, it has already been decided that “the Science is settled” that man’s CO2 pollution is the primary driver of our recent climate change. We can’t have pesky new observations getting in the way of a government gravy train.

    But paradoxes are nature’s way of trying to tell us something.


    But don’t worry folks, Al Gore assured us “the Science is settled…”


    Nature, November 2012:

    “The mystery of recent stratospheric temperature trends”

    The new data call into question our understanding of observed stratospheric temperature trends and our ability to test simulations of the stratospheric response to emissions of greenhouse gases and ozone-depleting substances.

    It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.”

    —Richard Feynman

    • Pat wrote

      If you had written your article in the 70′s, you would have probably warned that “The overwhelming consensus of climate experts…” agree we are heading for Global Cooling.

      Nope. Because there wasn’t an overwhelming consensus at the time, and what little consensus there was was actually leaning toward industrial climate disruption, not “global cooling.” According to Peterson et al 2008 (full citation: Peterson, Thomas C., William M. Connolley, John Fleck, 2008: The Myth of the 1970s Global Cooling Scientific Consensus. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 89, 1325–1337.), it was the popular press that latched onto the idea of global cooling, not publishing scientists, and global cooling was supported by a total of 7 papers (of a total of 71 papers) between 1965 to 1979. Global warming (the term used in the paper) was supported by 44 of those papers. I wouldn’t call 62% of papers supporting global warming an “overwhelming consensus.”

      I’m not sure what you mean by “Enemy #1,” however – the GCR theory is one of the few non-GHG theories that has even a small chance of adding significantly to climate science as we know it right now. For that reason I’ve been following the CERN experiments with some interest. Last I heard the experiments demonstrated that GCRs could generate a spray of particles that could, in theory, serve as nucleation sites for cloud droplet formation, but that there was as yet no evidence or even a proposed physical mechanism by which those particles could grow sufficiently large to become actual nucleation sites. But that was at least a year ago now, so there could have easily been more research published in peer-reviewed journals since.

      There’s the problem that even if the GCR-spawned particles can evolve into actual nucleation sites, proponents of the GCR/cloud theory will have to explain why it is that previous changes in GCRs have not produced corresponding changes in global temperature. And even then, the best they can hope for is to add another term to the climate disruption equation, and not the dominant term at that. Unless you believe that carbon dioxide isn’t a greenhouse gas (and subsequently reject much of quantum mechanics in the process), that is.

      One final point – there are examples of situations where computer modeling is so good that scientists actually revise their theories to match the models, not the other way around. Astronomers recently did that with respect to a certain class of massive stars – the models projected that a certain type of massive star would form in a particular way, but it had never been observed and the “pure” theory said it was impossible. Then a star was observed by SOFIA that matched the model, not the theory.

      Climate models aren’t to this level yet, but they’re not so far off that there’s much chance they’re missing a massive GCR contribution.

      Pat also wrote

      We can’t have pesky new observations getting in the way of a government gravy train.

      Give me a break. I addressed this one years ago here. In one sentence, the gravy train is mostly for satellites and climate scientists who are motivated primarily by money instead of the joy of discovery would be better off going to work for fossil fuel-related industries who have 1000x more money available than the government does.

      Science may never be “done,” but there comes a point where disbelieving in quantum mechanics, Newtonian motion (as applied to non-relativistic bodies), Maxwell’s Equations, conservation of mass and energy, and the like makes you look like a crank. There are a whole bunch of areas with respect to industrial climate disruption that are at that level today. In fact, the bulk of the scientific theories and physical laws upon which all the climate models are based are at that level. The reason why models are imperfect isn’t usually the science, but rather uncertainties in starting conditions and the measured data against which the models are tuned.

      • There was no ice age consensus, but there was (for a short period, 1972 to 1975) a consensus the world had been cooling and was likely to continue to do so (further ahead, they were expecting CO2 warming to kick in).

        Peterson, Connolley and Fleck stated as much, but refused to acknowledge their discovery.

        “By the early 1970s, when Mitchell updated his work (Mitchell 1972), THE NOTION OF A GLOBAL COOLING TREND WAS WIDELY ACCEPTED, albeit poorly understood“

        See, Brian, that’s where the trust in the authority breaks down. In their impetus to disprove the “ice age consensus” Peterson et all bulldozed all traces of the very real global cooling consensus from history.

        That can’t be right.

        • Give me a break, Omnologos. Here’s the rest of that paragraph that demonstrates that you’re quote mining:

          By the early 1970s, when Mitchell updated his work (Mitchell 1972), the notion of a global cooling trend was widely accepted, albeit poorly understood. The first satellite records showed increasing snow and ice cover across the Northern Hemisphere from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. This trend was capped by unusually severe winters in Asia and parts of North America in 1972 and 1973 (Kukla and Kukla 1974), which pushed the issue into the public consciousness (Gribbin 1975). The new data about global temperatures came amid growing concerns about world food supplies, triggering fears that a planetary cooling trend might threaten humanity’s ability to feed itself(Thompson 1975). It was not long, however, before scientists teasing apart the details of Mitchell’s trend found that it was not necessarily a global phenomenon. Yes, globally averaged temperatures were cooling, but this was largely due to changes in the Northern Hemisphere. A closer examination of Southern Hemisphere data revealed thermometers heading in the opposite direction (Damon and Kunen 1976).

          In other words, there wasn’t actually a consensus.

          Look at Figure 1 on page nine of the paper (direct link). In 1972 there were five papers published on the topic – two each warming and cooling and one neutral. In 1973 there was one neutral paper. In 1974, there was one cooling paper, four neutral papers, and three warming papers. In 1975 there was no cooling papers, one neutral paper, and 7 cooling papers. Over the period you defined, there are a total of four cooling papers, 10 neutral papers, and 14 warming papers. There is no consensus there.

          This theory has been disproven with facts and data. If you (or Pat) truly follow that Feynman quote then it’s time to let this one go.

        • 1. I have told you that, according to Peterson et al, the scientific consensus (=”widely accepted”) about (ongoing) global cooling was from 1972 to 1975.

          2. You reply by quoting their paragraph, where “the notion of a global cooling trend” relates to Mitchell 1972 and “scientist teasing apart the details of Michell’s trend” relates to Damon and Kunen 1976.

          3. But that’s exactly what I told you: scientists accepted a global cooling trend between 1972 and 1975.

          “Over the period you defined…” is another meaningless point. If you read Mitchell’s, you will see that it could be classified as “warming”, because he was expecting for CO2 to warm up the atmosphere eventually. On the other hand he said the world’s temperatures were going down, according to the best data available: so the paper could be classified as “cooling”.

          Scientific polls, like any other poll, can be easily tuned to return exactly what the questioner would like them to return.

        • Ahh, fair point – I missed the last date there. I retract my accusation of quote mining.

          I don’t, however, accept that “widely accepted” equals a scientific consensus for cooling. Especially given just how few papers on the subject were published over the 15 year period of the literature survey.

          And if you want to dispute their methodology, you’re free to prove it’s biased – they describe their methodology starting on page 5 of the pdf I previously linked to and they list each and every paper they found in Table 1. But until such time as you’ve proven it’s biased (and a single example of possible bias is not proof), please don’t go around making accusations you can’t support.

        • Consensus (according to Wiktionary):

          1. A process of decision-making that seeks widespread agreement among group members.
          2. General agreement among the members of a given group or community, each of which exercises some discretion in decision-making and follow-up action.

          I am not sure how to exclude “widely accepted” from both definitions above.

          As for showing the flaws of Peterson et al, I am waiting until their findings are replicated. I have a day job. I only know that they found a global cooling consensus but tried to have it deleted from history; that the one paper they mentioned and I have read can be classified differently according to the reader’s volition; that scientists at the time (early 1970’s) were busy organising meetings where they all agreed the world was cooling, whatever Peterson et al’s statistics might be.

          I also know that Peterson et al write “While some of these articles make clear predictions of global surface temperature change by the year 2000, most of these articles do not. Many of the articles simply examined some aspect of climate forcing“. Bu if “most” of the available articles for the chosen period 1965-1979 “do not […] make clear predictions”, what is Peterson et al about?

        • I tend to require that more than a mere majority be involved to qualify as a “consensus,” but I’ll buy your point that “widely accepted” could mean a consensus. I don’t think Wiktionary is as authoritative as Merriam-Webster is, but even M-W’s definition is such that “consensus” could be applicable down to a simple majority.

          I’m with Eli on your general criticisms of Peterson et al, however – if you’re so confident the data is wrong, stop demanding other people do your work for you and attempt to replicate/repudiate their findings yourself.

          “I only know that they found a global cooling consensus but tried to have it deleted from history” – If they tried to have it deleted from history, then pointing it out in their own paper is an odd way to do it.

          As for “scientists at the time (early 1970′s) were busy organising meetings where they all agreed the world was cooling,” all I can say is [citation needed].

  5. Omnologos, isn’t that the snake that swallows its own bullshit?

    Oh snake, tell us how many scientists accepted that there was a cooling trend between 1972 and 1975, how long that trend was going to be and more. Hell, you can find people today, even semi-respectable ones like Keelyside, more confused ones like Wroy Spencer, and the totally bats like Scarfetta and QB Lu who think that we will have a cooling trend of varying duration. The sensible simply laugh at the latter three.

    Peterson, Connolley and Fleck put your nonsense to bed. You can’t find any significant number of global cooling papers even in the 1970s at the end a period starting the 1940s when global temperature anomalies were rather stable. Of course the resumption of the rapid rise of the early 20th century starting in 1975 is the tell.

  6. Perhaps, Omnologos, you could do your own research and tell us what portion of papers in the 1970’s claimed we were headed for an ice age soon.

    • 1. The “coming ice age” consensus (among scientists at any time in the 1970s) is a myth – the meme was propped up by some scientists via eager mass media channel

      2. The “coming global cooling” consensus (among scientists during the whole of the 1970s) is a myth too (note the period)

      3. The “ongoing global cooling” consensus (among scientists between 1972 and 1975) is a fact of history (note again the period – pretending otherwise is a form of denial)

      4. If Ely, Brian or anybody else is interested in more detail, ask Peterson et al to explain the meaning of “widely accepted” concerning Mitchell 1972

      The four points above are extremely simple to understand. Give it a try.

      ps Mitchell 1972 described a global cooling ongoing since 1940, expected it to continue until around 1980, and then predicted CO2-caused global warming to kick in. In more than a sense, that’s very much part of the current consensus too, although with a reduced rate of cooling in the period 1940-mid 1970s.

  7. omnologos, you need to go back to Wikipedia (where I’m thinking you learn most of your stuff). Brian did not make an argument from authority about a scientific point. He noted the scientific points (briefly) and also discussed expertise. They happened in the same blog post. You are confused.

    Regarding “Your definition proclaims certainty where there’s risk. I am not going to illustrate how fundamentally different the two concepts are, especially from a policymaking point of view.” that is not true at all. Industrial climate disruption is demonstrated and real.

    My question for you, something I like to ask all science denailists: What’s in it for you? What do you get out of joining the effort to slow down development of well informed (by science) policy? How would your particular stake in the world be damaged by a less dangerous world for the next generation? Because really, if you don’t have a good answer to that, you should get out of the way.

    • Greg – I am happy the exchanges with Brian have clarified what he meant by “There’s nothing inherently flawed in arguing via the authority of someone else”.

      As for your other question, if one is stupid enough to believe I am a “science denialist” then there is no point in answering. It’s just the second time today you don’t demonstrate sharpness of mind.

      • Dear Omnologos,
        Do you really think that we are not running against a wall?- Do you believe that all is fine with our society and that mass industry is not harming the the planet (how ever)? Thank you, Ina.

        • Greg -if you’re clever enough to make that kind of comment I’m puzzled why you aren’t clever enough to understand how impossible your understanding of climate skepticism will ever be, given your questions about “denialists”

          Brian -I thought we were exchanging arguments not keeping scores. Anyway since we now know what’s intrinsically wrong with appealing solely to authority; with your attempts at probabilistic computing; and with your use of “is” (apparently not meaning a black-and-white situation) there’s zero point in reviewing past minutiae 🙂

          Ina -am more worried at the moment about asinine environmentally insane policies implemented by brain-challenged or corrupt politicians on the back of fashionable green thinking