Climate Illogic: Sometimes arguing from authority is the logical thing to do

For more posts in this series, please click here.

A common illogical claim among those individuals who deny industrial climate disruption is that any discussion of consensus or reference to a scientist’s expert opinion is an “appeal to authority.” Those who make this illogical claim are essentially trying to say that expert opinion doesn’t matter. This not only a misunderstanding of the logical fallacy, it’s also absurd given the realities of living in a complex world.

The actual fallacy is known as an “appeal to misleading authority.” In order for an authority to be “misleading,” it has to have at least one of the following:

  • The person being referred to as an authority may not be an actual expert on the subject in question.
  • The person being referred to as an authority may be biased.
  • The person being referred to as an authority may hold opinions that are not representative of his/her fellow experts in the subject
  • The reference to authority may be unnecessary.

With respect to climate disruption we find many examples of each of these types of misleading authorities. Burt Rutan, founder of Scaled Composites, and most of the NASA 49 are examples of individuals who have been identified as authorities on climate disruption but who are not actual climate experts. There is evidence that climate scientists Roy Spencer and Patrick Michaels are less than objective about climate disruption due to their religion, free market ideology, and/or fossil fuel industry funding. Richard Lindzen of MIT is a member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences due to his climate expertise, but his opinions about how the Earth supposedly cools itself (his “iris” hypothesis) are not representative of expert opinion on climate disruption, and so referring to Lindzen’s authority may be misleading. And at this point the increase in global temperature has been verified so often and independently that an appeal to any single scientist’s authority on the subject is unnecessary.

So long as these pitfalls are avoided, arguing from authority may be justified. This is especially true with respect to complicated subjects such as climate disruption and with respect to situations where people are forced to make decisions with incomplete information. We live in a complex world, and it’s not possible to rely exclusively on direct evidence from our own senses. Everyone must place their trust in the authority of someone else eventually.

One example of this fact is purchasing an automobile. People generally don’t purchase an automobile until after researching the vehicle, taking a test drive, etc. At each step of the process, however, the customer is forced to place his or her trust in the authority of someone else. When researching the automobile, the customer must decide whether or not to trust the reviewers, the crash reports. After all, its possible that the reports were fraudulent or the reviewers were paid to give positive reviews of a substandard vehicle. And the customer places his or her trust in the authority of the automobile’s engineers, manufacturers, and technicians to build and certify a safe automobile.

Given a proven track record of safety by the manufacturer, no major recalls on a given model, and safety testing monitored and certified by unbiased third parties, it’s not only reasonable to assume that the vehicle is safe, it’s justifiable. Essentially, the authority of the engineers et al is independently verified. And given that most people lack the ability to perform their own crash testing, relying on these types of authorities is not only reasonable, it’s also justified.

The process of verifying a person’s authority includes the person demonstrating a high level of understanding of key issues. In the example of an automobile that might be crash crumple zones, how wiring is routed in the engine in ways to prevent it from being melted by engine heat, or the effects of road grime on frame corrosion. In the case of industrial climate disruption the authority might need to understand how carbon isotopes prove that the excess carbon dioxide is due to burning fossil fuels, the physics of why carbon dioxide absorbs infrared radiation, and an understanding of blackbody radiation and how it interacts with greenhouse gases to create the greenhouse effect.

In addition, an authority is someone who has been verified to be an expert on a particular subject (automobiles above, or some aspect of climate science). The verification process is subject to some level of assumed trust, but is usually based upon independent, third party proxies such undergraduate and/or graduate degrees related to the subject, years of experience working with/in the subject area, a significant publication record of peer-reviewed studies on the subject, acknowledgment as an expert by multiple other experts on the same subject, and so on.

Finally, someone’s authority may be formally or informally revoked if there is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the proxies got it wrong. In the case of an automobile, if a test technician was falsifying safety reports, he or she could be fired or even charged with crimes. Meteorologist Joe Bastardi has repeatedly made claims about climate disruption that were easily disproved both mathematically and empirically, and as such he no longer has any real authority on the subject of climate disruption.

Arguing from authority is rarely if ever as good as arguing from first principles. When information is available and can be understood, arguing from that information will nearly always be preferable to arguing from the expert opinion of someone else who understands the information. However, when the subject being argued (say, climate disruption or a criminal proceeding) is sufficiently complicated that arguing from first principles is unrealistic, arguing from authority is not only justified, it is the logical thing to do.

14 replies »

  1. Nice essay. Especially the part about someone falsely claiming to be an authority and doing harm thereby being subject to criminal charges. I agree wholeheartedly. Joe Bastardi and his ilk should be prosecuted as the snake-oil salesmen they are.

    As for the complexity of climate science, on one level the scientists’ thesis is not that complicated. If you dump hundreds of billions of tons of heat-retaining gas into the atmosphere, eventually you are going to warm that atmosphere, and that warming will have dire consequences. Not that hard to understand or believe, is it? Just what those consequences will be and when they will happen is difficult to ascertain, but the basic argument pretty simple.

    • I’m not convinced that most people who deny industrial climate disruption are criminals. Motivated reasoning and self-deception seem to be innate to human psychology and prosecuting people for self-deceptions would set a very dangerous precedent. I’m also skeptical that most hypothetical cases could reach the “beyond a reasonable doubt” threshold. There may well be cases yet to be identified and tried where such a threshold might be reached, but even folks like Bastardi and Steve Milloy don’t necessarily cross that threshold.

      That said, civil lawsuits don’t have the same burden of proof that a criminal prosecution does, and as such lawsuits against corporations, think tanks, and individuals may well have the same effect. It was a civil prosecution (Medicaid lawsuits) that brought to light the deceptions of the tobacco industry, not a criminal prosecution. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Michael Mann’s libel lawsuit against the National Review Online and the Competitive Enterprise Institute starts that ball rolling, especially if the legal discovery process turns up evidence of collusion, deception, and/or dishonesty at NRO and CEI.

  2. Good stuff, Brian. As a practicing rhetorician, I always appreciate your discussions of fallacies and how they work, since that’s stuff I am expert about – as much as I appreciate and enjoy your cogent explanations of the science – which isn’t my field of expertise.

    Source credibility is the big issue here – and how we have, perhaps due to the power of media to confuse people because of its ubiquity and the tacit acceptance that “if it’s in the media, it must be true” thought process, perhaps for subtler reasons lost the ability to think critically about message senders. A real issue I wish we could help audiences grasp is that celebrity based on expertise (as Rutan’s is for aeronautics, for example) in one area does not equate to acceptable expertise in another, unrelated area.

    One thinks of Linus Pauling, a great physicist, who then became the butt of jokes because of his claims about Vitamin C’s health properties. What happened to that sort of source evaluation?

    It makes one shiver to think we’ve fallen so far in our abilities to ascertain source credibility that mere adherence to a political/economic philosophy trumps reasoning for too many message receivers/evaluators.

    • There are famous scientists who are justifiably famous due to their contributions to one field who are trying to leverage their celebrity (or are having their celebrity leveraged by others) into the field of climate science, up to and including Nobel Prize winners. The problem is that in the majority of cases expertise is non-transferrable. Expertise in one field almost never translates to similar expertise in another. But it takes people willing and able to stand up and explain exactly why that is the case, often repeatedly, for that message to rise above the noise.

    • You’ll have to excuse me, Elaine, but given I’m not a Sunday Times of London subscriber, I can’t see enough of the article to respond.

      What little I can see suggests that he’s already relying on another logical fallacy, namely a weak analogy. If he truly does compare climate models to economic models, then he’s comparing models based on well-understood physics that accurately reproduce the climate of the past and make statistical projections of the future to models based on poorly understood individual and group psychological factors that don’t usually try to accurately reproduce the economics of the past and have very little statistical skill in projecting future economic shifts.

      Comparing the two is like comparing apples and orangutans.

      If you have a link that isn’t paywalled, I’ll happily look at the whole thing and let you know what I think.

  3. Unfortunately, no I have not got a link. I had the paper version of the said article and linked the web version as I thought you might have access (somehow).


    The above link references some of his ‘facts’.

    The IPPC, Lawson said in the Sunday Times article have watered down their latest climate report for political reasons he claims. For example, due to pressure from the Germans who have invested the most in reducing their carbon footprint and, therefore, are paying the most for their energy needs compared to other nations. Although obviously an opinion piece Lawson’s main plank in his argument is that the models did not predict the none-rise in temperatures and that the mathematical models for climate change are as reliable as the mathematics used in economics. IPPC is subject to political manipulation, according to Lawson.

    Hopefully some kind soul might reproduce his argument/opinion in full for you so that you can offer up some thoughts.


    • Elaine, what’s your point? Or, more to the topic at hand, how does what you’re saying relate to the original post? Of course ideologues from the UK’s Global Warming Policy Foundation (Nigel Lawson created it and Benny Peiser more-or-less runs it) disagree with the IPCC’s conclusions. That’s hardly a surprise. Nor is it a surprise that the various other ideologues mentioned in the Canada Free Press article are saying similar things and generally misrepresenting both the newest IPCC report as well as the 2007 IPCC report (and subsequent investigations).

      I have read the Summary for Policymakers that was published last Friday. I haven’t yet read the complete Working Group 1 (scientific basis) report yet as it was only published yesterday. And I haven’t had time to write about either, although writing about both is definitely on my to-do list. Addressing the supposed difference between model projections and actual measured climate disruption is one of those topics I plan to write about specifically. In one sentence, the models don’t make predictions, they make projections, that difference matters, measured temperatures are still within the error bands of the models, and scientists have a really good idea where the energy would have increased surface temperatures actually went instead. (I didn’t say it would be a particularly pretty or even grammatically correct sentence….)

  4. That the so called respected ‘broadsheets’ continue to publish authoritative looking arguments that makes Joe Public question the authority of so called experts in the field of climate change where credentials matter. That is my point. You say in your opinion piece that one has to place one’s trust in an authority at some point, using the car purchase as an example (which is ironic considering it is one of the contributors to climate change/disruption). I can think of many products that have had to be recalled…trust in or lack thereof did not change sub standard production or unintended consequences leading to withdrawal.

    • As I point out in the original post, the argument from authority has several requirements. The first is that the person actually be an expert on the subject at hand. With respect to most of the individuals you’ve linked to there is little evidence that they are actually experts. Nigel Lawson is a former politician. Benny Peiser is a social anthropologist. Dominic Lawson is a journalist and Nigel’s son. Matt Ridley is a former zoologist turned failed banker turned journalist and author with a history of getting climate science wrong. Christopher Booker is a proponent of intelligent design and a journalist. David Rose is a journalist with a long history of misquoting scientists and misrepresenting climate science in his Telegraph articles. Owen Bennett, Gerald Warner, Matthew d’Ancona, Charles Moore, Francis Elliot, Alice Thomson, and Rachel Sylvester are all journalists. None of them have any clear claim to being authorities on the subject of climate disruption.

      Of all the people quoted in the Canada Free Press only Judy Curry has a clear claim to having authority on the subject of climate disruption. And even her authority is questionable at this point because she keeps making claims that are mathematically untenable and her opinions on uncertainty have a “lower risk” bias to them.

      There are always times when products get recalled. In science those happen when papers are retracted or, if the authors refuse to retract their papers, the papers are comprehensively disproved and then ignored thereafter. It does happen. Degrees are rarely if ever revoked, but if a scientist is completely useless, he or she won’t get research grants or won’t be able to find other scientists to collaborate with. As I wrote in the OP, “someone’s authority may be formally or informally revoked if there is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the proxies got it wrong.”

      In this case the question has to be whether or not the climate models got it wrong. The answer is clearly that they have not got it wrong, and people like those you linked to are either misinformed themselves or are attempting to misinform others. If you look at Figure 1.4 of the full WG1 report (link), you’ll see that we’re at the bottom of the expected model range from the First Assessment Report (FAR) in 1990, but well within the bands for the Second Assessment Report (SAR), Third Assessment Report (TAR), and Fourth Assessment Report (AR4). If you’re so inclined, the gory details of how the figure was generated is available here.

      • Thank you. I have enjoyed my reading on this subject again.

        Just have one tiny question with regard to ice measurement. Is it true that if you take in the expansion of the Antarctic ice then total ice has not decreased? One site made this point…? Arctic ice decrease, yes. Is this worth pondering on in the great analysis of climate change, disruption etc. Yes various reasons given re increase in Antarctic ice.

        Had a great few days coming up to speed again and I note that you are on top of the facts, as ever, and blowing deniers up, so to speak. 😉