If you can’t dispute the facts, attacking your opponent may distort the debate before it even starts.For more posts in this series, please click here.
Debates can be difficult. This is especially true when you’re arguing against subjects that are nearly indisputable, such as evolution or industrial climate disruption (aka climate change). When faced with this situation, it is nearly always easier to create a distraction than it is to argue with either the science or the data underlying it. If the distraction is successful, then you don’t even have to debate the science or data at all – you get to focus on something that you choose and that may be totally unrelated to the argument at hand.
In discussions of climate disruption there are a number of common distractions. For example, the term “catastrophic global warming” is a straw man – a claim that scientists don’t actually make that’s easier to debate than the actual nature of climate change and model projections. Similarly, the argument that the supposedly missing tropospheric hot spot disproves greenhouse gas-driven climate disruption is another straw man, in this case because it’s not the hot spot that demonstrates greenhouse gases, but rather the heating in the troposphere and the cooling in the stratosphere.
Sometimes, however, deniers of industrial climate disruption try to derail any discussion of climate science before it even starts. One way they do this is by using a tactic and logical fallacy known as “poisoning the well,” and it’s the focus of today’s Climate Illogic.
Poisoning the well is a form of attacking the debater rather than the debater’s arguments, otherwise known as an ad hominem logical fallacy. What makes poisoning the well so effective is that the attack is made even before debate starts, before any arguments are even presented, and it can distort the entire discussion.
One common example of poisoning the well is the allegation by climate disruption deniers that government or academic scientists only agree with the conclusions of climate science because they’d lose their research grants if they opposed climate disruption. Once this claim is made, the climate science supporter must spend valuable time debunking the allegation or run the risk that every statement he or she makes in support of climate science will be perceived as biased. Never mind that the allegation betrays ignorance of how government research grants are awarded, how grant money is used by research scientists, or the fact that scientists earn fame by debunking rather than reinforcing existing paradigms – the implication alone is enough to distort the entire discussion.
Other examples abound in climate discussions online. An almost archetypal example comes from a discussion at The Guardian‘s Climate Consensus – the 97% blog from December, 2013. In this case, a commenter with the moniker JoeDelta wrote the following:
I would say that one of the main reasons why advocates for political action to combat climate change have such difficulty making headway is that you just piss everybody off with your aggressive language.
Answer one question Rob [Honecutt, another commenter], if you would, please. Let’s imagine you have made a hotel reservation for two single hotel rooms for you and a colleague over the internet. The confirmation comes back by e-mail and it says one twin room, so you call the hotel to correct the problem and all seems resolved satisfactorily. Yet when you and you colleague arrive at the hotel the guy at reception says “Yes, I have a reservation for one twin room”. Do you lean into the guy’s face, maybe grabbing his lapels, and say “I’m curious, how is it that people blindly repeat errors like this without even bothering to check basic facts. The statement is so demonstrably wrong as to be absurd”? Is that what you do? Because that’s how people behave in these discussions.
JoeDelta poisoned the well for any commenter who took him to task using anything he considered to be “aggressive language.” In fact, we see JoeDelta take this exact tact later in the comment thread, after Elliott666 called JoeDelta a liar:
So how do you think they feel about you lying about subjects you obviously do not understand at the most elementary level?
Heh. So you’ve obviously just proved my point, Einstein.
To be sure, ad hominem attacks are common in arguments and debates, and it’s not only deniers of industrial climate disruption that make them. But in arguments where one side has the clear factual advantage over the other, resorting to logical fallacies like attacking one’s opponent instead of his arguments may well be one of the only tactics that has a chance of succeeding. And when it comes to climate, the data and scientific theory overwhelmingly support the scientific theory that climate is changing, that human industry is the dominant driver of those changes, and that the changes are almost certain to disrupt both global ecology and human society by the end of this century.