Environment/Nature

Tom Harris places absurd limits on scientific truths and elevates ignorance to equal knowledge

Tom Harris asks his readers to put aside their common sense and reject knowledge and expertise in favor of ignorance and inexperience.

Tom Harris, Executive Director of the International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC)

Tom Harris, Executive Director of the International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC)

For the other posts in this series, click here.

Starting in the middle of December, 2014 and continuing through February, 2015, Tom Harris, Executive Director of the industrial climate disruptionA denying International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC), wrote at least eight nearly identical commentaries that appeared mostly in small local newspapers and websites around the English-speaking world. The stated purpose of the commentaries was to call for scholars and philosophers to engage in the public discussion about climate disruption (aka global warming or climate change), and Harris wrote that “philosophers and other intellectuals have an ethical obligation to speak out loudly when they see fundamental errors in thinking.6” As S&R hosts an occasional feature called “Climate Illogic,” we accepted Harris’ invitation and looked through his own commentaries for illogical arguments as well as other issues of concern. In Parts One and Two, S&R demonstrated that Harris’ comments decrying the tone of the were misleading and that his arguments against the supposed illogic of climate realists were themselves illogical. Today, S&R focuses on Harris’ confusion regarding scientists’ search for truth, how his attacks on expert opinion try to equate ignorance with knowledge, and how he distorts the “unequivocal” nature of recent global warming in his commentaries.

Harris confuses scientific truth for transcendent Truth

In his commentaries, Harris alleges that science cannot discover truth, and that any claim to truth made by scientists is automatically false. In doing so, however, he commits a logical fallacy known as equivocation. Equivocation is the term for when one definition of a word is confused for another definition of the same word. In this case, Harris is equivocating with respect to the words “truth” and “true.” Merriam-Webster defines the two words as follows:

truth
2 a (1) : the state of being the case: fact
2 a (2) : The body of real things, events, and facts : actuality
2 a (3) often capitalized : a transcendent fundamental or spiritual reality
2 b : A judgement, proposition, or idea that is true or accepted as true
3 a: the property (as of a statement) of being in accord with fact or reality
true
2 a (1) : being in accordance with the actual state of affairs.
2 a (2) : conformable to an essential reality
7 : logically necessary

What Harris does in each of his commentaries is confuse these various definitions of both “true” and “truth.” For example, he writes that “since observations always have some degree of uncertainty, they cannot prove anything true1,7” and “empirical evidence has long been recognized as particular, contingent, and having some degree of probability, [therefore] observation cannot be used to prove anything true.2” In both cases Harris is confusing definition 2 a (1) of “true” with either 2 a (2) or 7. To illustrate the problem with these statements, consider the following analogy.

John Smith is a weather hobbyist who has a weather station in his backyard. The weather station has a thermometer with a maximum error of 1 °F throughout its designed temperature range (-40 to 150 °F), and John keeps the station in good repair and calibrated regularly. One day he’s looking at the data and he notices that the temperature in his backyard at 6 AM was 30 °F and by Noon it had risen to 60 °F. John finds it a bit odd to see that his station recorded a 30 ° temperature swing in six hours, but when he checks his weather station he finds that it’s operating correctly. So he accepts the measurements as accurate, if curious, and thinks nothing more of it.

(KPCW)

(KPCW)

Are the measurements that John made “true?” If you’re a scientist, the measurements are data – facts that are, by their very nature, true in accordance with definition 2 a (1) above, including the measurement error. Furthermore, a scientist would have no problem subtracting the two temperatures and concluding that the weather station recorded a temperature increase of between of between 28 and 32 °F. And again, this falls within the definitions of “truth” used by scientists, namely definitions 2 a (1), 2 a (2) and 3 a above.

Harris, however, is saying that the data is not true because the measurements include an error term and thus do not perfectly represent reality. His argument is that science cannot demonstrate Truth – “a transcendent fundamental or spiritual reality” – and that nothing science does meets the “logically necessary” definition of “true.” And because his argument relies on confusing different definitions of “truth” and “true,” Harris’ argument is illogical.

But his argument is not just illogical, it’s also unworkable and absurd. The problem is that Harris’ argument implies that, since science can’t prove anything True, we can’t actually know if climate disruption is real or if it’s caused by CO2 increases. And if we can’t really know, then there’s no reason to take action. The problem is that no-one actually lives, works, or conducts science the way Harris is implying. For example, commuters can’t know if they’re going to get in car accident on any given drive, yet most wear seatbelts and avoid activities that increase their risk of accident (like texting while driving). Homeowners don’t know if their house is going to burn down, yet they carry fire insurance because the economic impact of losing a home can be devastating. A civil engineer doesn’t know that a given bridge will collapse in 20 years because of wear and tear on the bridge’s steel and concrete, but the risk of failure is serious enough that including some safety margin in the bridge’s design is the lowest risk approach. And doctors can’t know whether or not a given person will catch the measles, yet doctors recommend that nearly everyone be vaccinated against the disease because the risks associated with the disease are so much greater than the risks of side effects from the vaccine.

Even our legal system, upon which we base life or death decisions, doesn’t require the level of “truth” that Harris is supposedly expecting of science in general, and of climate science in particular. There is no credible reason for Harris to expect that climate scientists will meet an unattainable standard of Truth. As a communicator of science with decades of experience, Harris has to know his expectations are absurde, which means his expectations of Truth from science are dishonest.

Elevating ignorance to equal knowledge

Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov

Demanding and unreasonable and absurd level of proof from scientists is not Harris’ only dishonest expectation, however. Harris also wrote that “[t]ruth applies to mathematics but never to our findings about nature which are merely educated opinions based on scientists’ interpretations of observations (emphasis added).1” In this statement Harris is trying to make science appear to be mere opinion, presumably no better or worse than any other opinion. The problem is that not all opinions are equal – some opinions matter more than others, and opinions based on knowledge matter more than those based on ignorance. Isaac Asimov noted this point in a 1980 Newsweek commentary (A Cult of Ignorance, January 21, 1980), writing that the concept that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge” represented a “cult of ignorance” that was fundamentally anti-intellectual. In this case, Asimov wasn’t talking about people rejecting scholars, but rather about their rejection of both intelligence and knowledge.

In this case, Harris is stoking anti-intellectual fervor with yet another example of equivocation, this time with respect to different definitions of “opinion.”

opinion
2 a : belief stronger than impression and less strong than positive knowledge
2 b : a generally held view
3 a : a formal expression of judgement or advice by an expert

Specifically, Harris wants his readers to associate scientists with definitions 2 a and/or 2 b, but scientific opinion is actually definition 3 a. His equivocation on the subject of scientific opinion again flies in the face of everyday experience. When someone has a car problem that they can’t diagnose, they take the car into a mechanic who has the specific knowledge, training, and tools needed to diagnose and fix the problem. As a mechanic is an expert at identifying car problems and fixing them, so too are scientists experts in their fields of chemistry, biology, atmospheric physics, et al. And just as we probably wouldn’t trust an atmospheric physicist’s ignorant opinion on a car problem, neither should we trust a mechanic’s ignorant opinion (or anyone else’s ignorant opinion, for that matter) on an atmospheric physics problem. Yet this is exactly what Harris would have his readers do.

Attacking the notion of “unequivocal” scientific conclusions

IPCC AR5 WG1 Figure SPM.06

IPCC AR5 WG1 Figure SPM.06

Beyond his anti-intellectual attack on scientists in general, Harris also attacks one of the most important conclusions of the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessments. Specifically, SPM 1.1 of the IPCC’s Synthesis Report (contrary to Harris’ claims, this is not the first sentence of the report) reads:

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, and sea level has risen.

Harris finds this statement untenable because, in his opinion, science can never produce an unequivocal result. Unequivocal means “leaving no doubt : clear, unambiguous” or “unquestionable.” Lehigh philosophy professor Steven Goldman’s told Harris that, “strictly logically, no observations can lead to an ‘unequivocal’ interpretation.1” There are two problems with this statement.

First, the word “strictly” in Lehigh philosophy professor Steven Goldman’s comment means that the comment is only narrowly applicable. For example, strictly speaking it’s not dark in the depths of a cave. The cave walls emit or reflect infrared light, and the atoms that make up the rocks emit particles due to radioactive decay. But human eyes are incapable of sensing infrared light or detecting radioactive decay particles, so for most purposes, the cave is dark. Just not “strictly” dark. Similarly, Newton’s Laws of Motion are not strictly true because relativity alters the equations at high speeds or in the presence of very strong gravity, but for most everyday purposes Newton’s Laws are true enough.

Second, not all scientific statements require interpretation. Some are based on nothing but facts and those kinds of statements may indeed be unambiguous and without doubt. Using the previous example, John Smith’s weather station recorded two different temperatures at two different times – 30 °F at 6 AM and 60 °F at Noon. Since his station was operating correctly and the error in the measurements are much smaller than the temperature change, John can make an unequivocal, qualitative statement that the temperature rose between 6 AM and Noon. He couldn’t state unequivocally that the temperature rise was 30 °F, nor could he claim based on the available information why the temperature rose, but there is no question or ambiguity that the temperature did rise.

This is essentially what the IPCC did with the sentence Harris dislikes. They made a qualitative statement that multiple independent observations had detected warming in the global climate system. They didn’t say why, nor by how much, only that warming has occurred. How much and why, along with all the details about how confident scientists are their knowledge, would come later in the report(s). As such, Harris’ criticism of the IPCC’s unequivocal statement is wrong.

Much as people make decisions every day without having perfect knowledge of everything, people also don’t usually worry about the relativistic effects of driving their car at 35 MPH vs. 65 MPH. Put another way, Harris is again saying that we need perfect scientific knowledge before we can make any scientific claims about how the natural world works.

Harris wants philosophers and other intellectuals to refute “the belief that scientists discover truths7” and the idea that scientific conclusions can be “unequivocal.” But how can intellectuals refute one of the very definitions of science, namely that science is “knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method (emphasis added)?” If the philosophers and intellectuals Harris calls upon actually did refute science, they would be just as much climate disruption deniers as Harris himself is and their professional reputations would be justifiably tarnished as a result.

Science is the search for truths. While science may not be able to discover a universal, transcendent Truth, we don’t need complete, perfect knowledge before we can reasonably rely on the truths that science does tell us. Truths like the unequivocal facts that the Earth’s climate is warming, that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, or that burning fossil fuels dumps a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere. Harris’ commentaries ask us to put aside our common sense and pretend that somehow these facts and truths don’t matter. The commentaries are fundamentally an attack on not just science, but on the very concepts of knowledge, intellect, and expertise.

In Part Four we’ll see how Harris misleads his readers about the scientific method, misrepresents the current state of climate science, and tries to claim that non-experts should have an equal voice to experts in the public discussion about climate disruption.

Sources

  1. TOM HARRIS: Taming the climate debate, posted December 6, 2014.
  2. Climate Debate Needs Philosophers’ Unbiased Insights, posted December 9, 2014.
  3. Guest Opinion: Intellectuals should heal, not fuel, toxic climate debate, posted December 10, 2014. NOTE: this guest opinion is identical to source #1 above.
  4. Taming the climate debate – Tom Harris, posted December 11, 2014. NOTE: this letter to the editor is identical to source #1 except for a number of criticisms of David Suzuki.
  5. We need wise men to defang climate debate
  6. My View: Scholars needed for climate debate, posted on January 7, 2015.
  7. Commentary: Philosophers must tame global warming debate, posted on January 13, 2015.
  8. When Will Intellectuals Heal Toxic Climate Change Debate?, posted on February 7, 2015.

Notes

  1. Industrial climate disruption: the position that 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
  2. Climate disruption denier: someone who denies that industrial climate disruption is supported by multiple independent lines of evidence and is derived from well established physical laws
  3. Climate realist: someone who accepts the overwhelming data demonstrating that industrial climate disruption is real

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