Guest post: defending science

Reader Peter Beattie contributed a short essay inspired by watching Neil deGrasse Tyson on Bill Mahrer’s show. It’s apophatic in the sense that Peter tells us what we should not say when defending science.

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How not to defend science

by Peter Beattie

While we are discussing how (or even whether) to justify scientific knowledge, here is a prime example of what the relevant points should be—and how one should not go about defending science. On a recent episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, science champion Neil deGrasse Tyson got into an exchange with former GM executive and climate denialist Bob Lutz:

Maybe you’ll agree that the discussion at the end— in which both participants are smugly convinced that they’re right and the other is wrong—was pretty much a waste of time and of the opportunity for something to be learnt. Or you won’t, in which case you’ll probably stop reading just about now. But if you do, you may be asking yourself what could be done to prevent such a discussion from becoming an exercise in futility. And to this end, I’d like to make three suggestions.

Understand your own arguments so your opponent cannot steal them

If you want to cite certain weather phenomena in support of climate change, you’d better make sure you actually understand what it takes to make that connection—and that your example is representative of the point you’re making. Maher’s point about the tornadoes in the mid-West was easily brushed aside by Lutz with the superficially correct statement that weather is not the same thing as climate. This makes Maher look bad and Lutz look good, and completely needlessly: there is a fresh paper by Hansen et al. (albeit not yet peer-reviewed) that ticks all the right boxes. Hansen et al. look not at a singular event, but at a weather pattern; they explain what the relevant comparable patterns are; and they give the statistical measures on which to base their assessment that the heat waves in Texas in 2011 and Moscow in 2010 are very likely due to climate change. All it takes is for the host, or a scientifically trained guest, to be prepared to cite specific sources and to briefly explain the salient points.

The second opportunity for Lutz to get away with his superficially correct (but evasive) arguments was handed him on the same silver platter. When Maher brings up the “overwhelming consensus of climate scientists”, this gives Lutz a great line: “Science doesn’t operate on consensus”. Which is the simple truth: The signatures of a thousand climate scientists professing their “belief” in climate change are scientifically as irrelevant as another thousand non-specialist scientists professing their skepticism. Tyson hinted at the right answer when he said, “It operates on a consensus of experiments”—but how many people in a lay audience are going to understand exactly what that means? If you cannot explain that it is only the qualified opinions of scientists working in the field—i.e. their argued, evidenced, and independently checked empirical results—which counts towards a consensus, then you’re losing a big part of both the argument and the audience.

Be careful with your metaphors

The first point here is really obvious. If you know a memorable saying that you can offer in support of your scientific position, make sure to pick one that has a deeper point that directly addresses the point at issue. Depicting your opponents as misguided fools and yourself as being in possession of a “great truth” may be a good applause line, but as a defence of science it is both pathetic and counterproductive. Science pursues truth, but it steadfastly denies owning the Truth.

Second, if you want to propose a bet as a great metaphor for what science is about, make sure not to leave out the one point about bets that prevents them from becoming a childish stunt. Making a bet is a pretty good way to represent a central aspect of science, viz. a competition between ideas that can be resolved by empirical evidence. But as any schoolchild knows after having made at most three bets, the whole exercise becomes a farce if you do not in advance specify the conditions under which either side would have to admit defeat. It might still happen that your betting partner openly reneges on his promise and simply digs in, but then you can at least call him a liar. That way, any onlookers are left in no doubt as to which idea is likely to be less well supported.

Don’t let grandstanding get the better of data and arguments

When Lutz says, “Name me one prediction of the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] that has come true”, that could have been the most telling point of the whole discussion. What Lutz suggests is that one genuine counter-example would be enough to shake his conviction—which on the face of it would be admirably falsificationist thinking. But nobody seriously takes him up on it. And it would have been so easy: Let him spell out exactly what kind of data would count as a counter-example to his assertion and then either have the relevant data to hand or let someone in a control room give it to you once they have Googled it—and maybe throw up a graphic to strengthen the point. Very soon, nobody would make the mistake of blustering without backup again.

Finally, a point about sources and checkability. Maher very sensibly asks Lutz, “What are you reading that I am not reading?”, but again fails to follow through. One simple question would have sufficed to stop Lutz in his tracks: “Which study specifically shows that measured sea levels have not risen?” The point, again, is to at least be able to show that your opponent is inconsistent and cannot support his claims. But then, that is the best you can do anyway. Even hard logic never forces you to accept the truth of X; logic can only force you to make choices. But these choices have to be made as clear as possible.

38 Comments

  1. Richard Wein
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 5:34 am | Permalink

    “Science doesn’t operate on consensus”.

    That’s a silly (or cleverly deceptive) red herring. The issue is not how science operates but what listeners should believe. Most people (including me) are not in a position to make a better judgement than the scientific experts, so it makes more sense to trust the overwhelming consensus of experts than to trust one’s own judgement. Instead of just making a primary judgement of the scientific evidence, most of us need to make a meta-judgement about whose judgement to trust. And the fact that there’s an overwhelming consensus of experts is crucial to that meta-judgement.

    • Peter Beattie
      Posted March 19, 2012 at 6:09 am | Permalink

      » Richard Wein:
      it makes more sense to trust the overwhelming consensus of experts than to trust one’s own judgement

      That’s a fair point. In the absence of any relevant expertise, the rational thing to do is at least to trust an expert to assess the problem correctly. Or, if you want to be even more cautious, simply withhold judgement and say, ‘I couldn’t honestly venture an opinion on this issue.’

      And it goes to a point that’s particularly dear to my heart: that of course not all opinions are created equal and are equally valid. Here is John Stuart Mill on the subject, in effect pre-empting Popper’s falsificationism:

      The steady habit of correcting and completing his own opinion by collating it with those of others, so far from causing doubt and hesitation in carrying it into practice, is the only stable foundation for a just reliance on it: for, being cognisant of all that can, at least obviously, be said against him, and having taken up his position against all gainsayers—knowing that he has sought for objections and difficulties, instead of avoiding them, and has shut out no light which can be thrown upon the subject from any quarter—he has a right to think his judgment better than that of any person, or any multitude, who have not gone through a similar process.

    • MAUCH
      Posted March 19, 2012 at 7:57 am | Permalink

      I think you have it. When two sides are butting heads ask were did each come up with the proof for their positions. You can then ask the audience would they rather accept ungrounded opinion from a handful of people with dubious expertise or empirical evidence from the the vast mojority of experts as the best way to attain the truth.

  2. Niklas
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 5:38 am | Permalink

    “…the whole exercise becomes a farce if you do not in advance specify the conditions under which either side would have to admit defeat.”

    I think this might be a powerful tool in some instances. Not least when an opponents tactic is to regularly revert to argument from ignorance, and try to shift burdens of proof.

    If you for example frame the question,

    “What evidence would you require to change your opinion in the matter?”

    You can perhaps force them to state one, or suggests (with care), reasonable variables and so set up a playing field and a specific goal.

    For which you of course have some selected ammunition ready :)

    I have a feeling (just my perception), that to often the “non” scientific side gets away with a hit and run tactic, one liners, apperent non sequiters, and glaring inconsistancies.

    And I think we might need to get better at taking command and focus the discussion so we can better leverage the dept and with of our knowledge, instead of often follow their lead and end up running around all over the place.

    and maybe I am just naive… ;)

    • Posted March 22, 2012 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I think you are naive Niklas. The non-scientific side would be the side that rejects empirical evidence, right? I agree with Mauch who says “empirical evidence from the the vast mojority of experts as the best way to attain the truth.” Now what is the empirical evidence in climate science? It’s mainly the global temperature record (or reconstruction). Are you familiar with it? You should be. During the last 66 years of accelerating CO2 emissions and atmospheric PPM since WWII, when the IPCC has stated antrhopogenic warming is the principal climate forcing, what has happened? Again, do you know the temperature record? You should, and its easy to find at many internet sites. From 1945 until 1978 there was slight cooling. From 1978 to 1998 there was significant warming. From 1998 until now, temperatures have flatlined- no significant change. We have had about 20 years of warming in the past 66 years. As Phil Jones of HadCRU fame has stated, there is nothing unprecedented about those 20 years of warming; previouse warming periods before CO2 was a factor, were the same. Do you reject the empirical evidence- the temperature record? Models that predict warming are not evidence of anything. They are hypotheses that require confirmation by the empirical testing- the temperature record. Some of you certainly are either ignorant of the temperature record or science deniers. Which is it?

  3. Sastra
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 6:16 am | Permalink

    “Science doesn’t operate on consensus”.

    Yes it does: science operates on achieving a consensus through the use of arguments and evidence which need to be capable of convincing people who do not already agree with the conclusion.

    Faith, pseudoscience, and politics, on the other hand, usually just try to convince the people who are already convinced and then bribe the rest with something other than argument and evidence. Or — outsiders, skeptics, and naysayers are simply dismissed as ‘unworthy’ of debate, because the issue isn’t solved through debate. It’s about susceptibility.

    So the quote is both right and wrong. The critical matter has to do with HOW the consensus is achieved. Science is a social enterprise, but not in the usual sense of bargaining and making concessions in the interest of group harmony. Truth matters more than “getting along.” It requires a large, diverse, open community of researchers who compete with each other and thus provide the checks and balances needed for a slow but general progress.

  4. Posted March 19, 2012 at 6:21 am | Permalink

    Maybe NdGT could have pressed his “cues from Nature” argument and asked Lutz to rebut that.

    If you have a compelling argument, wring as much value from it as you can!

    /@

    • Peter Beattie
      Posted March 19, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

      But doesn’t that amount to exactly the same thing as saying, “Scientists are agreed that climate change is real”? After all, where does the information about ‘cues from nature’ come from? Scientists.

      If you want to persuade a hard-nosed sceptic like Lutz, especially one with business experience, a more apt argument kind of springs to mind: look at what insurance companies are doing. Are they betting on climate change? Because those companies are probably the most likely not to want to fool themselves.

      • Posted March 20, 2012 at 2:56 am | Permalink

        Not entirely: People can see for themselves many of these cues from Nature. It’s more immediate and compelling than numerical temperature data.

        /@

  5. TJR
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    Climate science is very vulnerable to these sorts of problems because you’ve got loons on all sides. “Environmentalists”, as against environmental scientists, are often just as bad as the apologists for the fossil fuel industry.

    The (good) advice above essentially boils down to arguing like scientists, not like activists whose views coincidentally happen to be broadly in line with the current scientific consensus.

  6. Posted March 19, 2012 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    A thoughtful and thought-provoking essay, but I have a quibble:

    Let him spell out exactly what kind of data would count as a counter-example to his assertion and then either have the relevant data to hand or let someone in a control room give it to you once they have Googled it—and maybe throw up a graphic to strengthen the point.

    I think it’s a bit naive to think that anybody is really set up to do this. Certainly Tyson, as a guest on the show, would not have such resources at his disposal! Maher conceivably could have, but for whatever reason most TV hosts don’t have anything like this set up.

    This is the power of the Gish Gallop, and I experienced it firsthand when I attended an anti-vaxer meeting. Despite being reasonably well-prepared, there were a few arguments they tossed out there that I was unable to refute in real-time, and needed to spend several minutes Googling later on in order to uncover the flaws.

    Peter makes some excellent points about knowing your opponents argument. And arguably, if Tyson and/or Maher had seen Lutz debate before, perhaps they should have known he would pull out this chestnut and been prepared for it. But it’s naive to think that, in general, one can do research in the middle of a live debate. Either you know the refutation off the top of your head or you don’t. And since our side is playing with the rather inconvenient handicap that our arguments have to actually be TRUE, that can be a real challenge sometimes…

    • SLC
      Posted March 19, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      If one is going to debate deniers such as Lutz, the best way to go about it is to anticipate their arguments before the debate even happens. The outstanding example that comes to mind is the preparation that biologist Ken Miller went through before debating Henry Morris and later Duane Gish on evolution. Prof. Miller read everything he could find that these clowns had ever written and observed every film clip that he could find of them. Thus, he was able to anticipate exactly what arguments they would make and prepare counter-arguments. That’s the only way to counter the Gish gallop, which is the strategy that the deniers invariably employ.

    • Peter Beattie
      Posted March 19, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

      » James Sweet:
      I think it’s a bit naive to think that anybody is really set up to do this. Certainly Tyson, as a guest on the show, would not have such resources at his disposal!

      If I may bring a counter-quibble right back at you, there are two concerns here: a) Even an unprepared Tyson could easily have said, ‘Look, just to make sure that we understand this is a discussion about a scientific issue, please name one specific condition (e.g. an IPCC prediction) that you would consider to be capable of refuting your stance.’ That is just basic protocol; if you are not willing to commit, then you’re right out. b) And even without any data ready to hand, he could have said, ‘Alright, we’ll check your claims and will have a judgement on them on the next show.’ (Leaving aside that nowadays something like this could be checked by somebody in a control room within five minutes.)

      Shorter me: it’s not so much about the actual data or about outcomes but about the process. That can be (and should be) made clear whatever the circumstances.

  7. MAUCH
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    How about doing this. When Lutz argues that the earth is flat and denies any evidence to the contrary maybe it’s time to turn and address the audience directly. Explain to them why they should accept the evidence. Sometimes bullheaded denials are not worth dignifying with an answer. There has to be someone in the room who has common sense.

    • Sastra
      Posted March 19, 2012 at 8:40 am | Permalink

      Unfortunately, it’s usually the science denialist who is appealing to the audience’s “common sense.” I mean, look — even a small child can tell that the earth is flat just by observation and deciding for themselves what seems reasonable. All those so-called “experts” do is use a lot of unnecessary jargon and numbers to obscure what the ordinary person can figure out using just by a little bit of knowledge and the common sense they were born with.

      Science is uncommon sense — and it’s revealing a world that doesn’t look much like intuition tells us it ought to look like.

      This goes against the grain of human nature and the rugged pioneer spirit myth. Audiences which aren’t that up on what science actually is still tend to see every dispute about science as one between two adversaries who each require an equal amount of ‘trust’ Thus “the overwhelming consensus of experts” goes against the “Brave Maverick Scientist who Dares to Buck the Closed-minded System” — and they put their ‘trust’ in whichever story appeals to them.

      Guess which one usually does? Common sense shows them how this happens in their own lives.

    • Peter Beattie
      Posted March 19, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

      » MAUCH:
      Explain to them why they should accept the evidence.

      But that exactly the rub: it is very uncommon in such discussions for anyone to actually explain anything. Mostly, people just cite evidence—real or imaginary, but since the layperson by definition cannot distinguish the two, it looks like two potentially equally valid viewpoints are being presented. And if that is the case, you are most likely to stick to the opinion you had before watching the discussion.

      An explanation, however, would have to show two things: a) what the problem is and how I (the viewer) can be sure (or even better: check) that it is a problem; and b) what a good solution should in general look like and how exactly your specific proposal fits the bill.

      That, to me, would constitute a serious effort at raising scientific literacy.

  8. RWO
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    My fantasy: A program like Maher’s or O’Reilly is refereed by a neutral moderator with limited specific capacity geared toward preventing Gish Gallup: e.g. guests/hosts are allotted specific time to finish stating a claim or rebuttal to an opponent’s claim, and the moderator may silence the microphone/simultaneously stop the clock when a Gallup begins — the microphone is returned to functioning capacity and the participants’ clock is restarted only when the Galloping participant is admonished with a specific recitation of his offense against the rules, audible to the audience.

    A video screen is mounted behind the dais where the speakers sit. Program staff place a written transcript of a speakers claims on display on the screen, and the moderator turns off all microphones after a claim is made until the full text of the claim is displayed on the screen.

    The debater’s are permitted 1 – 3 staff to Google, and the audience is encouraged to bring devices and wi-fi Google as well.

    Claims and rebuttals will remain on display on the screen for the duration of the debate. Multiple screens may be employed as necessary, but it is important to maintain a visual display of previous debate statements from beginning to end.

    Poll the studio audience prior to the debate to determine pro/con numbers, then poll again at the conclusion of the debate.

    Production professionals could figure out some format like I suggest that is workable. Most public debates I am familiar with are unable to avoid ‘he claimed, then she counter-claimed’ conclusion-free resolution we see with the Dyson-Lutz exchange, especially with sidetracking interjections from the host.

    These debates require stringent definition of terms, and accomplish nothing when focus wavers. I expect Neil de Grasse Dyson went home that night and pondered how he let himself so easily be diverted from the main track onto sidings so many times. That happens a lot, and it seems to me that wise employment of current technology capacity could easily make debates useful. Now it is just two advocates preaching to their own choir.

    • Peter Beattie
      Posted March 19, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think the sort of heavy-handed regulation in terms of time limits and such would be necessary, but otherwise your idea is pretty much spot on. We need to move public discussion in such a direction as to raise awareness of the fact that opinions in fact are objectively different, with some better that others. And the tools of critical rationalism (of which science is but a specialised branch) are the only ones at our disposal to judge which opinions are which.

  9. Posted March 19, 2012 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    I think it’s a lot to expect that a TV show hosted by a comedian is going to resolve the climate change debate in 5 minutes, even if a scientist happens to be present. I’ve gotten into arguments once or twice with engineers whose competence I respect over the issue of climate change and global warming. Very quickly I’ve realized the subject is complex and that I was wholly unprepared to debate the issue with them. So generally I try to stay out of these debates, leaving them to scientists who have actually studied this issue and are therefore equipped to talk about it with some degree of expertise. Part of the problem is that the arguments are complex and rely on statistics, something that many people are not likely to understand or relate to; you can see peoples’ eyes glaze over when the discussion delves into confidence intervals, etc.

    • Voltaire 2
      Posted March 19, 2012 at 11:32 am | Permalink

      Tyson wants to replace Sagan as the next spokesperson for science, but I question if he is really up to the task. Sagan has very big shoes to fill. Plus in this day and age it might be more prudent to have multiple spokespeople on various science topics, as few can be experts on all areas.

      And just because Maher is on the left does not make him any smarter.

      • Peter Beattie
        Posted March 19, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

        Is is not so much about smarts, really, but about knowing something about, and understanding, a process. Maher simply doesn’t know better, and I don’t see how that’s an indictment of his intellect when hardly anybody learns anything about epistemology, either in school or at university. I quoted Mill above, and that quote is prefaced by the remark: “No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this … .” To many, this sounds almost authoritarian, because they think they are entitled to any opinion, however irrational; but the fact is that it is a simple logical truth. It would be just as rational to declare the theory of relativity authoritarian because it showed that Newton’s concept of massive bodies attracting each other by a direct force is wrong.

  10. Posted March 19, 2012 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    “Science doesn’t operate on consensus”

    Consensus is the final result of science, and if evidence is found to the contrary, the consensus changes.

  11. Ludo
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    This video illustrates the importance of style for winning debates. Niel DeGrasse Tyson’s style is admirable: he is friendly, smiling, and humorous. He keeps smiling, stays friendly and makes the public laugh – and therfore he is the winner in this short debate. Of course the quality of his arguments is also important – but not in the first place.

    • Peter Beattie
      Posted March 19, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

      You have a point, but we still shouldn’t kid ourselves that winning a popularity contest somehow advances science or even science literacy. Our goal shouldn’t be winning debates but to gain understanding.

      • Ludo
        Posted March 21, 2012 at 1:10 am | Permalink

        Well, I agree. But then I would like to add that promoting science literacy is not enough. Today there is easy acces to education and information. We have scores of good science writers, good science magazines, good documentaries, good books. But does it help? It looks like science is losing prestige by the day.
        See: Charles Simic’s article “Age of Ignorance” in The New York Review of Books: http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2012/mar/20/age-of-ignorance
        That is why I think that ‘style’ and ‘winning’ debates is important: it promotes a better image of science and scientists.

        • Peter Beattie
          Posted March 21, 2012 at 2:04 am | Permalink

          As I say, looking good isn’t a bad idea if you’re trying to be a role model. True, as far as it goes. The underlying issue, however, is one of actual understanding, not one of professing allegiance. A public that professes to believe in evolution but is then swayed by the flimsiest of creationist ‘arguments’, for example, would hardly be worth anything.

          • Ludo
            Posted March 21, 2012 at 3:19 am | Permalink

            “The underlying issue, however, is one of actual understanding, not one of professing allegiance.” — No, I do not agree on this. Allegiance is very important, and quite often it plays a bigger role than understanding. I am convinced that many climate change (or evolution) deniers understand very well the science involved, but that they simply choose to get in line with their peer groups (companies, bosses, churches, neighbors, friends, families).

  12. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Good points! But perhaps easily showcased because Maher is (IMHO) the most forgettable of the enlightened show hosts. I haven’t been able to follow him for any longer analysis, but it is my impression that he is a liberal sophist. So I don’t expect him to be on point.

    “Science doesn’t operate on consensus”. … Science pursues truth, but it steadfastly denies owning the Truth.

    Of course it doesn’t operate on consensus. In this aspect it operates on the market of ideas, that happens to map to consensus.

    That doesn’t mean it necessarily owns the Truth, but it means someone who is not a qualified expert and can (ideally should) form an own opinion can measure the likelihood of error against the degree of consensus.

    In short, if > 98 % of climate scientists claims that AGW is the current climate regime, you are a fool to consider otherwise.

    I would say that fruitful science owns observable Fact, and mature science can attain theoretical Fact. (By some not very understood process of iterative convergence on a basis of elimination of what doesn’t work.)

    if you want to propose a bet as a great metaphor for was science is about, make sure not to leave out the one point about bets that prevents them from becoming a childish stunt.

    From science as Truth to science as bet, we go from the impossibly strong to the improbable weak. In most cases betting maps to bayesian ‘probabilities’, or GIGO likelihoods.

    In actuality, science is somewhere in between.

    grandstanding

    Hear, hear!

  13. अहंनास्मि (Ahannāsmi)
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    Lutz need to be put in conversation with some Mauritians and Maldivians. Those folks have been trying to buy land in other countries ranging from India and Sri Lanka to Australia and New Zealand where their population can be relocated when the ongoing rise in sea levels makes their native islands inhospitable.

  14. MadScientist
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    ‘One simple question would have sufficed to stop Lutz in his tracks: “Which study specifically shows that measured sea levels have not risen?”’

    That wouldn’t work – that the sea levels are not rising is the null hypothesis which scientists must disprove if they are to convince people that the oceans are rising. The absence of any studies which show that sea levels are not rising is no indication whatsoever whether they are rising or not. If such a flimsy argument were thought to be substantial, scientists would be stumped when creationists say things like “name a study which proves that Jesus didn’t rise?”

  15. Peter
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    Maher can be very amusing, quite entertaining, and his heart is pretty close to the right place on many things, in my opinion. However, something like global warming is just beyond his depth, or at least beyond what is required to entertain a TV audience.
    As of writing this, the words “statistics” and “probability” have each occurred only once here. I must admit to not having read much of the responses yet, but just that fact about those words leads me to think reading it is largely a waste of time. As someone said, eyes glaze over when those words come up. But you cannot get away without it.

    And statements in the article that particular weather events, even large-scale ones, are “caused” by global warming, are simply unfortunate, for those who wish to convince people that this is a very, very likely long-term extreme danger to our species.

    • Peter Beattie
      Posted March 19, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

      » Peter:
      And statements in the article that particular weather events, even large-scale ones, are “caused” by global warming, are simply unfortunate …

      As you will have read, that statement is quoted from Hansen et al.’s paper, where they say that it is extremely likely to be true. If you have an actual argument to put against their assessment, I’d be interested to hear it.

      • Peter
        Posted March 19, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for the question. First let me be clear that my objection has entirely to do with how these matters are phrased, definitely not a disagreement with the scientists, Hansen in particular. A phraseology which makes it easy for opponents to come up with superficially convincing objections is a political mistake. But I do not disagree that as soon as words like probability appear, the general public starts to lose concentration.

        On the positive side, would it not be easier and more convincing to your ‘person in the street’ to speak about the average temperature over say the recent two decades over a rather large area, as compared to the average similarly for two earlier decades? (That is then expandable to other decades and other areas as desired.) Then speak about what the reduction in food production, what the rise in sea level, etc. would be, with high probability, given highly probable future average rises in temperature if nothing is done.

        As far as my negativity to that article—its particular reference to Texas and Moscow heat waves—I myself would be loath to deny that they were “caused” by global warming, but I’d agree theywere only to the extent that it is possible to define what cause means here. Without that precision, one leaves lots of room open to opponents to bamboozle away. If a somewhat more precise statement, about the low probability of those events happening (not zero of course), had carbon consuming activities of humans not changed since 200 years ago, could be formulated in a popularly understood way, so much the better. The paper seems to do it in a technical way. I must admit that after downloading it, my reading was pretty quick and superficial. If a more careful reading gives me anything to add, I’ll do so in the next day or so, and/or respond to responses.

        • Peter Beattie
          Posted March 21, 2012 at 2:14 am | Permalink

          » Peter:
          As far as my negativity to that article—its particular reference to Texas and Moscow heat waves—I myself would be loath to deny that they were “caused” by global warming, but I’d agree theywere only to the extent that it is possible to define what cause means here. Without that precision, one leaves lots of room open to opponents to bamboozle away.

          But Hansen et al. do exactly that right in the first paragraph, look:

          We conclude that extreme heat
          waves, such as that in Texas and Oklahoma in 2011 and Moscow in 2010, were “caused” by
          global warming, because their likelihood was negligible prior to the recent rapid global warming.

          Explanation of the term “caused” in terms of specific probabilities. That’s what you wanted, right? :)

  16. dunstar
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    Lol. It all comes down to understanding the raw data. People just need to know what is being measured and how it is being measured.

    • Peter
      Posted March 20, 2012 at 6:53 am | Permalink

      I’d agree with everything except the “just”. Statistics is certainly not easy for me. That comes after about 55 years of effort pretty close to that type of discipline. It is very difficult for us to make the general public understand in a way which is honest and not easily attacked, mainly by some clever people employed by the traditional energy industry, people who appear to have no interest at all in the welfare of our descendants, 2 or 3 generations from now.

  17. Tumara Baap
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

    Good pointers on getting on top of the debate. If you are going into a debate, might as well employ good tactics. But here is the problem: Lutz and his friends are not interested in winning anything. The profit margins of the industries they sympathize with depend on how effectively they can confuse and obfuscate. This can be done rather easily with a population that is scientifically illiterate. This ping-pong match between scientifically savvy bat on the one hand and a rhetorically honed bat on the other hand serves Lutz et al very well. Why do you wish to engage them in the first place?

    PIVOT AND CHANGE THE SUBJECT TO WHERE IT BELONGS

    I wish someone in the media would tenaciously keep the focus on what truly matters: the gas and coal industry values profits. The public, scientifically literate or not, has a primordial compass for fairness and a loathing for moochers. The “science” men (likely proctologists and dentists who’ve never published anything of relevance)who avowed smoking does not cause cancer, because Uncle Bubba never smoked and he still got cancer, are the same men who now claim climate change is a hoax. They are the very same people, often man to man. End of argument. Climate disruption will be horribly expensive. The culprits should not only be responsible for paying for it. But it is only fair to all that any malfeasance be subject to punitive measures. If there hasn’t been any lies and obstruction in advancing the general well being, then the circumspect industries have nothing to fear.

  18. Diane G.
    Posted March 20, 2012 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

    (sub)


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  2. [...] Tyson landed a few good one-liners (as did Maher), but as Peter Beattie convincingly argues in this essay, neither of them  schooled Lutz on climate change. In fact, Beattie calls the performances of [...]

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