Friday, December 30, 2011

Curry, Burgess-Jackson & Pangloss (2011)

Judith Curry has a post up that -- well, let's let Dr. Keith Burgess-Jackson, her ostensible inspiration, speak for himself:
What we should do about global warming (again, assuming it exists) depends on the consequences of global warming. Few if any changes have only good consequences or only bad consequences. Almost always, there are both good and bad consequences. Whether we should do something to stop the change, therefore, depends on which type of consequence—good or bad—predominates. How often have you heard a dispassionate discussion of the good consequences of climate change? All you hear, day after day, is a depressing litany of bad consequences. This alone shows that global warmists are biased. They want intervention to stop climate change, so they mention only the bad consequences of climate change. A rational person with no ideological axe to grind would attend to good consequences as well as to bad consequences.
I cannot believe I am about to have this conversation with a scientist who studies hurricanes, but this is totally ridiculous. "Almost always, there are both good and bad consequences"? A professional philosopher said this? It sounds like a fortune cookie. But fine, OK, let's dance. A recent study reported that one out of five American women has been molested or raped. Dr. Burgess-Jackson will now enumerate for us all the positive consequences of that.


[Still waiting . . . millions of rape victims are eager to hear the optimistic corrective . . .]

Well, maybe he'll get back to us. In the meantime he doubles down:
I wish scientists would inform the public [of all] the consequences of global warming, so that the public can decide for itself whether to expend its scarce resources in preventing it. That scientists have not done this is the best evidence yet that they are advocates rather than, as they purport to be, disinterested observers. Is it any wonder that they are not trusted? Do you trust people who are hell-bent on selling you something to the point where they omit relevant information? In law, this is called fraud.
For the love of God, who is this idiot? And why is Judith Curry giving him a platform (no disclaimer this time -- I checked)?

Second question: According the the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 700,000 children were abused or neglected in the United States last year. Positive consequences of that: Go.

I'm sure Dr. Keith Burgess-Jackson will consult his colleagues, possibly including Dr Pangloss, and formulate a response. Forget for a moment that scientists (and economists) talk about positive elements of global warming all the time. They make effort to quantify the CO2 fertilization effect, which should (in contrast to worsening heat waves, droughts, or floods) help certain crops. They estimate reduced deaths from hypothermia. They predicted and have since observed the opening of the Northwest Passage, a very convenient shipping lane. I am sure a professor of philosophy knows what a straw man argument is, and would mark down a student's paper if it made so blatant a use of that fallacy.

But, again, leaving that aside, the argument is still senseless. Why might there be little discussion in the popular press, or in informal conversations, of benefits from climate change? Is bias the parsimonious explanation? Of course not. Let's go back to the hurricanes; in particular, Katrina. It had positive and negative consequences, according to Dr. Curry's new friend. Reporting only on the negative consequences should make you suspect bias. So, when the ninth district was under water, did you see a lot of reporters camped out three hundred miles away, looking for a farmer that might say "Well, it's a terrible human tragedy and a catastrophic failure of civil society, but we really needed the rain."

We all remember the scenes from along the coast, where dozens of homes -- entire settlements, in some cases -- were wiped from the face of the earth. When watching that, did you ever see them cut to a yachting race in New England, where they praised the stiff winds moving upwards from the South? In other words, there are lots of social, pragmatic, and commonsensical reasons why in the face of overwhelming disaster, one might not seek out and highlight tiny areas of positive benefit. Reasons like: it's insensitive, it's orders of magnitude less significant, it's just basically kind of stupid. None of which have anything to do with bias; none of which should make you think that maybe hurricanes are really a wonderful blessing to humanity slandered by scientists and the news media.

Another reason, and this is certainly relevant to climate change, is that those minor benefits may prove, in time, to be illusory. Because we do not live in our own hermetically sealed universes of benefit and harm. Maybe Garrison got some rain it needed from Katrina; it also got tens of thousands of refugees. Maybe my hypothetical yachts got a nice stiff breeze; but their owners also got a nice fat tax bill (or a nice fat slice of federal debt). We are more isolated from the harms in other countries, but not completely. It is folly to think that a hundred million people could starve in a nuke-armed India and that Canada would be above it all, grooving on a longer growing season. Good luck with that.


  1. Nicely put. I appreciate your insights cutting through to the core of a lot of blather.
    Also, natural and human systems evolved or were created for the climate of the recent past. So any change from that climate, whether warmer or colder, wetter or dryer, would cause a disruption. Disruptions have negative consequences. Even if one could weigh the pluses and minuses of the climate of your area 100 years from now, the trajectory is not from climate A to climate B, but rather one of continual change. So the climate of 2100 will likely only be briefly passed through on the way to more warming.

  2. Hi, I'm enjoying your blog. Good work!

    Keep in mind that the type of argument you are debunking is born of pure rhetoric. In Shakespeare's Hamlet, he writes "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."

    This is the same argument, which basically excuses the obligation to think about consequences. He uses the term 'rational people' while avoiding the term 'responsible people'.

    There is an even more basic problem with the argument: He never enumerates his list of proposed benefits to global warming. Thus, we see that his real interest lies in extending the debate, not in finding answers. Oh, and avoiding Action (if it exists).



  3. Anyone who believes such absurdities, as in Curry's post, is someone who thinks - "a few degrees warmer? A little change in the weather? Big deal"

    It's like thinking you're about to be hit by a bicycle, when it's really a freight train coming. A world likely never experienced by humans.

    Posting this nonsense at Curry's site is irresponsible.

  4. AD: "There is an even more basic problem with the argument: He never enumerates his list of proposed benefits to global warming."

    They rarely do, for good reason -- the "benefits" are either trivial or highly speculative. And to assert anything positive runs contrary to the whole "we don't know anything" meme.

    What we have here is something infinitely more stupid: the assertion, as a matter of PRINCIPLE, that where there is bad there must be good, that where there is harm there must be benefits, and therefore SCIENTISTS ARE COMMITTING FRAUD!

    It's kind of a fallacy of the Golden Mean on steroids, being recounted by a paranoid.

    Also, thanks for reading!

    Anon: "Disruptions have negative consequences."

    Exactly. I've written about this here many times. You can't treat a massively complex ecosystem evolved over billions of years as if it were a roulette wheel, and an extra spin carried an equal chance of making the outcome better or worse. It's arrant nonsense.

    Richard: "Posting this nonsense at Curry's site is irresponsible."

    We should reserve that for the stuff she print she doesn't believe (she has, to her credit, started to label this stuff more explicitly.) She actually seems to be persuaded by this dreck, which is very strange, to say the least.

  5. No that surprising. It's only a half-step beyond Hulme's line of crap, e.g.

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