Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Judith Curry and the fallacy of the excluded middle

Judith Curry has a bad habit of preening over her worst examples of careless and sloppy thinking. In just the past few weeks, for example, she has repeatedly referred back to this awful train wreck of an argument:
There does seem to be an IPCC/UNFCCC ideology, let me try to lay it out here. I am using quotes from Michael Mann’s recent interview in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which I find to be a lucid statement of some elements of this.
1.  Anthropogenic climate change is real: “there is a very consistent story told by surface, sub-surface, ocean, atmospheric, and ice observations that Earth’s surface is warming, and in a way that is only consistent with human-caused increases in greenhouse gas concentrations.” (Mann)
2.  Anthropogenic climate change is dangerous and we need to something about it: “I believe it’s not too late to take the steps that are necessary to mitigate truly dangerous future climate change. There is still time to take action to stabilize greenhouse gases to a point where they don’t become a dangerous threat to humanity.” (Mann)
3.  The fossil fuel industry is trying to convince people that climate change is a hoax: “[P]owerful special interests in the fossil fuel industry . . . have invested millions of dollars in well-honed disinformation campaigns to convince the public and policy makers that human-caused climate change is either a hoax, or not nearly the threat that the scientific community has established it to be.”
4. Deniers are attacking climate science and scientists: “I’ve been the subject of attacks by climate-change deniers for more than a decade now, because of the prominent role that the “hockey stick” temperature reconstruction has played in the public discourse on climate change.”
5.  Action is needed to prevent dangerous climate change: “There are various episodes in our not-so-distant past when we were threatened by global environmental catastrophe and took action.”  (Mann)
6.  Deniers and fossil fuel industry are delaying UNFCCC mitigatory policies. “[Powerful special interests] have delayed any policy actions by at least a decade, perhaps more. The potential opportunity cost of that delay to humanity is impossible to estimate, but it is certainly staggering.” (Mann)
This is a political ideology.  #1 is about science.  #4 is in principle about science and scientists, except there is the automatic assumption that a bonafide scientific criticism is a political attack.  The rest of it is politics.
Leaving aside the small army of straw men (Michael Mann is synonymous with a "IPCC/UNFCCC ideology," really?) Curry here plunges into a straightforward embrace of the fallacy of the excluded middle, aka a false dilemma. The two tentpoles of her fallacy are "science" and "politics"; anything not science is "politics."

Of course many propositions are neither science nor politics. If you see a Mac truck barreling down on a jogger crossing the street, and you scream "Look out!" is that "science" or "politics"?
Dear idiot, get out of the way. Sincerely, "politics."

"Look out!" as a statement cannot be considered scientific. As some say of the case that climate change is dangerous, it relies on "values" (most statements do). In this particular example, those would be the "values" or not wanting to die of infected bedsores in a nursing home after a speeding truck smashes your spine. That is a matter of placing a "value" on life and health, but it is hardly "political" or "ideological" because both of those adjectives describe positions emerging from values that are not widely shared.

Ferinstance, take Rick Santorum (please). Rick Santorum says contraception is harmful to women. This is a belief that comes from the teachings of the Catholic church, and does not reflect a widely shared notion of "harm." It doesn't reflect harm to one's health (pregnancy being a greater danger to women's health than the expected consequences of contraception-assisted sex) or one's economic or professional position (unplanned children are bad for both) or any widely accepted measure of women's mental or emotional well-being. It is a moral position, which is to say, he believes that contraception and non-procreative sex are morally abhorrent and damaging to the spiritual health of women. That is a position shared by a group of American who share a number of other beliefs. It is ideological.

Is it ideological in the same sense to say "Anthropogenic climate change is dangerous" (point 2a)? Or is it more akin to "Look out!"?

The scientific facts of a multi-meter sea rise mean the loss of land and other resources to the ocean, to erosion, to greater storm surges, to the salinization of the water table. You can argue against the science that says this is likely to happen (the truck's not really headed for the crosswalk; the truck is already braking; I am the favorite of the Sith Lords and will stop the truck at the last minute with the Force, etc.) But that is not a political or ideological argument; it's still a scientific argument.

The political argument would be that, within the accepted facts, the truck hitting us isn't dangerous. That a multi-meter sea level rise would be a good thing for humanity -- or that humanity deserves to suffer. In order for ideology to come into play, as Dr. Curry wishes, we would need an ideology to raise its hand and explain how a poorer, hungrier, storm-wracked, Amazon-to-ash world is something that we should want.

Pseudoskeptics know that there is no argument to be made there: that is why you see them spending their industry millions attacking the teaching of global warming science,  funding dubious research into global warming science, questioning the objectivity, reliability, and veracity of science.

If there was a "values" argument or an "ideological" argument to be made, you would expect them to be promoting ideas like "Rising oceans will purge the sinful coasts" or "Wealth -- the root of all evil and how global warming will save you from it."

If no one wants to live in that poorer, more dangerous, more extreme post-warming world, then there is no ideological question; there is no values question, at least until when get to how to prevent global warming and who should make the biggest adjustments. I think I can safely speak for Michael Mann and many other presumptive members of the so-called "IPCC/UNFCCC ideology" when I say we would love to move the debate forward to the how.

Until we do, as long as we are still debating the whether, there is only the scientific question of whether are current actions are likely to lead to that future. If they are, and that future is dangerous, then our actions are dangerous. No politics come into it.

Many propositions are neither scientific nor political. "Climate change is dangerous" is a statement assuming commonly held ideas about "danger" -- that we don't want to be killed, or lose our homes, or go hungry. "We should do something about it" involves the idea that people can through forethought and action avoid danger. Again, until and unless there arises a political lobby for the proposition "Our fate is inescapable" or "Humans are dirty sinful creatures and deserve to suffer," these aren't political statements, but statements of common sense.

Similarly, points #3 and #4 may not be "scientific," but they are factual. Not all that is factual is science. John Kennedy was assassinated November 22, 1963 -- that is not a scientific proposition, but it is true, and is neither "politics" nor "ideology." Parts of the fossil fuel industry (among others) are trying to convince the public climate change is a hoax. Deniers are attacking science and scientists. Those are objective realities, not "political" claims. Curry is flirting with outright tinfoil-hat membership when she attributes widespread belief in such things to "ideology" whilst failing to even nod at the overwhelming factual evidence that they are true.


  1. Who said it?

    “The climate is always changing. There is certainly some contribution from the greenhouse gases, but whether it is currently a dominant factor or will be a dominant factor in the next century, is a topic under active debate. Because of the IPCC and its consensus seeking process, the rewards for scientists have been mostly in embellishing the consensus. An increasing number of scientists are becoming emboldened to challenge some of the basic conclusions of the IPCC. We have only been considering one policy option (CO2 stabilization), which in my opinion is not a robust policy option given the uncertainties in how much climate is changing in response to CO2. I agree that there is lack of accountability in the whole climate enterprise…”

    Romney? Santorum?


  2. I have to keep in mind that the antipathy i feel toward Curry is because i initially though that she was genuinely interested in the truth and trying to find common ground for dialogue.
    It disturbe me greatly that she focuses so much on iuncertainty in teh scinece while professing totally unwarranted certainty in the politics and that she has only occasional legitimate basis for her one sidedness in that regard.
    i think it possible that she believes herself to be a neutral actor, but he actions and words make that a very big stretch. Again at first I thought that she was interested in a pedagogic approach that would foster critical thinking, but again the way she runs her blog is so one sided and, as the above shows, so lacking in critical thinking that I have to not add the emotional baggage of feeling she is betraying exactly what she says she stands for.
    Your analysis in the above post is, in my view a fine example of critical thinking, and so clearly different from her writing. Critical thinking deos Not allow nor encourage discussion that reinforces knowledge that has been clearly shown to be false. yet she not only does not do anything to counter the known false comments on her blog, she sometimes repeats them and encourages them, in the false assertion of being balanced.

  3. "I have to keep in mind that the antipathy i feel toward Curry is because i initially though that she was genuinely interested in the truth and trying to find common ground for dialogue."

    Oh, I'm sure she was, and I'm sure she believes she still is. You have to understand that we all become more convinced of the truth of our position as we argue for it. It's easy to advance by a succession of small steps to a position very different from the one we started with.

    Unfortunately, Dr. Curry's case is typical. Given a choice between a really honest dialogue in which she would get tattooed up one side and down the other -- which is inevitable, because she is badly mistaken on the facts -- and a dialogue in which she uses her not-insignificant intellectual resources to justify herself aggressively against all challenges, she chooses to double down on her ill-thought-out critique.

    And the more she does it, the more she has to do it. It's not pretty, but most people are guilty to some degree, and only by constantly questioning ourselves and being prepared to admit we are wrong can we mount any defense against the seductive power of self-justification.

  4. Victim of "Stockholm Syndrome," the Patty Hearst of Heartland?

    This is a genuine puzzle to people who know this person.

  5. This has been a very significant blog indeed. keep it up
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