A View From the Cheap Seats

June 13, 2008

The Evolutionary Gravity of AGW Alarmists

In response to AGW alarmists comparing skepticism on this issue (like that expressed by yours truly) to skepticism about the theory of gravity or the theory of evolution, my crabby older brother weighs in. He has a PhD in Chemistry from MIT, teaches at a leading university (which we will not name, in order to protect him from the thought police) and is not – to my knowledge – funded by Exxon-Mobil, although I’m reasonably certain that he’s funding his local Exxon-Mobil gas station quite nicely these days…

One of the reasons it’s so easy to label many proponents of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) as religious fanatics who base their hysteria on belief rather than science is the lengths to which many of them go to avoid arguments based on facts and logic.

We see that tendency illustrated in a variety of ways. One of my personal favorites is when AGW apologists associate the “theory of gravity” and the “theory of evolution” in relationship to criticisms of the “theory of global warming” (more specifically, anthropogenic global warming), and the casual dismissal of any arguments from individuals associated (financially or otherwise) with the fossil fuel industry.

They will claim that AGW is established, scientific “fact”, on par with the theory of gravity. “I suppose you don’t believe in gravity either,” they’ll sneer. Easier still, they’ll dump skeptics into a big bucket labeled “Shills for Exxon-Mobil”, which can then be ignored.

The latter first. The ideological Left, especially, likes to use this tactic, partly because so many of them are intellectually lazy, but also (at least in the case of AGW), because for so many of them the issue is not one of intellectual curiosity, but rather an affirmation of their belief system.

One can make inferences (which may or may not be correct) on another’s motivations based on a funding source, but those motivations have no necessary relationship to the truth or falsity of the claims made by an individual.

The lengths of sides of a right triangle are going to relate to each other according to the equation x2 + y2 = z2, no matter who‘s responsible for funding Pythagorus. The proposition “2 + 2 = 4” is equally valid whether put forth by Adolf Hitler or Mother Theresa; and however ideologically pure and divorced from financial influences Orwell’s Comrade O’Brien might be, “2 + 2 = 5” doesn’t get any special consideration from an objective observer as a result.

Similarly, the whole business related to the “theory of gravity” and the “theory of evolution” is equally bogus, albeit at a more subtle level.

The intellectual sleight-of-hand performed here is the illegitimate conflation of “gravity” with the “theory of gravity” and “evolution” with the “theory of evolution”.

I’m assuming alarmists recognize gravity as a real phenomenon – if not, I’ll be happy to ask any doubters to accompany me on a very short plane flight in which I bring my parachute and they leave theirs at home. Similarly, it’s well-accepted by those with a bit of education that the gravitational attraction, at a practical level, can be expressed via Newton’s “f = ma”.

But just because everyone accepts gravity as an experiential reality does not mean that everyone accepts a specific theoretical basis for gravitational attraction – a “theory of gravity”. In fact at the most fundamental level no one understands gravity. Physicists of a certain stripe have a great time battling over details like gravitational waves and gravitons and other such arcane concepts – according to the implications of alarmists’ argument, such discussions are out-of-bounds, since we all (supposedly) accept the “theory of gravity”.

Similarly, there are unassailable facts associated with the reality of evolution (mutations at the level of nucleic acids leads to physiological consequences through the expression of altered proteins, and the magnitude of differences in protein structure between two organisms corresponds to the closeness of their taxonomic relationship – to specify just two). But even for those who accept evolution unequivocally, there are plenty of questions remaining as regards theory (“Which came first, nucleic acids or proteins?”, to name just one).

In the same way, when it comes to AGW, there are facts everyone (of any relevance) accepts, and there are aspects of theory that continue to be in dispute.

Among the most relevant of the former are these two: atmospheric CO2 concentration has increased over the past 100 years, and CO2 absorbs infrared energy, the ultimate effect of which is to raise global temperatures. Those are actual scientific facts (not some nebulous “scientific consensus”).

Among folks who actually have expertise in these areas, the salient points in dispute include the following:

Is anthropogenic CO2 the main driver of global temperature change over the last decade – century – whatever (pick your time frame), or is warming due to increased CO2 essentially negligible compared to the “natural” forces which have driven global temperature oscillations for eons? (Or – is the contemporary reality somewhere between those extreme positions?).

And

Are modeling programs the best way to substantiate the magnitude of effects of CO2 on global temperature, or are climate systems so complex, and our models so primitive that it’s dangerous folly to base decisions with economic consequences in the tens of trillions of dollars on such exercises?

Now if one is unable to address the technical details in those aspects of “AGW theory”, that’s perfectly understandable – the science involved is complex and difficult to present to a general audience. But to blow off those arguments by saying, in effect, “So I suppose you don’t believe in gravity” is an example not of an argument, but the lack of one.

In summary, IMHO using financial ties or disparaging comparisons to disbelief in gravity as tactics in this debate are examples of intellectual laziness, intellectual dishonesty or intellectual naiveté. Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion. But if alarmists insist on relying on cheap rhetorical gimmicks like those, they shouldn’t be surprised if more and more people view their efforts as an expression of some heart-felt belief rather than an application of reasoned analysis.

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5 Comments »

  1. My thanks to you Rich for your fine articles on environmental alarmism and my thanks to your brother for this (not crabby) one. I hope that you can somehow find a wider audience before the loons bankrupt us all.

    Comment by Stevey From Hoffman — June 16, 2008 @ 10:04 am | Reply

  2. Thanks for the kind words Steve. I too hope that the word gets out more — but rest assured that we’ll keep hammering at it in our little corner of the world.

    Rich

    Comment by trzupek — June 16, 2008 @ 4:17 pm | Reply

  3. Good post! A related problem is that the “CO2 is bad” message is almost everywhere, and repeated so often, and in so many ways, that it has become “true” by default. Here in the UK, we have central government talking about the nation’s CO2 emission targets, local government encouraging us to be greener because that means less CO2, car commercials mentioning low CO2 emissions, house buyers’ reports showing CO2 ratings, local newspapers printing stories about schoolkids reducing their carbon footprints, etc, etc. It would be easy to conclude that man-made CO2 leading to climate change leading to planetary meltdown has become one of the things that “everyone knows” to be true (salt in your diet leads to high blood pressure, fluoride is good for your teeth, CO2 is bad for the planet.) Luckily, not everyone is a believer (or convinced that we have a “climate emergency”) – most ordinary folks I talk to have practical concerns and are more bothered about keeping their heads above water financially than they are about wild projections of sea levels in the year 2100.

    Comment by Alex Cull — June 17, 2008 @ 5:06 am | Reply

  4. Thanks for the support and the great info Alex. To bastardize the words of your greatest Prime Minister: “never in the field of environmental science was so much made of so trivial a compound by so many”.

    Comment by trzupek — June 17, 2008 @ 1:33 pm | Reply

  5. Ditto, great post

    Comment by Andrew Slominski — June 18, 2008 @ 9:03 am | Reply


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