FALLACY WATCH: "The science isn't settled."

Posted in News Last updated on: Monday, 01 August 2016


This is the go-to statement for politicians defending fossil fuels when climate dangers are raised. It has the ring of reasonableness: the speaker is no ostrich hiding from the facts but simply maintains a threshold for belief that hasn't been met. And it's certainly true that science is constantly changing its mind. So where's the fallacy?


Make that fallacies. The first is the claim that no scientific consensus on climate exists.  This flies in the face of the fact that every major scientific body worldwide--from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (the world's largest) to the Uganda National Academy of Sciences--lays climate change at the feet of humans. The common name for such contrary-to-fact statements: lying.  When Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson claimed "There is no overwhelming science that the things that are going on are man-caused and not naturally caused" the governor of California sent him a thumb drive full of research to the contrary.


Does this consensus mean that we've arrived at the truth?  Not necessarily.  Read on.


Aside from out-and-out lying, how do climate deniers justify their position in the face of so much evidence against them? Fallacies to the rescue! Among the most popular is the Straw Man Fallacy: misrepresent a position so that it can be easily disproved.  Take Donald Trump's 2013 tweet:


"Ice storm rolls from Texas to Tennessee.

I'm in Los Angeles and it's freezing.

Global warming is a total, and very expensive, hoax!"


If meteorologists claimed that global warming means an immediate end to winter weather, an ice storm would indeed be a rock-solid refutation.  The misrepresentation: they haven't.   Senator Inhofe's celebrated 2015 exhibition of a snowball in the Senate is propped on the same fallacy.


Then there's the Appeal to Irrelevant Authority--relying on junk science rather than real science, from industry-created websites all the way down to Internet comments. These sources lack qualifications, avoid peer review by scientists, and suffer from vested interest bias. Their testimony is therefore properly disqualified. 


Another method of dealing with inconvenient evidence is to throw a cloak over it via the fallacy known as cherrypicking: ignoring evidence that refutes one's claim. 


You'll also see politicians toss it out of court by using a conspiracy theory to claim it's untrustworthy. In this case the claim is that climate scientists worldwide are falsifying data in pursuit of money and career. Real conspiracies do exist, so what's the matter with conspiracy theories? They typically lack sufficient evidence due to their fondness for secret groups whose doings aren't documented. No credible evidence supports the climate conspiracy. 


Politicians who claim they can't act on fossil fuels because "I'm not a scientist" are engaging in Denial Lite--not saying that climate change isn't human-caused but refusing to act to halt it.  This strategy fails the consistency test. Few politicians have Ph.D's in economics but this doesn't keep them from signing bills regulating taxes and wages, not to mention legislation affecting food labels, dog-grooming, teaching, sewage treatment, and nearly every other subject under the sun.  And there's a simple cure for "I'm not a scientist": seek out real scientists for guidance.  Their testimony on climate is easy to find.  Start with NASA's website or the latest United Nations report.


In the larger sense, it’s true that science is perpetually unsettled. The scientific consensus used to be that the sun revolved around the earth. This awareness in the back of our minds loans "the science isn't settled" a sheen of seeming validity. Why should we bother to tax carbon for reasons that might look ridiculous in the future? You've just stepped into the Nirvana Fallacy. It goes like this: X is what we're able to do, Y would be the perfect action, therefore we shouldn't do X. Should George Washington have ordered his men to drop their arms because their flintlocks would one day be surpassed by the more accurate rifled musket? I don't think so.  Do you know any cancer patients who've refused treatment on the grounds that better treatments are in the pipeline? Not likely.  We go to war or the hospital with the best weapons we have at the time. As new knowledge arrives, we refine our tools and tactics. This is what we do in every sphere and have always done, of necessity. Given our present state of knowledge, slashing greenhouse gases appears to be our best present course of action.  If the consensus on the causes of our dilemma changes down the road, so will our fixes. But for now, replacing fossil fuels makes sense.


"The science isn't settled" is no honest mistake. The tobacco industry used the same tack, desperate to plant doubt in smokers' minds about the scientific findings linking tobacco to cancer. They lost that battle. The fossil fuel lobby doesn't want to follow suit. "Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly," warned President George W. Bush's advisor Frank Luntz in 2002. "Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue."  "The science isn't settled" has worked wonders, a magic trick that makes an elephant-sized stack of research vanish in a trice. But tricks lose their power once we understand their workings. The next time you see this one, stand up and explain how it's done.


What about "the pause"? Greenhouse gas emissions keep rising but some studies showed that the rate of warming in the atmosphere didn't rise in tandem during the past decade. Does this support "the science isn't settled"? If GHGs and temperature aren't linked as closely as we think I'd be the first to uncork the champagne. This would be the greatest gift we could ask for.  Alas, most climatologists chalk this up to the concentration of warming in the deep ocean or to normal variation in climate--a system so complex that changes are much more likely to be bumpy than smooth. Claims that warming has ended, unfortunately, are false. 2014 was the hottest year since records began, only to be surpassed by 2015.  All of the ten hottest years have occurred since 1997. All that may have changed is the rate at which the atmosphere is warming. Though that rate also dipped in the 1960s when greenhouse gases were similarly climbing, the overall warming trend and its cause aren't in doubt. Pauses might buy us a little time, but only a very little. Back to work...


You can see the latest thinking on whether a pause took place and what it would or wouldn't mean here.