Materials for March 18, 2020, Critical Conversation

Climate of Complete Certainty

By Bret Stephens
The New York Times
April 28, 2017

When someone is honestly 55% right, that’s very good and there’s no use wrangling. And if someone is 60% right, it’s wonderful, it’s great luck and let him thank God.

But what’s to be said about 75% right? Wise people say this is suspicious. Well, and what about 100% right? Whoever says he’s 100% right is a fanatic, a thug and the worst kind of rascal.

An old Jew of Galicia

In the final stretch of last year’s presidential race, Hillary Clinton and her team thought they were, if not 100% right, then very close.

Right on the merits. Confident in their methods. Sure of their chances. When Bill Clinton suggested to his wife’s advisers that, considering Brexit, they might be underestimating the strength of the populist tide, the campaign manager, Robby Mook, had a bulletproof answer: The data run counter to your anecdotes.

That detail comes from “Shattered,” Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’s compulsively readable account of Clinton’s 2016 train wreck. Mook belonged to a new breed of political technologists with little time for retail campaigning and limitless faith in the power of models and algorithms to minimize uncertainty and all but predict the future.

“Mook and his ‘Moneyball’ approach to politics rankled the old order of political operatives and consultants because it made some of their work obsolete,” Allen and Parnes write about the campaign’s final days. “The memo that one Hillary adviser had sent months earlier warning that they should add three or four points to Trump’s poll position was a distant memory.”

There’s a lesson here. We live in a world in which data convey authority. But authority has a way of descending to certitude, and certitude begets hubris. From Robert McNamara to Lehman Brothers to Stronger Together, cautionary tales abound.

We ought to know this by now, but we don’t. Instead, we respond to the inherent uncertainties of data by adding more data without revisiting our assumptions, creating an impression of certainty that can be lulling, misleading and often dangerous. Ask Clinton.

With me so far? Good. Let’s turn to climate change.

Last October, the Pew Research Center published a survey on the politics of climate change. Among its findings: Just 36% of Americans care “a great deal” about the subject. Despite 30 years of efforts by scientists, politicians and activists to raise the alarm, nearly two-thirds of Americans are either indifferent to or only somewhat bothered by the prospect of planetary calamity.

Why? The science is settled. The threat is clear. Isn’t this one instance, at least, where 100% of the truth resides on one side of the argument?

Well, not entirely. As Andrew Revkin wrote last year about his storied career as an environmental reporter at The Times, “I saw a widening gap between what scientists had been learning about global warming and what advocates were claiming as they pushed ever harder to pass climate legislation.” The science was generally scrupulous. The boosters who claimed its authority weren’t.

Anyone who has read the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change knows that, while the modest (0.85 degrees Celsius, or about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit) warming of the Earth since 1880 is indisputable, as is the human influence on that warming, much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities. That’s especially true of the sophisticated but fallible models and simulations by which scientists attempt to peer into the climate future. To say this isn’t to deny science. It’s to acknowledge it honestly.

By now I can almost hear the heads exploding. They shouldn’t, because there’s another lesson here — this one for anyone who wants to advance the cause of good climate policy. As Revkin wisely noted, hyperbole about climate “not only didn’t fit the science at the time but could even be counterproductive if the hope was to engage a distracted public.”

Let me put it another way. Claiming total certainty about the science traduces the spirit of science and creates openings for doubt whenever a climate claim proves wrong. Demanding abrupt and expensive changes in public policy raises fair questions about ideological intentions. Censoriously asserting one’s moral superiority and treating skeptics as imbeciles and deplorables wins few converts.

None of this is to deny climate change or the possible severity of its consequences. But ordinary citizens also have a right to be skeptical of an overweening scientism. They know — as all environmentalists should — that history is littered with the human wreckage of scientific errors married to political power.

I’ve taken the epigraph for this column from the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, who knew something about the evils of certitude. Perhaps if there had been less certitude and more second-guessing in Clinton’s campaign, she’d be president. Perhaps if there were less certitude about our climate future, more Americans would be interested in having a reasoned conversation about it.

Deconstructing Climate Misinformation to Identify Reasoning Errors

By John Cook et al. 
Environmental Research Letters, Vol. 13, No. 2

Fallacies of Relevance

Fallacy Definition
Ambiguity Using ambiguous language/terminology in premises to lead to a misleading conclusion.
Appeal to conspiracy Proposes a secret plan among a number of people, generally to implement a nefarious scheme such as conspiring to hide a truth or perpetuate misinformation.
Equivocation When the same word (here used also for phrase) is used with two different meanings. Equivocation is a subset of the ambiguity fallacy.
Nonsequitur Latin for “it does not follow” and applies to arguments where the stated conclusion does not logically follow from the premises.
Red herring Poses a distracting statement that has little bearing on the final argued conclusion and whose intent is to disrupt engagement with the point at issue.

Fallacies of Prevention

Fallacy Definition
Fake experts Cites dissenting non-experts who are promoted as highly qualified while not having published any actual climate research.
False cause Post hoc ergo propter hoc — after this, therefore because of this.
False dichotomy Automatically attributes causality to a sequence or conjunction of events.
False equivalency Presents only two alternatives, while there may be another alternative, another way of framing the situation, or both options may be simultaneously viable.
Magnified minority Assumes that two subjects that share a single trait are equivalent.
Presents a small dissenting group as larger and more significant than they really are.

Fallacies of Scope

Fallacy Definition
Cherry picking Selectively chooses data leading to a desired conclusion that differs from the conclusion arising from all the available data. Similar to slothful induction but with an emphasis on actively selecting specific information to draw a misleading conclusion rather than ignoring relevant information.
Impossible expectations Demands unrealistic standards of certainty before acting on the science. In particular, expects deductive proof from inductive reasoning.
Misrepresentation Misrepresents a situation or scientific understanding.
Oversimplification A specific type of misrepresentation. Simplifies a situation in such a way as to distort scientific understanding, leading to erroneous conclusions. In contrast to cherry picking, which typically involves data, oversimplification typically involves understandings of how systems operate.
Single cause Assumes there is a single, simple cause of an outcome.
Slothful induction Ignores relevant and significant evidence when inferring to a conclusion. Similar to cherry picking but with an emphasis on neglecting information rather than selecting highlighting information to draw a misleading conclusion.

On Bullsh*t

By Harry Frankfurt
Raritan Quarterly Review

It is this lack of connection to a concern with truth — this indifference to how things really are — that I regard as of the essence of bullsh*t.

Although B.S. is produced without concern with the truth, it need not be false. The bullsh*tter is faking things. But that does not necessarily mean that he gets them wrong.

What bullsh*t essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs, Those are what lies misrepresent, by being false. Since bullsh*t need not be false, it differs from lies in its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us or even intend to do so, either about the facts or what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.

Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature. (i.e., sincerity). ... Facts about ourselves are not particularly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial — notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case sincerity itself is bullsh*t.