pageok
pageok
pageok
Roberts Reconsiders Nuremberg Analogy:

Grist's David Roberts has concluded it was wrong to suggest Nuremberg-like trials for climate change deniers. He gives three reasons:

First off, never violate Godwin's Law. It's a law for a reason.

Two, the Nuremberg trials resulted in executions. I'm opposed to state-sanctioned execution in all cases, but would certainly never advocate it merely for the crime of being a lying scumbag.

Third — and more to the point — Nuremberg was primarily about prosecution and punishment. I'm not a particularly vindictive person, and I'm not that interested in retribution. What I'm interested in is the truth: that the truth be aired; that those who have lied own up to it and be held accountable; that those who suffered as a result of the lies be allowed to tell their stories.

For these reasons, a far better analogy for what I had in mind would have been South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or perhaps what the Germans call Vergangenheitsbewältigung.

Roberts continues, noting that his larger concern is the notion of truth in public debate:
The public is losing hold of the notion that there can be such thing as "the truth." They're coming to accept that there is our truth and their truth, and no way of weighing them against one another. In that atmosphere, persuasion falls by the wayside, and only the raw struggle for political power remains. Epistemology becomes ideology. That is precisely what the leadership of the modern American right wing wants.

That's what I most resent: not the lies themselves, but the concerted effort to derogate all sources of independent, verifiable information — to derogate the very possibility of such information. The attacks on science, the attacks on the media, it's all part of the same project.

Given these comments, I assume Roberts will do his best to eliminate ad hominem attacks from the pages of Grist in the future. For instance, scientific claims will be evaluated on their merits, and not on their sources of funding. If so — and the example is followed elsewhere — this would be a signficant step forward in public discussions over environmental risks.

In a related vein, the comment thread to Roger Pielke's post that initiated this discussion indicates that the phrase "climate change denial" was intended (at least by some) to draw a parallel to holocaust denial. (See John A.'s 10/12 comment at 3:25pm and Roger Pielke's 10/12 comment at 8:44pm).

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Roberts Reconsiders Nuremberg Analogy:
  2. Godwin's Law and Global Warming:
  3. Ron Bailey Comes Clean:
Justin (mail):
"Given these comments, I assume Roberts will do his best to eliminate ad hominem attacks from the pages of Grist in the future."

Why? I don't see how this follows from the original point. Will VC eliminate David Bernstein rants?

"For instance, scientific claims will be evaluated on their merits, and not on their sources of funding."

Oh, come on. You know that's not irrelevant. Unless one can evaluate competing scientific claims in toto - that is, understand every action that was made and were able to replecate every data point and calculation, and also explain it in the pages of Grist - bias gives us some indicator of reliability. Would you want to make evidence of bias non 401 evidence in trials? Of course not. Bias is evidence, whether you like it or not, and Grist should feel completely free to rely on it when there is a factual dispute.


"If so -- and the example is followed elsewhere -- this would be a signficant step forward in public discussions over environmental risks."

For the reasons set up above, it would be a step backwards. More to the point, it would allow economic interests to use sheer volume to trump scientific ones, and destroy any chance we have at getting to the truth. This may be a goal of some, but its naturally counter to David Roberts' goal, even if we're forced to assume that the truth isn't already obvious (which it is).
10.14.2006 11:57am
cirby (mail):
...but would he be in favor of prosecutions of all of the climate change supporters if it turns out that their actions put us into another ice age, which would certainly kill more people than a moderately increased temperature? Is he willing to prosecute climate change scientists who are found to have fudged or falsified their numbers in support of the theory (quite a few, so far)?

Is he willing to bring himself in for prosecution, with a pre-signed confession, if the climate starts getting cooler in his lifetime?

Or, to take a more moderate line, will he confess to perjury charges if it turns out that the climate change on the warm side doesn't do much over the next couple of decades, or slips into a stable mode?
10.14.2006 12:23pm
Mahan Atma (mail):
"For instance, scientific claims will be evaluated on their merits, and not on their sources of funding."

I had the exact same reaction as the first commenter. Pointing out that someone has a strong motive towards bias is NOT an ad hominem attack -- it's logically relevant.

It the same logic that allows a lawyer to cross-examine an expert witness on the subject of the expert's fees.
10.14.2006 12:25pm
Elliot Reed:
Given these comments, I assume Roberts will do his best to eliminate ad hominem attacks from the pages of Grist in the future. For instance, scientific claims will be evaluated on their merits, and not on their sources of funding.
Sometimes ad homenim is sound reasoning rather than a fallacy, and this is one of those cases. Unless you are not only an expert, but an expert who is willing to put in significant effort investigating the details of the study, accepting the results of a scientific study requires a large degree of trust in the researchers.

You must trust that the data were collected as described (rather than faked), that the same study was not performed over and over until by chance it produced the desired results, that the statistical methods described were performed correctly, etc. etc. etc. Even more trust is required if you are not an expert, as we usually are in these debates. Evidence that this trust is not merited is thus very important: it is too easy for researchers to bias a study in an effort to bamboozle the public, or to allow concerns that their funding will dry up to influence their research in more subtle ways.

As a rule of thumb, research performed or funded by an interested party should be regarded as guilty until proven innocent. This applies to industry-funded research and the work of ideological think tanks.
10.14.2006 12:32pm
Allen G:
"Never violate Godwin's Law"?

Does this mean we must try to never let a lengthy discussion *not* bring up Hitler? It should be required?
10.14.2006 12:38pm
SteveMG (mail):
Why? I don't see how this follows from the original point.

He attacks people who disagree with the claims of anthropogenic global warming by calling them "lying scumbags". Then he condemns those who attack proponents of global warming for what he says is employing ideology as epistemology.

So, it's okay to attack one side in the conversation (they're ideological lying scumbags) but not the other?

Pretty straightforward to me.

SMG
10.14.2006 12:42pm
Zach (mail):
What I'm interested in is the truth: that the truth be aired; that those who have lied own up to it and be held accountable; that those who suffered as a result of the lies be allowed to tell their stories.

No, what he's interested in here is politics. He doesn't like the political tactics that he perceives to be in use against him, and he wants those political tactics exposed and their perpetrators shamed. He continues to see taking one side of an argument as a crime -- perhaps a misdemeanor instead of a felony, but punishable by shaming and exposure.

This impulse to not just win an argument, but to shame and punish your opponents for opposing you is very unhealthy.
10.14.2006 12:45pm
SteveMG (mail):
Robert's rules:

(I) Those who do not believe that global warming has (chiefly) been caused by human activity are lying scumbags who substitute ideology for epistemology;

(II) Those who do believe that global warming is (chiefly) caused by human activity must not be attacked.

Who doesn't see something wrong with this line of thinking?

SMG
10.14.2006 12:49pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
I got a better idea. We get a school district to order teaching of global warming as dogma, or to forbid it as heresy. Then we get some guy named Scopes to violate the rule. We bring in big name attorneys to argue either side, forget about rules of evidence, stipulate that counsel can serve as expert witnesses. If the teacher gets sick and can't teach it, we go ahead anyway, and agree that he'll plead guilty at the last second so he doesn't have to reveal the fact. All the media attend, a small town gets a big boost to the economy, and everyone goes home happy.

Hey, it worked the last time!
10.14.2006 1:41pm
donaldk:
Who gives a s**t about people like Roberts? Nobody is going to do anything about this obsession until credible evidence of its validity is proved. The fact that he labels skeptism to be a right wing sin is sufficient to demonstrate that politics is what it's all about for him. Skeptics have children and grandchildren. Suggestions that our opinion on this matter is a result of mendacity is plain obscene.
10.14.2006 1:42pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
Forgot to add -- this way we can have the case put on next month. If you go to an international tribunal, opening arguments will be set for March 2021, and the teacher might die and moot the case before plaintiff rests, in approximately winter 2042. And the judges don't have to figure out where to rent funny little hats.
10.14.2006 1:44pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
'research performed or funded by an interested party should be regarded as guilty until proven innocent.'

And a fortiori for analyses of research by such parties, no?

Does that mean I can now ignore everything Greenpeace ever says?

(I do anyhow.)
10.14.2006 2:02pm
Elliot Reed:
Harry - to the extent that Greenpeace is performing, funding, or analyzing scientific research, yes.
10.14.2006 2:33pm
Truth Seeker:
What about all the scientific researchers whose jobs depend on finding global warming? They are as biased as the oil companies. We'll have to throw out most scientific research!
10.14.2006 2:51pm
SocratesAbroad (mail):
Roberts' infatuation with "the truth" is antithetical to science itself, which is constantly re-evaluating and reconsidering hypotheses advanced. Skepticism, in fact, is at "the heart of scientific methodology":
Derek Winstanley
Chief, Illinois State Water Survey
Illinois Department of Natural Resources
In science, attempts to invalidate hypotheses and models - hard-core skepticism, by any definition - should be viewed as a necessary positive step in the pursuit of truth. Rigorous hypotheses and models will emerge as triumphant - at least for the time being. In a problem-solving and policy-development mode, healthy skepticism is needed to ensure the rigor and effectiveness of proposed solutions. Another way of expressing the difference between these two philosophies is to state that "Blind commitment to a theory is not an intellectual virtue; it is an intellectual crime" (Lakatos, 1978).
This is why I regard consensus science and the demise of scientific skepticism as an unhealthy combination. Without the boldness and perseverance of earlier skeptics, who risked ridicule and being branded as heretics, we would still believe Earth to be the center of the Universe and continents to be motionless.

Demonizing scientists who, by the very nature of their work, should question the current orthodoxy of global warming as Holocaust deniers and apartheid supporters, a la Roberts, is disingenuous at best and inimical to scientific inquiry at worst.
That stance smacks more of an ideology than anything else.
10.14.2006 2:54pm
KevinM:
I agree that the "denier" trope should be retired. There's nothing wrong with it viewed in isolation but, given its provenance, it is rhetorically too hot. Does nobody else see the irony in demanding that Roberts now refrain from mentioning the source of scientific studies he's criticizing?

BTW, as a substitute, may I suggests "flat-earther?" Does "geocentrist" still arouse too many passions?
10.14.2006 3:30pm
Jay Myers:
Elliot Reed:


Sometimes ad homenim is sound reasoning rather than a fallacy,

Fallacious reasoning is always fallacious even if it happens to arrive at a true conclusion. If I state, "I am wearing pants. Therefore, it will rain tomorrow." that is a fallacy even if it happens to be true that I am currently wearing pants and it does rain tomorrow.

Unless you are not only an expert, but an expert who is willing to put in significant effort investigating the details of the study, accepting the results of a scientific study requires a large degree of trust in the researchers.

That is why lay people should ignore people who publish via press releases and instead consider such things as whether the research has been peer reviewed and if the research has been replicated independantly by other scientists. Unfortunately, research in climate change had proven to be spectacularly unreproducable. That's mostly because we don't understand all the variables of the systems we are trying to predict. All these "models" predicting warming are nothing more than computer simulations based on guesswork. Garbage in, garbage out.

Evidence that this trust is not merited is thus very important: it is too easy for researchers to bias a study in an effort to bamboozle the public, or to allow concerns that their funding will dry up to influence their research in more subtle ways.

As a rule of thumb, research performed or funded by an interested party should be regarded as guilty until proven innocent. This applies to industry-funded research and the work of ideological think tanks.

Then pretty much anyone who says they believe this is an important issue should be distrusted for having an ulterior motive.

"To (grab the public attention) we need to get some broad-based support, to capture the public's imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we may have. This 'double ethical bind' we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest." (emphasis added)
Stanford professor Stephen Schneider.

"A lot of environmental messages are simply not accurate. But that's the way we sell messages in this society. We use hype. And we use those pieces of information that sustain our position. I guess all large organizations do that."
Ecology Professor Jerry Franklin of the University of Washington

"Emphasis on extreme scenarios may have been appropriate at one time, when the public and decision-makers were relatively unaware of the global warming issue. Now, however, the need is for demonstrably objective climate…scenarios consistent with what is realistic under current conditions."
James Hanson PhD, 2003, writing in the Journal Natural Science

Now that most people are on their side they can start telling the truth? Even Hanson, who has had a cushy civil service job at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies since 1967, is claiming that using scare tactics and exaggeration "may have been appropriate" in order to get people to agree with his views. What's the word for using emotions and questionable claims to get popular support? Demagoguery.
10.14.2006 3:58pm
Mahan Atma (mail):
"Fallacious reasoning is always fallacious even if it happens to arrive at a true conclusion."

Straw man.

The issue is whether it's logically relevant that a piece of research is funded by someone with a distinct agenda or bias towards a particular outcome. Seems pretty obvious to me that it is.
10.14.2006 4:13pm
bruce (mail) (www):
Godwin's Law is not a law, but rather a simple mathematical truism:

"As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one."

Replace "Nazis or Hitler" with anything else and it remains true.

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving bacon or cellphones approaches one.
10.14.2006 4:21pm
godfodder (mail):
I think David Roberts' point is clear enough: Shut up!! And listen to me! Believe the things that I do. Don't question my shibboleths, or else I will denounce you. I will blacklist you; I will humiliate you; I will call you names!!!

At first, when I read Mr. Roberts' entry, I thought the whole thing was one of those double entendre, ironic jokes. After reading the first dozen or so responses, I realized that "These folks are serious!"

As a scientist, I have to tell you: there is nothing farther from the scientific mindset than Mr. Roberts' approach. Science IS skepticism. Investing one's ego in this theory or that theory is the begining of the end. It is confusing irreason with reason. Mr. Roberts' approach is about power and politics, nothing more.
10.14.2006 7:47pm
markm (mail):
Ad hominen is only a fallacy when it is used to attack an argument, rather than evaluating the argument on it's own merits (logic, evidentiary basis for the alleged facts, etc.). It's perfectly proper to investigate the biases and reputation of the person claiming to have observed those "facts" (e.g., an eyewitness), or of someone presenting conclusions from analyses or research that one is not capable of replicating yourself (e.g. expert witnesses). That is, it's quite normal and nonfallacious for a lawyer to argue that the opposing witness is a liar, but not to attack the character of the opposing lawyer, because an inconsistency in your theory of the case exists whether it is pointed out by an upstanding citizen or by someone pond scum and rattlesnakes wouldn't associate with.

For the most part, we have to treat these global warming scientists and their opponents like expert witnesses; we don't see their raw data, statistical methods, and computer models, and couldn't evaluate them if they were laid out in front of us. So, with a few exceptions [1], we have to try to evaluate the persons drawing the conclusions.

OTOH, we are perfectly capable of noticing a discrepancy between the detailed conclusions buried in a report and the headlines. To reject that film because you think Gore is a lying, alarmist, political opportunist is the ad hominem fallacy. You should reject it because it predicts the stifling temperatures and 20 foot sea level changes over a time period when most of those climate scientists who agree that anthropogenic global warming is occurring only predict temperature changes of about 1 degree and sea level rises of inches in most models. And if you draw from that discrepancy the conclusion that Gore is a LAPO - it doesn seem to follow from the data.

[1] Exceptions occur when the expert's claims include something that a layman can see is untrue, or fail to account for exceptions that a layman can verify - e.g., the gross noncorrespondence between the "Hockey Stick" graph and climatic changes implied by historical records in Greenland and western Europe.
10.14.2006 8:14pm
Brian Garst (www):
"Truth" is a smoke screen for him, he's not interested in anything of the sort. What he's really interested in is his "truth", which no one appearantly is allowed to challenge. Of course, intelligent people would recognize that such attitudes make it virtually impossible to tell what is truth and what is not. If everyone goes around claiming they are correct and no one else has the right to challenge or question this, then belief takes the place of truth. This guy is a hack, his clarification only serves to confirm this, as he utterly missed the point.
10.14.2006 9:47pm
Bleepless (mail):
Roberts still has the totalitarian view of disagreement. There is no difference between an opponent and an enemy, and all enemies are corrupt. Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler, the mullahs . . . and Roberts. Anyone who believes that there are civilized values and that they should be followed has a duty to ignore anything Roberts shrieks.
10.14.2006 10:04pm
therut:
I recommend we also have a "trial" to get to the truth about gun control and whether it does or does not decrease crime.. As far as I know there is NO definite evidence at this time that it does. Could we also exspose the liars on this subject.
10.15.2006 1:11am
anonVCfan:
Add me to the list of people who think that the source of funding for a scientific claim is relevant in assessing its credibility.
10.15.2006 4:05am
Bruce:
The bit about Godwin's Law reminds me of the old joke:

Gravity: It's not just a good idea, it's the law.
10.15.2006 10:55am
lisamarie (mail):
anonVCfan,
I would be all for that (and I'm a scientist) if it were not for the fact that most people think it does not apply when the source of funding is the government, which is somehow a magical fountain of money that never produces any bias of any kind in the research it funds.
10.15.2006 8:48pm
An honest question (mail):
So, evolution is true and so might be global warming as a result of human activity: where's the issue? Why should I care about a gene pool that hardly represents my interests when I can avoid costs to a gene pool that I actually care about now? Really, I'm not being sarcastic, I'm just not as empathetic to my ancestors 300 years removed.
10.15.2006 9:44pm
Jonathan Hawkins (mail) (www):
I find it interesting that supporters of "relative truth", usual idealogical companions of global warming supporters, are here being demonized - and that "the right" (usually associated with being fans of "absolute truth") are accused of using relative truth as a means of denying global warming.

Since when did global warming become a religious belief?
10.17.2006 3:54pm
srp (mail):
The notion that government climate researchers are more unbiased and trustworthy than anyone else in the debate is not well-supported by the evidence. The most thorough analysis I've seen, based on six years of fieldwork as a participant observer as well as 100 interviews is Myanna Lahsen, "Seductive Simulations? Uncertainty Distributions Around Climate Models," Social Studies in Science, 35/6 (Dec. 2005) 895-922. The paper is clearly sympathetic to the modelers, but its portrait is fairly devastating.
10.17.2006 5:00pm
Chris S (www):
'For the most part, we have to treat these global warming scientists and their opponents like expert witnesses; we don't see their raw data, statistical methods, and computer models, and couldn't evaluate them if they were laid out in front of us. So, with a few exceptions [1], we have to try to evaluate the persons drawing the conclusions. '

Deciding that a scientist is wrong simply because his research was funded, in part, by people that would profit from debunking global warming is logically false.

Just because this method would work in a courtroom does not make it any less false.
10.17.2006 5:13pm
Benjamin Coates (mail):
Bruce:


Godwin's Law is not a law, but rather a simple mathematical truism:
...
As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving bacon or cellphones approaches one.

This isn't neccarily true for any given subject; Goodwin's law is not a tautology.

Just because any given post in an online discussion has a greater-than-zero chance of a comparison involving bacon, cellphones, Hitler and/or Nazis doesn't mean the total probability has to approach 1, for example if the odds of a bacon-related topic starter is .1 and each subsequent poster is less likely to mention bacon if nobody else has yet.
10.18.2006 9:25am