Respectful Insolence

I just heard on the radio last night while driving home what has to be one of the worst analogy about global warming that I’ve ever heard, and, at the risk of annoying fellow SB’ers who frequently write about these topics, like Chris Mooney or Tim Lambert, I felt like commenting.

Oddly enough, the soundbite came from Al Gore, of all people, the last person I would expect to make such a flawed analogy:

The planet has a fever,” Gore said. “If your baby has a fever, you go to the doctor. If the doctor says you need to intervene here, you don’t say, ‘Well, I read a science fiction novel that told me it’s not a problem.’ If the crib’s on fire, you don’t speculate that the baby is flame retardant. You take action.”

This sort of astoundingly bad analogy is not helpful in persuading the public that global warming is happening and that a large proportion of the cause is human activity, both contentions that I have come to accept based on the science. All it does is provide fodder for conservative bloggers and right wing pundits to mock Al Gore and a soundbite that the media focused on almost to the exclusion of the non-inane statements Gore made, without adding anything substantive to the discussion. (Heck, if I were a global warming “skeptic,” I’d have a field day with it, particularly the part about the flame retardant baby. That’s a line that, amazingly, accomplishes what I would have thought to be impossible: It almost makes global warming über-”skeptic” Senator James Inofe seem less stupid by comparison. Almost.) I could go into detail about how many ways this analogy is bad. For one, fever is a defense mechanism designed to help fight off infection that sometimes gets out of control. Is Al Gore claiming that global warming is a defense mechanism to rid the world of an infection? Maybe he is, if you consider humans to be an infection giving the earth a “fever.” For another thing, the vast majority of fevers in children are due to benign, self-limited viral illnesses requiring symptomatic relief and nothing else. If climate scientists are correct about global warming (and the emerging consensus suggests that the probably are), then it is not going to be benign or self-limited.

I leave it as an exercise to the reader to come up with more ways this analogy is off-base.

I understand the reason one might make up such an analogy. Global warming is a really complex issue that few understand, and there is an attraction in putting it in very simple terms that anyone can understand. However, comparing it to the planet “having a fever” is so ridiculous that it obfuscates far more than it enlightens. Unfortunately, even NASA, apparently, is not above using this bad analogy.

Comments

  1. #1 Dunc
    March 22, 2007

    Well, whether it’s “benign and self-limiting” rather depends on your perspective. On geological timescales, it almost certainly will be self-limiting, and you could regard it as benign from a planetary perspective if you regard humans as a dangerous pathogen… It’s fairly compatible with the views of James Lovelock, for example.

    However, as a sane human being, I would have to agree with you. In many ways, Mr Gore is not a particularly good science populariser on this issue. While I haven’t seen AIT, I understand that he heavily overplays the remote possibility of a THC-slowdown, for example. I have to say that I find the adulation he has received for that film perplexing, and I suspect it has a great deal to do with partisan politics.

    By contrast, David Attenborough’s “State of the Planet” is a very good documentary on the subject, that takes a very balanced approach and deals with the actual science. I don’t know if it’s been shown outside the UK though.

  2. #2 Xocolotl
    March 22, 2007

    The latter half is my new favorite analogy. I use it at every opportunity.

  3. #3 bigTom
    March 22, 2007

    I thought it was a pretty good “sound-bite” myself. But then I don’t spend much timing thinking about the biological process of a fever. Of course the deniers will grasp at anything they can get ahold of to derail this train.

  4. #4 Mencius
    March 22, 2007

    Orac,

    Check out Climate Audit before you get too sure.

  5. #5 JohnTheStudent
    March 22, 2007

    I think you missed the mark a little on this one. I think when most people hear “fever” they think “sick,” not “natural defense mechanism.” Obviously the flame retardent baby is less apt, but neither analogy is meant to be taken to all possible comparisons. His point is clear, and accessible to many more people than I think you realize.

    Al Gore’s contribution to the global climate change issue is often misunderstood, though I don’t understand how. He is not a scientist, he is not performing research. He is, however, lending visibility and public recognition to the actual scientists, pushing the Overton window to the “left” on the issue.

    The idea that these analogies (or anything!) could make Sen. Inhofe appear less the kooky denier is absurd.

    And Dunc, how many people have heard of David Attenborough? How many have seen his no doubt excellent documentary? I don’t know but I wager fewer than Al Gore and AIT. I think you miss the forest through the trees. AIT is designed to raise awareness and ignite popular opinion. It was designed to tell average americans “Hey, the science is clear, action is needed.” Arguing about the scientific nuance in a popular film is missing the point. Nobody can claim that Al Gore made factual errors or grossly distorted statements in AIT. People criticize him for not making a 14 hour film that sufficiently explores all the scientific nuance, and range of GCMs.

    Scientists debate climate change just as they do evolution, but that doesn’t diminish the message of AIT. Gore was meticulous about having scientific advisors and backup, because he knew he was putting his neck out there. I think to many people like to position themselves as moderate by trying to marginalize Gore, even when they agree with him.

    I admit I’m quick to defend Gore, but I think he’s a whipping boy for too many, and for all the wrong reasons.

    Orac, I’m a fan, but I think you missed the mark.

  6. #6 Narc
    March 22, 2007

    I think you’re reading a little too much into the metaphor.

    …provide fodder for conservative bloggers and right wing pundits to mock Al Gore

    They were going to do that no matter what he said. Heck, if he got up there and read Shakespeare, they’d mock him for being pretentious and showing off all his fancy book-learnin’.

  7. #7 mark
    March 22, 2007

    I’m not a neurosurgeon, but I’ll speak outside my field of expertise anyway.
    When I heard that analogy, I was thinking it’s not necessarily best to lower the temperature of someone with a fever.
    But I thought the basic point was, if there is a problem that needs attention, it might be better to give it that attention than to argue that the problem doesn’t exist. So yes, “fever” was not the best analogy; perhaps “bloody vomit” would have been better; something that did not relate to temperature.

  8. #8 Pinko Punko
    March 22, 2007

    Orac, sometimes in the face of James Imhofe, it is possible to be less that perfect. Given everything else that has come from Gore on this issue, the sum of it says that he is probably the most informed lay person on the planet about this . I think it is extremely difficult to come up with constant analogies when you are arguing with a brick wall made up of stupid. And please, do check out Climate Audit, for the laughs. They are the DaveScot of climatology.

  9. #9 CCP
    March 22, 2007

    Most folks still think of a fever as a bad thing to be brought down by any means necessary (you yourself write of “requir[ed] symptomatic relief”). I agree it’s a bad analogy, but because few people regard fever as an “intentional” resetting of the thermoregulatory setpoint(s), I doubt it will cause much misunderstanding. (Hey, maybe Gaia DOES have a fever and the old gal’ll stabilize at a new equilibrium pretty soon.
    Nah.)

  10. #10 Roy
    March 22, 2007

    Gee, if the Earth has a fever, it must be trying to fight off an infection. Quick, quick — hose everything down with disinfectant!

    Or, perhaps, that really is a howler of a bad analogy.

  11. #11 mgr
    March 22, 2007

    This is lifted from congressional testimony in response to questioning by said ‘denier’. It’s a barbed analogy directed towards their actions in their role as public servant as to how they addressed scienitific testimony regarding global warming, not one to explain global warming to the public.

    When I heard the sound bite, it included the question, and had the first part (“The earth has a fever…”) and the last part, but lacked the middle that you quote. The fact that the statement is manipulated and garbled could imply that the metaphor is better developed in the testimony.

    The fever analogy makes more sense if you put it in terms of being a parent (policy maker), the child is suffering from fever (global warming), you do not know what to do, so you do the sensible thing, you take them to the doctor (you consult scientists). The doctor (scientist)recommends a course of action. It would be irrational for the parent (policy maker) to consider the opinion of a science fiction writer (Michael Crichton)as providing equal expertise.

    Mike

  12. #12 JacqueItch
    March 22, 2007

    I just assumed that Al was having a hotflash.
    Projection is commoner used than realized.
    But if he is setting his grandchildren’s cribs afire, I think the good fellow might have a bit more of a problem. . .

    Creating accountability in those who are using the Minimizing and Denying Technique as their primary means of scientific inquiry must be just a l-i-t-t-l-e frustrating at times. The disconnect in this country is both worsened by the leadership’s native dishonesty and at the same time reflective in that leadership of the electorate’s extraordinary incapacity to recognise themselves as biological organisms firstly and “humans” secondly.
    Were it not for the alterations in the weather, I think many Americans would forget entirely they are living on the surface of a planet. I KNOW they would.
    More power to Gore and I hope his attention to the environment draws more attention, and I don’t mean the stupid goddamn salutes that pass as hierarchical hellos among the actual rulers, the military and war profiteers.

  13. #13 Coin
    March 22, 2007

    I thought it was just kind of funny. I don’t think it was meant to be taken as a seriously intended analogy.

  14. #14 Calli Arcale
    March 22, 2007

    The part I found dumbest was his remark about “Well, I read a science fiction novel that told me it’s not a problem.” It seems like he’s making a strawman out of the other side with that, because they’re not (as far as I know) claiming anything as absurd as saying that works of fiction are the best source of information about global climate. I would’ve found it more accurate to say something like “Well, I read a book about so I know it’s not really a problem.” But that might not’ve been very politically welcome, given how credulous politicians tend to be regarding alternative medicine.

  15. #15 Calli Arcale
    March 22, 2007

    D’oh, I forgot that since you’re allowed to use HTML, angle-brackets wouldn’t come through. The end of that post should read as follows:

    I would’ve found it more accurate to say something like “Well, I read a book about [insert alternative medicine here] so I know it’s not really a problem.” But that might not’ve been very politically welcome, given how credulous politicians tend to be regarding alternative medicine.

  16. #16 Coin
    March 22, 2007

    The part I found dumbest was his remark about “Well, I read a science fiction novel that told me it’s not a problem.” It seems like he’s making a strawman out of the other side with that, because they’re not (as far as I know) claiming anything as absurd as saying that works of fiction are the best source of information about global climate.

    Considering he was addressing Congress, this actually as far as I can tell is not a straw man, but a specific, sound, and probably intentional criticism directed at Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), who, as bizarre as it may sound, has in fact very publicly done exactly that.

    Incredibly, in a Jan. 4 speech, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, invoked “State of Fear” as an argument against the bipartisan McCain-Lieberman energy bill – which for all its failings acknowledges the reality of global warming. “Dr. Crichton,” said Inhofe, “a medical doctor and scientist, very cleverly weaves a compelling presentation of the scientific facts of climate change – with ample footnotes and documentation throughout – into a gripping plot.” But Crichton freely admitted that Saturday afternoon movie cliffhangers inspired his plot.

    The New York Times Book Review summary of “State of Fear” – “Reverse eco-terrorists create natural disasters to convince the public that global warming is real” – underscores that Crichton is redirecting fear of global warming to anger at the messengers.

    And here:

    Michael Crichton, Novelist, Becomes Senate Witness

    WASHINGTON, Sept. 28 – His last book, “State of Fear,” was published more than nine months ago, but the reviews were still pouring in on Wednesday, even as Michael Crichton folded his 6-foot-9-inch frame into a seat to testify before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

    His is an unpopular and contrary stance when measured against the judgment of groups like the National Academy of Sciences. But it was not those organizations that asked Mr. Crichton to Washington to counsel Congress on how to consider diverse scientific opinion when making policy. It was the committee chairman, Senator James M. Inhofe, a plainspoken Oklahoma Republican who has unabashedly pronounced global warming “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”

    In Mr. Crichton, a Harvard medical school graduate who never practiced medicine, he had found a kindred spirit – and a star witness for his committee.

    “I’m excited about this hearing,” Mr. Inhofe said, nodding toward Mr. Crichton as the proceedings began. “I think I’ve read most of his books; I think I’ve read them all. I enjoyed most ‘State of Fear’ and made it required reading for this [the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works] committee.”

  17. #17 dzd
    March 22, 2007

    Guess what! My planet has a fever… and the only prescription is MORE COWBELL.

  18. #18 Koray
    March 22, 2007

    In my quest to drop use of analogies as much as possible, I ask: how does an analogy help here anyway?

    Is the listener, who is apparently capable of grasping the similarities of fever in humans and global climate, somehow unable to reach the conclusion “if we have a problem, we need to fix it”?

    Anybody who disagrees with Gore is going to reject his analogy first. They’d agree that babies are not flame retardant, but assert that the analogy doesn’t apply to the planet because yadda yadda. What have we gained? The conversation is actually impeded by introduction of this useless analogy.

  19. #19 Scholar
    March 22, 2007

    I loved the whole hearing. Barbara boxer brandishing the gavel menacingly toward INOFE “we have the floor now”. Gore was making a valid analogy, in my opinion. I see Orac’s side as well, but I think the message was loud and clear, the environment is not going to be okay with just Christian Science. The right-wingers are gonna distort things anyway, why not give them a nice vivid analogy that even the hordes of uneducated (I mean in the science-book sense, not calling em all idiots, THIS time) religious southerners and mid-westerners can understand. That way, people will at least hear that something is indeed wrong, even if it is in the context of making Gore look bad.

  20. #20 Scholar
    March 22, 2007

    I wanna feel that dang cowbell! Play it like you mean it!

  21. #21 daenku32
    March 22, 2007

    I second(third) the request for more cowbell.

    But if my kid has a fever, I do go to a doctor, not science fiction novels (here represented by Sen Inhofe). It is usually a sign that the kid just might have an infection, a virus or what not.

  22. #22 spondee
    March 22, 2007

    Damn… somebody beat me to the Walken!

    “I got a FEVER…and the only prescription is reduced carbon emissions!”

  23. #23 pough
    March 22, 2007

    The part I found dumbest was his remark about “Well, I read a science fiction novel that told me it’s not a problem.” It seems like he’s making a strawman out of the other side with that, because they’re not (as far as I know) claiming anything as absurd as saying that works of fiction are the best source of information about global climate.

    Oh ye of too much faith (in humanity). Check the American Association of Petroleum Geologists:

    The Geosciences in the Media Award is given to a person in recognition of notable journalistic achievement in any medium which contributes to public understanding of geology, energy resources, or the technology of oil and gas exploration. Granting of this award in any year is discretionary.

    2006 Michael Crichton

  24. #24 Brian
    March 22, 2007

    Not to pile on… ok well, yes, to pile on… I thought it was pretty clear that Gore’s analogy (the fever part, anyway) was aimed directly at the Inhof/Chrighton idiocy and not at trying to accurately communicate the nature of global climate change.

    Although to be fair, if my infant son did had a fever and I took him to his Pediatrician, and his pediatrician recommended giving him something to bring down the fever, my response wouldn not be “well, I read on Respectful Insolence that fever is a defense mechanism designed to help fight off infection, so no thank you.”

    Presumably, if, under the terms of Gore’s analogy, the doctor says you need to intervene, then your body’s evolutionary history of dealing with infectious disease is not really what you need to be focusing on.

    Of course, Koray’s point is still very apt – he might have skipped the analogy and just told Inhoff that he was a total jackass, but I think the wingnuts would then accuse him of being uncivil, or even unhinged.

  25. #25 Orac
    March 22, 2007

    Oh, I got the reference to the Crichton novel (notice that I didn’t say anything about the science fiction novel part), but the whole bit about asbestos baby was just so over-the-top. Also, you have to hear Gore say it. It came across as very condescending.

    I realize that Gore was being sarcastic and possibly attempting a little pointed humor, but he’s just not that good at it. Jon Stewart might have made a line something like that work; Al Gore just can’t do it without sounding ridiculous.

  26. #26 Mark P
    March 22, 2007

    Molehill = mountain.

  27. #27 Graculus
    March 22, 2007

    Al Gore just can’t do it without sounding ridiculous.

    That’s because Al Gore is fat.

    Seriously, no matter what Gore says the Republicons will misrepresent it. He wasn’t making an analogy so much as poking Inhofe. Personally, I think he needs a much larger, sharper stick, because Inhofe is as dumb as a bag of wet mice.

  28. #28 Andrew Dodds
    March 23, 2007

    Well, as a geologist, the only problem I have with the analogy is the appeal to emotion.. the increase in temperatures is, after all, a direct symptom of atmospheric pollution.

    And compared to the lies, distortions and logical errors committed by AGW-skeptics, it is minor indeed.

  29. #29 James
    March 23, 2007

    Believe it or not this type of hyperbole and emotional appeal actually puts some people off. One of the reasons I was (please note, was) a climate sceptic for so long was that the doomsaying and blatant emotionalism of people like Al Gore, Greenpeace etc. made me think there was noting behind their assertions (not to mention their impractical / foolish policy prescriptions).

    It was only by ignoring them that I was able to devleop any proper understanding of the science of the issue.

  30. #30 Dunc
    March 23, 2007

    Dunc, how many people have heard of David Attenborough? How many have seen his no doubt excellent documentary?

    Well, you have to understand that I’m in the UK, where David Attenborough is probably at least as well-known as Tony Blair, far better known than Al Gore, and accorded a degree of public respect far beyond that given to any politician, or indeed any other broadcaster. I’m pretty sure there was a survey a while back that revealed him to be the best-loved and most respected man in Britain. He’s regarded as a national treasure.

    I have to admit, I find it hard to imagine TV without him…

  31. #31 Andrew Dodds
    March 23, 2007

    James -

    I also dislike emotion in the whole climate debate.. but I would point you to events like the Younger Dryas:

    –as an event of 1300(+-)70 years duration that terminated abruptly, as evidenced by an 7C rise in temperature and a twofold increase in accumulation rate, at 11.64 kyr BP [ Alley et al., 1993]

    Translation: This event ended with a 7 degrees celsius temperature rise on the timescale of a decade or so. Now, this is Greenland, so temperature changes here are likely to be greater than less polar areas. Probably onle a couple of degrees celsius globally in a decade or so.

    So, although disaster scenarios are very unlikely, they are possible and have happened before, as a result of perfectly natural climate pushes.

    As far as policy response goes, I do have serious problems with the entire conservation/renewables approach, for the simple reason that the numbers simply don’t add up. The only realistic replacement of fossil fuels on the scale required is nuclear power, like it or not, and given the side effects (cheaper electricity and final removal of oil import dependance), it’s quite amazing that US conservatives haven’t latched onto it.

  32. #32 Grumpy Physicist
    March 23, 2007

    Koray: you’re right on target. While it’s endemic in internet discussions “argument by analogy” is dumb. Why, it’s like…. (no, better not go there)

    Even so, Gore’s remarks about fever was not aimed at MD’s, but at the general public, and I think it was apt, in spite of the wierdness of the asbestos baby thing. That’s what happens when you push an analogy too far, I guess.

    As for nuclear power, yes, it’s a solution. Unfortunately, many on the left have a lot invested in a quasi-religeous opposition of anything nuclear. I’m not sure why the right isn’t pushing it more, but I can speculate:

    1. They really, really want their fossil fuels, and don’t want to even think about anything that would make oil less necessary.

    2. They’re a bunch of big pussies that don’t want to take heat from the anti-nuclear left, particularly when it means opposing fear-mongering.

    3. It would be, like, saying FRANCE was right about something! Inconceivable!

    In such a climate, rational decisions just aren’t going to happen.

  33. #33 Daedalus2u
    March 23, 2007

    Global warming happens to be something that I have a lot of expertise in. If anything, AIT was far too conservative in its assessment of the time scale on which global warming is going to do bad things.

    The problem with the stability of the various ice sheets, is that it is unknown how to model them. Every ice sheet that has been observed to disintegrate, has done so quickly. The Larson B ice sheet, 3,250 km2 of shelf area disintegrated in a 35-day period beginning on 31 January 2002.

    http://nsidc.org/iceshelves/larsenb2002/

    When something is unknown how to model, it is left out of the model. Everyone who does ice sheet modeling knows that the non-linear coupled aspects of melt water on the surface flowing to the base and lifting and lubricating the ice and causing acceleration in flow has been left out. But no one knows how to model it in a realistic way.

    CO2 in the atmosphere is higher than it has been in 10 million years. At that time, there was little to no ice in Greenland. When Greenland melts (when, not if), sea level will go up by 7 meters. If 15% of Greenland flows into the sea in a week, what will that do to the maintanence of the ocean circulation?

    I think the baby catching fire is an apt metaphor. We are in completely uncharted territory as to what the climate is going to do. No one knows what is going to happen. There is lots and lots of methane tied up as methane hydrates in the sea bed. Those are unstable at temperatures much above about 10-20 C. The sea bed is only cold because of the ocean circulation. If that stops, the bottom of the ocean will warm due to geothermal heating, and the methane hydrates will decompose. There is some thought that that is what happened 250 million years ago and caused the mass extinction at the Permo-Triassic boundary.

    This could result in a multi-hit whammy. If the ocean circulation stops, the deep ocean becomes anoxic and warm. The methane is released slowly, and bacteria use it to make H2S. When algae forms and sinks, sulfate reducing bacteria will be able to metabolize it generating sulfide. When the sulfide flux exceeds a certain level, it overwhelms hydroxyl production in the atmosphere and the equilibrium concentration rises to about 100 ppm H2S. Very few eukaryotes, animals or plants can survive 100 ppm H2S long term.

    http://geology.geoscienceworld.org/cgi/content/abstract/33/5/397

    Generation of anoxic and sulfidic regions is not unknown.

    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v415/n6871/abs/415493b.html;jsessionid=4A400D7647FD63D69D299A77ECAAB8F2

    The problem, is that once something like the ocean circulation stops, it is too late to do anything about it. Sort of like when your baby’s fever gets so high that the crib catches on fire. Not much you can do except for palliative treatment, use lots of water to put out the fire. What do we do if the Earth’s atmosphere becomes 100 ppm H2S? I know the response of some will be “Hallelujah! the Rapture is just around the corner!” Hoping that such individuals are correct may be the only option that is left.

    It would be nice if we knew that such things were not going to happen. Unfortunately we don’t know, those who simply assert that such things “can’t” happen do not understand them sufficiently well to be credible.

  34. #34 Sailor
    March 25, 2007

    I don’t feel the fever analogy was too bad. Especially if you consider the kind of fever you get, not when you get a virus, but when you get overheated. In this case your body is overtaxed and becomes unable to bring down the temperature in a timely fashion. The earth’s atmosphere and its rather constant temperature are dependent on life, which over the eons have created a massive ecosystem that keeps things somewhat constant. By pumping co2 into the air we are changing the balence, and quite possibly making it impossible for the system to regulate itself.
    As for the second part. It is clear we have known about this for many years, have not listenend to the experts and, like a smoker, are so detirmined to continue on out current path we are headed for dire consequences.

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