Respectful Insolence

The last couple of days have been a bit surreal, haven’t they?

After all, how often does this box of blinking lights get into a blog altercation with a Libertarian comic over global warming? Actually, it was a commentary on bad reasoning, but global warming happened to be the topic. In the aftermath of my referring you, my readers, to comic Tim Slagle’s blog piece “rebutting” me and to another piece by him in which he used some–shall we say?–creative chemistry and thermodynamics to support a political argument, I’m not sure if I should feel guilty or not. This guilt exists mainly because I can’t help but feel a sense of schadenfreude in watching Tim’s increasing discomfiture as he tries to justify his ludicrous science to the point of falling back on saying, “It’s close enough for comedy.” (I figured as much.) On the other hand, it’s possible that over the last couple of days Tim’s actually been happier than a pig in mud because of the influx of “eggheads” to argue with. (I can’t tell but wouldn’t be surprised if the latter were the case.) Besides, he did get what I hope was a very nice spike in the traffic to his site. (After all, for a comic, any publicity is good publicity, right?) Also, although the vast majority of you were quite critical of him, I do note that Tim did appear to pick up at least one new fan, although I rather suspect it was simply because this new fan happens to have a rabid dislike of me more than any real affinity for Tim’s comedy. Either way, I hope he at least bought Tim’s CD or something else. Oh, wait. That particular commenter seems to hate my guts; if I tell him to buy Tim’s CD he’ll almost certainly not do it, and I don’t want to dissuade anyone from buying Tim’s CD. So S.H.A.M. Scam Sam, whatever you do, don’t buy a copy of Tim’s CD. It’ll really piss me off. And, whatever you do, don’t buy multiple copies.

I mean it.

In any case, although my readership is nowhere near as large as that of, say, P.Z. Myers, it’s still quite respectable by most blogging standards; so in the future I may have to be more careful about unleashing your awesome power. With great power comes great responsibility, you know. (Yes, that’s some shameless sucking up to my audience, hoping that you will read on, keep reading, and tell your friends what a great blog this is and get them to read too.)

As far as Tim’s rebuttal to me (nice Photoshop there, by the way; I actually did laugh at it), I don’t want to do a line-by-line fisking, because, yes, believe it or not, humorless clod that Tim apparently thinks that I am, I am actually aware that much of comedy consists of mocking people (the ad hominem) and, yes, I am familiar with Don Rickles (I love his stuff and am amazed that the guy is still sharp even as an octogenarian). Tim apparently didn’t bother to read the part where I mentioned that I understand that Al Gore is a nice, big, fat target for comedians. The point was that Tim was harping on Al Gore’s deficiencies, real or imagined, as though they were some sort of evidence that anthropogenic global warming is a bogus hypothesis. Now he says that he never claimed that global warming isn’t true. Wow. That’s certainly news to me after seeing his act, where he certainly gave the strong impression that’s what he believed, and afterwards perusing his blog and website. It’s also a hard claim for me to swallow after I came across his playing the “science was wrong beforegambit in this bit on his blog, in the context of likening a proposed change in nomenclature (the “demotion of Pluto” from planet status) to actual changes in scientific theories:

Science is obviously a highly flexible and constantly changing group of theories. Rather than being a hard discipline like Mathematics, it is based on continual questioning, discovery, and revision. In just the past 150 years we’ve learned that our ancestors were monkeys, there are particles smaller than atoms, and a huge explosion started it all.

Many things that were taught just a few generations ago, are now disputed. When Pluto was discovered in 1930, Geologists still believed that the Continents were fixed and immobile; today we know that they ride around the Earth on tectonic plates. Time was regarded as a constant, until Einstein suggested that it could actually be slowed down, by traveling very fast. (Standing in stark contrast to the adage: “Slow down, you’ll live longer.”) Dinosaurs, were once thought to be cold-blooded reptiles like Robert Blake, but are now considered the warm-blooded ancestors of birds.

So too, will our perceptions change about Global Warming. The modern theory is that CO2 has been warming up the atmosphere. Perhaps years from now, when the current upward temperature trend reverses, scientists will change their opinions. I suspect such is the motivation to replace the term “Global Warming,” with “Climate Change.” The Environmentalists are all repositioning themselves, in case they have to make an abrupt U-turn.

(Note to Tim: There’s a big difference between an argument over scientific nomenclature and an argument over the actual content of scientific hypotheses and theories.)

There’s more of the same sort of stuff all over Tim’s website and blog and even in his rebuttal, and in fact he references the above post in his rebuttal. So what was that about Tim not saying that he never denied that anthropogenic global warming is happening? In any case, he clearly misunderstands the nature of the scientific consensus as much as he does the significance of the Greenland ice study that he references elsewhere. Of course, maybe Tim isn’t being disingenuous when he says that he never said anthropogenic global warming is wrong. If that’s the case, then I’d just love to witness Tim state unequivocally that he thinks it is happening, why, and how much for the record, either here or on his blog.

It’s also probably worth briefly reiterating that, as Tim said, he asked me whether there was any science to support Al Gore’s discussion of the possibility of sea level rising 20 feet due to global warming. His dancing around the point does not change the fact that I did just as I was requested. I provided the origin of that particular anti-global warming talking point and showed that Al Gore’s estimate was within the worst case scenario estimated by climate change models as described in the IPCC report. That’s all that was asked for, and that’s what I provided. I did not say what should be done about it or how likely that outcome is; I only provided a source that showed that the estimate was within bounds of current science and that the whole “20 feet versus 23 inches” canard was a nothing more than a distortion to make Al Gore look like a raving fearmonger. I did not comment on the likelihood of either scenario relative to each other. If Tim thinks Al Gore is a raving fearmonger, that example was a very poor one to use to make his case.

The most interesting and perhaps revealing point Tim makes, however, is in response to my taking him to task for his apparent belief that the motivation behind scientists who believe that anthropogenic global warming is a problem and that we need to do something to decrease carbon emissions:

This was another ad hominem attack, I used to generate a little levity. Just between you and me, it’s semi-autobiographical. I was that geeky kid with allergies and asthma, who got beat up for lunch money, and creamed on the dodgeball court. And I understand how such a childhood can translate into bitterness and envy…

My speculation is, that smart kids who are bullied in school, grow up to be bullies themselves. Only, they become intellectual bullies. My liberal use of insults on stage is one symptom of that syndrome. Your need to publish the response to my question on your blog, without even asking me if I would mind, is another. (I’d have given you permission, I just would have liked if you asked first, and given me fair warning that I needed to prepare a rebuttal). Such behavior is indicative of someone still hurting from those dodgeball welts. I think perhaps, the reason you didn’t find the bit funny. is because it made those welts sting again. Your remark about getting laid a lot, doesn’t do much to alleviate my suspicions either.

Geez, see what I get for trying to be self-deprecating? That’ll teach me never to give a comic an opening like that and just to stick with, at least as far as blogging is concerned, the arrogant computer shtick of my nom de blog and the God complex that the stereotype of surgeons requires of me.

Let’s parse this a bit. Because Tim had a geeky childhood and admits to possibly having compensated by being a comic who apparently gets off on mockery (as all good comics presumably do to some extent or another), he assumes that I’m the same, only using a different medium. That inference, even if it were true, is of course a non sequitur. Not only is it irrelevant to whether my criticism was valid or not, but Tim has no evidence whatsoever other than his generalizing of his personal experience to speculate that most global warming scientists suffered such severe geek-induced childhood and adolescent traumas of not being one of the cool kids or that they as a group are anything less than solidly middle class and above (which most tenured and tenure-track university faculty are, by the way). Even if his combining his experience with the stereotype of scientists as poor, asocial geeks were valid, he has no evidence whatsoever that this motivates climate scientists more than the actual scientific evidence. More importantly, he has no evidence whatsoever that such base motivations would lead these scientists to promulgate “bogus” science just to fulfill their revenge fantasies.

What startles me most about this line of attack is that, at its core, it’s purely an appeal to emotion, not to reason, based on a common stereotype of scientists in the media and Tim’s own apparent childhood experiences. There are no hard facts, no hard data, no nothing, other than Tim’s feelings and obvious contempt for scientists as geek-boys and -girls who, he assumes, are burning with envy for the things they can’t have and thus have hatched this whole global warming thing in order to keep the beautiful people they can’t sleep with from owning the big SUVs and palatial houses that they as impoverished scientists can never have. For someone who likes to represent himself as rational and skeptical (as most Libertarians seem to like to do, in my experience), this is not a rational argument (or even reason-based comedic mockery); rather it’s pure emotion, in essence a poisoning the well fallacy, designed to whip up contempt and anger against those “power-hungry egghead” scientists telling us what we should do. In fact, this sort of “envy of the cool rich kids” seems to be a recurring theme in Tim’s writing. Having only seen him perform once, I don’t know if it’s a recurring theme in his comedy, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it is.

Whatever the case, I guess it just goes to show that it isn’t just leftists who are able and willing to play on emotion rather than appeal to reason and science. Appealing to stereotypes and emotion might sometimes make for good comedy, but it’s a poor substitute for political argument, and Tim seems to use it for both–and to continue to use it for both, given that he repeated and defended the argument outside of his comedy act and has used a variation of it in his political writings.

The surrealism continues.

Oh, and by the way, happy Bastille Day.


  1. #1 jw
    July 14, 2007

    Science is obviously a highly flexible and constantly changing group of theories. Rather than being a hard discipline like Mathematics, it is based on continual questioning, discovery, and revision.

    He’s going to be quite disillusioned once he learns some mathematics. The history of Euclid’s parallel postulate and the discovery of Riemannian geometry alone would surely shatter this illusion.

  2. #2 Blake Stacey, OM
    July 14, 2007

    Indeed. I know that Greg Chaitin, among others, takes the stance that mathematics is “quasi-empirical”. Whereas a physicist chooses a set of experimental tools and progresses in a certain direction, a mathematician picks a set of workable axioms and sees what she can discover.

    In other words, I feel that mathematics is different from physics (which is truly empirical) but perhaps not as different as most people think.

    I have lived in the worlds of both mathematics and physics, and I never thought there was such a big difference between these two fields. It is a matter of degree, of emphasis, not an absolute difference. After all, mathematics and physics coevolved.

    Plenty of famous theorems were “discovered” empirically, by noting that certain statements held true for all the possibilities which could be checked. Once something appears to be true based on checking lots of possibilities — the “experimental” approach — one then goes on to hunt for a rigorous proof. The Pythagorean Theorem may have started this way, back in Babylonian times; among the more recent ideas, consider Fermat’s Last Theorem and the proof that π is irrational (indeed, transcendental). Then come Goldbach’s Conjecture, the Riemann Hypothesis, P vs. NP — all ideas which have been tested experimentally but for which a rigorous proof still evades us.

  3. #3 Skeptico
    July 14, 2007

    I’m pretty sure the idea to replace the term “Global Warming,” with “Climate Change” came from the Republican party as a way to spin global warming as being less of a threat.

  4. #4 Bronze Dog
    July 14, 2007

    This is getting pathetic. All the best humor has some truth in it. All this guy’s doing is perpetuating propaganda. The only way I can imagine people laughing at this guy involves A) forced laughter from audience members to show they’re toeing the party line or B) derision.

    I thinking of him like Dane Cook, now.

  5. #5 Alex, FCD
    July 14, 2007

    I’m pretty sure the idea to replace the term “Global Warming,” with “Climate Change” came from the Republican party as a way to spin global warming as being less of a threat.

    I was under the impression that it was a way of dealing with the blockheads who don’t understand that “warming” in that context means “getting warmer on average”, and not “just take the current whether and tack two degrees on top of it”.

  6. #6 Coin
    July 14, 2007

    I’m pretty sure the idea to replace the term “Global Warming,” with “Climate Change” came from the Republican party as a way to spin global warming as being less of a threat.

    Skeptico, I can tell you that at least at my university the atmospheric science faculty was very, very ardent about using “global climate change” for the specific reason that it allowed them to accentuate the perceived risk of global warming. The trick is that referring to “climate change” as opposed to “warming” allows them to focus on the fact that climate change will have all kinds of weird and unpredictable effects that don’t necessarily have specifically to do with temperature increases. These changes happen because the mean global temperature is rising, but the thing is that we don’t really care that much directly about mean global temperature; what we notice, what we care about, and what we’re threatened by is not so much the temperature rise itself but the crazy side effects as the planet’s atmospheric and ecological machinery starts re-aligning itself as appropriate for the new temperature regime.

  7. #7 Alex, FCD
    July 14, 2007

    That should be ‘weather’ and not ‘whether’ in my previous post, by the way. Coffee is my friend.

  8. #8 Jacob Wintersmith
    July 14, 2007

    Sigh. The libertarian movement (in which I include myself) does seem to attract more than its fair share of cranks. Individuals who are clueless about the science should either trust the experts or take an agnostic position on the issue. People who assume “the greens are always wrong” tend to make asses of themselves in short order. Environmental problems are not, unfortunately, just something made up by socialists to promote government regulation.

  9. #9 Mat
    July 14, 2007

    Is that the sweet sound of Snacky’s Law I hear?

  10. #10 Orac
    July 14, 2007

    Not quite. Tim’s likening himself and the scientists to the kids being picked on, not calling his opponents the ones doing the picking…

  11. #11 James
    July 14, 2007

    Jacob: That’s all too true. I also think this shadow boxing over climate change (political spin phrase or not, it is more descriptive) pulls us away from discussion of the solutions, which I feel is underdeveloped.

    How about we let the climatologists get on with shrinking their error bars, and think about some sensible solutions.

  12. #12 Harry
    July 14, 2007

    Well said, James. As we all already know or are quickly finding out, arguing over the small details of the climate change debate mostly gets us nowhere.

    In fact, I would think that Tim would have to agree with you to some extent. He complains (within the comment section of the “Every Breath You Take” post) that “Nobody wants to talk about solutions, because they’re oppressive.”

    Since he already says he concedes that global warming is occuring, then he should want us to move on to the solution stage. He’s a libertarian, so he might not like the solutions, but at least he apparently wants people to put the possible solutions out in the open.

  13. #13 Michelle
    July 14, 2007

    I’m finding myself most distressed with the level of discourse on global climate change of late. While there are the deniers who know a good bit about the science are choose to willfully misuse it, I time and again encounter this bizarre strand of pseudo-liberatarian global warming conspiracy theorist. Not knowing the scientific evidence in the area at all, they see the problem as choosing between the motivations of the two “sides” of the “debate.” Somehow they are more comfortable accepting that papers and talking heads which have been funded by far right institutions and directly or indirectly by oil companies are truthful, and the thousands of credentialed scientists, respected scientific institutions and peer-reviewed publications are all the product of a determined conspiracy to take away their standard of living. They seem to have no ability to make a rational choice as to which “side” is more likely to be motivated by the pursuit of truth and which is more likely to be motived by the pursuit of profit. Moreover, entirely too many people seem to feel that it is a perfectly adequate response to point the finger at Al Gore or someone else’s energy consumption. Feeling oh-so-clever for having found some fact on which to hang a charge of hypocrisy, they seem to consider their work done. Never occurs to them to consider that the question of whether Gore is a hypocrite is really an entirely separate question from whether anthropogenic climate change exists and requires solutions. I have heard people reason that there must not really be any “global warming” because if there were (or “if Gore was serious”) then Gore wouldn’t be flying all over the place and releasing more carbon dioxide.

    I guess my frustration has been that I think it is almost impossible to help people whose ability to think is so far compromised that they actually believe these absurdities.

  14. #14 emily sheffer md
    July 15, 2007

    seems the public cannot separate the message from the messenger.

  15. #15 jotetamu
    July 15, 2007

    Skeptico and others:

    “Climate change” is OK by me. Suppose, for a moment, that carbon dioxide from our fossil fuel burning and methane from the symbiotic bacteria of our cows, etc. weren’t greenhouse gases, but that we were still churning out atmospheric dust like a few decades ago and the vapour trails of our jets were increasing cloud cover (effects which mitigated global warming for a time, in the real world): then we would have anthropogenic global cooling and would rightly be seriously concerned about the effects. As somebody above said, our civilisation (and the niches of millions of species) like things the way they are, any sudden change is bad.

    Also, I find the libertarian-bashing on global warming inappropriate. There has been a cheap, effective, technological solution to global warming for decades – fission power. A market economy would have gone for it, and we would have fewer worries today.

    Little aside: here in Germany we can get amusing contradictions in the state-controlled news broadcasts, depending on who today’s target is. Thus recently, on the subject of the wicked capitalist power-generation and transmission companies, we were told that by far the cheapest power is nuclear power, but the wicked capitalists are charging as though it was all expensive whatever (I forget what). But, in a recent weather forecast, we were told that wind power is free. In fact, of course, wind power, in spite of massive subsidies, is off the scale compared to any other form of energy.

    Jim Roberts

  16. #16 wrg
    July 15, 2007

    Since he already says he concedes that global warming is occuring, then he should want us to move on to the solution stage. He’s a libertarian, so he might not like the solutions, but at least he apparently wants people to put the possible solutions out in the open.

    I don’t think he really cares. Between an exaggerated concern for liberty as the solution to all life’s ills, the fear of tyrants lurking everywhere, and probably a worry that proposed solutions might eventually infringe on his convenience, Tim would rather people didn’t address the issue. It sounds as if he considers the appropriate solution to be putting his head in the sand.

    What bothers me a fair bit in there is the disingenuous “good enough for comedy” dodge for loose facts and bad arguments. He tries to point out errors in some opposing arguments but seems to consider it somehow inappropriate when his claims are challenged, for he is a comedian and somehow above the use of facts.

    But never mind that, watch out for the UN! It’s filled with tyrants, man, *tyrants*! I’ve never quite understood the obsession some Americans have with the UN, believing that it’s somehow out to get the US in particular. I think Americans could have some more local concerns at the moment, but that’s another matter.

    If this really is just comedy, as Tim seems to claim when it’s convenient, he might want to watch those conspiracy theories and the make-it-up-as-you-go “science”, lest we be laughing at him rather than with him.

  17. #17 Christophe Thill
    July 16, 2007

    I haven’t heard Mr Slagle’s comedy routines, but I’ve followed the links and read some bits. It looks like the very low-brow funny effect that you get by mocking science, complex stuff, “eggheads” and so on.

    In a word: it reeks of anti-intellectualism. That’s very unpleasant.

    By the way, what does Mr Slagle think of evolution?

  18. #18 S.H.A.M. Scam Sam
    July 17, 2007


    I don’t have “a rabid dislike” of you:

    I’m pissed at you, and the medical/science community, for the hokey-jokey attitude you take towards cults and cultish thinking. Through the year and a half I’ve been looking at this, it’s been made pretty clear (through studies) that doctors and scientists weren’t aware, for much longer than I was, how many people are taking alt medicine. Their patients/clients weren’t telling them what they were doing. And, once they found out, they either started accommodating them or – as you do – mocking them. Getting to the bottom of their beliefs, and activities, doesn’t seem to be part of the agenda. Instead, I’m constantly seeing dumb-assed statements, like your “it’s almost like they’re trying to sneak it in under the radar” comment. (Thanks for that, Sherlock. Any more devastating insights, you got there?)

    As Steve Salerno says, there’s too much laughter and not enough concern. Just like the fact he’s a “homeopathic doctor”, the french quack that destroyed my life crossed professional and personal boundaries, ignored medical ethics, caused a death, etc., but it’s been treated as no big deal. There are many undocumented, and unwarranted, alt med deaths occurring and to ignore them is criminal. But because, like you, doctors think they’ve seen death first hand (join the club) what’s going on in society to the rest of us – the collateral damage – just isn’t important enough to deal with seriously.

    Not long after I was aware of this mess, I worked as a caregiver to a guy who needed kidney dialysis and he said “All the nurses that work on me are into that stuff. They’re always pushing it on us. I don’t trust ‘em.” So I looked into his claims and saw the many pro-alternative (even guru-endorsed) credentials these so-called medical people have. Look (carefully) yourself:

    Why are sick people left at the mercy of these people? And, if I can find them, why can’t the medical profession eliminate those individuals who, openly and obviously, don’t have the medical establishment’s credo in their hearts? The fox is in the hen house. You once asked, “Death by alternative medicine: Who’s to blame?” Unfortunately, I’ve reached a different conclusion than you did, because – yea – I put a lot of the blame on the holier-than-thou/I’m so confused doctors.

    I’ll stop here. My main point is, I don’t hate you, but I do think (because you’re conveniently wearing blinders) you can be an educated fool. And average people, like me, pay a heavy, heavy, price for that.

    BTW, I don’t think comedians should debate their jokes, either.

    Gotta go,


  19. #19 Tim Slagle
    July 17, 2007

    Orac writes: “There’s a big difference between an argument over scientific nomenclature and an argument over the actual content of scientific hypotheses and theories.”

    I know. I was trying to be funny. I liked the picture, and the demotion of Pluto made a good reference point in history. (I know you’re all going to say I”m being evasive again).

    You’re forgetting that I also referenced the consensus against Tectonic Plate Theory. And (at the risk of being accused of changing the premise) I was trying to show that sometimes, legislation lasts much longer than consensus.

    “If Tim thinks Al Gore is a raving fearmonger, that example was a very poor one to use to make his case.”

    The 20ft vs. 23in. was the only one I disputed in my act, because it’s the only one I was able to turn into a joke. There are other examples of Gorific fear mongering, like the increasing frequency of hurricanes, and the spread of Malaria into North America, that I also take issue with.

    Finally, the suspicion that Scientists are wont to envy, is perhaps an over reaching stereotype. Again, it is done mostly for the humor, because stereotypes ARE funny.

    But the grain of truth in the bit is that sometimes a rough childhood will manifest itself into an angry adulthood. I mentioned over on my site, that there was no shortage of intellectual bullies ready to take a kick at the ignorant lounge hack. (I did it before I even knew this was still continuing over here … and we both independently described the blood bath over there using the ten point word “schadenfreude.”)

    I also have noticed a tendency among some here, to dismiss the human aspect of any global warming “solutions.” That it’s our duty to sacrifice. So what if i don’t like blue light, and the economy suffers? One link I posted even suggested that a million more people would face unemployment if Kyoto were passed, and no one here blinked an eye.

    No, I don’t have any proof that a bad childhood leads to Socialist tendencies. But I suspect it’s not unlikely.

  20. #20 Tim Slagle
    July 17, 2007

    Jacob writes: “Environmental problems are not, unfortunately, just something made up by socialists to promote government regulation.’

    Perhaps. But Socialists DO like to exaggerate environmental problems, as a way to further Socialism. Have you ever been to a Green Party convention? It’s a lot more Red than Green.
    Michelle writes:

    ‘They seem to have no ability to make a rational choice as to which “side” is more likely to be motivated by the pursuit of truth and which is more likely to be motived by the pursuit of profit.”

    Not so with me. Everyone is a whore, and if you want to find the biggest whore, just follow the money. The billions granted out by various Governmental and NGOs to study AGW, dwarfs the couple million the Energy lobbies dole out to “Denialists.”

    I also think that the pursuit of truth, on any issue, requires both opinions to be heard without prejudice.

    Christophe Thill writes: “By the way, what does Mr Slagle think of evolution?”

    Great theory, horrible government policy. Historic attempts to write legislation correcting evolution, were misguided and disastrous.