The perpetuation of bad arguments

I thought I'd take a bit of a break for a change of pace. At the risk of falling flat on my face, I'm going to wander far afield from the usual medical and biological topics of this blog into an area that I rarely say much about. The reason is an incident that happened nearly two weeks ago when I was in Chicago. Lately, I've been becoming increasingly interested in how bad scientific arguments make it into the collective consciousness and stay there. While it's true that there are such things as astroturf campaigns and paid flaks whose job it is to get such messages in the medium and keep them there, but it's more than just that. I shudder to use the dreaded M-word here, but it's probably appropriate. What happened two weeks ago showed how these sorts of memes can propagate in even the least expected places.

I had looked forward to see my sister and cousin during my brief sojourn in Chicago. It turns out that on my free night, they had plans to see a friend of my sister's named Tim Slagle who has been a stand-up comic for a long time and who just so happened to be slated to perform at a local comedy club that night. It wasn't my first choice of activities for the evening, but I figured, why not? It's not as though I had a better idea. Besides, my sister, her husband, and two of my cousins would be there, one of whom I hadn't seen in quite a long time. Although I had met Tim before, I had never seen his act before and, quite frankly, didn't know what to expect, other than that I had been told that he had fairly prominent Libertarian views (which I had vaguely remembered butting heads with in the distant past), to the point that David Touretzky's famous quote about big-L Libertarians came to my mind.

The act started amusingly enough, and with the help of a couple of beers I was generally having a good time--until a point in the middle part of the show, where Slagle started ranting about Al Gore and global warming.

Before I go on, let me preempt an expected criticism right now by pointing out that I do not expect scientific analysis in a standup comedy routine at the late night Friday night show at Zanies. Even I'm not that unrealistic when it comes to skepticism and critical thinking. In fact, I don't expect scientific analysis at all, because when comics take on science, more often than not it results in the comic embarrassing himself, particularly if it's done in the context of a comic political screed, and this show was no exception. I do, however, expect some humor, and when a political rant is combined with logical fallacies and no substantive criticism I find that it annoys the hell out of me.

But, then, maybe that's just me. I shudder to think how annoyed I would have been had I not been fairly well-lubricated with around three beers by that point.

In addition, my pique wasn't really because I like Al Gore so much. I don't, and have even mocked him myself for at least one rather dubious analogy. In any case, whatever entertainment and momentum the show had been building seemed to come to a screeching halt when the rant about Al Gore and global warming began, at which point the audience noticeably quieted. In retrospect, I wonder if his logical fallacies and bad arguments would have annoyed me so much if that part of the routine had actually been funnier, but that's another issue. Basically, his comic "arguments" boiled down to these elements. I decided to discuss them one at a time because the provide a succinct case study in bad reasoning and how right wing talking points show up in the most unexpected venues. Moreover, Tim clearly truly believes them, because he repeated some of them to me at a nearby bar after the show. The fascinating thing about these bad arguments is that, even if human-caused global warming were actually invalid science, they would still be bad arguments:

1. Ad hominem attacks on Al Gore.

These consisted of the usual attacks: Al Gore is a fanatic; Al Gore is fat; Al Gore is an alarmist; Al Gore is a hypocrite, etc.

Now don't get me wrong. Al Gore is a ripe target for comedic routines, and I like a good shot at Al Gore as much as the next guy. His manner of speaking is almost as easily parodied as Ronald Reagan's, Bill Clinton's, or Jimmy Carter's. However, all of these attacks are non sequiturs. Whether Al Gore is a fanatic or not has nothing to do with the scientific validity of the science behind global warming or what science suggests that we should do about it, if anything. Nada. Zip. Or, more properly stated, the scientific validity of global warming science does not depend on Al Gore. He has merely taken it on as his personal cause; he's a P.R. man for it. Should we judge the validity of other scientific claims by the personality of publicists rather than the actual science? I say no (although I fear that in this case we do). Of course, Al Gore does represent an easy target to attack, and it's easier to lampoon a person than it is to address the science. Moreover, because Al Gore is the most public crusader on the issue, if he can be discredited, then perhaps public support for political action to decrease CO2 emissions would not increase.

Of course, what worries global warming denialists is that, whatever his other faults, Al Gore usually gets the science mostly right.

2. Global warming can't be true because it's invoked to explain droughts in some parts of the world, storms in other parts of the world, hotter temperatures here, and cooler temperatures there. ( I seem to recall the line being something along the line of "global warming can cause anything.")

This line of attack relies, of course, on a misunderstanding of global warming. The climate is complex. It is simplistic in the extreme to think that alterations in the climate would have uniform effects around the planet, which seems to be the fallacy underlying this particular misconception. It does, however, play into a comedy routine of "look at those silly scientists, they blame everything on {insert here: global warming, fatty foods, smoking, or pick your bête noire}," a favorite staple of comics for decades. A variant on this is the old routine going, "Scientists said that X causes cancer; then they say that X doesn't cause cancer. Now they say X does cause cancer. Can't they make up their minds?"

3. Scientists' envy. Basically, this was a little rant about how climate scientists were geeks in school who couldn't get laid who later grew up to be scientists, still can't get laid, and don't make enough money to afford those big, gas-guzzling SUVs and McMansions Libertarians are so enamored of. Because scientists are envious of the good life that they can't have, they don't want anyone else to have it either.

This is, of course, another form of ad hominem attack, whereby the geekiness and supposed enviousness of scientists is used to make them objects of ridicule and therefore less believable. It's also a bit of poisoning the well, because it attributes undesirable qualities and less than honorable motives to the scientists who believe that human-caused global warming is a reality as a means of preemptively discrediting their message.

It wasn't the least bit funny, either. No doubt Tim will say I feel that way because I am one of those geeky scientists. But I'm also a surgeon, which, as we all know, means that I have a God complex, people look up to me, and that I used to get all the chicks when I was young. Just ask anyone in my family, like my sister. She'll tell you that at least one of the three is true. Which one, I'll leave to you to guess.

4. Because the weather last winter in Tim's neck of the woods was considerably colder than usual, global warming must not be real.

This one is so bad that I trust any of my readers could dismantle it with ease. It's so stupid that Tim should know better. In fact, I suspect that he does know better and just used it for laughs--which, again wouldn't have bothered me as much if it were actually funny. (Perhaps my perception was colored by my knowledge of his political views.) Of course, what we're looking at is long-term trends, not individual year-to-year variation. We're looking at planet-wide trends, not random fluctuations in one small area of the planet. Of course there will be fluctuations! No trend in anything in nature progresses up or down without random fluctuations along the way, and when you're looking at something like the climate, those fluctuations can be over the course of years or decades.

5. Al Gore claimed that sea levels would rise as much as twenty feet and has portrayed cities like New York as underwater, while another study came out that estimated the maximal rise in sea level as only 23 inches.

This one stuck in my mind. In fact, I remembered very distinctly that exact figure, 23 inches. I also remember this because it was the only bit of science that was mentioned in the whole tirade, as if the whole of global warming stood or fell on this one fact, and that Tim repeated it later in the bar. Indeed, he even challenged me to show that what Gore said was feasible or possible, and that was the genesis of this post. (As I tell people who challenge me about science, be very careful what you ask for; you just might get it.) I also remember wondering, "What does this have to do with anything?" After all, even it's true that Al Gore said 20 feet and some scientific report or other said 23 inches, that would not have any bearing whatsoever on whether the scientific consensus regarding global warming is true. It's just a factoid (actually, I wasn't even sure was a fact) designed to make Al Gore look bad. When Tim repeated the same factoid to me in the bar after the show and then challenged me on it, my curiosity was sufficiently piqued that I had to figure out where the claim came from. So, upon my return home, I did a little digging and asked around a bit.

Fortunately, fellow SB'er Tim Lambert pointed me in just the right direction. As I suspected, this "20 feet versus 23 inches" canard comes from a press misrepresentation of a scientific report. It turns out that Slagle's version of this story probably comes from a New York Times article by William Broad (or perhaps blog posts regurgitating it) that both Tim, RealClimate, and David Roberts have debunked.

Here's the quote from Broad:

Some of Mr. Gore's centrist detractors point to a report last month by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations body that studies global warming. The panel went further than ever before in saying that humans were the main cause of the globe's warming since 1950, part of Mr. Gore's message that few scientists dispute. But it also portrayed climate change as a slow-motion process.

It estimated that the world's seas in this century would rise a maximum of 23 inches -- down from earlier estimates. Mr. Gore, citing no particular time frame, envisions rises of up to 20 feet and depicts parts of New York, Florida and other heavily populated areas as sinking beneath the waves, implying, at least visually, that inundation is imminent.

Pretty damning and it sounds eerily like the claim that Tim made, doesn't it? Unfortunately, it's a misrepresentation of the actual story, as Tim Lambert explains:

The IPCC report absolutely did not say the maximum sea level rise this century would be 23 inches. Gore talks about the changes in ice flows in Greenland and Antarctica and states that if half of the ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica melted, sea levels could rise 20 feet (6 metres). The maximum sea level rise that Broad quoted does not include this effect.

Models used to date do not include uncertainties in climate-carbon cycle feedback nor do they include the full effects of changes in ice sheet flow, because a basis in published literature is lacking. The projections include a contribution due to increased ice flow from Greenland and Antarctica at the rates observed for 1993-2003, but these flow rates could increase or decrease in the future. For example, if this contribution were to grow linearly with global average temperature change, the upper ranges of sea level rise for SRES scenarios shown in Table SPM-2 would increase by 0.1 m to 0.2 m. Larger values cannot be excluded, but understanding of these effects is too limited to assess their likelihood or provide a best estimate or an upper bound for sea level rise.

The report also states:

The last time the polar regions were significantly warmer than present for an extended period (about 125,000 years ago), reductions in polar ice volume led to 4 to 6 metres of sea level rise.

So sea levels could rise by 6 metres as Gore suggests. And the scientists don't know how long it would take, so Gore did not present a time frame for the rise.

Thanks, Tim (Lambert, not Slagle, that is)! I also forgot to mention that Tim (Slagle, not Lambert) also appealed to the old "science has been wrong before" gambit (even going so far as to mention the whole "demotion" of Pluto issue), but I don't remember if he used that one in his act or merely repeated it to me in the bar after the show.

You might wonder why I bothered with this exercise. After all, as I mentioned at the beginning, it's just a comedy routine. It's not as though I'm foolish enough to expect any sort of scientific rigor in a comedy routine. On the other hand, this is a comic who specifically represents himself as being a "skeptic," and perhaps it is because I expected more that I was so disappointed. Be that as it may, I relate this little anecdote because it shows how global warming denialism has so penetrated the national zeitgeist that it still surprises me by popping up in the most unexpected of places and continues to spread through the media and the entertainment industry--in this case, even at he expense of killing the momentum of the show. In fact, the talking points in Slagle's routine are merely exaggerated versions (and in some cases they're not even that exaggerated) of talking points I've heard for years on right wing talk radio, Fox News, and a variety of other outlets hostile to any action over climate change. Slagle would have been better off sticking to political routines like the funny one in which he advocated using Halloween to teach your kids what taxation means by confiscating a percentage of their candy or a pretty amusing observational routine about the differences between bachelor and bachelorette parties and staying away from science.

The other reason I mentioned these attacks is because bad arguments are bad arguments regardless of the validity of what they are attacking. Even if global warming is, in fact, a "swindle," as some self-styled skeptics have labeled it, these would still be bad arguments and logical fallacies. (Given that one of the recurring themes of Slagle's comedy is how politicians twist science to their own purposes, I find it particularly ironic that he seems oblivious that he's serving up even worse arguments as entertainment.) That the scientific consensus overwhelmingly favors the contention that global warming is indeed due to a significant degree to human activity is not controversial in strictly scientific terms. The areas where controversy remains are over how much the earth is warming, how much of it is due to human activity, and whether and how much decreasing CO2 emissions would slow or reverse it, not whether anthropogenic global warming is happening. I also point out that there are two questions here, the scientific question (again, "Is anthropogenic global warming a reality?" "How much is caused by human activity?" "How fast is it happening?" "Can reducing CO2 slow or reverse the process?") and the political question ("What policy changes can we or should we institute based on the science?") Global warming "skeptics" often conflate the two. I will also say that I am somewhat sympathetic to the view that global warming represents a "crisis" may be overplayed. Even so, I accept the scientific consensus on this issue, and my take on it is much like Ed Brayton's, who happens to be a libertarian as well.

But there was one other thing that this incident provided me. Another part of Slagle's routine had to do with indoor smoking bans. I will admit that the part where he described the "Chicago approach" to indoor smoking bans and how it was quashed by an Illinois state law was rather funny. Unfortunately, later at the bar, Tim also solemnly assured me that "some had told him" that the evidence doesn't really show that second hand smoke causes any health problems. You're right; I can't resist the big, fat target that that statement represents, but that's a story for another day, probably next week. As with the "20 foot versus 23 inches" canard, if I'm going to take the time to look up the data, I might as well use the results in the blog. Such is the all-consuming nature of blogging. Besides, doing so will allow me to review the most recent data again to update my knowledge about the present state of research on this issue, which is a side benefit, as it will enhance my own personal knowledge base.

Also, in order not to close on too snarky a note (yes, I know that's never stopped me before, but Tim is generally a friend; wrong on global warming and a lot of other things, but a friend nonetheless), I'll also thank Tim for providing me material for not one, but probably by the time I'm through two blog posts. Blogging, I suspect, is somewhat like comedy in that good material is at a premium, and I never fail to show my Respectfully Insolent⢠gratitude when someone provides me with good blog fodder. So, I'll do two things. First, I'll refer Tim to some good sources of information on climate change and global warming:

  1. RealClimate
  2. Deltoid
  3. Stoat
  4. Climate Change: A Guide for the Perplexed

They'll be better than World Climate Report, which seems to be Tim's present preferred source. At least they'll give him another view.

Next, I'll ask you all to take a moment and visit Tim's website, particularly the Gallery of Hair.

Now that's funny.

ADDENDUM: If Tim shows up in the comments, as I suspect he might, please play nice.


More like this

Unfortunately, later at the bar, Tim also solemnly assured me that "some had told him" that the evidence doesn't really show that second hand smoke causes any health problems.

Ah yes, I believe the results were written up in that prestigious and high impact-factor journal, Proceedings of the Society of Drunk People I Met in Pubs.

(Somebody's used that line before, or one close to it, but I can't remember who.)

Unfortunately, later at the bar, Tim also solemnly assured me that "some had told him" that the evidence doesn't really show that second hand smoke causes any health problems.

That's not particularly suprising, since that was ur-Denialist S. Fred Singer's first big denialist gig. You should've asked him if he thought CFCs had anything to do with ozone depletion - that's another of Singer's previous hits (along with UV-B not causing cancer, asbestos being harmless, etc, etc).

It's funny, but I've never encountered a big-L Libertarian who didn't think that everything ever put out by the AEI / CEI / Cato Institute was God's Own Truth. I guess the only form of power their concerned with is government power, all other forms being definitionally unproblematic.

The professional denialists / astroturfers I can understand - it's a job, after all. It's the ones doing it pro-bono I worry about... I suspect it's a cultural identity thing - they hate those dirty hippies, therefore anything supported by or conceptually related to said hippies must be wrong. Just like Homer said - "If we start conserving, then the environmentalists win!"

The wonderful Douglas Adams had an essay abou this, on why he moved from mocking technology in his "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy", or eagerly advocating it in his later articles.

If I recall, In the article, he mentions how he loved Monty Python because it was saying some very smart things in a very silly way. Later, as he heard stand-up comics mocking scientists "who think they're so bright" out of their own ignorance. After that he realized how the really exciting things were no longer coming out of comedy, but out of the tech startups full of these very bright people the comedians were now mocking.

I think the discourse in America has once again made comedy like Jon Stewart respectable in many ways: When a lot of very stupid people are treated Very Seriously, and smart people are mocked and discounted; they may as well say very smart things in a very silly way to get their voices heard.

Ack! Para 2, line 3: "their" = "they're". I am an idiot.

4. Because the weather last winter in Tim's neck of the woods was considerably colder than usual, global warming must not be real.

I think I will scream if I hear this one again. In early April, we in Michigan were putting up with one of those f***ing mid-spring snowfalls that make everyone want to move to Florida. I was sitting in the barbershop, owned by a fellow in the same demographic as almost all his customers: 65 or older, white, high school graduate, elder of the Lukewarm church, get the idea. The topic being demolished was "global warming", and the evidence to support it was that it was snowing in April. I politely jousted with the old boys, right up through the end of my haircut, pointing out just what you said. I'm not sure I had much effect, but maybe some of them will try to learn a little more about it.


By midwesterner (not verified) on 11 Jul 2007 #permalink

I also am concerned about nonscience finding its way into "common knowledge." Wonder whether No Child Left Behind requires that nobody graduates from high school without a working knowledge of the scientific method and the basic disciplines of science. But then, considering how many people who *do* have scientific training still believe this kind of thing, maybe it's inevitable.

Being a skeptic is good. Being a libertarian-style skeptic-about-everything is obnoxious, because they simply get to pick what they want to believe a priori, and then be so "skeptical" about everything else that they don't have to lose their little false reality.

I've always suspected that libertarianism is mostly the realm of men (they must be 95% male) who are too intelligent or not religious enough to be Republican, but see being liberal as a threat to their masculinity. In my experience, it's not the scientists who didn't get any in high school - it's my friends who became engineers and libertarians.

As I'm only a couple of miles from the beach I tend to bury my head in the sand when discussions come to rising sea levels. I am watching for that public meme to shift though, as that will be the time to sell this property before there aren't any people around to buy it that can still deny what is happening...

By PlanetaryGear (not verified) on 11 Jul 2007 #permalink

I'm a somewhat regular reader of your blog, RealClimate, Stoat and Deltoid, so this was an interesting post for me. It's nice to see you step outside your normal areas of expertise without falling flat. No Egnor, you! (I know, not really much of a compliment.)

Unfortunately, later at the bar, Tim also solemnly assured me that "some had told him" that the evidence doesn't really show that second hand smoke causes any health problems.

I've head similar rumblings from your scibling Ed Brayton, who also happens to be a libertarian comedian. Time for a little scibling rivalry?

The 'global warming jokes not being funny and seeming more like bad denialist propaganda' reminds me in many ways of how people consider feminists or other groups 'humorless' for not thinking that jokes based on stereotypes are funny, and thinking that they're promoting -isms instead. Just with a different number and type of people aware of the incorrectness of the statements, and the misperceptions they can subtly foster.

An idle observation, I guess.


I don't see why global warming is a political controversy at all. If it turns out to be a crisis, the obvious solution is to tar and feather anti-nuclear activists. There's no reason why such a program can't be backed by the right side of the political spectrum.

In our local newspaper we once had someone say write a letter to the editor which basically said 'Enough with the global warming already, didn't you notice it's COLD OUTSIDE?' If most people cannot distinguish between 'climate' and 'weather', much less understand the diverse effects of climate change, how are we to manage to have serious discussions of this among the general public?

The United States has developed into a culture where people are polarized, and all new information and expressions of viewpoints are first evaluated by seeing where they come from, then dismissing them and ridiculing them on the basis of their source. Before we can hope to accomplish CLIMATE change, we need to figure out how to accomplish CULTURE change and do something about the appalling lack of critical thinking and the general unwillingness to examine evidence and discuss issues in a serious, well-informed, intelligent and calm manner.

If it turns out to be a crisis, the obvious solution is to tar and feather anti-nuclear activists.

And how, exactly, would that solve anything? Assigning blame is not the same as finding a solution.

Good analysis Orac. Those are some of the classic talking points.

If only we could somehow make it widely understood that climate != weather, we could probably fix 90% of the misconceptions on this issue.

people use facts and ersazt arguments not as a means for arriving at the truth or better understanding, but as bludgeoning weapons to force others to their predetermined conclusions. They abandon them freely if they don't work in a given situation, but gladly pick them up again as soon as the debunker has left the room.

Dunc wrote: "Assigning blame is not the same as finding a solution."

It isn't? Dunno, works for me.

Penn and Teller's show Bullsh*t once did an episode "debunking" the claim that second-hand smoke causes health problems. Penn (and maybe Teller?) are Libertarians. At a subsequent James Randi convention, they were on panel, and were challenged on this from the audience. Their response? "Please show us the specific scientific studies and evidence, and we'll admit we were wrong. Email us. We couldn't find them."

Flash forward a year or two, and they were again on a discussion panel. Asked "what topics do you now think you were wrong about?" they answered "Second-hand smoke, for one. There is good scientific evidence on the dangers of that." If they do a show "bullsh*t on Bullsh*t, they said that would be included as one of their mistakes.

Not all libertarians are dogmatists on everything. Which is nice.

I'm not surprised about the second-hand smoke misinformation.

It has just been revealed in sworn congressional testimony that the Bush Administration prevented the Surgeon General from talking about scientific evidence of harm from second hand smoking. There is still a deliberate misinformation campaign to hide inconvenient scientific findings and the orders come all the way from the top of US government.

Penn and Teller also did a bullshit episode where they tried to debunk global warming, as well. Perhaps this is another episode they have changed their minds about?

I'm particularly impressed by the "Al Gore is a hypocrite" meme, which is so finely crafted bit of slander that I can't help wondering if there was a focus group involved in putting it together.

The nub of the slander, of course, is "Al Gore lives in a big house that uses more energy than average, so he's a hypocrite who doesn't himself do what he advocates." What is so clever about this one is that it manages on the surface to mount an ad hominem attack on Al Gore while surreptitiously slipping misinformation on Al Gore's views under the radar. One is left with the impression that Al Gore wants to destroy the standard of living of Americans (himself excepted) in the name of fighting global warming.

Of course, in reality, Al Gore has never argued that nobody should live in a big house, or even that fighting global warming will require major sacrifices in American's standard of living. Indeed, he has argued very much the opposite: that dealing with global warming offers major economic opportunities that will go a long way toward offsetting the costs. And Gore himself is actually very much the poster boy for what he advocates, buying carbon credits, installing solar heating, buying carbon neutral energy, etc. Of course, one might reasonably argue whether the measures that Gore advocates are adequate, but of course, none of the attacks on Gore are coming from people who want to do more against global warming--they're coming from people who want to do nothing.

Excellent analysis of the propaganda war against the science of global warming. It is interesting how Al Gore has become the lightning rod for all this anger and misinformation.

Fortunately, I think Gore has been highly effective and that the ideologues that are denying global warming are getting desparate.

By Larry Saltzman (not verified) on 11 Jul 2007 #permalink

Second hand smoke????

On conversations about being a 50's baby boomer and having parents that smoked(father smoked Camel straights), A friend of mine once said, "second hand smoke? Hell when my dad quit smoking, and I gained ten pounds".

I believe the risks to todays children (occasional wisps of faint light up smell) are a bit less than the dosages that we were exposed to when we were kids. Cheez, it's like night and day.
I remember driving in my fathers car and looking out the window through the dense smoke created by my fathers long draws on the old Camel straights (he could take a single draw and smoke would eminate from his lips for almost a minute or two afterwards). When I waved my hand in front of my face in a vain attempt to get him to lighten up on the continuous bellowing of dense smoke, he looks over at me in disgust and says "Oh christ, take it easy". Hmmmm.... I guess them days is a long way away.

Based on mine and most other baby boomer Philip Morris involuntary lab rat exposure, people should lighten up on the second hand smoke danger today. I figure that I was at least a pack a week smoker merely from second hand exposure. My aplogies in advance if your a anti smoke hardliner.

By Uncle Dave (not verified) on 11 Jul 2007 #permalink

Oh jeez, now you've done it. I'm never going to get a decent dinner at Tim's house again and he'll probably poison the vodka I drink! Remember to thank you the next time you're in town.

Beware. I believe a rebuttal is on the way.

By Susang aka Ora… (not verified) on 11 Jul 2007 #permalink

I believe it was a discover article that showed a historic photograph of a cemetary in Washington or somewhere on the east coast that was taken in mid to late June of the 1870's. They also showed a photograph of the same view or perspective taken today. Take note that in the old photograph the trees still did not have leaves blooming as late as June (looked like it was taken in Feb.). Contrast that with the view taken present day showing fully bloomed trees. I wish I could find the reference to point it out.

As a (somewhat) libertarian and a former Climate Change sceptic I think the issue for sceptics is that they don't trust the messengers. For decades environmentalists have been saying that the Earth is doomed unless we give up on industrialisation, and then global warming comes along. That applies to left-liberal politicians who seem to always be tryiong to increase their control over the day to day lives of their people.

This isn't the view of the climate scientists, but their voices are not being heard much. There aren't many libertarians that will trust a UN body like the IPCC, and other research isn't reported in the media. That means that the only people talking about climate change in a public forum are those with zero credibility to most libertarians.

On top of that libertarians are usually well schooled (perhaps too well) in Public Choice Theory, maning that they don't trust government to implement a solution properly.

So in summary: 1) libertarians do not trust those advocating action and 2) libertarians do not trust the government to do anything about it anyway.

FWIW as an economist with some background in environmental economics I do not feel I have the knowledge to challenge a scientific consensus as tight as that on global warming, so I don't. However I have grave concerns as to the viability of some of the popular solutions. Specific conservation measues like banning incandescent lightbulbs are ludicrous and I doubt carbon taxes can be effective in the absence of a supra-national body with credible enforcement powers. My preferred solution would be technology subsidy, preferably through prizes for particular technological solutions. I disagree with Gore about Global Warming being a moral issue. It is an engineering problem and needs to be treated as such.

Susang -

Just remind him that there's the odd geologist/computer modeller who reads here..

(Well, only slightly odd)

By Andrew Dodds (not verified) on 12 Jul 2007 #permalink

Beware. I believe a rebuttal is on the way.

It arrived last night. Should I post it? What say my readers?

"Should I post it?"

Depends. Is it funny? If so, is it intentionally funny?

"Should I Post it?"
You have opened the box (Pandora's) and the can (of worms).
It seems only fair that we should hear Tim's rebuttal.
You threw down the gauntlet. Let's see where it leads.
(I do so love a good duel.)

By Orac's Mom (not verified) on 12 Jul 2007 #permalink

Actually, Tim threw down the gauntlet in Chicago and then repeated it with an e-mail. I merely picked it up 12 days later.

Orac, I didn't know the history of it. In that case - duel on Orac!

By Orac's Mom (not verified) on 12 Jul 2007 #permalink

"In my experience, it's not the scientists who didn't get any in high school - it's my friends who became engineers and libertarians."

Damn it!!! Another shot at engineers!! I am emotionally throwing my calculator at you. I got plenty!! I might have been by myself when I was getting some, but thats besides the point!

By Uncle Dave (not verified) on 12 Jul 2007 #permalink

"Should I post it?"

Anyone who thinks Europeans are a bunch of "hairy-backed savages" probably needs a bit of a fisking..

By Andrew Dodds (not verified) on 12 Jul 2007 #permalink

You should post it. It's only fair to let him defend himself, no?

By Susang aka Ora… (not verified) on 12 Jul 2007 #permalink

Why on earth would Tim Slagle want to make his 'rebuttal' (which I use in the loosest sense of the term) public?! Not only is he not at all funny, he seems to want to look like a sniveling AGW apologist. I just don't get it. Maybe he sees Egnor as some sort of hero he wants to emulate?

Woo boy, this is going to get interesting! I'm afraid Tim's going to get a lot of new and unique hits to his site in the next couple of days. Good for business all around.

I can't wait to read the comments!

By Susang aka Ora… (not verified) on 12 Jul 2007 #permalink

James wrote, "On top of that libertarians are usually well schooled (perhaps too well) in Public Choice Theory, maning that they don't trust government to implement a solution properly."

See, I find that funny.

Because while the conclusions found by Public Choice Theory suggest that there are real problems converting a common public desire into social action (because of the private desires of politicians and their electorate), there is ample evidence to show that private industry doesn't fill common public needs effectively either.

At least with public officals, you can throw the bastards out.

From today's Wall Street Journal:

"Liberalism was never,...reasonable,...The irrationalism that exploded, the 1960s had been a component of left-wing ideology well before. Herbert Croly, the liberal founder of the New Republic magazine, was drawn to mysticism. In the 1950s ex-Marxists fell over themselves in praise of Wilhelm Reich and "orgone box," hoping that sexual therapy might replace Marxist theory as the toga of the enlightened. And in the very early 1960s a veritable cult of Castro, informed by Franz Fanon's writings on the cleansing virtues of violence, emerged among intellectuals searching for an alternative to middle-class conventions.

It's not reason that is at the heart of modern-day liberalism but rather the claim to superior virtue and, even more important, to a special knowledge unavailable to the unwashed or unenlightened. Depending on the temper of the time, such virtue and knowledge can derive disproportionately from scientism or mysticism--or it can mix large dollops of both."


Hey Orac,

Kinda explains you, and Al Gore, as well as adding weight to what I've said all along, about your brand of scientist, and all these mystics.

When you decide to seriously consider a position other than your (smarty-pants) own - emphasis on the word "seriously" - you will have started down the road to becoming a reasonable human being and a member of the human race. Until then, all your book-learning will keep you a scientific jack-ass to real Americans.

Sorry to diss you in front of your family - unlike you, I do give "a rat's posterior" about these things - but you deserve it, buddy.

Shout out to Tim Slagle: You're funny, man! Keep it up!

By S.H.A.M. Scam Sam (not verified) on 12 Jul 2007 #permalink

Since you've decided to attack an "almost scientist" black guy (me) and a comedian (one of my favorite groups of people) I'm going to paraphrase two greats:

James Randi has said, when things get bad, stick with the black guy from the ghetto because he'll know how to survive. That would be me, buddy, the black guy that's been trying to reach out to you.

And it was the late, great, Sam Kenison who said "Excuse me for not telling scientifically accurate jokes!"

You'd do well to pay attention, Orac, because all this "I don't give a rat's posterior" talk points to an obvious fact: your humanity is missing something - dare I say, like those WWII scientists, maybe?

By S.H.A.M. Scam Sam (not verified) on 12 Jul 2007 #permalink

"dare I say, like those WWII scientists, maybe?"

Dare I ask if you are referring to the Allied or Axis scientists?

By MJ Memphis (not verified) on 12 Jul 2007 #permalink

I must say, as a reader of both the Japanese and the US mass media, that I am amazed at the politicization (and denial, much of the time) of the climate change issue in the US.

While in Japan there is certainly debate about what, if anything, should be done about climate change, or how much climate change there is, there simply isn't the "recycling is for losers" attitude that dominates so much of the US scene, nor is there this... distaste for scientists, painting them as some sort of elitists. I suppose it IS seen more as an engineering problem, and one that business can make fine profits from, if they start R&D now.

(This isn't to imply that there aren't crazy foaming shrill political arguments over there, they're just about different topics.)

Dunc's quoting of Homer way upthread, "If we start conserving, the environmentalists win!" sums it up perfectly. Where did all this start?

See, I find that funny.

Because while the conclusions found by Public Choice Theory suggest that there are real problems converting a common public desire into social action (because of the private desires of politicians and their electorate), there is ample evidence to show that private industry doesn't fill common public needs effectively either.

At least with public officals, you can throw the bastards out.

You're misunderstanding how libertarians tend to handle the modeling of private vs public actors. Libertarians almost all use rational self-interest-based models for private actors and argue that the series of checks provided by mutually beneficial binding agreements and the enforcement negative rights (often harm-principle derived) makes it in people's self interest to not act in ways which harm others.

Public choice theory consists largely of applying the same behavioral models to people who are in positions of government authority. This reveals places where the incentives for government actors encourage them to act in an exploitive rather than helpful way. Libertarians view this as particularly dangerous since the government is typically the only entity that can legitimately use force for purposes other than self-defense (this distinction isn't unique to libertarians and factors into Weber's definition of the modern state).

Matt -

The problem with rational self-interest as a model for behaviour is that it stubbornly fails to predict anything.

For instance - you can see any number of 'alternative' therapies on this blog that are completely worthless, yet are flourishing businesses. The libertarian model either has to twist definitions of 'rational' to worthlessness or require a massively better educated and informed population.

The other problem is that of wilfully ignoring the fact that commercial agreements can fail to be mutually beneficial, especially in the case where one actor can walk away but the other cannot.

Now, when the Marxists of a century ago (Who envisaged that government would wither away with enlightenment as man was set free) found that human nature didn't conform to what they thought it should be, they tried to change people - but found that human nature is complicated and stubbornly hard to change, no matter how many people you execute. Given the vhermance of the libertarians, I sometimes wonder how long it would take (once in power) for them to set up 're-education' camps.

By Andrew Dodds (not verified) on 12 Jul 2007 #permalink

Andrew: I am not a full libertarian, but as an economist I would describe alternative medicine as a result of imperfect information, a definite market failure that can require govenment intervention to correct. Of particular difficulty is the fact that its hard to determine whether a particular treatment was effective even after it was administered, meaning the judicial system is not as useful as it can be in other situations. This adds another layer to the classic "market for lemons" problem. So I agree that markets require some regulatory coreection in that case.

Flex: You are correct that "we" can throw the bastards out, but "we" doesn't actually exist. You only get one vote every few years and the odds of your vote counting are probably lower than the odds of getting run over on the way to the polling booth. Plus, what if one politican embodies policies you like and ones you dislike, how do you prioritise? Democracy may mean more public accountability than other political systems, but that's not saying much.

By contrast, businesses respond quickly to market signals in order to maximise their profits, or they go bust. Either way, its all good. Plus if you don't like a business you can just avoid them. If other people like them it won't affect them much, but you won't have to deal with them. Monopolies can be trickier (though sometimes you can still avoid buying a monopoly product), but there are few powerful monopolies or cartels that exist without government backing. To me the government is just a big monopoly that produces compulsory goods that can ignore you 90% of the time. Even the most hidebound industries are more responsive than that.

As a meteorologist, I have some serious problems with Al Gore and the "20 feet of sea level" argument. While Al Gore's statements may not change the facts of science, they could have a tremendous influence on how we as a society respond to the facts of science.

If you Google "sea level 20 feet" you get 2.4 million hits.
If you Google "Al Gore sea level 20 feet" you get 1 million hits.

Here are some scientific facts....

Sea level has been rising at the rate of 6 inches per CENTURY for a long time. There is some evidence to suggest that perhaps the rate has risen to 8 inches per century now. Scientific consensus is suggesting 23 inches in the next century but I think that is wildly overdone considering that would require a tripling of the current rate which observational evidence doesn't support. Also, Antarctica, far and away the largest store of ice, is gaining ice, not losing and this is expected to continue.

So, Al Gore claim of sea level rising 20 feet and his movie showing the water pouring aver major cities and most of Florida like a tsunami is grossly, irresponsibly misleading. I doesn't change the science, but it sure misrepresents it.

By Actual Meteorologist (not verified) on 18 Jul 2007 #permalink

I suggest you go to for a more balanced view of climate topics, rather than the blowhards at RealClimate. I would even suggest you check out Maybe Professor Brignell might like to match wits with you on such topics.

If Gavin Schmidt and Michael Mann are your bastions of scientific rigor, along with the seriously wacky James Hansen. I guess my respect for you just about went out the door.

Until this blog, I found your musings on most topics extremely amusing and useful, but your overall disregard that the extremist positions that these fellows hold might be wrong, does not give me the warm and fuzzies that you hold the scientific method that much in hig regard.

Imagine my disappointment to learn of someone's disapproval of my generally agreeing with the consensus among climate scientists.

As for et al, been there, done that, not impressed.

Generally agreed with the consensus, it certainly sounded like total agreeance. Al Gore got it mostly right so it's OK, close enough for government work.

I guess we should all sit and praise the illustious Algore as the bastion of truth, justice and the un-american way. If this is the man that your hanging your hat on, I hope you all have a lot of money to waste.

Me I like the warm weather.

You talk about trends being the reason that your buying the consensus, but we're talking about minor increases in the last hundred years (some natural, some us, how mcuh one way or the other is the question), which are within the bounds of the error of any temperature reading that we've taken. But we're using these readings (which are +/-) and entering them in a program (GIGO) and forcasting what might happen based on a climate system of which we know very little. Last I looked last year and this years hurricane seasons have seen below average intensity and number, which Al Gore most definitely said that the warmer climate would casue more and bigger hurricanes, where are thet at? The one year we have a higher than normal number, it was Global Warming du jour, but when it's the other way, it's just natural and you took our fears out of context.

This thing is becoming the biggest farce known to man. So hand og with Gavin and Mann, I'm sure they will tell you everything you need to know.

I went to see a comedian who did five minutes about me disliking shopping with their wives. I enjoyed the rest of the show well enough but this small chunk of material I found to be a gross generalization.

So, like you, I let it ruin the whole night for me and blogged ad naseum about it rather than just go take a piss or have a smoke or simply wait for the next bit.

I - like you - only care to see artists who I agree with and can laugh at every single word and idea that comes out of their mouths.

Good work, Orac.

By doug stanhope (not verified) on 02 Nov 2007 #permalink

I - like you - only care to see artists who I agree with and can laugh at every single word and idea that comes out of their mouths.

Hmmm. Where did I say anything like only caring to see comedians whom I agree with at whose ever bit I can laugh at?

Oh, wait, I didn't say anything like that, did I? Nor did I say anything about this one bit "ruining" the night.

Nice straw man, dude.

By the way, this is an old post, which makes me wonder how you happened to find it. If you want to comment further, feel free, but not here. Please go here, where you can see the actual routine if you like. I'm closing comments here now, as I try (and usually fail) to do for posts older than a couple of months old.