Guest essay by Tom Harris
Last month, U.S. Rep. David McKinley (R.-WV) hosted an unbiased climate change panel discussion in Fairmont, West Virginia. Experts from both sides of the climate debate participated without restrictions of any kind.
McKinley’s open-minded approach is one that should be copied across the United States. Considering what’s at stake—a human-induced eco-collapse if former Vice-President Al Gore and his allies are correct, or, if skeptics are right, a waste of billions of dollars and the loss of millions of jobs as we experiment with a switch away from coal and other hydrocarbon fuels to alternative energy sources—the risks are too high to do anything less.
No matter what Gore and 350.org founder Bill McKibben tell us, experts in the field know that climate science is highly immature. We are in a period of “negative discovery,” in that the more we learn about climate, the more we realize we do not know. Rather than “remove the doubt,” as Gore tells us should be done, we must recognize the doubt in this, arguably the most complex science ever tackled.
The confidence expressed by Gore, McKibben, and President Barack Obama that mankind is definitely causing dangerous climate change is a consequence of a belief in what professors Chris Essex (University of Western Ontario) and Ross McKitrick (University of Guelph, Ontario) call the “Doctrine of Certainty”. This doctrine is “a collection of now familiar assertions about climate that are to be accepted without question” (Taken by Storm, 2007).
Essex and McKitrick explain, “But the Doctrine is not true. Each assertion is either manifestly false or the claim to know is false. Climate is one of the most challenging open problems in modern science. Some knowledgeable scientists believe that the climate problem can never be solved.”
Creating rational public policy in the face of such uncertainty is challenging. It is therefore important that America’s climate and energy experts are able to speak out without fear of retribution regardless of their points of view. We want climate and energy policies to be based on rigorous science, economics and engineering, coupled with common sense and compassion for our fellow man, not political ideology or vested interests.
Sadly, the exact opposite is the case today. Emotions run high as the climate debate has become intensely polarized—alarmist versus skeptic, conservative versus liberal, capitalist versus socialist. Implications of bias and vested financial interests, as well as logical fallacies (errors in reasoning), have taken the place of considering the facts. Many leading scientists therefore remain silent if their views are not politically correct.
We must clean up the climate change debate to make it easier for experts to participate. In particular, media and politicians should strive to avoid the logical fallacies that are distracting the public from thinking about the issue constructively. Here are some of the fallacies that must be purged from the discussion:
- Ad Hominem (discredit the man, instead of the idea): By calling those with whom he disagrees “climate deniers”, Gore commits a logical fallacy often used to equate those who question the causes of climate change with Holocaust deniers. It is also wrong because no one is denying that climate changes; only the causes are in dispute.
- “Climate change denier” is also a thought-terminating cliché. This logical fallacy appears when a phrase is used to suppress an audience’s critical thinking and to allow the presenter to move, uncontested, to other topics.
- Guilt by association: That a specific viewpoint is promoted by the ‘religious right’ or the ‘loony left’ is irrelevant. A position is either correct or not, or unknown, independent of the affiliations of the presenter.
- Straw man (arguments based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position): Republicans are not “anti-science”. Neither are Democrats. If they were, they would never fly in an airplane, use cell phones or take vitamins. They simply disagree with each other about the causes of climate change. It is also a straw man argument to imply that anyone doubts that ‘climate change is real’. Neither side actually says this. They know that climate always changes on planets with atmospheres.
- Red Herring/false analogy: Canada’s leading climate activist David Suzuki tried to associate Tennessee’s approach to the teaching of evolution with their approach to climate change education. Red Herrings like this are usually introduced to divert debate to an issue the speaker believes is easier to defend.
We need politicians and media to help set the stage for an effective discussion of this important issue by avoiding these logical traps. Rep. McKinley has led the way. Let’s hope other leaders soon follow.
Tom Harris is Executive Director of the International Climate Science Coalition.
- Is it a failure to communicate, or faulty climate science? (wattsupwiththat.com)