Categorical Thinking and The Climate Debate

Guest post by Craig Loehle, Ph.D.

We often hear this disconnect in the climate debate: sceptic Joe says “human impacts are small and likely not harmful”; alarmist Arthur says “humans are affecting the climate, therefore we must act now”. It is not possible to get the alarmist to answer the claim of the skeptic that the impacts are likely to be small. I believe the disconnect results because the alarmist is using categorical thinking. In this mode, if something is bad, it is bad. Water is either clean or not clean. Forest is either wilderness or it is defiled. This conversation cannot progress because the world views of the sceptic and the alarmist are incompatible. The words they use do not mean the same thing. If the sceptic admits we are having a small impact on climate, the alarmist says “aha! You see? We are doomed!” This is not a conversation.

Categorical thinking is common in life. It is a critical mental shortcut that brings order to the chaos of sensory input—I do not claim it to be a defect. If someone lies to us once, they are now in the category of liar. This may work for judging likely human behavior but one hurricane is not a trend. If a person is in the clergy, we classify them as good. If they exhibit some defect such as shoplifting, we throw them down to the pits. They are either a saint or not a saint. We don’t say that a politician in the other party is misguided or has different goals from us, we call them evil (and they call each other evil). If some small thing goes wrong on a date or at a wedding, the event is “ruined”. In religion you are either “saved” or not, there is evidently no in-between category of semi-saved or saved part of the time or improved.

This categorical thinking permeates the climate change debate. A premise in categorical thinking about the environment that goes back before the current debate is that natural is good and artificial is bad, where artificial means anything affected by humans. In the case of nature this means that wilderness is good and trees planted in rows are bad (though birds don’t necessarily mind the rows). The categorical mindset means that any touch by humans ruins the wilderness, so humans in the US are being progressively excluded from wilderness (roads closed, no snowmobiles, horses banned, etc.) from the wilderness that they are supposed to value so highly. In the climate debate, it goes like this: “There is no doubt that humans have caused warming over the past 50 years. Therefore we must act now.” The question is posed as whether the climate has change, a categorical question. And of course it has changed and of course humans have had some effect even if tiny. The fact that there is some influence of humans is taken to mean that all the bad things one can imagine will consequently follow. In real life no one imagines that if their stock portfolio is yielding 0.1% annually that they are making money and therefore they are going to become rich and therefore they are already rich, but this is how the climate debate plays out, perhaps because climate is not something anyone has direct experience of so it is an abstraction, a “thing” not a process or continuum. James Hansen says “if we burn all the fossil fuels the ice caps are going to melt eventually and so we are doomed” (my paraphrase). The fact that it will take 200 years to burn all the fossil fuels and then 2000 years for the ice caps to melt to give his hypothetical sea level rise is immaterial to Hansen. If he can foresee it then it is already happening. But how can we seriously be worried about something that will take 2000 years to happen? I just hope civilization holds together for the next 100 years—that would be a great victory. Likewise, we can view the “bad weather” meme as a categorical construct. If the IPCC models forecast some increase in future bad weather, as they do, then it is assumed that this is a categorical change of quality in the climate, and that bad weather will be sweeping over us in waves rather than getting worse very very slowly (and for the record I don’t think the climate models are even capable of forecasting bad weather). Never mind that the IPCC SREX report couldn’t find any trends in bad weather over the past 100 years, the fact that models forecast something vaguely bad in 100 years is a categorical change that means that bad stuff is already happening. This mindset was labeled “future present tense” by Ben Pile, IIRC. It is certainly not possible for any human to have sampled enough of the weather to be able to say they have personally experienced an accurate trend in tornados or hail storms, which are distributed in space and random in time, and yet “future present tense” makes people sure they are already personally experiencing the bad stuff that is forecast to happen sometime in the future.

Categorical thinking also leads to innumeracy. We become unable to distinguish between 3mm/yr sea level rise and disaster because rising sea level as a categorical event is bad. There is no such thing as positive impacts of a warmer and wetter world fertilized by CO2 because human interference with climate is a disruption and unnatural and these are bad. If arctic ice melts this could not possibly have any benefits and the mere fact that it is a change must necessarily be catastrophic. If polar bears are negatively affected we are not allowed to talk about 50 other species that might benefit, including humans. Permafrost melting is lamented as if permafrost was some treasure that we will miss in future generations instead of a darn nuisance to any human activity and not even useful to the biota. That is, arctic ice and permafrost are treated categorically as “natural” and their loss lamented as a human interference without even thinking quantitatively about what benefits might accrue from the change or how large the harm might actually be. Any attempt at accurate accounting of costs and benefits is resisted in this categorical world. This categorical and innumerate view is the origin of loony statements like 50% of all species on earth are doomed or soon only Antarctica will be habitable.

And this is where “denier” comes in, because if the effect of man is bad per se, if we have polluted and affected the climate with our fossil fuels, it does not matter how much we have affected it and anyone who can’t see that we have caused this categorical change from the natural state is denying reality. When you sceptics try to talk about amounts of warming and model error and solar influence, it simply shows that you “don’t get it” in a categorical sense, that the climate is no longer “natural” and it is our fault. It is irrelevant how much we have changed it, we have changed the state, like spitting into the swimming pool makes everyone get out. The climate is now broken. And with a broken, human-altered climate, anything is possible, even super storms (which we can conveniently create by naming them such). It doesn’t matter if we only changed it a trivial amount, we’ve ruined the Garden of Eden with our sinful ways. I think this is why everyone has jumped on climate disruption as a meme—it so much better captures the idea of a broken climate, rather than one merely getting hotter.

This style of thinking permeates other aspects of the debate as well as environmental issues in general. It generates symbolic action. If building windmills is “good” it does not matter how good it is. It is in the good category and that is that. To complain that they are killing birds or that they are unreliable or way too expensive to save the climate is then viewed as just a ploy to achieve political ends by people who “don’t get it”. Other actions also are wrapped in this untouchable cloak of symbolic goodness and are not to be debated (solar, electric cars). Only when the green energy starts causing blackouts in Germany and Spain (and soon England and California) is there protest, but somehow their lessons-learned do not apply here. In other areas of environmental activism I will simply note that categorical thinking also means that there is no safe level of air pollution or water pollution or radiation, because if it is not pristine it is “polluted”.

There is of course categorical thinking on all sides, with some sceptics claiming CO2 can’t affect temperature or that all alarmists are uniformly evil, but overall the sceptic movement is populated by people interested in questions like “how much warming”, “how much impact”, “how much influence by the sun” and “how good are the models”. Which is so strange, because that is where everyone should be. You don’t put your money in the bank simply because it will make money (a category), you want to know the interest rate. You don’t accept a job because they pay money, you want to know how much. And at the restaurant you really are happy if your $16 steak is huge and tasty. No one treats the key personal decisions in their life, or even the trivial ones, categorically. But people are pushing for huge fossil fuel taxes and other restrictions on life with seemingly no interest in either whether the problem is big enough to worry about or whether the proposed solutions will be helpful. I am unable to understand why people act this way, but at least now I can categorize it!


newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Kurt in Switzerland

This is a nice way of saying that alarmists are drama queens.
Kurt in Switzerland


Very good break down. Thank you.

Some things really ARE categorical, black or white, 0 or 1 – like this computer, without categorical working it would not work nearly as well. It is all very well to talk about trinary logic and such ideas, but they’re freaking difficult to make work. When you’ve sold millions of computers and associated storage and communications systems built on trinary logic, then you can harp about categorical thinking. Until then … well, OK, so I know that there such things as Q-PSK and other multivalent modulation systems … but that doesnt blunt the point: some things ARE categorical.
Perhaps wisdom consists not in choosing between categorical thinking or not categorical thinking (see what I did there?), but in knowing which applies to what?

Bair Polaire

Thanks! This is one of the most important postings on the climate debate that I’ve seen in years. Categorical thinking and the resulting tendency for symbolic action might be more fundamental to the ongoing dispute than climate sensitivity and temperature records.
I would have liked to send this article to my green friends, but I’m afraid they won’t like it. Most of them are veggies, some even vegans. They might be offended by the 16$ steak example at the end… Could you make that a salad maybe?


I’m not sure how many are using categorical thinking. For many I’d imagine it is more the unwillingness to ask “how much?” rather than an inability to ask “how much?”
The unwillingness comes from not wanting to lose the argument. They have a narrative, “the science says; the science is truth; we must act because of the science; etc.” and questioning the details just destroys the narrative’s power.
The narrative has a certain number of pillars and none of them are open to question otherwise the building starts falling. The scientist who says it might be natural is obviously paid by big oil just like the tobacco companies paid for oddball scientists –– and let’s just ignore that the tobacco companies thought they were being oppressed by a consensus.
What “we don’t get” is their deeper values and worldview. Blame Rousseau and new Romantics and all that. And the ex-Marxists who needed a new label. And so on.
Rather, it isn’t so much that the thinking is in simple categories, it is that the thinkers are quite intuitive and can make fine threads of connection between “climate disruption” and all their own favourite worldviews.
Show that political action would actually undermine their desired world, and then they’ll drop it immediately.
I’m waiting for the incredibly efficient solar panel and windfarm, lots of cheap energy, that will make environmentalists quake in their shoes and run screaming back to the hills.
Like what will the vegans say when we can grow meat in a lab?


The human effect on climate is an open question. If we affect climate then so do insects since they produce more CO2 than we do burning fossil fuels, assuming that you believe the GHG theory of course. But if you believe that CO2 is a life giving gas that does not posses the properties ascribed to it for carrying out any warming then the question above is not needed. The climate system is a chaotic system with many inputs some of which we ignore, inflate or even are ignorant of but the main input is the sun. The sun is the only heat source capable of driving such a system providing enough heat to render the GHG theory unnecessary.


I have been waiting years for the philosophers to get involved in this debate so I really welcome this piece. I understand the categorisation idea, I call it the ‘Crusoe effect’.
I often think that the eco-zealots imagine going back to nature and surviving and prospering like Robinson Crusoe, overcoming all obstacles , living a halcyon life whilst leaving a tiny mark on the environment, whereas the sceptics know that in a very short time we would be ragged like that other castaway Ben Gunn, with our teeth falling out and desperate for a little bit of cheese.

Nigel Harris

While there may be some alarmists out there who fit your description, to suggest that everyone who has come the conclusion that something needs to be done to restrain CO2 emissions has done so on the basis of “categorical thinking” is a prime example of categorical thinking in action.


Black and white world. No gray. As Dr. Loehle points out, sometimes categorical thinking is not bad (when used as a guide on other people’s behavior), but you cannot live your life with categorical thinking. Since the world is made up of different shades of gray, you will always find some black or some white so you will get to a point of total inertia in seeing exactly what you want to see.

Steve in SC

The only warming of the climate due to humans is the land use changes and the BTUs that they emit.

Clayton Wrobel

This is a very helpful article. I hope it gets wide play on both sides of the debate, but I don’t know how to get it in front of the ‘alarmist’ community. Very good job.

My wife and I have fun with the “If it’s ‘natural’ it must be good for us” category. After all, we say, “Poison ivy is natural. So is the Amanita phalloides ‘death cap’ mushroom. And the typhoid bacterium. . .”
Good points about categorical (‘black or white’) thinking, which is anti-science. But what’s really insidious about ‘Environmentalism’ and its errant stepchild Climatism is the religious zeal with which they are held, so opponents are heretics, or ‘deniers’. This is the stuff of which inquisitions are made. If I may quote myself, from the “Conspiracy of One” thread:

Real scientists don’t talk about other scientists with contrary views as ‘deniers’. The Warmists are essentially claiming that their opponents are heretics, rejecting some kind of revealed gospel. This of course makes them immune to strictly scientific arguments. They can stand up and proclaim the Gospel According to AGW with a straight face, no matter how completely erroneous the ‘facts’ they cite are. And their sycophants in the media and the ‘environmental’ movement just nod and sing hallelujah!
The problem is that the Warmists cloak their litany in the guise of science, which can fool most of the people most of the time. That makes sites like WUWT valuable, but hard to get out of the dungeon of ‘heresy’. We are lucky that there is yet no Grand Inquisitor to take more drastic action against the ‘deniers’.

/Mr Lynn


Yes, but I disagree about the CO2 (and the so called GHGs in general) – even that can be the subject of skeptical scrutiny and questioning. Not being able to affect the temperature is not the same as not warming, or not warming significantly, cooling… One has to solve the Earth’s surface heat transfer problem (no radiation balance at the surface) to calculate (or estimate) what will be the effect of increased CO2. Furthermore, one has to show that it’s possible to change atmospheric CO2 without changing climatic factors (long lifetime).


@- “There is of course categorical thinking on all sides, with some sceptics claiming CO2 can’t affect temperature or that all alarmists are uniformly evil, but overall the sceptic movement is populated by people interested in questions like “how much warming”, “how much impact”, “how much influence by the sun” and “how good are the models”. Which is so strange, because that is where everyone should be.”
What is strange is that ‘how much impact’ is where the scientific discussion is at. The statements by most of the leading scientific institutions, the vast majority of the scientists working on the field, and around fifty years of scientific papers on the subject confirm this.
There may be a small clique of environmental activists trapped in categorical thinking that all climate change of whatever magnitude is bad, but they are easily offset by those categorical ‘thinkers’ who maintain in the face of all this evidence that the GHG effect does not exist or is insignificant.
The result has been an inordinate concern with things like the arcane minutia of paleoclimate as those that categorically reject AGW seek any evidence that can support their position. Meanwhile as the Munich Re and increasing extreme weather events indicate the measure of how bad or good the ongoing climate change might be is evident in the current data, mining thousand year old proxy indicators is of minor relevance.
One insight that historical data can reveal is that any climate change has bad effects on human societies and agricultural systems. Unfortunately human civilisation is often built with the implicit assumption that agricultural yields will be as stable as the climate, when both alter societies tend to collapse.
While I am not convinced of the absolute validity of all that is done in the social sciences, the work of Altemeyer on authoritarian ways of thinking does indicate that categorical errors are rather more likely with those that conform to a free market, hierarchical authoritarian mindset.

I am guilty of categorical thinking. All warmists are idiots! So there!


Perfectly stated. It is part of the environmental activist’s religion. Oil bubbling to the surface in nature=good. Oil drilling=bad. Noxious gas from volcanoes=good, noxious gas from factories-bad. Chemical compinds or reactions in nature=good, chemical compounds in the laboratory=bad. Gaia=good. Man=bad.


Thanks for your interesting post. Now, how do we counter this categorical thinking?
One aspect is that categorical thinking may be strongly influenced by images (as opposed to verbal thought). For example, there were the pictures prevalent in the 70’s of men clubbing to death adorable white baby seals. This caught the attention of the whole nation. On the other hand, at the same time the Khmer Rouge were slaughtering 1 or 2 million people. There were no pictures and no interest as it happened.
What images could we use to engage people who think categorically? Perhaps, we could use images of broken windmills and people freezing in the cold when the power grid becomes totally unreliable.
One is tempted to simply call categorical thinkers fools and idiots. However, this is unlikely to convert them to a more realistic view.

Very interesting article. The reason I think that most people fall into categorical thinking is laziness. It is far easier to think of the world in black and white as opposed to the reality which is gray. And this is also pure ethical laziness as well. Instead if agonizing about whether you tell the truth, people can fall into the trap of lying and other bad behavior by stating that its for a good cause and the lies will do good.
Personally, it’s the mark of a person who is either unable to grasp the concepts or just simply refuses to do so. instead of educating themselves they simply take the lazy route and turn off their brains. It’s a large issue with well educated people who stop thinking and simply act without regard for what they are actually doing or saying.
In the end, it really is cognitive dissonance.

Leo Smith

Thank you for this: Its the first time here I can recall philosophy being applied to the issue, and applied I think well.
I would toss in a contentious point which resulted from a chance remark made to me by a philosopher friend that is about the importance of language in phislophy. Language encapsulates concepts. The phrase was ‘The problems of French philosophy would not have existed if they had written in German’. I believe it is a sort of stock phrase in his circles.
So I was wondering whether, the growing suspicion I have that half the reason the Germans are so categorical in terms of all things green and climate, is because they speak live and think German.
I speak less German than can be written in red ink on a matchbox, but working for Germans and being involved in translating some technical stuff – mainly guesswork plus a dictionary, and knowing what it probably meant, after having it roughly done by a non technical German speaker, I was struck by the preponderance of large composite nouns. The tendency to reify the world into real sold concrete objects. That is the language seems to me to naturally allow the easy construction of complex, but static qualities into a noun, but is very unsuited to encapsulating the idea of a complex dynamic into a single word.
Whereas the Romance languages have enormous trouble in producing nouns at all – one of the unexpected side effects of the European Union is the appearance of multilingual booklets for equipment. Do the word count. English is usually the most compact. Dutch and German somewhat less so, and the Latin languages unbelievably verbose. “Warning: No user-serviceable parts inside” becomes “attention, no parts-of-the-sort-to-be-fiddled-with-by-non-specialists inside are to be found”, in German, and for the Romance languages you are likely to encapsulate the concept in a sort of “please don’t remove the cover and attempt to fix this as it not designed for the attentions of those unable to perform the actions, with competence”
Lord (Shiva?) knows what the Sanskrit equivalent is..
I think that linguistics has a very real part to play in the Climate change debate. I remarked to a US person that ‘I personally didn’t believe that CO2 had much impact on global temperatures’ the astonishing reply I got was ‘I have seen the ice melting myself’. A completely irrelevant answer, since I wasn’t denying that some warming had taken place. Stunned and shocked, I gave up.
Another thing to understand, is how the principles of Agitprop have been seized perfected and refined to include every single aspect of current popular thinking. I have a friend who whilst being a self styled socialist and CND member is also deeply sceptical about AGW. “But cant you see” I said “That the same process that is being used to demonize CO2 was used to demonize nuclear power in the Cold War era?”. He held up the proposition that polonium release at Windscale had been ‘covered up’ and had led to clearly identifiable deaths from cancers in the Cumbria area ‘it was in the New Scientist, the Guardian, it was even mentioned on the BBC’ .
Thanks to the Internet, I was able to confirm that indeed the story had considerable traction in the 60’s. And indeed polonium had been released, as it was being cooked up for weapons purposes. And indeed it had been covered up, because it indicated useful things about the UKs atomic weapons program.
But nowhere was there any clear trail indicating that it had caused a single health problem. ALL the stories were of the ‘could’ and ‘might’ sort.
Perversion of the reality – the numerical reality – of things is part and parcel of the agitprop method. Fear of radiation leading to rushed evacuations killed more people at Fukushima than the radiation itself, which the UN considers will have zero detectable health impacts anywhere. For example.
And this methodology folds back neatly to the climate change debate. Agitprop or ‘marketing’ as we would call it today, is not interested in the truth, per se, it is interested in altering peoples perceptions to achieve the desired commercial or political result.
Use of categorical language, as you call it (I am not sure you have used the right term, here but I understand what you mean) is simply one more tool in the toolbox.
Science, to the marketing executive, is just another prop to construct what I call an ’emotional narrative’. A plausible (false) picture of reality given more credence by a man or woman in a white coat being used to give the message. And the glue that binds the message together is emotion. fear of being a silly minority, a pariah element, and the joy of being the first one on the block to discover the wonders of ‘Snibbo’ (If you are too young to remember it, google it).
I have taken the time to relate this, because to me AGW only makes sense in terms of a cynical deployment of typical cold war propaganda techniques to form and guide public opinion towards a series of political decisions that are of benefit to whoever stands behind the whole nonsensical debate.
Viewed from that perspective it all makes sense. You elucidate here just one aspect of the way that is being carried out. I want to raise the possibility that it is but one of the tools, but the bag of tools has a name. Agitprop.
And to make the point that to get embroiled in the detail of what is true and what is not is to misunderstand. The perpetrators are not concerned with truth: Truth doesn’t make profits, win elections. Perceptions do. And the easiest people to gull are the ‘concerned citizens’ of the liberal left. People who like to think of themselves as a bit smarter than they really are, and a bit more moral than they really are.
AGW , renewable energy, sustainable growth, the green movement – whatever they once were, is not what they are today, they are a monstrous mindfuck, a marketing bandwagon that builds on a leftist perception of THEM, the giant corporations, the rich, the powerful as oppressing US, the intelligent but downtrodden and lied to masses..the subtle and marvellous transformation of course is achieved by the application of the final tool in the toolbox: the Big Lie. Because it is reasonably clear that who stands to benefit from all this is actually “THEM, the giant corporations, the rich, the powerful” They neatly avoid the accusation, by being the first to propose it! And the act of telling you that you are being oppressed is actually the sign that they, indeed, are doing just that.
IN short the protest movements of the 60’s are now firmly in the control of, and willing participants of, precisely the forces they feared and identified as being the enemy.
Oh the irony…
I am a child of the 60’s. I was there. I saw honest protest movements infiltrated and influenced by hard left propagandists. I was there in Soweto, and heard also the same tune being sung to the townships by ‘the brothers from Cuba’ . I see the Arab spring, honest protest, infiltrated dominated and controlled ultimately by the Islamists.
I am at heart a socialist, in that I wish to improve the lot of my fellow man, I am a scientist and engineer, so I have the tools to make a little difference. But all the time an old joke rattles around my head….
Once upon a time there was a little bird, who was happy and contented. But a little over ambitious.
He flew higher and higher trilling his happy song, until the earth fell away and he realised he was cold and hungry. He was freezing with the altitude. He fell.
Into a warm moist cow pat. there he thawed, but could not escape.
“Help me!” he cried. “Help me: I am a victim of misfortune!”
A cat heard his trilling, and said “what is the matter?” .
“I am up to my neck in bullshit” said the bird, “And I need help to get out!”
“Nothing easier ” said the cat tugged him out and ate him.
The morals of this story are as follows.
1/. If you overreach your ability, you are likely to end up with your wings frozen and in the shit.
2/. If you are warm and comfortable stuck in the shit, mostly its better to keep your mouth shut.
3/. Not everybody who says they can help you out, is your friend.
And that is the problem. Mankind is in the shit, and no one really denies that. The problem is working out who in fact is your friend, and who just wants to eat you.

Jim Clarke

Categorical thinking has long been the MO of politics, religion and the modern environmental movement (which is a combination of the first two), but has never had a place in science! Science is all about quantifying, very specifically, the natural world. Science and categorical thinking are incompatibly.
Thank you Mr. Loehle for spelling it out. The climate change debate has always been between scientists and categorical thinkers, speaking different languages.


I 98% agree with this post.


Thanks Craig, your note should be mandatory reading for everyone interested in climate science, it certainly rings a bell in the UK. We are sitting on large reserves of shale gas that we desperately need to develop, to get some growth into our near bankrupt economy. The operation will clearly not be without risk and will need to be managed carefully, but the ‘No Fracking’ protestors have been out in force this week taking the categorical view that it is environmentally unacceptable, stop.

David A. Evans

Bair Polaire says:
March 5, 2013 at 4:56 am

I would have liked to send this article to my green friends, but I’m afraid they won’t like it. Most of them are veggies, some even vegans. They might be offended by the 16$ steak example at the end… Could you make that a salad maybe?

Another example of categorical thinking perhaps?
All killing is bad, even killing to live?
Nigel Harris says:
March 5, 2013 at 5:08 am

While there may be some alarmists out there who fit your description, to suggest that everyone who has come the conclusion that something needs to be done to restrain CO2 emissions has done so on the basis of “categorical thinking” is a prime example of categorical thinking in action.

Perhaps but this actually explains a lot of my experience with people who are alarmed, never been able to quite put my finger on it before.


A nuanced commentary. The distinction is black or not-black, white or not-white. Simple set theory, which George Boole delineated so many years ago. Those of us who are sceptical about the impact of man’s contribution would do well to keep the WUWT app readilly available to show those who have trouble visualizing – not-black, or not-white, the images which show the facts.
We need to stop the use of the false dichotomy, black or white.


“I think that linguistics has a very real part to play in the Climate change debate. I remarked to a US person that ‘I personally didn’t believe that CO2 had much impact on global temperatures’ the astonishing reply I got was ‘I have seen the ice melting myself’. A completely irrelevant answer, since I wasn’t denying that some warming had taken place. Stunned and shocked, I gave up.”
This happens all the time and it is stunning. There is a linguistic hockey stick (climate change, global warming…).

It is as if, in a large classroom, one student has stood up here and made the above speech. In reality, he is just a student, and not a particularly good one, yet he talks like he is the professor, who has the answers required in the course. If it were not a classroom situation, everyone could spend time on his points, agreeing here and disagreeing there, but in the end his inexpertness–indeed, his incompetence in the handling of categories (so that he succumbs to them: “I am unable to understand why people act this way, but at least now I can categorize it!”)–is what should shine through. He himself categorizes falsely. He thinks the proper way to think about climate is “how much warming?”, and that of course is in line with Anthony Watts’ thinking, known as the “lukewarm” position. Unfortunately, it is incompetent thinking, the result of forty years of miseducation of climate scientists. And it is all of the incompetent scientists who have allowed the fearful and tyrannical dogma–not “category”, childish moderns, but good old fashioned dogma (the “greenhouse effect”, of increasing atmospheric temperature with increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide)–to energize what is now, in fact, political insanity at the highest levels of governmental authority.
The bell rung on the scientific bottom line–that the Standard Atmosphere model describes the real, equilibrium state of the atmosphere, and there is no destabilizing, global warming greenhouse effect–long ago, and without a real professor in sight, who knows that bottom line, this class has been dismissed for some time now. You are merely keeping the insanity going, by deluding yourself, and those who follow you blindly (dogmatically), that you have the answers.

A very valuable contribution. By itself, this essay provides a perspective to explain a large part of something which has long puzzled me, and that is the speed with which alarm over carbon dioxide penetrated political and scientific establishments when the case for alarm was so flimsy.

There are 2 kinds of people in this world; The first one thinks that there are 2 kinds of people in this world…

Arfur Bryant

Thank you for a truly insightful post.
I’m reminded of ‘The Hitchikers Guide…’ (My bold.)
[“In the first novel and radio series, a group of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings demand to learn the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything from the supercomputer, Deep Thought, specially built for this purpose. It takes Deep Thought 7½ million years to compute and check the answer, which turns out to be 42. The Ultimate Question itself is unknown.
When asked to produce The Ultimate Question, Deep Thought says that it cannot; however, it can help to design an even more powerful computer, the Earth, that can. The programmers then embark on a further ten-million-year program to discover The Ultimate Question…”]


Scuzza Man
Some things really ARE categorical, black or white, 0 or 1 – like this computer, without categorical working it would not work nearly as well. It is all very well to talk about trinary logic and such ideas, but they’re freaking difficult to make work.
Thats where it gets interesting. A computer might be built on a machine which at its heart is 1s and zeros, black and white, but it doesn’t behave like that – it behaves like something which, increasingly, can deal with shades of grey. And colour since the late 90s.

Craig, you write “Categorical thinking also leads to innumeracy.”
Surely this is the crux of the issue. In physics, the only thing we can rely on is hard, measured, empirical data. In the case of CAGW, until we have an actual MEASUREMENT of climate sensitivity, no-one has the slightest idea of what it’s value is. The best we can say is that it is almost certainly more than zero, and less that some upper limit. And when we have a measuremnt, we have, at the same time, a meausre of accuracy.
Surely the only conclusion we can come to in the debate of what is happening to the world’s climate, is that no-one really knows.

Rhys Jaggar

I’m afraid to say that free marketeers engage in exactly the same thing.
In this country, the UK, there is a sine qua non that ‘privatisation’ equals GOOD. Good for WHOM is the question to ask there? Privatisations are always priced generously to ensure that investors ‘get a good return’, so it is clearly good for them. However, once in private hands they can be freely traded and may end up in the hands of those who wish to draw profits in the UK to subsidise their own industry back home (it is reasonable to ask if French and German energy companies have engaged in this). It is not a sine qua non that privatisation benefits Joe Bloggs in his 3 bedroom terraced house in Manchester, Newcastle or the East End of London.
There is also a sine qua non that ‘because we believe in free markets that everyone else does too’. In fact, most everyone else in most every major economy believes in a certain state protection of key strategic assets but are happy to engage in the carnage of the UK economy if the whores in the UK Parliament spread their legs for them. American investors know full well they’re not allowed to do in the USA what they rapaciously do here. That’s why they come!! It’s not just them, let me add.
There is a sine qua non that ‘public sector operations are universally bad’. They aren’t actually. Wages are not depressed by the need to pay shareholders dividends and so the pay for workers in the public sector is usually higher than in the private sector. Those workers pay the price for the richer demanding dividends out of the private operation. If they don’t like it, foreign immigrants are brought in who will accept even worse conditions. It may benefit a few, but it doesn’t benefit the many.
A global free market in financial investment means that British businesses can only gain investment if they are world leading. This creates a state of hopelessness for the vast majority who cannot be better than pretty good. The interests of the money men are served. Those of the majority are not. The reason? The societal value of full employment is never factored into investment decisions. It is why there is a discussion about nationalisation of banks right now.
You’ll note that I’m not a fervent socialist, nor am I a no-holds-barred capitalist. I merely document and observe what has been going on to point out that those on the skeptical side of climate debates might like to ask if their behaviour in politics and economics is every bit as categorical as the warmists are in climate science.

William Morey

Today, one of the most powerful religions in the Western World is environmentalism. Environmentalism seems to be the religion of choice for urban atheists. Why do I say it’s a religion? Well, just look at the beliefs. If you look carefully, you see that environmentalism is in fact a perfect 21st century remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths.
There’s an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature, there’s a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge, and as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all. We are all energy sinners, doomed to die, unless we seek salvation, which is now called sustainability. Sustainability is salvation in the church of the environment. Just as organic food is its communion, that pesticide-free wafer that the right people with the right beliefs, imbibe.
by Michael Crichton
San Francisco
September 15, 2003


Great concept. We can use this when discussing this with friends and family.
Here is where the categorical thinking comes from, and how it is part and parcel of the Global Warming Cultists.
I will go back as far as the philosopher, Hegel. Hegel was interested in many things, including how we continue to develop knowledge via our culture. He was a philospoher that appreciated the social and political aspects of things.
He noted what we call the “Hegelian Dialectic.” This is a process by which we develop knowledge.
Its “aphorism” is: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.
One person has an idea, or theory, about something in the world. A thesis.
Another person has a differing view. Anti-thesis.
They debate.
Eventually, they, or someone else, figures out that the actual picture is more complex. Someone proposes a “synthesis” that incorporates the valuable aspects of each of the original two views.
Here is a quick example: one person declares water temp is a function of sunlight exposure. Another person declares it is a function of depth. Finally, they arrive at the advanced idea that water temp is a function of both sunlight exposure and depth.
Hegel could be described as a progressive, believing society was advancing, or could advance, if we could just identify the theses/antitheses and work to find the value in both, and advance to a more accurate synthesis.
Hegel was very influential on a lot of ppl. Including a group of his students and followers that were labeled the “Young Hegelians.”
One young Hegelian was a guy named Karl Marx.
Marx applied the Hegelian dialectic more fully to political / social philosophy.
Marx saw a dialectic betweeen the owners of the means of production, and the laborers who worked for them.
Marx eventually calculated out where he believed this dialectic ought to advance for the betterment of mankind.
This is Marxism: the laborers ought to be the owners of the means of production.
It is a type of “progressivism” to believe that history is inevitably headed this way. It is a more advanced form of progressivism to believe that the logical and humane thing to do is to promote the conflict, the dialectic, so that you can make this eventual change come about.
Marx believed that we will / would largely only get through the tension of the dialectic, and arrive at the new paradise of synthesis of the owner/laborer dialectic, by a revolution.
Like an earthquake relieves tension on a fault, and makes the geology ultimately more stable.
The early Marxists strove to provoke the workers. However, this did not work as planned.
Later Marxists realized something: it is not just an economic arrangement – owner to laborer – but a more powerful, abstract social structure identified as the “cultural hegemony.” People are hesitant to have a revolution because cultural attitudes and beliefs are dearly held, almost not recognized or questioned, and these cultural values and beliefs are the cement holding us in the current status quo.
So, to move to the Marxist goal of a world with no inequities – no oppression exploitation of the workers by the owners, it would take more than an uprising of workers against the owners of the means of production.
It would take the dismantling of culture, or society.
But to do this, you have to put a smiley face on it.
A Norman Rockwell family, or small town, used to be admired. That is the status quo cultural hegemony. A Rockwell picture on a Saturday Evening Post edition helped reinforce the status quo.
How can you attack that?
One, by being idealogically driven to be opposed to such values and ideals.
Two, by chipping away at its iconic status.
The Marxists litreally for about the recent 80-90 years, have had a steady campaign to do exactly this.
Here are the three targets, the unholy trinity, to the Marxists:
The nuclear family, Christianity, and commerce/mutually acceptable economic activity.
You can take it from there and trace how the good guys, and good things, have become the bad guys, and bad things.
We readily nowadays accept the negative views of Christianity (Christians are dumb, ignorant, stingey, self-righteous, and hypocritical), of the nuclear family (divorce is better than kids growing up in a hostile household, single parenting is just as good as the traditional married male female nuclear family, two moms or two dads is OK, females and males are generally equal except for a few biological details, as we age, we should be taken care of by the medical field and social security, not our children, co-habitation is OK, married couples with all of their breeding are over-populating the planet and killing it off, it is offensive to some to have hetero media acceptable but not homo sexual accepted, two guys should be able to go to the prom, dating/sex/committed partnership is largely about mutual satisfaction not raising a family, the school can teach morals and values, The Beckhams are immoral for having four kids, etc.), and of commerce (Obama says you did not build your business, why do you really need an SUV, the price of various things – including gas, whenever the gallon of gas price rises, should be regulated, corporations are evil, banks are evil, credit card companies are evil, McDonalds is evil, we need to distribute wealth, we need to have local, self-sustaining communities with bartering brought back, and so on).
All of these persuasive messages depend upon the categorical fallacy.
Yes, there are two -male couples who raise children better than some hetero couple.
Yes, there are polluting companies and oppressive companies.
Yes, some Christians are bitter and small-minded, and not generous.
Yes, for decent school achievement, some kids ought to be served breakfast at school.
The exception defines the category, however, in this Marxist thinking.
The heros in the old days were inventors, business laeders, and war heros. Now, many of our admired characters are laughable as any sort of role model – Holly wood people, and the panoply of drug-addicted, less-than-clean-living dead rock stars – Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janice Joplin, Ray Charles, Jonny Cash, Jerry Garcia, and so on. Some of those characters have managed to continue surviving despite some crazy living. but we admire them for why? Can’t exactly say. And we make fun of a family guy just trying to take care of his family.
All of the situation comedies are exactly this, from Dick Van Dyke show, That Girl, on to the present. A male in a position of authority is either a bumbling goof, or an evil, scheming oppressor.
And we love it. We cannot get enough of it. We pay for it, and bear with commercials for it.
Because these categorical views of society have ben manufactured according to a progressive political theory.
This is why you find Marxists at the beginning of any chain of envorinmentalists. The green revolution is a way to hamper and control commerce and regulate child-bearing. That cpatures two of the three of the unholy trinity. The third – Christianity – gets shoved aside when you adopt the green revolution and Gaia as your religious dogma.


Scuzza Man (@ScuzzaMan) says:
March 5, 2013 at 4:51 am
As near as I can tell, you are declaring that since computers use categorical thinking (either 1 or 0) and since computers are good. Therefore categorical thinking is good.
Thank you for providing such an excellent example of categorical thinking.


I’ve seen lots of examples in economics as well.
Somebody points out a problem with capitalism, therefore capitalism is bad and since capitalism is bad govt MUST be perfect.

Phil Ford

Fantastic piece, Mr Loehle – thank you.


I really don’t know what the alarmist are so worried about. They want humans to go back to the stone age or be eliminated all together. If their dire predictions come true, this will happen in due course and we will rid the planet of its human infection. Fear not, the earth will recover.

Jim Clarke

izen says:
March 5, 2013 at 5:32 am
“What is strange is that ‘how much impact’ is where the scientific discussion is at. The statements by most of the leading scientific institutions, the vast majority of the scientists working on the field, and around fifty years of scientific papers on the subject confirm this.”
That is almost a good point, izen. But categorical thinking still dominates the warmist arguments in the form of the following assumptions: feedbacks are all positive and natural climate variability is extremely small (just a product of volcanoes and TSI). These assumptions are categorically accepted by the ‘leading scientific institutions’ and ‘the vast majority of the scientists’ you are talking about, yet there is no compelling evidence for either one of them! In fact, the evidence that they are false has been growing since the assumptions were made. Accepting these assumptions as completely true is a form of categorical thinking hidden in the warmists seemingly scientific discussions.
The falseness of these assumptions can be found in the historical records that you categorically dismiss while citing implied ‘trends’ in extreme weather events. Check the science and you will find that the trend is zero! (Munich Re measures damage costs, not weather events.)
You did a great job of making Mr. Loehle’s point when you threw out the evidence in favor of the severe weather meme; a perfect display of categorical thinking!

Kip Hansen

Mr. Loehle —
This –> “In religion you are either “saved” or not, there is evidently no in-between category of semi-saved or saved part of the time or improved.” is simply not true, and offensive, to the vast majority of the religious today. You broadcast your ignorance when you step outside your own field. I would have thought, that with a PhD, you would have had at least a well-rounded general liberal arts education — but “evidently” not. Colorado State University did (and does) have some general religion classes — you should have included them in your course of study.
Besides, didn’t your mother teach you never to bring up religion or politics in general conversation with strangers.
An apology is due —


You can’t fix stupid.

Categorical Thinking and The Climate Debate
Guest post by Craig Loehle, Ph.D. @ WUWT

– – – – – – – –
Craig Loehle,
Thank you for serving up the tip of the philosophical iceberg on the topic of thinking per se.
The issue at heart for thinking is its nature; its identity. Without that grounding your post does not address the fundamental problems in current climate science. Your ‘categorical’ references do not distinguish anything yet.
I ask you to specify a unique identity for your idea of thinking per se.
Again, the topic of thinking per se that you serve up is valuable in the climate science dialog.
NOTE: in the History of Philosophy there is a lot of significance and diversity in the idea and concept of what sometimes is called categories / categorization. This needs to have some disposition to have a clear discussion.

Craig Loehle

The comments by Leo Smith could almost be part 2 of my essay–thanks Leo. I am of course aware of the role of agitprop and the way in which religion and politics encourage categories (you are either with us or against us) but I am also addressing the nature of the debate, how it is framed. For the “quantity” person (how much, how fast) it can be simply baffling when people think and talk in categories, so that was my purpose.

Excellent observations. But you’re wasting your time, energy, and breath arguing with the Politically Correct Progressives who attack reason and science. Why?
How about an explanation of your opponents? Only when you understand the basis of their strategy and tactics can you have a hope of overcoming them. Like a football coach who keeps defending the run when his opponents passes on every play, arguing with PC-Progs on their terms guarantees a loss.
PC-Prog philosophy and belief system, even though the vast majority of them don’t know it, is based on the thoroughly debunked Hegelian Dialectic. This was the basis of Soviet theory and “science.” It was studied and worshipped, as Marxism-Leninist “science.” The PC-Progs’ reverence of their fake “science” today is an echo of Soviet “science.” This does NOT mean that our opponents are “Marxists,” or “communists,” or “socialists.” It just means that their belief system is based, even though they are unwitting of the source, on a debunked philosophy.
Arguing with a Dialectic practitioner (like Mann and his ilk) is exactly what they thrive on. They do not believe in “Truth,” except as they decide to define it. Your arguing with them simply confirms their belief in the good/bad, right/wrong dialectic of materialism. Of course, they are right and you are wrong. In Dialectic practice, one side destroys the other, sweeps up the pieces, and creates a new, improved versison of society.
Of course, to them, their argument is correct, which means that yours is wrong. Therefore, you must be destroyed. Once you are destroyed, evolution (toward their imagined nirvana) can continue.
This approach to politics was introduced to American society in the 1920s and 1930s. It was deliberately introduced by its practitioners via our education and academic system. Dr George Counts was an agent who was particularly successful in this effort. See his “Dare Progressive Education be Progressive” speeches and articles to understand fully what they planned.
The effort was focused on destroying traditional, capitalist America. Everything traditional was to be derided—“A racist, sexist, imperialistic, foreigner-hating, capitalist hell-hole. America must be changed.”
This is a short version of who our opponents are, their belief system, and their goals.
Arguing with them, reasoning, logic, real science, are all wasted on them. That is, until there is a defection. Just like the Soviet Union collapsing, once defections from their false nirvana begin, the collapse will be unstoppable.
The only question is, how much damage will they do before the defections begin. That is what we can do—limit and slow the damage they do.
Keep using real, factual, truth-seeking science.
“The Dialectic:
Fomenting the Revolution
The concept of the dialectic has been around for a long time. It is simply that of opposite positions: Thesis (position) vs. Antithesis (opposite position). In traditional logic, if my thesis was true, then all other positions were by definition untrue. For example, if my thesis is 2+2=4, then all other answers (antithesis) are false. George W.F. Hegel, the nineteenth century German philosopher, turned that concept upside down by equalizing Thesis and Antithesis. All things are now relative. There is no such thing as absolute truth to be found anywhere. Instead, “truth” is found in Synthesis, a compromise of Thesis and Antithesis. This is the heart and soul of the consensus process.”

Tom J

I must respectfully disagree. I think that the viewpoint presented is quite valid but discusses a symptom, not a cause. The actual cause comes close to being intractable since it represents the core of life itself. Simply stated: Life cannot exist without meaning. The ‘meaning’ can be real or illusory, but survival demands that it be there, and if it’s illusory it’s obviously a problem.
There are cultural displays all around us but there is one extremely powerful display that is universal and transcends culture. It’s very well recognized. In the literature it’s referred to as the ‘smile response’. It is the first thing the just opened eyes of the newborn sees. It is the first thing the infant responds to. It is so powerful that an infant will actually respond positively to one of those round, yellow, smiley faces. And it is the potential beginning of psychopathology. And this is because the infant has no life experiences, no way of knowing yet, whether the smile it responds to is a genuine representation of love or is simply a mask. If it is a mask, that infant’s first experience of life is grounded in an illusion, and that illusion will define his/her meaning.
I recognize this sounds overly simplified and indeed it is. Development in childhood takes a while. I’ve never had children. But I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to be involved with several and, in particular, with one. About a year ago I said to him, “Well, Brian (not his real name), we’ve known each other for a long time.” He responded, “All my life.” He’s now 23. He believes in CAGW. He knows I do not. So neither of us discuss it. But I know, if he was in a position to act on his believe, he would do so in a manner that would insure no one was harmed, and everyone who accrued losses would be duly compensated. The meaning of his life is not based on an illusion. He has character. In the end, that is what it is all about. Long ago I learned that the beliefs do not define the person, the person defines him/herself. Eco-warriors need to know this. And if they have the opportunity to know someone who’s real meaning is not based on an illusion, they will not disparage humanity, but instead, stand in awe of a universe that had the courage to create a sentient being that could recognize its existence.

Mark Bofill

Thanks for this article. I just finished a discussion with an AGWer where I realized that we didn’t have any noteworthy disagreements about the facts or the state of the science. The difference in our positions is due to philosophical factors. But I wasn’t thinking about it in the light of categorical thinking, this’ll give me something new to chew on for awhile.


97% of scientists make no claim about the human impacts of AGW on the climate
I always use the Alarmists own peer reviewed research on the scientific consensus on climate change against them. They often quote the two 97% surveys and study as proof of whatever catastrophic outcome of AGW they can dream up.
Expert credibility in climate change states:
Preliminary reviews of scientific literature and surveys of climate
scientists indicate striking agreement with the primary
conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
(IPCC): anthropogenic greenhouse gases have been responsible
for “most” of the “unequivocal” warming of the Earth’s average
global temperature over the second half of the 20th century
Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change states:
2. Do you think human activity is a significant
contributing factor in changing
mean global temperatures?
The Anderegg study clearly states that AGHG’s have been responsible for most of the warming over the past 50 years.
The Doran survey mentions human activity in changing mean global temperatures
Neither one makes any claim about the effects of AGW on the climate.
As these studies and surveys have been done by the alarmists themselves what they have shown is that 97% of scientists do not make any claim as to how bad the effects of AGW will be.

Claude Harvey

Categorical thinking is codified in the Endangered Species Act. Most folks probably don’t realized that any weighing of “cost versus benefits” when deciding on “mitigation” measures required under the act is forbidden. Therefore, a single endangered squirrel carries the same importance as the entire national economy.