Guest Essay by Kip Hansen
In the current round of discussion over at Climate Dialogue, which is about the effects of the Sun on Earth’s climate, one of the participants, Dr. Mike Lockwood, in his essay “The sun plays only a very minor role”, lists the following item as one of seven fundamental considerations which are often overlooked in discussions of climate issues:
“7. Logic based on the name given to a phenomenon, interval or feature is bad science, because the name is often inadequate and misleading.”
— Mike Lockwood
Dr. Lockwood later gives a specific instance saying “The ‘Little Ice Age’ — I dislike this name as it has been used to build arguments that rely on the name which, as mentioned in point 7, is inherently bad science.”
His point 7 struck me as much more widely true and as a logical fallacy or error in critical thinking of which I was aware, and which I would often call out in discussions as invalid logic, but not quite in that finished sense.
Presuming much more learning and authority than I have, I suggest in the title of this essay a proper Latin name which might be used for this error: Propter nomen with a casual translation of “Because of the name”.
We could restate Dr. Lockwood’s consideration this way:
“Propter nomen: A logical argument in which the assumption of truth or logical validity is based on the name or title of a thing. Such logical assumption, based on the literal name or title given to a thing, is fallacious, because the name or title itself may be false, self-serving, inadequate and/or misleading.”
This informal logical fallacy can lead to, depend on or contribute to other logical fallacies: take the World Bank whose name appeals to authority (which grants itself, by name, worldwide authority in financial matters — which it does not have) or the self-serving organizational name Center for Science in the Public Interest which, by name, claims appeals to the scientific authority of “science” and assures us that their efforts are “in the public interest”. (CSPI is really a Washington lobbying organization, not necessarily made up of scientists, sometimes called “The Food Police”, infamous for being nearly always scientifically wrong about the issues it lobbies for, thus almost never acting in the real public interest). If we were to base our logic on the names of either of these organizations, we might think that the World Bank must be honorable, well-meaning and in charge of world finances or that CSPI was certainly operating in our best interest out of concern for us poor benighted ignoramuses. Then we have the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project and its products which some people use while literally accepting the acronym as fact, Propter nomen — “because of the name”.
How many studies and news articles have we seen in which the authors claim that such and such a local or regional phenomenon is caused by Global Warming? — without any data in the study about the temperature record in the region or at the locale under consideration — assuming that since Global Warming is named “Global” Warming, that such data is not needed…after all, the whole globe is warming — it’s right there in the name.
We often see this with Global Mean Temperature. Giving this data set such a name is not the same as it actually being global or the mean or the temperature. It is not meant to be the temperature of the globe itself as a three-dimensional object. It is not strictly a mean but could be seen as “an average of averages of averages”. It does not literally represent an average (mean) of Earth temperatures at any given time. Thus, when some specific phenomena is listed as caused by an increase in Global Mean Temperature, it is nearly invariable false. Propter nomen — fallacious logical assumption that Global Mean Temperature is actually literally as named, thus, like Global Warming, if it is rising, it must be affecting all things everywhere on the globe.
We have seen in the main stream media, and especially in the environmental media, articles which refer to “the 6th mass extinction” or “current ongoing mass extinction” which is fallaciously granted power and magnitude by its name alone — even though it is apparent, based on data from the IUCN, that it is not only not ongoing, it is not great and there is no mass extinction (nor has there been any in the 19th, 20th or 21st centuries). The IUCN Red List has as “extinct” only 828 plants and animals since records began to be kept, the vast majority of these occurring on islands and other isolated niche micro-environments: island extinctions almost invariably caused by arrival of rats, cats, dogs and pigs brought by sailors and colonists. The Red List has not yet been updated for the re-discovery of Rhachistia aldabrae — the Aldabra Banded Snail — so there are only 827 correct listings. Many of these articles start with “the 6th Mass Extinction” as a given, assumed true because of its name, and go on to build a logical house of cards from there. Propter nomen — you can’t create something just by giving it a name — the name does not grant actual existence nor physical (moral, natural, chemical or any other kind of) properties to the thing — to assert or assume so is a logical fallacy, an error in critical thinking.
Yes, I know that there are real, scientific definitions of Global Warming and GMT and that it is possible if one searches long and hard in the literature, one could find out exactly what is really meant — but there are many different data sets, all calculated differently resulting in different values and often based on different definitions — and yet still called by the same, sometimes misleading, names. Sometimes the names or titles themselves are mistakenly believed to be literally true and used as the basis for logical argument — Propter nomen.
I have no wish to argue or discuss Global Warming or to complain about the commonly used names of climate science things, everything must have a simple common name if we are to refer to it often in speech or text — this is about Logic and Critical Thinking — the error of assuming in a logical argument that the Name or Title of a thing grants it existence or properties, literally as named.
I would like to read your experiences in which Propter nomen has raised its head in providing a false logical step or false basis to a logical argument. Do you think that such an error in logic or critical thinking really exists? Would you like to supply a better definition?
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Author’s Reply Policy: This essay is not about Global Warming, Anthropogenic Global Warming, Global Cooling, the effects of the Sun on Earth’s Climate, proper scientific calculation of Global Mean Surface Temperatures or any of that boring stuff. This is an idea about a newly defined (maybe — it might be on someone’s list somewhere) Informal Logical Fallacy or maybe just an Error in Critical Thinking. It is meant to be interesting, informative and fun. I’d like to read your examples and ideas. I’ll reply as I can as my wife and I are on the move again.