AGW AND THE ARGUMENT AD POPULUM

I’m guessing that there was a time in Europe – say the late 16th Century Sixteenth – when 97% of the population believed in the truth of the Gospels. The dissenting 3% were Jews. Should a Jew have followed the 97% and converted to Christianity? No, that would have been to have fallen for the ad populum fallacy. A responsible epistemic agent would have passed judgment only after having investigated the claims of the Gospels.

But since none of the claims made by the Gospels can be investigated, the epistemic issue as such is pretty much stillborn. At that time, belief in either Christianity or Judaism was permitted but not belief in neither. So epistemic responsibility got replaced with doxastic responsibility, which, under these coercive circumstances, amounted to asking which of the two communities on balance offered the more lucrative benefits. Jews were on average slightly richer, but considerably more vulnerable. Conversion from Jew to Christian was quite frequent, especially in Spain under the Inquisition. Conversion from Christian to Jew was almost unheard of, but mostly because Jews were and are reluctant to accept converts.

Replace the Gospels with AGW and for most of us the situation today is identical. Few of us are in a position to investigate the claims of AGW. We have no idea what percentage of our fellow citizens are on each side of the issue. According to one science communication researcher, Dan Kahan, most people give it 4 or 5 seconds thought and move on to what’s for lunch. But we know perfectly well what side our peeps are on, our peeps being those with whom we share our workplaces and dinner invitations.

In some peepdoms AGW assertion runs closer to 100% than 97%, in others closer to 0% than 3.%. This is because over the past couple of decades AGW denial has joined Holocaust denial as a disqualifier for membership in polite society. People turfed from this polite society have no choice but to seek or create their own, which in turn becomes equally intolerant of AGW assertion. And once ensconced in one’s peepdom, apostasy becomes almost impossible.

All of this, I trust, will be granted. But what’s not yet a res judicata is how effective if any is the deployment of arguments ad populum, not in encouraging apostasy, but in proselytizing the as-yet unaligned. Your arguments ad populum won’t work on the already otherwise committed because either she’ll deny your numbers or else take pride in her minority status. You can’t win. But with the as-yet unaligned, the ad populum is widely thought to be the argument of choice.

As already noted, insofar as most of us are in no position to pronounce with anything even approaching knowing whereof we speak, we have no choice but to rely on those who are in such a position. If these people-in-a-position-to-know were of one mind, we’d have no problem. But they’re not. If the people in a position to know who are the people-in-a-position-to-know were of one mind, we’d have no problem. But they’re not. Bring it as far back as you like, and the problem persists.

So instead of using the “Everyone believes that …” version of the ad populum, the AGW rhetorician has to settle for the “The scientific consensus is that …” version of it. The stronger version is vulnerable to falsification by a single dissenter. But the weaker version is invulnerable to virtually any number of dissenters. Every dissenter is by definition just another outlier.

Outliers become the new inliers if but only if they outnumber the erstwhile inliers. Well no, not quite. A 60/40 split does not betoken a consensus. Neither does 80/20. This is why the 97/3 figure is so important to the AGW rhetorician. Anything more would lack credibility; anything less would give the outliers too much cred. If one didn’t know better one might even suspect the number was focus-grouped. If not focus-grouped it was certainly crowd-ratified. That is, if the number hadn’t done the work assigned to it, it would have been massaged until it did.

The 97/3 ad populum would have done yeoman service were it not for suspicions that there might be some sleight of hand going on here. 97% counted by whom? Of what sample size? Of what population defined and then identified by whom? What exactly is each asserter actually asserting? Being less than forthcoming on any one these scores was bound to lead to grave doubts, not surprisingly among the deniers, but also among those to whom the argument was addressed.

Foremost among these worries is that expressed by Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams in his blog.dilbert.com. I quote him here in full:

 

One of the most famous statistics in the world of politics is the claim that 97% of climate scientists agree with the idea that humans activity is boosting CO2 to dangerous levels.

Critics say the 97% is misleading, because the critics like to include in their own list the scientists that are working for energy companies. The industry-paid scientists and engineers have less credibility, say the critics of the climate science critics.

Recently I retweeted a link to a climate science whistleblower. I don’t have any way to evaluate his claims. But his story did a good job of illustrating the flow of data from the measuring devices all the way to the published papers and then to your brain. And what I got out of that was that very few people have direct access to the measuring devices and the original data. Let’s say 1% of climate scientists are actually involved in generating the temperature data and deciding what to include, what to smooth, what to replace, and so on. Apparently you can measure Earth’s temperature a number of ways, from ice core samples, to satellites, to ocean buoys, to land thermometers. I might be missing a few. Oh, and each of those methods probably change a bit over time, so you have some apples-to-oranges comparisons if you look at history.

In other words, even the 1% involved in direct measurements might not be involved in all the different forms of it.

What follows next is pure speculation, based on my years of experience in corporate America and my understanding of human nature. But it seems to me that 99% of the 97% are relying on the accuracy and honesty of the 1% who actually produce the temperature measurements. Sure, the other scientists read the papers, and see whatever “adjustments” were made by the authors. But that seems like opening the hood of the car, looking at the outside of the engine, and determining that it’s all good on the inside.

Speaking of my corporate experience, this reminds me of a situation when I worked for the phone company. 100% of the employees believed that one of the Executive Directors in our group was a PhD in some sort of technology field. After all, he said he was, and the Human Resources group does background checks before hiring. So he had to be a PhD, right?

But it turns out he was a con man. He had no PHd. The Human Resources group was two years behind in their background checks. When they caught up with him, he was fired immediately.

I’m open to correction on my assumption that the 97% of climate scientists depend on the accuracy and honesty of the handful of people with direct access to the data. Let me know if I got that wrong. If I’m wrong, that supports my point that non-scientists such as myself can’t be expected to have useful opinions on science topics.

You just witnessed a little trick I learned from President Trump. I gave myself two ways to win and no way to lose. You should try it. It works every time.

 

So, in short, the ad populum hasn’t worked, because there’s grounds to believe both that a) outlier voices have been dismissed or repressed, and that b) the ‘populum’ to which the argument appeals may be no better qualified to pronounce on AGW than any of the rest of us.

What’s interesting about all these arguments – ad populum, ad hominem circumstantial, and so on – is that they go not to the credibility of the science but to the credibility of the scientist. This need neither surprise nor disappoint us. Almost everything we believe or don’t believe hangs on what we judge to be the trustworthiness of the source.

In most cases we believe what we’re told because we can’t think of a reason why anyone would lie to us about it. AGW asserters can think of a reason why deniers would lie to us. But then the deniers level the same charge against the asserters. The one are shills for Big Oil, the other are in the service of the international socialist conspiracy.

All I can do is go by my own experience as an intimate of both the Point-Zero-Zero-One-Percent – with whom, not for whom, I worked side by side for thirty-six years – and the two dozen or so life-on-the-line political activists from Chile, with whom I worked for sixteen years. From that experience I judge that both of these charges misfire, and those who level them should be ashamed. David Koch cares as much about his three young children as does Elizabeth May about hers. And Tommy Douglas was no greater enemy to individual liberty than was Ayn Rand.

As to wherein the consensus lies, be it on AGW or the Holocaust or who’s the latest celebrity heartthrob, I neither know nor care. If there were only one AGW asserter, and she happened to be right, she’s going to need David Koch to help her help us save the world. One way not to elicit someone’s help is calling him the devil.

Again, based on nothing more than my experience as an observer of the passing scene – two thirds of a century of it – I suspect this AGW thing is approaching its best-before date. Sound bites and 140 character Tweets don’t allow for the sustainability of any issue, much less the issue of sustainability. God knows I’m bored with it. Aren’t you?

What’s keeping me fascinated is not the substantive issue – I’m not even sure what that is – but rather one side resenting the other for plagiarizing its rhetorical techniques. It’s like watching Goebbels studying Stalin studying Goebbels studying Stalin.

To be honest, I think even this fascination is approaching its best-before date for me. The interests that have proven sustainable for me have been Philosophy of Religion and Philosophy of War. So what I’d like to see is either the Second Coming or else a (preferably limited) nuclear war. In either scenario I’d don’t think desmogblog.com would be getting too much ad revenue.

 

 

 

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