The following is a guest submission from C4P reader and commenter “Alexonian”:
Alan I. Leshner, the chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and executive publisher of the journal Science, does a disservice to science by advancing a politicized agenda in favor of climate science in a recent editorial in the Washington Post. Instead of shepherding the scientific process in a neutral fashion, which should be a key requirement for the publisher of Science, especially in an environment where the very peer review process in climate science has been tarnished by the revelations of the Climategate emails, Leshner doubles down on the gambit of taking a politicized offensive at a time when the stunning Climategate details have seriously eroded the foundation of authority that scientists rely on when they ask the public to trust them simply on their say-so and their interpretation of the data.
Leshner uses Governor Palin’s recent editorial in the Washington Post as the target for his attack, an attack overwhelmingly built with logical fallacies. His opening salvo relies on the fallacy of false equivalence by linking testimony of tobacco CEOs that nicotine is not addictive to Governor Palin’s statements that question the “settled science.” What kind of idiot hopes to persuade thinking people by relying on fallacious arguments? Really, is this statement, especially when used as an opening salvo, supposed to convince anyone?
Now, the American public is again being subjected to those kinds of denials, this time about global climate change.
The second fallacy that Leshner invokes in that very opening argument is “Begging the Question.” He assumes that which he sets out to prove. When he writes “those kinds of denials” he assumes that the questions surrounding the reliability and validity of climate science are the equivalent of the science dealing with nicotine addiction. Quite simply, the comparison is invalid and the muddled argument he concocts in an embarrassment.
Next, while accusing Governor Palin of distorting scientific evidence he distorts Governor Palin’s position in order to advance his strawman argument. He writes:
She distorted the clear scientific evidence that Earth’s climate is changing, largely as a result of human behaviors. She also badly confused the concepts of daily weather changes and long-term climate trends when she wrote that “while we recognize the occurrence of these natural, cyclical environmental trends, we can’t say with assurance that man’s activities cause weather changes.” Her statement inaccurately suggests that short-term weather fluctuations must be consistent with long-term climate patterns. And it is the long-term patterns that are a cause for concern.
A strawman argument is when one sets out to argue against a position that one’s opponent didn’t take. Notice that Leshner creates a comparison between “short-term weather fluctuations” and “long-term climate patterns” and then implies that Governor Palin is in error for not recognizing the difference between the two. However, nowhere in her editorial does she indicate that she is referring to short-term weather fluctuations, rather she refers to “natural, cyclical environmental trends,” which most informed people recognize as reference to multi-century and multi-millennia cycles.
Leshner next falls on the gambit of authoritative pleading when he writes:
Climate-change science is clear: The concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide — derived mostly from the human activities of fossil-fuel burning and deforestation — stands at 389 parts per million (ppm). We know from studying ancient Antarctic ice cores that this concentration is higher than it has been for at least the past 650,000 years.
Actually, climate science is not clear, which is precisely why there is so much debate about interpretation, reliability and validity of many claims. The comparison between a direct measurement of atmospheric concentration of CO2 and Antarctic ice-cores is not an equivalent comparison, for the ice-cores are proxy measures of atmospheric CO2 concentrations which are laden with error issues, ranging from validity as proxies for atmospheric gas composition to gas diffusion within the buried ice.
Secondly, Leshner trots out this claim as though it settles the issue:
Exhaustive measurements tell us that atmospheric carbon dioxide is rising by 2 ppm every year and that the global temperature has increased by about 1.1 degrees Fahrenheit over the past century. Multiple lines of other evidence, including reliable thermometer readings since the 1880s, reveal a clear warming trend.
Is he not aware that the “global temperature readings” have been doctored? Numerous recent analyses are now showing that the undoctored temperature data is not showing the temperature increase he claims exists. In short, there is sufficient evidence to suspect that corrupt scientists, in a central position in the climate science web, have cooked the books, and until all parties can agree on the reliability and validity of the data, it is a hollow gambit to proffer the data as evidence in support of a case, that thus far is more of an attempt to wield as many logical fallacies in support of a politicized position than it is an honest, scientific effort to impartially make a case that rests solely on reproducible analysis that meets the test of falsifiability that is central to the question of scientific method.
As a leading figure in the enterprise of science, Leshner should be ashamed of himself for writing this twaddle:
Thousands of respected scientists at an array of institutions worldwide agree that major health and economic impacts are likely unless we act now to slow greenhouse gas emissions. Already, sea levels are estimated to rise by 1 to 2 meters by the end of this century. Some scientists have said that average temperatures could jump by as much as 4 degrees Fahrenheit if the atmospheric carbon dioxide level reaches 450 ppm. We may face even more dangerous impacts at 550 ppm, and above that level, devastating events. U.S. crop productivity would be affected, while European communities might suffer increased fatalities because of intensely hot summers.
First off, referencing numbers of scientists who hold a position is not a scientific argument, for science cares little about the popularity of a hypothesis. Secondly, in respect to Leshner’s first sentence in the above quote, he relies on the fallacy of argument by omission in order to advance his political argument. He neglects to point out that action, like inaction, also has consequences. So, while many scientists may agree that inaction could, not will, have health and economic impacts, it is equally true that actions to address a problem that may arise in a century hence will also have health and economic impacts in the period during which these actions are being taken. To omit this key point is to do disservice to the disinterested role of science and it belies the political agenda that has corrupted many climate scientists.
Next he trots out a guess focused on sea level rise over the next century. A guess is not science. If he wants to rely on his authority as a scientist then he should conduct himself in an appropriate manner and either state with certainty that studies say this will happen or state the conditional probabilities and the time frames in which we can begin to measure the annual sea level increases. A reliance on computer models, which are prone to output garbage conclusions when they’ve had garbage data used as input, is not a practice of science as most people know science. His next sentence follows that same pattern of appealing to the authority of some climate scientists who make guesses about future scenarios.
He continues with the tactic of relying on opinion, and continues to masquerade this opinion as science, when he speculates about crop productivity and heat-related fatalities. Again he relies on argument by omission, for there are flipsides to each scenario – hotter European environments means less heating oil and related resources used over the course of the year, which are counterbalanced by requirements for more summer cooling, and crop failure in some crops also opens the way for new crops more suitable for the new environment or a relocation of crops to new locales now favored with new environmental conditions. Secondly, as a scientist, shouldn’t we expect that Leshner has a more sophisticated analytic thought process?
If he is a sophisticated thinker he doesn’t show it in this essay, for he assumes that human behavior is unchanging in a changing environment – European populations will do nothing to ameliorate rising summer temperatures and will be content to die of heat stroke while sitting helpless in their residences. Bah, the sophistication of this political shill is what I would expect from a freshman in college or a bright high school student – they’re smart enough to regurgitate some talking points that they’ve picked up but they lack in the ability to add original analysis that factors in plausible scenarios, and which treats the question at hand honestly by looking at action and counter-action. If Leshner wants to trade on his position of authority he should produce more than high-school level talking points in response to the Governor’s position.
Leshner continues in his exercise of high school level argumentation with the following losing gambit:
Doubters insist that the earth is not warming. This is in stark contrast to the consensus of 18 of the world’s most respected scientific organizations, who strongly stated in an Oct. 21 letter to the U.S. Senate that human-induced climate change is real. Still, the doubters try to leverage any remaining points of scientific uncertainty about the details of warming trends to cast doubt on the overall conclusions shared by traditionally cautious, decidedly non-radical science organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which represents an estimated 10 million individual scientists through 262 affiliated societies.
Science is not a popularity contest. Consensus means squat. What matters are falsifiability, reliability and validity. Secondly, doubters, or skeptics, as true scientists should be, are not uniform in the depth and breadth of their doubt. Leshner is painting with a wide brush. Some people do indeed doubt that the Earth is warming, others doubt the cause of warming that they acknowledge, others doubt the very veracity of the measurements from an interlinked small network of data centers that focus on compiling the temperature measurements. The first rule of honest argumentation is to honestly address your opponent’s position(s), and painting with a broad brush, as Leshner does, is a direct slap in the face to honest argumentation.
Secondly, he again appeals to authority by invoking declarations from scientific organizations, this at a time when we frequently see various organization’s leadership taking liberal political positions that don’t reflect the interests of their members. Two cases in point: the AARP supporting the gutting of Medicare as part of their endorsement of ObamaCare, and the AMA, which represents only a fraction of physicians, lending their support to ObamaCare even in the face of wide-spread physician disapproval of the intended reform. Bureaucracies tend to be captured by politically motivated managers, and when scientific organizations have to rely on press releases which stress consensus instead of referencing reproducible studies based on the transparent sharing of data and code, this is likely a sign that the organization, despite Leshner’s plea to the contrary, is not non-radical and is no longer cautious.
Toward the end of this political tract, Leshner makes the following comment:
The public and policymakers should not be confused by a few private e-mails that are being selectively publicized and, in any case, remain irrelevant to the broad body of diverse evidence on climate change.
Again, this is an argument that relies on misdirection. First the emails, while damning on their own, are the least of the problems that arose from the Climategate leak. The validity of the temperature data that the CRU compiled and the validity and reliability of computer models is the main issue that is leading to increased levels of skepticism, and this on top of the conduct of the scientists who’ve diligently worked to punish and marginalize the voices and careers of fellow scientists who are more cautious, more skeptical and less inclined to politicize their science. Salty language and politics in the realm of science are not the main attraction in the Climategate leak. Secondly, when Leshner makes reference to diverse evidence of climate change, he’s playing a game of semantics and misdirection, for much of the diverse “evidence” is interlinked, and therefore not independent from other lines, so if evidence at the center of the interlinkage is corrupted, then all of the diverse lines of evidence which build on the corrupt foundation are tainted.
Leshner closes his political piece with this statement:
Palin also errs by claiming that America can’t afford to reduce greenhouse gases. The highly regarded Stern Commission revealed that inaction could cost us the equivalent of between 5 and 20 percent of global gross domestic product per year. In contrast, the price of slowing emissions was estimated to be 1 percent of GDP. China, meanwhile, reportedly is investing heavily in clean energy technologies.
Now, policymakers must decide whether to act on the evidence or to avoid facing one of the most crucial issues of our generation.
The Stern Commission to which Leshner refers was not highly regarded and, in fact, the report was highly flawed. There were broad and varied criticisms of his report and Leshner betrays his political, non-scientific perspective omitting reference to the serious flaws in the Stern Report. The numbers he throws out in support of his argument are invalid and unreliable and he may as well have plucked them from thin air. Secondly, inherent in any spending or allocation decision is the issue of opportunity costs – what other choices must we forego in order to spend on Policy A. This issue of opportunity cost is the main focus of the Copenhagen Consensus which put spending on reducing gas emissions for the benefit of people living a century hence, far below the needs of spending which could improve the lives of billions of people alive today.
Policy makers should rely on evidence when they are making decisions that have collective impact, but Leshner’s brand of politicized science and political advocacy masquerading as impartial advice doesn’t meet the test of impartial evidence built on valid and reliable data and methods. Further, to inject a normative standard by characterizing political action as “one of the most crucial issues of our generation” is not a scientific, nor an objective characterization, especially when the Copenhagen Consensus puts spending on global warming initiatives far down the list of issues facing humanity.
Leshner’s attempt to rebut Governor Palin’s editorial is an epic fail and, as is turning out to be a pattern, the Governor’s critics seem to inadvertently beclown themselves as they ineffectively flail against her well reasoned, and common-sense positions. Governor Palin staked out a cautious, reasonable and well supported position and Leshner argued like a hack, prostituted his position of authority, and demeaned his reputation by arguing like a high school student. This pattern seems par for the course for Palin-critics – they can’t engage in substantive, honest and truthful debate.