Lying with Science

It is easy to lie with science and even sound erudite and sometimes even get paid to do it.  Even well-respected writers like George Will do it all the time. The way it’s done is through little argumentative sleights of hand known as logical fallacies.  Logical fallacies are errors in reasoning.  Sometimes they are made unwittingly, sometimes they just appear out of lazy argumentation or lazy writing, but mostly they are deliberately employed to manipulate opinion.  One of the most important things anyone can learn is how to identify logical fallacies in any argument.  Having this skill is like having a built in “bullshit detector” at your disposal, ready for use at cocktail parties, lectures, watching cable news, or reading the Sunday paper.  Logical fallacies are made by persons on the left, right and center of the political spectrum.  Sometimes they can be legitimate rhetorical devices–especially in political speeches–but being able to identify them is the first step in determining if the argument behind them is legitimate.

For a mostly graphical way to introduce the most common logical fallacies, download my Field Guide to Logical Fallacies slide show, which contains simple figures like this:

The Ad Hominem fallacy is when someone tries to discredit an argument by discrediting the person who made the argument. Just because the person who made the argument has some unsavory characteristics does not necessarily mean that the argument is flawed.

…and this…

The Guilt by Association fallacy is when someone points out that undesirable people also made a similar argument.  In this case, the fallacious speaker is noting that Nazis made similar arguments to the speaker.  If the original argument was indeed something like, “Jews are an inferior race,” it may be legitimate to note that Nazis made a similar argument, but if the original argument was something like, “a strong scientific education will lead to a prosperous nation,” then noting that Nazis also made such an argument is not really relevant.


…and this…

The Red Herring fallacy is when something alarming is held up as a counter, or alternative, to the original argument, without presenting any justification of how the two are related.

Please download the Field Guide to Logical Fallacies to see more.  Feel free to use the slides in your classes or however else you see fit, just let me know if you do.

A great exercise in field identification is then to find an opinion piece from a newspaper or website and try to identify all the logical fallacies the author makes.  For example, this piece on climate change by George Will (Please George, stick to baseball!) contains at least nine big fallacies—not bad for a 740 word essay!   However, George Will is a rank amateur at using fallacies compared to other news makers–this op-ed on climate change by Sarah Palin contains at least 33 fallacies in 762 words, you betcha!

For a more detailed treatment of fallacies, there are many websites that list and describe a large number of logical fallacies.  My favorite is: http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/.

8 thoughts on “Lying with Science

  1. Okay, I get it. You are a Democrat and a warmist. I’m neither, but am willing to be shown the error of my ways. Would you please point out the “nine big fallacies” in Will’s column?

    Thank you in advance.
    Jerrod Mason

    PS See you at the Senior Academy on 9/29.

    1. Jerrod, thanks for you comments. I consider myself a scientist first. I am a Democrat primarily because I’ve seen that Republicans and Tea Partiers are all too happy to abandon science in favor of politics. All politicians do this, of course, but the Republican party in recent years has taken it to extremes. The Republican front runner for 2012 is unashamed to say he doesn’t believe in evolution or climate warming – and even former strong advocates of doing something about climate warming like John McCain have backtracked, not because the science has changed (it has only gotten stronger) but because the political landscape has shifted far to the right – this is frightening for our country’s future ability to produce good scientists. Remember that Republicans long ago produced the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, a great naturalist and probably the most scientifically minded President we have had, and more recently the most important environmental laws were passed under Nixon. But it has now been too long since the party has recognized and supported the role of good science in governance, so I will remain a Democrat until that changes.

      I am also what I think is now derisively being called a “warmist” because the overwhelming weight of evidence as published in peer reviewed publications (rather than op-ed pieces or on cable news), including several of my own studies, is consistent with the theory that increased greenhouse gas concentrations are leading to rapid climate changes and these changes are already affecting weather patterns, wildlife populations and human well-being. This isn’t wild speculating, but rather makes fairly clear sense from basic principles: we know gases like CO2 absorb radiation in the same spectra as reflected solar energy (that’s basically why our Earth is not cold like Mars) and we know that concentration of such gases have increased exponentially since the dawn of industrialization (previously they were locked up for millions of years in the Earth), and we know that heat = energy. Remember that scientists are working to DISPROVE global warming theory–both the process of science and the incentive structure favors studies that are contrary to accepted ideas (we don’t live in Galileo’s time anymore, thank goodness!) and they have all failed, so far. This scientific approach is the opposite approach of right or left wing columnists like George Will or Maureen Dowd who set out to PROVE their own hypothesis.
      Anyway, I am also happy to have a chance to have a thoughtful debate about these important issues. I look forward to presenting at the Senior Academy, albeit on a much different topic.

      1. Thanks for the reply, even though you didn’t answer my question. I happen to agree about the essence of science being disproving hypotheses, and that is precisely why I do not accept the warmists’ arguments. I’m a Popperist, if you will, demanding that a system of beliefs that claims to be “science” must rest on disprovable propositions. The AGW theory fails this test. (Which is why you can get away with saying that it hasn’t been disproven.)

        My original question (challenge?) still stands. You made a strong statement about a fallacy count. Can you back it up?

        Regards,
        J

  2. Nine fallacies in Will’s was the average different groups of students I gave the piece to (I also gave them a piece on climate science by the head of the National Academies – they could only come up with 3). I’ve just come up with 9 on Will’s piece quite easily (in brackets, below), but there are several others. As I’ve said many times, some fallacies are more pernicious than others. Will keeps citing some (I think it was 2 or 3?) papers from the 1970s about “global cooling” – very speculative papers that were quickly disproved by the massive amount of research pointing to climate disruption on top of an overall warming trend. He must know this, but he continues to give these papers equal weight to the whole body of modern climate change science.

    As for Popperian science, almost all scientists and philosophers of science now recognize that while Popper made a hugely important contribution, all science is simply not falsifiable. Even Popper recognized this in his writing. Nonetheless, as for climate change, the basic mechanisms are certainly falsifiable such as “greenhouse gases absorb reflected solar radiation of a given wavelength”. Then we have to use observational data to falsify other higher level hypotheses – such as, “Sunspot activity is responsible for most of the observed warming”. That can be falsified by looking at sunspot records vs. various records of temperature and climatic change. My own work, which was some of the first studies to show that wildlife was responding to climate change, investigated all the alternative hypotheses that people could come up with and serially rejected them until only the climate hypothesis was viable.

    There is a common argument that “correlation does not imply causation” but this too is an overwrought argument that applies in many cases (e.g., the joke correlation between “warming vs. number of pirates” on the internet) but not all. Nor is all science purely deductive or required to follow a “Strong Inference” approach (Platt’s 1964 practical application of Popper’s falsification). The K-T extinction theory of the Alvarez’ is a perfect example. That was inductively produced from a number of interrelated observations (as was Darwin’s theory of natural selection). The Alvarez team did not even have the “smoking gun” of an impact crater (it was found 10 years later), but the levels of correlation were so strong that it was hard to find an alternative story. Strictly speaking, plate tectonics is not falsifiable, but enough observations have been made to confirm the theory. I know that Taleb and others make the “black swan” argument against induction, but that’s just parlor philosophy – real scientists don’t think like this.The fact is that all investigators from Sherlock Holmes to Darwin to today’s climate scientists use a mix of inductive and deductive logic to arrive at an understanding of the world.

    I think it’s a cop out to hide behind one philosophical construct while ignoring piles of observable data. That is why I separate “climate skeptics”, which really all good scientists are from “climate deniers” who are people who, if they are honest with themselves, have a political agenda and will fit and cherry pick data to match that agenda. As an example, I have published, in Nature, a paper that identified a critical flaw in all previous published work on climate related trends in natural cycles – this is my job as a scientist and I was rewarded for it in the currency that matters to a scientist – recognition in a top journal – had I written the 15th or 30th paper on changes to natural cycles, it never would have got into Nature – skepticism is valued far more than confirmation in science.

    Best,
    Rafe

    Will Below:
    Everyone Out of the Water!
    Damn the pesky models! Full speed ahead.
    By George F. Will | NEWSWEEK
    Published Nov 7, 2009
    From the magazine issue dated Nov 16, 2009
    In last week’s NEWSWEEK, the cover story was a hymn to “The Thinking Man’s Thinking Man.” Beneath the story’s headline (“The Evolution of an Eco-Prophet”) was this subhead: “Al Gore’s views on climate change are advancing as rapidly as the phenomenon itself.” Which was rather rude because, if true, his views have not advanced for 11 years. (Click here to follow George F. Will)
    There is much debate about the reasons for, and the importance of, the fact that global warming has not increased for that long. What we know is that computer models did not predict this. Which matters, a lot, because we are incessantly exhorted to wager trillions of dollars and diminished freedom on the proposition that computer models are correctly projecting catastrophic global warming [false dilemma]. On Nov. 2, The Wall Street Journal’s Jeffrey Ball reported some inconvenient data. Soon after the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—it shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with the Thinking Man’s Thinking Man [guilt by association]—reported that global warming is “unequivocal,” there came evidence that the planet’s temperature is beginning to cool. “That,” Ball writes, “has led to one point of agreement: The models are imperfect.”

    Models are no better or worse than their assumptions, and Ball notes how dicey these assumptions can be[poisoning the well]: “The effects of clouds, for example, are unclear. Depending on their shape and altitude, clouds can either trap heat, warming the earth, or reflect it, cooling the planet.” It gets worse: “The way that greenhouse gases affect cloud formation—and how clouds in turn affect temperature—remains a subject of debate. Different models treat these factors differently.”
    Some scientists say the cooling is a product of what Ball calls “the enigmatic ocean currents.” Others say that even if the cooling continues for several decades, as some scientists think it might, warming will resume.
    And if it does not? A story in the April 28, 1975, edition of NEWSWEEK was “The Cooling World.” NEWSWEEK can recycle that article, and recycling is a planet-saving virtue.
    Meanwhile, however, the crusade[poisoning the well] against warming will brook no interference from information. With the Waxman-Markey bill, the House of Representatives has endorsed reducing greenhouse-gas emissions to 83 per-cent below 2005 levels by 2050. This is surely the most preposterous legislation ever hatched in the House [poisoning the well]. Using Energy Department historical statistics, Kenneth P. Green and Steven F. Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute [appeal to authority – this is a right wing think tank, actually] have calculated this:
    Waxman-Markey’s goal is just slightly more than 1 billion tons of greenhouse-gas emissions in 2050. The last time this nation had that small an amount was 1910, when there were only 92 million Americans, 328 million fewer than the 420 million projected for 2050[confusing cause and effect]. To meet the 83 percent reduction target in a nation of 420 million, per capita carbon-dioxide emissions would have to be no more than 2.4 tons per person, which is one quarter the per capita emissions of 1910, a level probably last seen when the population was 45 million—in 1875 [historical fallacy].
    Such nonsense is rare, but nonsensical fears are not. In their new book, SuperFreakonomics, Steven D. -Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner revisit the great shark panic of the summer of 2001. Eight-year-old Jessie Arbogast was playing in the surf near Pensacola, Fla., when a bull shark bit off his right arm and gouged a piece of his thigh. The country, with an assist from the media, became fixated on the shark menace. Time’s cover proclaimed “The Summer of the Shark”; Time’s story began:
    “Sharks come silently, without warning. There are three ways they strike: the hit-and-run, the bump-and-bite and the sneak attack. The hit-and-run is the most common. The shark may see the sole of a swimmer’s foot, think it’s a fish and take a bite before realizing this isn’t its usual prey.”
    Jeepers. Everyone out of the water! [red herring]
    Or not. Time, to its credit, let the air out of its story by noting that the numbers of shark attacks “remain minuscule.” They were small during all of 2001, all over the globe. That year there were 64 shark attacks, only four of them fatal. Between 1995 and 2005, shark attacks worldwide varied between a high of 79 in a year and a low of 46, averaging 60.3. Fatalities averaged 5.9, about 50 percent higher than in 2001. The unfortunate Jessie Arbogast became an occasion for the fun of experiencing a frisson of synthetic fear. The real thing arrived in late summer 2001, on September 11.

  3. Wow. Thanks for taking the time; you’ve given me a lot to think about, which I will do.

    It does appear that you have been overly aggressive, shall we say, in labeling some of his statements as “fallacies.”

    To [over?]simplify my view on AGW, I of course accept that, all other things being unchanged, an increase in atmospheric CO2 produces some temperature increase. However, it’s a very long way from that to the syllogism [CO2 causes warming] [man's activities increase CO2] [man causes warming].

    Even if the syllogism held, it would leave open the questions of:
    - How much warming is attributable to man’s activity?
    - Is that a bad thing or a good thing?
    - If bad, what’s the “best” way to ameliorate?
    - How effective would that be?
    - Would that be worth the expense?

    It’s nice to have a civilized discussion as compared to most shouting matches re AGW.

    Regards,
    J

  4. I was amused on first reading to find this in your critique of Will: “…Kenneth P. Green and Steven F. Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute [appeal to authority – this is a right wing think tank, actually] …”

    Tsk, tsk, an ad hominem argument. [Note the spelling; your page has it wrong ... twice.]

  5. All good questions, which (except for the first on man’s contribution, which we can say with some assurance can never be answered precisely, but in terms of relative contributions and probabilities) go way beyond climate science into values and politics and deserve a vigorous debate. Most credible analyses attribute a very high cost and largely detrimental impacts to climate warming. Again, these estimates are necessarily probabilistic, which is difficult to convey in sound bytes. As with all public policy, we have to make decisions based on uncertainty and probability (will you die if your car doesn’t have a seatbelt? not definitely, but the risk-based and costly decisions to require auto makers to make seatbelts and then 3 point belts have saved innumerable lives and lowered public health expenditures in the long term).

    Again, with fallacies, I teach my students to identify them as they are hints (though not proof) of lazy or biased thinking. Once you identify them, then you can more easily deconstruct an argument. Is it just relatively harmless badgering (calling Al Gore names)? or is it truly misleading (suggesting that papers from the 70′s on global cooling are grounds to question the current scientific consensus on warming)? We do this with any kind of opinion piece, left right or center as an exercise in critical thinking. The fallacies are only little flags to what may or may not be deeper flaws in the argument. I don’t believe that George Will is a lazy thinker, so with some of his statements I fear he is being deliberately misleading (he would say he is trying to be persuasive, a difference in the way scientists and columnists/politicians/lawyers use language). Unfortunately, I believe Sarah Palin is both lazy in her thinking and misleading, thus the barrage of fallacies in her piece. When scientists write op-eds you simply don’t see the same number of fallacies, even when they are trying to be persuasive, because they are careful in their argumentation and they come from a tradition where their whole reputation is built on surviving whatever counter arguments are thrown their way. Politicians and columnists, by contrast, do better by plowing full steam ahead.
    Best,
    Rafe

  6. I’ll give you at most one fallacious argument out of the nine you posit.

    false dilemma
    • Which matters, a lot, because we are incessantly exhorted to wager trillions of dollars and diminished freedom on the proposition that computer models are correctly projecting catastrophic global warming
    REPLY: Hard to understand why this is either false or a dilemma. Are we being exhorted to spend trillions? Absolutely! Are we exhorted to give up freedoms in this cause? Absolutely! Are these exhortations based on computer model extrapolations indicating dire consequences? Of course?

    guilt by association
    • after the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—it shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with the Thinking Man’s Thinking Man .
    REPLY: Association yes, but “guilt by?” I do agree that this passing reference could be redacted without affecting the argument, but that hardly makes it fallacious.

    poisoning the well
    • Models are no better or worse than their assumptions, and Ball notes how dicey these assumptions can be …
    • Meanwhile, however, the crusade …
    • This is surely the most preposterous legislation ever hatched in the House
    REPLY: You are complaining because he uses an adjective before presenting the argument instead of after. That’s nothing more than good writing technique, indicating to the reader where he is going. Any good teacher does the same thing, illuminating the way.

    appeal to authority
    • Using Energy Department historical statistics, Kenneth P. Green and Steven F. Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute have calculated …
    REPLY: Since when is attribution fallacious? His point lies in the calculations, not the authorship. (BTW, do you appeal to authority when you footnote something in your own writings? Is there any appeal to authority in your last post?) (Yes, I do recognize ad hominem tu quoque.)

    confusing cause and effect
    • The last time this nation had that small an amount was 1910, when there were only 92 million Americans, 328 million fewer than the 420 million projected for 2050
    REPLY: Hard to understand your complaint. Are you saying that lower emissions cause fewer people?

    historical fallacy
    • To meet the 83 percent reduction target in a nation of 420 million, per capita carbon-dioxide emissions would have to be no more than 2.4 tons per person, which is one quarter the per capita emissions of 1910, a level probably last seen when the population was 45 million—in 1875
    REPLY: Again it’s difficult to see a legitimate objection.

    red herring
    • Will notes Time Magazine’s coverage of shark attacks that ” became an occasion for the fun of experiencing a frisson of synthetic fear.” He concludes with “Jeepers. Everyone out of the water!”
    REPLY: I don’t mean to be snarky, but this is a red herring (as you defined the term above) only to people who cannot see the point he is making about “synthetic fear.” I had no trouble seeing it, and I suspect you didn’t either.

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