Posted by: Barry Bickmore | November 20, 2010

Orrin Hatch and the Open Mind

Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) is one of a long list of Republican politicians who dismiss the science behind human-induced climate change.  On his website, the first page that pops up under “Issues and Legislation” is called “Climate Change 101,” in which he explains why he doubts human-induced climate change is likely to be a big problem.  Since I’m a Utah Republican who thinks his party is headed for a giant belly flop by constantly promoting anti-science, I decided to take “Climate Change 101″ apart, piece by piece, to help Senator Hatch and his constituents understand why it might be politic to reconsider this issue.  In this first installment, I’m going to look at Senator Hatch’s castigation of “alarmist” climate scientists for being closed-minded.  While open-mindedness is a worthy goal, it turns out that in this case the Senator is simply using it as an excuse for intellectual laziness.

In the section titled “The Golden Age of the Ad Hominem,” Senator Hatch wrote the following.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes the Ad Hominem fallacy as “1 : appealing to feelings or prejudices rather than intellect 2 : marked by or being an attack on an opponent’s character rather than by an answer to the contentions made.”

When an opinion is confronted with a contradictory fact or potentially damaging question, a useful but dishonest response is to change the subject with an Ad Hominem dodge, or one of its cousin fallacies: the Inverse Ad Hominem dodge or the Appeal to Authority dodge.

The use of this family of logical fallacies has reached its historical zenith recently as climate alarmists, with help from the media, attempt to ignore, dodge or deflect challenges to the AGW hypothesis. First, the alarmists attempt to shut off all questions by asserting that the debate is over. This strategy is supported further by continually ignoring any scientific challenge that may arise. When a challenge cannot be ignored, an Ad Hominem distraction is often supplied.

The chair of the IPCC, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, helped to demonstrate parts of this strategy recently when he was asked about scientists who are skeptical about the IPCC’s conclusions. His response was,

“There is, even today, a Flat Earth Society that meets every year to say the earth is flat. The science about climate change is very clear. There really is no room for doubt at this point.”

The statement that “there is no room for doubt” runs contrary to the spirit of scientific inquiry.

Imagine that an oil company paid a serial rapist with a 5th grade education to ask a question which challenges the consensus of ten thousand climate scientists. The philosophy of science would dictate that the relevant question be addressed based on scientific evidence without reference to the challenger’s motives, character, or lack of education, because these factors are irrelevant to the question at hand and serve only as distractions from real scientific inquiry. The use of this type of Ad Hominem dodge is a shameful but common practice by climate alarmists and the media.

Now, I’m not going to argue with Senator Hatch about whether there’s really “room for doubt” about whether humans are causing significant climate change.  He’s absolutely right that, given any scientific question of even moderate complexity, there is ALWAYS room for doubt.  The fact is that science doesn’t provide absolute proof of anything, but rather gives us a way of rigorously generating and evaluating evidence for competing naturalistic explanations.  But that’s precisely the problem, you see.  If there’s always room for doubt, then how do scientists ever make up their minds about anything?  The answer is that they wait to see which explanation seems to be supported by multiple lines of evidence that keep building up year after year, and at some point decide the evidence is enough to call the issue settled, and move on.

How much evidence is enough to warrant moving on?  Well, that’s another problem, because the answer is going to be different for different scientists.  The upshot is this:

If there is always room for doubt, there will always be a few doubters, no matter how strong the evidence.

In the case of human-induced climate change, a couple recent studies have shown that 97-98% of active climate researchers are convinced humans are causing significant climate change.  (These were real, academic studies, by the way, as opposed to dodgy Internet surveys with no control over who can answer.)  So yes, there are bound to be a few Dick Lindzens and Roy Spencers–actual climate scientists who disagree with the consensus–but the fact is that there is a very, very strong consensus.  The vast majority of climate scientists have decided it’s time to move on.

What’s all this talk about consensus, though?  According to Senator Hatch, appeals to scientific consensus are examples of the common logical fallacy, the Appeal to Authority!  Cousins of the dreaded ad hominem!  “Shameful,” he says!  Senator Hatch is a lawyer by training, and surely learned all about logical fallacies in law school.  Unfortunately, the lawyer in him comes out a little too strongly in this discussion.

It’s true that Appeal to Authority and ad hominem arguments are standard logical fallacies, but what does that mean?  When most people talk about “logic,” on the one hand, they are using the term loosely to refer to arguments that are persuasive, or just “make sense.”  Formal or deductive logic, on the other hand, is a system for arranging statements to reach conclusions that must be true, given premises that are true.  Here’s a simple example.

Statement A:  All lions are cats.

Statement B:  Bill is a lion.

Conclusion:  Therefore, Bill is a cat.

If statements A and B are true, then the conclusion must be true, as well.  Logical fallacies, however, are statements arranged in such a way that, while they might be persuasive, the conclusions don’t necessarily follow from the argument.  Here’s an example of the fallacy of Appeal to Authority.

Statement A:  Bill is a doctor.

Statement B:  Bill says that I have cancer.

Conclusion:  Therefore, I have cancer.

Clearly, the conclusion isn’t necessarily true.  Just because Bill is a doctor doesn’t mean all his diagnoses are always correct, as anyone with an ounce of sense could tell you.  But just because this argument is a “logical fallacy,” does that mean it’s worthless?  Obviously not.  Even if doctors aren’t always correct in their diagnoses, they are expert health professionals, and it is far more likely that a doctor’s diagnosis would be correct than one made by some random person off the street.

Likewise, while ad hominem arguments do not necessarily lead to true conclusions, they aren’t always ridiculous, either.  Here’s how the Wikipedia article on ad hominem puts it.

An ad hominem (Latin: “to the man”), also known as argumentum ad hominem, is an attempt to link the validity of a premise to a characteristic or belief of the person advocating the premise.[1] The ad hominem is a classic logical fallacy[2], but it is not always fallacious. For in some instances, questions of personal conduct, character, motives, etc., are legitimate and relevant to the issue.[3]

Not so, according to Senator Hatch!  True Scientists are not allowed to indulge in appeals to authority, etc., because that would go against the very Spirit of Scientific Inquiry.  Well, that all sounds very noble, and everything, but let’s step back to consider how this kind of thing would really play out in this arena.

Suppose Joe the Climatologist is asked to go before a congressional committee, chaired by Senator Hatch, and testify about some aspect of climate science.  But unbeknownst to Joe, Senator Hatch has also asked his petroleum-financed serial rapist with a 5th-grade education to come ask hard questions of the climate scientists on the panel.  Joe does his best to communicate the science to the committee, but the poorly educated rapist keeps chiming in with objections that may sound plausible to non-experts, but are actually red herrings or flatly wrong.  Sure, Joe could rigorously debunk these objections, but in some cases it would take a significant amount of time to prepare rebuttals, and even then some of the committee members might not understand the rebuttal fully without considerably more background knowledge.

Since he is only given a few minutes to testify, Joe is understandably frustrated, and blurts out, “Why are you even listening to a petroleum-financed serial rapist with a 5th-grade education, instead of to the experts?!!”

Senator Hatch bangs his gavel and looks sternly at Joe.  “Excuse me, Dr. Joe, but I must say that I find your ad hominem argument and appeal to authority to be most shameful.  If you were a True Scientist, you would patiently consider every objection, no matter what the source.  I, on the other hand, am above such pettiness, and so I expect you to prove to me that every single objection anyone raises is wrong before I’ll believe a word you say….  You now have 5 minutes to respond.”

Joe really lets the Senator have it.

“Senator, the astronomer Carl Sagan once commented, ‘It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out.’  What you seem to be telling me is that you won’t believe anything real climate experts tell you unless we, personally, address every possible objection for you, no matter how ridiculous the source.  Well, the fact is that you could look up excellent responses to all the common objections on the Internet, if you cared to, but you want me to do it all for you in five minutes, off the top of my head.  I would be glad to sit down with you for days on end to show you, in detail, why these objections are red herrings, but you would have to commit to spending quite a bit of time with me, and to reading all sorts of background literature as homework.  An open mind is a worthy ideal, you see, but a truly open mind requires an awful lot of work.  In my experience, many people who go on about having an open mind are really just using it as an excuse for intellectual laziness.  In other words, they believe whatever they want, no matter how questionable the source, and pat themselves on the back for being open-minded.”

Let’s step out of our little fantasy scenario, here, and ask, “Was Joe the Climatologist being too hard on Senator Hatch?”  Naturally, if it had been me, I probably wouldn’t have been so blunt ;-), but clearly Joe was onto something.  Given all his talk of open-mindedness and logical precision, one would think Senator Hatch would have been committed to really rigorous inquiry, but what do we find?  While discussing the IPCC climate models in “Climate Change 101,” the Senator reproduced two rather famous graphs made by Christopher Monckton to discredit the IPCC.  That’s right, the very graphs that have been shown by several scientists to contain fabricated data.  Maybe it’s not really fair to expect Senator Hatch to have looked up the data himself, but if he’s committed to not taking the climate science community’s collective judgement at face value, why would he swallow Monckton’s pronouncements–hook, line, and sinker?  After all, this is a non-scientist who goes around falsely claiming to be a member of Parliament and claims to have invented a miracle cure for a large number of infectious diseases, including AIDS and MS.

I’m sorry, did I just utter an ad hominem?  Before any of my readers catch the Vapours and faint, let me assure you that my intention here is only to show that, for all his high-minded rhetoric, Senator Hatch is only selectively skeptical of information sources, and obviously hasn’t exerted any significant effort to sort out the facts about climate change.  In fact, it appears that he is more skeptical of expert opinions than, um… others… for some bizarre reason.

Given the above rant, you might think I have it in for Orrin Hatch, but that’s not really the case.  I actually think Orrin Hatch is a decent guy–I’ve voted for him twice, after all.  I’m hoping that he has enough integrity, and a thick enough skin, to take this criticism in stride and commit himself to looking more deeply at the issue of climate change.  Until he does, however, I’m hoping he’ll at least drop his noble-sounding pretenses about open-mindedness.

POSTSCRIPT:

Since both Senator Hatch and I are Mormons, I thought I should mention something my astute Mormon readers would already have realized.  Some of the discussion above is indebted to Hugh Nibley’s classic essay, “The Prophets and the Open Mind.”  Here’s a quotation I think is particularly relevant.

Is an open mind, then, a negative thing–an empty mind?  It is, unless it is a searching mind.  An oyster has few prejudices–in the field of astronomy it has, we may safely say, absolutely none.  Are we then to congratulate the oyster for its open-mindedness?  A first-rate and very broad-minded scientist, J.B.S. Haldane, defines prejudice as “an opinion held without examining the evidence.”  Prejudice does not consist in having made up one’s mind–in defending an opinion with fervor and determination–as too many liberals seem to think; it consists in forming an opinion before all the evidence has been considered.  This means that freedom from prejudice whether in the field of science or any other field requires a tremendous lot of work–one cannot be unprejudiced without constant and laborious study of evidence; the open mind must be a searching mind.  The person who claims allegiance to science in his thinking or who is an advocate of the open mind has let himself in for endless toil and trouble.  [Hugh Nibley, "The Prophets and the Open Mind," in The World and the Prophets (Salt Lake City:  Deseret Book, 1987,) pp. 128-129.]

While it’s true that Nibley was here poking a stick in the eye of people who blithely accept as fact what scientific experts say without personally examining the evidence, I think the sword cuts the other way at least equally as well.  If it isn’t ideal to just accept expert testimony, isn’t it positively idiotic to uncritically accept the pronouncements of complete non-experts?  The fact is that nobody has time to personally examine the evidence about every important subject, so we are all doomed to be prejudiced about some things, at least.  So I’ll just admit my bias up front.  If I don’t feel like personally examining all the evidence about a particular question, I tend to be prejudiced toward accepting the consensus of experts.  So call me a bigot.


Responses

  1. I still think your “1 out of 33 dentists surveyed recommends chewing this gum” is the best way to show why listening to the 3% who disagree is foolish. :)

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by arthursmith, Planet3.0. Planet3.0 said: Orrin Hatch and the Open Mind http://j.mp/cOWGk9 [...]

  3. Visit the link below and one might conclude that Orrin Hutch is a bought and paid for representative of the Oil 73% and Coal 27% industries.

    http://dirtyenergymoney.org/view.php?searchvalue=hatch&search=1&type=search

  4. Speaking even as a grad student biologist, there are a few subtler and harder to catch howlers on Hatch’s page, as well. The first one leapt out at me early:

    “Several scientific studies conclude that with higher CO2 levels in the air, plants become more hardy and thrive better even with significantly less water.”

    ONLY FOR CERTAIN PLANTS. And, unfortunately, grain crops are not amongst them! Yes, details matter.

    (Sorry to make this such a brief comment, I’m just running from one thing to another right now.)

  5. [...] few weeks ago I criticized Senator Orrin Hatch for some of the statements he made in his web page, “Climate Change 101“.  For all his [...]

  6. [...] previous posts (here and here) I showed that Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) was playing it a little fast and loose in his [...]

  7. [...] a similar vein, several months ago I tried to explain to Senator Orrin Hatch why his insistence on “keeping an open mind” was inappropriate [...]


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