One reason I love the Internet is because it makes room for more snark. Clever satire and lampooning can sometimes be more effective than anything for getting people to stop digging in their heels and do the right thing. Snarky commentary becomes a loathsome freak show, however, when the intransigently ignorant try it, and unfortunately, that’s the way I see Conservative political commentary moving, whether it’s amateur or professional. (I’m a Republican myself, so I take no joy in saying this.)
Take, for instance, some of the amateur commentary on a post a friend of mine shared on Facebook the other day. He linked a conservative political commentary lauding Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent speech to Congress, in which he criticized the Obama Administration. Whatever. But then the ultra-conservative lackwits had to start chiming in with “snarky” comments about how we should elect Netanyahu as President, because apparently we don’t pay any attention to where candidates were born, anymore. Such comments would be super witty if, for instance, there hadn’t been birth announcements for Obama in a couple Honolulu papers, and if the standard legal interpretation of the constitutional requirement that the President be a “natural-born citizen” were not that one just has to be a citizen by birth–like Barack Obama, wherever he was born.
The amateurs are usually just parroting things they’ve heard from the professionals–people like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Mark Steyn, and–because he has one of those posh-sounding British accents–James Delingpole. The other day, Delingpole wrote a “snarky” piece attacking a new BBC documentary about climate change. The title of the piece, “‘Climate Change is Real Because Shut Up!’ Explains the BBC. Again,” signals the snarky intent, but the content is nothing but adolescent drivel.
Here’s an excerpt.
Its arguments went something like this: climate change is real because nice, smiley girl with red hair; climate change is real because maths; climate change is real because potted history of US sea captain who standardised methods for measuring water temperature; climate change is real because Tottenham Hotspur; etc. With these ingenious distractions, it effortlessly swerved contentious issues such as the fact that the entire 20th-century temperature record has been subjected to unexplained — and probably unjustifiable — adjustments. I wonder what percentage of its presumably tiny audience it convinced.
Well, I could object that Delingpole’s point about adjustments to the temperature record are idiotic, and that people who actually do spatial and temporal statistical analyses think such adjustments are necessary, which is why all the different groups of scientists who work on this problem come up with about the same answers. But that would miss Delingpole’s main point! Namely, the BBC program is stupid because it uses the dreaded “Appeal to Authority.” And as any snot-nosed 10th grader can tell you, that’s a “Logical Fallacy“!!!
Do I realise that the woman I have so peremptorily dismissed as “nice, smiley girl with red hair” is in fact none other than Dr Hannah Fry, a mathematician from University College, London?
Well yes. I thought I’d covered that particular Appeal To Authority, more or less, in the sentence which said “climate change is real because maths.” Had there been space, I suppose, I could have added “climate change is real because doctorate” and “climate change is real because University College, London.” But I’m not sure it would have added a great deal to the point I was trying to make.
“What’s wrong with pointing out a fallacious argument?” you might ask… if you are particularly dense. The thing is, as I have pointed out before, a logical fallacy is simply an argument that doesn’t necessarily follow from the premises, but it may still be a reasonable argument. Here’s a quick example of a fallacious Appeal to Authority.
Premise 1: My doctor says I should lose weight.
Premise 2: Doctors are healthcare experts.
Conclusion: Therefore, I should lose weight.
Now, are doctors infallible when it comes to healthcare recommendations? Of course not, and therefore this is a fallacious appeal to authority. But is it a stupid argument? “Of course it is,” answers Aunt Matilda, as she tries to smear urine on your face to cure your acne. You know perfectly well it isn’t a stupid argument, though, right?
Here’s why. When we are talking about ANY complex scientific (or other) topic, there is simply no practical way around using some appeals to authority. Suppose I were to write a paper about some scientific topic. Certainly I would try to make a solid argument, but I would typically cite any number of other peer-reviewed sources for most of my claims. Wouldn’t I just be appealing to the authority of the authors of those sources, in such cases? Obviously, but what other choice do I have? Am I supposed to redo all those experiments and observations, program my own models, etc., etc.? Who has time for that? And what about my audience? Are they supposed to just take my word for it? Are they supposed to take the word of the sources I cite? Checking things for yourself is GREAT, and I advocate it strongly! However, NOBODY has the time to check every single detail of the arguments surrounding a complex topic like climate change, so all we can do is spot check.
That’s what I’ve tried to do. I’m and Earth scientist to begin with, so I have a good deal of background knowledge to help me, but I’ve also gone ahead and read quite a bit of peer-reviewed literature about the subject, and I’ve even read a lot of contrarian literature. What’s more, I’ve even bothered to pick apart and reproduce some of the work of prominent contrarians like Roy Spencer, and I’ve even published a couple peer-reviewed papers about climate-related topics. That was an awful lot of work, and yet I still have to rely on others for much of my information.
The bottom line is that the only way around appeals to authority is an enormous amount of work, and no matter how much work you do, you will never be able to completely get rid of them. And that’s why appeals to authority aren’t ridiculous, even though they aren’t necessarily right. We appeal to experts precisely BECAUSE they have put in an enormous amount of work, and have to appeal to authority less than the rest of us.
Hmmmm, that brings up a good question. How much work has James Delingpole done, so that he feels comfortable mocking the consensus of almost all the climate change experts? Let’s answer that question via an interview the BBC aired, in which Sir Paul Nurse, a scientist and the head of the Royal Society, asked this very thing of Delingpole. Here’s a partial transcript, and you can see the video below.
Paul Nurse: Consensus can be used like a dirty word. Consensus is actually the position of the experts at the time, and if it’s working well, and it doesn’t always work well, but if it’s working well they evaluate the evidence. You make your reputation in science by actually overturning that. So there’s a lot of pressure to do it. But if over the years the consensus doesn’t move, you have to wonder is the argument, is the evidence against the consensus good enough?
James Delingpole: Science has never been about consensus, and this is I think one of the most despicable things about Al Gore’s so-called consensus. Consensus is not science.
Paul Nurse: I want to give an analogy in a different situation. Say you had cancer and you went to be treated. There would be a consensual position on your treatment, and it is very likely that you would follow that consensual treatment because you would trust the clinical scientists there. The analogy is that you could say, well, I’ve done my research into it and I disagree with that consensual position, but that would be a very unusual position for you to take. And I think sometimes the consensual position can be criticised when in fact it is most likely to be the correct position.
James Delingpole: Yes. Shall we talk about climategate because I don’t accept your analogy really, I think it’s very easy to caricature the position of climate change sceptics as the sort of people who don’t look left and right when crossing the road or who think that the quack cure that they’ve invented for cancer is just as valid as the one chosen by the medical establishment. I think it is something altogether different and I do slightly resent the way that you are bringing in that analogy.
Later, Nurse asked Delingpole about where he was getting his information. Turns out it isn’t from the scientific literature.
James Delingpole: It is not my job to sit down and read peer-reviewed papers because I simply haven’t got the time, I haven’t the scientific expertise. What I rely on is people who have got the time and the expertise to do it and write about it and interpret it. I am an interpreter of interpretations.
So there you have it. James Delingpole can mock the BBC for referencing the consensus of almost all the climate change experts because it’s an “Appeal to Authority,” but when push comes to shove, he admits that he doesn’t have the background knowledge to assess the evidence for himself. All he can do is substitute the authority of people who are… not… almost all the experts.
In my opinion, this is another sad demonstration that people like Delingpole should get out of the snark business. Snarkiness ends up being a complete train wreck when used by someone who refuses to do the necessary work to understand anything at all about what he’s yammering. Sorry, James, but being an obnoxious windbag does’t make you H. L. Mencken.