Feb 25 2014

Krauthammer’s Global Warming Straw Men

A recent column by political commenter, Charles Krauthammer, attacking the notion that global warming is “settled science,” has been getting a lot of attention. Although perhaps he is making a more nuanced argument than most global warming dissidents, Krauthammer is still largely attacking straw men and engaging in tactics of denial. Up front he says he is not a global warming denier nor a believer, but his arguments are certainly mainstream global warming denial.

He begins:

“The debate is settled,” asserted propagandist in chief Barack Obama in his latest State of the Union address. “Climate change is a fact.” Really? There is nothing more anti-scientific than the very idea that science is settled, static, impervious to challenge.

To be fair, Krauthammer is talking about the politics of climate change as much as the science, and politicians often open the door to criticism by overstating the case or glossing over complexity and nuance. That does not, however, justify the same sloppiness by Krauthammer. The language above is virtually identical to that used by creationists to attack the position that evolution is a “settled fact” of science. Both arguments erect a straw man about what we mean by settled.

In both cases (evolution and climate change) there is a core scientific claim that is well-established, with less and less certain details about that basic fact. That life on earth is the product of evolution with common descent is established beyond all scientific doubt, sufficient to be treated as a fact. It would take a great deal of rock-solid evidence to push evolution from its scientific perch.

Likewise, that the earth is warming, and that this warming is at least partly due to forcing from human industrial activity, is now a well-established scientific fact. (I would not say it is as solid as evolution, but it’s north of 95% certain, which is comfortably in “fact” territory.)

Calling something an established scientific fact means that it is reasonable to proceed with that fact as a premise, for further research or for policy. It does not mean “static, impervious to challenge.” That is the straw man. Both evolution deniers and climate change deniers use this tactic to misinterpret scientific confidence as an anti-scientific resistance to new evidence or arguments. It isn’t. It does mean that the burden of proof has shifted to those opposing the theory that is now well-established (because it has already met a significant burden of proof).

Next is the confusion of the core facts with less certain implications or predictions:

If climate science is settled, why do its predictions keep changing? And how is it that the great physicist Freeman Dyson, who did some climate research in the late 1970s, thinks today’s climate-change Cassandras are hopelessly mistaken?

If evolution is settled science, then why are scientists always changing their construction of the tree of life, and why can’t they predict the future course of evolution? Same fallacy.

That the globe is, overall, warming due to forcing from increased greenhouse gasses is a highly confident conclusion. The exact implications of this are difficult to predict – how will local climates be affected, how will the ecosystem respond, what will the net effect be of the many feedback systems involved? Uncertainty about the details does not translate into uncertainty about the big picture – just like uncertainty about precise evolutionary relationships does not call into question the basic fact of evolution.

He continues with the “pause” gambit:

Settled? Even Britain’s national weather service concedes there’s been no change — delicately called a “pause” — in global temperature in 15 years. If even the raw data is recalcitrant, let alone the assumptions and underlying models, how settled is the science?

This is a partial fact used to deceive. This is similar to pointing to punctuated equilibrium and focusing on the periods of stability as if they are evidence against evolution (a favorite creationist tactic). Surface temperatures have indeed plateaued over the last 15 years – they have not “regressed to the mean” or behaved in a way that would indicate that there isn’t a real increase in global temperatures. They have remained at their historically high levels but have not continued to further increase at the pace they have been.

However, this is only looking at a subset of the data. The oceans have continued to warm, and scientists believe we are simply in a phase where most of the extra heat in the earth system is going into the oceans, rather than surface temperatures. You have to look at the whole picture, not just the slice that makes your point. Further, a recent study suggests that when the recent trade winds are taken into consideration, this accounts for the discrepancy between climate models and surface temperatures. I also don’t think we have fully answered this question – this is one of those details that will be complex to understand, and new data is likely to shed further light.

Krauthammer, however, is happy to rely upon the notion of a pause, which is so far from settled science it is not even true, rather than the far more robust data supporting the basic fact of climate change.

He continues:

Accordingly, Obama ostentatiously visited drought-stricken California last Friday. Surprise! He blamed climate change.

OK – he has a point here. Politicians and the media are likely to discuss individual weather events in terms of their relationship to global climate change. This is certainly not scientific – we cannot know the relationship between any specific drought, hurricane, or weather pattern to the long term trend of global warming. Global warming deniers do this too, however, talking about any cold weather as it if calls into question long term climate trends.

But this is the popular abuse or misunderstanding of the science – it is not the science. Don’t confuse the two. In fact, if Krauthhammer had stuck to the point of political abuse of climate change, he could have had a reasonable column that did not stray into science denial.

He does acknowledge that the abuse of science does not invalidate the science, but then slides into another common trope:

None of this is dispositive. It doesn’t settle the issue. But that’s the point. It mocks the very notion of settled science, which is nothing but a crude attempt to silence critics and delegitimize debate. As does the term “denier” — an echo of Holocaust denial, contemptibly suggesting the malevolent rejection of an established historical truth.

I often use the term denial, as I have here, but it is not an attempt to poison the well by making an allusion to Holocaust denial. That is unfair. Rather it is based on an understanding of denialism as a cognitive strategy. I have been writing about denialism for almost 12 years – I have argued that it is an identifiable cognitive strategy with specific features in common.  It is the use of tactics of doubt and confusion to attack accepted science. As I have demonstrated here, the tactics of evolution deniers and climate change deniers can be very similar. The same is true of mental illness deniers, vaccine or germ theory deniers, HIV deniers, and yes, Holocaust deniers.

Regarding silencing debate, there is missed nuance here as well. What I consider a legitimate position is to honestly and correctly characterize how confident and robust the scientific consensus is on any particular issue. For a highly robust consensus, minority or dissenting opinions have to be put into their proper context. They may not deserve a place in high-impact scientific journals, or in classrooms. Minority opinions should also not dominate the debate, nor should they be disproportionately represented in the media, because that creates a false impression about the science. Debate and media representation should reflect the consensus. If a 1% minority holds a different opinion, I have no problem with them getting 1% of the attention.

I would never shut out dissenting opinions entirely, and of course they always have the right to express their opinions in their own venues and whatever other venue will have them. But they do not deserve access to premium venues. No one does. That has to be earned by legitimacy.

Such criticisms also confuse quality control with censorship. Journals have standards. News outlets should also set their own standards. Classrooms have standards. Keeping out fringe or minority ideas, or putting them in their proper context and perspective, is not censorship.

But sure, some people miss this nuance and go too far. For example, some people have protested Krauthammer’s article and asked the Washington Post to pull it (which I think is an inappropriate tactic since his is an opinion column). He was then able to exploit this protest to argue that it makes his point.

He concludes:

Climate-change proponents have made their cause a matter of fealty and faith. For folks who pretend to be brave carriers of the scientific ethic, there’s more than a tinge of religion in their jeremiads.

This is just a low blow. The scientific community no more accepts climate change on faith than they do evolution (another common claim). Politicians, of course, always want to make unambiguous clear points. Academic discussions of probability and uncertainty do not play well in the political arena. This, then, opens the door to criticism, in this case portraying a robust scientific conclusion as if it were a tenet of faith. This criticism, ironically, is committing the same fallacy, however, of washing over nuance and complexity in order to make a solid political point.


Krauthammer’s piece, despite his initial protest, is a work of global warming denialism. He uses many of the strategies common to science denial (including denying denialism as a thing) in order to cast doubt on the robust consensus of global climate change. He confuses political posturing for the state of the science, he misrepresents the nature and implications of the “pause,” and he essentially attacks the weakest form of the opposing position.

He also misses a very important point – the true relationship between the science and the policy. Any effective policy that seeks to reduce the impact of manmade climate change will have to act decades before the full impacts are realized. If we are going to do anything, we have to act before we have scientific certainty.

Krauthammer is a physician, so he should understand this principle. In medicine we worry about the threshold of treatment, not the threshold of certainty about a diagnosis. We know there are many situations in which we need to begin treatment before we are certain what the patient has. We continue to keep an open mind, monitor response to treatment, perform more testing if indicated, but sometimes we just have to commit to treatment prior to certainty.

The same is true for climate change. The scientific consensus is that the globe is warming, it is highly probably due at least in part to manmade forcing. Even if we do act now, there will likely be unwanted consequences, although we cannot predict exactly what they will be.

I do not think we should dismantle our economy or take draconian steps that will harm society in a panicked rush to reduce carbon emissions. I do think we need to develop an energy infrastructure that is more sustainable, more efficient, and significantly reduces pollution in addition to carbon emissions. We should be looking for the win-wins, things that we should do anyway, even if there weren’t the issue of global warming. But let’s give this some priority, so we can protect ourselves from a highly probable threat.

This is not about certainty. It’s about probability. Just like all of science, and all of medicine – something Krauthammer should know.

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