Posted 8 January 2015
Today, many of the world’s leaders in science, engineering and other relevant disciplines will no longer comment publicly about climate change. They fear being labeled scaremongers or deniers, or being funded by special-interest groups or not caring about the poor.
This must change in 2015. Otherwise, what promises to be the largest global warming agreement in history will be signed at the U.N. climate conference in December with little or no input from many of the brightest minds in the field.
Taming the noxious and illogical climate change debate will not be easy. We will need strong public leadership from philosophers and other scholars who study rational argumentation to help us overcome the errors in thinking that are sabotaging the discussion. At stake are billions of dollars, countless jobs and, if activists are right, the fate of the global environment itself.
Intellectuals have a moral duty to tackle this serious problem. For example, when advocates are criticized as “leftist, foreign funded eco-nuts” or “right-wing, oil funded deniers,” philosophers must explain, “That is irrelevant. Nature does not care about the political orientation of the debaters or who funds them. All that matters is the validity of their arguments.” It is an error in reasoning to dismiss someone’s assertions because of suspected vested interests.
And calling someone an eco-nut or a denier is an “ad hominem” logical fallacy, “against the man” instead of the idea, a tactic that has no place in rational discourse.
Particularly misleading is an error called “affirming the consequent.” It works like this: “If my theory is true, then a logical consequence of that theory is that X should turn green. X does turn green. Hence my theory is true.” This is a deductive logical fallacy. Something unrelated to your theory could have caused X to turn green.
When activists claim that rising carbon dioxide (CO2) levels occurring concurrently with rising temperature proves the theory of CO2-induced global warming, philosophers should explain that they are committing the affirming the consequent fallacy.
The same applies to observed correlations between climatic conditions and other potential drivers. The fact that scientific theories make correct experimental predictions under certain circumstances does not mean the theories are necessarily correct. Other factors, or, more likely, a combination of phenomena could be causing the changes observed.
Finally, the belief that scientists discover truths, or as the United Nations often puts it, conclusions that are “unequivocal,” should be publicly refuted by intellectuals. Truth applies to mathematics but never to our findings about nature, which are merely educated opinions based on scientists’ interpretations of observations. Since observations always have some degree of uncertainty, they cannot prove anything true.
So why do philosophers and other scholars not speak out about these obvious problems? Many are undoubtedly deterred by the aggressive tenor of the debate and so fear for their own personal safety. Death threats and other abuses have been experienced by those on both sides of the controversy. Correcting debaters’ mistakes could lead activists to charging a philosopher with taking sides, even if they were in fact neutral.
It may also be that intellectuals judge that acceptance of a particular point of view about the causes of climate change will encourage outcomes they support. Those who back nuclear power, alternative energy, pollution reduction, conservation, increased foreign aid and social justice may therefore chose to not highlight the problems in the arguments of climate activists.
Similarly, intellectuals who support the expanded use of hydrocarbon fuels to provide abundant, inexpensive electricity may elect to keep their opinions to themselves if they notice logical errors committed by skeptics. But this is a slippery slope. If the aggressive and often irrational climate change debate is an indication of where we are headed concerning science-based public policy decisions, then we are in big trouble indeed.
Whatever the cause of their silence, philosophers and other intellectuals have an ethical obligation to speak out loudly when they see fundamental errors in thinking in the climate debate. The stakes are too high to accept anything less.