David R. Henderson  

Michael Mann: I Don't Argue

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What Would Deirdre McCloskey Say?

The article's online headline claims I "argue" that fossil-fuel burning is driving climate change. But communicating scientific facts is not arguing. Every national academy of science in the world, including our own, agrees that climate change is due to increased fossil fuel use. Only politicians and ideologues want to argue about basic, established science.

This paragraph is from a letter to today's Wall Street Journal from Michael Mann, the noted meteorology professor at Penn State University, in response to a critical review of his recent book.

Actually, as McCloskey has pointed out [I can't find a terse cite here], communicating scientific facts is arguing. And citing authority, as he does in the above paragraph, is arguing also. It's just not a particularly good way to argue.


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COMMENTS (24 to date)
Daniel Kuehn writes:

Hopefully she'd just say that they are really talking about two different ideas - that what Mann means is that what we normally think of as "arguing" concerns rhertoric on questions that have cause to be highly contested, and discussion of questions that are less contested isn't what the word "argue" is meant to describe.

And then of course we could "argue" over whose implicit definition of "argue" makes the most sense to talk (umm... I mean "argue") about.

That's the irony of the sort of pragmatist/post-modern approach (which I actually think there's a lot of value to). The whole point of the pragmatist/post-modern approach is that claims are a lot more contingent than we usually like to think they are, and that we "get along" in the world by speaking within a social context that standardizes a lot of these language problems. The irony of pragmatist/post-modern critiques is that they reintroduce a lot of the contingency and uncertainty that we humans naturally are good at solving on our own!!!

In other words - nobody is really confused about what Mann means here. Theorizing and philosophizing about it confuses the point.

Still - theorizing and philosophizing has its uses, and it's certainly fun!

Pandaemoni writes:

Still, citing to national academies of science on a scientific question is more convincing than citing Deirdre McCloskey on a semantic one.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

re: "And citing authority, as he does in the above paragraph, is arguing also. It's just not a particularly good way to argue."

It's not clear to me at all that he's arguing from authority here. What he's doing is pointing to multiple independent findings.

Sonic Charmer writes:

Daniel Kuehn

It's not clear to me at all that he's arguing from authority here. What he's doing is pointing to multiple independent findings.

I guess you're saying that his argument rests more on the findings being multiple and 'independent' than on their authority per se (though he *did* bring authority into it). Even if so, it is still an argument.

One may find it a good or bad argument, more or less persuasive, etc., but the idea that scientific knowledge and persuasion is in some special category that does not involve argument is wrongheaded and reveals that Mann doesn't understand basic epistemology.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Sonic -
Right, I'm fully on board with McCloskey on the technical question, I'm just fully on board with Mann on the practical question.

This is what I mean when I talk about the irony of pragmatism/sophism/post-modernism/whatever you prefer to call it. We, as humans living in the world, don't just sit around and argue all day, nor do we deconstruct the words that we use even if its true that they are open to deconstruction.

And that's really what a lot of this philosophical tradition tells us - "truth" is contingent and there's no capital-"t" truth. But we act as if there is to get along in the world. The irony is thinking too hard about pragmatism/post-modernism prevents that from happening.

What Mann meant is perfectly intelligible, and intelligibility and usefulness is what's really important in this philosophical tradition (not "Truth"). McCloskey is intelligible too - and I personally think McCloskey is right. But she doesn't own the word "argue" (and to be clear - I don't think she'd claim to own it - that's why I started the first post with the line "hopefully she'd just say...")!

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Sonic -

Ultimately, what it comes down to is that if you just ask yourself "what if Mann and McCloskey are using the word 'argue' to define slightly different ideas?", I think a whole bunch of your concerns go away.

You're really going into some dangerous territory here. It's like creationists who say "even scientists admit evolution is just a theory". That's true - they do say that, but the creationists are loading a ton of meaning onto that word which means a very specific thing to the scientists who make that statement. Mann knows quite well about the fundamental contingency of scientific "facts". This is not something he or anyone else who deals with this stuff day-in and day-out needs to be informed of.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Daniel Kuehn,
I get what you’re saying and I wouldn’t have even bothered posting on this if not for the fact that it was Michael Mann himself who made such a big deal of it. That’s what I found striking.

Ken B writes:
It's not clear to me at all that he's arguing from authority here

Really? He didn't refer to any single result or fact, just to some organizations. Why should that sup[port his claim? Because they are authorities.

Here's an example. I bolster a claim with 'by Newton's laws' or 'by Newton'. That is NOT an appeal to authority as I am appealing to an identifiable scientific claim. But if I bolster with 'according to the Nobel prizewinners X and Y' then I am -- since I cite only their authority or expertise, not the pertinent parts of that expertise.

Good or bad its an argument from authority.

RPLong writes:

@Pandaemoni - If the national academies of science are full of people whose science is more of the caliber of Mann's and less of the caliber of McCloskey's, then I'm not so sure you're right.

Fortunately for both of us, the world is not carved into such absurd dichotomies. I just searched the Academy's members directory for well-known opponent of AGW Richard Lindzen from MIT, and lo and behold found his name.

See for yourself.

So does that make Mann a liar as well as hack?

Sonic Charmer writes:

Daniel,

As David said, it was Mann who chose to quibble with (some headline writer's) use of the word 'argue'. Perhaps your reasonable point here, that the original usage of 'argue' might be different from Mann's intended usage in his response, would be best directed at Mann, i.e. by saying he should have let that slide.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

It is kind of a funny thing for him to focus on, isn't it?

I can sympathize with the exasperation that's behind this though.

I imagine climate scientists would love to sit down and commiserate over a drink with macroeconomists. Both of them are dealing with very complex systems with huge stakes. Both are expected to have crystal balls, when really the best we can do with complex systems is get a good understanding of the processes at work. Both have people outside the field second guessing them at every turn. Both get accused of dishonesty and partisanship whenever they come out with any results.

Geez - now that I think about it it's amazing anyone even becomes a macroeconomist or a climate scientist!

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Sonic -
re: "As David said, it was Mann who chose to quibble with (some headline writer's) use of the word 'argue'."

Right - on the assumption that most people use the word 'argue' like Mann is using it. I personally think it's a safe assumption, but I suppose one could argue over it.

Sonic Charmer writes:

I would argue that his reaction reveals a bias for authority, and that a scientist better versed in epistemology would not have reacted as he did. But I suppose one could argue over it ;-)

Alex J. writes:

What he's doing is pointing to multiple independent findings.

They aren't independent. They're all national academies, thus beholden to their national governments.

Richard writes:

"Still, citing to national academies of science on a scientific question..."

It is incorrect to write "cite to" a source. Instead, one cites a source to a reader or listener.

Rick Hull writes:

I think Mann is trying to say there is no uncertainty regarding fossil fuel usage *causing* climate change. I also think this idea is wrong.

Tom Dougherty writes:

"Every national academy of science in the world, including our own, agrees that climate change is due to increased fossil fuel use."

So, before fossil fuel use their was no climate change. His statement is obviously wrong because their are many factors that contribute to climate change and is not due to just one factor. So, the statement that "climate change is due to increased fossil fuel use" is not a "basic, established fact".

Nor is it "basic, established fact" that fossil fuel use is DRIVING climate change. In fact, much of the debate is about how much climate change is contributed by man.

Ken B writes:

When Moses brought down the carved tablets he got annoyed when Eliazer said, 'So you're arguing we need to do this stuff?' That's the dynamic. The word 'argue' is insufficiently deferential.

RPLong writes:

I had a good zinger that got caught in the spam filter or something. Rats.

The gist of it was to point out that Mann isn't being fully forthcoming in his response because after all Richard Lindzen, too, is a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Costard writes:

Daniel: "I imagine climate scientists would love to sit down and commiserate over a drink with macroeconomists."

I suspect they would not. These are two entirely different species. One expresses itself in possibilities, the other in degrees of certainty. One employs models to isolate variables out of a complex system; the other uses models to approximate a system, and deems individual factors irrelevant. If science begins with basic truths and from these extrapolates greater truths - and not vice versa - then one of these is science, and one is not.

However it is nice to think of the two professions sitting down for a drink. Just like it is nice to think of economists being asked for their opinion on the economic effects of climate change. I wouldn't hold my breath.

"Geez - now that I think about it it's amazing anyone even becomes a macroeconomist or a climate scientist!"

Macroeconomists do not get flown to Cancun and Rio de Janeiro. With perhaps one exception, macroeconomists do not receive the adulation and popularity reserved for "holy warriors of science". So, you're half right.

Insofar as Mann's usual argument is to label somebody an "industry shill", perhaps we should consider his distinction well-made, and encourage him "argue" less and communicate more.

AJ writes:

Anthropomorphic global warming scientific research and evidence makes econometric Keynsian macro models for a ten year forecast look great by comparison.

I made the mistake of spending a weekend reading through the scientific research summaries for a) global warming and b)it's man made from burning fossil fuel. Egad, I saw that it's hypothetical modeling on top of modeling on top of out of sample forecasting on top of unverified assumptions. I had no idea the science is so thin. However, given the "consensus" and groupthink on all this, I may just keep my thoughts to myself.

AJ

Pandaemoni writes:

@RPLong

Of course there are certain members who hold differing opinions at the National Academy of Sciences and yet the Academy has published reports showing their support for the notion that anthropogenic global warming is real.

See for yourself in this downloadable pdf.

In the end, of course, as no one here is likely a scientist (including me), our arguing over the reality of anthropogenic climate change is merely noise. We can only repeat arguments we have heard elsewhere, and studies suggest that neither of us is unbiased in which sets of information we find compelling. Does that mean we should rely on experts? You could argue either way, but if 99 doctors tell me I can cancer and one says I do not, I'm probably going to go with the weight of expert opinion over my own hopes.

John Fembup writes:

I am prepared to accept that greenhouse gases arising from human activity are causing "global warming" - the instant I learn that a large majority of climatologists have agreed that greenhouse gases were the reason for the end of the last ice age. Or of any preceding ice age for that matter.

RPLong writes:

But Pandaemoni, yours isn't an appeal to authority, it's an appeal to majority - not because you agree with the majority, but because you feel that they must know better than you do.

You're entitled to feel that way, but in my opinion it is not a convincing rebuttal to Henderson any more than NAS publication is a convincing rebuttal of Lindzen's research.

My view is that *content* matters. My view is that Galileo and Darwin were right even before their peers decided to think so.

Objective truth isn't a popularity contest. What matters are results. You take a look at the evidence in front of you and make a choice. My position is that the choice should be based on the content of the data as opposed to the byline.

As for cancer, you might be surprised just how good an idea it is to take that lone doctor who gives you hope rather than the 99 who do not.

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