Friday, March 11, 2016

Logical fallacies and conspiracy theories from Rick Wallace at WUWT

Sou | 12:02 AM Go to the first of 17 comments. Add a comment
As you probably know, five telltale techniques of science deniers have been documented. These are: fake experts, logical fallacies, impossible expectations, cherry-picking and conspiracy theorising. This article is about an example of logical fallacies and conspiracy theories.

Red herrings and non sequiturs - logical fallacies

A guest at WUWT today (archived here) has decided that climate science is a hoax because:
  1. there are differences of opinion among biologists about the definition of species, and
  2. Lubos Motl's blog suggests there are still things being learnt about quantum physics.
Now you might wonder what this has to do with climate science. It doesn't. I'd say it's both a red herring and a non sequitur. Fake sceptics might not be much chop at science, but they excel at logical fallacies. This one, who goes by the name of Rick Wallace has decided that:
...in real science any state of agreement is labile at best – and establishing a consensus is about the last thing on peoples’ minds. I would go so far as to say that under these conditions, as often as not, a leading idea is a target to take aim at rather than a flag to rally ‘round.
What he has decided in his wisdom is that climate science is a hoax because scientists agree that greenhouse gases are what keeps the Earth warm.

Here are some more appropriate analogies:
  • Evolution vs greenhouse warming - there is a scientific consensus that both are real
  • Ocean oscillations vs species differentiation - there are differences of opinion on exactly what constitutes both
  • Atoms and molecules emit radiation when going from a high energy state to a lower energy state - this notion is applicable to both quantum mechanics and atmospheric physics. There is a scientific consensus on that score.

There is evidence that Rick Wallace doesn't know very much science, otherwise he'd know that new knowledge is built on a foundation of knowledge about which there is general consensus among scientists. That's not saying that the consensus cannot change. Changing consensus is out of the ordinary. It takes a lot of evidence and a strong matching theory to persuade scientists to shift from a previous consensus. It doesn't happen often but it does happen.

The strawman and the conspiracy theory

Rick Wallace then shifts to conspiracy ideation. There are seven criteria that have been listed as common to conspiracy ideation. These include "self-sealing reasoning", "over-riding suspicion" and "persecuted victim".

Rick demonstrates some of these. After wrongly claiming that scientists don't try to figure out an interpretation they can agree on (ie consensus), he wrote:
Obviously, this cast of mind is utterly different from what we find in the AGW arena. Which in itself is compelling evidence that the motivations are different in normal science and in (C)AGW.
I'd call that "self-sealing reasoning". He seems to be arguing that scientists agreeing that adding greenhouse gases to the air is causing global warming, is proof that scientists are not motivated by science. The implication being that the science must be wrong.

If Rick's use of "CAGW" isn't enough to persuade you that he is a science denier, think about how he attributes a different motivation to climate scientists than to biologists and physicists. He doesn't say what the motivation is, but what he wrote next gives a clue:
What is perhaps most fascinating about modern spectacles like the AGW movement (and here I’m thinking in particular of the Moscow show trials of the 1930s) is that the truth is always right there in front of everyone – and it is always apparent to those who can see. For such people, and this is true of most (but probably not all) AGW skeptics, the fact that some sort of charade is in progress is obvious, even if one does not characterize it in those terms. 
There's your "over-riding suspicion". First he talks about a "modern spectacle" and calls anthropogenic global warming a "movement". Then he brings up some "Moscow show trials". This seems like an appeal to the deniers who believe that climate science is a communist plot. He next talks about "truth", which he doesn't define but appears to expect WUWT readers to understand him. Then he talks about a "charade", again without defining what he means. In fact the entire paragraph is a gobbledegook denierism of the conspiracy theory kind. There's more. Rick weaves his conspiracy theory from a straw man:
Once this is understood it also becomes clear why these affairs are always imbued with an air of intimidation. (In fact, perhaps more than anything else, this aspect is what gives the game away.) This is something that is never present in real scientific discourse, even on those occasions when things get nasty. In such cases (for example the controversy over the wave nature of light in the early 19th century), scientists may get catty, and they may even act to keep work out of print (by negative reviews). But there is no real intimidation (at least none that I know of, and I have some personal experience in this department); there is never a covert message to the effect that, “This is the proper account – and you had better not contradict it!”
Hark the persecuted victim who is subjected to some unspecified intimidation. You'll recall how Anthony Watts and Tim Ball wrote in those same terms when they compared climate science deniers to Velikovsky. Rick doesn't give any examples of intimidation (but clearly doesn't think creationists or flat-earthers or anti-vaxxers or HIV deniers get intimidated by scientists). At WUWT it's enough to claim that climate scientists are bullies (and HW is full of hate). No evidence is required or expected.

In fact in his entire article Rick doesn't say what part of climate science he accepts or rejects. He mentions no details at all. Perhaps he's afraid he'll be bullied, or worse - ridiculed :)

From the WUWT comments

There are only six thoughts at the time of writing, and most aren't worth copying. These are probably the best of them:

March 10, 2016 at 3:27 am
Devastatingly smart.

March 10, 2016 at 3:50 am
Good article, but I was mislead a bit by the use of “normal science” in the title. I was thinking something more “Kuhnian” was in store. 

References and further reading

The 5 telltale techniques of climate change denial - article by John Cook at CNN, July 2015

Curses! It's a conspiracy! The Fury is Back Thrice Over - HotWhopper article, July 2015

Crank magnet WUWT defends pseudo-science and promotes Velikovskyism "in the context of learning" - HotWhopper article, March 2016


  1. "I'd call that "self-sealing reasoning". He seems to be arguing that scientists agreeing that adding greenhouse gases to the air is causing global warming, is proof that scientists are not motivated by science. The implication being that the science must be wrong."

    Taken to its logical extreme it means that scientists would never be allowed to agree about anything - because, um, conspiracy?

    1. Is it conspiracy if deniers agree with each other about their denial?

    2. But therein lies the problem. They don't even realise they're in denial. They think climate scientists either know nuffin', or are all in on some weird conspiracy.

      It's because they are mostly right-wing authoritarian followers, and they uncritically lap up whatever their RWA leaders (like Trump) tell them to lap up. America appears to be done, stick a fork in it :-/

  2. Re. "intimidation" I wonder if he'd be willing to compare the contents of his inbox with, oh, for example, Dr. Hayhoes's?

  3. "Thus, in real science any state of agreement is labile at best ... "

    Real science?


    "of or characterized by emotions that are easily aroused or freely expressed, and that tend to alter quickly and spontaneously; emotionally unstable"

    Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey, err Judith Curry, err Rick Wallace
    "Jack Handey (born February 25, 1949) is an American humorist."

    The crows seemed to be calling his name, thought Caw.

    1. We're talking about post-emotionally stable science here!

      As projected by Mr.Wallace, the passionate champion of respect-my-ignorance.

  4. It's all well and good to mock people like Rick when they talk about intimidation. But... hmm. I forgot where I was going with this.

  5. Sou,

    This is totally and inexcusably off-topic, but something I wanted to say anyway... feel free to delete if you want ...

    I ventured into Jim Steele's LinkedIn post and I was amazed at his insulting, sneering, and condescending attitude. I bowed out of the conversation to prevent myself from responding in kind, having done my best to remain polite and on-point. It strikes me that deniers definitely feel the need to bully into silence anyone who points out the immense holes in their "logic", particularly the quote-mining and cherry-picking in which they must engage.

    It was particularly amusing that he said he asked the LinkedIn moderators to delete my posts (I believe he did the same for you), since he claimed I had been mean to him. That no posts were deleted serves to highlight his impotence at the least, and perhaps hypocrisy as well.

    I am grateful and flattered that you "liked" a number of my comments. I would definitely have done the same for yours, but I avoided the thread after deciding that I can be insulted in other places, and needn't have someone as blind as Steele do it. Your comments were amazingly informative and calm. Well done.

    I'm very glad I found HotWhopper, and have the delightful experience of reading your work. Thank you for your dedication, and your sense of humor.

    1. Thanks, DC. I spent too much time on that thread, but the effort was worth it. Not for what was posted there, but because it prompted me to get some papers on the increase in water vapour/total precipitable water, which was a gap in my collection :) (H/t and thanks to those who helped me get one of the papers I was looking for.)

    2. Sou, I'm glad you got those papers. They kill another false denier talking point.

    3. The deniers are feeling the pinch, one recent comment on WUWT caught my eye

      It talked about how they were losing the argument (in the blogosphere) and that they needed to somehow get a rapid response force (the best of the best - lol) together to counter, well to counter the data, the facts and simple ration arguments

      They are so self consuming they don't realise what idiots they are - and that they are being laughed at (well laughed at by people who take the trouble to engage them, most sane people, AKA my wife would not bother )

    4. "They are so self consuming they don't realise what idiots they are..."

      All strategy and no content.

      They don't read much and they understand even less. Then they discard anything inconvenient that remains.

    5. "Then they discard anything inconvenient that remains."

      I am waiting, possibly in vain, for the article by Lord Monckton that says the pause is over. So far, nothing. Not even one that says Carl Mears is evil for adjusting his data set.

    6. There's a little problem, well described in Jane Mayer's Dark Money, which is that in this fight the truth does not matter. As long as they have power and can suppress the truth, that's all good for them. Odd, since they must have children, but there you are.

      Latest campaign is taking over universities and defunding science. Rather successful so far.

      It won't matter when things are past saving, which they almost already are. This is quite stunning, if rather long, start at minute 8 and skip if you already know; his calm logical fact-based presentation is devastating.
      "Justin Gillis: Covering Climate Change - November 14, 2013"

    7. Monckton's next article:

      "No global warming pause since 1975!"


    8. "In a vast an nefarious global conspiracy, a well-funded group of dishonest so-called 'scientists' has been claiming there was a 'pause' in global warming. It turns out, the least-squares linear regression trend has shown, since the beginning of the satellite record, the Earth has been steadily warming due to the emissions of human-produced greenhouse gasses.

      "The graph referenced below was not cherry-picked, but was scientifically calculated to show the longest trendline that displays an upward slope in the RSS lower troposphere data.

      "As you can see, it goes all the way back to the beginning of the satellite record."

      - Fnord Kristofer Mockman of Lockesly


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