‘Statistically representative’ debate misleads

J Oliver featuredA viral video featuring the latest news comedian’s take on the climate change debate caught our attention this week.

Comedian John Oliver’s HBO program “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” follows a trail blazed by John Stewart and Stephen Colbert.  As with Stewart and Colbert, we’re willing to cut Oliver a break on the accuracy of his content.  He’s a comedian, not a newscaster.  But sometimes, as with a speech from “The Newsroom” by the fictional Will McAvoy, clips from these shows sometimes go viral and widely influence the public’s thinking.

On the third episode of Oliver’s show, debuting on May 11, Oliver participated in a segment he called the “statistically representative” climate change debate.  Oliver introduced the segment with a monologue spiced with language not safe for work.

Oliver’s Intro to the Climate Change Debate

Oliver started with a few jokes that had little of interest to a fact checker.  We’ll pick up where Oliver piqued our interest:

OLIVER

You don’t need people’s opinions on a fact.  You might as well have a poll question asking which number is bigger?  Fifteen or five?  Or, do owls exist?  Or, are there hats?  The debate on climate change should not be whether or not it exists, it’s what we should do about it.  There was a mountain of research on this topic.  Global temperatures are rising.  Heat waves are becoming more common.  Sea surface temperatures are also rising.  Glaciers are melting and of course no climate report is complete without a photo of a polar bear balancing on a piece of ice.

 

Oliver immediately frames the debate in ambiguity.  Does “climate change” mean the same thing as human-caused climate change?  All of his examples skip that issue, leaving the question of the cause unsettled.

Oliver continues:

OLIVER

The only accurate way to report that one out of four Americans are skeptical of global warming is to say “A poll finds that one out of four Americans are wrong about something.”

 

So far as we can tell, even if one out of four Americans is wrong for viewing global warming with skepticism, it’s still accurate to report the poll’s results by saying “A poll finds that one out of four Americans are skeptical about something.”  We’ll chalk Oliver’s apparent mistake up to hyperbole.  Probably Oliver’s trying to say that reporting they’re skeptical leaves out the supposed fact that they’re also wrong.

OLIVER

Because, a survey of thousands of scientific papers that took a position on climate change found that 97 percent endorsed the position that humans are causing global warming.

 

Note two things here.  First, Oliver cites a study that purports to give the views of scientists through their published work.  Second, Oliver introduces the issue of the cause of global warming after stating that global warming itself is a fact.  If global warming is a fact, it does not necessarily follow that human-caused global warming is a fact.  That’s assuming we’re not using the term “global warming” to mean human-caused global warming.

Clearly on this subject we need to stay wary of fallacies of ambiguity. FallacyIcon Ambiguity

Oliver has a flaw in his logic.  A poll of American opinions on whether global warming exists has approximately nothing at all to do with opinions expressed in scientific papers on whether global warming is caused by humans.  That’s two different subjects.  It’s apples and oranges.  And counting only papers that take a position on global warming is like pitting the number of theists against atheists on the existence of god while ignoring agnostics.

‘Statistically representative’ debate

Oliver goes on to object to the way television treats the debate.  He says the debates feature one for and one against.  That observation leads to the debate segment.

OLIVER

More often than not, it’s Bill Nye the Science Guy versus some dude.  And when you look at the screen it’s 50-50, which is inherently misleading.  If there has to be a debate about the reality of climate change, and there doesn’t, then there is only one mathematically fair way to do it.

ANNOUNCER

“Last Week Tonight” presents:  a statistically representative climate change debate.

 

Oliver’s concept of mathematical fairness underpins the logic of the segment.  But what does “mathematical fairness” mean?  Oliver uses it to mean that the audience should be able to tell from the debate how many agree with each side.  Note again that Oliver found it irrelevant how many Americans were skeptical of global warming.  Their opinion was irrelevant as to the facts.  Presumably if three out of four were skeptical that majority view would also count as irrelevant.  But for some reason, the numbers turn important for the sake of Oliver’s concept of a statistically representative debate.

For the debate segment, Oliver introduces a “climate change denier” and Bill Nye the Science Guy.  Oliver won’t allow the debate to proceed before bringing to the stage two other people who agree with the climate change denier and 96 scientists who agree with Nye.

Again, let’s take a look at Oliver’s framing of the debate.  The “climate change denier” is not introduced as a scientist.  Neither are the two who join him onstage for the debate.  In contrast, nearly all of the “96 scientists” who agree with Nye wear lab coats.  Though Oliver is drawing the 97-3 proportion from a study of scientific papers, the debate format strips the “climate change deniers” of their scientific standing.  The technique allows the audience to easily associate the three debate participants with the group Oliver says is wrong about climate change.

But that’s not honest debate.  It’s theatrics.

Oliver’s right that if climate change is a fact then it doesn’t matter if one out of four Americans think otherwise.  It’s still a fact regardless of their opinion.  In logic, this counts as the fallacy of argumentum ad populum, an “appeal to the people” or an “appeal to popularity.”  There’s a wrinkle to Oliver’s logic in the debate segment.  We’re no longer talking about the opinions of the average American, we’re talking about opinions expressed in scientific papers.  And we’re supposed to take the views expressed in the scientific papers as the views of scientists.  Why do we care about the views of scientists?  We accept the views of scientists as authoritative.  Appealing to the views of scientists is an appeal to authority.  Appealing to an improper authority counts as a fallacy.  But appealing to scientists on a matter of science certainly seems to qualify as a legitimate appeal to authority.

So what’s wrong with this picture?

The debate is dressed up as a legitimate appeal to authority.  In reality, it’s another appeal to popularity.  Remember, the three “climate change deniers” seated at the left side of the table represent 3 percent of opinions skeptical of global warming published in scientific journals. It’s as though 3 percent of mathematicians tell us 5 is greater than 15, 3 percent of owl experts tell us owls do not exist or 3 percent of haberdashers assure us there are no hats.

If it’s right to pay attention to legitimate experts, and it is, then it’s also right to pay some attention to the math expert telling us five is greater than 15.  After that, it’s up to each of us to find one set of experts more persuasive than the other.

It’s fine, by the way, to give some weight to a majority opinion among experts.  But in terms of logic, the majority opinion of experts is no more a sure guide to the truth than any other fallacious appeal to popularity.  The foremost measure of the truth is the strength of the argument.

So why don’t we get the case for global warming in terms of science instead of in terms of an imperfect scientific “consensus”?

Simple:  It’s complicated.  John Oliver probably doesn’t have a firm grasp of the science.  He probably knows a story that makes sense:  CO2 is a greenhouse gas.  Greenhouse gases trap heat.  Humans produce CO2, so humans cause global warming.

The picture is far more complicated than that.  It’s so complicated that even relatively sophisticated laymen will tend to get lost in the weeds.  We don’t like to admit we’re lost in the weeds, so we gravitate toward the simple story that appears to make sense.  If we have a television show maybe we’ll produce a segment to attack those who don’t accept the beauty and simplicity of the story we accept.

That’s Oliver’s game.

When the case for human-caused climate change is truly comparable to the question of whether hats exist, there will be no need to use fallacies and other rhetorical tricks to convince people to buy it.

 

 

Below, find a safe-for-work version of the “statistically representative” climate change debate.  We also have a version posted on YouTube, also safe for work, with a few annotations.

 

Update Dec. 27, 2017: We note that the link we used originally to describe complexities in the pattern of causation for global warming no longer features the information present when we posted our article. We found an archived version of that material here, but have replaced it in the text with a different citation.

19 Comments

  1. gman64

    It’s unfortunate your reference for “far more complicated than that” leads only to a transcript of Lindzen’s talk to the House of Commons hosted by the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a well-known anti-AGW think-tank. The core problem with Lindzen’s claim for extremely low equilibrium climate sensitivity is that if the real climate system was that damped, the geologic record would not show Ice Ages and ice-free periods. Since it does, Lindzen’s claim for very low ECS cannot be correct.

    A more suitable and science-based reference could have been to Skeptical Science, or Spencer Weart’s “Discovery of Global Warming” via the American Physical Society. A science-based discussion should use science-based references, not testimonies to a political body from a single person who’s rather an outlier.

    Reply
    1. Bryan W. White (Post author)

      I think it’s reasonably clear from the context that the relevant portion of Lindzen’s lecture concerns his point about complex causal relationships. That point does not rely on Lindzen’s view of low ECS.

      Reply
      1. gman64

        Lindzen is wrong on ECS, so that makes the rest of his narrative suspect.

        My point was that if you want to reference the science, use a site about the science, not your link (which is broken, BTW).

        Reply
        1. Bryan W. White (Post author)

          “Lindzen is wrong on ECS, so that makes the rest of his narrative suspect.”

          That might make you trust Lindzen less, but your reasoning follows a path toward the genetic fallacy. If the point is true regardless of the source, accept the truth of the point.

          “My point was that if you want to reference the science, use a site about the science.”

          Lindzen is qualified to speak to the issue and did so in memorable terms. Don’t allow the identify of the group hosting the document to distract you from the accurate point it makes.

          Reply
          1. gman64

            Lindzen has been wrong much more than he has been right, and a familiarity with the science wouldn’t allow using him as *the* source for your commentary without taking that into account.

            There are many scientists qualified to speak on the issue, not just Lindzen, whose theories and ideas are much better supported by the evidence. I recommend checking into what they say, instead of relying so heavily just on Lindzen.

  2. gman64

    To clarify due to poor composition on my part:

    There are many scientists qualified to speak on the issue, whose theories and ideas are much better supported by the evidence, not just Lindzen.

    Reply
    1. Bryan W. White (Post author)

      “Lindzen has been wrong much more than he has been right,”

      Which peer-reviewed studies have addressed the question of whether Lindzen is wrong the majority of the time, please?

      “and a familiarity with the science wouldn’t allow using him as *the* source for your commentary without taking that into account.”

      Why wouldn’t that be allowed? What if I wanted to cite Lindzen in support for the observation that the sky is blue? Would you allow that?

      “There are many scientists qualified to speak on the issue, whose theories and ideas are much better supported by the evidence, not just Lindzen.”

      But isn’t the point for which Lindzen is cited a point that you admit is true? If you concede the point then stop wasting our time (mine and yours). If you don’t concede the point then address the point directly, not by attacking the source of the claim (aka, genetic fallacy).

      Reply
      1. gman64

        Examine the responses to Lindzen’s “iris” hypothesis and as I noted earlier, his claim for very low ECS and the observational record.

        Also see a response to Lindzen’s lecture:

        https://workspace.imperial.ac.uk/climatechange/Public/pdfs/Opinion%20pieces/Critique%20of%20Lindzen's%20lecture.pdf

        Your post attacks the consensus as a poor reason to accept the reality of man-made climate change, but the truth is that the consensus arose from the fact that the theory that our carbon emissions are altering the climate system is well-supported by the observational evidence. The theory is widely accepted (i.e., the consensus) because it does better at accommodating the observations than the other theories promoted by those who reject anthropogenic climate change.

        Lindzen is an outlier not because he’s Lindzen, but because his claims don’t fit the evidence well. Why use an inferior source as support for one’s views?

        Reply
        1. Bryan W. White (Post author)

          “Examine the responses to Lindzen’s “iris” hypothesis and as I noted earlier, his claim for very low ECS and the observational record.”

          That plus the link will show “Lindzen has been wrong much more than he has been right”?

          “Your post attacks the consensus as a poor reason to accept the reality of man-made climate change,”

          In point of fact I pointed that that it’s reasonable as a heuristic but logically fallacious at the same time. I pointed out the important thing is the evidence.

          “but the truth is that the consensus arose from the fact that the theory that our carbon emissions are altering the climate system is well-supported by the observational evidence.”

          Sure, but as I also pointed out the evidence sends the vast majority of people into the weeds, so you can’t really succeed with the technical explanation. That leaves the unsatisfactory substitute of arguing via consensus. And if you can’t provide an accessible technical explanation to back up the heuristic appeal to consensus then you’re stuck back at the beginning. Basically, science ends up saying “trust us,” and if scientists provide reasons for regarding them as untrustworthy it complicates the game even further. Posting adjusted temperature data as a substitute for raw data without providing an entirely transparent and conspicuous explanation, for example, undermines trust.

          “The theory is widely accepted …”

          That’s not especially reassuring when science has a history of undermining its own formerly popular theories.

          “Lindzen is an outlier not because he’s Lindzen …”

          Did I argue otherwise?

          Lindzen’s not an outlier on the complexity of causation with respect to climate science, is he?

          And that’s really the issue right there. If the point I use Lindzen to support is a solid point, and you don’t appear to have suggested otherwise, then it’s useless for you to suggest I use an alternate source. Lindzen’s fully qualified to make the point and he expressed it well. Period.

          Reply
          1. gman64

            I can see the familiarity with the science is lacking. Unfortunate, because that’s the core cause of your erroneous arguments.

            I’m not willing to spend the time and energy here; perhaps you can peruse Spencer Weart’s “The Discovery of Global Warming”, which will provide you with the necessary foundational knowledge of the subject.

  3. Bryan W. White (Post author)

    “I can see the familiarity with the science is lacking.”

    Based on what evidence, apart from what you imagine? You haven’t contested the point about the complexity of causation in climate science. If you think the point is wrong, then explain why. If the point is right, then why spin a yarn about my lack of familiarity with the science? It’s just a red herring, isn’t it?

    “Unfortunate, because that’s the core cause of your erroneous arguments.”

    What erroneous argument(s) of mine do you believe you have identified?

    “I’m not willing to spend the time and energy here”

    Right. Why bother to support your assertions when you can just launch an ad hominem or two and then run safely away?

    You haven’t identified any erroneous argument on my part. Chances are if you try I’ll be able to match the pattern of your argument to a common logical fallacy.

    Reply
    1. gman64

      As I suggested, a familiarity with the science will show you how Lindzen has gone wrong with his theories and why the climate science community has rejected them. I gave you a small example at the beginning but you didn’t appreciate it because I suspect you find Lindzen more agreeable to your political ideology, which isn’t how a scientist’s views are to be judged.

      Reply
  4. Bryan W. White (Post author)

    “As I suggested, a familiarity with the science will show you how Lindzen has gone wrong with his theories and why the climate science community has rejected them.”

    You said Lindzen was wrong more often than right. Then you offered extraordinarily dubious evidence in support of your claim. After that you baselessly attacked my familiarity with the science.

    “I gave you a small example at the beginning but you didn’t appreciate it …”

    Correct. I don’t appreciate it because I’ve explained to you it’s not relevant. And you haven’t addressed that point. I try to pin you down on whether Lindzen is right about the complexity of causation in climate study and you squirm away repeatedly.

    “… because I suspect you find Lindzen more agreeable to your political ideology, which isn’t how a scientist’s views are to be judged.”

    I think Lindzen is right about the complexity of causation in climate science because of my ideology? Does this somehow imply that you’re ready to argue that Lindzen is wrong about that complexity? Or are you poised to dodge again?

    Seriously, and to repeat myself: If Lindzen is wrong about the complexity of causation then say so and provide some kind of argument to support your assertion. Argue via a URL if you like. But don’t try to tell me that Lindzen is wrong about the complexity of causation because of some unrelated matter in which you find him incorrect. Taking that road is fallacious reasoning.

    Reply
    1. gman64
      1. Bryan

        Don’t rely on just Skeptical Science:

        “As Phil Jones acknowledged, there has been no statistically significant warming in 15 years.”
        22 February 2012 (Source)

        “Phil Jones was misquoted.”

        Maybe Phil Jones was misquoted, but not by Lindzen. Maybe I should publish a fact check on that one. You think Skeptical Science will run a correction, or do they see too much value in getting one extra attack in on Lindzen even if it’s false?

        Reply
        1. gman64

          Lindzen knows better, or should have known better, than to paraphrase Jone in those words.

          http://skepticalscience.com/Phil-Jones-says-no-global-warming-since-1995.htm

          Reply
          1. Bryan W. White (Post author)

            As a non-scientist, I don’t understand why it’s wrong to paraphrase a person using the same terms the person used originally. Perhaps you can explain?

  5. gman64

    Apparently I’m no longer allowed to comment.

    Reply
    1. Bryan W. White (Post author)

      If you’re not allowed to post it has nothing to do with me. I haven’t changed any settings or permissions. I got an email regarding a new post to this thread, and it led straight to your response above which, as far as I can see, posted successfully to the page.

      Maybe you should try again.

      Reply

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