There’s been quite some climate discussion in the Political Science section of the Guardian lately. Warren Pearce had an invited post in which he asked the rhetorical question “Are climate sceptics the real champions of the scientific method?”
He makes some good observations about the dynamics of the public debate and the nature of skepticism (e.g. most contrarians don’t deny the basic physics underlying the greenhouse effect, but rather dispute the magnitude of warming that would result from an increased greenhouse effect). On the other hand, he misses the mark in other areas (e.g. he correctly describes how contrarians see themselves but doesn’t investigate how their argumentation really stacks up; often they are guilty of what they accuse mainstream science of).
My main beef with his piece though is his flawed argument of why a well-known contrarian blogger like Anthony Watts, according to Pearce, should be seen as someone who “seeks to uphold standards, through transparent and auditable scientific practice” and “a ‘mainstream’ sceptic who can challenge key areas of climate science without entering into pseudoscience”. Why this praise? Because Watts publicly disagreed with the fringe group Principia Scientific who deny the basic physics underlying the greenhouse effect (which was first established in the 19th century).
That is not a logical argument to make though: Regardless of what one may think of Watts, contrasting an extremist with someone who is even more extreme doesn’t make him mainstream. Regardless of what one thinks of Watts, contrasting someone who frequently flirts with pseudoscience with an all-out pseudo-science lover doesn’t free the former from any link with pseudo-science.
That is what I would call the fallacy of the middle ground.
Dana Nuccitelli described it as follows:
Pearce’s question is like asking whether moon landing conspiracy theorists are the real champions of the scientific method because they don’t believe the moon is made of cheese.
That shows the illogical nature of Pearce’s argument quite well. I tried (rather unsuccessfully) a very dry analogy to take the heat out of the argument by tweeting
3 is smaller than 10 even though 1 is even further removed from 10
Regarding Watts’ position on climate science, Dana correctly states
However, aside from accepting the 150-year-old science behind the greenhouse effect, Watts will latch onto any argument so long as it suggests that the human role in global warming is minimal – an attitude also known as ABC (Anything But Carbon).
In response to my criticism that he had fallen victim to ‘the fallacy of the middle’ Warren Pearce asked me on his Guardian post:
Hello Bart, thanks for your comment – much appreciated. Of course, it would be wrong to argue that someone occupied the ‘middle ground’ just because someone else holds a more extreme position.
The point I was trying to make was not that Watts necessarily ‘became’ a mainstream figure by distancing himself from Principia Scientific, only that such an act was a necessary precursor of him having any scientific credibility (I provide no argument here on whether Watts does or does not have such credibility).
You argue that Watts “frequently flirts with pseudoscience”. If you have time, I would be interested to know why you think Principia were treated the way they were, and whether other ‘pseudoscience’ has been given a more sympathetic hearing.
It seems that he is packpedaling a little bit here, or perhaps I misunderstood him the first time around? I have no beef with the argument that someone who aligns themselves with the dragon-slayers has no scientific credibility, but the reverse (having credibility because of distancing oneself from this fringe group) is not necessarily true. As Dana wrote, that’s setting a very low bar. Pearce sure gave many readers the impression of arguing that Watts has such credibility.
Pearce asks why imho Watts would have distanced himself from the slayers. I can think of various reasons, but I don’t claim to know how (un)important these were for Watts:
- Perhaps he understands enough physics to know that they don’t have a leg to stand on
- Perhaps he accepts basic physics because it’s been around un-falsified and confirmed for so long
- Perhaps he takes his cues from the more scientifically minded contrarians (such as Roy Spencer and Judith Curry), who have publicly chastised the dragon-slayers for having no credibility whatsoever.
- Perhaps he felt that aligning himself with this fringe group (who are criticized by most scientifically minded contrarians) would marginalize him.
- Perhaps he felt that it was a strategically smart move to criticize people with even more contrarian ideas, so that he could place himself (or be placed) in the middle ground (i.e. appealing to the fallacy of the middle by moving the Overton Window). It worked, apparently.
The second question that Pearce asks if other ‘pseudoscience’ has been given a more sympathetic hearing. One example I can think of is the argument that the increase in CO2 concentration may not be human induced after all, but of natural origin. The isotopes of atmospheric CO2 are however as clear a sign as you can get in science that most of the excess concentration originates from fossil fuel burning. This is only marginally less ‘pseudo’ than denying the greenhouse effect. Or trying to explain global warming by curve fitting, also a popular pastime at contrarian blogs, but very befitting of the pseudoscience label.
The bottom line: Ideas that are clearly nonsense do not gain in credibility if someone comes up with an even more nonsensical idea.