A Convenient Truth

12 July 2017

An informative package in the mail. Brian Koberlein
An informative package in the mail.

I got a book in the mail this week. If you’re a scientist or science teacher, you might have too. This Spring the Heartland Institute mailed more than 300,000 of them to K-12 science teachers and university professors. At a retail price of $6.95, that’s more than $2 million worth of books. You can find a PDF copy on the Heartland Institute website. This book has outraged many scientists who see it as an attack on the established science of global climate change. As a scientist myself, I want you to read it.

I want you to read it, but more importantly I want you to think about it. And I hope you’ll come back to read my thoughts on it as well. Whether you think climate change is real or not, this book is now in the center of the debate. It was written by the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC), which is an international group of scientists with the purpose of providing a “second opinion” to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was established by the United Nations. The IPCC has produced similar reports, and you can find their latest one on their website. Ideally you will read both, but I’m going to focus on the NIPCC report, since it represents the counter-argument to “established science.”

Before we go through this book, I want to be clear about a few points:

For the sake of open disclosure, I personally think human-driven climate change is real. My employer does not require me to hold that view, and I get no monetary support from any climate related group.

So let’s begin. I want to start with the first paragraph of the forward by Marita Noon:

President Barack Obama and his followers have repeatedly declared that climate change is “the greatest threat facing mankind.” This, while ISIS is beheading innocent people, displacing millions from their homeland, and engaging in global acts of mass murder.

I love this opening. It’s a wonderful example of an approach known as framing. Framing is a way to present an argument on your home turf. If you dislike Obama, then climate change is tainted by his connection. The paragraph primes you to be skeptical of the idea. To be clear, the paragraph is completely true. Obama has called climate change the greatest threat facing us. ISIS is doing horrible things to innocent people. Connecting the two in the same paragraph is the frame.

Let me give you another one. This is how I could have opened this post:

Fred Singer once claimed aliens could have built the largest moon of Mars. Now he wants you to believe climate change is a lie.

Dr. S. Fred Singer is one of the authors of this book. He did once claim aliens could have built a Martian moon. It’s an interesting story, actually. Mars has two moons, Deimos and Phobos. They are both the size of small asteroids, but Phobos orbits very close to Mars. It’s orbit is also decaying. This was noticed back the the 1950s and 1960s, and it was thought to be due to atmospheric drag from Mars’ atmosphere. Russian astrophysicist Iosif Samuilovich Shklovsky argued that it could be a hollow metal shell, which would imply it was artificially made. At the time Dr. Singer was science advisor to President Eisenhower. In 1960 he wrote “…there is little alternative to the hypothesis that it is hollow and therefore Martian made.” True story!

To be honest, the full quote is more telling:

If the satellite is indeed spiraling inward as deduced from astronomical observation, then there is little alternative to the hypothesis that it is hollow and therefore Martian made. The big ‘if’ lies in the astronomical observations; they may well be in error. Since they are based on several independent sets of measurements taken decades apart by different observers with different instruments, systematic errors may have influenced them.

In other words, the data gathered at the time pointed to a hollow Phobos. But Singer also noted that there could be errors in the data. We should accept the data even when it leads to a seemingly crazy conclusion, but we should be cautious not to jump to conclusions too quickly. Spoken like a true scientist. And it turns out Singer was right. There were errors in the data, and Phobos isn’t hollow. My initial paragraph painted Singer as crazy, while the full story shows Dr. Singer is a notable and reasoned scientist. Both are true, but only the latter is honest.

Framing is often more subtle, and it isn’t always meant to deceive. If you go back and read the first paragraph of this post, you may notice how it was framed. I portrayed myself as a simple honest guy, while noting that the Heartland Institute has spent lots of money. I stated how scientists are outraged. You may think scientists are biased, but I’m different. I have an open mind, and you can trust me. The premise I hope you accept is that I’m presenting an unbiased view.

The great thing about framing is that when you see it, you know the position of the author. By being aware of it, you can also distinguish between an emotional appeal and one based upon evidence. Being emotional doesn’t make an argument wrong, but it doesn’t make the argument stronger or right. An emotional plea strives to make an argument more compelling, whether it’s supported by evidence or not. We’re emotional creatures, and emotions are compelling. We love to have our views confirmed, and that makes it difficult to be open to opposing views. But we can strive to focus on evidence, and that’s necessary if we want to move closer to the truth.

So for your first assignment, I want you read the book with an eye for framing and emotional appeals. When you feel an emotional tug, positive or negative, look at the way ideas are presented. What has fed your emotions? Is one view called a “pet theory” while the other is “insightful?” Are the qualifications of scientists on one side outlined in detail while the qualifications of opposition scientists minimized or ignored? I don’t care whether you agree or disagree with a particular argument, I just want you to see how it is presented. Agree with it and see the emotional frame? Mark it. Disagree and see it as mere emotion? Mark it. Find all the framing and emotional arguments you can. Do the same for the IPCC report if you read it as well. In the end the evidence will support one side or the other. But to look at the evidence we first have to separate reason from emotion. Otherwise we’ll simply fall prey to a convenient truth.

Next time: 97% of scientists think that climate change is real. Or do they? We’ll look at the facts next time.