Holger Kiik: Of fallacies, based on cursing climate policy
Fallacies are a form of rhetorical self-defense that reduces the chances of the debate leading participants closer to the truth as it makes use of misleading argumentation. We often use these tools involuntarily and without noticing it ourselves. Holger Kiik explains some of the more common fallacies.
It is our good fortune that climate change is man-made. At least this way we have a chance to do something and stop sawing through the branch we're sitting on by gradually improving our behavior.
We should give serious thought to why otherwise modest and reticent scientists have been organizing, promoting research papers and urging steps to be taken that could prevent tragic consequences.
The obvious truth of climate change has started to make its way from research papers to our everyday lives (do you still remember a season called winter?), with the news telling us of fires in Australia in which human lives have been lost, homes destroyed and countless animals killed. There are 10,000 people of Estonian descent living in Australia, while the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) forecast Australian wildfires would become more frequent as a result of climate change back in 2007.
At the same time, certain interest groups and those looking for cheap popularity are trying to make it look like we could just as easily sit back down and continue on the path of senseless overconsumption. It is the global consensus of the scientific community that inaction would be a serious mistake, while it is up to journalists and the academic world to explain these things.
Therefore, it is becoming increasingly difficult to directly deny climate change or its anthropogenic nature, while supporters of anti-scientific positions seem to be repeating history where tobacco companies and other major corporations as well as countries' propaganda services have discovered the crafty fact that if you cannot make a person believe lies and if there is no serious proof with which to protect misconceptions, it is enough just to manufacture confusion, sow doubt and muddy the water – in other words, to intellectually pollute public debate.
It might just prove possible to turn facts into opinions, politicize scientific positions and convince people that there is no truth even in places where the scientists of the world agree.
The reasons for sowing confusion are manyfold, including absentmindedness, seeking political popularity, the inconvenience of taking responsibility, desire to promote oneself and one's arbitrary guesstimates, overconfidence caused by incompetence in the field, contempt for younger people, reading news about the end of the world and other horror stories too often, regarding climate change denial "healthy skepticism" etc.
It is likely that none of those muddying the water are being paid by oil companies, while there are examples of this from elsewhere in the world.
Such efforts have managed to confuse a considerable number of entirely sensible people who have not had the time to get to the bottom of these things. Tools for downplaying environmental issues include demagogy, selective use of facts, misdirection and the broader arsenal of fallacies that my students and I discuss during lectures.
Fallacies are a rhetorical form of self-defense that minimize the chances of the debate leading participants closer to the truth by using misleading argumentation and avoiding responsibility for one's words and statements. We often use these tricks involuntarily and without realizing it. I will list more common types of fallacies for the reader to able to recognize them.
1. The Nirvana fallacy or perfectionism
As a rule, solutions proposed for solving complicated problems aren't flawless nor is any method of obtaining knowledge 100 percent reliable. Just as deicing highways cannot save every life nor healthy living ward off all diseases. Taking this realization to the extreme, we could reach the conclusion that it doesn't matter who you trust or whether there is any sense in even trying to solve problems.
Global consensus shared by 97 percent of the world's scientists developed based on decades of research and debate is still not 100 percent. Scientists have been known to change their mind, which is why we should perhaps not heed their calls for immediate and extensive action on the level of individuals, state policy and the international community.
There are no complete, comfortable and endlessly enjoyable solutions for alleviating climate change. One would have to make temporarily uncomfortable choices, expensive investments and live with tomorrow in mind. It seems far more attractive to equate one's everyday thoughts to science as an equally valid source of information and ignore research.
However, after giving the matter some thought, we quickly find that while fastening our seat belt or wearing a helmet when visiting a construction site cannot guarantee our safety 100 percent, it increases the likelihood of walking away from an accident.
Could we perhaps draw the conclusion that in a situation where spending 2 percent of GDP on defense and membership in NATO cannot guarantee our safety, we could just as easily spend 0.4 percent of GDP and would be better off without NATO? Obviously not.
This is why we should not conclude that research pursued over decades is mistaken and can be ignored just because proposed solutions are imperfect or scientists human (capable of making mistakes).
We should make an informed decision that because our best knowledge today suggests man-made climate change is an existential threat, we are responsible to future generations and the living nature and should adjust our behavior as individuals and the state accordingly.
2. Ad hominem or attacking the person instead of their argument
Because the scientific community is largely held to be a trustworthy and capable source of information, we cannot directly argue against joint declarations by scientists based on our "own intellect," with it being far more hopeful to attempt misdirection or to muddy the water.
Attacking the messenger is perhaps one of the oldest and most common forms of self-defense when one runs out of arguments.
It is far easier to insult a person or point to their imperfections than it is to overturn their position, introduce solid evidence or counter valid arguments.
Therefore, it would be safer to ask what does a 16-year-old know about science and demand they should be in school instead. Also emphasize how no advocate is perfect. Perhaps they use a car from time to time? Perhaps they belong to the wrong political party? Perhaps they recently ate meat? Or perhaps they left the light on?
This trick comes with the added bonus of it being relatively unimportant whether criticism of the person is actually true – the subject gets changed either way. These kinds of exercises at putting people down can also leave perpetrators with an undeserved feeling of superiority for seemingly making the world a better place.
3. Straw man or refuting an argument never made
While attacking a person is sometimes not enough as it is perceived as cynical, the climate change denier is not yet forced to face the truth. Another useful tool is ignoring actual arguments and going after an altered form or a straw man.
Accusing people of believing that taking their own cup to the gas station for coffee or shopping second hand can somehow save the planet.
We could just as easily argue against income tax by claiming that it won't be enough to pay for all public services.
Just as an individual's decision to recycle and not to litter cannot exempt us from having to organize "Let's Do It" cleanup campaigns, a single step or decision to move toward a more environmentally friendly cast of mind is not expected to save the entire planet. No one is claiming that.
The goal of environmentalists is to take personal responsibility in their home country, promote a responsible society and for their country to serve as an example in the world, not offer excuses instead of contribution.
And as concerns intimidation that taking responsibility for the environment will culminate in unexpected health problems, bankrupt airlines and serfdom, even though environmental problems really need a holistic – including in terms of the social domain and the labor market – approach and dedication, these problems pale in comparison with scientific models of what will happen if we do nothing.
4. False dilemma or artificial distress
Even though the list goes on, allow me to analyze as the last item the false dilemma.
It seems that a large part of the rhetoric of climate deniers boils down to a frightening choice (also represented by some environmentalists), similar to the Nirvana fallacy, according to which we can a) utterly upend society and individual behavior overnight to completely eliminate our environmental impact and live as saints who never fly, drive or consume animal products and constantly suffer or b) carry on exactly as we have, while demeaning environmentalists with every rhetorical trick in the book.
In truth, everyone in Estonia can, in their imperfection, start their journey toward a more sustainable way of life that could result in improved health and joy of living.
We can consume less, more knowledgeably and by recycling and try and find peace of mind and happiness in new experiences rather than new things. Carpool, use public transport or ride a bike when it's dry. Have vegetarian Tuesdays and meat-free Saturdays. Invest in circular economy, renewable energy and retraining in the energy sector. Promote family planning and gender equality in third world countries to slow down population increase or donate to carbon offsetting when we need to fly somewhere.
The force of habit is powerful and the road long, but habits are subject to cultivation and even the greatest change begins with a small step.
There is no reason to harbor unreasonable contempt for environmental conservation, spread anti-scientific wishful thinking or promote passivity or defeatism. We do not need to label appropriate behavior and talking about problems as hysteria, refer to demanding necessary political reforms as a foolish utopia or describe starting with small steps as hopelessly naive.
While there is no need to panic, action must be taken. We should heed international scientific organizations' long-debated positions and recommendations and ignore those looking for cheap popularity and faults in argumentation, as well as avoid convenient anti-scientific wishful thinking.
The situation is not an easy one and solutions can include worker retraining and regional peculiarities, but the time of downplaying environmental concerns and promoting anti-scientific rhetoric is past.
I hope that the ability to recognize fallacies will help the reader not to be fooled. I wish we can all find the strength to take more personal responsibility and demand the same from politicians on the national level, so our behavior would spare rather than ruin nature.
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Editor: Marcus Turovski