A Philosopher's Blog

Conservative Conservation

Posted in Ethics, Politics, Reasoning/Logic, Science by Michael LaBossiere on March 1, 2017

While the scientific evidence for climate change is overwhelming, it has become an ideological matter. In the case of conservatives, climate change denial has become something of a stock position. In the case of liberals, belief in human-caused climate change is a standard position.  Because of the way ideological commitments influence thought, those who are committed to climate change denial tend to become immune to evidence or reasons offered against their view. In fact, they tend to double-down in the face of evidence—which is a standard defense people use to protect their ideological identity. This is not to say that all conservatives deny climate change; many accept it is occurring. However, conservatives who accept the reality of climate change tend to deny that it is caused by humans.

This spectrum of beliefs does tend to match the shifting position on climate change held by influential conservatives such as Charles Koch. The initial position was a denial of climate change. This shifted to the acceptance of climate change, but a rejection of the claim that it is caused by humans. The next shift was to accept that climate change is caused by humans, but that it is either not as significant as the scientists claim or that it is not possible to solve the problem. One obvious concern about this slow shift is that it facilitates the delay of action in response to the perils of climate change. If the delay continues long enough, there really will be nothing that can be done about climate change.

Since many conservatives are moving towards accepting human caused climate change, one interesting problem is how to convince them to accept the science and to support effective actions to offset the change. As I teach the students in my Critical Inquiry class, using logic and evidence to try to persuade people tends to be a poor option. Fallacies and rhetoric are vastly more effective in convincing people. As such, the best practical approach to winning over conservatives is not by focusing on the science and trying to advance rational arguments. Instead, the focus should be on finding the right rhetorical tools to win people over.

This does raise a moral concern about whether it is acceptable to use such tactics to get people to believe in climate change and to persuade them to act. One way to justify this approach is on utilitarian grounds: preventing the harms of climate change morally outweighs the moral concerns about using rhetoric rather than reason to convince people. Another way to justify this approach is to note that the goals are not to get people to accept an untruth and to do something morally questionable Quite the contrast, the goal is to get people to accept scientifically established facts and to act in defense of the wellbeing of humans in particular and the ecosystem in general.  As such, using rhetoric when reason fails seems warranted in this case. The question is then what sort of rhetoric would work best.

Interestingly, many conservative talking points can be deployed to support acting against climate change. For example, many American conservatives favor energy independence and keeping jobs in America. Developing sustainable energy within the United States, such as wind and solar power, would help with both. After all, while oil can be shipped from Saudi Arabia, shipping solar power is not a viable option (at least not until massive and efficient batteries become economically viable). The trick is, of course, to use rhetorical camouflage to hid that the purpose is to address climate change and environmental issues. As another example, many American conservatives tend to be pro-life—this can be used as a rhetorical angle to argue against pollution that harms fetuses. Of course, this is not likely to be a very effective approach if the main reasons someone is anti-abortion are not based in concern about human life and well-being. As a final example, clean water is valuable resource for business because industry needs clean water and, of course, human do as well. Thus, environmental protection of water can be sold with the rhetorical cover of being pro-business rather than pro-environment.

Thanks to a German study, there is evidence that one effective way to persuade conservatives to be concerned about climate change is to appeal to the fact that conservatives value preserving the past. This study showed that conservatives were influenced significantly more by appeals to restoring the earth to the way it was than by appeals to preventing future environmental harms. That is, conservatives were more swayed by appeals to conservation than by appeals to worries about future harms. As such, those wishing to gain conservative support for combating climate change should focus not on preventing the harms that will arise, but on making the earth great again. Many conservatives enjoy hunting, fishing and the outdoors and no doubt the older ones remember (or think they remember) how things were better when they were young. As examples, I’ve heard people talk about how much better the hunting used to be and how the fish were so much bigger, back in the good old days. This provides an excellent narrative for getting conservatives on board with addressing climate change and environmental issues. After all, presenting environmental protection as part of being a hunter and getting back to the memorable hunts of old is far more appealing than an appeal to hippie style tree-hugging.

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Don’t Say the C Words

Posted in Business, Environment, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on September 21, 2016

While weather disasters have always plagued humanity, there has been a clear recent uptick in such events. Naturally, the greater scope of these disasters is due partially to the human population being larger than ever and occupying more land—especially in areas prone to such events. That said, events such as the floods in Louisiana and the steady inundation of the sea in many places (such as Miami) are indications of a real change.

Nearly every climate scientist accepts that climate change is occurring and that human activity has had an influence. Given the historic record, it would be irrational to deny that the climate changes and few claim that it does not. The battle, then, is over the cause of climate change. Unfortunately for addressing the impact of climate change, it was brilliantly changed from a scientific issue into a political one. Making it into a partisan issue had the usual impact on group psychology: it became a matter of political identity, with people developing a profound emotional commitment to climate change denial. When denying climate change became a matter of group identity, it became almost impossible for reason to change minds—in the face of overwhelming evidence, people merely double down, deny the evidence, and craft narratives about how scientists are biased and environmentalists hate corporations and jobs.

To be fair, some of those who accept climate change do so out of political identity as well—they are not moved by the science, but by their group identity. They just happen to be right, albeit for the wrong reasons.

Not being an expert on climate change, I follow the rational approach to any issue that requires expertise to settle: I go with the majority view of the qualified experts. As such, I accept that climate change is real and humans play a role. If the majority shifted, I would accept that view—after all, the history of science includes numerous shifts.

If this matter were a purely abstract debate, then there would be no real worry. However, the impact of the changing climate is already doing considerable harm and the evidence suggests that it will continue to get worse unless steps are taken to address it. Unfortunately, as noted above, climate is now a political issue with deeply entrenched interest groups and strong emotional commitments. In some places, such as Florida, there is considerable political pressure to not even use the words “climate change.” The problem is, of course, that not using the words does not make the problems go away. Miami will slowly vanish into the ocean, even if people refuse to say “climate change.”

As a philosopher, I do believe in reason. However, I am also a practical person and know that reason is the weakest form of persuasion. Because of the entrenchment over climate change, trying to use reason and evidence to change minds would be a fool’s errand. As such, I suggest a purely pragmatic solution: stop using the C words (“climate change”) when trying to influence public policy, at least in cases in which there is strong ideological resistance. Using those words will simply evoke an emotional response and create strong resistance to whatever might be proposed, however reasonable.

As an alternative, the approach should be to focus on the specific threats and these should be cast in terms of risks to the economy and, perhaps, the lives and well-being of voters and consumers. There should be no mention of man-made climate change and no proposals to change behavior to counter man-made climate change. In short, the proposals must focus solely on mitigating the damage of weather events, with due care taken to present the notion that these events “just happen” and are “natural” with no connection to human activity.

It might be objected that this would be analogous to trying to combat the Zika virus by dealing only with the effects while refusing to say “virus” and not proposing any efforts to address the cause. This is certainly a reasonable point. However, if there was a powerful political movement that refused to accept the existence of viruses and citizens emotionally devoted to virus denial, then trying to persuade them to deal with the virus would be a nigh-impossible task. If they did accept the existence of the effects, then they could be enlisted to assist in addressing them. While this approach would hardly be optimal, it would be better to have their cooperation in mitigating the consequences rather than facing their opposition.

It might also be objected that I am deluded by my own ideological views and have been misled by the conspiracy of scientists and liberals who are in the pocket of Big Environment. Since I rather enjoy a good conspiracy theory, I certainly admit that it could be the case that the noble fossil fuel companies and those they pay are right about climate change and the scientists are either villains or dupes. If so, then not talking about climate change would be the correct approach—just as not talking about climate demons is the correct approach (because there are no such things). Since the weather events are really occurring, then addressing them would still be reasonable. So, regardless of whether climate change is real or not, my approach seems to be a sound one: avoid the resistance of climate change deniers by not using the C words; but enlist them into addressing those perfectly natural severe weather events that will be occurring with increasing regularity.


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Science & Self-Identity

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic, Science by Michael LaBossiere on June 9, 2014
English: The smallpox vaccine diluent in a syr...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The assuming an authority of dictating to others, and a forwardness to prescribe to their opinions, is a constant concomitant of this bias and corruption of our judgments. For how almost can it be otherwise, but that he should be ready to impose on another’s belief, who has already imposed on his own? Who can reasonably expect arguments and conviction from him in dealing with others, whose understanding is not accustomed to them in his dealing with himself? Who does violence to his own faculties, tyrannizes over his own mind, and usurps the prerogative that belongs to truth alone, which is to command assent by only its own authority, i.e. by and in proportion to that evidence which it carries with it.

-John Locke

As a philosophy professor who focuses on the practical value of philosophical thinking, one of my main objectives is to train students to be effective critical thinkers. While true critical thinking has been, ironically, threatened by the fact that it has become something of a fad, I stick with a very straightforward and practical view of the subject. As I see it, critical thinking is the rational process of determining whether a claim should be accepted as true, rejected or false or subject to the suspension of judgment. Roughly put, a critical thinker operates on the principle that the belief in a claim should be proportional to the evidence for it, rather than in proportion to our interests or feelings. In this I follow John Locke’s view: “Whatsoever credit or authority we give to any proposition more than it receives from the principles and proofs it supports itself upon, is owing to our inclinations that way, and is so far a derogation from the love of truth as such: which, as it can receive no evidence from our passions or interests, so it should receive no tincture from them.” Unfortunately, people often fail to follow this principle and do so in matters of considerable importance, such as climate change and vaccinations. To be specific, people reject proofs and evidence in favor of interests and passions.

Despite the fact that the scientific evidence for climate change is overwhelming, there are still people who deny climate change. These people are typically conservatives—although there is nothing about conservatism itself that requires denying climate change.

While rejecting the scientific evidence for climate change can be regarded as irrational, it is easy enough to attribute a rational motive behind this view. After all, there are people who have an economic interest in denying climate change or, at least, preventing action from being taken that they regard as contrary to their interests (such as implementing the cap and trade system on carbon originally proposed by conservative thinkers). This interest would provide a motive to lie (that is, make claims that one knows are not true) as well as a psychological impetus to sincerely hold to a false belief. As such, I can easily make sense of climate change denial in the face of overwhelming evidence: big money is on the line. However, the denial less rational for the majority of climate change deniers—after all, they are not owners of companies in the fossil fuel business. However, they could still be motivated by a financial stake—after all, addressing climate change could cost them more in terms of their energy bills. Of course, not addressing climate change could cost them much more.

In any case, I get climate denial in that I have a sensible narrative as to why people reject the science on the basis of interest. However, I have been rather more confused by people who deny the science regarding vaccines.

While vaccines are not entirely risk free, the scientific evidence is overwhelming that they are safe and very effective. Scientists have a good understanding of how they work and there is extensive empirical evidence of their positive impact—specifically the massive reduction in cases of diseases such as polio and measles. Oddly enough, there is significant number of Americans who willfully deny the science of vaccination. What is most unusual is that these people tend to be college educated. They are also predominantly political liberals, thus showing that science denial is bi-partisan. It is fascinating, but also horrifying, to see someone walk through the process of denial—as shown in a segment on the Daily Show. This process is rather complete: evidence is rejected, experts are dismissed and so on—it is as if the person’s mind switched into a Bizzaro version of critical thinking (“kritikal tincing” perhaps). This is in marked contrast with the process of rational disagreement in which the methodology of critical thinking is used in defense of an opposing viewpoint. Being a philosopher, I value rational disagreement and I am careful to give opposing views their due. However, the use of fallacious methods and outright rejection of rational methods of reasoning is not acceptable.

As noted above, climate change denial makes a degree of sense—behind the denial is a clear economic interest. However, vaccine science denial seems to lack that motive. While I could be wrong about this, there does not seem to be any economic interest that would benefit from this denial—except, perhaps, the doctors and hospitals that will be treating the outbreaks of preventable diseases. However, doctors and hospitals obviously encourage vaccination. As such, an alternative explanation is needed.

Recent research does provide some insight into the matter and this research is consistent with Locke’s view that people are influenced by both interests and passions. In this case, the motivating passion seems to be a person’s commitment to her concept of self. The idea is that when a person’s self-concept or self-identity is threatened by facts, the person will reject the facts in favor of her self-identity.  In the case of the vaccine science deniers, the belief that vaccines are harmful has somehow become part of their self-identity. Or so goes the theory as to why these deniers reject the evidence.

To be effective, this rejection must be more than simply asserting the facts are wrong. After all, the person is aiming to deceive herself to maintain her self-identity. As such, the person must create an entire narrative which makes their rejection seem sensible and believable to them. A denier must, as Pascal said in regards to his famous wager, make himself believe his denial. In the case of matters of science, a person needs to reject not just the claims made by scientists but also the method by which the scientists support the claims. Roughly put, the narrative of denial must be a complete story that protects itself from criticism. This is, obviously enough, different from a person who denies a claim on the basis of evidence—since there is rational support for the denial, there is no need to create a justifying narrative.

This, I would say, is one of the major dangers of this sort of denial—not the denial of established facts, but the explicit rejection of the methodology that is used to assess facts. While people often excel at compartmentalization, this strategy runs the risk of corrupting the person’s thinking across the board.

As noted above, as a philosopher one of my main tasks is to train people to think critically and rationally. While I would like to believe that everyone can be taught to be an effective and rational thinker, I know that people are far more swayed by rhetoric and (ironically) fallacious reasoning then they are swayed by good logic. As such, there might be little hope that people can be “cured” of their rejection of science and reasoning. Aristotle took this view—while noting that some can be convinced by “arguments and fine ideals” most people cannot. He advocated the use of coercive habituation to get people to behave properly and this could (and has) been employed to correct incorrect beliefs. However, such a method is agnostic in regards to the truth—people can be coerced into accepting the false as well as the true.

Interestingly enough, a study by Brendan Nyhan shows that reason and persuasion both fail when employed in attempts to change false beliefs that are critical to a person’s self-identity. In the case of Nyhan’s study, there were various attempts to change the beliefs of vaccine science deniers using reason (facts and science) and also various methods of rhetoric/persuasions (appeals to emotions and anecdotes). Since reason and persuasion are the two main ways to convince people, this is certainly a problem.

The study and other research did indicate an avenue that might work. Assuming that it is the threat to a person’s self-concept that triggers the rejection mechanism, the solution is to approach a person in a way that does not trigger this response. To use an analogy, it is like trying to conduct a transplant without triggering the body’s immune system to reject the transplanted organ.

One obvious problem is that once a person has taken a false belief as part of his self-concept, it is rather difficult to get him to regard any attempt to change his mind as anything other than a threat. Addressing this might require changing the person’s self-concept or finding a specific strategy for addressing that belief that is somehow not seen as a threat. Once that is done, the second stage—that of actually addressing the false belief, can begin.


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Talking Points & Climate Change

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic, Science by Michael LaBossiere on May 14, 2014
English: Animated global map of monthly long t...

English: Animated global map of monthly long term mean surface air temperature (Mollweide projection). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While science and philosophy are supposed to be about determining the nature of reality, politics is often aimed at creating perceptions that are alleged to be reality. This is why it is generally wiser to accept claims supported by science and reason over claims “supported” by ideology and interest.


The matter of climate change is a matter of both science (since the climate is an objective feature of reality) and politics (since perception of reality can be shaped by rhetoric and ideology). Ideally, the facts of climate change would be left to science and sorting out how to address it via policy would fall, in part, to the politicians. Unfortunately, politicians and other non-scientists have taken it on themselves to make claims about the science, usually in the form of unsupported talking points.


On the conservative side, there has been a general shifting in the talking points. Originally, there was one main talking point: there is no climate change and the scientists are wrong. This point was often supported by alleging that the scientists were motivated by ideology to lie about the climate. In contrast, those whose profits could be impacted if climate change was real were taken as objective sources.


In the face of mounting evidence and shifting public opinion, this talking point became the claim that while climate change is occurring, it is not caused by humans. This then shifted to the claim that climate change is caused by humans, but there is nothing we can (or should) do now.


In response to the latest study, certain Republicans have embraced three talking points. These points do seem to concede that climate change is occurring and that humans are responsible. These points do have a foundation that can be regarded as rational and each will be considered in turn.


One talking point is that the scientists are exaggerating the impact of climate change and that it will not be as bad as they claim. This does rest on a reasonable concern about any prediction: how accurate is the prediction? In the case of a scientific prediction based on data and models, the reasonable inquiry would focus on the accuracy of the data and how well the models serve as models of the actual world. To use an analogy, the reliability of predictions about the impact of a crash on a vehicle based on a computer model would hinge on the accuracy of the data and the model and both could be reasonable points of inquiry.


Since the climate scientists have the data and models used to make the predications, to properly dispute the predictions would require showing problems with either the data or the models (or both). Simply saying they are wrong would not suffice—what is needed is clear evidence that the data or models (or both) are defective in ways that would show the predictions are excessive in terms of the predicted impact.


One indirect way to do this would be to find clear evidence that the scientists are intentionally exaggerating. However, if the scientists are exaggerating, then this would be provable by examining the data and plugging it into an accurate model. That is, the scientific method should be able to be employed to show the scientists are wrong.


In some cases people attempt to argue that the scientists are exaggerating because of some nefarious motivation—a liberal agenda, a hatred of oil companies, a desire for fame or some other wickedness. However, even if it could be shown that the scientists have a nefarious motivation, it does not follow that the predictions are wrong. After all, to dismiss a claim because of an alleged defect in the person making the claim is a fallacy. Being suspicious because of a possible nefarious motive can be reasonable, though. So, for example, the fact that the fossil fuel companies have a great deal at stake here does not prove that their claims about climate change are wrong. But the fact that they have considerable incentive to deny certain claims does provide grounds for suspicion regarding their objectivity (and hence credibility).  Naturally, if one is willing to suspect that there is a global conspiracy of scientists, then one should surely be willing to consider that fossil fuel companies and their fellows might be influenced by their financial interests.


One could, of course, hold that the scientists are exaggerating for noble reasons—that is, they are claiming it is worse than it will be in order to get people to take action. To use an analogy, parents sometimes exaggerate the possible harms of something to try to persuade their children not to try it. While this is nicer than ascribing nefarious motives to scientists, it is still not evidence against their claims. Also, even if the scientists are exaggerating, there is still the question about how bad things really would be—they might still be quite bad.


Naturally, if an objective and properly conducted study can be presented that shows the predictions are in error, then that is the study that I would accept. However, I am still waiting for such a study.


The second talking point is that the laws being proposed will not solve the problems. Interestingly, this certainly seems to concede that climate change will cause problems. This point does have a reasonable foundation in that it would be unreasonable to pass laws aimed at climate change that are ineffective in addressing the problems.


While crafting the laws is a matter of politics, sorting out whether such proposals would be effective does seem to fall in the domain of science. For example, if a law proposes to cut carbon emissions, there is a legitimate question as to whether or not that would have a meaningful impact on the problem of climate change. Showing this would require having data, models and so on—merely saying that the laws will not work is obviously not enough.


Now, if the laws will not work, then the people who confidently make that claim should be equally confident in providing evidence for their claim. It seems reasonable to expect that such evidence be provided and that it be suitable in nature (that is, based in properly gathered data, examined by impartial scientists and so on).


The third talking point is that the proposals to address climate change will wreck the American economy. As with the other points, this does have a rational basis—after all, it is sensible to consider the impact on the economy.


One way to approach this is on utilitarian grounds: that we can accept X environmental harms (such as coastal flooding) in return for Y (jobs and profits generated by fossil fuels). Assuming that one is a utilitarian of the proper sort and that one accepts this value calculation, then one can accept that enduring such harms could be worth the advantages. However, it is well worth noting that as usual, the costs will seem to fall heavily on those who are not profiting. For example, the flooding of Miami and New York will not have a huge impact on fossil fuel company profits (although they will lose some customers).


Making the decisions about this should involve openly considering the nature of the costs and benefits as well as who will be hurt and who will benefit. Vague claims about damaging the economy do not allow us to make a proper moral and practical assessment of whether the approach will be correct or not. It might turn out that staying the course is the better option—but this needs to be determined with an open and honest assessment. However, there is a long history of this not occurring—so I am not optimistic about this occurring.


It is also worth considering that addressing climate change could be good for the economy. After all, preparing coastal towns and cities for the (allegedly) rising waters could be a huge and profitable industry creating many jobs. Developing alternative energy sources could also be profitable as could developing new crops able to handle the new conditions. There could be a whole new economy created, perhaps one that might rival more traditional economic sectors and newer ones, such as the internet economy. If companies with well-funded armies of lobbyists got into the climate change countering business, I suspect that a different tune would be playing.


To close, the three talking points do raise questions that need to be answered:


  • Is climate change going to be as bad as it is claimed?
  • What laws (if any) could effectively and properly address climate change?
  • What would be the cost of addressing climate change and who would bear the cost?



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Sandy & Society

Posted in Environment, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 5, 2012

Living in the south has made me as accustomed to hurricanes as growing up in Maine accustomed me to blizzards. However, Sandy was a new sort of thing: a massive storm that slammed into essentially the entire east coast of the United States and flooded vast areas of land.

A strong extra-tropical area of low pressure o...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is, of course, tempting to dismiss Sandy as an aberration and to ignore the doomsayers who speak of global climate change. After all, doubts can always be raised about what might happen and scientific theories about the world are always subject to philosophical doubt (the problem of   induction). Also, the mind deadening and emotion enhancing powers of political ideology make it easy to dismiss any claims, even when backed up with solid (or soaking wet) evidence.

However, it seems far more rational to consider that while the massive Sandy might be unusual, lesser storms of this sort could occur with greater frequency. That is, the east coast might start experiencing the sort of routine poundings that the folks down south have been suffering through for quite some time.  It is also well worth considering that flooding might become a recurring problem. At the very least, since Sandy happened once, we can be reasonable confident that it can happen again. After all, we know for sure that such storms are possible.

Sandy’s onslaught showed us once again how vulnerable and poorly prepared we are to face natural disasters. New Jersey was devastated by flood, wind and fire. Much of New York City looked like the set of some science fiction disaster movie with its flooded subways and streets. This incident shows how easy it is for the most powerful and advanced country in known history to be devastated by a storm. For all our iPads and military might, we still cannot keep water out of the subways or combat flooding. In short, we are woefully unprepared for the likely future.

Naturally, we can simply continue to live in denial-to insist that climate change is a conspiracy being put forth by mad scientists and liberals who hate capitalism, success and God. However, the flooding and devastation of Sandy seems to suggest that denial will not be an effective response.

Now, I would not suggest that the skeptics actually accept the idea that the climate is changing and that humans have had a role in this. Rather, I am just suggesting that we need to expend the resources and efforts needed to help mitigate the damage that is sure to come. Naturally, preparing for natural disasters is expensive and there is the natural tendency to simply forget about the danger once the current disaster has passed. Nature does have a way of reminding us, however, and perhaps the disasters will strike frequently enough that our minds will not be able to slide into soothing forgetfulness.

I would, of course, not suggest that we change our lifestyles in terms of the behavior that is alleged to cause climate change. That would meet mainly with derision and rage from those who have the most power to enact change and their loyal minions. However, I will suggest that we need to defend our cities, homes and lives against an enemy that is growing ever more violent: our own environment. As such, the east coast will need to build defenses against flooding such as sea walls. We will also need to develop defenses for our transportation systems-ways to flood proof the subways of the cities and to ensure that the airports remain above water. We will also probably need to relocate communities away from coastal areas that can be flooded. Obviously, we will also need to pour billions into disaster response capabilities, insurance funds and rebuilding supplies.

This massive undertaking will be on par with operating the military and the analogy is apt: we are, in effect, at war. We always have been-the war is just heating up. Naturally, just as the military requires the federal government, this disaster management cannot be fully handled by the states and the private sector. As such, responding to the weather threat will be a federal task.

Obviously, doing all this is far more sensible than even thinking about addressing the causes of climate change.

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Climate Change & Skepticism

Posted in Business, Environment, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on September 7, 2011
Al Gore

While I am not a philosophical skeptic (I do believe that knowledge is possible), I am a practical skeptic (I require proof before I believe). While some folks are skeptical of climate change, the evidence seems adequate to support the claim that humans have had a measurable impact on the climate. Given the scale of human activity, this seems inherently plausible. The climate data and causal explanations also seem fairly compelling.

Naturally, there are skeptics regarding climate change. Some of these folks are rational skeptics. That is, their doubts are founded on legitimate concerns about the methodologies used in climate science as well as the data in question. This sort of doubt and skepticism is actually a rather important part of the scientific approach: just as Socrates argued for the importance of the gadfly in the context of society, there should also be gadflies in science. Scientists are, after all, only human and are subject to all the same cognitive biases and frailties as everyone else (plus are especially vulnerable to certain biases).

Some folks are, however, irrational skeptics. They base their doubt not on legitimate critiques of the methodology or the data. Some of these folks base their doubt not on logic, but on their emotions. They feel hostility towards the idea of climate change and the people who claim it is real. They feel positive towards the folks who deny it. However, feeling is not a good guide to the truth. John Locke argued quite effectively for this in his essay regarding enthusiasm. However, you can test this yourself: try taking a chemistry test or solving a complex engineering problem solely by how you feel about the matter. Let me know how well that works out. To be fair, there are folks who believe in climate change based on how they feel. While I am inclined to say that their belief is correct, I am even more inclined to say that they are not warranted to hold said belief since it is based on feeling rather than on actual reasons.

Some of the skeptics base their doubt on the fact that the truth of climate change would be contrary to their interests. In some cases, they are not consciously aware that they are rejecting a claim based on this factor and they might very well be sincere in their skepticism. However, this is merely a form of wishful thinking. Other folks are well aware of what they are doing when they express their “skepticism.” Their goal is not to engage in a scientific debate over the matter-that is, engage in argumentation to achieve the truth. Rather, their objective is to persuade others to doubt climate change and thus protect their perceived interests. To be fair, there are folks who push climate change because doing so is in their own interest. As Al Gore will attest, there is considerable money to be made in this area. This, of course, does not show that Al Gore is wrong-“reasoning” this way would be to fall victim to a circumstantial ad homimem fallacy. Saying that the climate change deniers are wrong because they have an interest in denying it would also commit this fallacy (the sword of logic cuts both ways).

Interesting, while whether climate change is occurring or not (and whether or not it is our doing) is a scientific matter, much of the fighting is done in the realm of politics and rhetoric. However, factual claims about climate are not settled by who has the best rhetoric or who can get the most votes. They must be settled by scientific means. As such, it is important to cut through the rhetoric (and fallacies) and get to the heart of the matter.

While the consensus of the experts is that climate change is real and is caused, at least in part, by humans, I am not an expert on climate change. But, I am rational and, as such, I will accept their view unless adequate contrary evidence is provided from unbiased sources.

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Posted in Environment, Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on May 26, 2011
Environmental journalism supports the protecti...

Image via Wikipedia

The environment continues to be a hot battleground for various groups. While the main theater of war has been climate change, there are also side battles involving other matters, such as the threat posed (or not posed) by mercury. Not surprisingly, many of the folks who argue against climate change and contend that health risks of things like mercury are exaggerated tend to be associated with companies that produce substances alleged to cause climate change and/or be a health threat.

While the EPA has often been accused of being a mere lap-dog to corporate interests, it recently issued 946 pages of new rules governing the emission of mercury and other pollutants by power plants. The main argument for these laws is utilitarian. According to the EPA’s Lisa Jackson, while the rules will cost companies $10.9 billion a year, they will save 17,000 lives and provide as much as $140 billion in health benefits. Even if the lives are left out of the equation, this seems like a rather good idea. After all, getting $140 billion in benefits certainly seems to be worth the $10.9 billion.  Naturally, it is worth noting that the cost will be paid by the companies and the benefits will be reaped by the people who will avoid the harm done by the pollutants. However, this seems morally acceptable and it would seem hard to argue that the companies have a right to save $10.9 billion by costing other people their lives or health.

Obviously enough, this argument has merit only if the numbers involved are accurate. Not surprisingly, there are those who are questioning their accuracy.  There are, of course, always grounds for questioning such numbers. The first is, of course, the inherent problem of induction: whenever engaged in inductive reasoning, the conclusion can always turn out to be false even if the premises are true. Of course, this is a fairly weak method of challenging since it applies to all inductive reasoning. What is, of course, needed is something more substantial.

Willie Soon and Paul Driessen recently wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal raising a substantial criticism, To be specific, they  claim “the EPA systematically ignored evidence and clinical studies that contradict its regulatory agenda, which is to punish hydrocarbon use.”

In critical thinking terms, they are accusing the EPA of trying to make the public a victim of the fallacy of incomplete/suppressed evidence and they are also accusing the EPA of bias. If the first charge is correct, then this would be a serious problem. After all, when drawing a conclusion there is a logical (and ethical) requirement to consider all the reasonably available  significant evidence. Also, if the EPA officials are biased, then this impacts their credibility in a negative manner.  Obviously enough, the same standards apply to Soon and Driessen.

One concern about Soon is that while he is at Harvard, he is an astrophysicist. This raises some questions about his expertise in assessing the impact of mercury on the population. While any competent scientist (or critical thinking professor) can engage in legitimate criticism of methodology, assessing the actual causal impact of mercury falls under the domain of other areas of expertise.  There is also some concerns raised by the Soon and Baliunas controversy. A general concern about Driessen and Soon is the same one they leveled against the EPA: the possibility of bias. While the EPA might have an agenda, Soon and Driessen can also be regarded as having an agenda of their own. As such, it is well worth considering their claims in the light of potential bias.

Since I am not an expert on mercury, I will not enter the fray other than to point out the obvious: mercury is well established as a toxin and it seems like a good idea to reduce the amount of the substance being released into the environment. However, I am willing to consider all the available evidence and arguments in terms of what level of pollution would meet an ethically acceptable balance between the costs to reduce the levels and the harms inflicted by this pollutant.

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Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on November 12, 2010
Robot Monster... ahora resulta que los robots ...
Image by Javier Piragauta via Flickr

One interesting phenomenon is that groups often adopt a set of stock views and arguments that are almost mechanically deployed to defend the views. In many cases, the pattern of responses seems almost robotic-in many “discussions” I can predict what stock arguments will be deployed next.

I have even found that if I can lure someone off their pre-established talking points, then they are often quite at a loss as to what to say next. This, I suspect, is a sign that a person does not really have his/her own arguments but is merely putting forth established dogmarguments (dogmatic arguments).

Apparently someone else noticed this phenomenon-specifically in the context of global warming arguments and decided to create his own argubot. Nigel Leck created a script that searches Twitter for key phrases associated with stock arguments against the view that humans have caused global warming. When the argubot finds a foe it then engages by sending a response tweet containing a counter to the argument (and relevant links).

In some cases the target of the argubot does not realize that s/he is arguing with a script and not a person. The argubot is set up to respond with a variety of “prefabricated” arguments when the target repeats an argument, thus helping to create that impression. The argubot also has a repertoire  that goes beyond global warming. For example, it is stocked with arguments about religion. This also allows it to maintain the impression that it is a person.

While the argubot is reasonably sophisticated, it is not quite up to the Turing test. For example, it cannot discern when people are joking. While it can fool people into thinking they are arguing with a person, it is important to note that the debate takes place in the context of Twitter.  As such, each tweet is limited to 140 characters. This makes it much easier for a argubot to pass itself off as a person.  Also worth considering is the fact that people tend to have rather low expectations for the contents of tweets which makes it much easier for an argubot to masquerade as a person. However, it is probably just a matter of time before a bot passes the Tweeter Test (being able to properly pass itself off as person in the context of twitter).

What I find most interesting about the argubot is not that it can often pass as a human tweeter, but that the argumentative process with its targets can be automated in this manner. This inclines me to think that the people who the argubot are arguing with are also, in effect, argubots. That is, they are also “running scripts” and presenting pre-fabricated arguments they have acquired from others. As such, it could be seen as  a case of a computer based argubot arguing against biological argubots with both sides relying on scripts and data provided by others.

It would be interesting to see the results if someone wrote another argubot to engage the current argubot in debate. Perhaps in the future argumentation will be left to the argubots and the silicon tower will replace the ivory tower. Then again, this would probably put me out of work.

One final point worth considering is the ethics of  the argubot at hand.

One concern is that it seems deceptive: it creates the impression that the target is engaged in a conversation with a person when s/he is actually just engaged with a script. Of course, the argubot does not state that it is a person nor does it make use of deception to harm the target. Given its purpose, to argue about global warming, it seems to be irrelevant whether the arguing is done by a person or a script. This contrasts with cases in which it does matter, such as a chatbot designed to trick someone into thinking that another person is romantically interested in them or to otherwise engage with the intent to deceive. As such, the argubot does not seem to be unethical in regards to fact that people might think it is a person.

Another concern is that the argubot seeks out targets and engages them (an argumentative Terminator or Berserker). This, some might claim, could be seen as a form of spamming or harassment.

As far as the spamming goes, the argubot does not deploy what would intuitively be considered spam in terms of its content. After all, it is not trying to sell a product, etc. However, it might be argued that it is sending out unsolicited bulk tweets, which might thus be regarded as spam.  Spamming is rather well established as immoral (if an argument is wanted, read “Evil Spam” in my book What Don’t You Know? ) and if the argubot is spamming, then this would be unethical.

While the argubot might seem like a spambot, one way to defend it against this charge is to note that the argubot provides what are mostly relevant responses that are comparable to what a human would legitimately  send in response to a tweet. Thus, while it is automated, it is arguing rather than spamming. This seems to be an important distinction. After all, the argubot does not try to sell male enhancement, scam people, or get people to download a virus. Rather, it responds to arguments that can be seen as inviting a response-be it from a person or a script.

In regards to the harassment charge, the argubot does not seem to be engaged in what could be legitimately considered harassment. First, the content does not seem to constitute harassment.  Second, the context of the “debate” is a public forum (Twitter) that explicitly allows such interactions to take place-whether they involve just humans or humans and bots.

Obviously, an argubot could be written that would actually be spamming or engaged in harassment. However, this argubot does not seem to cross the ethical line in regards to this behavior.

I suspect that we will see more argubots soon.

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Rational Threat Assessment

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on August 30, 2010
SS Leviathan
Image via Wikipedia

A seemingly unbreakable law of nature is that all things die. This seems to apply to individuals as well as collectives, such as nations and empires. As history shows, empires rise, stumble, and then fall. Perhaps the end comes in war (as WWI spelled the end of some empires), due to environmental changes or some other means. But, the end has always arrived.

While the United States is regarded by some as being exceptional, we do not seem to be imbued with a special immunity against the death of empire. In fact, it seems certain that some day the dawn shall come and there will be no United States. While this end, like the death of any one of us, seems inevitable, it need not come soon. Just as a person can hold death with good choices and some luck, so can the collective that is the United States.

The first step in doing this is recognizing the real dangers that we face. This requires doing a rational threat assessment rather than following the usual methodology of the pundits and the politicians.

This usual method involves presenting as a serious threat whatever they happen to think people will fear the most or what will result in the greatest profit for those whose interests they serve. Obviously, those on the left and the right do this. Folks on the right tell us that the shabby terrorists who come up with shoe and underwear bombs, who have no warships, tanks, or standing armies are the supreme threat. Well, almost supreme. There are, after all,  the illegals who want to cross the border to steal our jobs, commit crimes and drop anchor babies. Folks on the left tell us that we face sure destruction from climate change, warn of the infinite evil of all corporations (by posting on Facebook using their iPhones), and think we should be rid of guns once and for all. Obviously, I do exaggerate a bit. But just a bit.

Since I teach critical thinking, I am naturally inclined to want people to use the methods of critical thinking and logic when assessing threats. As with assessing anything, it is rather important to attempt the assessment in an objective manner. This does not mean setting aside one’s values or feelings. But it does mean being aware of how these values and emotions impact the assessment. To use an analogy, it is like knowing that you are looking through lenses that are tinted and a bit distorted. Knowing this, you can do a better job of determining what you are really looking at. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) we cannot remove our emotional and value lenses. But we can learn to correct for any distortions they might create in our perceptions.

Doing this also means being able to take into account one’s biases, interests and prejudices. For example, someone who can profit greatly from their being a war on terror would be rather motivated to see terrorism as a huge threat that requires very expensive countermeasures. As another example, someone who has invested heavily in “green” technology would be rather motivated to push the idea of climate change. Being aware of these factors can be difficult. Being able to set them aside when making assessments is even more challenging.

Being able to see how these factors impact one’s assessment is a difficult thing. Being able to regulate their impact is even harder. However, it can be done. To use an easy and obvious example, I (and many other educators) can grade papers in a very objective manner. To use another example, although I am sometimes accused of being horribly biased, I seem to do a reasonably good job considering the various sides to issues and their merits and problems. In any case, I obviously consider views that oppose my own and do not, for example, delete replies that criticize me or my arguments.

An obvious question is, of course, why do we need to have rational threat assessments? Can’t we just muddle along as we have, dragged left and right by the pundits and politicians?

Well, we can. But that is like being aboard a ship where the wheel is pulled left or right not based on where the rocks really are, but based on where the folks with the loudest voices say they are. Or, even worse, having the wheel pulled based on fears of imaginary sea monsters or by those who see a minnow as the Leviathan come to devour the ship. This is, obviously enough, a recipe for disaster.

While I generally disagree with Glenn Beck, I do agree that the United States does need some repairs. However, the first repair must be to the way we judge the threats and dangers. We face real dangers, big and small. However, we need to properly sort out the real from the unreal and the big from the small. Then we can do the rational thing and address the real problems based on how serious they really are.

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Scientists & Public Perception

Posted in Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on March 30, 2010
Rendering of human brain.

Image via Wikipedia

Academics in general and scientists in particular are often stereotyped as being brainy but lacking in social skills. While this is a stereotype, it does have some merit.

One example that illustrates this is the debate over climate change. While the scientists present data and logical arguments, they seem to be ill prepared to deal with the political machinery that has been arrayed against the idea that the climate is changing.

Part of the problem might be that scientists have faith in reason and think that because they find numbers and logic compelling, that other people will as well. However, as I always point out in my critical thinking class, people tend to be more swayed by emotions, rhetoric and fallacies than by good logic.

Part of the problem might be that the scientists generally do not get how the political process and public perception works. Anyone who has suffered through a painfully lifeless and dull lecture in a college class is well aware of this phenomena. To be fair, the job of the scientist is not to amuse or entertain and, of course, the most important facts and theories often strike people as dull. However, the reality is that being unable to deal with the persuasive component of dealing with the public is a serious flaw and can render all that logic, data and science ineffective.

As a final point, it must also be noted that scientists sometimes shoot themselves in the foot by being arrogant, condescending and creating the impression that those who dare to disagree with them are fools. While this works for many pundits, it seems to be less effective for scientists.

While learning to play the social game requires some effort and perhaps some natural talent, it can be done and is well worth doing. After all, if you have something to say and no one will listen, that is almost as bad as having nothing at all to say.

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