William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Two Oregon Academics Attempt Logic Lesson, Fail Miserably

There could be anything coming out of those stacks!

Bertrand Russell said: “People are zealous for a cause when they are not quite positive that it is true.” I think this false and even scurrilous. The zealous are nothing if not convinced and in passionate love.

Take the case of two academics, Michael P. Nelson, who styles himself after a piece of furniture (the Ruth H. Spaniol Endowed “Chair” in Natural Resources), and Kathleen Dean Moore, the “distinguished” Professor of Philosophy at OSU. I put distinguished in quotes because, after reading her editorial in Oregon Live, it’s not certain this word takes its plain English meaning at OSU.

Their piece is ostensibly a logic exercise showing how climate “deniers” err. They begin “Any argument reaching a conclusion about what we ought to do will have two premises.” Here is their first:

The first premise lays out the implications of scientific research: Unchecked anthropogenic climate change will profoundly harm the chances of future generations, undermining the necessary conditions for human life and liberty.

And here is the second:

The second premise lays out the values at stake, a culture’s collective moral wisdom about what is just and good: It’s wrong to violate human rights, condemning all future people to struggle and misery.

From which they claim to derive this conclusion:

When you combine these facts and these values, the conclusion is inescapable: We are obligated to act quickly to avert anthropogenic climate change.

Since this is an exercise in logic, the premises of the argument need not have any bearing on real life, as these do not. We can for example, in illustrating logical principles, like Dr Dodgson, use premises which assume cats understand French. Thus there is no fault in Nelson and Moore’s employing their obviously false first premise: just as we don’t expect our cats to sidle up to us and whisper Je T’aime (this includes you, Charlie), there is scant and unreliable evidence that future weather will “profoundly harm” future generations. Nevertheless, accept that it is true. Similarly, arguendo, swallow the minor premise.

Then the conclusion “We are obligated to act quickly to avert anthropogenic climate change” does not follow: it is escapable.

There is nothing in either premise to support the notion that we must act “quickly”. This is a silly mistake for so “distinguished” a philosopher to make. It could be that it is best to act slowly, or after waiting a long period of time. In order for “quickly” to be valid the premises must support immediate action, but there is not one word for or against timeliness in them.

Second comes the blush-inducing blunder. It does not follow, even if it is true that mankind is poisoning the air and it is morally wrong to “condemn” future generations, that there exist actions we can take that would let our ancestors live struggle-free.

It might be true that the future, because of our prior actions, is already doomed: that is it too late to save them, no matter what we do. It might be true that the best we could do is to slow or postpone doomsday. It might be true that the bare conditions necessary for minimal human life are such that our grandchildren will die horribly if we live in this minimal fashion: but if so, the choice is between us dying and them, and I choose them (they’ll at least have some life).

It might also be true that our knowledge of the effects of our fixes is so incomplete that any intervention worsens future conditions.

Doubtless you could derive more of these easily, all assuming the first and second premises are true. Russell was wrong: in their their zeal to condemn mankind for its sins against Mother Nature, these elementary objections did not occur to Nelson or Moore.

And then the first premise is false, as stated. So it’s natural to ask how Nelson and Moore came to believe it. Probably Moore believed because she desired it true. Or maybe she merely read an opinion of an “expert” and accepted his word as an expert. Worse errors have been made.

We have no evidence that Nelson cherishes the first premise because his very livelihood depends on people believing it: he may, as I think he does, truly believe it. Still, one wonders how far his zeal would take him were he to lose funding.

19 Comments

  1. “Do we have obligations to rescue children in danger?” A good question. 800,000 children die per year of malaria. 1,500,000 from diarrhoea. A tiny fraction of the money going into ‘renewable’ energy sources would save most of them right now. Perhaps they could have a conference about it.

  2. Sorry, Briggs, but it is you who has failed the logic lesson. Observe:

    Correct: Conclusion -> Premises.

    Incorrect: Premises -> Conclusion

    Please keep up. Your antiquated ways cannot possibly serve mankind^W humanity in these progressive times.

  3. Rich:

    An conference is an excellent idea, Sir. Assuming, of course, it’s held in a suitably tropical location with adequate luxury accommodations, catering, and accessible only by air.

  4. This explains why the Big Ed factory is churning out do many degreed dunces.

  5. Even if we accept the conclusion: “we need to act “quickly”” with “quickly” being somewhat subjective…the other values espoused can also be accpeted at face value:

    “It’s wrong to violate human rights, condemning all future people to struggle and misery”

    Assuming those are facts, the next issue to be grappled with is/are:

    Exactly what specific issues need to be acted on, and, what specific “acts” need to performed/implemented??

    That kind of forces the thought process back into objective science – to determine what the most effective course of action(s) is(are) to acheive the desired end-state goal, that being the cessation of any more warming. If the thought process does not shift on this aspect to objective science we proceed emotionally and we then violate the stated values by acting ineffectively out of ignorance.

  6. Steve Horstmeyer

    5 December 2012 at 1:26 pm

    The application of esoteric arguments based solely on logic without moral and scientific frameworks is an academic exercise not capable of dealing with the complexities of a real-world problem.

    In a moral context we are stewards, not owners of a planet and our goal, if not our solemn duty, should be leave behind a planet where the struggle for a better life is a realistic possibility and not a struggle made worse by our greedy excesses.

    Within the scientific framework there is a consensus, and the evidence overwhelming that humans are driving Earth towards a warmer climate. All the logical arguments with out a moral compass and hyperbole from fake skeptics for the purpose of business as usual will only delay the inevitable acceptance of reality.

  7. Global warming and global cooling go in cycles. In the early 1900s we were all going to die from global cooling. In the 1930s there was a warming trend and we were all going to die from global warming. There were several years of drought and there were predictions that the central US was going to become a vast desert. Then another cooling trend and by 1980 we were all going to die of global cooling again. Now it’s a warming trend and the latest fad is we will die from global warming. Ignore that history of failed predictions and believe the warmists.

  8. I think the moral implication of premise 2 is that we are obligated to maximise the long-term growth of per capita GDP.

  9. RE: “In a moral context we are stewards, not owners of a planet and our goal, if not our solemn duty, should be leave behind a planet where the struggle for a better life is a realistic possibility and not a struggle made worse by our greedy excesses.”

    ACTUALLY, since the sun will burn up its fuel and render the Earth a cinder and ultmately destroy it in a supernova…what’s the point of trying to preserve it since it will be gone anyway. Sure, billions of years from now seems like a long way off…but in unversal time of eternity that’s hardly a flicker of an instant.

  10. In the post-Christian world, practicing scientists do not have to care about fact, logic or reason.
    More than that: those who do care are penalized ever worse – eventually the honest are cast out. Only the corrupt remain.
    So. Those who officially practice science, i.e. scientists, are specifically not careful with fact, logic or reason.
    And more: as time passes, the corruptions that are the products of their efforts infect and destroy ever more of the body of knowledge once called ‘science.’ This is inevitable, given that fact, logic and reason stand in opposition to their works, and given that they are every one either corrupt, or at the very least deeply complicit in corruption.

    As was foreseen by a very great many people, the atheism (humanism, socialism, environmentalism, et al) of the modern world has as inevitable consequence the death of reason. This foreseeing was not hard to make: simply talk to a few hippies – even a minor intellect can see the connects.

    The proper time to oppose the hippies was with the introduction of the utter garbage that is evolutionary ‘science’. Darwin’s Theoretical Magic was always both irrational and unreal. So. Evolution stands as the foundational justification of the humanism which underlies the modern political systems in the West.

    Stalin, Mao, et al were good humanists: when in charge, millions of human beings must be exterminated for the Greater Good Of The Planet. This is, also, inevitable. Just wait a while, and you will watch your children die at their hands. Feel free to cry then.

  11. In a moral context we are stewards, not owners of a planet and our goal, if not our solemn duty, should be leave behind a planet where the struggle for a better life is a realistic possibility and not a struggle made worse by our greedy excesses.

    Within the scientific framework there is a consensus, and the evidence overwhelming that humans are driving Earth towards a warmer climate.

    OK, then, sounds like we’re doing a good job.

  12. Briggs, open your mind before your mouth. Try digging deeper.

  13. Briggs

    6 December 2012 at 9:54 am

    Tom,

    Good reply. Well thought out and argued. Entirely convincing. Consider publishing it?

  14. GoneWithTheWind

    6 December 2012 at 8:29 pm

    AGW is a theory and not a very good one. Even the computer models which have been specifically designed to support the theory fail miserably at predicting warming or any of the feared consequences. Our current global warming is a natural and cyclical warming just as the medieval warming and the Roman warm period were. They were not caused by humans burning fossil fuel any more then this current cyclical warming period is. The AGW theory began as a simple scam to provide more funding for scientists and professors. It worked well, very well so the pseudo-environmentalist co-opted it to be used to force politicians to pass laws favoring their narrow view of improving the environment. That too worked fairly well. So well that the politicians (socialist politicians in the beginning but soon politicians of all strips) co-opted it to gain more power and more taxes. That is where we are today; an unholy alliance between greedy scientists scurrilous enviornmmentalist and dishonest greedy politicians. There is nothing they won’t do to make this work for them. They want your money and they want it now (hence the need to take action before any evidence is provided).

    The fact is we are indeed in a global warming. Not a particularly warm one as global warmings go. The two previous ones were warmer and the world didn’t end. Global warming periods are very beneficial to humans and most plants and animals. The two previous ones were very beneficial to mankind. But it is common for global warming periods to be followed by a global cooling period and these are generally harmful to humans and most plants and animals. Make no mistake, this current cyclical global warming will end and be followed by a global cooling. Beware the maunder.

  15. Reading this editorial was depressing. Are these two stupid? They make Angelina Jolie sound like Plato.

  16. Sander van der Wal

    7 December 2012 at 6:07 am

    As long as somebody is not conceived, that somebody does not exist. And somebody who does not exist doesn’t have rights. So when you want to take the future into account, you can only take the future of currently living humans into account.

    The existence of these future people depends entierly on the actions of currently living people. If we fail to act now, untold billions of people will never exist.

    But people make that kind of decision every day. If you choose to marry one man or women, none of the future children of yourself and somebody else will ever exist. Given that there are many more people not going to be than there are going to be because of you marrying a specific person, you are violating the rights of all those never-to-be-born people.

    Then the pregnancy. A child that is currently growing inside the womb is occupying that womb, preventing all other possible children of the mother their existence too. That child is clearly a complete asshole, stamping on the rights of all those other children.

  17. Briggs,

    Good thoughts, as always. The picture included in this post brings to mind a danger (in respect to global warming) much more insidious than the anthropogenic CO2 and that being atmospheric dihydrogen monoxide. A quick look at the MSDS and one can see how truly dangerous a poison is dihydrogen monoxide. I would like to propose that we write grants to investigate the dangers of anthropogenic atmospheric dihydrogen monoxide. At worst, if funded, we will have money to spend on research and graduate assistants in whom we may influence as the next generation of scientists.

  18. George O asks “Are these two stupid?”

    Pretty much. I have personally encountered both, and they are not the brightest pennies. KDM in particular is as slow as mud. But that is not assurance of the falsity of her latest proposition. Even a blind pig can find an acorn once in awhile. Unfortunately, the proposition is trash all by itself, and does not require further ad hominim arrows.

  19. quote “..Unchecked anthropogenic climate change will profoundly harm the chances of future generations…”.

    The word “profoundly” here shows the vaucity of the argument straight up front. The next question should have been; What harm exactly.

    The statement is itself profoundly uninformative, as it does not make any specific claim. One then cannot attempt to mitigate such harm. Nor can one prove that such harm was mitigated, or failed to mitigate said harm.

    I don’t know how anyone could argue for or against such a statment as that.

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