Today i start my series on bad climate arguments with the number 1 worst climate change argument, abusing each other, r, the ad hominem argument. I promise that is the last time I use that expression today.
But first, I want to clarify some cloudy language. We tend to use the word argument rather loosely. Mostly, we mean a quarrel, or a heated disagreement with lots of emotions in play and, not to much hope for reaching a consensus agreement. The best we can hope from this sort of argument is reaching an emotional compromise with an apology for some perceived slight. This is not the focus of my discussion in this series.
That is the realm of counsellors and mental heal professionals. As an applied scientist, this isn’t an area where I can’t claim any expertise.
Argument Differs from Quarrelling
In the world applied science, I use the word argument to mean s logical reasoning process based on data that leads to a conclusion. This is very different than a quarrel. First, emotions have very little to do with the conclusions we reach. Mostly, as pure and applied scientists, we are looking for evidence to support a conclusion, and based on that conclusion, an action plan founded on concrete data and rigorous science.
Emotional quarrels have nothing to do with the truth. How I feel doesn’t alter the facts. It isn’t a matter of belief or faith, it is concrete, measurable, observable reality. These are very different things. I often find that climate discussion get muddled by this very important distinction. Hey, on one side we have a group of folks trained to approach discussions based on logical reasoning and, who are often judged on their ability to present their positions with well substantiated logical arguments. On the other side we have folks, without this training, or any obligation to follow a logical argument. On one side we have a discussion that is basically a logical debate, on, the other we have a quarrel. We miss each other completely. There is no new understanding, just frustration that often leads to angry exchanges.
The Personal Attack
This leads me to the number one bad climate argument, the personal attack. The point of the personal attack is to shift gears in the discussion. When we accept the bait offered in the personal attack our discussion turns into an argument. But, not one with any chance of emotional consensus or apology. We can go on the defensive, and all meaningful discussion is done.
It is hard to not take the bait. We are all human. We all have emotions, and, it is really easy to take offence when somebody makes personal attacks, especially, when there is no basis in fact in the attack. or, at least no linkage between that personality trait and the climate argument I hope to present.
Two Forms of Personal Attack
There are two common forms of the personal attack that we need to recognize.
The first is poisoning the well. That is, I’m damned either way. If I defend myself, I prove the point. If I am silent, then I imply tacit agreement that the attack is true. My favourite example of this is one of the oldest:
“When did you stop beating your wife?”
The second is called the genetic fallacy. By discrediting the source of the argument, the person also discredits the argument. When my arguments are based on sound science, this is simply not true. My character has no bearing on the science. Even though it hurts to hear these sorts of attacks, the attack doesn’t undermine my point.
We have seen a lot of this recently in our climate debate. For example:
Greta Thunberg is not qualified to talk about climate change, she is too young, she actually uses carbon based products (the hypocirte), and she doesn’t do anything more than talk.
None of it Matters
None of this, true or false, has any bearing on her primary argument. Read the science, listen to the scientists and take action. That isn’t changed on way or the other by attacking her age, her character, or her education.
These attacks are difficult to manage. Often the answer is to simply be patient and return the discussion to the logical argument and away from the quarrel. For example:
“My relationship with my wife has no bearing on the scientific basis of climate change.”
I have to remember that this doesn’t convert the person that made the attack, but often it derails that line of discussion about my personal life.
The Five Stages of Climate Change Grief
What does this have to do with the five stages of climate denial I introduced last week? Well, the personal attack is the primary weapon of the folks locked in the denial stage of the process. They don’t want to hear facts, they just want the discussion to stop. They want us to go away and leave them alone. This is true denial. It isn’t a façade based on some vested interest. It is real, and it is bounded in fear.
When we succumb to the personal attack, the whole process shifts back and forth between denial and anger. We have to be patient and help people through this, and hopefully, if I successful, we can start to bargain. We can start a dialogue about the personal changes we all need to make to survive the climate crisis. ,This is a critical discussion, but, not one we can have without slogging through the first stages of the process.
In the end, I return to my commitment to patience and calm discussion about the reality of climate change. I can only achieve this by avoiding the seductive bait of the personal attack.