March 11, 2020

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Joel Nodelman

Circular Reasoning in Climate Argument: 1 Proven Way to Avoid the Issue

About the author

Joel is an engineer and risk management specialist with over forty years of professional practice. He is committed to helping his clients achieve climate resiliency and sustainability.

In this video, I discuss circular reasoning in climate argument.

Circular reasoning is so common that I actually struggled to find examples. So many circular arguments have become common belief, we are blind to them. We accept them as gospel truth. But once I saw the light, I see it everywhere.

Circular reasoning happens when assume what we are trying to prove. We state a premise which is the conclusion, but in different words. Sometimes we don't even bother changing the words.

This can be confusing. So, I found it easier to understand through a few examples. Here is a simple one:

It's  okay to destroy property when I'm angry because angry people destroy things. 

We can paraphrase the argument as:

It’s OK for me to break things. 

I am angry.

Angry people break things. 

So, I am allowed to break things.

At no stage did I ever prove that it is OK. I just said that angry people break things, which often is true. But that doesn’t make it OK. I am rationalizing inappropriate behaviour. The entire thing goes in a never-ending circle.

A Common Circular Reasoning Climate Argument

I see circular reasoning a lot in my climate work. I came across a superb example the other day in a letter to the editor of my local newspaper.  

The writer argued:

Common sense say global warming isn't happening. 

I have a lot of common sense.

My common sense tells me that I have never seen global warming. 

So, climate change isn't happening.

At no point did the writer offer any evidence that supported his argument. He just restated his assumption as his conclusion. 

To be fair, I am simplifying a 300 word letter into a few quick bullets. But this is often the case with circular logic. We bury the argument in a sea of words. To see the problem, we have to simplify things, break the argument into concise bits, and then check the logic. Often, the argument seems ridiculous when we apply this test. But all too often we don’t bother because it is way too much work.

Observations on Circular Reasoning Climate Argument

Several things pop out of this for me.

First, more often than not, folks are unaware that they have proven nothing.  They believe they have made their point and they can get furious if you challenge them.

Second, they often offer the circular argument up with an air of smug superiority.

See, why didn't you think of that! 

You're not so smart after all!

They believe that the argument proves their superior intellect. In my example, if you disagree, you have no common sense. People with common sense are smarter than those that don't have common sense. 

Finally, folks present circular arguments as divine truth. So testing the argument spits in the face of all goodness and light.

For example:

I believe Canada is a magnificent country. Why do I say this?  Because I am Canadian and I think it's great!  

But this is a belief, not a proof. To offer proof, I'd have to provide evidence to show what makes Canada great. But, since this is a matter of faith, offering evidence opens the door to a discussion that casts doubt on this universal truth. So we don’t go there.

In my example, for the writer to provide proof, he would have to accept that scientists have something meaningful to offer. But scientists don’t have any common sense. So, if I accept anything they say, common sense alone can't prove my argument. But my common sense tells me that can't be true. And around we go. We call it circular for an excellent reason.  

Circular Reasoning and Climate Denial

Circular reasoning is a tactic folks use at the denial stage of the climate grief process. They don't want to hear anything that tests their beliefs, and they will cling to them at almost any cost.

This is not the time to pick away at the logic of the argument. That makes folks dig in deeper. Instead, we need to listen actively and understand the underlying fears and concerns that drive the argument. We need to share our own fears and concerns. We are all worried about the same things; jobs, family, and security.

From this common ground we can start a proper conversation about climate action. At that point, we can reassess the circular argument and find a way forward.

Let's Chat

I'd love to hear your thoughts. Join the conversation by commenting below. Here are a few questions to stimulate your commenting juices.

When is the last time somebody tried to influence you with circular reasoning? 

Did you recognize the tactic right away, or did it take a while for it to dawn on you?  

Have you ever caught yourself unintentionally using circular reasoning?

It seems that I have been discussing climate tactics for a while now. Here is link to one of my earlier videos, when I first started on this theme. Once you start to see these things, it is hard to ignore them. 

If you wish to contact us directly, feel free to use our handy contact form.


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