In the beginning of this month, the new paper of Cook et al (John Cook et al 2018 Environ. Res. Lett. 13 024018) was published. I was quite busy around that time, so it was only when I was finalizing my last post that I suddenly realized that I didn’t have a look at it yet. Time to finally read that paper.
The paper is titled “Deconstructing climate misinformation to identify reasoning errors” and there is also a video abstract in which the approach of the paper is explained in very simple terms. Although I am not that keen on watching videos, I gave it a try.
Having read the paper in the meanwhile, the video illustrates perfectly the strength and the weakness of the paper.
Let us first look how the story goes.
A man and a woman are sitting at a terrace table, seemingly on a University campus. The woman reads (in a juicy aussie accent) from a newspaper that “there is a new report out on climate change”. The man responds with the puzzling claim:
I heard climate changed naturally in the past, so what is happening now must be natural.
The camera pans to the man sitting at the next table (John Cook) who intervenes by saying that this argument is “misinformation”. He moves his chair and joins the couple at their table, then introduces himself as a researcher in how to stop misinformation. He then explains the “inoculation” method (countering misinformation by explaining the techniques behind misinformation).
The fun doesn’t end there. Now Peter Ellerton (a co-author of the paper) joins the table, lecturing that they developed a strategy based on critical thinking methods to analyse “denialist” claims and then explains why the argument of the man is misinformation. He starts to write the structure of that argument on a napkin:
Premise 1: climate has changed naturally in the past
Premise 2: the climate is changing now
Conclusion: current climate change is natural.
However, the conclusion doesn’t follow the premises: just because the climate changed naturally in the past doesn’t mean it’s changing naturally now. There is a hidden assumption:
Premise 3: if something wasn’t a cause in the past, it can’t be a cause now.
Which now makes the argument logically valid, but since this premise is false, it will invalidate the argument.
Then the other co-author, David Kinkaed, joins in via a video link on a laptop on the table, explaining that a simple way to expose bad logic is to apply a parallel argument to show how ridiculous the argument really is (for example, because people died of cancer in the past, cigarettes can’t be the cause of any cancer now).
Okay, that is Logics 101 and the analysis of a logical fallacy is well explained.
The video abstract is a nice idea at such, though badly executed. It is also pretty low on substance: in what world is the chosen argument representative for “denialist” claims?!?! It is (over)simplified and lacking nuance. I wonder if there there are, ahem, denialists who actually make this simplified, unnuanced argument.
If this is the level of the “denialist” arguments that are debunked in the paper, then the paper promises to be fun to read…