The pitfall of Cook’s “simple” six-step critical thinking process

There is this statement in the introduction of the Cook et al 2018 paper that caught my eye:

This paper introduces key critical thinking concepts and outlines a straightforward process for identifying reasoning errors that allows for people who lack expertise in climate science to confidently reject certain denialist arguments.

In a way, I can understand what they are trying to do. Just before I started blogging, now five years ago, I had the idea to look somewhat deeper into logical fallacies. At that time I wasn’t familiar with the global warming debate and it was my hope that I could find a fast and easy way to differentiate between right arguments and wrong arguments, without having to put much effort in studying the topic. However, it didn’t take very long before I realized that for some type of fallacies this would be perfectly possible, but not for most. If I wanted to know right from wrong, then I had to dive in the arguments themselves.

So although I think that their effort is praiseworthy, in practice it is not black & white. My conclusion back then was that when one wants to confidently confirm or reject an argument, then one needs to get messy and go to the source and understand what the argument is all about. I would certainly not put my bet on the knowledge of logical fallacies alone. Without some background, it could lead to possible misinterpretations.

This became rather clear in the page on the SkepticalScience website that was devoted to the Cook et al paper. The post is titled Humans need to become smarter thinkers to beat climate denial and John Cook is a co-author. At the beginning of the post, they basically repeat the statement from the paper in a slightly different wording:

The new paper published today suggests an even more proactive approach to defeating myths. If people can learn to implement a simple six-step critical thinking process, they’ll be able to evaluate whether climate-related claims are valid.

Again, it seems deceptively simple. Just learn how to implement a simple thinking process and you will able to evaluate whether some claim is valid or not.

This is the first step in the process:

Step 1: Identify the claim being made. For example, the most popular contrarian argument: “Earth’s climate has changed naturally in the past, so current climate change is natural.”

When I follow that link, I get a list of “contrarian” arguments and when I then sort those arguments by popularity, the argument “Climate’s changed before” is indeed first on the list, so the most “popular” among “denialists”. That this example was chosen for the video abstract is therefor not exactly surprising.

However, previous experiences with the examples given by the SkepticalScience team let me wonder how representative this example argument is for what they want to prove in that post? They describe the claim as “Earth’s climate has changed naturally in the past, so current climate change is natural”, but I don’t see it coming back in the description of the myth. Clicking on the link of that most popular argument brings me to the Climate’s changed before myth page and the title “What does past climate change tell us about global warming?”. This is how the myth is summarized:

Climate’s changed before
Climate is always changing. We have had ice ages and warmer periods when alligators were found in Spitzbergen. Ice ages have occurred in a hundred thousand year cycle for the last 700 thousand years, and there have been previous periods that appear to have been warmer than the present despite CO2 levels being lower than they are now. More recently, we have had the medieval warm period and the little ice age. (Richard Lindzen)

There are two surprises here. Firstly, this summary perfectly explains the “climate change before” claim, but I miss the second part: “so current climate change is natural”. Secondly, I was surprised to see the name of Richard Lindzen. As far as I know, Lindzen agrees that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and that it is expected to lead to increasing temperatures when we put more of it in the atmosphere. So I would be really surprised that he, of all people, would have claimed that current climate change is natural just because it has changed in the past too.

I then went to the webpage where Lindzen made that claim and it didn’t take long before I found that part that was showed in the summary. However, reading until the end, I couldn’t find the claim that current climate change is natural because the climate has changed before. There was even this (my emphasis):

Supporting the notion that man has not been the cause of this unexceptional change in temperature is the fact that there is a distinct signature to greenhouse warming: surface warming should be accompanied by warming in the tropics around an altitude of about 9km that is about 2.5 times greater than at the surface. Measurements show that warming at these levels is only about 3/4 of what is seen at the surface, implying that only about a third of the surface warming is associated with the greenhouse effect, and, quite possibly, not all of even this really small warming is due to man (Lindzen, 2007, Douglass et al, 2007).

So, yes, he certainly entertains the idea that the change is natural, but not because the climate changed before, but because the hallmarks are not there. He even acknowledges that human emissions could have an influence, albeit small (which was what I expected he would say).

Again, this is a perfect explanation of the claim that the “climate changed before”, but without the “so current climate change is natural” part. Why is that important? Remember, according to the video abstract and the SkepticalScience post, the misinformation of that “denialist” claim rests on a hidden premise. This is the structure:

  • Premise 1: climate has changed naturally in the past
  • Premise 2: the climate is changing now
  • Hidden premise: “if something wasn’t a cause in the past, it can’t be a cause now” (in the video abstract) or slightly differently worded as “if nature caused climate change in the past, it must always be the cause of climate change” (in the SkepticalScience post)”
  • Conclusion: current climate change is natural

This hidden premise is crucial to complete this fallacy. It is central to the invalidation of that specific argument and is nowhere to be found in the Lindzen article. Therefor it is a bad example for the claim that the most popular “denialist” claim is that “Earth’s climate has changed naturally in the past, so current climate change is natural“. Lindzen had numerous reasons why current climate change is (mostly) natural and that climate changed in the past (therefor that must also be the case now) was not one of them. The “climate is always changing” claim in the article seem to be a reaction to the assumption that the climate was stable until humans started to emit CO2 and it was not used as a reason for why that change is (mostly) natural.

This is the pitfall of this easy six-step critical thinking for people who lack expertise. It rests on a specific line of reasoning that is not that easy to spot when one only looks at some key words (in this case “the climate is changing”). If even John Cook, as an author of the paper AND the SkepticalScience post, is glossing over the specifics of misinformation in his own example, then how on earth would those who lack expertise be able to spot the difference?

6 thoughts on “The pitfall of Cook’s “simple” six-step critical thinking process

  1. vuurklip

    I admire the effort you put into debunking the likes of John Cook. However I can not bring myself to read beyond a (Cook) statement like this: “Earth’s climate has changed naturally in the past, so current climate change is natural.”

    It is a devious and dishonest way to fabricate an argument which is so easy to discredit. I have never come across this argument in my reading of skeptical blogs and would suspect that only a small minority of skeptics will subcribe to such poor reasoning.

    But then, this kind of dishonesty is par for the course since the 97% “consensus”.

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    1. trustyetverify Post author

      To be honest, I also never came across this specific argument before. I agree that if it exists, it must be marginal.

      That argument is easy to discredit, that is right, but not everybody is looking at it in the same way. Some think skeptics or “denialists” are stupid, so the claim that they actually believe that “climate has changed naturally in the past, so current climate change is natural” must be right or at least is plausible.

      These fabricated arguments and “critical thinking concepts” will divide into two distinct groups. On the one hand the smart ones, those who adhere to the consensus and are supposed to be at the right side. On the other hand the dumb ones who deny the science, the consensus, the climate,… and are attributed with dumb, illogical, inconsistent arguments and are supposed to be on the wrong side.

      When someone who is new to the debate has to chose between the two groups and doesn’t want to mess with the arguments, it is clear for which group he/she will chose. It has the effect that this person will automatically dismiss the arguments of the out group, because these are believed not to be reliable.

      Been there, done that.

      It is a powerful way of directing a debate, especially for those who are in the possibility to frame the argument of the other side.

      Now I found myself on the “wrong” side of the debate, I take some joy in dissecting how it works.

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  2. poitsplace

    The sad thing is that they never apply the same critical thinking to the very basis of their ideas of CO2 being a powerful greenhouse gas. They simply look to proxy data, see a CO2 correlation and proclaim it cause (or an amplifier in the proxy record). But they ignore that it is lagged by nearly a thousand years. It is simply imossible for CO2 to be driving the main climate swings, much less radical fluctuations like Dansgaard–Oeschger events.

    Logic SHOULD step in. They SHOULD look back at the proxy data and go “Hmmm, maybe it’s this water cycle stuff, which DOES react fast enough, is a more powerful greenhouse gas, leads to persistent surface changes like ice, desertification, reforestation, etc.”

    Shouldn’t he look at the tide gage data and discount sea level rise acceleration based on the complete lack of any such signal in the entire record?

    Shouldn’t look at the wildly different model assumptions and note that those wildly different model assumptions make them mutually exclusive?

    I’ve seen plenty of bad skeptical arguments. But the problem with cook and basically this entire green religion masquerading as a science is that it never applies the critical thinking to its self. I remember an episode of Big Bang Theory in which someone discusses varying degrees of being wrong with Sheldon…

    Stuart: Oh, Sheldon, I’m afraid you couldn’t be more wrong.
    Sheldon: More wrong? Wrong is an absolute state and not subject to gradation.
    Stuart: Of course it is. It’s a little wrong to say a tomato is a vegetable, it’s very wrong to say it’s a suspension bridge.

    What passes for “climate science” as promoted, is a series of contingent statements, each as wrong as saying a tomato is a suspension bridge. By the time you reach attribution studies using “business as usual” RCP8.5 (which is not business as usual) as inputs, we’ve passed through four or five critical thinking failures on the same level as saying a tomato is a suspension bridge. And they are promoted by the likes of cook as not just reasonable, but almost like absolute certainties.

    Sorry for the long, meandering post, but I didn’t think your post did justice to how truly insane this all is.

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    1. trustyetverify Post author

      The point of this post was that they used critical thinking (albeit not towards their own theories), yet in a way that was not relevant to what they want to prove (that “denialists” commit certain logical fallacies). Therefor I assume that by “logic should step in” you mean something like “skepticism should step in” (it is not necessarily logical to look back at data, but it is skeptical to do so).

      I think they have a different definition of what for example “science” is. In my own experience, science could be defined as “an accumulation of knowledge”, but also as “a way of gathering that knowledge”. Someone with a definition of science as an accumulation of knowledge will probably focus more on the consensus and will find it strange that people are skeptical about things that goes contrary to consensus claims. Which could rightfully be conceived as a “green religion masquerading as a science”.

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  3. Steve Borodin

    Thank you for an interesting post. I think I have passed through much the same reasoning process as you have. I did a masters in Environmental Science and have studied the Palaeoclimate Climate at various times. The first question that occurred to me, about 2 decades ago, was: the conditions that the IPCC say we should fear (essentially CO2 increasing to, say, 800 ppm, or even 1600ppm) have occurred over very long periods in the past. The laws of physics are the same now as they were then. However, the best data we have does not show that such levels caused atmospheric warming. Over the whole record the correlation between atmospheric temperature and CO2 concentration is very poor, except in the period when CO2 clearly lagged temperature by some hundreds of years.

    That made me sceptical of IPCC claims, and my scepticism was increased by absurd claims such as those made by Gore and the outfall from the Climategate affair. Later revelations about the poor quality of surface temperature data (homogenisation, computer estimation of 40% of USA data, under-correction for UHI and various pieces of evidence of data tampering) substantially strengthened my scepticism.

    With regard to CO2 there are of course other reasons to be doubtful. The tropospheric hot spot is, at least, less prominent than predicted. The 15-16 micron wavelength is also absorbed by the much more prevalent water vapour as well as CO2. So it is likely to be near saturation. Hence further CO2 increases would have little effect. Finally, there are various technical criticisms of the Arhenius’ 1898 work suggesting that the postulated CO2 is greatly overestimated. I cannot evaluate these but they are in the peer-reviewed literature. In line with this, several recent peer-reviewed estimates of Climate Sensitivity have been in the ˂1°C range, which would limit to heating below 2°C.

    None of this makes me certain, but I have yet to see a convincing line of evidence that supports the IPCC’s position. And I have searched through one of their voluminous reports. Mostly they rely on selected correlation (not causation!) and the model outputs. Having worked on mathematical models, my view is the GCMs lack theory (e.g. Navier-Stokes), they lack data (e.g. detailed cloud cover, thickness and altitude) and lack computer capacity (they need more detailed cover of cloud and solar effects, and their cell size is much too large). Hence, they are practically useless.

    Overall, it seems to me that the evidence is fairly heavily stacked against the IPCC.

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    1. trustyetverify Post author

      Thanks for the comment. I also had an education in environmental studies, but on a bachelor level (long time ago and I never worked in that field).
      I discovered my skepticism much later than you did. It was at the end of 2008, so almost 10 years ago. Only after studying the subject for another 4.5 years, I felt strong enough to start blogging about it.
      I am not certain about my position either. I think that is what skepticism is about. The climate is a very complex, coupled, chaotic system which is only recently got studied. Combine this with climate science being a multidisciplinary science with only a couple decades of reliable information gathered, it is therefor highly unlikely that anyone could declare certainty in such a situation.

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