Trying to argue the case for manmade climate change against those that refuse to believe all those eggheaded book-learnin’ scientists has always been hard work. It’s become a trickier beast with an American president who A) doesn’t believe in climate change, B) believes in conspiracy theories and C) isn’t afraid of accusing everybody else of peddling fake news.
That hasn’t stopped scientists trying to drive the very real risks home though, and researchers from Queensland and Virginia universities have used the elements of critical thinking to rebut 42 common climate change denial arguments in a new paper published today in Environmental Research Letters.
The idea is that you or I can use the six-step argument to debunk climate change denial when we hear claims spouted in the wild – because talking to people one-on-one is generally regarded as being more effective than shouting into the void on Twitter or Facebook.
“When people lack the expertise to evaluate the science, they tend to substitute judgment about something complex (i.e., climate science) with something simpler (i.e., the character of people speaking about climate science),” said the study’s lead author John Cook. “This can leave them vulnerable to misleading information. The advantage of our approach is that you don’t need to be an expert in argumentation or climate science to put it to use.”
This is how it works in practice. You take a claim from a climate change denier, say this old doozie: “it’s cold today, thus global warming can’t be happening.” Here it is parroted by the most powerful man on the planet:
It’s 46º (really cold) and snowing in New York on Memorial Day – tell the so-called “scientists” that we want global warming right now!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 27, 2013
1. Extract the raw claim:
It’s snowing in May, so global warming can’t be happening.
2. Pick out the premise:
Essentially, we’re establishing if the premise is valid. It is unusual for it to be snowing in May. So far, so good.
You move on to step three…
3. Figure out the nature of the argument
Is the argument based on deductive or inductive reasoning? The former is based on taking a specific claim and then generalising, while the latter takes into account a history of observations.
This specific claim is based on a single example, so it’s deductive – but other climate change denial arguments (e.g: “The Earth has warmed before so we can’t be causing it now”) are inductive. The type of argument changes how it is countered.
4. Check the validity of the argument
Often with climate change denial, parts will be hidden – either deliberately or accidentally. One implied argument here is that global warming doesn’t involve any low temperatures – which isn’t what scientists have actually argued. In other words, it’s a non-sequitur: the conclusion doesn’t match the argument.
5. Look for ambiguity
If the validity of the argument is okay, then it’s time to look for ambiguity in the statement, so let’s examine a different one: climate change is natural, because the climate has always been changing. That’s kind of true, but it overlooks the scale of the current change: which is significantly faster than pre-industrial levels.
In other words, while human activity doesn’t explain all climate change, it’s pretty obvious it’s driving our current climate change.
6. Fact check the premise
Obviously, Trump’s argument was dead by step 4, but if it wasn’t, now would be the time to check the facts. Was it snowing on that day in May? Given Trump has been known to make up the weather before, nothing is guaranteed.
Here is the whole process in flowchart form:
(Of course, it’s debatable whether Trump has the attention span for this kind of forensic takedown. In his book on the first year of the Trump White House, Michael Wolff quotes Sam Nunberg, a Republican strategist on his attempts to teach the new president the constitution: “I got as far as the Fourth Amendment before his finger is pulling down on his lip and his eyes are rolling back in his head,” he said.)
“Often, refuting denialist arguments focuses on scientific information – showing that temperatures are in fact rising, or that there is indeed a scientific consensus that human activity is responsible,” said the study’s co-author Peter Ellerton. “We complement this approach by helping find the flaws in misinforming arguments and explain how the reasons they offer don’t support their conclusions.”
Whether or not this approach can actually change minds is another matter, but at the very least it’s good to see the researcher’s scientific analysis withstands the test of critical thinking. You can see how the researchers use the process in a real life situation in the tongue-in-cheek video below: