The Bias and Logical Fallacies of Christopher Booker’s ‘Freezing Heat’

The power of the pen, when used irresponsibly, serves not to illuminate and progress human discourse, but to confuse and stifle it. Christopher Booker’s article does a disservice to climate skeptics and climate activists alike.

The power of the pen, when used irresponsibly, serves not to illuminate, but to confuse.Christopher Booker’s article, “The world has never seen such freezing heat,” published yesterday in the UK’s Telegraph, attempts to come across as a shocking exposé of a blunder big enough potentially to bring climate change science to its knees. It falls considerably short. Instead, the writing is simply the latest in a series of posts designed to push the author’s own personal opinion against renewable energy and climate change action. This may be of little surprise as Mr. Booker has previously summed up climate change as “chicanery.”

Unfortunately, the credibility of Mr. Booker’s article as a rational piece of scientific journalism falls apart as early as the first paragraph under the weight of his personal bias. Moreover, the writing is so riddled with logical fallacies that the article actually does an injustice to the “climate skeptics” whose arguments it seeks to support.

Before listing some of the article’s bias and logical fallacies, one brief contextual note is necessary. It’s important to understand that science operates by searching for errors in existing theories and using those errors to improve the theories. Therefore, so-called “skeptics” play an important role in honing the accuracy of any theory. By locating inaccuracies, scientists can correct the theory to better model observable phenomena. However, the logic used in Mr. Booker’s article assumes that an error in a theory discredits or invalidates the entire theory. This is bad science writing. It undermines the mechanics of the scientific process and does a disservice to anybody earnestly interested in progressing the scientific body of knowledge.

Bias in “The world has never seen such freezing heat”

The writer uses strongly emotive words rather than rational language to sway readers. Emotive words reveal the author’s bias and strip the article of credibility as far as scientific journalism is concerned.

First, consider the negative emotional words used to describe climate change data and scientists studying climate change: surreal, blunder, alarm, notorious, startling, “huge question mark,” suffered, freak, lamely, extreme, dangers, glaring, confusion, scare, episode, hastily, etc.

Now consider the positive connotations behind words used to describe climate change skeptics: “expert readers,” leading, detailed, “astonishing discovery,” fame, “expert debunking,” etc.

A sampling of the logical fallacies in “The world has never seen such freezing heat”

Logical fallacy #1: hasty generalization. The writer infers that a single error made by the GISS brings into question all data GISS has ever published. This reasoning says, “you were wrong about X; therefore you must always be wrong about everything.”

Logical fallacy #2: ad hominem. The author engages in personal attacks of climate scientists. First, he describes a GISS spokesman as “lame” and he describes the GISS as lacking resources and quality control; second, the author implies that Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is either naive or gullible with language like “Dr. Pachauri … may believe what Dr. Hansen tells him.” The additional inferred bandwaggon logical fallacy here is “reasonable people would not believe Dr. Hansen.”

Logical fallacy #3: non causa pro causa. This is one of the most common types of logical errors committed in the argument against climate change. It confuses coincidence with causation. The author reasons in the following way: The weather in a few local areas was cold. Therefore, the global climate must be cold. The global climate is neither caused by local weather nor does it directly dictate local weather from day to day. What’s more, the climate change model does not predict uniformly hotter weather around the globe; it describes the average temperature around the globe. In other words, October snow in London does not mean the average global temperature is colder than normal.

Logical fallacy #4: genetic fallacy. The author links Al Gore to Dr. James Hansen and Dr. Hansen to the error. This serves two purposes. Firstly, it seeks to discredit the GISS in the eyes of anyone who dislikes Gore, who is a somewhat politically contentious figure. Secondly, it says that if the GISS is wrong about climate change (see hasty generalization), then Gore must also be wrong to the delight of his detractors. Genetic fallacies attempt to undermine an argument by undermining somebody credited with giving birth to the argument. Although climate science did not originate with Al Gore, he’s sometimes seen as the father of the current push to respond to climate change scenarios.

Logical fallacy #5: straw man. This type of fallacy essentially says, “This person supports argument X and this person is clearly a bad person, therefore argument X is wrong.” The author attributes responsibility for the GISS to Dr. Hansen. In fact, he stops just short of attributing all climate change science to Dr. Hansen. Then, he attacks Dr. Hansen. First, the author attributes a large amount of the recent global concern over climate change to Dr. Hansen in the sentence, “If there is one scientist more responsible than any other for the alarm over global warming it is Dr. Hansen….” (Note the heavily slanted use of the word alarm used to describe climate change science.) Then, he attempts to tie Dr. Hansen to “criminal” Greenpeace activity in order to discredit him, and by extension, the GISS, and by further extention, climate change.

Logical fallacy #6: proof by assertion. The author’s assertion that, “[global temperatures] have not been rising in recent years and since 2007 have dropped” is supported by no data other than the author’s own authority. This reasoning claims, “X is true because I say it is.”

Image credit: _StaR_DusT_ via Flickr, under a Creative Commons License.

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23 Comments

  1. While I agree that Booker’s article is laden with a number of logical fallacies, your response fails to address the underlying claim and warrants for the argument. Before I continue, let me confirm my current bias: I contend that the probability of GW as an anomalous event is still less than majority. I’d contend that right now the chance that GW is attributable to mankind is less than 25%. I argue that the move for government intervention is based on the weighted payout should the 25% event actually occur because the downside is so great. Because I place more chance on the side that the geo-climatic events taking place are in context of the historical record, the positive pay-offs involved if we minimalize efforts are trebled. Thus, as a skeptic, the role of pro-GW is to address why there is a higher chance that that the fallout is attributable to us.

    That being said, information that has come out regarding Hansen’s data and the GW movement as mentioned in Booker’s article cannot be overlooked. You mentioned ad hominem and straw man attacks: your response to Booker’s article constitutes the same. Calling his article and methods into question does not address the underlying claim that GISS and Hansen must reconcile recent data that does not fit their regression analysis predictions. Can the 10 years prior to 2007 be considered an outlier the same way the 1930s were in the regression? The answer should not be made “yes” or “no” but with some degree of probabilistic expectation.

    It is the certainty with which people like Hansen and Gore market that is so offensive to skeptics. It is the disregard for human misjudgment that calls the GW conclusion into question. Data like this seems confirms - in my mind - that there is a better than 90% chance that Gore and Hansen are relying more on their confirmation bias than emperical data. Then again, there is a 10% chance I could be wrong.

  2. Gavin:

    Thank you for your reply as well.

    You chose the word “insurance” and I think it is an appropriate one. Like you, I am not a ’scientist’ in the strictest definition. I work in corporate finance. In my job I’ve had to work directly with large insurance companies and their business models.

    Insurance is based on statistical representations and their derived actuarial tables. These tables determine cost of premiums that clients pay in to the program to participate in the protection extended by insurance. A 70 year-old male, no history of high blood pressure, married and working as an accountant will pay “X” amount of dollars for a term life policy. The actuarial tables are designed to insure that if you pool enough people of like demographic, the company will be able to pay out. What happens, however, if the data shifts and the actuarial tables are not shifted accordingly: what if the demographic becomes more risky, the mortality rate increases? The company becomes insolvent and is unable to meet its obligations (sidenote: this post is for anecdotal purposes only and in no ways is a commentary on the present financial crisis). Thus, the participants who paid in and collected early (i.e. died first) get the benefits while the participants who decided to live longer are out the money.

    The moral of the story is that deciding to pay on an insurance policy is made on the basis that the underlying data is sound and the probablity of the event is correctly assigned. If the data changes, the models must be revised.

    Now, your contention is that the likelihood of the event could be very small, like 5%, yet the fall out - should it actually occur - could be so great, that the benefits of doing nothing are dwarfed. Look at it this way:

    You have two choice: Do nothing or do something. There is a 5% chance that GW does occur and a 95% chance nothing happens. If you Do Nothing and GW does occur, then you lose 10,000 points; however, if you Do Nothing and there is no GW then you gain the opportunity cost of 500 points. The expected value of making the decision to do nothing is -25 points ((.95*500)+(.05*-10,000)). If you Do Something and GW does occur, you can impact the outcome by a factor of 10 and only lose 1,000 points; however, if you Do Something and GW does not happen, you lose the opportunity cost of 400 points and are left with 100. The expected payout of this happening is 45 points ((.95*100)+(.05*-100). So since 45>-25, you would choose to Do Something because the fall out is so great should GW actually occur.

    You could even argue that it is more slanted because if you choose to Do Something then there are additional benefits should GW not happen.

    The underlying issue, however, is how big will the fall out be and what are the probabilities. If you re-assign the numbers, you influence the expected values and the decision can flip-flop.

    This is a very technical description (and singular variate) and does not completely reflect what people ponder when making decisions. Cash payouts and economic models do not capture the psychological aspects that go into people decisions.

    On the other hand, this does illustrate that the data us important. We consider the data and if the data changes, our models need to change as well. They may not change enough to make our decision change, but they do need to change.

    I would respect the GW community much more if they would concede that the GISS data for October is problematic, but ONLY for an audience that believes a month’s worth of data is enough to discredit a compelling body of previous data. This is where Booker truly betrays his bias: his knee jerk reaction to a single month of information shows that he is just looking for confirmatory evidence to support his view. In the interest of convincing the skeptics that GW remains a viable threat, I urge the GW community to refrain from doing the same.

  3. The Telegraph is entertainment masquerading as news, not a scientific journal. Christopher Booker is entirely justified writing in the style that he did, especially when lambasting such an obvious target.

    Around 1987, a couple of years before the Soviet Union collapsed, there was a small U.S.-based newspaper called “The Spotlight”. They predicted that fighting communism as a means of manipulating the populace was just about tapped-out, and the next big scheme would be “the environment”. Now, were they right, or were they right?

    Whenever we’re told a scare story about the environment today, we should pause a moment and consider whether that story has any merit — then laugh out loud at the ridiculousness of it all.

  4. I would like to add my insignificant opinion here if I may…

    I think I was shocked to hear the excuse offered for this error. They don’t have enough funds to verify their data? You have to be kidding me? This is Hansen’s baby here. Should he get a pass when he’s found guilty of passing bad data? Would so called “deniers” be given the same treatment? Remember, Hansen has openly called names and even said people should be jailed for not believing his version of reality. Now we’ve found Hansen, yet again, with bad data and unchecked methods. Why are we trusting this agency, which admits to not having the funds to do their job properly, with such an important task?

  5. Anyone doing statistics with global climate looking to debunk global warming is an idiot. They are assuming that somehow, based on no science, people observed a warming trend, and then decided humans were involved.

    Define strawman folks, because this is it.

    Really, the greenhouse effect is the most simple thing in the world. The earth emits as much energy as it absorbs, in the long term. This is emitted as light (all objects emit light, based on their temperature). The Sun, being much hotter than the earth, emits much higher frequency, more active light.

    Several substances absorb the light emitted by the sun and the earth. O3, Ozone, absorbs the ultra-high frequency light, preventing it from hitting the earth. Carbon Dioxide has absorbation points in the mid-low spectrum. Right in the center of the Earth’s emission points.

    Earth is now emitting less energy (at the same temperature) than it used to. Net result? Absorbing energy. Absorbed energy = heat rise. This will continue until we’re in equilibrium again.

    This really is the most simple thing in the world, and it’s a miracle and a tribute to our modern marketers that PR spinners have been able to turn simple science into the most complicated thing you ever did see, complete with nonsense graphs, adjusted data, etc.

    Problem is it’s just marketing folks. All of the science is well documented. All of it is simple. They’ve never refuted it, they just sit there and look stupid when they’re hit with it. So hit them with science, and ask them to address it.

  6. Surely the main ad hominem attack here is on Christopher Booker. I am delighted by the idea that Man’s actions can ‘fight climate change’, but I’d strongly recommend that We finish the Tower of Babel first, just for practice.
    The belief that Man’s CO2 is affecting the planet requires a studied ignorance of science (and a belief that an ignorant received opinion is as valid as personal research) or an awfully large grant for ‘further research’ on the end of it. Since we are in the realm of ‘deniers’ we know that mere facts must not intrude on the cult.
    However, may I point out to anyone who wishes to call themselves Green, that the symbolic colour green represents photosynthesis on which all Life on Earth is based (apart from sulphur based deep-ocean/cave ecosystems). Photosynthesis is limited on Earth compared to past times by the below average levels of CO2 in the air. ‘Capturing’ CO2 reduces the plants ability to grow, inhibits regrowth of rain-forests, lowers agricultural harvests and, of course, helps the deserts grow.
    Just what have the Greens got against plant life on Earth?

  7. “This places a large amount of carbon above ground in the air, which (as I understand the science) has the potential to cause atmospheric warming.”

    It doesn’t actually, but given that so many ’scientists’ are prepared to lie for the funds available, it’s quite widely believed.
    Fossil carbon is as we know black, be it coal or oil. The ‘fossil’ tells us that once that carbon was in the atmosphere, once upon a time the carbon was part of a plant or an animal that ate plants.
    So we have black carbon that represents ex-life, and green carbon, as CO2, which is the key constituent of the biosphere.
    The Greens should surely be called the Blacks given their carbon ‘policies’?

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