Monday, May 20, 2013

The "doing something that's short of everything is nothing" fallacy

Above is the best name I've got for the fallacy I keep seeing in many contexts. Somebody else should come up with a better name.

There are some good arguments against expanding nuclear power as a solution to climate change (economics economics economics), but saying we shouldn't do it because by itself it won't solve the entire problem isn't a good argument. I've also seen it locally when some people argued that funding to remove barriers to fish passage is useless when it removes 90% of the barriers on a stream but not 100% of the barriers.

There's some inability to see one effort as part of a broader effort instead of being the magic solution. Maybe the name is "You're Not the One, So Go Away Fallacy"? "Magic Solution or Bust Fallacy"?

The latest manifestation of this is Dan Kahan, who should know better, and his unhappiness over/despite the spate of publicity for the Cook et al. survey of climate abstracts (see Kloor for the same but there's little hope for him). Eli's been blogging about our prequel survey - I would've pushed harder if I had realized how much coverage it could have received.

In essence, Kahan visually demonstrates all the media this study's achieved in a short time period and then says it hasn't solved denial of climate change, so what's the point? To be fair, he isn't claiming ownership of the Magic Solution himself and just poses questions.

Maybe my best response to Kahan's question are a few of my own. Let's forget the rejectionists right now and focus on the fence-sitters and those who generally accept climate change. Do all of those people understand just how strong the scientific consensus is? They're not the ones predisposed to reject these facts.

I'm just a lazy blogger and won't dig it out, but my guess is the Pew and Stanford polling would show that a large fraction of them don't know the strength of the consensus, and those are people that should be receptive to this information. Getting people to move from wishy-washiness and tribal loyalties to increased personal understanding and commitment to the issue is a significant part of the battle.

As for the Magic Solution, you got me. I think we do have to beat the drums for the truth, and having a consistent story that 97% of the abstracts and 97% of the relevant climatologists and over 95% certainty in the IPCC all say the same thing, is really helpful. We have a complete story that satisfies the need for closure while rejectionists have coincidences and conspiracies. The 97% agreement among abstracts reinforces the story.

UPDATE:  and this:

Republicans’ aggressive campaigning against Obama’s clean-energy agenda was “an overreaction,” Feehery said. “It made us seem like enemies of the environment. The idea that government has absolutely no role, that the climate is absolutely not changing—it’s not smart,” he said. “It’s also not smart if you’re talking about all the farmers in red states that make money off windmills. A lot of the base is there.”
The Magic Solution might be to quintuple wind production in Texas.


KAP said...

Or it's close cousin, the "because we don't know everything, therefore we don't know anything" fallacy. You see that among climate deniers all the time. In fact, I think it's required: we don't know what's causing the warming; we don't know what the climate sensitivity really is; we don't know how to fix it, etc., etc., etc.

Mark said...

OK, two things:

Where, exactly, it the economic case against nuclear power in the face of climate change made? The only paper I know (and that wasn't published in a fringe journal; but please correct me, I do not follow this issue closely) was one about the migitation-adaptation dilemma:

It has no price on carbon - the condition sine qua non for whatever argument pro nuclear has been made since MIT first talked about this possibiliy 10 years or so ago. As I understand the debate, nuclear power becomes "economic" if only the carbon price is high "enough" (conceptually speaking, there are different estimates on the implicit mitigation scenarios to make the case). And when you have very, very ambitious emission targets (say, "450 ppm", our lost friend), the argument becomes overwhelming and unanimous that this is (or would have) not (been) possible without nuclear:

Of course, there are also other papers making the case for nuclear rather clearly - here, for example for Japan post(!)-Fukushima:

Of course, this might not be representative, frankly, I do not know. But when you say that good arguments against nuclear consist of economics - not once, not twice, but thrice - may I know if this is "Some guy with a blog has written that and so I repeat it" economics, or is there an actual case argued somewhere that has seen quality control? I.e. argued so clearly that "economics, economics, economics" is the adequate case against nuclear.

The other thing: Kahan didn't say that one shouldn't waste time to communicate consensus (like the consensus that one needs nuclear power in stringent mitigation scenarios) because it doesn't do the whole job. He says that one shouldn't waste time to do that because it simply useless, as it doesn't pass through the cultural cognition filter - and that there is published evidence saying so. I know that, because in the link you provided he writes:"There we know that evidence on the extent and nature of such consensus can't pass through the filter of cultural cognition (or can't unless the cultural meaning of the information is adjusted too)." And in that quote he links a paper he has authored. So, you are free to disagree, of course (e.g. by noting that Cook et al. themselves cite evidence that communicating the consensus is, in fact, important). But why exactly do you misrepresent Kahan's point as saying that Cook et al.'s venture is futile because of some Magic Solution Fallacy, when clearly and easily quotable he raises an objection that has nothing to do with such a thing?

Mark said...

The second link should have been this one:

Bryson said...

The standard category I have for this is 'making the perfect the enemy of the good'. It's common in a lot of specious ethical arguments. For instance a Canadian bioethicist (Margaret Sommerville) has argued against same-sex marriage because (she claims) ideally, children are better off with two parents of opposite sex. But even assuming she's right about that, having two parents of the same sex might well be the best available situation for some kids-- hence she's making the 'perfect' arrangement the enemy of a good one...)

Mark said...

@ Bryson

Maybe, but again, Kahan's point is not that such studies do not accomplish everything and therefore aren't worth being carried out. He says that they do not accomplish anything at all, and therefore aren't worth being carried out. There is an alleged absence of effect in his argument that cannot be easiliy construed in your analogy.

One is under no obligation to pay attention to Kahan. But if one does, why not argue with his actual point instead of pointing out a fancy fallacy that has not been committed? It's not that he isn't someone who has produced enough scholarly output pertaining to this topic to argue with, after all!

EliRabett said...

Now some, not Eli to be sure, but evidently Kahan, believe that everyone has chosen up sides. If not, then his argument is very Pielke.

willard said...

> Saying we shouldn't do it because by itself it won't solve the entire problem isn't a good argument.

This diagnostic sounds like the division fallacy:

> A fallacy of division occurs when one reasons logically that something true of a thing must also be true of all or some of its parts.

The fallacy obtains here by attributing to a part of the solution what portends to the whole. It's quite tough to play chess with this kind of logic in mind. Even breeding bunnies might get touchy.

I'm sure Eli appreciates the fact that intellectual conquerers oftentimes use the fallacy of division.


I do not know what orsiep destruction means, but this has been tonight's capcha.

bill said...

'Wind / solar power can't provide 100% of electricity, so therefore it's a dangerous scam.'

I've encountered this one many times. Even from AGW realist pro-nuke advocates.

This kind of claim is often backed up by a style of reasoning that always puts me in mind of Achilles and the tortoise...

I also know this style of argument, when done in good faith, as 'letting the perfect...' etc., but I suspect it's a kind of Silver-Bullet or Grand Narrative Fallacy; there's one all-conquering story we must all embrace, or we're doomed, doomed!...

Brian said...

Mark - the only thing more foolish than the fallacy I don't have a name for would be to say that reinforcing the consensus has no effect on people who are predisposed to accept it (the pro side) or not predisposed against it (the fence sitters).

I'm giving Kahan more credit than you do.

As for nuclear, I personally think the safety standards are over-strict and would oppose mothballing existing plants except really poorly situated ones. For new plants, my perception is that renewables already have them beat on cost, will have them beat even more as each year goes by, and the baseload problem is solvable (and still far away in time from being a problem).

Mark said...

@ Brian

Maybe. But I do not think that one should throw around accusation of fallacies where all one has, at the end, is personal impressions of what influences the debate, when the counterpart one is accusing of this fallacy actually has a paper track on that exact topic. As I said, Kahan said clearly what he means, and has actually done research to bolster his point of view - and evidently, he has not committed the fallacy you identify. This is simply not what he said, even if you disagree with whatever he actually said.

I know of no study that argues that renewables have beaten nuclear, especially so decisively as to allow such as strong and general assertion. The caveats are pretty much unchanged: levelized costs are no way to compare dispatchable with non-dispatchable sources (as Paul Joskow has argued extensively), and backups due to intermittency are doubly a problem in that a) backups are simply conventional power plants that are not running economically themselves and b) backups release emissions which make their costs dependent on a carbon price (that is why all those nuclear scenarios have a carbon price - the higher the more nuclear), which, in turn, lets the systemic costs rise as renewable penetration increases. Thus, there need not be a baseload problem to make intermittency a problem, unfortunately. Actually, I don't know if baseload is expected to create much of a problem, but reliability does: Germany is at a point now, where they are compensating gas-fired power plants for the sole reason to stay on the grid, even if the operating company does not want to run them. So, I would not say that such concerns are far away, there are right here:

Note that neither this gas fired plant, nor all the coal in Germany see a price on carbon emissions at the moment (and there is no sign they will anytime soon). Even if that means that the whole thing together is still cheaper than a new nuclear power plant, I don't think this is the realm in which one wants to talk about these issues.

Hank Roberts said...

> inability to see one effort as
> part of a broader effort instead
> of being the magic solution.

Sounds like letting the parts be the enemy of the, er, sum of the parts

(avoiding 'whole' as some useful parts may not be known yet).

Or perhaps you're describing

"For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong." - H. L. Mencken

Hank Roberts said...

Make that

"There is always a well-known solution to every human problem--neat, plausible, and wrong."

-- H. L. Mencken, Prejudices: Second Series, 1920

That gets you past the Sturgeon's Law stuff.

Martin said...

This thread is amazing!

The first commenter, without further ado, makes some unexplained but meaningful allusion to climate change deniers. The rest piles up pseudo-analogies and oh-so-thoughtful generalisations pertaining to an alleged fallacy without even once looking up what the malfaisant has actually written.

And so it comes that almost everyone here seems to think that Kahan demands the ultimate solution or nothing. Even though his obvious, directly quotable point is that the discussed contribution is completely useless. Of course, nobody has to say anything about this point since a) nobody even knows that Kahan has made it, and b) nobody bothers to look up the arguments why Kahan made it.

Voilà, the evidence-based community.

bill said...

What an intriguingly tendentious reading!

Question: who do you imagine is talking about Kahan - frankly, for instance, I just don't care for his carping, whatever the flavour - and who is discussing a name for a type of fallacy?

Pots and Kettles, or what?

Hank Roberts said...

It's worth (re)reading Kahan's earlier statement on cultural cognition:

His current blog assumes that stuff.
Dunno. Seems to me one can find some examples of cultures changing rather dramatically -- though it takes pretty major disruption to shake them up first.

Hank Roberts said...

PS, another way to say it is, once people see the dead bodies on their own city block, they'll begin to consider the world may be in bad shape. People believe what they see happening around them.

Look at antibiotic resistance, where the consensus is fifty years old but the culture hasn't changed.

What does it take? Falling off of current and anticipated profitability, and customers going away, I think, to spur the business world to change.

Martin said...

Whatever the fallacy's name, it has not been committed. Kahan isn't "carping", he doubts an approach he obviously believes to have refuted on the basis of published research he has contributed to. So, a good way to refute him, if one wishes and is able to do so, would be via his research. A not-so-good way is to invent a position he doesn't hold and then critisize that.

Anyway, Kahan has a follow-up, saying things like:

"Empirical studies aimed at trying to make sense of this phenomenon have concluded that the reason the public remains divided on “scientific consensus” isn’t that they haven’t been exposed to evidence on the matter but rather that when they are exposed to evidence of what experts believe they selectively credit or discredit it in patterns that reflect and reinforce their perception that scientific consensus is consistent with the position that predominates in their cultural or ideological group." (The original has references.)


"Not only do too many science communicators ignore evidence about what does and doesn't work. Way way too many also shoot from the hip in a completely fact-free, imagination-run-wild way in formulating communication strategies.

If they don't rely entirely on their own personal experience mixed with introspection, they simply reach into the grab bag of decision science mechanisms (it's vast), picking and choosing, mixing and matching, and in the end presenting what is really just an elaborate just-so story on what the "problem" is and how to "solve" it."

This is not to say that one cannot disagree with all that. But no disagreement has been vented here, not with what Kahan actually says, and not with the evidence Kahan provides. All that has been uttered here in the post, and then in the comments, is the implicit admission not to have the slightest idea who Kahan is and on what basis he is saying what he is saying. But with the cocksure assertion that "he should know better". Of course.

Martin Vermeer said...


I have actually read the Kahan piece (and comments under it), and Brian is spot-on. Kahan's fallacy (while I well understand his frustration) is his unstated assumption that the set of 'fence sitters' be empty. While smaller than we all would like, it is not.

Commenter Scott Johnson gets it too.

Martin Vermeer said...

Oops, that link went wrong

Martin said...

@ Martin Vermeer

That's nice that you say that. Idk, is it necessary to point out that all you do is exactly just that: to assert something? What Kahan writes is little more than a point he pulls out of his research. I know that, because he links his research when he makes his point. Perhaps he should have been more specific in his post.

But the critique here does not read:"Kahan writes that in his post, and maybe it is in his research. However, as the piece stands, it is too vague and, in and of itself, a strange criticism." Neither does it (or you) say:"I have tons of evidence of a category of "fence-sitters", and while I will not tell you if there is anything more about this idea than just my imagination - about the reality of which I am really, really sure, though - I will also not check if Kahan has anything to say about it. I'll rather assume that some "unstated assumption" - i.e. something he did not say and I was to lazy to check with his research - has been inherent in what he actually says which, on the other hand, I will ignore. In the same vein, I will conconct a fallacy that has not been made in this specific case, but that surely has been committed often enough by somebody, somewhere, so that each and every of my readers can read something - though something completely different in each case - into it, which they will promptly prove in the comment section." Wait a moment, the second past HAS actually happened!

The actually spoken assumption that fence-sitters should be receptive to info is a bit like the idea that undecided voters are receptive to targeted ads - rather than just not interested in what has been happening all the time and therefore not receptive at all to whatever message whoever has to promote. You know, the ones they try to convince in the last couple of weeks before an election (if ONLY they knew the party program!!), and then they vote whatever their daughter/uncle/dog tells them to. Is that the "fence-sitter fallacy"? Anyway, a lot of people can have a lot of more or less plausible ideas how things work, me too. I know someone who has done some actual empirical research on the topic, but then he has committed the "You're Not the One, So Go Away Fallacy".

Btw, I read the Kahan piece, and the comments, too. So there.

Brian said...

FWIW, I don't think this issue is just about fence-sitters, it's also about motivating your base. As I said in the original post, it moves them from tribal/cultural loyalties to actually understanding the issue.

A thought experiment would be to have a situation where the popular media rarely or never reinforces the consensus view. My guess is that would be a problem.

BTW, I am guilty as charged of not reading the rest of Kahan's stuff before critiquing his post, although I have read him before. I don't think he's useless (not in the same category as Kloor).

Hank Roberts said...

While there are some fence-sitters, I think the larger problem is with the large number who are fenced in.

These are voters or care-less types believing what they're told by those around them), and who aren't going to move on their own.

For most cultural and scientific issues, these age out and are replaced over time, which works for slow changes.

Climate change is so heavily affected by what's done now that has consequences for generations to come, that just waiting for new people with new educations -- fails.

Like antibiotic resistance, for example. Or lead. Or asbestos. Or tobacco.

Who builds the fences? Liars.
"We are property." -- Charles Fort
Poorly maintained, exploited, run-down property.

The fences, though, they're quite well maintained. Ask any advertising agency or lobbying group.


Bryson said...

The fact that groups interpret information in ways that make changing their minds difficult isn't a good reason not to document the existing scientific consensus-- just for starters, that documentation (and the publicity surrounding it) creates a cognitive burden for those who deny the consensus. By itself, I expect, it's not a big burden (by itself, evidence of cultural biases in IQ tests doesn't prevent people like Philip Rushton from drawing racist conclusions from IQ data). But it doesn't follow that it's not worth doing (among other things, it reinforces confidence on the part of those who accept AGW and believe we're long past the point at which a large-scale response is justified).

After all, we all know the body of actual research that's been published hasn't persuaded everyone of AGW, and new publications are unlikely to change the minds of many deniers. But it would be bizarre to claim that these publications aren't critical to making the case for AGW.

Establishing the existence of a strong consensus may also fail to persuade deniers-- but I think it does help to tilt the playing field...

It's hard to link discrete studies examining short-term changes (and absence of such changes) in attitude to ways in which longer-term, large-scale shifts in attitude come about. But we know that large changes do occur-- and sometimes very quickly. A focus on complaints that 'you're doing it wrong' (especially when the underlying study has been done quite well, in its own terms) is more of a hindrance than a help here.

Martin Vermeer said...

Bryson, I don't think at all it is hopeless. Hopelessly slow yes, but not hopeless.

Finally the coal mafia is being brought to account. It took a while but they are not invincible.

In the meantime, it is important to continue building the record, one small step, one paper at a time. And doing the right thing is its own reward.

Martin Vermeer said...

> The fences, though, they're quite well maintained

Hank, and constitutionally protected ;-/

chris said...

Mark, Kahan's paper track record isn't a particular point in his favour with respect to this mini-argument.

Having read a couple of his papers and the commentary he wrote in Nature last year on the subject, I would say that Kahan's POV suffers from a common limitation of academic psychological analyses, namely that the proponent becomes rather over-enamoured of his particular position and finds that it’s all too easy to interpret all things as supporting that position. Kahan has (with a certain degree of validity) developed the position that the public perception of issues scientific is (in the US anyhow) clouded by the partisan nature of media reporting on scientific issues (Kahan’s “polluted science-communication environment”) and the tendency of individuals to adopt partisan positions especially in relation to their peer group (Kahan:“positions on climate change have come to signify the kind of person one is.”).

The problem is that Kahan is a little too keen on his insight and adopts the POV that this unfortunate state of affairs is insurmountable. Encountering a straightforward and objective scientific paper on the extent of consensus he responds with sarcasm and authoritative pronouncements (”we know that evidence on the extent and nature of such consensus can't pass through the filter of cultural cognition”).

But he’s wrong I think. There are many reasons why simple restatements of facts (Kahan typically considers this “bombarding the public”!) is useful. Facts is facts and they may as well be presented. As others above have noted, these fact might catch the eye of some of the intelligent undecided, who might also be impressed by the straightforward manner of their presentation. There are lots of people/organizations who consider it expedient to misrepresent the facts, and so having these restated in proper context is helpful.

Above all we know that in time the scientific realities prevail despite the efforts of vested interests, whether this relates to the dangers of ciggie smoking or the dangers of aspirin with respect to Reyes syndrome in children or all the other things we were lied to about. No doubt the scientific evidence will ultimately accrue in relation to climate change. While Dr. Kahan indulges his rather nihilistic certainty that ”evidence on the extent and nature of such consensus can't pass through the filter of cultural cognition”, in fact that filter will in time be “passed through” in part due to efforts like the consensus paper.

Hank Roberts said...

chris said...

ooops, if anyone makes it to the last paragraph of my post, they might note that I meant "prevail" when I said "accrue".

The scientific evidence already has accrued, of course - we're waiting for it to prevail...

Mark said...

@ chris

As I said couple of times, of course everybody is free to critisize Kahan. But to do so without being intellectually lazy or dishonest one has to refer to what he actually said and take on the evidence he provides. None of that has happened in the post, and the comment section was 99 percent piling on applause for a non-argumented thesis and elaborating on some weird meta-stuff as how to analyze and identify a certain fallacy as if this was memebase, or something.

Of course there is always some kind of reason to reveal whatever is true. This is a vacuous statement. Kahan's critique targets the trumpetting of the Cook et al. paper as something important where he firmly believes that it doesn't contribute to the cause it was set out to contribute to and which lots of people are touting it for.

I don't think much of the idea to jump on Kahan's character and insinuate how he is enamoured by his ideas or whatever. As you acknowledged, he has a track record, no need to make up stuff about what dark forces govern his mind. Especially if you have read his stuff, you'll be able to do better than that.

Mark said...

Personally I don't find this whole consensus vs. skeptic vs. denier business that has become a fetish and obsession to an extent that several blogs exist for no other reason than making lists thereof very enlightening. I also do not really get why one should mobilize whoever. It's not that there will be an election some day where people decide if there is consensus on global warming or not, and at the end Obama wins. The question that arises at the end of the day is what action to take against AGW - and this discussion is toxic, toxic, toxic even (especially?) among those who fully accept the science pertaining to AGW. Remember there are Ackerman types who'd simply do everything to stop emissions as soon as possible. Then there are Weitzman/Hansen types who have their main focus on catastrophy insurance. Then there comes the Romm limit, as anything below will be constantly bad-mouthed on his blog (say, Nordhaus). Then comes the Eli Rabett limit, as anything below will be badmouthed on this very blog for even the most contrived reason (yes, I am talking about Tol). There is the Stern singularity, which is focal point of all the hatred types like Tol can spit out during a long day etc. etc. This is a mess, and no elaborated gobbledegook about where the consensus lies merely on the question if global warming is happening or not will help us any further. Vested interests everywhere - free market types who prefer going down the climate abyss to letting Obama take away their precious bodily fluids via a carbon tax, so we have to rely on "self-regulating" markets, and on markets only, to solve the climate problem, until we all die. Types like at Grist, who'd give their limbs if it would avoid an eventual nuclear power surge and where it takes a super-human effort not to imagine that a big, big reason why they have no problem with the science behind AGW is not because they are so fact-based, but because they see a good chance to see long-cherished green policies to be implemented - and who therefore stall instantly if one hints that this might not be the case (say nuclear power, or also the suggestion that GMOs might play a role if we are talking about adaptation scenarios in agriculture. All this to the point of self-parody: e.g. referring to Hansen why 350 ppm (no typo) is what we need, but not even mentioning Hansens pro-nuclear advocacy.). And so on.

This is the mess we have to sort out. If the intent of Cook et al. was to move us even marginally closer to resolve these problems, it missed the point at best, and is a distraction at worst. If that was not the intent (which I doubt, they are clear about it int he introduction), but only some high-standing quest for Teh Truth, OK - but then I don't get why everybody is talking it up. This blog welcomes the study, WUWT reads it exactly as Kahan would suggest they'd read it. Natch. In the meantime, not a single f*ck was given in the real world.

By the way, commenter Mark and Martin (nor Vermeer) are both me. Sorry for that, no intent to sockpuppet.

chris said...

Mark I did "refer to what he actually said and refer to the evidence he provides". Personally I think his "thesis" is appalling, in that it attempts to trash worthwhile scientific effort (the Cook paper is science) with a combination of sarcasm and faux-authoritative pronouncements that support a statist view with respect to advancing public perception of science.

I don't think your diatribe just posted is very helpful or representative of extant realities. Cook et al did a scientific analysis and published this. It demonstrates rather objectively the nature of scientific consensus on a subject of public interest. At some point the weight of evidence will tip the debate away from self-serving denial towards scientific realities as it always does in these instances. Cook et al is another bit of evidence. Everyone can choose to take it or leave it or otherwise make of it what they will.

I don't find your assertion that the paper "missed the point at best, and is a distraction at worst..." terribly convincing. The aim was to assess the nature of scientific consensus in a specific context. It did. How does that miss "the point"? And if you find scientific evidence "distracting" maybe you should be focusing elsewhere... or perhaps you could explain how you feel personally that the paper is "distracting"...

Bryson said...

Martin V:

I'm not a hard and fast pessimist--though I admit I'm worried, I'm also happy to see lots of things done in the hope of changing minds: we don't know what will or might produce a large-enough shift in opinions to produce a change in policy (say, adoption of a carbon tax with predictable, incremental increases over time), but there's no real alternative to keeping on trying, and I think establishing the existence of a strong consensus is well worthwhile.

tonylearns said...

just read this post on suyts that some skeptic scientists say their papers were improperly classified as supporting ACC, when in fact they didn't. Idso and Scafetta and someone named Shaviv

EliRabett said...

Tony, that ain't very surprising, take a look at Rabett Exclusive and the post on cross tabs.

Across 600 or 12000 abstracts it all evens out.

willard said...


Here's Brian's claim:

> In essence, Kahan visually demonstrates all the media this study's achieved in a short time period and then says it hasn't solved denial of climate change, so what's the point?

That may not be what Kahan *says*, but for his argument to work, something like this might operate.

In other words, Kahan' implicit premise commits the fallacy of division.

At least according to Brian's reading.


My only interest, so far, was to help identify this paralogism.

I read Keith's quite a lot, so I'm a bit aware of Kahan's pet peeves.

In fact, if you could find one article by Keith that does not mention him re: AGW, please link to it.

While I understand your impression, you should bear in mind that these discussions do not come from nowhere.

If you promise to tone down your gloating, I will try to pay due diligence to Kahan's thesis.


Mark said...

@ willard

For sure I should tone down. But also, it would be unfair to Kahan, and to your own disadvantage, to base your willingness to take him seriously on my behavior.

Point is, the fact that global warming is happening and humans are responsible for it does not tell you much. Specifically, it does not have any poiciy implications if you understand the latter to be anything more than 'We should do something.'

There is a huge literature on different estimates that govern our main policy decisions and where no consensus has been established - take the recent discussion about the climate sensitivity. It has large effects on calculated SSCO2s (but even lower estimates have effects we are nowhere near to take actions against):

On the other side, the discussions surrounding the economics analysis reflect these non-resolved issues: there is a discussion if we can calculate SSCO2s at all, or if uncertatinties should govern our policy decisions. In the latter case, you have the only stringelty argued modellation of catastrophic climate change (Weitzmann 2009), again pertaining to an assumed Pareto-like distribution of the ECS (and consequences for that analysis if the ECS turns out to be not fat-tailed). Then you have Roe/Bauman who hint that uncertainties to e.g. the damage functions alone render IAMs more or less useless. And so on. And still on another hand there are all the mainstream IAMS, that simply give you a certain SSCO2 and an emissions tax based on it - where the whole talk focusses on moral issues instead to push or drag the SSCO2s.

These are real discussions. And they are not reflected in the blogospheric discussions, not at all. What is happening is that some blogger takes a stance - enviromnentalists unvariably come out on the high end of implied costs, and I'll eat my hat if this is because they uniformly understand the literature so well - and reframes the rest of the debate as a realist vs. skeptic vs. denier debate. Huge chunks of the range of qualified opinions that are of paramount imortance to get to a decisive answer (i.e. that is not prone to be challenged every other election cycle, this is a project for a century!) are simply ignored on the basis of a false di- or trichotomy that has developed a life of its own. The Cook at al. paper is a sideshow based on an analysis of the problem that was perhaps relevant 20 years ago and that Oreskes had pretty muched settled in the stone age of the internet.

Here is an interview with Steven Pinker:

At one point (there are two more parts) the interviewer (himself a linguist) makes an observation about the Chomsky revolution in linguistics. He says - I paraphrase - that this revolution was not so difficult to accept back then because it proved approaches up to then wrong, but because it proved them useless. Being wrong is daily routine in scientific quests, but being useless is nothing a scientist will easily accept. And that's how I read the kerfuffle about Kahan, just without revolution, just hte characteristic stuttering until the engine dies off.

willard said...

Hello Mark,

Thanks for and for the Pinker interview. If you like Pinker, you'll enjoy him there:

if only because he talks more clearly and fluidly than we write.

I must confess that my nickname refers to a behaviorist that had bouts with Chomsky.

In any case, I'll try to read Kahan and come back later during the week.

I took the liberty to reproduce your comment over there:

Hope you don't mind the title.