Red Herrings, Aunt Sallys, and CAGW

IMG_0889Herrings are not red and Aunt Sally is a straw man.  On the other hand, if you cure herring in a strong brine solution, it will turn red and become quite pungent.  If you wish to distract a hound from chasing a rabbit, you might use a red herring, at least that’s the theory and the explanation of the idiom.

In the United Kingdom, I’m told, an Aunt Sally is the same as a straw man, a misrepresentation of another person’s argument.

So, when your Aunt Sally throws you a smelly fish, you’ve been had, as they say.

Such is the grand debate about manmade global warming with rising and acidifying oceans, melting glaciers and polar ice caps, drowning polar bears, super storms and typhoons, and many other calamities that may be summarized as the sky is falling, at least Chicken Little thinks so.

Do you believe that the burning of fossil fuels with the release of enormous quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is catastrophically changing the climate?  Are you convinced  that sea level is rising so fast that big cities such as New York and Miami will be under water by the end of the twenty-first century?  Do you accept that our oceans are becoming dangerously acidic, and that important marine ecosystems are being destroyed as a result?  Do you argue that we can prevent these catastrophes by finding alternative sources of energy that do not produce or release carbon dioxide?

If you answered yes to all of these questions, then you believe in catastrophic anthropogenic global warming, CAGW.  Congratulations!  Your heart is in the right place and I appreciate your strong concern for our future, but ask your Aunt Sally to stop throwing smelly fish all over the place.

You see, most of us understand that climate changes naturally.  We believe that modern science is yet unable to discern the extent to which current climate changes may result from human activities, the consequences of modern civilization.  Most of us wonder if we could or should do anything to prevent global climate change, as if there was a perfect global climate we need to maintain and protect.  Like our ancestors, we prefer to focus our efforts and our limited resources on adaptions that improve our chances for survival on this dynamic planet.

I believe this is the position of the vast majority of us, including well-educated and extraordinarily talented scientists.  For these beliefs, we are called deniers and skeptics, or worse, by a rather loud minority.  Our arguments are often misrepresented, and therefore misunderstood.  We do not deny that our planet may be warming.  We do not deny the benefits of alternative and renewable sources of energy.  We know that science is never settled and that consensus has its proper place in politics, but not in science.  We remain concerned and quite skeptical of arguments that cannot be verified.  We resent the condescension and the ad hominem attacks of those who question our intelligence and our motives.

I found an example that illustrates my point.  This interchange occurred earlier this month on CNN with Piers Morgan.  The invited guests included climatologist and former NASA Scientists Roy Spencer, Ph.D., of the University of Alabama, Huntsville, and environmental journalist Mark Hertsgaard, of The Nation magazine.  Dr. Spencer is a well-know author and an expert on the satellite measurement of global temperatures.  He has testified before the United States Congress on many occasions.  Mr. Hertsgaard holds strong opinions that manmade climate change and global warming will have catastrophic consequences in the future.

The following excerpts are from a transcript of their interchange.

SPENCER: Well, even though I’m a skeptic, I don’t know of anyone that denies climate change. The climate has always changed. . . The earth is a little warmer right now. We’re not exactly sure whether it’s 100 percent due to mankind or 50 percent due to mankind, 50 percent due to nature and by chance. Today we have a new paper (interrupted)

HERTSGAARD: Mr. Spencer, that is not true, sir. That is not true. You are misstating with facts. As a scientist (interrupted)

SPENCER: Which part is not true, Mark?

HERTSGAARD: You should not do that, sir. To say that we don’t know.  Listen to what the IPC just said – IPCC just said in its report that humankind’s activities are now responsible for most of this. I frankly don’t know why, Dr. Spencer, I believe that you don’t even agree that climate change is manmade last time I checked.  And if you’ve revised your position I’d love to hear about it.

SPENCER: Well, you’re wrong about that. I believe that we don’t know – I don’t believe that we know how much is manmade versus natural. (interrupted)

HERTSGAARD: So you stand against the 97 percent of scientists who say this. And, Piers, I have to tell you as a journalist, you know, we don’t talk to tobacco scientists any more when we do cigarette stories. I don’t think that we should be talking to climate deniers about climate stories. That is journalistically irresponsible.

SPENCER: Mark, did you know I’m one of the 97 percent you’re talking about, because that 97 percent statistic included people who believe that some portion of climate change is manmade. And I do believe some portion of it is.

HERTSGAARD: Sir, sir – see this is the conspiracy thinking that you must retreat to in order to say in the year 2013 that climate change is not manmade, happening now, and causing great suffering in the Philippines, great suffering.  And we have not dealt with this for 20 years because of this kind of nonsense, talking about how there’s no human fingerprints on this. That is not what 97 percent of the scientists on this planet say. And Piers, I repeat, journalistically this is malpractice to have on somebody pretending that this is 50 percent and 50 percent when nobody in the scientific community takes the view that climate change is not the related to stronger storms.

MORGAN. Okay, well look, listen, it’s an interesting debate. I think it’s actually journalistically malpractice to not have a fair debate actually, with all respect to you, Mark Hertsgaard. But thank you very much for the lecture on journalism.

If you were to watch the interview, you would observe Mr. Hertsgaard interrupting Dr. Spencer and talking over him, often not allowing him to complete a sentence.  These few paragraphs include at least five Aunt Sallys and red herrings, and some rather disrespectful ad hominem attacks thrown in for good measure.

Examples of Aunt Sallys or straw man arguments of Mark Hertsgaard that misstate the position of Roy Spencer:

So you stand against the 97 percent of scientists who say this

to say in the year 2013 that climate change is not manmade, happening now

talking about how there’s no human fingerprints on this

somebody pretending that this is 50 percent and 50 percent

the view that climate change is not the related to stronger storms

Examples of red herrings that Mark Hertsgaard used to distract from the debate:

And, Piers, I have to tell you as a journalist, you know, we don’t talk to tobacco scientists any more when we do cigarette stories.

this is the conspiracy thinking that you must retreat to

causing great suffering in the Philippines, great suffering

That is journalistically irresponsible

And Piers, I repeat, journalistically this is malpractice

Examples of Mark Hertsgaard’s ad hominem attacks of the character of Roy Spencer:

Mr. Spencer, that is not true, sir. That is not true. You are misstating with facts

I don’t think that we should be talking to climate deniers about climate stories

we have not dealt with this for 20 years because of this kind of nonsense

That is not what 97 percent of the scientists on this planet say

nobody in the scientific community takes the view

I would paraphrase Mark Hertsgaard arguments as follows: If I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.  Furthermore, we should not allow anyone who disagrees with me to speak.

This is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.  For too many years, perhaps decades, reasoning voices have been stifled and interrupted.

In my future posts, I intend to share information about global climate change that should help you avoid Aunt Sally and the stinking red herrings before they distract you from catching that rabbit.

About DocStephens

President Emeritus South Florida State College (Retired in 2013)
This entry was posted in Climate Science, Human Behavior, Politics and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Red Herrings, Aunt Sallys, and CAGW

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