Critically Missing the Point

Recently, I found myself engaged in conversation with someone about the topic of climate change, and this conversation is a striking example of why critical thinking skills are so important. As the result of his unwillingness to question his sources—especially someone he viewed as an authority—this gentleman was claiming not only that there has been no increase in average global temperatures but also the more egregious notion that the human species has had and is not capable of having an impact on global climate. In his view, it seems that nothing we do to the environment actually matters.

The amount of mental acrobatics that must go into maintaining this belief is staggering. I would have loved to present to him a small earthen dish containing naught but dust, but I rather doubt he would have appreciated the joke.

* * *

After an excessively lengthy process of demanding from him evidence of his claims but receiving none, he finally deigned to deliver a veritable gish gallop of web resources that he clearly had never read, much less understood. I took the opportunity to peruse his sources and found something entirely different from the collection of proofs against global warming he expected them to be. Oh sure, the authors he referenced had said that their data demonstrated a lack of warming, but the actual data did not support those claims. Indeed, many of these resources confirmed the existence of a warming trend.

I have the sneaking suspicion that there are quite a few lists of common climate denialist tropes floating about the internet, complete with evidence surrounding (i.e., both supporting and opposing) those claims. Sadly, I was not immediately aware of any of these resources, so I was forced to resort to the good ol’fashioned method of looking up his particular claims myself. (I ran across this site several times in the process, and it was rather helpful.)

Thankfully, I was able to find a number of sources to refute his particular claims. Here’s a sampling of some of those claims:

The data used to calculate the current figure of .6 degrees go back only 70 years, but the world was actually warmer before then, so we’re just getting back to normal!
About that? Yeah, that’s wrong.

Human emissions are not significant enough to affect the atmosphere.
Also nope.

Scientific models of climate change are based on the same meteorological models used to predict the weather, but weatherman can’t reliably predict the weather beyond a few days.
To be honest, I wasn’t all that sure of how to respond to this claim for its sheer preposterousness. How exactly is the long-term correlation between CO2 and global climate somehow rendered meaningless as a result of short-term weather predictions? The mind reels at the vacuousness of it. He made no attempt to defend this point, but then again, he made little attempt to defend anything he said.

Arctic sea ice isn’t melting on average, and it’s actually growing more dense.
Guess what? Yeah, double wrong. I should note that this was actually the only specific claim he followed up on when I sent him evidence rebutting him. He responded by citing a recent study that demonstrated a lack of recent melting within a specific region of Antarctic sea ice. Sigh.

That’s right, he never actually responded to my refutation of any of his claims. Instead, once the dust had settled, he accused me of “just trying to score points” on him, as if reality were nothing more than the scenery behind some illusory video game that can only be won through the accumulation of abstract, invisible points on the internet.

So why is any of this relevant? With the recent heat wave, my thoughts are drawn back to the threat of a warming planet. If scientific models are even remotely close to being accurate—indeed, if the scientific consensus that humans can and do contribute to a warming trend, then days like these will only become more common unless that trend is broken. If this is something we can influence, isn’t it obvious that we should do something?

At times, it’s hard to see why this is regarded as even remotely controversial. Then I remember words like motivated reasoning. And conversations like the one I’ve summarized here, where data are responded to with either silence or accusations of conspiracy.

Indeed, if the gentleman I was speaking with is to be believed, I must be part of some global plot to deceive the American people (and yes, of course the scheme would have this specific population in mind!). In spite of my complete lack of attachment to any group that would benefit from the perpetuation of such a global fraud, I must surely be a secret sleeper agent sent from some surreptitious society. I only hope that no one ever accidentally utters my trigger word. What is it, I wonder? Something like buttercup? Hm, no, I’m almost certain that’s from the wrong movie. Ah well.

Now that I think about it, actually, I am part of a large group of people with an active interest in the global climate change issue. Indeed, I am one of many for whom its effects could be very severe. As a member of this group—the human species—I feel some trepidation at the idea that we may be engineering our own destruction. Am I convinced that this absolutely must be happening? Of course not, but that seems to be the way the data are pointing, and I regard this as serious cause for concern.

Even if we are somehow mistaken about the severity of the change and/or its subsequent effects, a warming planet being less threatening than previously expected leaves it still a threat. A criminal who threatens to shoot you in the head is still committing a crime upon merely stabbing you instead. I do not generally regard myself as a gambler, so I’ll take the option of being neither shot nor stabbed, thank you. I am most definitely not interested in playing a game of Russian roulette, and make no mistake—that is exactly the nature of this dilemma. We may not yet have settled the question of exactly how many bullets are in the gun, but closing your eyes and shouting “Lalalala, I’m not listening!” is exactly as good a solution to a warming planet as responding in the same fashion to a mugger’s demand for your wallet.

How can someone bring themselves to a point where an otherwise serious conversation about a phenomenon with potentially life-altering (or ending) consequences can be so relentlessly disregarded? Indeed, the fervor with which critics of science attack the suggestion that our actions can have global consequences strikes me as reminiscent of the wall of deliberate ignorance that creationists build to protect themselves from mental infiltration by facts that might cause them to doubt their faith. It’s the same kind of willful resistance to reality that spawns this vitriol, and I really wish I understood it. Until we bring a wrecking ball to this mental barrier, those of us who live on the other side of it will be forced to clean up their garbage, and I’m not overly fond of being forced into a role of intellectual trash collector.

Hm. Since Obama is part of a secret international anti-Christian, anti-capitalist, anti-American, anti-kitten conspiracy, do you think he’d be willing to appoint an out atheist as Secretary of Education? Maybe I should start lobbying him for the job.

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