ED VS. LOGICAL FALLACIES, PART 2: Ignoratio elenchi

I didn't intend to do two of these in such rapid succession, but I just happened to find a stunningly perfect example of ignoratio elenchi. Or, as it is better known colloquially, a "red herring" or "the Chewbacca defense."

The Greek phrase literally translates as "ignorance of refutation." It simply means that the person using the argument is completely ignorant in the art of rhetoric and does not know how to properly refute his opponent. In practice, it need not be a case of ignorance. In fact most red herrings are offered quite deliberately to distract, confuse, or divert the discussion of a given topic.

Like all fallacies of irrelevance, ignoratio elenchi are particularly dangerous because they are internally consistent. The point offered as a red herring, for example, is often true and logically consistent. The fallacy is that it is, irrespective of its validity, irrelevant to the argument.

Some red herrings are blatantly obvious attempts to change the subject or re-define a discussion. More often, and usually cloaked in a reassuring pile of Science, Facts, and Numbers, they are much more subtle. The more subtle they are, the more harm they have the potential to do. Less-than-astute readers and viewers are easily fooled by such tactics.

Mr. R. Timothy Patterson offers a veritable orgy of logical fallacies for our consumption in his recent Financial Post (Canada) piece "Read the Sunspots." He's got everything in this lengthy article: ad hominem, appeals to science, appeals to consensus, appeals to authority, false dilemma, biased sampling, hasty generalization…..a student of formal logic could write a dissertation on this thing. But rather than discuss those individually, I'd rather focus on the fact that the entirety of his discussion is a big, stinking, red herring.

His argument is clear: the argument that human activity is responsible for climate change is a politically-loaded sham. He believes – and his single-case research supports – that "the sun appears to drive climate change." In other words, any observed changes are natural; "Climate stability has never been a feature of planet Earth." After setting up his barrage of numbers with some Goldberg-esque mockery of some liberal politicians, he gets to the point:

The only constant about climate is change; it changes continually and, at times, quite rapidly. Many times in the past, temperatures were far higher than today, and occasionally, temperatures were colder. As recently as 6,000 years ago, it was about 3C warmer than now. Ten thousand years ago, while the world was coming out of the thousand-year-long "Younger Dryas" cold episode, temperatures rose as much as 6C in a decade — 100 times faster than the past century's 0.6C warming that has so upset environmentalists.

He then goes on to describe in detail existing research that shows how solar variation can be causally linked to climate change on Earth. His argument is internally consistent; he cites research appropriately and is careful not to misinterpret its conclusions. It would be a very convincing exercise in persuasive journalism if not for the inconvenient fact that his whole discussion is entirely irrelevant to the argument.

He starts by mocking the (liberal) political efforts to limit or alter human activity on the grounds that man has contributed to (or even caused) global climate change. He then moves on to spend 15 paragraphs proving that some change in climate is part of nature. He does not, at any point, realize that those two things are not mutually exclusive. In fact, proving the latter is wholly irrelevant to any discussion of the former.

Scientists have many thousands of years of historical climate data which they can use to show that natural variations are….well, natural. They happen. We know this. The planet's temperature is not stable over time. Comparatively, the human activities which allegedly contribute to climate change (mass atmospheric pollution as a product of hydrocarbon combustion) are largely confined to the last 70 to 100 years. Leaving aside the dramatic imbalance in sample sizes (6000 years of data from ice cores vs. a few decades since we started burning coal and oil at truly alarming rates) his argument still fails to "disprove", as he no doubt feels he has done, the idea that human behavior is affecting climate.

To use an analogy (and I love nothing more), suppose I suspected my neighbor of dumping his old, used motor oil in my yard and killing my trees. I gather data (photographs, samples of oil-laden dirt and roots, etc) and confront him. In response, he gives me a 20-page discussion of all of the natural factors that can lead to arboreal genocide – insects, frost, air pollutants, drought, and so on. His argument would be correct, of course, but it would be nothing more than a distraction. Proving that locusts can kill trees does not prove that you're not killing them with motor oil.

Mr. Patterson is obviously proud of his research. Indeed it is an interesting line of argument and I'd like to see him or his colleagues follow up with a larger sample from a variety of locations around the globe. In fact, he's so obviously proud of his work that I find it hard to believe that he'd use it as little more than a distraction in an unrelated debate.

3 thoughts on “ED VS. LOGICAL FALLACIES, PART 2: Ignoratio elenchi”

  • One need go no further than, say, his latest posting to Slate to read one of the greatest perpetrators of said spuriousness: Christopher Hitchens, whose 'logic,' when confronted with the facts that the invasion/occupation of Iraq was founded on poor planning prompted by false premises drawn from bad intelligence collected by people who'd already made up their minds, and has produced a land of sectarian carnage, is essentially: "Look, Saddam Hussein was a monstrous, evil dictator. Life in Iraq under him was horrible. We removed him, ergo, life in Iraq is now better. So none of that matters." And the sound that you hear is a hundred thousand foreheads hitting the computer screen trying to head-butt some sense into the guy…

  • Hitchens is a unique case. He makes no sense, but I think that 99.9% of his readers (or disinterested observers) just chalk that up to the drinking. The guy is a self-professed raging alcoholic, and I think you, I, liberals, conservatives, or Chinamen would all be quite foolish to expect anything his soused brain puts out to make sense.

  • Well, it's not as bad as Jonah Goldberg arguing that rain was climate change, so what's the big deal, but it's close.

    (I'd like to think that Goldberg was just being obnoxious, but he offers weak arguments all the time and has argued pretty much the points that Patterson has in the past.)

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