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RHETORICAL MISTAKES OF LETTER WRITERS ATTACKING ICSC IN THE GAZETTE (IOWA)

Here are the logical fallacies (errors in reasoning) of letter writers Bruce R. Bachmann (Sep 16) and David Anderson (Sep 18) of the Union of Concerned Scientists:

Guilt by association: Bachmann tries to dismiss the science arguments of the International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC) by asserting that we have some association with the Heartland Institute, an organization he apparently opposes. Anderson does the same when he highlights the fact that Heartland, one of the three publishers of Climate Change Reconsidered-II (CCR-II), the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change document that ICSC is promoting, pursued other policy objectives he disapproves of. Anderson then boosts the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) saying that it “was formed at the behest of the Reagan administration”, apparently appealing to conservatives to therefore support the body.

None of this has any relevance to the topic at hand, however. Ideas must stand or fall on their own merit independent of the affiliations of the supporters or opponents of the idea.

Straw man (arguments based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position): Anderson asserts that CCR-II is intended “to attack mainstream climate science.” In reality, the report is a summary of mainstream science as it really is, not as it can be spun by government-controlled agencies. He also claims that I ignore the dangers of climate change and “echo unreliable sources that dismiss risks from climate change”. In fact, I, and the sources I cite, promote helping vulnerable people adapt to climate change, whatever the cause. That only 5% of the over $100 billion a year spent worldwide on the climate file is dedicated to adaptation is a tragedy (reference).

Motive Intent: Bachmann is guilty of this logical fallacy when he asserts that I “spent part of his [my] career in public relations for fossil fuels companies.” Besides being completely false, as anyone who checks out my background will discover, this kind of charge is typically intended to imply that, because of my background and connections, I have a motivation to lie and so cannot be trusted. Bachmann’s accusation that the three co-authors of CCR-II “all have ties to the fossil fuel energy industry” is similarly an attempt to discredit their work because of supposed vested interests, again a motive intent logical fallacy.

Appeal to Emotion: This fallacy appears when a phrase is used to suppress an audience’s critical thinking by manipulating their emotions so that they will accept a claim as being true. Bachmann does this when he concludes, “Denial of climate change today costs our children tomorrow.” This flawed reasoning is common in the climate change debate, with ‘saving the children’ being a regular theme used by both sides as a ‘thought-terminating cliché’, another logical fallacy.

The use of the word ‘denial’ in this context is also an ad hominem fallacy (discredit the man, instead of the idea) since it is frequently used to equate those who question the causes of climate change with Holocaust deniers.

Red Herring: Both Bachmann and Anderson repeatedly employ this rhetorical trick, one that is often used to divert debate to an issue the speaker believes is easier to defend. Bachmann defends climate models as continuing to improve and “part of the scientific investigation into climate change.” He then gives a definition of how scientific theories are advanced and asserts that “There is much to gain by improving our energy grids and making them smarter…Planning ahead will actually lessen costs and disruptions in the future.” None of this is in dispute. But then none of this is relevant to the discussion at hand either.

Anderson does exactly the same, but more so, claiming that:

"Strong scientific evidence links climate change with rising sea levels and increasing coastal flooding, heat waves and wildfires in the western United States…Rising seas made Sandy’s devastating storm surge even more destructive. We also know that an increased number of and more intense heat waves are a drain on public health.”

Scientists on both sides of the climate debate would agree with most of this, but it doesn’t matter. The issue under discussion is the extent to which humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions influence climate, not whether climate change affects our world.

Rather than learning enough to make up their own minds as to who is right or wrong in the climate change controversy, many people commit the same logical errors as Bachmann and Anderson have. But that is no reason for the rest of us to follow. Although deciphering the causes of climate change is one of the most complex scientific challenges ever, one we may never really solve, we can learn to think straight, if we want to.


­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Tom Harris is Executive Director of the Ottawa, Canada-based International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC).