Sunday, April 20, 2008

Climate Change and Poisoning the Well

Couldn’t quite pass this up, as blog acquaintance Pho commits an ad hominem, specifically of the genetic variety, oft referred to as “poisoning the well”.

I'm probably going to get my blogger brains beat out over this, but here goes.

To set the stage, it’s his response to this piece.

To be sure, Pho is a lawyer. Lawyers oft seem to make the best bloggers, given their natural and nurtured abilities to ague. But the standard of argument is intensely pragmatic in the Jamesian sense – it boils down to the cash value of persuading a judge / jury / reader. The technical validity of the argument is not the top concern.

Thus, the “poisoning the well” argument works well. Pho’s response to anon in the comments provides an elegant example:

“The denier trope that just as much money goes on the proponent side is apocryphal. For the most part the science supporting the global warming story is just basic science, not research funded with the specific purpose of reaching a certain result. So people who make this arguments tote up things like NSF grant that simply fund research. A guy like Michaels gets money to do little original research and instead fly around to Cato events and write op-eds. No, it's not the same thing.

I know plenty of scientists who do the sort of peer-reviewed work that proponents work on. They aren't exactly holding their breaths for those five- and six-figure checks.”

Boiled down to it’s essence, the argument is “industry money = bad; George Soros / Al Gore / Government money = good”.

One would think that the millions that Al Gore has made in climate change chicken littleism would hint that there’s plenty of incentive to skew some observers. And if we’re going to indulge in vulgar personal attacks, one could easily note that Al’s fortune (pre global warming hysteria) derives largely from Occidental Petroleum deals, mining, etc. Post global warming hysteria, it depends on beating the drums of doom ever louder. Perhaps if he reduced his own carbon footprint by leaving his McMansions, giving up private jets, and skipping an occasional conference in Bali, he might have a smidge of credibility.

Additionally, since Climate Change is the likely vehicle to grant governments everywhere unprecedented power over economies (read: people’s lives), there’s a huge built in incentive to go along with the program.

Not to go along with the program is to threaten no only your own career, but the institution where you work. There’s certainly powerful, non-financial incentives not to rock the boat.

All governments have a huge interest in stories of climate catastrophe. It’s an attempt to rehabilitate central economic planning and control, which has never worked before, and won’t work now. Well, assuming that “work” means “achieved stated ends of improving the lives of the common man”. It does work in the sense that it improves the lives of the political elites as the expense of the rest of us.

Corporations expecting to profit from Enron style cap and trade schemes also may exert subtle pressure (setting an “architecture of choice”) that serves to skew the outcome.

At the end of the day the “poisoning the well” argument is invalid, no matter who’s making it. The fact that the chicken littleist side seems to rely on it so heavily to attempt to rebut their critics is suggestive of a weak position.

As Salvor Hardin might say, “an atom blaster is a good weapon, but it can point both ways”.