Between Scientists & Citizens

Morano Analysis #4: Bringing the arguments home

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I’ve been looking at the verbal work that’s occurring in this small transaction–the work of construing the relationship between the speakers as a relationship of a certain type (for Maslin, attacker/victim), the work of framing the topic they will mutually address (anthropogenic global warming, AGW).  All this work is supposed to be aimed at allowing the two men to debate–that is, it’s supposed to make room for them to exchange arguments.  Now that’s they’ve gotten their debate well underway, can Maslin the scientist use his expertise to craft arguments that will stand up to Morano’s expected attacks?  No.

Case:  Morano v. Maslin

Maslin starts his case for the existence of AGW by deploying two parallel arguments:

Actually, if you look at the evidence, temperatures have been rising for the last 150 years.  If you look at this week the World Meteorological Organization and the Met Office showed that this decade is the warmest we’ve ever recorded.  This year alone is the fifth warmest year.  If you look at the satellite data, sea ice has been retreating.  2007 you could actually take a supertanker from the Atlantic all the way to the Pacific for the first time in human history.

(For clarity, I’ve stripped out Morano’s overlapping talk.)  Maslin here is making two arguments which might be explicated as something like:

(1a) (Unspecified) evidence shows that global average temperatures have been rising since the beginning of industrialization started spewing CO2 into the atmosphere.
(2a) The retreat of sea ice shows that the earth is warming.

Each of these arguments is further coupled with one or two  claims about specific events:

(1b)  The ‘oughties’ was the warmest decade on record.  2009 was the fifth warmest year.
(2b)  An supertanker made it through the Northwest Passage in 2007

What’s happening here? How do the (b)s fit with the (a)s?

On one hand

Randy Olson's four organs of mass communication

The Four Organs of Mass Communication, from Randy Olson, "Don't Be Such A Scientist!"

Maslin deserves praise for the way he so fluently couples the two parts of each of his appeals.  He’s obeying the standard advice we give in public speaking classes:  follow up statistics or other abstract information with a concrete, vivid example that brings the information home.  Tell your audience about the cancer rate among second-hand smokers, and then tell the story of Julie, the non-smoking waitress in the smoky bar who died of lung cancer after seven months of painful chemotherapy, leaving her two daughters (one four, one eight) to grieve. Be sure to put up a big picture of Julie, too–or maybe a pair, one rosy and smiling, one still smiling, thin and wan, from her hospital bed.

As Randy Olson has put it, appeal to heart, gut and lower down, not just to the brains.  Supertankers in the arctic and warmest decades are still relatively abstract–but hey, they’re a lot closer to where we live than multi-century global average temperatures.  Good job, student Maslin!

The other hand

But…To really work, we want to appeal to both brains and other organs at the same time.  We want the abstract information and the concrete example to reinforce each other, or as my field would say, we want logos and pathos to work together.  The problem is that this linkage is peculiarly difficult to achieve for AGW, because of the difference in scale between the climate that’s changing and the weather that we live with.  This asymmetry’s been the downfall of a number of persuasive attempts, not just Maslin’s:

Climate Weather
Long-term rise in frequency & severity of hurricanes Katrina
Long-term changes in rainfall Drought in the Southwest and Southeast
Long-term shrinking of arctic ice pack A supertanker makes it through the arctic ice.
Long-term increase in temperatures 2009, the fifth warmest year ever

When a speaker refers to Katrina in arguing for the existence of AGW, what is he doing?  Is he asserting that Katrina is caused by AGW, or a sign that AGW is occurring?  If so, he’s getting himself in trouble, because I don’t think the science is going to support him in making that claim.  Plus he’s committing himself to dealing with whatever the weather, in its constant variability, throws at him next.  If he commits to Katrina one year, he’s going to have to explain away a season with little hurricane activity sometime soon.  If he claims drought, he’s going to be confronted with floods.  And if he, as Maslin, claims supertankers, he’s going to face an increase in the icepack.

Another possibility is for arguers to pedal back a bit, and claim only that this hot summer (for example) is consistent with the climate models that are predicting substantial AGW by the end of the century.  The problem with this–as Roger Pielke Jr. has pointed out–is that it says nothing.  Hot summers, cold summers, wet summers, dry summers–all of these are “consistent with” the models.

I suspect that the most accurate linkage between abstract and concrete, climate and weather, is as illustration.  Extreme weather events and arctic supertankers illustrate what someone–perhaps us, perhaps our grandchildren–will be living with in the future.  That is accurate–but it is also much less vivid.

The upshot

Maslin isn’t making the link between (1a) and (1b) explicit.  Like Al Gore and others who have made similar arguments, he just lays the two kinds of claim next to each other, and lets the audience fill the logic gap for themselves.  Strategic vagueness won’t solve this rhetorical problem, however.  Eventually, a skeptic is going to expose the weakness–and with an opponent as skilled as Marc Morano, “eventually” is going to be about 30 seconds.

On to the next argument.

Written by jeangoodwin

March 11, 2010 at 11:12 pm

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