Making arguments expensive
Back in the golden age of the climate controversy–say, about 18 months ago–there was a time when everybody was challenging everybody else to debate. I suppose you couldn’t click more than a few links before tripping over a gauntlet.
What does a formal debate offer that the ordinary disorderly flow of arguing in the blogosphere doesn’t? To pick up on a theme from my last post: a formal debate allows the participants to control what they are taking responsibility for–and to force others to take responsibility, too. Roger Pielke, Jr. is a masterful debater, and his recent challenge to critics of “climate pragmatism” shows this strategy at its finest.
The assignment–and enforcement–of responsibilities
There’s nothing much to stop people from selecting the strongest arguments to defend their valid point of view–or from cherry-picking evidence to support a blatant mischaracterization–on their own blogs. How to stop such loose talk? By making it expensive. Pielke opens his post with an “invitation” to his critics to come to his blog and “to explain what is wrong with the math and logic presented below.” As he frames it, those who take up this challenge accept a burden of proof (a/k/a probative obligation) to clearly “identify where they disagree” with his case for climate pragmatism, and then to “provide evidence” why he is wrong. Presumably, once a critic does so, Pielke himself will have a probative obligation to further defend his views. No more cheap talk; let the debate begin!
Pielke’s opening paragraphs set up the debaters’ responsibilities; a good deal of the resulting debate is spent not in making arguments, but in enforcing those responsibilities. Consider these moves in the debate that are made possible by the initial assignment of responsibilities:
Demand clarity: One of the critics’ responsibilities to identify their points of disagreement. Pielke is thus licensed to refuse to respond until his critics answer a “simple question, do you contest any of the 10 statements above?”
Refuse to acknowledge a comment: The critics’ other responsibility is to offer some kind of a defense. Again, Pielke can refuse to respond until his critic follows his “Advice: if you want to make a claim that ‘X is false’ then you need to provide evidence and an argument.”
Critique the arguer for an inadequate argument: Even when the critic puts some kind of argument forward, Pielke can refuse to reply in detail if that argument does not fulfill the critic’s probative responsibilities. While at the beginning of the debate, it looks like the critic is only responsible for responding to the ten listed points, by the middle, Pielke has insisted that the ten points are just stand-ins for the longer arguments made in the just-released Climate Pragmatism report (30 pages), last year’s Hartwell Paper (42 pages) or Pielke’s own Climate Fix (288 pages). When critics don’t show adequate knowledge of these works, Pielke responds with an escalating level of personal criticism for their failure to live up to the ground rules of the debate. Watch this progression: from a slightly condescending question and referral (to an article by Pielke):
which I assume you are familiar with?…If you are unfamiliar with [it] you can get up to speed quickly here on it…
To a request (i.e., demand) for the critic to prepare himself:
“I haven’t read it yet” And yet you feel qualified to trash it and critique it? … Please come back after you’ve informed yourself, makes for a much better conversation. Thanks!
And finally to an open shaming–a bit softened by indirect expression and a smiley:
Once again, your strong and certain critiques will be much more informed if you actually read the arguments that you are critiquing, rather than parroting what you think Romm might be on about. I’d suggest starting with TCF then reading THP then CP. You will then be in a position to avoid the embarrassment of publicly commenting on materials that you have no yet engaged ;-)
By the middle of the debate, the critics’ responsibility to be well-informed has been established enough that commenters apologize in advance for their likely failure to live up to it, prefacing their point with “blushingly confess[ion]” of their inadequacies.
In sum: about half the debate consists not of arguments pro and con, but of Pielke’s reasoned refusals to respond–refusals justified by his critics’ failures to meet the probative obligations set up at the opening of the debate.
What can a critic do?
One possibility is obvious: Meet the announced burden of proof! Of course, that may be hard to do in the fast-moving blog world–the first critic in this debate, for example, came in only an hour after the challenge was issued.
A second strategy is to attempt to redefine the burden of proof. One critic tries this midway by demanding that Pielke take responsibility himself, for producing and defending a solution to AGW. Pielke of course refuses to make a case until his critic has offered an adequate counterargument under the responsibilities set up at the beginning of the debate, and refers the critic back to all his previous works.
A final strategy for the critic: Refuse to engage, at least on the terms Pielke has set. This strategy has a downside; it allows Pielke to make (slightly indirect again) accusations of cowardice and sophistry:
The “climate hawks” have usually been pretty loathe to engage in open intellectual debate, preferring instead to lob ad homs and mischaracterizations. (Maybe they should be called “climate chickens” — that is a joke;-)
These charges are pretty easy to brush off, however. The critic in refusing to debate can respond that he has dealt with the matter sufficiently on his own blog; that he has other responsibilities to meet (like the need to craft his next multipage blog post); that Pielke is unlikely to play fair; and so on. As the poet said, “the wise cats never appeared.”
This is why despite the many challenges to Climate Smackdowns, few have actually come off. We in the audience would enjoy the drama of a definitive climate debate, we would relish the victory (at least, if our side won), and we would all benefit from the higher quality arguments participants would be responsible for offering. But the debaters themselves seldom have incentives to take responsibility for what they are saying; and so in the Gresham’s law of argument, cheap talk drives out expensive argument.