Between Scientists & Citizens

Should climate scientists fly? An analysis of the arguments

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Climate skeptics have been accusing pro-climate-action advocates of hypocrisy since at least the day after the release of An Inconvenient Truth back in 2007. Flying has emerged as a particular focus in these arguments, likely because it is easy to document, ineliminably carbon intensive, and an “elite” activity. Celebrities (Leonardo DiCaprio, Emma Thompson) have also been particularly targeted, along with politicians (Bernie Sanders, Catherine McKenna, AOC). And, in minor ways, the climate scientists who are our key witnesses for the facts of climate change.

At the same time, some climate scientists and climate-concerned academics generally have been thinking about the carbon budgets of their research, and in particular about the flying that often takes up such a large portion of it. Individual scientists began to commit themselves to fly less at least as early as the mid-2000s, and networks/organizations with substantial presence on social media began to emerge a decade later.  These folks, too, have been building a case.

From the point of view of argumentation theory, this is rich material–a diverse array of arguers, a topic of the highest concern, an open consideration of scientists’ obligations in public controversies. So I recently completed a talk and paper (forthcoming in Informal Logic) analyzing the controversy. Some of what I said was pretty much “inside baseball,” plus I had to leave out many interesting digressions. So in a series of blog posts, I’m going to present parts of the analysis that I think may be of most interest to climate- and science-comm interested folks. If I don’t get derailed, I expect posts on:

  • The skeptics’ hypocrisy argument
  • Is the hypocrisy argument a fallacy, and so what?
  • Climate scientists’ (and academics’) reasons to fly less
  • I need to fly!  Self-justification, double standards, and argumentative justice
  • Should climate concerned people stop making arguments about flying less, and just talk about system change?
  • Several other topics.

Methodological note

This analysis is based on three corpora of data:

Corpus 1 consists of Twitter posts from January 2010-April 2020 containing keywords “climate” and “fly.” The 341K entries were probed by filtering for additional keywords, including scient*, hypocr*, argu* and related argument vocabulary.

Corpus 2 consists of online longform discourse–journalism, blog posts, podcasts etc. It was collected from URLs referenced in Corpus 1, by a convenience sample of material I had been collecting from interest in the topic, by an intentional search for otherwise underrepresented material from skeptics, and by a snowball sample of URLs referenced in any of the above. Total: 112 documents.

Corpus 3 consists of Twitter conversations–an original post and between 2 and several hundred replies, replies to those replies etc. These were collected by checking relevant tweets from Corpus 1, from a convenience sample of material I had been collecting, and by a snowball sample of conversations mentioned in other conversations. Total: 85 conversations.

See this methods note for more.

Written by jeangoodwin

June 25, 2020 at 11:21 am

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