Between Scientists & Citizens

Should climate scientists fly? 2. Argumentative bad faith

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The pro-climate-action community argues that they don’t need to answer the skeptics’ hypocrisy argument because the skeptics are arguing in bad faith. While I agree with the conclusion–don’t feed the trolls!–I think the reasoning is unwise. We should presume good faith–which still leaves plenty of elegant ways to take down hypocrisy accusations.

Does every argument deserve an answer? That’s a disputed issue in my field. Some argumentation theorists think that as a general rule all arguments should be answered (unless they are worthless), because that’s what it means to be a reasonable person–a person in principle open to reason. My camp disagrees; we think that as a general rule you don’t have to answer an argument just because someone gave it to you. It’s up to the arguer to make it worth answering–and we study how that can be done.

This is largely just a difference in emphasis, though: innocent until proven guilty or vice versa. I think we all agree that you don’t have to answer an argument when it doesn’t deserve it, or when answering it would be a waste of your time. The skeptics’ argument that climate scientists are hypocrites because they fly–that’s going to fall pretty squarely in “don’t bother” category. But why?

Climate scientists and the pro-climate action community more generally explain that they don’t have to answer the skeptics because the skeptics are arguing in bad faith. For example:

People who use the personal choices of climate scientists as some kind of excuse for not understanding science or refusing to accept science, those are not good-faith arguments, and we shouldn’t really entertain them.

It is widely thought that even if scientists comply with skeptics’ demands and “liv[e] carbon neutral…[that would] not assuage their ‘concern’,” since “they [would] have million other things to make up…[t]o accuse us of not walking the talk no matter what our net Climate Fitbit report says.” Anything scientists do will actually be turned into ammunition against them. There are numerous variations on this theme:

If climate scientists fly the mitigation sceptics will call them hypocrites. If climate scientists do not fly the mitigation sceptics will call them activists. As always, the best advice is to ignore what the unreasonable will say.

Zero of the climate movement’s enemies are arguing in good faith, if they ever were. That means anything the leaders do will be spun. If you’re not a hypocrite who flies you’re a judgmental hairshirty preachy bore who doesn’t.

If the skeptics were good faith, they’d be open to reason–they’d change their minds when presented evidence against their views. But they don’t. They double down on their position no matter what evidence is presented. They’re arguing in bad faith.

While I agree with the conclusion–ignore the skeptics’ hypocrisy argument–I think that assuming bad faith is poor communication strategy.

For one thing, the assumption of bad faith is likely false. Yes, there are leading skeptics with a long record of “damned if you do/damned if you don’t” arguments. But most hypocrisy arguments come from drive-by tweeters or blog commenters. All we know about them is that they made some version of the skeptics’ hypocrisy argument. But even seriously flawed arguments may simply be bad, not in bad faith. You may have heard the argument hundreds of times, but they may just have found it, not thought about it very much, be struck with how clever they are for hoisting you on your own petard, etc. No one thinks of themselves as in bad faith.

We have extra reason to doubt our judgments of skeptics’ bad faith because there is increasing evidence that we aren’t good judges of our partisan opponents. A new report from Beyond Conflict documenting this was released just last week. Democrats and Republicans substantially misjudge each other’s actual views on issues like gun control and immigration (confirming last year’s research from More In Common). But even more seriously, both sides think the other hates them much more than they actually do.

Large majorities of both Democrats and Republicans substantially exaggerate the extent to which members of the other party dehumanize, dislike, and disagree with them—creating a significant divide between perception and reality.

Notice that it’s not just that we misjudge others’ views–in particular, we are bad at judging their views of us. At a minimum, this suggests that we should always pause a bit and consider before assuming bad faith.

Further, as the Beyond Conflict report goes on to point out, our faulty perceptions of each other can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. People who assume malice and dehumanization are likely to respond with anger and dehumanization back. Mark Largent documented such a self-reinforcing cycle in Vaccine (2012): a concerned parent asks a question about the vaccination schedule, their doctor responds in a way that suggests that they’re anti-vax, which increases the parent’s distrust of the medical establishment and drives them to actual anti-vax sources. Or as Michael Tobis put it, calling someone a denier when they’re merely curious “is a terrible result, as it tends to create a denier.”

So my advice: presume good faith (and don’t respond to skeptics’ hypocrisy arguments). If you suspect bad faith, make sure you have evidence, not intuition, to back it up. Luckily, that evidence is often easy to obtain. It just takes making the skeptic’s bad faith conspicuous. Here’s how it is done:

[Skeptic, in response to AOC speaking about the Green New Deal:] You first.

Don’t you fly around the nation giving speeches? Are you traveling by donkey? Just once I’d love to see a #climatechange prophet voluntarily live what they want government to impose on the rest of us.

flyingless If your tweet is serious, you will appreciate the interviews with scientists and other folks at “no fly climate sci” But if you are just badgering without really wanting to see this, you can ignore the link.

Skeptics often express their hypocrisy argument as a willingness to believe scientists “if/when” they start walking the talk. In response such a pious wish here, @flyingless generously responds by granting it. This creates a situation in which the skeptic is forced to make evident what he’s doing: either being “serious,” or “just badgering.” But flyingless does so mildly, with no hint of malice back, and even allowing the skeptic a little wiggle room–he can ignore it. As he did.

This sort of fine riposte is only available to advocates who have limited their flying. Should they? An examination of the arguments for not flying is still a post or two away. Next up: have the skeptics committed a fallacy, and so what?

Written by jeangoodwin

June 28, 2020 at 5:30 pm

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