Between Scientists & Citizens

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Responsibility for polar bear arguments

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Harvey et al., “Internet Blogs, Polar Bears, and Climate-Change Denial by Proxy” (2017) identifies an argumentative strategy used by those who question the links between climate change, arctic sea ice, and declining polar bear populations (TWQ):

the main strategy of denier blogs is therefore to focus on topics that are showy and in which it is therefore easy to generate public interest. These topics are used as “proxies” for AGW in general; in other words, they represent keystone dominoes that are strategically placed in front of many hundreds of others, each representing a separate line of evidence for AGW. By appearing to knock over the keystone domino, audiences targeted by the communication may assume all other dominoes are toppled in a form of “dismissal by association.”

Stripping this of its mixed metaphors, the claim is:  TWQ claim that by refuting the arguments about polar bears put forward by those on the side of the authors (or angels, TOTSOTA), they are refuting the existence and significance of AGW.

I think this is an accurate statement of one TWQ argumentative strategy which (unlike Harvey et al.) I will document below. However, Harvey et al. are mistaken in taking this strategy to be illegitimate. Quite the contrary: the TWQ strategy is a well-justified and strategic response to the case made by TOTSOTA. To throw in another metaphor:  TWQ polar bear arguments are TOTSOTA chickens coming home to roost.

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Written by jeangoodwin

April 21, 2018 at 2:27 pm

New York Times: Your reporting fed McCarthyite attacks on Kevin Folta

with 6 comments

So, follow below the fold to find my defense of these three claims:

  1. Folta is an outstanding science communicator.
  2. He is being targeted by McCarthy-style attacks.
  3. The New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education failed to resist the McCarthyism.

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Written by jeangoodwin

September 10, 2015 at 7:23 pm

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The cost of hidden metaphors

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The New York Times’ blog Scientists at Work is a good example of how scientists’ communication might focus on process, not results.  I’ve been enjoying the current sequence about glaciers in Bhutan;  each episode ends with a cliffhanger!

A couple of words in the most recent post jumped out at me, though.  In addition to “reconstructing the history” and “behavior” of the glacier–how it “changed in the past”–the scientist-author explained his interest in figuring out what the glacier was like when it “last maintained a robust, healthy profile.”  Healthy?

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Written by jeangoodwin

November 12, 2012 at 2:52 pm

“Burden of Proof” #1: Managing our own thinking

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In the discussion over at Climate Etc. a couple of weeks ago, there was a particularly clear instance of a move I see a lot–in the blogosphere, and in regular arguments:

I think most people who like science and are interested in climate science would welcome more “skeptic” arguments that meet the above criteria. It is a relief, even when disagreeing, to have some sort of a common language and set of expectations. Without that, argument is pointless, or to put it another way: The first thing you need to prove to me is that your ignorance is something that concerns me.

That’s exactly what I decline to do. The hockey stick needs no defense. Rather, you need to find some cogent explanation of why your ignorance of paleoclimate concerns me.

The writer here asserts that his position “needs no defense”;  it’s up to his opponents to produce reasons–or in other words, they have the burden of proof.

Of course, both sides can make this move.  Another writer comes back later in the discussion to assert that it’s the “hockey stick” [graph] that needs the defense:

There is no basis for discussion about AGW that starts with “the Hockey Stick is correct and unassailable”.

The true statment is  “the Hockey Stick is part of a very large con game and until the AGW side acknowledges that and apologizes, nothing they say should be believed.”   [Later:]   AGW is discredited until it confesses its fraud.

And this argumentative move–“MY position stands until YOU meet your burden of proof”–isn’t just confined to the climate debate.  Should genetically modified crops be presumed to be safe, until there is definitive evidence that they are harmful?  Or by the precautionary principle should this kind of new technology be considered dangerous, until it is shown to be safe?

To straighten out what’s happening in these moves, I want to distinguish between (a) the way people are using “burden of proof” to manage their own, personal thinking, and (b) the way they are using it to manage the debate they are having with other people.  For more on (a), proceed below;  (b) will follow in the next post.

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Written by jeangoodwin

August 29, 2011 at 12:32 am

Posted in discourse analysis

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Making arguments expensive

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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.

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Written by jeangoodwin

August 2, 2011 at 9:50 pm

Debate in the blogosphere: A small case study

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Steve Patterson over at RAIL recently wrote a typically fine piece on How Comments are Killing the Commons.   Coming at the subject as a student of public discourse, I find myself a little more tolerant of the blogosphere’s “partisan clowning” etc.  I’m more curious about specific communication strategies we can adopt to make comment threads work.  Steve McIntrye of Climate Audit recently referenced an essay by myself & Michael Dahlstrom, and my participation in the comment threads gave me an opportunity to observe close up several helpful and unhelpful strategies at work.  Here are three things I learned about blogospheric debate, especially in contrast to communication in more face-to-face settings.

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Written by jeangoodwin

July 26, 2011 at 3:20 pm

Who is “Jean Goodwin”?

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Pathos (emotion), logos (reasoning), and ethos (character)–for persuasion, these three;  but the greatest of these (according to Aristotle at least) is ethos.  Work across the sprawling contemporary discipline of communication agrees;  “source factors” like knowledgeability, credibility and likeability play a key role in getting a message across.

This raises the hope that some of our bitter public disputes over science might be resolved, if only we could find the right messenger;  a scientist whose conspicuous dignity, integrity and authority would make him (or her) trusted by all sides in the dispute.

Alas, even if we could locate such a scientist-saint, this communication strategy would be unlikely to work.  Read on to see how my own recent blogospheric experiences suggest why.

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Written by jeangoodwin

July 18, 2011 at 3:46 pm

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