Vestigial Thoughts

Friday, February 23, 2007

Argument and Persuasion

A review of 'An Inconvenient Truth'

Living in Samoa means that many things people in the States have access to can be a little harder to get here. We get movies, but they sometimes take a while to trickle down to my level. A couple weeks ago a volunteer came by with some movies, and I copied them to watch later. One of these movies was "An Inconvenient Truth". I've had some discussion with my friends about this movie, and most of my statements were limited to what I'd read about it. Now that I've seen it I'd like to share some thoughts.

I think of the global warming debate as a continuum with two distinct ends. On one end we have complete denialists. An example of this would be large oil companies who fund ads saying that CO2 is what plants breath and it's nothing but wholesome goodness for the environment. On the other end of the spectrum lie end of worlders that a friend described colorfully as "Gaia worshiping communists". I think most people lie somewhere in the middle with groups tending to lean in one direction or the other.

I was under the assumption that this movie was supposed to sell global warming as a problem that needed to be dealt with. It's important now to establish what the debate is about. The debate isn't really about whether anthropogenic (fancy word for man-made) climate change is occurring or not. The debate is about the extent and the eventual effects of such climate change. Conflating these two questions is a good way to confuse and mislead an observer who is not completely familiar with the science -- of which I believe this movie does a good job. Note: I'm not claiming to be a climatologist, rather I'm more careful about parsing words for their meaning.

Returning to the movie as a sales pitch for the ill effects of global warming: when one tries to sell something, one looks at their target audience. It's easy to sell something to someone eager to buy it, so a movie targeted at the left in the US probably isn't that useful --- preaching to the choir and all that. So if a movie on this topic is likely to have utility as a sales pitch, it will need to be made such that it appeals to skeptics (those undecided in the center and those lying to the right on this issue).

The easiest way to loose an argument in my mind is to overstate ones case. Take Bush's position on leaving detainees in a legal limbo between prisoners of war and normal prisoner status -- which leads to denying them the ability to face their accusers, defend themselves in a court of law, etc. I personally find this appalling, and I'm sure I'd have many people on the left that agree with me. In this debate, the far left frequently identifies the President as the anti-Christ, and attempts to associate him with Hitler. This is not a good way to sway someone to who might be on the fence about an issue, and it only serves to motivate people who already agree them with the issue at an emotional level. The left doesn't have a monopoly on this inability to persuade. Consider the far rights response to the left on the same issue. Anyone who would give rights to detainees would attempt to "provide aid and comfort to the enemy" -- wording that translates into treason. Voting for the Democrats is a vote for Al Queda, etc. So either you're on Bush/Hitlers side, or you favor helping Al Queda. Who could ask for better options?

The previous digression applies to global warming -- an issue which I sometimes consider to be the left's version of 'Saddam has WMD and he wants to kill your babies'. 'An Inconvenient Truth' that I would pose is this: overstating your argument to appeal to people at the emotional level instead of appealing to their ability to reason is a good way to get people who already agree with you fired up while simultaneously turning off those who you probably need on your side. I'd like to share some thoughts on the movie in this regard.

First, Al Gore takes jabs at the President for the 2000 election, his weak record on what I would call using policy to guide science (an issue I tend to agree with Gore on). Those are the first two to come to my mind. Now, I must admit that I laughed out loud when Gore jokingly commented that a elementary school teacher of his who ridiculed a fellow classmate for making a strange yet correct observation was now Bush's science advisor. Of course, I agree with him on this issue, but how would someone who voted for Bush feel about this? One obvious thought coming from the Bush voter might be: "The guy you voted for is dumb, and by association you are dumb for voting for him". That's over 40 million Americans right there.

To me and honest debate provides both sides of an issue, or multiple sides if they are relevant. As an example of providing both sides to a debate, I'll look at Kyoto. As it stands right now the US is the leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. As a result we are the worlds whipping boy. Kyoto was created to address this, and the US catches a lot of heat for not agreeing to it. I agree with Bush on this decision. Why is that? Folks like China want their cake and wish to eat too. In one of the final rounds of negotiation, China basically said they are not going to agree to limit their emissions. Their argument is that they are a developing country and they deserve a period of pollution to get their economy going. Basically we have to change but the developing world, which is poised to overtake us on emissions within the next decade, doesn't have to. How does Gore present this:

Are we going to be left behind as the rest of the world moves forward? All of these nations have ratified Kyoto. There are only two advanced nations in the world that have not ratified Kyoto and we are one of them. The other is Australia.

So, Kudos to China for signing a treaty which requires little from them economically, and shame on the US for refusing to sign on to the same treaty which it can be argued would have significant economic demands. Remember that this is a treaty that's been watered down so much it will have almost no impact on global warming. Gore presents a neither fair nor balanced treatment of Kyoto, and anyone familiar with the details will understand this. However, if you are not familiar with these details, the movie paints a down right dastardly picture of the US in this regard.

Now consider the conflation I mentioned above. In the movie, Gore takes a sample of scientific papers in the field of climatology to determine the current consensus on anthropogenic climate change. His sample shows that all the papers surveyed showed the following: anthropogenic climate change is a fact, meaning that man is in fact having an effect on the climate. Heck, I believe even Bush agrees with this statement. The problem I have is that he trys to conflate this consensus with all of the horrible _possible_ effects. For example he goes on to talk about the western part of Antarctica or all the glaciers in Greenland melting into the oceans. He doesn't attempt to determine what the scientific consensus is on these events, and I would argue that he doesn't do anything to prevent conflation of scientific consensus about the probability of these events with the consensus on anthropogenic climate change.

Next consider some of the possible secondary effects of global warming. Gore speaks of animals going extinct as a result of climate change. To me this is a very possible reality depending on the degree of climate change. During this portion of presentation he shows pictures of extinct species. Just glancing at the screen I noticed that there was a picture of a dodo bird and one of the tasmanian tiger (a marsupial similar to a dog with tiger-like strips on it's back). The dilemma here is that these animals have gone extinct as a result of being hunted to extinction, and not, to the best of my knowledge, as a result of global warming.

Another secondary effect of climate change is the ability of species to move to different regions that cooler climates would have prevented them from moving. He cites as an example of this the west Nile virus being spread by mosquitos. I honestly have no idea about this, but he also shows pictures of other diseases. The first one I noticed was ebola. I have never heard about any study linking the spread of ebola to global warming. I'm not saying it doesn't exist, I've just never heard of it. But let me tell you this. If I thought that global warming would lead to me bleeding to death from every hole in my body, I'd certainly become concerned about global warming. Of course this doesn't cause me to think, it makes me react out of fear.

In order to explain complicated issues to the lay person, the issues sometimes have to be simplified to a degree. I understand this need, and I'm sure my understanding of climate change is no where that of a climatologist. However, just as I'm no climatologist, Al Gore is obviously no mathematician. At one point he makes the following statement:

The earth climate is like a big engine for redistributing heat from the equator to the poles. It does that by means of ocean current and wind current. They tell us, the scientists do, that the earth climate is a non-linear system. It's a fancy way they have of saying that the changes are not all just gradual. Some of them come suddenly in big jumps.

I may not understand atmospheric dynamics, but I do understand mathematical modeling. I can tell you, for example, that linear systems can respond quickly (in process control we say the system has a small time constant), and there are nonlinear systems that respond quite sluggishly. When someone says that a system is nonlinear, a more honest interpretation I believe, when applied to the global climate, is _complicated_. The system can be described mathematically over the range of data we currently have. However our ability to predict what will happen will get worse as we try to predict further into the future and it will get worse as we try to predict outside of our current dataset. In other words complicated leads to "we don't completely understand it", which will probably then lead us to "there is a debate about what can happen when the CO2 levels increase".

The following is speculation based on my understanding of mathematical modeling on which I feel somewhat qualified to comment. I speculate that the climate models are characterized by parameters. These parameters are probably derived from climate data. These data have a certain amount of variability associated with them which means that there is variability in the model parameters. This variability translates into variability in what these models predict. In English this means that these models can probably predict anything from the four horsemen of the apocalypse coming down and raining pestilence and all that biblical stuff (read: the melting of all the ice in Antarctica or Greenland). They can also predict a slight increase in temperature and much more benign effects. What will really happen will lie somewhere in between those to scenarios.

Why should I harp on these points? Am I just arguing semantics and presentation style? Well, this movie is trying to communicate a position on an issue to people who may not be familiar with the issue. It deals with concepts that many may find complicated or confusing. The people I think the movie targets, or should target, are the skeptics. As soon as a skeptic sees something they are familiar with and are capable of demonstrating that what was said misrepresented some fact, they will quite likely move on to the next logical thought: If this one thing I do understand was misrepresented, how can I trust the rest of this presentation? By overstating his case, Al Gore has produced a movie which does little to convince previously skeptical people of his position. By taking jabs at Bush, he is alienating a large group of people he really needs in order to move his agenda into the mainstream. Basically, An Inconvenient Truth to me is nothing more than a sermon to the choir of people who already agree with it's premises. I've provided a few examples, and these were the ones that jumped out at me. I wouldn't be surprised if there were more.

Issues like this should be debated openly and honestly. If Al Gore is really concerned with this issue he should present it in a way that appeals to reason and logic and not emotions. Sure, he can present that one of the possible outcomes of global warming is large scale melting of ice at the poles. He should not conflate the scientific consensus with respect to anthropogenic climate change with such worst case scenarios. Instead he should lay out the underlying assumptions which lead to these outcomes, the fraction of scientists which believe these to be realistic outcomes, any uncertainty associated with those outcomes, and reasonable opposing theories. The problem with this? Movies intended to make one think critically about a subject tend to be, just like this analysis, exceedingly BOORING.

Keep in mind that I'm neither agreeing nor disagreeing with his position. Rather I'm looking at his methodologies with respect to what I think he is trying to, or should be trying to, accomplish. An alternative would be to provide the even handed debate I stated above, and also look into what I consider to be harmful effects of the US dependence on foreign oil. I think energy independence would be very appealing to folks on both sides of the debate. Of course, in the short term (next 20-50 years) I think this means more reliance on nuclear power which many on the left think is just as bad as fossil fuels.

As an aside, am I the only one who thought this movie was a commercial for PowerBooks (now MacBooks) and Apple's presentation software Keynote? In this regard, I think they may have attracted the appropriate target audience.

All quotes taken from this unofficial transcript:

cross posted to


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