The Personal Blog of Stephen Sekula

The Contradiction Fallacy

Plane flights are an interesting way to learn what people think. The proximity of them to us on the plane makes it impossible to ignore conversations. Sometimes I like to introduce myself, if I feel the circumstances or the timing are appropriate. Once, two businessmen sitting next to me on a plane were having a dismissive conversation about climate change. I’m a physicist, not a climatologist, but I felt the need to intercede in their conversation as a scientist, speaking for the science. I can advocate for multiple sources of data, convergences of conclusion from many observations, and the production of a theory and a set of predictions based on that theory.

Today, I got to overhear what sounded like an engineer and a musician chatting with one another. They had clearly met on the flight, probably in the gate, and hit it right off. They talked about everything. One of the things that they hit on was global warming. The engineer (I think – it was hard to get directionality sometimes when both guys were behind me) commented that he felt largely dismissive of all the concern over the future. He said this was for a few reasons. One was the contradiction in the statements of scientists over the past three decades – the “global cooling” vs. the “global warming” scenarios. The second was more of a “that’s the way it is” approach – the idea that the sun drives all of this, it’s just the way it is, and why worry about it.

The first reason is what I would class (call me an elitist) as the “contradiction fallacy”. John Q. Public hears talking heads in the 1960s or 1970s warning about a coming “mini ice age”, a global cooling phenomenon that appears to contradict other data that suggests a warming trend is occurring. Nowadays, nobody talks about global cooling anymore – it’s all global warming. What is Mr. Public left to think? Thirty years ago, we were all going to freeze in 30 years; now, we’re all going to melt in 30 years. Scientists are always contradicting themselves, so why even listen and why even bother? It’s like Lewis Black’s piece about eggs. “First they said eggs were good, so I ate a lot of them. Then they said they were bad. Then they said they were good again. Then they said the whites were good, but the yolks were bad. God dammit, make up your mind! I gotta eat!”

Black has a point. But, his point suggests that the world is a simple, not a complex phenomenon, where answers are clear cut and black-and-white. In the world of Lewis Black’s egg rant, eggs must either be good or bad. Just tell me – I gotta eat breakfast. Which is it? Is the earth cooling, or warming? If there isn’t one answer, then why pay attention to any of it?

Therein lies the fallacy of contradiction. There is no contradiction between the old global cooling and the modern global warming scenarios. Global cooling was a phenomenon that seems to have been motivated by at least two things. The first, that I am aware of, is a set of high-atmospheric balloon observations of the temperature, which actually suggested that a cooling trend was occurring despite what ground measurements suggested. The observation: in the high atmosphere, it looked like temperatures peaked in the 1970s and had been much cooler afterward. It turned out that this was due to a systematic error in the way the experiments were conducted [1]. The thermometers were not shielded from the sun’s rays, and so they read a much higher temperature than just the ambient air. Later experiments used such shielding, making it appear as though the later readings were “cooler”.

The other effect that you could think of as global cooling was revealed by the 9/11 attacks. Jet contrails in the high atmoshere create a thin layer that reflects sunlight, making the sun appear “dim” in terms of how much energy it is putting into the earth. When all skies were cleared over the U.S. after 9/11. the temperature suddenly increased by something like a whopping 0.5-1 degree Celcius. With our shield of pollution stripped bare for just a few days, the sun’s full energy reached the earth and forced the warming it should have been creating the whole time. Our own pollution is protecting us from the full impact of global warming, a terrible irony whose implications have yet to be fully explored.

Getting back to our friends, the engineer and the musician, we see they fell prey to the contradiction fallacy. The results of scientific exploration can be presented badly, in such a way as to seem ridiculously contradictory. Reviewing the methods and the conclusions tells us that there was really overwhelming evidence for warming the whole time; the predictions of coming ice ages were made based on bad methods or misleading evidence, as in the examples above. In fact, when explored in the full picture of the climate, those two examples amplify the warming observation. Contradiction in science should not be taken as an indication of confusion worthy of ignorance, but rather as a sign of a nexus of understanding or an opportunity to probe deeper into the conclusions. A contradiction in science leads to greater understanding, not cancellation of the conclusions.

Regarding the second argument that the engineer made – that it’s nature being nature and we should not worry about it – try telling that to the hundreds of millions of impoverished people living by coastlines throughout the world. They depend on the sea for their living, they benefit from the relationship with the oceans. And yet, we reckless consumers who have altered the climate stand to wash those impoverished people from the coast, or drive them inland to overcrowd cities, tax inland resources, and force them into a crisis of subsistence. This argument points to a deep moral irresponsibility in the developed world.

We must not forget the corners we cut to get where we are. We must not forget the price we have paid for our development. Rather than accept it as the inevitable cost of modernization, why not forge a new economy based on the lessons of our past, to fuel the further developments of our societies while guiding and making affordable the responsible development of rising nations?

[1] The Importance of Radiation Shielding