August 17, 2015

Online Activism, Framing, and the Guilt-By-Association Fallacy

Filed under: Politics — PolitiCalypso @ 5:51 pm

If you’ve spent any time at all looking over political blogs, political debates on social media, or online comments for political articles, you will have noticed a type of argument that is repeatedly made by both left and right.  It goes something like this:

“You’re arguing for X [relatively mainstream opinion with which I disagree].  The person/group Y argues for X, but they also argue for Z [non-mainstream, politically extreme or fringe issue].  Defend that!”

If that sounds like a fallacious line of argument to you, you would be correct in thinking so.  It is a named informal fallacy, guilt-by-association.  In this instance, it is used in a twofold way:  to dirty both the debate adversary and the mainstream issue by associating them, respectively, with a radical entity and a fringe cause.

As I said, I’ve seen this done time and time again by both sides.  It is occasionally called out when one party is on the ball and recognizes the fallacy (whether they associate that term with it or not). That doesn’t necessarily mean that the person making the fallacious argument is going to back down, of course.  As social science studies into the topic are increasingly finding out, ideology trumps logic and empirical evidence in, well, pretty much everyone, if allowed to.  It can happen with any kind of ideology—political, social, religious, anti-religious, or intra-disciplinary (such as taking a hardline position on a controversial topic in a science—as a scientist).  Unfortunately, most of the time that this fallacy is called out in an online debate, the person using the fallacy only doubles down on it.  The usual gist of the doubling down is something like, “I don’t care if you don’t agree with view Z.  It’s still your side!”  –Sometimes with the pivot of “Why don’t you agree with view Z?  Not progressive/conservative enough?”  Which is a dodge from the original debate, but one that puts the attacker at a clear advantage if the opponent takes the bait, since doing so requires the opponent to defend himself instead of sticking to the topic.

However, more often than not, the guilt-by-association fallacy is not called out.  The debater confronted with the guilt-by-association fallacy who doesn’t recognize it will feel compelled to defend another member of his own “side.”  Humans are a deeply tribal species, another social science finding that I have long suspected to be true.  We are driven to defend “our own” against “the other.”  I rather suspect, in fact, that the social media use of the guilt-by-association fallacy is a contributing factor to the radicalization of the left and right in American politics.  People who, before the rise of Facebook and Twitter, would not have been adherents of fringe views—seeing such views as, indeed, fringe, and feeling no obligation to defend them—are now being put on the spot by aggressive online “activists” who have access to search engines and networks of ideologically oriented websites that sometimes even list pithy, fallacious “talking points” for online political brawls.  They are being compelled to view people as part of their “tribe” whom, in the past, they would not have, and are acting accordingly.  Eventually, some of them do come to agree with the fringe views simply out of a sense of maintaining solidarity with one’s “team.”

That brings me to my final point, and it is, to me, the most disturbing one.  I don’t think that the “masterminds” of such tactics sites care that they are encouraging anti-intellectual forms of debate.  I certainly don’t think they care that they are contributing to political radicalization.  I remember a number of years ago, when this type of online activism was first coming into its own, how the concept of “framing” exploded in the political blogosphere, and they were very open about what they were trying to do.

It was not the smooth marketing of “real” politics (not political campaigning, mind, but rather, deal-making and persuasive lobbying among elected officials and interest groups).  In that environment, people are generally wiser to fallacious arguments.  Half the people there, if not more, have legal education.  In fact, I am pretty sure that this is why horse-trading does exist.  To get something done with a truculent would-be ally, one must promise something tangible or concrete, or make an objective-sounding argument for why they should sign on.  Fallacious appeals to emotion won’t cut it.

No, this “framing” that burst on the online grassroots scene around 2007 or so is something quite different from that.  The point of it, as its originators proudly state, is deliberately to appeal to emotion, including the emotion of revulsion for an opponent because of guilt-by-association with a more extreme opponent.  It is to take advantage of a widespread lack of critical thinking or logical analysis, and to play off the most primitive evolutionary parts of the human brain.

If this were the only way to get things done in politics, then it might be justifiable.  But the fact is that this is not the case.  In reality, this type of politicking is responsible for the rise of polarization and the inability to get anything done now, because it discourages people from stepping out of their reactionary knee-jerk “lizard brain” responses.  I don’t see that it benefits anyone at all, except perhaps the PACs and firms that thrive on the ability to present their political opponents as crazy inhuman aliens who cannot possibly be reasoned with.

I’ve said before that I consider this type of populism to be anti-intellectual in the extreme.  This is, by now, a running theme of this blog.  Here’s yet another bit of evidence for it.

July 30, 2015

Yes, It’s Advocacy. So?

Filed under: Politics,Science — PolitiCalypso @ 2:34 pm

I follow a number of television meteorologists on social media.  I’m not a broadcaster myself and have never had the slightest interest in undertaking that career path, but I’ve found that they are good sources for up-to-the-minute information about ongoing weather events and disasters.  On Twitter, for instance, they will tend to retweet any report from a person who is in a town that has been hit by a tornado.  Other than chaser accounts (which I also follow), it’s really the best source of information about what is going on in such events immediately after the disaster has occurred and before the major news reporters pick it up.

As one would expect, I also receive retweets and shares from them in my feeds that are not about disaster updates.  Like anyone else, they’ll share pieces they find interesting or agree with.  And, given that I primarily subscribe to TV meteorologists in the Southeast, and that (for some reason that hasn’t been fully explained—perhaps a good background in weather but limited education in climatology?) broadcast meteorologists are climate change skeptics in the majority, one would also expect some of these “general” shares to be about climate change.  Many of the shares, in fact, are not even originally from other broadcast meteorologists, who perhaps realize that it’s less credible for the “TV weatherman” to go on about the subject than for a researcher to do so, but instead are from research meteorologists and the occasional skeptic climatologist.  These people do indeed exist.  No scientific hypothesis has 100% agreement, not even gravity (but don’t take my word for it; look up the controversy in physics about the existence of the hypothetical graviton particle).  There are approximately 3% of climatologists and climate-specializing atmospheric scientists who deny anthropogenic climate change.  They seem to have quite a loud mic for their numbers, with the same three or four people always being cited as “climatologists who deny climate change,” but when a scientific topic becomes political, the media will want to find “balance for both sides.”

There is a hashtag that has become increasingly common for these people and their supporters regarding the 97% of climatologists who do accept the hypothesis of anthropogenic climate change:  #Advocacy.  It is the snarky, disdainful sort of hashtag rather than a purely descriptive one, posted at the end of a link in which a research scientist who studies the topic is also quoted as making policy suggestions for reducing greenhouse gas emissions—or if a research study about it is being supported by a think tank.

When I first started seeing this on social media, it irritated me deeply.  Attempts to discredit scientists who study this subject are extremely personal to me, one of the most guaranteed ways of irking me.  I tried to think of a defense and comeback, an explanation of how the “objectionable” statements are not advocacy.  And then I realized:  You know what, they’re right.  It is advocacy.  But that doesn’t discredit anything.

The #Advocacy hashtag—used in this context—is indeed an attempt to discredit the work of climate scientists.  It does need to be countered, but not by a denial that advocacy is taking place, because obviously it is.  It’s not even the most effective counter to mention that, by this same standard, climate-change-denier atmospheric scientists who speak to the media (or work with right-leaning think tanks) are also “advocates” and that it is therefore hypocritical for them to object to the other side doing it.  It’s certainly worth pointing out the hypocrisy from a narrative-control perspective, but I cannot support implicitly agreeing with this notion that it is somehow a bad thing for scientists to engage in “advocacy” because it “contaminates their research.”  The fact is, it doesn’t.

What is needed is an education campaign about the scientific method.  The sneering hashtag is another instance of a profoundly anti-scientific populist political trend of claiming conflict of interest about research when the researchers have political opinions on the policy implications of the study.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it now:  Wanting research to have certain results does not discredit it.  Having research funded by an organization wanting certain results does not discredit it.  The only thing that can discredit research is its methodology.  It doesn’t matter who does the project, merely how it is done.  That’s how the scientific method works.  If you want to criticize or attack scientific research with which you disagree, you have two options:  Find a flaw in the methodology that undermines the claimed conclusions, or prove fraud.  That’s it.

Yes, it’s advocacy when a climatologist in “the 97%” is quoted in the media as offering policy suggestions.  It’s advocacy when a think tank commissions a study about climate change or hires its own in-house scientists to do it.

And there is nothing wrong with that.

April 12, 2015

I’m Not a Candidate Blogger…

Filed under: Politics — PolitiCalypso @ 6:43 pm

…and I do not intend to write pieces promoting my chosen candidate or speaking ill of others in the party, but let it go on record that, barring exceptional circumstances, I will be supporting the candidacy of Hillary Clinton for President.  I did not do so in 2008, because I was a loyalist of John Kerry (having worked in his office), and I felt that he had been ill-done by some of her people.  However, time has healed that wound, and I’m able to look at this with more detachment.  My reasoning for this is a little… unconventional, although it probably should not be surprising to anyone who knows me or is familiar with the general thrust of my political thinking these days from reading this blog.

Reason one:  I’m supporting her because I do not want to see the Democratic Party primary devolve into a free-for-all to the progressive left.  I am emphatically not on board with the tactics and principal objectives of activist progressives these days.  I believe in privacy, not just as a matter of law, but as a societal expectation, and progressives absolutely do not.  For them, “the personal is political” and every individual action needs to have some kind of “social justice” importance.  In the words of George Orwell,

“A Party member is expected to have no private emotions and no respites from enthusiasm. He is supposed to live in a continuous frenzy of hatred of foreign enemies and internal traitors, triumph over victories, and self-abasement before the power and wisdom of the Party.”

(This refers very aptly to hardline ideologues of any stripe, incidentally.)

Activist progressives largely focus on personal “thought crimes” (look up the word “microaggression” and read about this progressive-created absurdity if you don’t believe me) and private individual behavior rather than workable, constitutionally sound solutions to problems.  For instance, the push to shame and punish non-vegans over the carbon footprint of raising livestock—and to institute regressive carbon taxes on individuals who, due to lack of public transit, have no choice but to drive personal vehicles—are great examples.  (“They should just move to a big city” is no different from “they should just move to a more gay-accepting community.”  Not everyone can move, but more to the point, Balkanization along political and demographic lines is not good, people.  We all need to be exposed to viewpoints that challenge our own.)  If the progressive left has managed to antagonize me—a moderate liberal, climate-change-accepting atmospheric scientist who strongly supports green technology, industrial emissions reduction, and community resilience—you can only imagine how much such proposals antagonize people to my right.  Additionally, pretty much every Twitter-shaming campaign of a random formerly private citizen who happened to say something “offensive” was started by the progressive activist left.  (I’m not talking about celebrities who made statements in interviews, by the way, but ordinary people posting on their social media accounts.)

They are, in two words, culture warriors just as the social conservative right has been for the past 30+ years.  It was polarizing and toxic when the social conservative right focused on private individual behavior, and it is polarizing and toxic now that the social progressive left has started to do it.  The Republican Party primary is already turning rapidly into a race to the far right, as a bevy of right-wing candidates enter the race and try to outdo each other in extreme social conservative rhetoric.  I do not want to see the Democratic Party doing the same thing but catering to the extreme left, and I think the only real way to prevent this sort of free-for-all is for a candidate to enter who is a towering enough figure in her own right that she doesn’t have to rely strictly on a wild-eyed base.  It is never a good thing for a political figure to be beholden to one interest group.

The other reason I am supporting Hillary Clinton is that, in the course of my scientific education, I have come to see the value of expertise in any skilled profession.  Being a “regular Joe outsider” with no experience in policy or governing is not an intrinsic virtue, and we are seeing that play out in Washington and in state governments now, with a crop of new representatives who ran on a “Main Street” populist campaign platform that presented experience as equivalent to “corruption” or “being part of the problem.”  They have strong opinions, but they don’t understand how things get done and don’t care to learn, because they are the virtuous non-politicians (who now hold political office) and they know best.  This is why we have gridlock in Congress and an increase in stupid, blatantly unconstitutional bills introduced in state legislatures.  It’s a destructive, anti-intellectual mindset.  Character and skill (at a profession that isn’t inherently immoral) are completely distinct and unrelated qualities, and people need to start seeing expertise and “insider” status as a good thing again.  House of Cards is fiction, people.  Fantasy, even.  The real world of politics isn’t like that, and having past involvement with it is not a sign of an irretrievably blackened heart.

As it happens, the two problems that I outlined both feed into the problem of increasing political polarization in America.  This issue is probably the most important issue to me that is not directly related to science or environmental policy.  It is destroying our soul as a nation and seriously damaging our relationships with each other individually.  Now, some people might say that Hillary Clinton herself is a polarizing figure.  To that I would ask, what national political candidate today isn’t?  And yet, when she was Secretary of State, she mustered broad support for a political figure, at least in terms of the numbers one can expect these days.  I don’t expect the 2016 electoral season itself to be less toxic because of her entry.  I don’t think there’s much that anyone can do about that, at least not immediately.  That would take a change in political culture, which would take time and an increase in self-awareness among citizen activists that their hardline “my way or the highway” culture-war tactics are contributing to it.  But I would like to think that as president, as a civil servant working for America rather than just a candidate, Hillary could usher back in some some of that cross-partisan goodwill that her history demonstrates she can cultivate.

September 9, 2014

Why I’m Against Privatizing the National Weather Service

Filed under: Politics,Science — PolitiCalypso @ 5:18 pm

Note:  This was an essay for a seminar.  I thought it turned out pretty well, though, so I’m putting it online too.

Introduction

The issue of the proper role of government is an extremely controversial—and often emotional—topic in the United States today.  Lines are drawn and sides are staked out, with people on both sides often taking a hard-line principled stance, looking only at resources supporting their own position, and applying their principled belief no matter what the circumstance.  Over the past thirty years, this overarching debate has come to include a governmental agency whose function had not been questioned previously:  the National Weather Service.  Since 1983, the idea of cutting taxpayer funding for the National Weather Service and related agencies, and turning over their operations to private companies, has periodically surfaced.  The proposal has taken two primary forms:  the suggestion of cutting funding for forecasting operations with the expectation that private firms would take over the task, and the suggestion of selling weather satellites or other sources of weather data to the highest bidder and buying back the data that the sources generated.

History of the National Weather Service

The National Weather Service (NWS) originated after the American Civil War with the advent of a national telegraph system.  For the first time, weather observations could be transmitted immediately.  The science of meteorology had also advanced to the point that scientists studying the atmosphere knew that they would need observations from a broad geographical area in order to apply physical principles and produce a weather forecast, and the new technology had finally made this possible.  In 1870, President Grant signed a bill of Congress authorizing the creation of a government agency to collect these observations from official stations and issue notice to downstream areas about incoming storms.  The agency was initially part of the Department of War (now named the Department of Defense), but late in 1890, it was moved to the Department of Agriculture, a civilian agency, and renamed the Weather Bureau.

Throughout the twentieth century, the Weather Bureau steadily improved its forecasting capabilities with the addition of new technologies for gathering data and a continuous refinement of its numerical weather prediction tools.  The invention of the computer in the 1940s provided an obvious opportunity, and in 1950, the first computer was, in fact, used to produce the first computer-generated weather forecast.  In 1954, an inter-agency group of specialists formed the Joint Numerical Weather Prediction Unit, which processed weather observations from ground stations and began to generate basic forecasts on the computer.  Radar made its mark on the government’s weather-related agencies in the 1950s as well, and in 1960, the launch of the first weather satellite provided a source of observations from far above the troposphere.  In 1970, in the 100th year after its formation, the Weather Bureau—which had been moved to the Department of Commerce five years earlier in recognition of the profound impact of weather on commerce—became known as the National Weather Service.

(Read more…)

July 21, 2014

Types of Climate-Change Skepticism

Filed under: Politics — PolitiCalypso @ 9:03 pm

As a meteorologist, I’ve obviously got some thoughts about anthropogenic climate change.  Let’s get those out of the way first, so that it’s clear exactly where I am coming from.  (Also, there is an increasing trend, with political polarization, for people to simply name-call in “response” to a viewpoint with which they disagree.  To the point of view of a typical grassroots activist conservative/tea party type, anyone who disagrees with that ideology in any point whatsoever is a “lib” or some such.  To the viewpoint of a typical grassroots activist progressive, anyone who disagrees with anything in that ideology is a “bagger.”  With us or against us, ally or enemy, no nuance.  It is pathetic and utterly contemptible.  But I digress.)  I do not question the science of anthropogenic climate change.  I take extreme offense to one particular form of skepticism of this hypothesis, in fact… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

I accept the science, but I do not particularly agree with the usual prescriptions for addressing it.  I don’t think that it is even viable to demand that everyone give up their cars, stop eating meat, reduce a first-world standard of living to a less advanced one, and move to “sustainable” urban box apartments, let alone that it would be a horrendous overreach to make such demands.  Keep out of my garage and thermostat!  Furthermore, at this point, even if the first world dropped emissions to 0, climate change would still continue because of the gas that is already in the atmosphere.  It takes a very long time for it to filter out.  I think the real solution to the problem is geoengineering to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and improvement of technologies to limit emissions (without sacrificing quality of life).  Technology caused this problem and I think technology is going to have to solve it.

Anyway, that’s the viewpoint I’m coming from.  I don’t have a lot of real allies in political circles on this subject, needless to say.  The political activists who are in agreement with me about the science mostly completely disagree with me about what to do about it (for reasons that I suspect have nothing to do with concern over the issue).  Maybe one of these days I will go after the “sustainability” crowd, who are largely deeply opposed to geoengineering, for their anti-scientific beliefs that control-freak government intervention into people’s private lives will even matter (climatologists say it won’t anymore), but that’s not the subject of this post.  This post is about the other side of the coin:  the climate-change skeptics.  It is, let us say, a taxonomy of the types of skepticism currently out there, from least anti-scientific to most.

“It’s the sun” and other alternative, but disproven, hypotheses about the cause

You don’t see too many of these people anymore, but they were abundant a number of years ago.  They did not dispute the data indicating that warming was taking place, nor that carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere was on the rise, nor—in many cases—that weather events were becoming more extreme as a result of the changes.  They just disputed the primary hypothesis about the root cause, namely, man.  Instead they offered other suggestions, the most common one being the idea that the sun was increasing its radiation output.  The increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was proposed as an effect of warming rather than the cause (which is scientifically plausible).

The solar hypothesis was scientific.  It was clear, defined, and testable—other effects, such as warming of all layers of the atmosphere, would have been observed, and the radiative output of the sun can itself be measured quite minutely—and therefore scientifically respectable.  Adherents of the anthropogenic hypothesis owe these types of skeptics gratitude for proposing it, in fact, because it was an idea that needed to be either validated or disproven before the anthropogenic hypothesis could move forward.  It was a rational thing to suggest.

It was just incorrect, as we now know.  The sun’s radiative output isn’t on the rise, and all layers of the atmosphere are not warming.  The warming/cooling pattern of the entire atmosphere follows the prediction of the anthropogenic hypothesis instead.

I have focused on the solar hypothesis, but if some other scientific hypothesis were to come forward that might explain the data, what I have said would apply to it also.  I respect this type of skepticism, and so should every scientist.  It has a fine tradition in the history of science and serves a great purpose even when the skeptical alternate hypotheses turn out to be incorrect.

“It’s a natural cycle,” a pseudo-scientific excuse that sounds scientific to people who don’t know better

You might have noticed a stark difference in tone between that heading and the previous one.  There’s a reason for that.  The second group of climate-change skeptics are more respectable than the third (which I’ll get to) because they don’t deny the climatic data record, but the explanation that they propose for it is not scientifically legitimate.  “It is a natural cycle” is essentially a tautology to science, which is about the predictable—i.e., cyclical with the same circumstances—workings of nature.  Taken literally, it is an acknowledgment that the phenomenon belongs in the domain of natural science, which we already know!  With the context and connotation specific to climate change, this non-explanation amounts to little more than saying, “I don’t know what it is, but I don’t believe it’s what they say it is.”

Natural cycles in meteorology and climatology obviously exist.  However, in order for a proposed cycle to be accepted in the scientific canon, actual details about it—with supporting observational evidence—must be provided.  Otherwise it is not testable, not defined, and simply not a scientific hypothesis.  It is an excuse for saying “I don’t know and I’ve got nothing.”

Any proposed explanation, or hypothesis, for a set of observed data should be testable.  That means an additional set of observations can be gathered that either confirms or refutes the hypothesis (within a statistical confidence interval).  Granted, within the past few decades, the rise of progressive ideology in academia has caused postmodernist relativistic philosophy to—I’ll say to contaminate discourse about science, because I, along with almost all scientists I know, remain firmly an old-school empiricist.  If the methodology is sound, there’s no relativistic “catch” about the data gathered.  Postmodernist philosophers of science can debate the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin, but we empiricists will consider the radius of the pinhead and the Planck length and give an exact number, in the meantime. 😉 In the domain of actual scientific experimentation, especially in the realms of natural science, empiricism still rules the roost.  This means that data rule the roost, and the claim “it’s a natural cycle” with no additional explanation of what the supposed “cycle” consists of is not something for which data can even be tested.  There is no specific claim made, so there is nothing to test.

The deniers and defamers:  “They’re all making up their observations to get grant money!”

This is the type of skepticism that I said I took extreme offense to, and I am not going to be charitable toward these people.  They are attacking the integrity of my entire discipline with no supporting evidence, and I do not owe any politeness to people who are calling my people a bunch of frauds.

It, unfortunately, seems to be on the upswing.  I suspect this is because of the political polarization that I mentioned in the very first paragraph.  The people saying this crap tend to be complete scientific illiterates, most commonly political talking heads/columnists and their legions of trained keyboard warriors.  They have a conspiracy theory mindset in which only their approved sources of “information” can be trusted and everything else is in on the conspiracy to undermine their ideology.  If the trusted people—the columnists and talking heads—say that climate scientists go to the Arctic and make up data because they love living high on the hog with their grant money, well, the keyboard ignorati will believe that without question and repeat it.

There was a scandal in the UK about climate scientists saying suspicious-sounding things in e-mails.  “Climategate,” as it was dubbed, was investigated thoroughly, and no scientific misconduct was found.  The infamous phrase “hide the decline” referred to minimizing the contamination of a climate data set by a poor source of historical data.  Why use poor data?  Well, because when it comes to any period before the Enlightenment in any area of the globe other than the West, there really aren’t human-recorded weather observations to speak of, and we use what we have in nature.  We know that some are better than others.  It is scientifically sound to discount less reliable observations in a data pool.

A character defamation suit by climatologist Michael Mann against a right-wing magazine and a writer for it is (to my knowledge) currently underway.  This rag apparently alleged that Mann falsified his data.  Again, there was a very early (late 1990s) Nature article with Mann as lead author that had some historical climate graphs of dubious statistical quality.  He has done work in the field since then, and in any case, a poor article in a borderline pop-sci magazine (as opposed to a journal of climatology, which would have higher standards) is certainly not the final word in climatology.  To hear these deniers say it, though, it is the underlying foundation of a house of cards that they clearly believe is anthropogenic climate change theory.

In sum, the skeptics who propose alternative, but scientifically testable, hypotheses about the data are respectable.  They are carrying on a long tradition of contributing to the scientific enterprise, and it really isn’t fair for ideological keyboard warriors on the other side of the aisle to bash them.  The skeptics who propose the excuse “theory” of some unspecified “natural cycle” are at least respectful of the data, but they are not operating within a true scientific framework, and they are probably further muddying the understanding of laypeople of just how the scientific profession works.  However, the skeptics who deserve no respect whatsoever, the ones who are actively undermining science by claiming that it is just part of a grand conspiracy to suppress their political ideology, are the ones who make unfounded accusations against the character of researchers.

I’ve said before that proven research fraud is a career-ender in science.  The ironic thing about these jerks is that their stream of offensive character defamation might actually make it harder for actual frauds to be rooted out in any area of science.  People have a tendency to protect their own “tribe” when they are under attack, and it is conceivable that the calls of “fraud” from people with a political agenda could harden even empirically minded scientists against the idea of appearing to cede anything to a pack of rabid dogs who are clearly not motivated by a desire for integrity within science.  Why give them fuel, one might reason.  Distrust of the first type of skeptics, the ones who are respectable, might be a casualty as well, and that would be unfortunate.  These are yet more possible outcomes of the vast and destructive reach of political polarization.  Not all climate skeptics are created equal, and it’s important to sort out the ones worth listening to from the ones who deserve the back of your hand.

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