How to respond to a global warming skeptic?

Have you ever discussed global warming with someone who’s skeptic about it? Is hard isn’t it? It doesn’t really matter how many studies, graphs or papers you show him/her, they will have no effect. So, what can we do when facts don’t seem to matter? Here’s a proposal.

Some people in the scientific community see this problem as a no-brainer. They just assume that it can be resolved by facts: “if there is a GW skeptic show him some graphs and figures. If he’s not convinced, then he’s just an idiot or he is lying to you.”. But that is not the case: more data won’t do anything, since many skeptics are acting as Greek Skeptics: they are not only dubious about the facts presented, they are dubious about the structure of knowledge itself[1].

Greek Skeptics developed many  arguments to prove that, since knowledge is not possible, we need to suspend judgement about everything we know. One of my favourite arguments is Agrippa’s Trilemma (rebranded later as Munchaussen Trilemma). This argument claims that we can’t know anything at all since everything we claim to know needs a justification. Therefore, if I claim P, the skeptic would ask: how do you know P? To which I must respond with Q. Then he will ask: how do you know Q? To which I must respond with R. Then the skeptic will keep going. Finally, I will have only three options:

  1. Justify ad infinitum: P because Q because R because S, and so on.
  2. Stop at an unjustified premise: P because Q because R.
  3. Reason in circles: P because Q because R because P. [2]

Now, this is exactly the kind of argument the GW skeptic uses. Imagine the following dialogue between a global warming believer (GWB) and a global warming skeptic (GWS)

GWB: C02 driven global warming is happening.

GWS: How do you know?

GWB: because I read it on the IPCC report.

GWS: How do you know that is true?

GWB: Because it shows a consensus of the leading scientists in the field.

GWS: How do you know that consensus is real and not fabricated?

GWB: Because there are many scientific practices, journals and institutions behind it.

GWS: Hou do you know those institutions aren’t corrupt.

Etc…

As we can see, the dialogue can keep on going forever. The skeptic can always ask for a new justification and the believer will fall into one of the three outcomes predicted by Agrippa. The GW skeptic will go home with the idea that he defeated the believer and will reinforce his skepticism.

 So, what can the believer do? The traditional epistemological answers to this problem have been two: foundationalism (option b of the trilemma) and coherentism (option c of the trilemma). I won’t try any of these solutions since I believe that this is not an epistemological but, rather, a practical and argumentative problem[3]. The right answer, then, is to use a presumption.

What is a presumption? That is indeed a good question. “Presumption” is a term borrowed from the legal field, so it is clear what they mean in that field, not so much outside of it. The Cambridge dictionary defines it as “the act of believing that something is true without having any proof”. In the legal field it is totally necessary to believe certain things without any proof. For instance: everyone is presumed to be innocent. That means that nobody needs to prove his/her innocence in any way, is the accuser the one who has to prove guilt.

Outside the legal field, argumentation theory has also used the concept of presumptions (see Walton 1996). The reason to do it is to resolve a fatal flaw in assertions. An assertion is any statement I present whose truth I believe. If I say: “the door is open”, “god exists” or “global warming is happening”, those are assertions as long as I believe them to be true.

The flaw of assertions is the following: whenever I use an assertion I have the burden of proof to prove it. Therefore, if I say, “global warming is happening”, I’m saying something like: “I’m justified in believing that global warming is happening.” Therefore, my interlocutor has the right to ask: “how do you know that?”. And the only way in which I can answer is by using a new assertion that will give me, again, the burden of proof. So, the interlocutor will ask again: “how do you know that”, and so on.

The conclusion is simple: if it is true that any party making an assertion takes the burden of proof, then the interlocutor can always ask: “how do you know that?”. We get Aggrippa’s trilemma all over again.  

But here comes a presumption to save the day. Presumptions shift the burden of proof. So, if a presumption is in place, the one who has to provide a proof is not the one who makes an assertion, but the one who doubts it. The relevant question here is the following: is there a presumption in favour of someone asserting that global warming is real? I say it is, at least in most cases: There’s an authority presumption in place.

People usually get confused over fallacies and legitimate ways of reasoning. One of these cases is the use of arguments from authority. Arguments from authority are perfectly valid, as long as the authority cited is actually an authority on the field. If not, it is a fallacy called “ad verecundiam”.

Compare these cases:

  • I believe in global warming because the IPCC says so.
  • I believe in global warming because my mother says so.

While (1) is a perfectly valid argument from authority, (2) is a fallacy ad verecundiam, since my mother is no authority on climate science[4].

In conclusion, my claim is the following: when I use an assertion like (1) I’m not only using a valid argument, but I’m also using a presumption: since the IPCC is an authority in climate science and I have no expertise to doubt its findings, we can presume that what they say is true.

That doesn’t mean that the conclusion is undoubtfully true, nor that (1) cannot be defeated. It only says that, as long as the interlocutor is not also an authority on the field, we need to believe what the authority says. Then, since the burden of proof has been shifted is not the one who makes assertion (1) the one who must prove it, is the counterpart the one who must provide grounds for criticism.

Given so, the dialogue between the skeptic and the believer would look like this:

GWB: C02 driven global warming is happening.

GWS: How do you know?

GWB: because I read it on the IPCC report.

GWS: How do you know that is true?

GWB: They are an authority on the field, what grounds do you have to doubt them? Are you a climate scientist?

 

REFERENCES

Klein, Peter (2008). Contemporary Responses to Agrippa’s Trilemma. In John Greco (ed.), “The Oxford Handbook of Skepticism”. Oxford University Press.

Walton, D. (1996) “Argumentation Schemes for Presumptive Reasoning” (Studies in Argumentation Theory). London: Routledge


[1] The SEP has a nice introduction to Greek scepticism: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/skepticism-ancient/

[2] See Klein 2008 for contemporary answers to this problem.

[3] The bigger picture is the following intuition: “you can’t defeat a skeptic with theoretical arguments, only with practical ones”.

[4] (1) could also be fallacious if the one asserting is a climate scientist. In that case she should read the original papers, not blindly trust a source.

Addiction. A note on the debate about the climate crisis

It’s about five years ago that I quit smoking. There were at least two things that helped greatly in kicking the habit. Firstly, the common view had changed: smoking was no longer seen as a personal choice but as an addiction. This had repercussions on my own view and made it seem less attractive, to put it mildly. Secondly, the infrastructure had changed increasingly: in most places smoking was no longer permitted by then. When I grew up, I wouldn’t have anticipated these changes. Smoking, it seemed, had become part of my identity: at parties and other events I was one of the people who smoked. That was fine. It no longer is. – I’d like to suggest that our discussion of the climate crisis might benefit from a comparison to smoking habits: Like smoking, the climate crisis is connected to a number of harmful practices. Many societies have successfully banned smoking. So perhaps such a comparison can help us in steering towards a state in which we successfully overcome at least some of these harmful practices. Let me focus on two points:

(1) Moral problems: Smoking can be seen in relation to a number of moral problems. It obviously harms others and the smoker. But there is another problem that was often ignored: In the public debate, smokers were often attacked for choosing to smoke. But if we consider smoking an addiction, something is wrong with that accusation. An addict doesn’t simply choose between two options. If things are really bad, the smoker is compelled to smoke. What is the moral problem in that? Well, holding someone responsible who has not that much of a choice might be the wrong way of addressing the issue. – It’s at this point that I see a crucial analogy to the habits related to the climate crisis. Many things we do are so deeply ingrained that it makes sense to see them as addictions: If we treat gambling, smart phone use, drugs etc. as addictive, it might make sense to treat driving cars, eating meat and dairy products and many other habits at least as quasi-addictive. They might be said to involve rewards and to be compulsive (to some degree) rather than plainly chosen. In any case, following the discussions on the climate crisis triggers many memories of the discussions about the smoking ban. In admitting to the addictive character of habits, the public discussion could move from the current practice of blaming each other (and looking for the greatest hypocrite) to ways of thinking about overcoming the addictions involved.

(2) Motivational problems: This brings me to my second issue. Wondering whether to quit smoking, I benefitted greatly from the amended infrastructure. It’s hard to see smoking as part of your identity if it’s banned everywhere. At the same time the changed moral perception helped. I couldn’t frame myself as a youthful outcast who gets morally antagonized by the mainstream for making bad choices. Rather I could view myself as someone who needs help. In this sense, the legal and social infrastructure were a great motivational factor: with many of the social rewards gone, it was much easier to realistically project a future self without a packet of cigarettes. – The same goes of course for climate crisis related habits. Once it becomes increasingly unacceptable and impractical to drive a car or eat meat, all the social rewards dwindle.

The upshot is that I think we should stop treating people who indulge in certain climate-related habits as if they were failing personally. So long as our society and infrastructure rewards such habits, it makes more sense to see them as quasi-addictions.

Currently, we often distinguish between personal and political failures in the climate crisis. I’m not convinced that this is a good distinction. So-called personal failures are often driven by our social, cultural and technological infrastructure. If we want change, we need to stop passing blame on individuals who will only feel encouraged to look for hypocrisies. What we need is help both to amend our addictions and infrastructure. In this regard, we might benefit from looking at the successful aspects of the smoking ban.

Naturalism as a bedfellow of capitalism? A note on the reception of early modern natural philosophy

Facing the consequences of anthropogenic climate change and pollution, the idea that a certain form of scientific naturalism goes hand in hand with an exploitative form of capitalism might (or might not) have an intuitive plausibility. But does the supposed relation between naturalism and capitalism have something like a historical origin? A set of conditions that tightened it? And that can be traced back to a set of sources? In what follows, I’d like to present a few musings on this kind of question.

What does it take to write or think about a history of certain ideas? Obviously, what you try to do is to combine certain events and think something like: “This was triggered by that or this thought relies on that assumption.” You might even be more daring and say: “Had it not been for X, Y would (probably) never have occurred.” Such claims are special in that they bind events or ideas together into a narrative, often designed to explain how it was possible that some event or an idea occurred. – The philosopher Akeel Bilgrami makes such a claim when he suggests that naturalism, taken as a certain way of treating nature scientifically and instrumentally, is tied to capitalism. In his “The wider significance of naturalism” (2010), Bilgrami writes:

“[D]issenters argued that it is only because one takes matter to be “brute” and “stupid,” to use Newton’s own term, that one would find it appropriate to conquer it with nothing but profit and material wealth as ends, and thereby destroy it both as a natural and a human environment for one’s habitation.
[…] Newton and Boyle’s metaphysical view of the new science won out over the freethinkers’ and became official only because it was sold to the Anglican establishment and, in an alliance with that establishment, to the powerful mercantile and incipient industrial interests of the period in thoroughly predatory terms that stressed that nature may now be transformed in our conception of it into the kind of thing that is indefinitely available for our economic gain…”

Bilgrami’s overall story is a genealogy of naturalism or rather scientism.* The paper makes itself some intriguing observations regarding narratives and historiography. But let’s look at his claim more closely. By appealing to Newton and the victory of his kind of naturalism, it is designed to explain why we got to scientism and a certain understanding of nature. In doing so, it binds a number of highly complex events and ideas together: There is a (1) debate between “dissenters” and what he calls “naturalists”, whose ideas (2) became official, (3) “only because” they were “sold” to the Anglicans and to industrial stakeholders. Although this kind of claim is problematic for several reasons, it is quite interesting. One could now discuss why ideas about necessary connections between facts (“only because”) presuppose a questionable understanding of history tout court or seem to ignore viable alternatives. But for the time being I would like to focus on what I find interesting. For me, two aspects stand out in particular.

Firstly, Bilgrami’s thesis, and especially (3), seems to suggest a counterfactual causal claim: Had the metaphysical view not been sold to the said stakeholders, it would not have become official. In other words, the scientific revolution or Newton’s success is owing to the rise of capitalism. Both cohere in that they seem to propagate a notion of nature that is value-free, allowing nature to be exploited and manipulated. Even if that notion of nature might not be Newton’s, it is an interesting because it seems to gain new ground today: The widespread indifference to climate change and pollution for capitalist reasons suggests such a conjunction. Thus, a genealogy that traces the origin of that notion seems to ask at least an interesting question: Which historical factors correlate to the rise of the currently fashionable notion of nature?

Secondly, the narrative Bilgrami appeals to has itself a history and is highly contested. But Bilgrami neither argues for the facts he binds together, nor does he appeal to any particular sources. This is striking, for although he is not alone with his thesis, people are not exactly buying into this narrative. If you read Steven Pinker, you’ll rather get a great success story about why science has liberated us. And even proper historians readily dismiss the relation between the rise of capitalism and science as “inadequate”. This raises another interesting question: Why do we accept certain narratives (rather than others)?

This latter question seems to suggest a simple answer: We do or should accept only those narratives that are correct. As I see it, this is problematic. Narratives are plausible or implausible. But the complexity of the tenets they bind together makes it impossible to prove or refute them on ordinary grounds of evidence. Just try to figure out what sort of evidence you need to show that the Newtonian view “won” or was “sold”! You might see who argued against whom; you might have evidence that some merchants expressed certain convictions, but the correlations suggested by these words can be pulled and evidenced in all sorts of ways. Believing a narrative means to believe that certain correlations (between facts) are more relevant than others. It means to believe, for instance, that capitalism was a driving force for scientists to favour certain projects over others. But unless you show that certain supposed events did not occur or certain beliefs were not asserted, it’s very hard to counter the supposed facts, let alone the belief in their correlation.

So I doubt that we simply chose to believe in certain narratives because we have grounds for believing they are true. My hunch is that they gain or lose plausibility along with larger ideologies or belief systems that we adhere to. In this regard it is striking that Bilgrami goes for his thesis without much argument. While he doesn’t give clear sources, Bilgrami’s assumption bears striking resemblance to the claims of Boris Hessen, who wrote (in 1931):

“The Royal Society brought together the leading and most eminent scientists in England, and in opposition to university scholasticism adopted as its motto ‘Nullius in verba’ (verify nothing on the basis of words). Robert Boyle, Brouncker, Brewster, Wren, Halley, and Robert Hooke played an active part in the society. One of its most outstanding members was Newton. We see that the rising bourgeoisie brought natural science into its service, into the service of developing productive forces. … And since … the basic problems were mechanical ones, this encyclopedic survey of the physical problems amounted to creating a consistent structure of theoretical mechanics which would supply general methods for solving the problems of celestial and terrestrial mechanics.”

The claim that “the the rising bourgeoisie brought natural science into its service” is indeed similar to what Bilgrami seems to have in mind. As a new special issue on Boris Hessen’s work makes clear, these claims were widely disseminated.** At the same time, an encyclopedia from 2001 characterises Hessen’s view as “crude and dogmatically Marxist”.

Thus, the reception of Hessen’s claim is itself tied to larger ideological convictions. This might not be surprising, but it puts pressure on the reasons we give for favouring one narrative over another. While believing in certain narratives means believing that certain correlations (between facts) are more relevant than others, our choice and rejection of narratives might be driven by wider ideologies or belief systems. If this is correct, then the dismissal of Hessen’s insights might not be owing to the dismissal of his scholarship but rather to the supposed Marxism. So the question is: are the cold-war convictions still alive, driving the choice of narratives? Or is the renewed interest in Marxism already a reason for a renewed interest in Hessen’s work? In any case, in the history of interpreting Newtonian naturalism Akeel Bilgrami’s paper is striking, because it bears witness to this reception without directly acknowledging it.*** Might this be because there are new reasons for being interested in the (history of the) relation between scientific naturalism and capitalism?

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* It’s important to note that Bilgrami uses the term naturalism in a resticted sense: “I am using the term “naturalism” in a rather restricted way, limiting the term to a scientistic form of the philosophical position. So, the naturalism of Wittgenstein or John McDowell or even P. F. Strawson falls outside of this usage. In fact all three of these philosophers are explicitly opposed to naturalism in the sense that I am using the term. Perhaps “scientism” would be the better word for the philosophical position that is the center of the dispute I want to discuss.” – This problematically restricted use of naturalism is probably owing to Margaret Jacob’s distinction between a “moderate” and “radical enlightenment”. The former movement is associated with writers like Newton and Boyle; the latter with the pantheist “dissenters” for whom nature is inseprable from the divine.

** I am very grateful to Sean Winkler, who not only edited the special issue on Hessen but kindly sent me a number of passages from his writings. I’m also grateful to all the kind people who patiently discussed some questions on Facebook (here with regard to Bilgrami; here with regard to Hessen).

*** The lines of reception are of course much more complex and, in Bilgrami’s case, perhaps more indirect than I have suggested. Bilgrami explicitly references Weber’s recourse to “disentchantment” and also acknowledges the importance of Marx for his view. Given these references, Bilgrami’s personal reception might be owing more to Weber than Hessen. That said, Merton (following Weber) clearly acknowledges his debt to Hessen. A further (unacknowledged but possible) source for this thesis is Edgar Zilsel. For more details on the intricate pathways of reception see Gerardo Ienna’s and Giulia Rispoli’s paper in the special issue referenced above.

An ethics of climate change?

Imagine that you watch someone putting down a substance on all the playgrounds in your neighbourhood. You are then reliably informed that the substance is poisonous and that it has been put down on all playgrounds.

What would you do? Would you keep quiet about it? – Perhaps you should. Even if you see some children die, you don’t know for sure whether it’s really the poison that is lethal, do you?*

 

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* Some comments:

— Faced with the question of anthropogenic climate change, most far-right parties I know endorse a variant of this argument. Are there any other options? Probably: (a) Some mainstream parties in Germany worry most about the issue that the guy putting down the poison might be out of a job if we cause a fuss. (b) Other parties campaign for building new playgrounds. (c) A further option is to ask the producers of poison for the best strategy. (d) Oh, and another commonly favoured move is to dismiss protests of children as ignorant. Did I miss something?

— If you’ve read this far, why not sign this petition by Martin Kusch (Vienna): “Philosophers for Future”?

— While I think that dismissing findings of climate sciences or other concerns about climate change is immoral, I also see that ‘spreading the word‘ is rather difficult. Meehan Crist writes: “On a rapidly warming planet, one function of climate writing is to get the word out—to spark and help shape public discourse in the midst of ongoing and accelerating catastrophe. We are already too late to prevent some degree of unprecedented change. We know it’s going to be bad, but human activity today could still make the future worse. So it’s true both that we are too late and that there is no time to be lost. Yet if we get the framing of this story wrong—if we see the issue as a matter of individual consumer choice, for example, or choose a purely emotional rather than an explicitly political framing—we risk missing the point altogether.”

Call for ideas: Why the humanities and sciences protect our values

As you all know, the sciences and humanities are targeted on many levels. We’ve all seen budget cuts happening, for more or less comprehensible reasons. By now we’re used to that, and the more cynical sides of our souls will quickly admit that at least many of the humanities are not much of an asset to the average tax payer. So far, this made for nasty ways of playing off the sciences and humanities against one another. But now the sciences are explicitly targeted, too, for example by people doubting climate sciences or the standards of vaccination. Over the last two weeks, I got a ‘live’ glimpse of the way in which right-wing politicians mobilise people against universities. Of course, we have seen this happening everywhere: prominently in the US and in Hungary for instance. Nevertheless, being exposed to the tactics in my academic home country, the Netherlands, made me realise just how powerful the narratives against us are. This phenomenon is not going to go away by itself. Thus, I think we – people working in the sciences and especially in the humanities – need a positive narrative about why academic work matters and a more concerted way of communicating this. By now, I’ve seen a number of petitions and open letters going … nowhere. Part of the problem is that we’re not only targeted from the outside, but also, mostly inadvertently, internally. In the light of the current threats and the way that universities are structured, the common ways of defending ourselves do not work. Therefore, I would like to launch this call for ideas.

Yes, it’s really bad. – We all know that academia is under threat in many ways. Up till recently, that is, perhaps up till ten years ago (perhaps shortly after the financial crisis), these threats have been generally justified with economic arguments: We need to shut down philosophy, languages and cultural studies because otherwise we can’t finance cancer research and the military – or some such line of reasoning that would convince at least some of us. But now the tune has changed. The narrative that I encountered in the Netherlands and elsewhere is running under the heading of cultural marxism (in the sense of a conspiracy theory): Whether you know it or not, if you are working in education or at a university you are willy-nilly part of a left-wing conspiracy that counters free speech and all sorts of other values. This accusation is of course nonsense. But the problem is that it is widely held and believed. Given that Mr Trump has already approved a policy targeting what are thought to be enemies of free speech, it won’t be long until we will see this in action as a more general means to “evaluate” studies and departments. These are the beginnings of a fairly new concerted set of actions against standards in (higher) education. But the new line of argument against academia is not that we’re just useless; it’s that we are inherently bad.

What might stop us. – In many alt-right narratives, universities are portrayed as bulwarks of leftist indoctrination. So far the the response has been defensive: “Science has no agenda” etc. But instead of defending ourselves against outrageous claims, we need a comprehensible narrative of how academia contributes to the protection of democratic values, and we need ways of implementing this narrative. As it stands, the academic communities are defenceless against such doubts for three reasons: firstly, we represent a form of institutionalised doubting, as it were, and will respond with more doubting rather than reassurance; secondly, we are very bad at collective action and solidarity because we are incentivised to compete against one another wherever possible. Therefore, the principles of our work and the structure of our career paths make it very hard to respond even to common threats. A third reason might be that the narratives against academia have already gained too much power: The current way of playing off academics as right-wing versus left-wing or free-speech versus de-platformers, for instance, has gained so much force that even some of your colleagues might go along with it and see you (or you them) as a mere instance of left or right-wing activism. Academics are of course not immune to the effects of ideologies.

What we need to do. – Given the incentive to compete, it’s difficult to start a conversation. But that’s what we need to do. When we see academia in Turkey or Hungary under threat, we follow the news and start petitions or some such measures. But when it hits home, it’s much harder to believe that it is happening in the first place. So the first thing we need is to break the silence. We need a clear-headed exchange about what is happening around us. If it turns out that I’m just alarmist and everything is fine, then all the better. In any case, it will help to have an open conversation across different status groups (from higher administrators to deans to professors to students). Secondly, we need clear ideas why we matter. Such ideas are hard to come by because we’re often used to make our case against other disciplines. These ideas should not be just defensive, like “no, we’re not against free speech!” Thirdly, we need ways of communicating these ideas at all levels. Many of us are good at talking to students or grant agencies, that’s by and large preaching to the choir. We need to reach those who currently believe that we are the enemies of society. So we need to talk to journalists and others who shape the discourses of the many intently.

How we should begin. – Of course, we don’t need to begin with the most difficult of interlocutors. Convincing your colleagues about the fact that we’re in trouble might be tricky enough already. What we need is an understanding of what is going on. So we should indeed begin by exchanging anecdotes and tentative ideas. Given that we’re all too busy already, the easiest would probably be to ask Greta Thunberg to do it on our behalf. – Joking, sorry! Of course you can begin by responding to this blog post or just by talking to a colleague. If you’re looking for ideas, you could ask a friend outside academia. They exist. Or why not devote some twenty minutes to some exchange at the end of the next department meeting or conference? Once we begin a conversation, ways of coordinating action will suggest themselves.

Whatever we do, we need to understand that we’re not defending ourselves (only) against claims about economic necessities; we’re up against people who claim that we undermine basic values. We shouldn’t let these people dictate the stories about who we are and what we do. Countering them doesn’t mean that we should be defensive; it’s enough if we begin to take control of our own stories and why they matter.