Scientists say global warming isn’t happening. Scientists say human activities are unrelated to climate change.
We hear that all the time, but we push back against it because it’s bad science. Yet it is also true, at least nominally.
Scientists do say these things. Actual terminal-degree scientists. They may be scientists whose field of study has nothing to do with climate, and who thus aren’t any more qualified to discuss the topic than someone with a Ph.D. in literature, but they are still scientists. They may be hacks for hire, prostituting themselves for payoffs from the Heartland Institute, but they are still scientists.
Those scientists are aware that they are a minority voice — that they are reading the science differently than the majority of their peers. But rather than seeing that as a sign that perhaps they might want to recheck the data, they wear it as a badge of honor, portraying themselves as brave and bold dissenters, noble Cassandras defending the true faith of true science.
I am not inclined to share their view. I will concede that, yes, technically, they are in fact “scientists.” But I also find it necessary to distinguish them from more responsible scientists who, by virtue of that responsibility, have a more legitimate claim to that title. I find that necessary for the sake of accuracy and honesty. And I find that necessary as a non-scientist who thinks it prudent to defer to actual, responsible scientists when it comes to matters of science.
One way of making and of stating that distinction is to question and to challenge the good standing of the irresponsible scientists. I do not trust a scientist on the payroll of the Heartland Institute to tell me the truth about climate change any more than I would trust a scientist on the payroll of the Tobacco Institute to tell me the truth about the health risks of smoking. I do not trust them because I have reason to believe that they have another agenda — an agenda other than the pure pursuit of scientific truth, an agenda which has surpassed and supplanted the pure pursuit of scientific truth.
The existence of that non-science agenda leads me to deny them the dignity that accompanies the title “scientist.” Their diplomas, business cards, parking spaces, author bios and W-2 forms may all affirm that these folks are “scientists,” but I would argue that no true scientist allows a paycheck or partisan political preferences to prejudice their findings. I would argue that these hacks are no true scientists.
And yes, I use exactly those words: No true scientist.
Anyone who has been on the Web in the past few years will note that this phrase is similar to the phrase “No true Scotsman,” and thus may suspect I am guilty here of the logical fallacy that bears that name. But let’s not stretch that concept beyond where it is meant to go. There are some seven billion people here on Earth, and the vast majority of us are not true Scotsman. (Nor are we scientists.)
If a woman is born in Santiago, Chile, and she lives there her whole life just as her parents and her grandparents did before her, then we can surely say that she was “No true Scotsman.” Saying as much is not a logical fallacy, simply an accurate statement. It is an accurate statement because the word “Scotsman” means something and it does not mean other things that are not that something.
There are, in other words, criteria for what does and does not constitute a Scotsman. There are specific, objective rules defining the category. I’m using words there taken from Wikipedia’s convenient description of the No True Scotsman fallacy:
No true Scotsman is an informal logical fallacy, an ad hoc attempt to retain an unreasoned assertion. When faced with a counterexample to a universal claim, rather than denying the counterexample or rejecting the original universal claim, this fallacy modifies the subject of the assertion to exclude the specific case or others like it by rhetoric, without reference to any specific objective rule.
So let’s apply this to those whom I’m criticizing above as “no true scientists.” Let’s start with the universal claim I wish to make: “Scientists believe that human activity is changing the climate.” The objection presents counterexamples — numerous scientists do not believe this. Such counterexamples are easy to find on the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal or wherever else the PR-machine of the Heartland Institute can get them published.
The existence of such prominent-but-rare counterexamples means that to be more accurate I ought to qualify my original universal statement. I ought to say, “Most scientists believe that human activity is changing the climate.”
But I also want to say more than that. My original universal statement was not merely meant as descriptive, but as normative and prescriptive. It is meant to convey something about the criteria, the “specific objective rules” that apply to the term “scientists.” The specific objective rule I suggest above is that a scientist is, by definition, one who puts scientific truth ahead of predetermined financial or partisan preference. That rule suggests that those who are not willing to follow the science wherever it leads may be nominally “scientists,” but they are not true scientists.
That qualifier true here is not merely rhetorical. It appeals to an objective and specific standard. It means something.
That qualifier is necessary if we are to acknowledge an important distinction — a distinction that’s so important that places like the Heartland Institute are spending millions of dollars to try to keep us from making it. It doesn’t matter if we are attaching the positive qualifier true to those who are practicing legitimate, responsible, unbiased science, or if we choose instead to attach a negative qualifier to those who are promoting junk science. Either way the distinction is made and the distinction is necessary. Junk science is still, nominally, “science,” but it’s not true science.
True science is diverse and vast, but it is not infinitely pliable. Science means something and it does not mean other things that are not that something. It can be defined with specific, objective criteria. We can say it is this and it is not that. And thus when we encounter this we can say, yes, this is science. And when we encounter that we can say, no, that is not science.
We can argue over what the criteria should be, over the rules that define our definition. But to say that there are such criteria and such rules, and then to apply them, is not a fallacy.
And, no, this isn’t really mainly about either science or Scotsmen.