Scotland is large and diverse, but not infinite

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.

  • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

    Well put, Fred.

  • Anonymous

    And I’ve still got to disagree that the misogynist Christians at the center of the war on women aren’t “true” Christians. There’s a difference between religion and science, when you are no longer practicing science and saying whatever the person who pays you the most wants to then yeah, I’d say you’re not actually a scientist anymore.

    However, when you come from a faith and tradition that preaches that women are secondary, fallen creatures, with not rights to their own body, no matter how much previous baggage you brought to the faith (which is none if you were born and raised in it) then you are a true believer of that faith if you say you are and act on those misogynistic beliefs.

    No, that’s not all of Christianity, and yes Jesus actually liked and respected women, but the point is Christian Misogynists *are* Christians. To deny that they aren’t is to let them win the argument when *they* say Christians who don’t hate gays and women aren’t “real” Christians.

  • Anonymous

    And where Fred goes wrong with this comparison is that he is able to lay out exactly what he means by a “true scientist”:

    “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 do that with science, because there is a very clear, objective definition of what science is.  It’s a definition that involves empirical analysis of data, peer review of results of that analysis, and adjustment of models based on criticism and new data.

    We can’t do that with Christianity.  And that’s because there actually is not, 2000 years later, a meaningful definition of what a Christian is.  The most basic and most useless definitions revolve around belief – a Christian is someone who professes that Jesus was God and the Son of God and was crucified and rose from the dead and it all had something to do with forgiveness of sins.

    If you want to expand it beyond that, you have to make a case that a Christian involves more than just a belief in those things.  And I don’t think anyone can do it.  Because when you do, you’re picking and choosing based on a non-objective set of criteria what “counts” as Christian and what doesn’t.  I guarantee you that Rick Santorum’s definition of what makes a “true Christian” is NOT going to be the same as what Fred’s definition is.  Because the definition cannot be objective – because there’s no objective standard to measure “Christianness” against the way Fred proposes to measure “scientist” in his post.

  • Anonymous

    And yes, I use exactly those words: No true scientist.

    As a Ph.D. chemist, I can agree with you.

    One thing that happens as you get higher degrees is that you become specialized. Not necessarily in a particular niche (I happen to fit into several niches, not necessarily ones that have yet been combined), but you become specialized nonetheless.

    And you know what? There are subjects I would have been happy to pretend I was an expert on during undergrad that I wouldn’t dare to touch today.

    There are, to be fair, subjects I would be happy to discuss even though I have not worked with them directly — but most of those are subjects that are public knowledge in my field and not under any sort of debate. (For example, I can give you a *lecture* on the non-danger of metallic mercury on the scale that you will encounter in CFL lightbulbs. I have never had to work with mercury in grad school, but I have gotten enough lectures on the subject that I know what is and is not science.)

    Or, to quote an ancient website that reviews movies for physics errors, “our experience with real scientists and engineers indicates that when they’re on-the-record, top-notch scientists and engineers won’t even speculate about the color of their socks without looking at their ankle.” (They’ll speculate wildly off-the-record, of course.)

    And that goes several times over for people discussing another subject in another hard science. [1]

    [1] There are many of us who will diss, say, economics (see Mike the Mad Biologist for a good example) or literary analysis, but planetary science? That’s just applied physics.

  • Anonymous

    This is true of the phrase “true Christian.”  But Fred didn’t say ” they are not true Christians,” he said “they are not true religious leaders.”  And there is, at least, a slightly tighter definition of what “religious leader” means: trivially, it is someone who… leads… religious groups.

    And that’s not what those men are doing in that picture; they aren’t preaching on the evils of contraception or trying to guide their followers on their vision of the path of righteousness, they are testifying before Congress with the hope of using the mechanisms of the law to restrict the legal options of women.

  • Ah

    And you can’t even insist on “professes that Jesus was God”. Just because the Arians lost, doesn’t mean they were not Christians.

    On the broader issue, if someone wanted to insist that (for example) misogyny is an inherent part of True Christianity, they would have two things on their side that Fred lacks in attempting to make the opposite case: (1) numbers and (2) history. Most Christians currently alive adhere to varieties of Christianity that consider women to be subordinate to men. Most varieties of Christianity that have existed through history have considered women to be subordinate to men.

  • Anonymous

    No true Scotsman
    Ad hominem
    Violating Godwin’s Law

    Those are three pre-fab pseudo-critiques I often see hurled in comments sections to refute arguments without much thought being given to the specifics of the argument, which is absolutely essential to deciding whether something is fallacious. Some one sees and argument that resembles the structure of No True Scotsman and cries out “NO TRUE SCOTSMAN!” Someone sees a attack on someone’s character and cries “AD HOMINEM*” Some says, “You know, passing laws specifically worded to restrict the building of new mosques and only mosques strikes me as reminiscent of—” “GODWIN!”

    I think William S. Burroughs onto something when he said that language was a (mind control) virus** and becomes less and less connected to real-world referents the more it reproduces itself.

    *For instance, Fred’s recent take down of Chuck Colson could be mischaracterized as an ad hominem because he called Colson a liar, but it wasn’t fallacious because it was relevant and true.*** If Colson were not a well-documented unrepentant liar, or if he didn’t set himself up as a guardian of “Judeo-Christian” morality, then Fred’s post would have been fallacious.

    **I’ll leave the “from outer space” to the side until we hear back from the time travelling xenolinguists due to arrive in three… two…

    ***Which two criteria are key, IMO, in determining whether something an argument that the resembles a fallacy is really a fallacy.

  • Mary Kaye

    I’m going to dissent here.  The problem with “true Scotsman” arguments is not that they’re logically wrong, it’s that they’re useless and distracting, encouraging us to obsess over definitions rather than getting on with business.

    I don’t care if these people are Christians, or religious leaders, or whatever.  I care that what they are advocating is wrong, and that the people they claim to speak for do not agree with them (making that claim false).  If they can shortcircuit me onto “they aren’t Christians” “yes they are” “no they aren’t” they have succeeded in deflecting criticism of what really matters.

    Similarly, arguing about whether a bought-and-paid-for tobacco scientist is a scientist or not can just turn into a useless distraction from the real question, which is:  do we have any reason to believe him?  Is he lying?  Is the research printed under his name actually written by him at all?

    A colleague of mine, incidentally, has done some very nice work on document analysis to help sniff out, and hopefully snuff out, papers written by a corporate shill but published under a scientist’s name.  (The number of shills involved is small enough, and their writing distinctive enough, that there are ways to do this.)  Then you get down to a plain matter of fact–X didn’t write the paper with his name on it.  At that point, who cares if he is a scientist or not?

  • Dan Audy

     

    We can’t do that with Christianity.  And that’s because there actually
    is not, 2000 years later, a meaningful definition of what a Christian
    is.  The most basic and most useless definitions revolve around belief -
    a Christian is someone who professes that Jesus was God and the Son of
    God and was crucified and rose from the dead and it all had something to
    do with forgiveness of sins.

    Heck, you can’t even do that.  Of those I think the only two that wouldn’t have been disputed at some point by Christians (that is to say followers of the teaching of Jesus) is he was crucified and it all had something to do with forgiveness of sins.  Bart Erhman’s “Lost Christianities” is an excellent read on the extremely wide variety of beliefs early Christians held and the many ‘heresies’ that have arisen within Catholicism over its life.

  • Anonymous

    > The problem with “true Scotsman” arguments is not that they’re logically wrong, it’s that they’re useless and distracting, encouraging us to obsess over definitions rather than getting on with business.

    Stumbling blocks :)

  • JRB

    I can’t help but feel that this post was made (at least in small part) because of my comment in Fred’s previous post.  I just wanted to clarify that I was not saying that Fred was making a “No True Scotsman” argument but rather claiming that Misogyny was not/has not been a part of mainstream (“Big Three”) religious belief is disingenuous/ahistorical. 

  • FangsFirst

     JRB: rizzo actually specifically mentioned “No True Scotsman,” so, while rizzo was expanding on your post, I’d say it originates (pretty clearly!) from there. Though if you feel it was or could still be conflated, by all means clarify.

    Actually, clarify for any reason you feel appropriate. Not mine to tell you to do so or not to. But, to possibly ease any discomfort you might have felt as far as it being direct or pseudo-direct response.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_NR2MMC4EJXJWJMLH6IF457XL64 Alex B

    “Similarly, arguing about whether a bought-and-paid-for tobacco scientist is a scientist or not can just turn into a useless distraction from the real question, which is:  do we have any reason to believe him?”
    Ah, but the question Fred asks cuts right to the heart of the question you ask.

  • Ian needs a nickname

    I’m not gonna say that American Catholic Bishops are not true Christians, but by objective standards they are not religious leaders.  On contraception, most Catholics do not follow them.  If Catholics do not follow them, they are not Catholic religious leaders.

  • Anonymous

    “If Catholics do not follow them, they are not Catholic religious leaders.”

    Okay, if you want to go that route, then you have a completely different problem.  First, you’re conflating “Catholics” with “American and European Catholics”.  The Catholic leadership is listened to by Catholics all over the world, and frankly it’s just in the US, Canada and Europe where people simultaneously tell the Church to get stuffed and still attend and call themselves Catholics.  For the rest of the world they actually listen to what the leadership says (which is why the Pope constantly telling people in Africa not to use condoms is a problem – they LISTEN to the leadership there.  It wouldn’t be a problem if they just ignored him the way Catholics in the US do).

    Second of all, you’re ignoring just who the American Catholic Bishops feel that they are the leaders of.  They’re the leaders of the American Catholics who listen to what they say.  They have made it very, very clear that if the laity doesn’t like what they’re doing, they can leave.  They’ve made that clear for decades.

    So even if you want to go that route it’s still wrong.  They ARE religious leaders.  There ARE Catholics who listen to them, and there are Catholics who ignore them in this instance but still give them money every Sunday and insist that it’s the right thing to do and will DEFEND this nonsense that’s going on right now as “freedom of religion” even if they damn well know that it’s a farce.  There are also Catholic women who use birth control and feel guilty about it “knowing” that they’re sinning every day of their lives.  They won’t tell the hierarchy to get stuffed because they agree with them – even as they are sinning themselves.  So the bishops are the leaders of these groups – because they’ve either willingly lined up behind the bishops and self-flagellate, or because they’ve abdicated their own choice by continuing to support a corrupt system through their dollars.

    You may not agree with their interpretation of Christianity, but it’s ridiculous to say that they’re not “religious leaders”.  Almost, but not quite, as ridiculous as making the “not real Christian” argument.  (Because there’s at least a concrete definition of a “religious leader” – which these guys fulfill.  The “not real Christian” argument is more ridiculous because nobody can give a decent definition of what a Christian actually is).

  • P J Evans

     If they don’t have followers, then they aren’t leaders, by definition.

  • http://msmith13.wordpress.com/ Mark

    The thing to remember — at least, this is how I manage to remember it — is that when an expert strays outside her field of expertise, her opinion isn’t worth any more than the opinion of J. Random Person.

  • Anonymous

    The phrase you are groping for is “scientific consensus.” At any given time, there’s a broad agreement among scientists about valid scientific theories. And there are usually a few scientists who aren’t part of the consensus. Most often they are wrong, but every now and again the outsiders turn out to be right. It’s not the way to bet, though. By the time most scientists have been persuaded of the validity of a theory, the evidence is  overwhelming.

    I haven’t dug into the background of this lot, but the last time I dug into the scientific backgrounds of climate change denialists, I found that, while most of them had doctorates, and might even have worked as researchers at one time, they were no longer researchers–they were activists or PR people or just people who were clinging to old theories.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    The Catholic leadership is listened to by Catholics all over the world, and frankly it’s just in the US, Canada and Europe where people simultaneously tell the Church to get stuffed and still attend and call themselves Catholics.

    *Oceania jumps up and down trying to get attention*

  • Guest-again

    ‘and frankly it’s just in the US, Canada and Europe where people
    simultaneously tell the Church to get stuffed and still attend and call
    themselves Catholics.’
    Actually, it is more like all those places with a history of democratic government, particularly those with a large number of Protestants.

    Our host is a Protestant, and clearly doesn’t understand what makes the Catholic Church the institution it is – in large part, because Protestants simply don’t accept the institution the way it is.

    Which in a democratic society with a separation of church and state, is just fine. However, the Catholic Church has never accepted that doctrine either – they have just been forced to bow down in front of reality. They aren’t bowing voluntarily.

    In other news, the pope is still Catholic.

  • Baeraad

    Hmm. Tricky one. I suppose the most accurate (though not exactly the smoothest) way of putting it is, “most scientists agree on human-caused climate change. Of the ones that do not, most do not exhibit, in their disagreeing, the positive qualities (e.g., diligent study, respect for evidence, impartiality) that we associate with the word ‘scientist.’”

    See why we have to make broad, sweeping statements even though we know perfectly well that there are exceptions to everything we might possibly say? The alternative is sounding like that, all the time! :P

  • Anonymous

    Hell, I could argue that I fit that criterion better than orthodox Trinitarians, and yet I’m the one who’s the heretic. Figure that one out.

  • Baeraad

    Excellent point. A lot of the time when I’ve been arguing with someone online, I’ve gotten the distinct impression that we were viewing the argument very differently.

    I viewed it as a way of improving understanding – throwing all the reasons I believed what I believed at them, and letting them throw all the reasons they believed what they believed at me, with many insults and furious accusations at the side. Hey, don’t knock it. If you want to understand someone else’s perspective, the *last* thing you want to do is assume that they have formed their opinions for completely rational, impartial, unemotional reasons. And if you want an honest evaluation of yourself, you should be aware of how your own experiences and hangups have influenced your thinking.

    They, on the other hand, frequently seemed to view it as a sort of highly structured duel, where victory would rightly go to the one who had honed their rhetorical skills to perfection. There were rules. Lots and lots of rules. And the first rule was always that you had to pretend that you didn’t have an emotional (or practical) stake in anything.

    To make a trivial example: I accept that everyone is an idiot in some ways, and that everyone is an asshole in some ways. Therefore, the fact that a person displays a few signs of hypocrisy or corruption does not mean that they are not worth listening to, or even that they are not worth electing for office. However, if they show themselves to be idiots and assholes in countless ways, then I am going to stop regarding anything they have to say as valid, even the things that I would have considered if they had come from someone else. That, according to the rules of debate, is an ad hominem argument and I auto-lose for bringing it up. But I say that in a world that is far too complex for us to ever really get true, objective proof for more than perhaps a few very specific things, considering how generally trustworthy our information sources have shown themselves to be is about the best thing we can do.

    And as for Goodwin’s law, it’s true that people cry “Nazi!” a little too quickly. But the Nazis really did come into being and into power due to certain values and sentiments, so when we see those values and sentiments expressed today, we should learn from history and get worried. I don’t remember who said it, but: if the jackboot fits, goosestep. :P

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Speaking of climate change…

    http://imgur.com/gallery/n4XNJ

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    LMM22: hello, fellow chemistry person. :)

  • Kish

     EARTHQUAKE!

  • Anonymous

    Sorry, Fred, all general statements are false*.

    To verify the (more precise) statement “There exist at least two scientists that say human activities are unrelated to climate change”, all that is required is to find two people that meet some definition of scientist which, by the way, was not limited to climate scientists. That is quite a simple matter. The No True Scotsman fallacy is modifying the definition of “scientist” to exclude anyone who says that human activities are unrelated to climate change.

    It is perfectly fair to say that the statement is useless because the term scientist was not required to carry qualification of expertise.

    However, the statement “all climate scientists agree that human activities affect climate change” has its own problems. To falsify this, one has only to find a single climate scientist. That might be possible.

    The statement “Nearly all climate scientists agree that human activities significantly affect climate change, disagreeing mainly in magnitude and extent” is less sweeping, but is practically iron-clad. To falsify this would require finding some significant minority to claim that human activities are not significant. Replacing “nearly all” with “the overwhelming consensus among” makes the statement even harder to argue with. Unfortunately it is less effective PR, as it requires thought.

    I wonder if there is, or should be, a fallacy for the illusion that bold, confident, sweeping statements are more reliable, when they are really less so.

    *Including this one too, which is why I like it.

  • Anonymous

     “I wonder if there is, or should be, a fallacy for the illusion that
    bold, confident, sweeping statements are more reliable, when they are
    really less so.”

    Yeah. Give me the expert who qualifies their statements any day, over the one who confidently overstates their case.

    It’s an ape thaing. We corvids don’t get it.


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