How 'Straw Man Science' Distorts Climate Change Discussions

Straw man: an argument, claim or opponent which is invented in order to defeat or create an argument. Climate change is controversial and much debated in the media. But did you know much of the debate is about straw man climate science? Straw man climate science is like real climate science, but with the science, awkward facts and complexity removed.

Picture by Robin Ellis

It can be confusing. Straw man and actual climate science appear in the same articles and interviews. Editors drop the words "straw man" from articles. Some people even confuse straw man and actual climate science.

So let's take a look at straw man climate science in action.

How much?

We have increased carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere by 40 per cent since the 1800s. How does straw man climate science deal with this?

"And I can't recall the number of times I have said, and it is uncontested, that human beings produce 3 per cent of the carbon dioxide in the air.", Alan Jones, 2GB, 19 October 2012

We produce a modest percentage of all CO2 emissions. But the extra emissions aren't absorbed by the carbon cycle, so CO2 builds up in the air. A small rise each year has resulted in a 40 per cent increase of CO2.

An error of omission on emissions.

Straw man climate science confuses the percentage of CO2 emissions we produce with the percentage of CO2 in the air we are responsible for. A big problem is hidden with a comforting number.

Harmless?

There is plenty of evidence that CO2 will influence climate. Lab measurements show different gases have very different properties. CO2, water vapour and methane are far more effective greenhouse gases than nitrogen and oxygen.

Scientists have measured how CO2 blocks infrared light in the atmosphere, using satellites looking down and telescopes looking up. Climate models with and without anthropogenic CO2 emissions can be compared with observations.

The evidence points to increasing CO2 causing climate change.

What does straw man say?

"And of course carbon dioxide isn't a pollutant. It's a harmless trace gas that's necessary for life", Alan Jones, 2GB, 15 March 2011

Jones has delivered a one-two punch of non-sequiturs.

Are Jones' statements relevant to the lab results? Are they relevant to satellite and telescope measurements of the atmosphere? Do they have any relevance to CO2 and climate change? No, no and no.

Steady as she goes?

Earth's climate is complex. It is influenced by the sun, volcanoes, CO2 and more. Consequently there are variations from year-to-year.

Now for the straw man:

"Last year was the sixth coldest since 1997, which shows the catastrophic scenarios of recent times are no longer looming over us.", Imre Salusinszky, The Australian, 11 January 2012

Salusinszky is ignoring real world complexity. Scientists never predicted a perfectly steady rise in temperature. Years that are slightly cooler than our hottest decade are no surprise.

CO2 will produce a warmer climate, but CO2 won't switch off variability. Suggesting otherwise is ignorant or deceptive.

Down down?

Seas are rising, but complexity lurks. Changing rainfall patterns make sea levels temporarily dip when there is a switch from El Niño to La Niña.

What was The Australian's headline?

"Sea Level Fall Defies Climate Warnings", The Australian, 29 September 2012

Straw man climate science ignoring variability again. The dip's cause and temporary nature were predictable. The fall stopped in March 2011, and was followed by a rapid rise.

Sea levels have risen over decades, but brief dips in sea level do occur. CSIRO

The Australian's headline doesn't match the science. The headline only matches the introduction to Graham Lloyd's article, and is at odds with the experts he interviewed. Straw man climate science is often practised by journalists, not scientists.

Storm in a tea cup?

Anyone who has been to Cairns and Melbourne knows climate varies from place to place.

Even at the same latitude, climate can be radically different.

Climate change varies from place to place too. Rainfall will rise in one place and drop in another. Around Australia temperatures and seas are rising at varying rates.

Let's check in with the straw man:

"And, we've had a record Arctic melt. But better not mention the storm that NASA concedes broke the ice up and drove it south, or the record Antarctic ice gain." Maurice L. Newman, The Australian, 5 November 2012

Polar temperatures are rising, but sea ice is more complicated than ice melting in your G&T. Prevailing winds play an important role. The Arctic and Antarctic are very different places. The Arctic is a sea surrounded by continents while the Antarctic is a continent surrounded by sea.

These two records are a cause for concern, not relief. They don't cast doubt on rising global temperatures. Instead, they remind us that rising global temperatures have different consequences around the globe.

2012 was a record low for Arctic sea ice. NOAA

Let's look closer at Newman's reporting on sea ice. The Arctic sea ice is clearly at record lows for months while the Antarctic sea ice is far closer to the average. Globally sea ice is declining. Errors of omission by Newman.

Antarctic sea ice was not much higher than the average in 2012. NOAA

What about the storm? This is a red herring. The storm was in August but the Arctic sea ice was tracking record lows in July. Also, a dramatic low in Arctic sea ice cannot be produced by just one storm. Oops, more errors of omission.

Consensus?

"No consensus among climate scientists after all", The Australian, 14 October 2010

Scientific consensus is often demanded for policy making. But it should not be confused with 100 per cent agreement.

Vocal minorities will never accept the evidence. A handful of biologists don't accept evolution. A handful of astronomers think there was no Big Bang. A handful of climate scientists say there is no such thing as anthropogenic climate change.

The overwhelming majority of climate scientists, peer reviewed papers and scientific organisations have concluded anthropogenic climate change is real. This is scientific consensus.

But isn't science never settled? Yes. But apples won't start falling up because we don't understand quantum gravity. Global warming won't stop because we don't know if temperatures will rise 2, 3 or 4 °C.

We don't know exactly how climate will change, but we know it is changing and will continue to do so.

What is it?

So what is straw man climate science?

Straw man climate science marries facts with errors of omission. Comforting numbers are presented with logical fallacies. Any uncertainty is confused with complete uncertainty. Uncertainty about "how" is confused with uncertainty about "if". Dissent by a tiny minority is confused with a lack of scientific consensus.

Straw man climate science ignores real world complexity. Variations from year-to-year and place-to-place are assumed to undermine the case for anthropogenic climate change. This is just plain wrong.

Straw man climate science is rarely the work of climate scientists. Usually it is the work of journalists, op-ed writers, bloggers and think tanks. Straw man climate science tells us more about their agendas than it does about science.

Michael J. I. Brown is an ARC Future Fellow and Senior Lecturer at Monash University. He receives funding from the ARC and Monash University to undertake research into galaxy evolution and active galactic nuclei.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.


Comments

    Good article, but not timely. The crucial fact about straw man science is that it has already won. The Fossil Fuel Mafia and its proponents (Murdoch's various withered organs, etc) have succeeded in delaying action to the point where it's too late. The heroics needed for meaningful action at this late stage, after having ignored the warnings 20-30 years ago that could have made action cheap, simply aren't going to happen (ie. there's not one single plausible route to them happening).

    The worst-case scenarios (4+ deg of warming) are now, in practice, inevitable. It won't be pretty, but it will have been a choice. Unfortunately, the people who made the choice (the super-consumers of the West) won't be the first to suffer (we'll export misery and death to the world's poor). But we'll get ours too, before too long.

    Why Climate Deniers Have No Scientific Credibility - In One Pie Chart
    There are 13,950 peer-previewed climate articles from 1991 to 2012. Only 24 reject global warming.
    http://www.desmogblog.com/2012/11/15/why-climate-deniers-have-no-credibility-science-one-pie-chart

    It doesn't matter how you feel about a subject, straw man arguments suck.

    I remember reading some article recently that temperatures hadn't actually risen for the last 16 years now - agreed to reluctantly by East Anglia Climate Research (or whatever their official title is). Is that another straw-man argument?

      It's a furphy no matter what you call it
      https://tamino.wordpress.com/2012/10/21/temperature-analysis-by-david-rose-doesnt-smell-so-sweet/

    Thanks for the common sense, level headed article.

    I don't believe the author is being entirely fair in his rebuttal of straw man arguments.
    Look at the Arctic sea ice graph. Yes it was tracking at record lows (about 2007 levels), but did drop further in August with the storm. Current data shows it is back up to 2007 levels now and it will be interesting to see how it tracks over the winter. I am not doubting the trend in Arctic Sea Ice, but I think the author goes a little too far in denigrating any opposing view. His tone doesn't help to draw people into cordial intelligent discussion, which is what we need if we want to bring about change.

      We've had 'cordial intelligent discussion' for 30 years. Meanwhile the Fossil Fuel Mafia (with no such scruples) have borrowed Big Tobacco's dirty methods to slow political action. It has worked.

    There's a shock - yet another pro-academics-keeping-their-industry-going article from The Conversation. Not sure why we have to read it here in LH as well.

      Not interested in the article? Don't read it.
      Don't agree with the contents of the article? Come up with a better argument.
      Don't like scientists? Go back to living under a rock.

      There's a couple of century's worth of work from several entirely independent sciences converging on the same conclusions regarding global warming, along with millions of observations from hundreds of research stations worldwide. There's permanent world fame and a Nobel Prize at the very least awaiting the first scientist (non-"academic" even, if you prefer) who can overturn all that (cf. Darwinian Evolution, etc).

    Straw man science works because much of the population wants to believe in comfortable explanations that don't strain their limited cerebral capacity.

    Of course this applies to most - if not all - of the audience for buffoons like Alan Jones who are also typically too stupid to see that people of his ilk are simply out to look after their own personal fortunes and those of their conservative cronies.

    And if it's true that we get the politicians that we deserve, then the homily applies ten-fold over to media commentators.

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