Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Ad Hominem No Substitute for Reasoned Criticism

Before I leave the Quora question, What do people think about Alex Epstein's new book "The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, I want to revisit the answer submitted by Mike Barnard, which I alluded to in my 4/1/15 post.

Barnard employs classic ad hominem tactics. But he only damages his own credibility. For example, he writes:

First, I think Epstein is a climate-change denier:

The temperature has increased very mildly and leveled off completely in recent years. The climate-prediction models are failures, especially models based on CO2 as the major climate driver, reflecting a failed attempt to sufficiently comprehend and predict an enormously complex system.

Apparently, Barnard didn’t comprehend the very quote he references. Clearly, Epstein acknowledges that climate change is real. Barnard goes on:

These are both such widely falsified statements that it's literally incredible to me that anyone would consider putting them in a book. Epstein is selling to deniers, not to the people who actually accept the science.

The temperature record for the past 135 years is widely available. This graph clearly validates Epstein’s first sentence. This graph shows the recent warming to be well within the 800,000 year temperature range; which was flat, lending statistical credence to the view that natural fluctuations are at least one significant cause of the current warming cycle. These graphs are readily available, so there’s no excuse for Barnard’s intellectual sloppiness or his use of the Nazi smear implicit in the term “climate change denier.” And Epstein presents plenty of evidence to back up his failed-model claims. Barnard breezily asserts the “widely falsified statements” claim, but doesn’t present a single example of Epstein’s evidence being wrong. (There are no word limits imposed by Quora, so there’s no excuse for Barnard’s negligence.) Barnard continues:

Two, I think Epstein is attacking scientists for being right because ... I'm not sure, maybe he's an idiot:

But many professional organizations, scientists, and journalists have deliberately tried to manipulate us into equating the greenhouse effect with the predictions of invalid computer models based on their demonstrably faulty understanding of how CO2 actually affects climate.

Once again, this is a such a ludicrous conspiracy theory that it's remarkable to me that anyone would take seriously someone who printed it.

Nowhere does Epstein charge a conspiracy theory. He challenges the credibility of “many professional organizations, scientists, and journalists,” to be sure—and again, backed by plenty of evidence. But that doesn’t equate to “conspiracy theory.”

Barnard goes on to acknowledge that “His premise is correct up to a point”:

Fossil fuels have allowed billions to be raised out of poverty, and they have made it possible for sciences and arts to flourish by giving people freedom to explore things other than hunting for enough calories or shelter.

But then Barnard writes:

However, his ignorance and willful denial of the significance of the downsides of fossil fuel consumption, along side his refusal to accept that there are viable alternatives that are replacing fossil fuels which have none of those downsides makes his case absurd.

On the one hand, he massively understates the negative impacts of fossil fuels. On the other hand, he refuses to accept that there are alternatives without those downsides. He publishes complete crap about renewables, material which is so false that it amounts to propaganda, and pretends it is reality.

The moral argument is that we should respect how far fossil fuel consumption has helped us get, and we should replace it now that we have better alternatives.

When you compare the immense good of fossil fuels—raising billions out of poverty and into flourishing—with “the negative impacts of fossil fuels,” it’s obvious who is “massively understating,” and overstating, what. That said, Barnard and his ilk are free to “replace it now” with “better alternatives”—except that as yet, there really aren’t any better alternatives to fossil fuels as civilization’s primary energy source. Barnard’s close befits his ad hominem style, with snide references to Ayn Rand and “Randian Objectivists”:

Everyone else can happily ignore this useless addition to the discussion and keep focusing on more productive efforts, except for those dealing with countering the pernicious intellectual impacts of that cult-leader and failed philosopher's reaction to Stalinism.

I submit that a conclusion like that indicates a cowardly lack of confidence in one’s viewpoints. I left these comments:

If Epstein’s argument is so “useless,” why the ad hominem hysterics? Why urge people to “ignore” the book? It seems you should urge people to read The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. Then they will know first hand how right you are. Or, will they? Perhaps you’re afraid to find out.

If there really are “better alternatives,” why are newly industrializing nations choosing fossils rather than these “better alternatives?” Why did “green” leader Japan turn to fossil fuels rather than so-called “renewables” to replace its shut down nuclear reactors after the the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. Why is Germany, the heralded leader in “renewables,” once again building coal-fired electricity plants? Why do the world’s people still rely on fossils for 87% of their energy? Why haven’t the “better alternatives” won out, especially after decades of untold $billions in solar and wind subsidies? Why the concerted effort to use government to force a transition away from fossils? Why do the champions of “alternatives” feel it necessary to force out fossils through government policies rather than market persuasion? Nobody is trying to shut down wind or solar energy (except other environmentalists).

Better ideas and better ways of doing things will always win out over time, no matter how entrenched existing technologies. Ask John D. Rockefeller, whose dominance in nighttime illumination via kerosene gave way to electric lighting. Ask Eastman Kodak, the former film photography king bankrupted by digital photography. Ask IBM, whose mainframe dominance of the computer industry gave way to the personal computer makers. If solar and wind can replace fossils, they will.

Let the market decide. If you’re right “that there are viable alternatives that are replacing fossil fuels,” then fossils will go the way of kerosene lamps, film photography, and mainframe computers. But if you’re wrong, and fossils are forced out without some energy equivalent of personal computers to replace them, the result will be future generations facing an energy-starved world of impoverishment that would make our current “polluted” fossil fueled world of plenty look like a Garden of Eden. Risking such a bleak existence on future generations would be the ultimate cruelty.  


Barnard gave me a chance to deepen my case, with this reply:

As for the market deciding, the market requires some regulation in order to operate effectively. And it needs some guidance to avoid obvious known problems such as global warming. Revenue neutral carbon taxes would provide the right signals to the market, but as global warming and pollution are unpriced negative externalities right now, the market ignores them to the detriment of all.

Here is my response:

Translation: “I don’t like the voluntary choices of others, so I get to force my choices on them, with government as my hired gun.”

The fact is, fossil fuel use already pays substantially for its pollution side-effects in the form of anti-pollution laws (as it should). Steadily advancing anti-pollution technologies—and objective laws requiring anti-pollution technologies as they become available—is the right way to deal with the so-called “negative externality” of pollution. This approach works, as actual fossil fuel-generated air pollution has been cut in half in America over the past 40 years, even as fossil fuel use has increased substantially. Carbon taxes would only skew the market, and punish energy consumers for enjoying the far more extensive “positive externalities” of fossil fuels.

Another fact: global warming is far from an “obvious known problem.” By all known indications, the average global temperature has increased by 1.4 degrees F. since 1880, with half of the increase coming before widespread use of fossil fuels. In my lifetime (66 years), average temps have increased less than a degree—a change perceptible only through precise scientific measurement techniques. Global warming is only a “problem” when viewed from the premise that any human-caused change in the environment is ipso facto bad—a fundamentally anti-life perspective.

Related Reading:

The Secret History of Fossil Fuels—Alex Epstein

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