The Lindzen Fallacy

2010-03-05

in Geek stuff, Politics, Science, The environment

The Lindzen Fallacy is a sub-genre of the fallacy of petitio principii (begging the question) that I have named after MIT Meteorology Professor and climate change delayer Richard Lindzen. I define it as such:

The assumption that fears about catastrophic or runaway climate change are overblown, based on the assumption that climate change can never truly imperil humanity.

Many people have a deep, intuitive sense that the world wil remain as it is. In particular, that it will continue to provide the basic physical requirements of humanity, such as breathable air, acceptable temperatures, and conditions suitable for continued agriculture.

This perspective is clearly a bit of circular logic: climate change cannot be dangerous, because if it were truly dangerous, it would be dangerous. (Repeat as often as you like.)

Negative feedbacks

Lindzen has told the US Coast Guard Academy that: “Extreme weather events are always present. There’s no evidence it’s getting better, or worse, or changing.” He has suggested that there simply must be negative feedbacks that counter the warming effects of greenhouse gases, possibly through the increased radiation of heat into space, caused by columns of tropical cumulus convection carrying large amounts of heat high into the atmosphere. Satellite data from NASA’s Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES) mission raises serious doubts about this being a negative climate feedback. His perspective on climate sensitivity appears dubious both in relation to climate models and the paleoclimatic record. Lindzen also argued to the Vice President’s Climate Task Force, in the US under the Bush Administration, that action should not be taken to mitigate climate change. Climatologis James Hansen speculates that: “Lindzen’s perspective on climate sensitivity… stems from an idea of a theological or philosophical perspective that he doggedly adheres to. Lindzen is convinced that nature will find ways to cool itself, that negative feedbacks will diminish the effect of climate forcings.” Back in 1999, Hansen responded to Lindzen’s hypotheses about negative feedbacks by encouraging the scientific community to investigate two things: a) whether water vapour feedbacks can be observed, and b) whether the ocean heat content is increasing in line with the model predictions. In the view of climatologist Gavin Schmidt, subsequent evidence has been supportive of the Hansen view and has drawn into question the Lindzen perspective.

Just showing that negative feedbacks exist is not enough to prove that climate change is dangerous, or that we should do nothing about it. As I argued in a discussion with a different climate denier:

What specific mechanism counteracts the infrared absorbing effect of greenhouse gasses? If such an effect exists, why has it automatically been getting stronger as concentrations rise? Also, what proof is there that even if there were such an effect, it would protect us from any amount of increased GHG concentrations. For instance, continued business-as-usual emissions could push concentrations to over 1000 ppm of CO2 equivalent by 2100, compared to 280 ppm before the Industrial Revolution and about 383 ppm now. Even if there were negative feedback effects that significantly reduced the total forcing resulting from increased GHG concentrations (that is, lowered climatic sensitivity), it is possible that they would break down when presented with such a significant change.

It is not enough to show that there are one or more negative feedbacks in the climate system. It is necessary to show that they will be sufficient in magnitude and durability to counter the warming caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gases. The fact that concentrations of those and temperatures are still rising suggest that this is not the case in today’s climate, and the existence of massive potential positive feedbacks (Arctic sea ice albedo, permafrost methane, etc) make it dubious for future climates.

Further to that, the point I am raising here is not about the technical means by which Lindzen or anyone else thinks the climate will automatically rebalance in response to changes caused by humanity. Rather, it is to highlight the faulty assumption that such rebalancing can be taken for granted, regardless of the specific means by which it might occur.

The Lindzen Fallacy is dangerous because it offers us false comfort. If mainstream climate science is correct, and a business-as-usual course will produce far more than 2°C of warming by the end of the century, future generations will think back with regret about all those in our time (and before) who falsely believed that the world could never become inhospitable to humans.

A related bit of faulty thinking

The Lindzen fallacy relates to another flawed and potentially dangerous perspective: namely, that humanity is so adaptable that, no matter how much climate changes, humanity will be able to adapt. While it is hard to see how humanity could survive runaway climate change, it is easy to see why someone would think the empirical evidence supports this view. After all, nothing has wiped us out yet. Unfortunately, this logic suffers from the same fault as that of a chicken famously described by Bertrand Russell in The Problems of Philosophy:

And this kind of association is not confined to men; in animals also it is very strong. A horse which has been often driven along a certain road resists the attempt to drive him in a different direction. Domestic animals expect food when they see the person who feeds them. We know that all these rather crude expectations of uniformity are liable to be misleading. The man who has fed the chicken every day throughout its life at last wrings its neck instead, showing that more refined views as to the uniformity of nature would have been useful to the chicken.

In short, inductive reasoning is dangerous, whenever there is a chance of something truly unprecedented taking place.

There are good scientific reasons to believe that climate change could be just such a dangerous, unprecedented phenomenon in relation to human beings.

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{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

R.K. March 5, 2010 at 2:44 pm

Is Hansen the only one who thinks Lindzen is guilty of thinking this way? If so, it might be premature to name a fallacy after the latter man.

Tristan March 8, 2010 at 11:13 am

This fallacy is well explained, I think, by Jordan Peterson in his essay on Complexity Management. Global warming, although a theory to scientists, is an anomaly to business, to those who can’t believe the world could be affected by our impacts in such a radical way. As something unexpected, it makes us face the radical complexity of the world which our beliefs conceal from us (without these beliefs, we would be stuck in anxiety). Global warming “debunking” is the pathological response which refuses to face up to the need for new models, new beliefs – instead clinging to old ones, pathetically.

“Anomalies are unsettling because they represent everything that lies outside the domain of the understood world. Complexity lacks the simplifying and constraining boundaries defining the objects that characterize known territory. In consequence, we have profound, a priori motivation to avoid anomaly, to ignore complexity, and to maintain the structural integrity of our belief systems. Anything unexpected (new phenomena, new ideas, new people) re-introduces the overwhelming complexity that our beliefs simplify. This introduced complexity, in turn, threatens the stability and security that our beliefs tentatively confer on existence. Freud described religious beliefs as illusions, motivated by wish- fulfillment. Such beliefs can be more accurately understood as culturally-shared and accepted strategies for pragmatically managing complexity. It is necessary for us to generate simplified, functional models, in order to function in situations constantly beyond our understanding. However, this process of simplified functional modeling can be pathologized by individuals who are unwilling to allow any unconstrained complexity whatsoever to exist – pathologized, that is, by the existential cowards who make ideological purity the hallmark of existence. What Becker and the neo-Freudians describe as death terror can be more accurately conceptualized as a priori fear of unconstrained complexity. Mere belief cannot keep such complexity permanently at bay, because all models are simplified, functional representations of an exceedingly intricate underlying reality. This means that adaptation is by necessity a process (that is, the process of confronting complexity, voluntarily) as well as a state – despite the claims of committed ideologues to absolute comprehensiveness of current belief.”

There is a link to the full paper on my blog.

Milan March 8, 2010 at 11:18 am

The point about scientists being in denial is a good one. I have spoken with a good number of climate scientists and, for the most part, the focus intensely on their own area of work and basically ignore the big picture.

For instance, I was speaking with an expert on permafrost who was unwilling to contemplate what the climatic implications of large-scale melting would be. The same goes for some ice scientists I’ve spoken with.

As mentioned before, climate activists may also be in denial about the scale of necessary change and the consequences of failure.

Milan March 8, 2010 at 11:22 am

How many people can really accept the idea that human civilization may eventually lie in ruins because of climate change? And how many of those people can then go on to do something constructive about the problem?

Milan March 8, 2010 at 4:16 pm

This Monbiot article is relevant to the discussion above.

Tristan March 8, 2010 at 5:24 pm

“How many people can really accept the idea that human civilization may eventually lie in ruins because of climate change?”

There was a time when a significant number of people were willing to question the political systems in which they lived very radically. I.e. various communist-themed revolutions which were not driven by a vanguard (i.e. ignore Russia if you want to understand anything about communist revolution). Or liberal revolutions, i.e. 1789 or 1848 or others.

The Paris commune, since it didn’t spread, would probably not be a good example to look at for an example of a massive amount of people being willing to put the basic tenants by which society is organized into question. On the other hand, it’s one of the most positive examples of people coming up with a replacement for those tenants and practically enacting it.

Milan March 8, 2010 at 5:27 pm

Is Hansen the only one who thinks Lindzen is guilty of thinking this way?

I would also like additional confirmation that this is a plausible hypothesis for explaining Lindzen’s views. I will keep an eye out for more information on him. That said, given that he has engaged with the man repeatedly on a personal level, Hansen is probably in a decent position to make a hypothesis.

Milan March 8, 2010 at 5:29 pm

Tristan,

It remains to be proven that radical social change is really necessary. The Stern Review and other assessments suggest that the cost of transitioning to zero-carbon sources of energy are manageable. All that is necessary is the political will to put in more than a token effort.

It isn’t clear that you need to overturn society to do that. We just need this issue to be treated more seriously.

Milan March 8, 2010 at 5:29 pm

The most Earth-shaking thing in my fantasy climate policy is the coal moratorium.

argumentics March 12, 2010 at 2:38 am

Notice, however , how you reason through the same pattern? The truth is that neither of you know what next Saturday will be like, but you are the one inclined to think Mr. X is being irrational.

Notice yet another thing: your reconstruction in the 4th paragraph has nothing to do with the “definition” in the second. And even if it had, that is not a petitio principi. At most, it is a type of ‘a fortiori’ reasoning:”Since p, all the more q”.

And one last thing: your induction that climate change might come to take us all to Mars, and his induction that climate change will be like a little mosquito ready to be squash’d are just as “inductive”. So, in other words, your in Russell’s chicken position too.

Milan March 12, 2010 at 10:28 am

I am not claiming to be certain about what level of climate change we will see, or what the consequences are.

I am saying that it is fallacious to begin your investigation with the assumption that climate change will be benign. If you start with that premise, your conclusions will be biased and potentially dangerous (because they encourage complacency).

Tristan March 12, 2010 at 11:55 am

“It remains to be proven that radical social change is really necessary. The Stern Review and other assessments suggest that the cost of transitioning to zero-carbon sources of energy are manageable. All that is necessary is the political will to put in more than a token effort.

It isn’t clear that you need to overturn society to do that. We just need this issue to be treated more seriously.”

Given the way priorities get set in modern (democracies?) failed states, it would be a radical political change to take global warming seriously. Maybe the elites are capable of this radical political shift by themselves, with no democratic revolutions. Maybe the democratic deficit will be reduced by the goodwill of the powerful for their children. Of course this remains possible.

But what about the past indicates this will happen? What other major social transformation was not driven from below? And don’t say that global warming mitigation is not a social transformation, because not doing it disproportionately affects the poor, and therefore mitigating it is (in a sense) progressive taxation.

Tristan March 12, 2010 at 12:06 pm

“It isn’t clear that you need to overturn society to do that. We just need this issue to be treated more seriously.”

Treating the issue seriously is an overturning of contemporary society. Contemporary society is characterized by not taking serious issues seriously. Take for instance Harper’s bad faith apology for what he won’t call residential school genocide. Or, the Pope trying to pathetically cover up his brother’s involvement in the sexual abuse of young german boys. Or, the current call to end the official US boycott against Ivory imports. Or, the “Olympics”, which is not a funny joke when people don’t have soup. Or, the current conservative governments pretense of caring about women’s rights, when this is clearly just a political ploy and not backed up by either substantial beliefs, and the “cost” of 45k “new indians” is literally weighed against the votes which this one small reduction of hypocrisy might garner.

Taking any issue seriously would be a political transformation. Taking the most important political issue seriously (global warming) would a political revolution, in the most literal sense of the term.

Milan March 12, 2010 at 1:02 pm

If we devoted a fraction of the resources being used to fight terrorism to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we could kick off the start of the necessary transition. I wouldn’t say that fear about terrorism ‘revolutionized’ our political system. It just became a big enough issue in the eyes of policy-makers that they really moved on it.

Right now, voters are easy to fool. They believe in empty promises about future reductions, and in arguments that we need to focus on the economy for now. That lets governments keep catering to the desires of status quo actors. A moderate decrease in the gullibility of voters, combined with an improved awareness of how threatening climate change is, may also be sufficient to kick off the transition.

Milan March 12, 2010 at 1:43 pm

At the same time, it is possible that climate change could be solved by stealth.

People don’t really care where their food and energy comes from. If there were big wind or solar farms at the other end of their wires, there is no automatic reason why that would deeply affect their lives or their politics.

If Google’s RE<C initiative succeeds, the political difficulty of addressing climate change will lessen considerably.

Tristan March 12, 2010 at 9:35 pm

I’m not saying your hopes are formally impossible, I’m saying we have no reason to think they will be borne out. If the elite choose to solve climate change by stealth, this would be as if all along they had the ability to prevent catastrophic pain and suffering for the masses and just failed to use it.

The reality is, there is no “the elite”. There are power structures which are complex, and within which no powerful centres exist. This is why every serious critique of politics is not a critique of some politiciens individual actions, but a critique of the structure by which those individual actions end up being the easiest path.

I think what climate change shows up is the weakness of capitalism. This system is failing to preserve itself – everyone knows this will destroy the possibility of indefinite growth and yet “No one cares about 50 years from now”. The system is pathetic. And this is the same thing we are seeing on a much shorter scale with the economic crisis – everyone knows what regulation we need, and we even have it in Canada (!), and yet it is politically impossible to impose it in the USA. It’s just beyond sad, this totally impotent and yet massively “powerful” structure, which has no one in charge.

We like to think we’re so smart with our industrial revolution and our nuclear bombs – but seriously, from an evolutionary point of view there are cultures which are a lot smarter than ours. Look at certain first nations cultures that have survived continually for 25k years – those cultures are not stupid. On the other hand, there are other non-western cultures which burn themselves out through unsustainable farming. We (the “west”, which is now basically the whole world) is just the biggest unsustainable farming operation the world has ever seen. And it’s going down, and it’s going to go down hard not because it is logically necessary – but because we don’t have the political structures which enable even fifty years of foresight. We used to have this – monarchies even a few hundred years ago operated (sometimes) on this kind of long time scale – but we don’t. For us, eight years is the maximum term for the world leader – and that leader, even for those eight years, is incredibly circumscribed by an openly corrupt system of money based power lobbying.

. March 13, 2010 at 10:30 am

“As the former chairman and ranking Republican of the Senate environment committee, [Senator James] Inhofe is one of the GOP’s loudest and most influential voices on climate change. The senator from Oklahoma calls global warming “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,” insists that carbon dioxide is not “a real pollutant,” and doesn’t worry about rising sea levels, because, if all else fails, “God’s still up there.”

Milan March 13, 2010 at 10:57 am

Speaking of voters being easy to fool:

For example, 53 per cent of Canadians believe the government is doing “just enough” to fight global warming. (The Conservatives, as opposition politicians like to point out, are doing virtually nothing to fight global warming.) Only 33 per cent think the Tories are doing too little.

With the public so pliable, it is no wonder Canadian politicians have been unwilling to do anything meaningful about the problem.

Tristan March 13, 2010 at 11:29 am

The public is produced as pliable. It isn’t accidental. It’s been engineered on purpose since Freud’s brother developed the science of “public relations”.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Bernays

Tristan March 13, 2010 at 1:01 pm

And it’s not as if it were new then. The god of consumption replaces the monarchic-subject relation of loving the ruler. Now instead of loving the ruler, the subject loves objects and hates the ruler, but doesn’t believe in the possibility of democratic rule. “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” is the central tenant of de-politicizing ideology.

Milan March 24, 2010 at 11:08 am

It does not speak well of The Economist that a recent article of theirs on climate science quotes Lindzen extensively.

I have noticed many times that their editorial stance on climate change is somewhat incoherent.

. March 31, 2010 at 9:52 pm

For us, there is no longer a fundamental mystery about life. It is all the process of extraordinary eruptions of information.

. April 8, 2010 at 12:14 am
Milan April 11, 2010 at 9:54 pm

Freud was mentioned in this thread, so I thought I should link to a good introductory lecture on the man, delivered by a professor of psychology at Yale.

. April 27, 2010 at 12:10 pm

Is Richard S. Lindzen deliberately lying, or just deluded?
Sat, 04/24/2010 – 10:06 — apsmith

Dr Richard Lindzen is a respected member of the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. He has led a distinguished career since the 1960’s, publishing hundreds of peer-reviewed articles studying and modeling Earth’s atmosphere, receiving numerous awards and being selected for membership in the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. As a professor of meteorology and particularly with the studies of radiative and dynamical atmospheric processes that he has conducted, he certainly qualifies as an eminent climate scientist. He is also well-known as being skeptical about climate “alarmism”, arguing that feedback effects are much smaller than most other scientists have assessed. At #136 on Jim Prall’s list of most cited authors on climate change he is the third-highest-rated of the “skeptics” (after Roger Pielke Sr. and Freeman Dyson).

All of that is fine. While 97% of climate scientists agree that humans are responsible for significant climate change, there are still those 3% who disagree. [UPDATE The exact survey wording on the question was “Has human activity been a significant factor in changing mean global temperatures” – which is a slightly different emphasis than my paraphrase (but is it “significant”?), and I apologize for any confusion caused]. Their arguments to the extent they are logical and have any scientific merit should be heard. Lindzen continues to publish in scientific journals, and while some of his recent papers have been greatly flawed, at least he’s continuing to actively try to put forth his position in a logical and scientific manner.

His motivation is most likely simply from long ago intellectually committing to the “low-climate-sensitivity” position. At close to 70 years old now he’s just resolved not to change, despite all contrary evidence.

. July 4, 2010 at 9:16 pm

Is Richard S. Lindzen deliberately lying, or just deluded?
Sat, 04/24/2010 – 10:06 — apsmith

Dr Richard Lindzen is a respected member of the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. He has led a distinguished career since the 1960’s, publishing hundreds of peer-reviewed articles studying and modeling Earth’s atmosphere, receiving numerous awards and being selected for membership in the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. As a professor of meteorology and particularly with the studies of radiative and dynamical atmospheric processes that he has conducted, he certainly qualifies as an eminent climate scientist. He is also well-known as being skeptical about climate “alarmism”, arguing that feedback effects are much smaller than most other scientists have assessed. At #136 on Jim Prall’s list of most cited authors on climate change he is the third-highest-rated of the “skeptics” (after Roger Pielke Sr. and Freeman Dyson).

Summing up, the science in these two Wall Street Journal pieces is, in all material respects, badly wrong, skewed, or irrelevant to present climate matters. The opinion is not just verging on, but consists of outright conspiracy-mongering, accusing leaders of the world’s most prestigious scientific bodies and thousands of other people of being involved in falsely promoting a “catastrophe” story so they can, for some other nefarious reason, “control carbon”. And presumably get rich on their generous scientist salaries.

So, I ask again, when will MIT begin its investigation of Lindzen? I’d like to read some of his emails!

. October 26, 2010 at 11:11 am

A Debate: And Dick Lindzen takes a Beating

Debate enthusiasts will love this long, but worthy video showing Texas A&M atmospheric scientist Andy Dessler mopping the floor with his increasingly out-of-touch colleague from MIT, Dick Lindzen.

The fact of Dessler’s victory is a value judgment that you may not trust without watching the video yourself. But speaking of value judgments, Dessler got off a great shot during his rebuttal, in which he commented on how often Lindzen had said that climate change presents “no cause for alarm.”

That, Dessler pointed out, is also a value judgment – not a scientific finding, adding:

“Before the lecture, he (Prof. Lindzen) was smoking. That’s a risk. He’s decided that’s a risk he’s willing to take. But not everybody would take that risk, so when he says there’s no cause for concern, he’s giving you his value judgment.”

. February 17, 2011 at 10:29 pm

GOP Lawmaker Mike Beard Claims God Will Provide Unlimited Natural Resources

Mike Beard, a Republican state representative from Minnesota, recently argued that coal mining should resume in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, in part because he believes God has created an earth that will provide unlimited natural resources.

“God is not capricious. He’s given us a creation that is dynamically stable,” Beard told MinnPost. “We are not going to run out of anything.”

Beard is currently in the midst of drafting legislation that would overturn Minnesota’s moratorium on coal-fired power plants, an effort that he backs due to his religious belief that God will provide limitless resources while ensuring that humans don’t destroy the planet trying to get them.

Drawing on his family’s childhood property in Pennsylvania, Beard explained to MinnPost his belief that while resource extraction might cause temporary agitation to the landscape, the effects wouldn’t be longterm.

Milan February 17, 2011 at 10:33 pm

Richard Lindzen really shows what you can do with tenure. It must drive MIT crazy that there is a climate change denier on their faculty. They must get criticized for it by their peers at other schools all the time.

Milan February 21, 2011 at 11:22 pm

One thing written by Henry David Thoreau looks a lot like the Lindzen Fallacy:

“For all nature is doing her best each moment to make us well. She exists for no other end. Do not resist her. With the least inclination to be well we should not be sick. Men have discovered, or think that they have discovered the salutariness of a few wild things only, and not of all nature. Why nature is but another name for health. Some men think they are not well in Spring or Summer or Autumn or Winter, (if you will excuse the pun) it is only because they are not indeed well, that is fairly in those seasons.”

McKibben, Bill ed. American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau. p.36 (hardcover)

Barbare Ehrenreich would also have something critical to say about that “With the least inclination to be well we should not be sick” claim.

Milan June 18, 2011 at 5:11 pm

I think this is basically the opposite of true:

. September 27, 2011 at 9:11 pm

If we think that the world is here for us we will continue to destroy it the way we have been destroying it, because we think we can do no harm.

Douglas Adams – Wikiquote

. November 28, 2011 at 11:09 pm

Be that as it may, all these studies, despite the large variety in data used, model structure and approach, have one thing in common: without the role of CO2 as a greenhouse gas, i.e. the cooling effect of the lower glacial CO2 concentration, the ice age climate cannot be explained. The result — in common with many previous studies — actually goes considerably further than that. The LGM cooling is plainly incompatible with the existence of a strongly stabilizing feedback such as the oft-quoted Lindzen’s Iris mechanism. It is even incompatible with the low climate sensitivities you would get in a so-called ‘no-feedback’ response (i.e just the Planck feedback – apologies for the terminological confusion).

It bears noting that even if the SEA mean estimate were correct, it still lies well above the ever-more implausible estimates of those that wish the climate sensitivity were negligible. And that means that the implications for policy remain the same as they always were. Indeed, if one accepts a very liberal risk level of 50% for mean global warming of 2°C (the guiderail widely adopted) since the start of the industrial age, then under midrange IPCC climate sensitivity estimates, then we have around 30 years before the risk level is exceeded. Specifically, to reach that probability level, we can burn a total of about one trillion metric tonnes of carbon. That gives us about 24 years at current growth rates (about 3%/year). Since warming is proportional to cumulative carbon, if the climate sensitivity were really as low as Schmittner et al. estimate, then another 500 GT would take us to the same risk level, some 11 years later.

. March 7, 2012 at 8:29 pm

Misrepresentation from Lindzen

Richard Lindzen is a very special character in the climate debate – very smart, high profile, and with a solid background in atmospheric dynamics. He has, in times past, raised interesting critiques of the mainstream science. None of them, however, have stood the test of time – but exploring the issues was useful. More recently though, and especially in his more public outings, he spends most of his time misrepresenting the science and is a master at leading people to believe things that are not true without him ever saying them explicitly.

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