Science Deniers and Their Straw Men

Ok, this post isn’t going to be interesting to your kids. Except for when you teach them to identify how others will try to misrepresent common sense in debate to win an argument. In the clip below Texas congressman Joe Barton reframes the argument of human caused climate change in absurdity.

This post isn’t about climate change, global warming or politics. I don’t particularly care what you think about the bible or politics. I do care what you know about science, which is why I post about it. What I do care about is making sense. When our elected politicians make up arguments that 5th graders would think up, then we have a problem. And we do indeed have a problem, because THEY ALL DO IT.

The Christian Science Monitor posted a great short article on why this particular argument is outrageously ridiculous.

“The preposterousness of Barton’s statement stems from his basic fallacy, flagrant even by Congressional standards, in which he refutes an obviously silly claim held by nobody, and then acts as though he had just refuted a not-obviously-silly claim held by almost every climate scientist in the world.” –Eoin O’Carroll in the Monitor

The important thing to note is that Barton’s statement in the video and why it’s so wrong has nothing to do with whether climate change is real, and whether or not climate change is being caused by human activity, and that is not the point of this article. It has to do with the well understood and well documented logical fallacy he’s making in that argument.

The Straw Man Fallacy

The Straw Man. Image by mibester on Flickr

The Straw Man. Image by mibester on Flickr

In that article, O’Carroll links to an article about The Straw Man Fallacy. This is one of the most common ways people who don’t understand an argument, or politicians who believe their constituents aren’t smart enough to understand the argument, use to get past the actual issue and talk about something else.

“Your reasoning contains the straw man fallacy whenever you attribute an easily refuted position to your opponent, one that the opponent wouldn’t endorse, and then proceed to attack the easily refuted position (the straw man) believing you have undermined the opponent’s actual position. If the misrepresentation is on purpose, then the straw man fallacy is caused by lying.” –Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

You Are Not So Smart

You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You're Deluding Yourself by David McRaney

You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself by David McRaney

One of my favorite books I bought recently is You Are Not So Smart by David McRainey. This is a book about all the ways our human brains are wired and predisposed to make errors in intuition, judgement and logic such as the Straw Man. The book is well written and extremely interesting. It is full of references to clinical and university research while not being dense, dry and boring.

The book is written in short chapters that introduce a reason why we are not so smart, explain the science of why our brans make that mistake, the research around it and how you can be aware of it in the moment. The idea is that we can’t prevent our brains from making these mistakes, but the more we are aware of them, the more we can keep from falling into our own traps.


Teach your children well

I try to stay away from opinion on this blog. I don’t care what you believe, and I certainly don’t advocate you steer your children towards your political views. But I do suggest you learn about science and empiricism and gain a functional knowledge of the way science works so it doesn’t seem as confusing and impenetrable to you as it does to Joe Barton.

Science is not something you decide to believe or not believe any more than you would sit back in Rome and believe the world is round or flat. Science is cramming a stick in the ground and measuring the shadow. Science is going off the map and finding out for sure.


Also, buy You Are Not So Smart, read it and read it again and become more aware of the silly things we all do constantly. Then teach your kids to be more aware of these things and they’ll be smarter and more successful because of it.

Seen Any Good Straw Men Lately?

Post in the comments if you have heard a good example of a Straw Man Argument recently. Or any other basic and obvious fallacy committed by someone who should be aware enough to know better.



The Christian Science Monitor

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  • GoNuclear

    If scientific literacy were universal, then Congressman Barton’s (who happens to be MY congressman) comments would constitute a superfluous statement of the obvious. However, climate alarmists (as opposed to deniers) have over-hyped their case hoping to gain traction with voters, the vast majority of whom are scientifically illiterate. Thus we have the Al Gore displaying the hockey stick graph showing global temperatures spiking alarmingly at the far end, and headlines stating that the just past year, or decade is the hottest ever recorded. Never do these stories make clear that this is just the warmest year since we started taking measurements, so readers are left with the impression that perhaps this is an alarming observation measured against all of time.

    And why would alarmists prefer not to mention giant swings in climate that were surely not the result of human CO2 emissions? They don’t want to weaken their argument in the eyes of scientifically illiterate voters, most of whom don’t know much about the geologic past. If I say, “this is the warmest decade ever recorded, but we know it was far hotter several million years ago,” the impression is much less alarming.

    So to counteract the mild attempts at deception, or at least failure to fully disclose, deniers are fond of pointing out the fact that it has been far hotter in the distant past, that the earth survived just fine, and that people certainly didn’t cause the ancient heat waves or ice ages. Joe Barton was simply mentioning what is obvious (to the scientifically literate) to help bolster his case, so I don’t find what he said worthy of ridicule, although I’d rather he just said it’s been a lot hotter in the past and not used the Bible reference.

    Also, FYI, the best reconstructions of CO2 and temperature over millions of years from ice cores and other proxies, show no correlation between the two.

    BTW, I’ve been to a couple of Barton’s townhall meetings, and he’s actually a very smart and articulate guy. Just very conservative.


    • Mike Henderson


      First, if he’s citing a biblical flood as fact that actually happened, he’s more than just “very conservative.” Biblical literalists don’t believe the planet is even older than a few thousand years.

      Second, it’s not the biblical part of the argument that makes it a straw man, it’s the millions of years ago when humans weren’t around part.The main issue of climate change is it’s effect on humans and whether or not we can survive that effect.

      Third, you don’t have to be science literate to understand the implications of a hot earth regardless of the time variable. 100 degrees (C) is as hot and alarming today as it has always been. So no one is going to be less alarmed by knowing that it happened before, effected wholesale changes in global biodiversity and on and on.

      Similar to the growing plans to study the feasibility of detecting and deflecting Earth destroying asteroids, which also change the face of the planet at regular intervals, the heart of climate change debate is about whether or not human actions can alter the course.


      • GoNuclear

        Mike — I see your point, but that’s not what I took away from the CS Monitor editorial. He said that Barton was trying to imply that climate scientists don’t recognize that it’s been much hotter in the past, and Barton can easily refute that straw man position.

        There is a book by Bjorn Lomborg you should take a look at. It’s title is “Cool It.” Lomborg makes the case that if climate change occurs just as the IPCC predicts, we’re still better advised to take adaptive steps rather than trying to drastically alter the composition of the atmosphere. For example, it is much more cost effective to relocate people away from coastlines and protect cities with seawalls when sea level begins to rise, rather than focusing on halting CO2 emissions.

        I don’t think anyone is predicting that is could get so hot as to be uninhabitable for humans. IPCC continues to reduce it’s 100 year predictions for temp rise, and last I checked there were down to 2-3 degrees C.

        Also, if climate change we are seeing today is the result of natural variation, as it was 100 million years ago, then there isn’t much we can do about it short of some of the more radical ideas of seeding the atmosphere with aerosols to reflect sunlight, or putting huge, reflecting surfaces in space between earth and the sun.

        This is the argument deniers are making — that the changes we’ve seen so far are well with the natural variability of the climate. Politically, it means we don’t need to take drastic measures to alter our energy sources. Again, no one is arguing that we shouldn’t be researching alternatives. Actually, we already have a good alternative, nuclear power, but I suppose you know why that isn’t getting much enthusiasm.

        I interviewed a guy at NASA when I was with Aviation Week about the asteroid hitting earth problem. My story about it was one of the first I recall being aware of to appear in the national media. Being hit by a large asteroid would be a planet-altering event for sure. We ought to be testing systems for deflecting such an object by actually going into space and doing it ahead of when we might actually need to do it for real.

        Did you take the CS Monitor science literacy test? I scored an 88. I didn’t know a couple of the biology questions, and there were another couple where I knew the answer but made a too hasty pick. Some of it I thought was just a “knowledge” test rather than a “science reasoning” test.


  • GoNuclear

    Congressman Barton isn’t actually employing the straw man fallacy, now that I think about it, unless there is some qualitative difference between an abrupt temperature rise in the distant past and one that takes place today. One could argue plausibly that all planet-wide temperature increases of 3 degrees F are equivalent, but of course the cause may be very different. A straw man argument requires that you raise a case that is superficially similar to your opponent’s argument and refute that. Deniers aren’t raising a straw man when they, or Congressman Barton, simply point out that there have been abrupt climate changes in the past that couldn’t possibly have been caused by people. This is just a fact that most people are probably unaware of.

    Liberals, of course, uses the straw man fallacy constantly. A good example is when states propose laws that require voters to have a picture ID for the express purpose of preventing voter fraud. Democrats raise the straw man that the true motive behind a voter ID law is to disenfranchise minority voters, and we all know that is wrong, so voter ID laws must then be a bad thing. They are thereby attributing a motive to others for which there is no evidence, and defeating their argument based on that false motive.

    But hey, I suppose we all do this, probably more because we don’t trust each other’s motives more than just trying to win an argument in the public sphere with an obvious logical fallacy that you hope no one will detect.