Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Comments on "An Inconvenient Truth"

I saw "An Inconveinent Truth" the other night. It's mostly Al Gore's presentation on global warming, and it's persuasive. It should be, since he claims to have given the talk over a thousand times. A good deal of the film shows Gore sitting at his iBook working on the presentation.

As a scientist I feel it's my responsibility to take a critical eye to scientific presentations. I believe global warming is happening and is caused at least in part by human activities. Please read this essay with that in mind-- I want to improve the nature of the debate and keep it rooted in good science. My critiques of the film are meant to be constructive.

Listening to Scientists

It seems that the authority on the other side of this debate is novelist Michael Crichton. People often critisize Chrichton because he's not a scientist. If someone is a scientist they gain credibility. If you are a climatologist, however, you don't care about that-- you can read it and judge it for yourself because you have all the background you need. For an atmospheric scientist to dismiss Chrichton because he's not a scientist is an ad hominem attack. Einstein was a patent clerk when he made some of his best theories, with no physics training at all.

(What's an ad hominem attack?)

For laypersons, however, credibility is crucial. You can't read something and know what they're not telling you, or know that the technical aspects of what they are saying make no sense. So in this sense laypersons should take Crichton's words with a grain of salt, and indeed defer to a scientist.

Let us not forget that Al Gore is not a scientist either. He's smart and well-informed, but so is Chrichton, who, before "State of Fear" came out, was praised for his books being so educational.

Complaints about the presentation

Now I'm not a climatologist, but I am a scientist and I have some complaints about the presentation. It's a difficult design challenge, to be sure, to address laypersons while remaining scientific. Most people don't want to see citations. It bores them, and they don't know what pubs are legit, and they won't follow up with reading. But scientists do. Gore cites nobody in this talk. I went to his website for the film, www.climatecrisis.net/, and with delight saw a link for "the science!" Unfortunately, it's a fact sheet, with no scientific citations whatever. (Note Crichton's essay has numerous citations). I'm not saying the science isn't there, but I want to see it! I had a similar problem with Jared Diamond's book "Collapse," except that I think for that book the science does not exist at all, anywhere. Sad. Diamond was my hero for years. "Guns, Germs, and Steel" is the second-best book I ever read. But I digress.

This is especially problematic when reading critiques of the film, such as this one written by an MIT atmospheric scientist: Don't Believe the Hype.
by Richard S. Lindzen, Sunday, July 2, 2006 12:01 a.m. EDT
. He says things like The Greenland ice sheet is growing. But he doesn't cite anybody either (What's the matter, WSJ? No room for citations? Might take up valuable editorial space, God forbid!) With Gore not citing anyone, and Lindzen not citing anyone, what is a responsible intellectual to do? (Apparently, blog about it.)

Balance of Economy and Environmentalism

At one point Gore brings up a slide presented to him to demonstrate trying to balance the economy with environmental concerns. In the graphic there is a scale with gold bars on one side and the earth on the other. He makes fun of this graphic, mocking the choice between gold and the entire planet. This is sophistry. The gold bars just symbolize the economy, and the image of the earth is a well-known symbol for environmental concerns. You know this, Gore knows this, most of the audience could figure it out, so why does he do this? He gets a cheap laugh out of it. Makes me angry.

He uses it as part of his argument that we need not have a trade-off between the two concerns. This is something I really want to hear about. Is it a false choice? He uses the above rhetorical trick, then he goes on to show that fuel efficient cars are selling best. Here he confuses causality with correlation. Maybe the cars are not selling best because they are fuel efficient, but are both selling best and are fuel efficient because they are better made cars in general. He gives us no information to resolve this ambiguity. And even if he were right, it's hardly enough to generalize to all economic vs. environmental concerns. Clearly pollution does involve such a trade off-- it costs money to not pollute. Taking care of waste safely is much more expensive than dumping it in a river. People don't spend money to pollute. Why are the concerns related to global warming different? (They might be, but Gore is unconvincing on this issue.)

As far as I can remember, that's all he presents in response to the idea that there's a trade off!

Please leave comments. I really wanted this film to be excellent, not just persuasive.

2 comments:

Rich said...

I read "State of Fear" about a month or two ago, and it really changed my perspective on how we approach environmental issues - or any issues. It doesn't help that I'm already a cynical and doubtful person in the first place, but I took a few things away from the book as a lay person:

A) In general, we the public tend to (eventually) believe everything we read in a semi-professional publication/book/newspaper. I do even when i don't want to.

B) Checking out research references and citaitons is a good idea, and many people don't do it nearly enough when caught in an argument - to paraphrase Homer Simpson "..93 per cent of all people know that statistics are made up.."

State of fear was the first "book" i've read with references to research and I think it's a great step that doesn't distract from the story, but helps people learn more (if they want to.)

Not to say I entirely agree with all of the books stances, but thats okay.

Unfortunately, I haven't had access to "An Inconvenient Truth" yet....

Roccondil said...

Perhaps this is a recent addition to Mr. Gore's website, since your blog is nearly a year old. But I visited his website today and found not just facts on his science page, but numerous citations as well.