09/24/2010 11:13 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Red Herring Alert: Planet Earth Does Not Need a Care Package

Crossposted with

George Will does it again.

You gotta hand it to Will. There are few people on this planet who can write total nonsense about the planet and get it published in one of the most popular weekly news magazines on the planet. His latest piece in Newsweek is a veritable journalistic triple play of planetary misinformation.

When it comes to issues like climate change, one of Will's favorite tactics is the ignoratio elenchi, also known in some circles as a red herring. Think of it as a rhetorical sleight of hand. It goes something like this:

  • Suppose you want to prove a point; let's say it's that "B causes C." But you can't.
  • So instead, you make an obviously true statement; let's say, "A causes B."
  • Then you argue that because "A causes B," which is obviously true, it follows that "B causes C."
  • For some that sounds reasonable. After all, "A does cause B." But it is a logical fallacy. There is no automatic connection between the first and second statements. Even so, it is surprising how often it works.

OK, maybe you don't quite get it. Here's an example.

A favorite ignoratio elenchi of Will and his climate-denier crowd is the following:

  • the Earth's climate has changed in the past due to natural causes; and so
  • the current warming trend in climate must be due to natural causes. (See example.)

The first statement is obviously true (it's the "A causes B" part). But the truth of the first statement does not mean the second is true as well; the true first statement actually has no bearing at all on the second statement. It's a rhetorical sucker punch. First lull your audience into agreement and complacency by making a true statement, then hit them with the second while their critical-thinking filter is down.

Will's latest Newsweek entry into the red-herring sweepstakes arrived on September 12th in the column entitled "The Earth Doesn't Care."

The argument begins reasonably enough. On long time scales -- we're talking millennia and longer -- the Earth is little affected by the things we humans do today. Worried about carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and climate change? Not a problem for the Earth: within a thousand years or so, most of that CO2 will have found its way into the ocean. Worried about global warming? No problemo: in 1,000 years or so, all will be back to normal. In short, the argument goes, in the long run the Earth doesn't care -- not even, says Will, if we drive a hybrid!

To bolster his argument, Will quotes extensively from an article in The American Scholar written by the Nobel-prize winning physicist Robert Laughlin ("What the Earth Knows," Summer 2010). Calling our little blue planet a "survivor," Laughlin writes that "on the scales of time relevant to itself, the earth doesn't care about any of these governments or their legislation." Bringing Laughlin into the argument is impressive; it lends lots of credence to the piece because of the Nobel awarded to him in 1988 for his theoretical explanation of the fractional quantum Hall effect, a phenomenon of the behavior of quantum fluid under extremely low temperatures. And if a Nobel Prize winner says something, it must be true. Right?

(For the record, Laughlin's American Scholar piece is a much more interesting read, with a lot more science, than Will's patchwork retread. But in the end, it comes up just as short. Even a Nobel Prize winner can hatch an ignoratio elenchi, as evidenced by Laughlin's essential argument: because the climate has been and will continue to be controlled on geologic time scales by natural processes, such as changes in the Earth's orbit and cometary impacts, the climate is "beyond our control" and "the climate ought not concern us too much when we are gazing into the energy future." In other words, aspiring to a low-carbon economy is a waste of time and, I guess, energy.)

The problem is nobody, including climate scientists, is claiming that we humans are threatening the survival of planet Earth. The fact that much of the CO2 will be eventually flushed out of the atmosphere (after 1,000 years to so) is not news, and we don't need a Nobel Prize winner on the fractional quantum Hall effect to tell us that on geologic time scales the climate marches to a beat determined by forces beyond our control.

So all that stuff about the Earth being a survivor? That's the "A causes B" part of the argument. Now comes the "B causes C" part.

It first crops up early on in the piece. Will, paraphrasing Laughlin about the wisdom of driving a Prius, writes: "we must [emphasis mine] ... think about the earth's past in terms of geologic time scales." At that point, your ignoratio elenchi radar should be going up. Ask yourself: Why "must" we think about the Earth's past? And why in terms of "geologic time scales"?

I would wager that people drive Priuses for lots of reasons (e.g., to save money on gasoline, to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, to lower CO2 emissions and slow global warming), but I don't think they do so out of concern for the Earth's past (per se) or for what might be happening to the planet on geologic time scales.

Does Will (or Laughlin) really think people drive Priuses because they're concerned about the price of oil 1,000 years from now? Or the state of the climate in the year 3000? If I may generalize, I would posit that their concerns are not geologic, they are contemporary; if they do extend into the future, it is over decades, perhaps a century. And the prospect of climate disruption from our emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases is most definitely relevant to those concerns.

Of course the Earth doesn't care if we drive a Prius, just as it doesn't care if we pass climate legislation. The Earth doesn't care if there are widespread crop failures or if huge amounts of the planet's DNA bank are depleted because of biodiversity loss. In fact, the Earth doesn't care about my grandchildren. It doesn't even care if the whole human race goes extinct. In short the Earth doesn't care.

But here's the rub, Will: I care, most of humanity cares, and I think it follows that you care. Or is that an example of an ignoratio elenchi on my part?