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On the use of straw men in scientific arguments

I found this on John Hawks’s anthropology blog. He’s
writing about the sometimes heated debate over whether Homo
floresiensis is a species or a deformity:

What I notice is that when I
write about this, I have to correct a lot of false claims about
what the anti-floresiensis scientists have said. Why do I so rarely
have to correct false claims about what the pro-floresiensis
scientists say? This is a generalization, but I’ve written enough
about this to have a good impression. The media reports skeptical
arguments very poorly. I think it’s a systematic problem with
science writing.

With the H. floresiensis issue,
the science writers have been abetted by some careless scholars. A
reporter may quote a pro-floresiensis scientist who says his
critics believe something totally nonsensical, and they report that
uncritically. This is another example of the same. I challenge
anybody to find an anti-floresiensis scholar who has written that
“nature moves inexorably towards bigger brains”.

Hawks is dead right on both points. First, sceptical arguments
get caricatured most; second, this is because people don’t read the
views they don’t agree with. Instead they read their friends’
caricatures of their enemies’ arguments. This is the story of the
Nature-Nurture debate over many decades, where the orthdox
scientific church — which insisted that nurture was all —
indulged in furious denunciations of straw men genetic determinists
based on only reading their friends’ versions of what their enemies
said. The opposite sometimes happened as well but not so much.

The point applies especially to climate science today. If you
try to find rebuttals of heretic climate sceptics, again and again
you find yourself wading through articles attacking straw men that
bear little resemblance to the sceptics’ actual arguments. I have
yet to read a defence of the hockey stick graph, for example, that
understands, let alone does justice to, Steve McIntyre’s critique
before dismissing it. RealClimate is an egregious offender in this

The Muir Russell report employed the straw man
technique, as related by McIntyre:

Unfortunately, Monbiot and others
had uncritically accepted disinformation from the Muir Russell
inquiry, which, on this point (as on some others), instead of
examining (with citations) actual criticisms from sources like
Climate Audit, preferred instead to construct its own allegations
which, in this case, they described as “broad allegations which are
prevalent in the public domain

The straw man allegation in question is that the CRU distorted
the temperature data it got from the stations to show false warming
— something NASA genuinely stands accused of. It’s not clear if
CRU has ever been accused of that at least by any of the critics
attacked in the emails. The actual McIntyre allegation is that the
CRU refused to divulge what it did to the raw data it was paid so
much to collate, and that it apparently failed to
adjust the data for urban heat islands. Weirdly, it seems the
Russell report writers could not bring themselves to read
McIntyre’s actual writings, or at least not carefully.

Andrew Revkin does something similar re the hockey stick, as
discussed here by Bishop Hill, describing the criticisms
of the graph in inaccurate terms.

If you disagree with somebody, always take the trouble to read
your target’s actual words and rebut what he actually said, not
what you say he said. It is amazing how few do this. I am sure I
have been guilty of this in the past, too.



By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  Uncategorized