Impossible expectations (and moving goalposts)

I’m sorry for mixing terminologies. But moving goalposts isn’t adequate to describe the full hilarity of the kinds of arguments denialists make. For instance, the goalposts never have to be moved when they require evidence that places them somewhere in the land before time. What I mean is the use, by denialists, of the absence of complete and absolute knowledge of a subject to prevent implementation of sound policies, or acceptance of an idea or a theory.

So while moving goalposts describes a way of continuing to avoid acceptance of a theory after scientists have obligingly provided additional evidence that was a stated requirement for belief, impossible expectations describes a way to make it impossible for scientists to ever prove anything to the satisfaction of the denialist. They’re related though so we’ll group both together.

Let’s take the example of the global warming deniers. One finds that they harp endlessly about models, how much models suck, how you can’t model anything, on and on and on. True, models are hard, anything designed to prognosticate such a large set of variables as those involved in climate is going to be highly complex, and I’ll admit, I don’t understand them worth a damn. Climate science in general is beyond me, and I read the papers in Science and Nature that come out, blink a few times, and then read the editors description to see why I should care. But with or without models, which I do trust the scientists and peer-reviewers involved to test adequately, that doesn’t change the fact that actual measurement of global mean temperature is possible, and is showing an alarmingly steep increase post-industrialization.

The next thing the global warming deniers harp on is about how we don’t have enough records of temperature to make a educated statement about whether our climate is really heating up that much as the instrumental record only goes about 150 years back. Then you show them proxy records that go back a thousand years, and after they’re done accusing people of falsifying, they say it’s still not enough, then you go back a few tens of thousands of years, and it’s still not enough, then finally you go back about 750 thousand years and they say, that’s just 0.0001% of the earth’s history! That’s like a blink of the eye in terms of earth’s climate. Then you sigh and wish for painless death. I’ll let real-climate fight the fights over proxy records and CO2 lag, because, simply, they know a lot more than me, and if you really want to argue with global warming denialists I recommend reading A Few Things Ill Considered’s Faq first. But what I can recognize is the tendency of the global warming deniers to constantly move the goalposts back and back, and once they whip out the argument we’ve only got proxy measurements for a fraction of earths life (a mere few hundred thousand years), you know they’ve graduated to impossible expectations.

A person who wasn’t just obviously stonewalling would say after you’ve shown them this much data that maybe we should take the data as is before we’re all under water. You don’t need to know the position of every molecule of air on the planet, throughout the entire history of earth to make a prudent judgement about avoiding dramatic climate change. (If they say that we don’t know what ideal is say, “yeah, but Florida will still be under water). You don’t need to know the position of every molecule in the galaxy before deciding you need to jump out of the way of a speeding train. Similarly, we don’t need to have a perfect model of the earth’s climate to understand that all the current data and simulations suggest decreasing carbon output is of critical importance right now, and not when humans have obtained some impossible level of scientific knowledge.

The honorary gif for making these tiresome arguments is – the goalpost (and no Chris you may not animate it).

P.S. This does not mean that I endorse all efforts to model complex systems. In the future I’ll probably complain about some modeling implementation of systems biology which I tend to think is total BS. I’ll explain the difference then.
P.P.S To see an example of some really hilarious creationist goalpost moving see our post on Michael Egnor demanding biologists provide an answer for something he can’t even define.


19 responses to “Impossible expectations (and moving goalposts)”

  1. It’s a good thing that people like Lindzen find a home at CATO. What’s the consequences of a 20-year postponement of action? Not much I bet. Technology and the goodness of free-market greed will work the solution — some things work best in crisis mode.

    From the article:

    I must state at the outset, that, as a scientist, I can find no substantive basis for the warming scenarios being popularly described. Moreover, according to many studies I have read by economists, agronomists, and hydrologists, there would be little difficulty adapting to such warming if it were to occur. Such was also the conclusion of the recent National Research Council’s report on adapting to global change. Many aspects of the catastrophic scenario have already been largely discounted by the scientific community.


    Why, one might wonder, is there such insistence on scientific unanimity on the warming issue? After all, unanimity in science is virtually nonexistent on far less complex matters. Unanimity on an issue as uncertain as “global warming” would be surprising and suspicious. Moreover, why are the opinions of scientists sought regardless of their field of expertise? Biologists and physicians are rarely asked to endorse some theory in high energy physics. Apparently, when one comes to “global warming,” any scientist’s agreement will do.

    The answer almost certainly lies in politics. For example, at the Earth Summit in Rio, attempts were made to negotiate international carbon emission agreements. The potential costs and implications of such agreements are likely to be profound for both industrial and developing countries. Under the circumstances, it would be very risky for politicians to undertake such agreements unless scientists “insisted.” Nevertheless, the situation is probably a good deal more complicated than that example suggests.

    Who you gonna believe, an MIT scientist or a demagogue like Al Gore?

  2. Ooops, I hit the post button while the money shot was still in my paste buffer.

    There is, however, another perhaps more important element to the scientific support. The existence of modern computing power has led to innumerable modelling efforts in many fields. Supercomputers have allowed us to consider the behavior of systems seemingly too complex for other approaches. One of those systems is climate. Not surprisingly, there are many problems involved in modelling climate. For example, even supercomputers are inadequate to allow long-term integrations of the relevant equations at adequate spatial resolutions. At presently available resolutions, it is unlikely that the computer solutions are close to the solutions of the underlying equations. In addition, the physics of unresolved phenomena such as clouds and other turbulent elements is not understood to the extent needed for incorporation into models. In view of those problems, it is generally recognized that models are at present experimental tools whose relation to the real world is questionable.

    While there is nothing wrong in using those models in an experimental mode, there is a real dilemma when they predict potentially dangerous situations. Should scientists publicize such predictions since the models are almost certainly wrong? Is it proper to not publicize the predictions if the predicted danger is serious? How is the public to respond to such predictions? The difficulty would be diminished if the public understood how poor the models actually are. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to hold in awe anything that emerges from a sufficiently large computer. There is also a reluctance on the part of many modellers to admit to the experimental nature of their models lest public support for their efforts diminish. Nevertheless, with poor and uncertain models in wide use, predictions of ominous situations are virtually inevitable–regardless of reality.

  3. valhar2000

    Michael Egnor failed to provide oa definition of “biological information”, and then blamed biologists for being unable to provide a definition he could accept.

  4. Andrew Dodds

    Ted –

    Are you giving us an example of the ‘false expert’ here?

  5. I would think you would use Kent Hovind’s $10,000 bet as a good example of impossible expectations. In the fine print, he demands that you essentially recreate the last 2 billion years of evolution in a test tube for him, and make monkeys out of amino acids for him. That’s the ultimate impossible expectation.

  6. Andrew Dodds

    Factician –

    I’ve just seen, on a different blog, a climage change denier demand that every single paper referenced in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report be independantly verified.

  7. Mainly I think I’m sort of disappointed at the naivety of scientists relative to public policy. I think what I’m giving you is the use of science as public policy that’s sponsored by a think tank, representing a minority view, yet focused on public policy change — and doing so effectively (and in my view, detrimentally). Their use of scientists to influence policy is quite effective relative to the navel-gazing science-fascios like ScienceBlogs.

    ScienceBlogs is a nifty compendium of diverse thoughts, some undisciplined, others moreso, but as a public policy tool it’s mainly focused on throwing facts, data and detritus (and emotional baggage) into the pile on the living room floor where we’re requested to make sense of it.

    IMO, this is not the right way to lead policy makers to the drink. And when people like Nisbett and Mooney attempt to engage the broader audience — which is more apt to policy change — they’re vilified for extending the reach (to the simpleminded population at large).

    Is Lindzen a false expert? To whom? I just remember reading his drivel on global warming modeling back in the 80s and 90s, and recall his influence — because although he himself had no broad access to mass media, CATO made sure that people with broad access (national columnists for example) were fed his work.

  8. Aaron

    Climate change denialists have high standards for models of physical systems but remarkably low standards for models of economic systems, which are inherently more complicated. This flawed double standard is also a hallmark of obstructionists like Bjorn Lomborg and Roger A. Pielke Jr, who accept the scientific consensus on climate change but advocate against mitigation policies.

  9. I hear ya Ted.

    If we were smart we would adequately fund our own groups, like UCS and Scientists and Engineers for America to be powerful lobbies that would insist on being consulted when articles are written about science, and lobby extensively with policy makers to counter-balance the more libertarian “no problem” type think tanks that hire cranks like Lindzen, Patrick Michaels, Steven Milloy etc.

    I don’t know quite what to make of Pielke, he doesn’t do anything deceptive like the denialists and cranks, he seems to just suffer from a kind of perverse fatalism. Lomborg on the other hand is clearly a giant denialist and a crank, he’s employed by CEI, divides the environmental movement for Republican and anti-regulatory types and routinely uses the tactics.

  10. If we were smart we would adequately fund our own groups, like UCS and Scientists and Engineers for America to be powerful lobbies that would insist on being consulted when articles are written about science, and lobby extensively with policy makers to counter-balance the more libertarian “no problem” type think tanks that hire cranks like Lindzen, Patrick Michaels, Steven Milloy etc

    Who’s we?

    Let’s look at CATO as a think-tank. I don’t know for sure, but I’d think that some of their funding and organization comes from (i) well intentioned libertarians, (ii) from evil libertarians, and (iii) the majority from big business that even Republicans used to feel icky taking money from.

    I think the relationship is different from what you’re suggesting. I don’t view CATO as a lobby. I view them as the well fed brain that produces output for a variety of lobbyists and politicians — giving the veneer of legitimacy to the views they try to push on the public at large for some specific interest.

    How does that relationship pan out in Science-driven policy? Who will fund the science think tank? Is it funded for the public good or for business reasons or because science is good ™? Will the rich scientists and rich technologists with deep pockets (government enforced IP holders) dig deep to combat the short view? Doubtful. They may throw their money at college endowments as an ego driven attempt at immortality, but the outcome relative to science driven policy is uncertain.

    People like Soros and Google (do no evil) are the best near term bet, and I’d accept their motivations as petty rather than noble — as long as they fund it.

  11. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    no Chris you may not animate it

    Aww – I would love to once see the goalposts wander to and through, and occasionally go together (as in impossible expectations). Call it an icon of an icon, if you will.

  12. May I ask, are you going to address the issue of mistrust? It strikes me that a lot of (if not all) denialists are very quick to assert the bad faith of their opponents, whether their direct interlocutors or a wider conspiracy.

    What I can’t tell is whether this is a genuine pathology – I only believe what I infer directly from experience and mistrust other knowledge – or if it’s a rhetorical device to lure the honest opponent into expending energy trying to win trust. Maybe one can’t tell.

  13. David,

    I would argue that their “mistrust” is a pathology of sorts. For someone to “distrust” essentially every scientist in the field smacks of paranoia. How could thousands of scientists get together and plot against the public without ever having any whistleblowers? To maintain the level of mistrust, of most every scientist and public official (whether it’s autism or global warming) you have to maintain a pathological level of paranoia.

  14. Kevin


    That’s an interesting question on a blog dedicated to explaining the denial of certain claims as inherently bad faith claims.

  15. Kevin, that is again a misrepresentation of what we do. We attempt to help people identify bad faith claims based on a set of persistent tactics. We aren’t against a set of claims per se, we’re against a set of tactics that are routinely used to make anti-scientific claims.

  16. Kevin

    1) I don’t really care who invented the term, I think “denier” has a very specific connotation and using it conveys that connotation in morally charged language. A word like “fraud” would not carry the same rhetorical baggage and would convey a more accurate sense of one’s problem with another. Use the word you find useful; I’ve made my objections clear.

    2) If someone were to label themself a creation scientist, and please note [so you don’t question the good faith of my own argument] that I am nontheistic, you wouldn’t automatically label them a denialist despite their denial [for at this point unknown reasons] of the validity of evolutionary science?

    I’m trying very hard to figure out what it means to be a denialist. For instance, would you consider Steve McIntyre an AGW denialist? He denies the validity of a number of different claims that are accepted by AGW theorists. Is he a denialist, and how would this be determined?

  17. Has anyone suggested “kicking down the road” as a somewhat more apt metaphor for this tactic. The goal post idea suggests there’s an endpoint for that particular tactic, which, of course, there isn’t. Kicking the issue down an endless road seems more like what the denialers are doing.

  18. Laser Potato

    “(and no Chris you may not animate it).”
    Aww nuts.
    I giggle uncontrollably every time I see that gif, imagining those tiny legs wiggling madly.

  19. Tony Mach

    Moving goal-posts in climate science:

    If deniers question the accuracy of the temperature record: hand wave it away and say you have moved on. Say it doesn’t matter because the temperature recored matches the paleoclimate reconstruction – and don’t address the criticism!

    If deniers then question the accuracy of the paleoclimate reconstruction because it is dominated by faulty dendro-reconstruction: hand wave it away and say you have moved on. Say it doesn’t matter because the paleoclimate reconstruction does not depend on dendro-reconstruction. Throw in some sediment reconstruction instead – and don’t address the criticism!

    If deniers then question the accuracy of the usage of sediment records because it is dominated by 20th constructions and has been used upside down: hand wave it away and say you have moved on. Say it doesn’t matter because that the claim that it was used upside down is ludicrous – and don’t address the criticism!

    For details, please visit the blog of Steve McIntyre and read before you attack straw-men – you might one day use up the world straw-men supply.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *