Mugging Little Old Ladies and Reasoning by AnalogyNovember 28th, 2006
Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.
[Updated 21:52 28 Nov 06]
Stanford’s Ken Caldeira provides an interesting, and I think unhelpful, analogy for how we might think about climate policy in the 20 November 2006 issue of the New Yorker in an article by Elizabeth Kolbert on carbon dioxide uptake by the oceans:
The term “ocean acidification” was coined in 2003 by two climate scientists, Ken Caldeira and Michael Wickett, who were working at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in Northern California. . .
Caldeira told me that he had chosen the term “ocean acidification” quite deliberately, for its shock value. . .[According to Calderia, Kolbert has misquoted him. See comments. RP]
Caldeira said that he had recently gone to Washington to brief some members of Congress. “I was asked, ‘What is the appropriate stabilization target for atmospheric CO2?’ he recalled. “And I said, ‘Well, I think it’s inappropriate to think in terms of stabilization targets. I think we should think in terms of emissions targets.’ And they said, ‘O.K., what’s the appropriate emissions target?’ And I said, ‘Zero.’
“If you’re talking about mugging little old ladies, you don’t say, ‘What’s our target for the rate of mugging little old ladies?’ You say, ‘Mugging little old ladies is bad, and we’re going to try to eliminate it.’ You recognize you might not be a hundred per cent successful, but your goal is to eliminate the mugging of little old ladies. And I think we need to eventually come around to looking at carbon-dioxide emissions the same way.”
Analogies matter in policy debate. For instance, should we think of Iraq like the Vietnam War, the French in Algeria, or is the situation now a “civil war”? Public debate over contested policy issues often involves different interests seeking to define the policy problem in different ways – and hence limit the scope of acceptable alternatives in response. Analogical reasoning is central to battles over the framing of a policy problem.
For several reasons, Prof. Caldeira’s choice of analogies is less-than-helpful for the cause for which he is advocating. (And for the record, I support action on climate policy, as discussed in my summer, 2006 congressional testimony — PDF.) Most significantly from the standpoint of framing of the climate problem, mugging little old ladies is a criminal activity while emitting greenhouse gases is not a criminal activity. Juxtaposing the two only adds to the perception of extremism among advocates of action on energy policies.
As an example, of these dynamics, it was not long after the phrase “climate change denier” became in vogue (and also adopted by activist scientists) that we heard an analogy — which easily followed from the parallel construction to “Holocaust deniers” — suggesting trials and executions for the climate change deniers. Surely this sort of analogical reasoning did not advance the political cause of those advocating rapid reductions in emissions.
Prof. Caldeira also explains that he seeks to “shock” with his terminology of “ocean acidification.” Seeking to motivate particular policy actions with scientific results – or a dramatic presentation of scientific results – is rarely effective or good for science, as we discussed last week. As Hans von Storch and Nico Stehr have written,
The costs of stirring up fear are high. It sacrifices the otherwise so highly valued principle of sustainability. A scarce resource – public attention and trust in the reliability of science – is used up without being renewed by the practice of positive examples.
The truth is that the uptake of carbon dioxide by the oceans is something that should capture our attention – whether we call it “ocean acidification” or not. But for the vast majority of people and policy makers there are far more immediate and compelling justifications to provide policy makers for beginning the decades-long challenge of reducing reliance on fossil fuels. Some of these reasons include saving money, increasing efficiency, reducing particulate air pollution, and reducing reliance on foreign sources of energy. Framing problems in terms of what actually matters to people is going to make action more likely that offering up scary science or misleading analogies.