How should you respond to debate opponents who “make things up”?

My friends who advocate for increased beneficial use of nuclear energy often engage in discussions about techniques for responding to critics who frequently make up their arguments as the go along. We were taught in school that it is impolite and ineffective to engage in “ad hominem” attacks during a debate and to keep our comments focused on the arguments, not the person presenting them.

The above is a clip from the recent Australian Broadcasting Company documentary titled I Can Change Your Mind About … Climate that illustrates a discussion tactic worth thinking about. Instead of responding to arguments or engaging in a shouting match, Anna Rose employs silence. Her restraint in failing to rise to Mark Morano’s spew of nonsense seems quite troubling to Morano – he is apparently used to being able to get a rise out of people.

I would have a difficult time employing this technique myself. I’m not a formally trained debater; I am more of a “sharp elbows” kind of guy who believes that sometimes it is more effective to aim at the archer, not the arrows, especially when engaging with an opponent who does not allow a fact-depleted quiver to stop him from firing more sharp objects.

What do you think? Is pointed, calculated silence a response tactic worth considering?

On a related note, I was pleased to see that Southern California Edison has decided that Arnie Gundersen’s professional qualifications and credentials are topics worth discussing in light of his recently published “study” about their steam generators. That “report” was commissioned by the avowedly antinuclear group named Friends of the Earth – the same group where Amory Lovins cut his antinuclear teeth in the early 1970s. NEI Nuclear notes has some additional information about the topic of the report and Mr. Gundersen’s role in criticizing the industry that once employed him.

If you want to learn more about steam generators and about steam generator technology improvement programs, I highly recommend the following two articles from Atomic Power Review:

About Rod Adams

31 Responses to “How should you respond to debate opponents who “make things up”?”

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  1. Jean Demesure says:

    “What do you think” ?
    Ana Rose’s silence is relevant of the desperate position global warmers have digged themselves in. It’s not a tactic, it’s a PR disaster. But maybe it’s the best she could do compared to the worse disaster had she started arguing against Morano.

    Just curious, Rod, you keep on smearing Morano about him making “nonsense” or worse “things up”. Can you please just name one example please ?

    • Rod Adams says:

      Sure – I just tried to find out where Marano came up with this gem “The Arctic is now 9000 Manhattans over low point of 2007…”

      Since Manhattan has a surface area of 22.4 square miles according to Wikipedia, that means that Marano must have found evidence that the Arctic ice cap has expanded by 204,300 square miles since 2007.

      I cannot find any evidence of that having occurred. Even if I could, it would be a nonsensical statement without some context in terms of season – is he talking about July of 2007 to July of 2011 or is he talking about a comparison between August of 2007 and Feb of 2011?

      This is the kind of statement that people whose mission is to confuse will toss into a whole series of statements, just daring a debate opponent to take on each point without the time to research.

      While teaching at the Naval Academy, a colleague invited me to attend a college debate contest. I was very interested in seeing young people thoughtfully present carefully researched arguments and interested in what the activity was teaching aspiring naval officers about public speaking.

      Anyone who has actually attended a debate contest in recent years will immediately recognize just how disillusioned I was when I found out that the key measure of effectiveness in scoring those contests these days is the ability to talk like an auctioneer. The score is based on how many “points” you can express in the allotted time, so the debaters just talk really, really fast and make little sense at all for anyone who is trying to learn something.

      Morano was probably a champion debater under those rules of engagement.

      • Jean Demesure says:

        Rod : “I cannot find any evidence of that having occurred. Even if I could, it would be a nonsensical statement without some context in terms of season – is he talking about July of 2007 to July of 2011 or is he talking about a comparison between August of 2007 and Feb of 2011?”
        ———————–
        Nothing “nonsensical” about Morano’s statement. If you compare month to month (eg April 2012 to April 2007), Arctic sea ice is now 1 Mkm2 (about 400 000 square miles) higher than in 2007 : http://arctic-roos.org/observations/satellite-data/sea-ice/observation_images/ssmi1_ice_ext.png
        Take another source and you’ll find about the same sea ice increase : http://ocean.dmi.dk/arctic/plots/icecover/icecover_current.png
        How an science person like you can claim he “cannott find” such irrefutable evidence whereas 10s googling was enough is dispiriting.

        Morano is RIGHT on the Arctic sea ice, please acknowledge it and find something else. Until you can find where he “made things up”, you should stop the smear.

        • Rod Adams says:

          First of all, I have never claimed to be a science person. If anything, I claim to be a practically trained engineer. (My undergraduate degree is a BS in English, but I also graduated from the US Navy’s nuclear power school, served as the Engineer Officer on a submarine, hold a US patent on a control system for closed cycle gas turbines, and have an MS in Systems Technology.)

          I often study sciences that have direct practical application, like chemistry, physics and thermodynamics. I also like math.

          The graphs to which you linked are kind of pretty, but they are not terribly satisfying to someone who likes numbers, facts and figures and likes to check sources.

          It is interesting to notice a lot of variation from year to year. The gap between April 2007 and April 2012 might indeed be a million km2, but look at the 2011 line and you will see a FAR smaller delta with 2007. Compared to all of the other years pictured, 2011 is the closest to 2007 for April. So where is the trend here?

        • Brian Mays says:

          Rod – Well, there is no trend. That’s exactly the point. However, I don’t think that Morano has ever claimed that there was a trend.

          Instead, it was the alarmists who were claiming a trend in disappearing sea ice, particularly about five years ago when a particularly low amount of Arctic sea ice was observed in 2007. Since then, the ice has recovered, so you don’t hear about this “catastrophe” too much any more.

          Remember the poor cartoon polar bear in AIT? As usual, Al Gore’s understanding of the dynamics of sea ice is about as informed as his understanding of anything scientific. There were several papers published a couple of years ago that demonstrated the recent lows in Arctic sea ice area was primarily due to unusual wind patterns in the Arctic (a meteorological occurrence, not a climatic one), not temperature changes.

          What most people don’t realize is that the vast majority of Arctic sea ice is very thin. This is why it comes and goes over the course of a year. Thus, wind patterns can have a very significant effect on how, where, and whether it forms over the winter and on its thickness, which determines whether it will melt away in the late summer.

        • Don Cox says:

          The trends for Arctic sea ice are given month by month on the news site:
          http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/

          For instance, here is the trend for March since 1979:

          http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/files/2012/04/Figure3.png

          All of these climate measurements vary greatly from year to year, so you have to look at the long-term trends. Don’t expect the sea ice, for instance, to be less every year than it was the year before. Don’t draw conclusions from the weather for a single year.

        • turnages says:

          Brian Mays said

          Rod – Well, there is no trend. That’s exactly the point. However, I don’t think that Morano has ever claimed that there was a trend.

          Instead, it was the alarmists who were claiming a trend in disappearing sea ice, particularly about five years ago when a particularly low amount of Arctic sea ice was observed in 2007. Since then, the ice has recovered, so you don’t hear about this “catastrophe” too much any more.

          I’m scratching my head how you can say this. Anyone can cherry-pick short-term data to their hearts content and “show” there is no trend, but short-term data is by definition meaningless for trends anyway. How would you describe the long-term behavior shown in the NSIDC graph posted by Don Cox which shows the trend in March (winter maximum) ice extent since 1979? No-trend, increasing-trend, or decreasing-trend?

          Even more, how would you describe the trends for the August (summer minimum) ice extents shown at http://nsidc.org/images/arcticseaicenews/20110906_Figure3.png , which more closely represent the amount of longer-term multi year ice? No-trend, increasing, or decreasing?

          It looks like some people such as Morano have been engaging in some serious misdirection here. Or have I missed a memo? Brian Mays, please explain.

        • Brian Mays says:

          Scratching your head?

          Perhaps some people should learn to read for context so that they inflict less damage to their scalps. Rod was commenting about the possibility of a trend for the period from 2007 to 2012. I correctly informed him that there was no trend in those data.

          But speaking of “long-term” trends, personally, I’m scratching my head why anyone would think that a 32-year trend means anything significant climatologically.

          On those time scales, 32 years is nothing. For example, if I take the global land-ocean temperature anomaly published by GISS, I can find a 32-year statistically significant downward trend in temperatures beginning in 1936. This is for noisy data with high uncertainties. If I use GISS’s 5-year averaged values for global temperature, I can find a 32-year statistically significant downward trend beginning anywhere from 1935 to 1940.

          What would you say about those trends?

          This is why I am so critical of people like Al Gore, who have no sense and rely on a cartoon of a polar bear and an opportunistic low of a 28-year data record to claim that the world is going to end.

          Morano made one off-hand comment that is the topic of discussion here: “The Arctic is now 9000 Manhattans over low point of 2007,” which by the way was completely accurate. And you have the nerve to accuse him of serious misdirection? What would you say about Al Gore and the folks who feed him his (mis)information?

        • turnages says:

          “Rod was commenting about the possibility of a trend for the period from 2007 to 2012. I correctly informed him that there was no trend in those data.”

          Yes, quite correctly. However, if I am trying to answer the question “is there long-term climate warming?” (which I assumed was the broader context in which Morano was speaking and in which the programme under discussion was made) then this particular pair of data points is meaningless. Five years is far too short and noisy, especially when dealing with winter maxima (as can be seen clearly from the NSIDC graph). That is why bringing up that fact is misdirection. Its rhetoric implies “Warming trend? There ain’t none! Stupid alarmists!” when the data itself implies no such conclusion.

          Trends of 32 years are starting to be more significant though. I am of course not a climate expert, willingly deferring to those who are, but as I understand from them, summer arctic ice minimum extent is a reasonable proxy for multi-year (long-term) ice volume. If that volume is decreasing over the years, a nett amount of heat is being absorbed (latent heat of melting) and therefore the earth as a whole is warming up. The current trend of summer ice decrease indicates that the Arctic sea will become completely free of long-term ice somewhere between 2020 and 2030. None of the historical temperature proxies (going back a millenium or so) have shown such a strong warming trend; it is historically unprecedented, and this is why the alarmists are alarmed.

          With regard to GISS anomaly records, there are many perturbing factors that make them more noisy than integrated summer ice volume. (ENSO and other ocean oscillations, pollution, volcanoes, solar cycle.) The statistically significant decreases you mention during the forties and fifties are consistent with the cooling effect of the industrial polution from postwar industrial development un Europe and the US, and we are now seeing the same factors from the newer Asian brown cloud. Nevertheless, the underlying trend over the last 30-40 years has been reasonably steady at 0.17 C increase per decade.

          Al-Gore-is-stupid arguments are another misdirection from the AGW issues at hand.

          But don’t take my word for it. Listen to Prof. Barry Brook. I’m sure you know his URL.

        • Brian Mays says:

          However, if I am trying to answer the question is there long-term climate warming?

          Then, I’m sorry, but just 32 years isn’t going to cut it. To observe a trend as short as 32 years, then to assume that the trend will continue indefinitely into the future, and then to attribute it to only one cause, such as global temperature, is naive to the extreme.

          If there is one thing that is without a doubt: the climate is always changing and is driven quite strongly by many cyclical oscillations with very diverse characteristics. Some are localized, others are global. Some occur on short time scales, like the Arctic Oscillation, which is highly irregular, and the Southern Oscillation, which is quasiperiodic, occurring about every five years, and is responsible for El-Nino/La-Nina phases. Others occur on longer time scales, like the Pacific decadal oscillation (every 20 or 30 years) and the Atlantic multidecadal oscillation (every 50 to 90 years). At the other end of the spectrum, there are oscillations that both are global and occur on very long time scales, tens or hundreds of thousands of years, such as the Milankovitch cycles.

          As I have mentioned earlier, there are already a couple of good papers demonstrating that the minimum in arctic sea ice observed in 2007 was due to changes in wind patterns, not changes in temperature. Given that we’re looking at a small trend — compared to both the total amount of ice and the size of the dominant oscillation, i.e., the yearly cycle of summer and winter — one should be very careful before drawing conclusions from a time series as short as 32 years.

          The problem is that many in the alarmist camp, particularly those concerned more with activism than science, depend on the lack of scientific sophistication of the general public to get their message across. Thus, Gore’s film contains an extremely simple-to-understand (and largely incorrect) explanation of the dynamics of sea ice, which was purposefully designed to lead people to believe that a 26-year downward trend in arctic sea ice was caused by their SUV’s.

          Pointing this out is not misdirection. It’s an important thing to understand, since the anti-nukes employ the same tactics. For example, they use the conceptual image of an ionizing particle passing through a cell to argue that every particle has an equal chance of causing cancer by hitting the wrong thing, which is designed to lead the layman to the conclusion that no level of radiation is safe.

          Of course, this extremely simple-to-understand argument ignores a vast amount of biophysics and biochemistry, including various redundancies and repair mechanisms that exist to compensate for damage caused by many factors, including radiation but also including metabolism. It is because of these complex systems that most dose responses are nonlinear and often contain a threshold below which no damage occurs.

          The body is a complex system, so is the system that governs the Earth’s climate. Simple explanations to phenomena observed in complex systems are almost never correct, particularly when based on very little data. It’s important to be double wary, however, when simple explanations are used to further some sort of agenda.

  2. Brian Mays says:

    Moreno’s tactic, which he employs here, is often called a “proof by verbosity,” and it is a logical fallacy. In other words, he knew that his audience — in this case, Anna Rose — would not have near enough time to consider the barrage of “factoids” that he reeled off at brakeneck speed, much less address or counter them. I’m sure that he considered Anna’s silence to be a victory.

    Note, however, that just because Moreno’s debating technique is logically flawed, that doesn’t mean that any particular point he brings up is necessarily false. Nor does it mean that it is true. Each point would have to be considered on its own merits. The fallacy here is that there is not enough time for such consideration.

    There’s nothing particularly wrong with “ad hominem attacks,” by the way, as long one realizes that such arguments do nothing logically to advance your argument. I use what could be considered ad hominem attacks all the time, and such arguments, while fallacious, can provide some interesting background information, as long as they are not pushed too far. What’s important, however, is that there must be a real argument that addresses the issue behind such attacks, and that is where the people who attack the person instead of the argument go wrong.

    • Jim Baerg says:

      I think “proof by verbosity” is also known as the “Gish Gallop” after a young earth creationist who spews out a stream of lies & half truths that would take several times as long to refute as it takes to say them.

  3. Brian Mays says:

    Oh … I will add that one of the most interesting parts of the clip is where Anna says, “I’m so surprised that Nick would want associate himself with someone like Marc Moreno.”

    This demonstrates that the campaign of character assassination waged by people like Dr. Oreskes, while logically fallacious, is very effective with certain people.

  4. Atomikrabbit says:

    Most humans make decisions based on emotion or intuition, and use facts to rationalize it after the fact. Advertisers and propagandists know this well.

    Unfortunately the video of an exploding Fukushima reactor building, repeated a million times, is a more effective persuader to the average person than all the scientifically accurate dissertations on probabilistic risk, zirc-steam reactions, and LNT debunking that have ever been issued.

    Show the masses a happy polar bear cub cuddling up to a sparkling clean sphere of gleaming Thorium metal – and repeat a million times.

    • DV82XL says:

      You are so right. I’ve been arguing for some time now that nuclear must realize that we have to start using the tools of public persuasion that our opponents use. If we don’t the other side will eat our lunch at every turn.

  5. Cheryl Rofer says:

    I used a modification of this tactic in an internet discussion over the weekend with some people who were concerned about a very erroneous article about Fukushima. They were more mistaken than making things up, so I offered some facts and where I thought the article was wrong.

    One of them attacked me in the usual ways and clearly had no intention of listening. But at least one person (in a largely antinuclear audience), later on, allowed as how I might know what I’m talking about.

    I think that silence, or drawing out opponents has at least two virtues: You are more likely to be perceived as listening (and might actually be doing that!) and you are less likely to entrench your opponent in her/his views.

  6. James Greenidge says:

    The most publicly damaging and worst case of this is when major media organs refuse to question or critique anything that spews from the lips of anti-nukers or Greenpeace of FOE, etc, leaving pro-nukers in the lurch for want of fair moderators backing up their facts. I can see why any budding pro-nuke high school/college kids are mostly intimidated into silence if not sent questioning the sanity of their pro nuke choice.

    I would dearly LOVE for a nuclear graduate to do the rounds of as many media outlets as possible and grill reporters with a nuclear knowledge quotient test. You have to cringe at the manner and wordage local reporters cover nuclear plants on YouTube. It’s not even a case of lack of education but just sheer nuclear prejudice among most of them. Really, the media is long overdue a raking over the coals of their coy pro-green anti-nuke stances. God bless NEI for ragging the Associated Press!

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

    • Curtis says:

      James the issue with the Media is not just with nuclear unfortunately. The Old Media (and here I mean North American Media, I have no other experience) has given up on being a fair & impartial conduit for advising the people on what they need to know.

      You just have to look at the Farce they call the coverage of the American Presidential Race. When the biggest fact that is covered is who treated dogs better in the early 80′s you know the media is dead and they are now just marketing outlets for whom ever has the biggest wallet.

      The New Media (blogs Podcasts etc) seem to be the only hope here for common sense to shine through.

  7. I don’t think I would use silence as a tactic.

    I think an excellent answer to a fire-hose question was given in a recent debate. Richard Schmidt and I were debating two opponents, and Richard got asked a fire-hose question. He said: “You asked so many questions on so many topics. I know that is a technique. I will answer your question on xxx.” I have paraphrased Richard from what I remember. I thought it was an effective answer.

    • Andrew Jaremko says:

      Meredith -Richard’s technique sounds like the best idea to me, and if I was doing it I’d want to try some digging first. Possibly reply something like “You asked many questions on many topics, all of which are important. I’d like you to choose one and expand on it a little so I can give a better/fuller reply.”

      That might let you find out what position the questioner is coming from and better phrase your reply. I haven’t actually tried this idea yet, of course.

      All – I’m just reading Jonathan Haidt’s excellent book The Righteous Mind (Google books excerpt). I recommend it highly. He puts forward a model of the moral mind and the 1% role of our conscious minds as opposed to the 99% preconscious (my expression, not his) judgements we make about the world. It’s that preconscious elephant that we have to reach and sway before the 1% rider can change his views. This model is in the excerpt linked above.

      Debate and opposition do nothing to reach the emotional elephant. The picture forming in my mind is that to be persuasive I first have to become part of my audience’s group / team / family / congregation, become trustworthy (if not actually trusted) and then begin working with facts and persuasive storytelling. The elephant has to like me.

      Haidt references Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People (full text pdf) and Haidt IMO provides (by implication, not explicitly) sound scientific backing for Carnegie’s intuition. Carnegie knows how to reach the elephant.

    • Bill Hannahan says:

      Excellent point Meridith, this is the best response.

      When I hear this kind of riff I start by complimenting the individual for their excellent presentation of the “Ceremonial Firing of the Blunderbuss of Fear” I explain to listeners that this is a time honored anti nuclear tactic; load the scariest buzz phrases into a blunderbuss and fire it into a crowd and see what sticks.

      I explain to listeners how long it would take to address each point at 20 minutes per point. I challenge the shooter to cherry pick his best point, and then do my best to blow it out of the water.

  8. John Tucker says:

    I have thought about this a good deal.

    Unless the foundation for reasonable discourse is in place, just responding in a venue where unreasonable argument is used without addressing the siouation indicates your level of acceptance of such a situation.

    Without reason it is unlikely you or anyone will ever be able to convey or arrive at anything original and of value. The first thoughts and lines of argument should always be assessing the forum and guaranteeing a level reasonable playing field.

    If that cant be done first, anything goes IMHO.

    Argument is meant to reveal the truth, not to create it. – Edward de Bono.

  9. Daniel says:

    I think the guy’s name is Morano.

    Asked about nuclear power, Morano responded that, while the first new plant after 30-some years is opening soon, he sees “nuclear power being in limbo indefinitely” and that we have Jane Fonda to thank for that.

    Way to go Morono …

  10. John Englert says:

    The only winning move is not to play

    You don’t prove evolution by arguing with an intelligent design pusher and you don’t prove nuclear power’s safety by arguing with Helen Caldicott. The best way is to engage the public directly in a situation where you control the battlefield. Get involved with Boy Scout troops and help them earn their nuclear science merit badge. Go to a Civil Air Patrol cadet meeting and talk to them about detecting trace amounts of radioactive material from Japan here in the US (the CAP used to have a civil defense mission of aerial radiological monitoring).

  11. Frank Jablonski says:

    I believe engaging effectively (Meredith has the best point here, IMO) with people who are reflexively anti-nuclear can be valuable if there are third parties with open minds or a movable perspective. Silence seems to operate as a concession, and we need not concede anything. If we maintain an even temperament (mostly) and engage with anti-nukes, then we can move the opinions of observers. The point is to keep doing this.

    I also think how one views interactions like the one on the clip depends on one’s emotional makeup. I expect that the responses to the video clip will range from “well, I guess he told HER!!!” to “what an ass.”

    Thus, again, Meredith’s point. It would undercut the first reaction, and reinforce the second.

    Respecting media people, I suggest respectfully emailing directly to some of the reporters, with references, (not industry sourced – - academic or government sources) while maintaining the same even manner.

    • Rod Adams says:

      @Frank – good advice.

      However, it is interesting to me just how frequently information from the American Wind Energy Association or the American Council On Renewable Energy gets cited to support the patently absurd claim that it is possible to provide more than a few percent of our energy sources with unreliable, weather dependent sources like the sun and wind.

      • John Englert says:

        I think many journalists are just lazy researchers. It is so much easier to go with the Wind industry’s “facts” from their web sites than to actually go and do some digging to verify Renewable’s claims. It also takes some skills that journalists may or may not have developed while attending school or earlier in their careers.

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