Tuesday, September 13, 2016

XKCD - Not so smart this time.

The XKCD comic by Randall Munroe is often informative, and often smart. Today, though, it misses the mark.

It starts of like so...

And it continues on at 500 year increments to the familiar "hockey stick" projection at the end:

But the problem isn't the length of the graph, nor the bottom of the graph. Personally, I doubt anyone would dispute the contents of the graph itself at all. It's the caption at the top of the graph:


And the problem with it is that this is not true. Not by orders of magnitude. It's a blatant falsehood.

THESE are the kinds of changes they're talking about:

In fact, this is the actual graph trace they most often use. Randall's timeline is cropped to the very end of the geological timescale of this graph. Let's repeat: they're looking at 600 millions of years; he crops it to the last 20 thousand.  They're looking at a temperature scale that peaks well above 25 degrees Celsius; he crops it to a fraction of that.

When you do that, here's what it looks like to the person you're misrepresenting:

The problem with strawmen such as this is that you can never get away with it, and it never makes you look smart. The people who you're misquoting know that you're misquoting them. The end result is that you either look hopelessly ignorant, or you look like a liar. It's not a false dichotomy. You either didn't know the actual argument (i.e. you're ignorant) or you did know and you chose to replace it with some other argument you just made up (i.e. you lied).

I've read XKCD for a very long time, and one thing that you cannot say about Randall is that he's ignorant.



Note, please, that I'm illustrating why you shouldn't use strawmen.

This post is not about whether climate change does or does not occur. For that matter, Randall's comic is not about that, either. He concedes that people say it does. But what he's doing is misrepresenting their views to make them look as if they've not done their own research. In doing so, he paints himself as the little kid in the corner who doesn't know jack shit about what the grown-ups are talking about. That's unfortunate, because he could have instead focused on their actual views and the numbers that they actually use.

But he didn't, and as a result he proves nothing.

He doesn't even make them look ignorant.

He actually makes them look more informed than he is.


* On further consideration, it could be a false dichotomy in a sense, if we consider that Randall's engaging in a completely different logical fallacy. He could be using a faulty generalization. That is, taking the opinion of a minority and applying it to all people who say that the climate has changed before. However, a faulty generalization is simply another form of ignorance... ignorance about the ubiquity of your sample as opposed to ignorance of their views. So nu...


  1. Harsh. The inference/point being made, I think, is the interrelation between human history and rising global temperature and how sudden rapid change is very concerning. I assume the implication is that a sudden rise over a period of 100 years may have wildly unpredictable and probably calamitous consequences for current ecological balance. and with it the current global human life/civilisation.

    1. I'm not making any statement here on climate change whatsoever. But it should not be a terribly difficult thing to argue *correctly*.

      Note carefully, please: Randall's graph exists to illustrate the caption. He is flatly stating, "THESE are the kinds of changes they're talking about", and then shows it to you. Any implication for the future is secondary to that. Primarily, he's illustrating that "they" are talking about a nearly flat curve when they talk about climate change in the past. It is there to ridicule and discredit.

      My commentary is limited to pointing out that this particular argument is a strawman; a logical fallacy. It *should* be harsh, as this is the sort of thing that should be limited to people who don't know better, and then only the first time, until they're corrected.

  2. Nice post!

    Question. Maybe you know if there is some movement, or whatever the name would be, that actually "supports" global warming. I mean something like: Planing CO2 emission to achive global temperature on most favorable level for humans, sea level etc. etc. Obviously not in practice, but some theory of CO2 emission taking into acount thermal, and others, changes not being completly focused on keeping current situation? English what I do to you?
    I mean kinda like: Now we will increase emission to get to 20'C then we will lover it not to mess stuff and let natural cycle of Earth to bring us to 25'C, then at the end of Warm cycle we will increasse CO2 emission to prevent temperature drop bellow 20'C. Normative Ecology if you will (from normative economics and ecology)
    I'm interested in it, but kinda afraid to look it up on Internets.

    It does show one intersting thing. This change that's supposed to happen (one should not easily trust extrapolations) is fast, +4'C in 80 years as oposed to few tousands (I think. I was never very good at Geography) don't sound to good. Kinda like with ceramics, not sure if I can use this analogy, you can heat them up and then let them cool or drop them in cold wateer and shater them, cakes are similiar (no water for obvious reasons). There is a difference if it happens slowly over time or fast.

    There is third option. XKCD was making a test. To see how many people would cach it. You passed. Thats how I explain such situations to myself. Sometimes help.

    I think it's painfully obvious by now but sorry 'bout my bad english.

    1. I don't know of any group that actually supports global warming. Then again, I've never actually looked for one. Personally, I like my Fall sweaters.

      Nonetheless, I've hedged my bets. I bought some prime beachfront property in the Eastern foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains. Now I just have to wait... and wait...

    2. By the way, your English is perfectly acceptable. It's far better than my command of whatever language you'd be more comfortable using.

    3. Thank you. I guess I got lucky this time. I never bothered to learn word order, my native language gives a lot of freedom in this case and I like it that way, and usually I go with whatever fells right. Since I spend a lot on englih part of InterWebs then I cach on things but it's accidental/unreliable and with such long post. Well, looked like right thing to add.
      One of the nice things about your blog is that it teaches me new phases like command of something. Never saw it before.
      English is, in a way, world language. If you want to speak with someone not from your country then most likely it will be in this dude, so you kinda have to know it. Not so much with others.
      Learning new languages is great mental exercise. I wholeheartly recomend it.

    4. Also it's not as much as actually "supporting" it. I meant something closer to considering if global warming is a bad thing for us? Can we use this process? Should we try to stop it? Limit it? Increase it?
      It looks to me like people just assumed that global warming is a bad thing because we artifically speed it up, 4'C in 100 years is a lot, but is someone testing this hypotezis? Is it a hypotezis or theory? (H0:Global warming Good; H1: Global warming not good. Not the 4 in 100 part) Artifical don;t automatically is worse than naturall, I would go as far as say the opposite is more often true, into maing artifical goes some thought process while Mother Nature is a blind bitch. I see a lot in modern culture that natural>artifical and while I would love to have faith in scientists I kinda don't have any more faith in humans left right now.
      I think we are geting close to level of technological advancement were manipulating the whole globe, climat in this case, is possible. I would like to see during my life homo acting sapient. I have been looking into biologicall immortality as a possible way for human race and the general concept "Death is natural. Death is unavoidabble. Only a fool tries to awoid Death. It comes for everyone." and this Ecological worries about CO2 emissions kinda gives me similiar vibe. I was avoiding researching this on internet since I don;t know enough to go into specialistic literature and forums... are not a good place to look for information. To emotionall.
      It's terrifing. This had a point in the past, but times change and with streange Eons even Death my die. I'm kinda worried people got this Idea that all pollutions are bad in their heads and it will screw our chance to do something great.
      Every process is a change. For me we are changing the word. Now there is a question. Are we changing it into something better or worse? Or maybe simply different?

    5. As tempting as it is to go off-topic and discuss this here, I will have to decline. The post itself is purely about logic.

      I will only say this: I haven't lost faith in all humans... just a lot of them. ;)