Without lies humanity would perish of despair and boredom.

Anatole France[1]

[You may recall that, shortly before the Pope’s visit, we put out a blog on global warming and the political furor about whether it exists. [2] Lots of people claim to know the science of the issue, but rarely discuss it. Instead they employ strategies to avoid the central question – i.e., whether the globe is, in fact, warming – and try to focus the debate on other matters which are, in fact, irrelevant to it. This is an old rhetorical ploy, of course, fully documented by Jeremy Bentham back in 1824.[3]  Nevertheless, it’s very much used today by politicians, commentators and ideologues.

And lo and behold – there’s that phrase again[4] – the very next day the Washington Post published an opinion piece that pretty much made our point.[5]  Basically it argued:

The Pope is coming, and he has an opinion on global warming! He thinks it is [warming, that is.]! He’s wrong! His ideas are “demonstrably false.” Why? Things were bad back in the Middle Ages. Fossil fuels made the industrial revolution possible, and we’d all be a lot worse off without that! “Our flourishing requires affordable, abundant energy for the production of everything from food to pharmaceuticals.”  Historically only economic growth has ameliorated poverty. Capitalism makes it happen. Pope Francis lived under “the rancid political culture of Peronist populism” so his views are not to be trusted. The world “spurns” his church’s teachings, so he’s pivoting to the environment issue to curry favor with the public. “He stands against modernity, rationality, science and ultimately, the spontaneous creativity of open societies…”[6]

This is a condensation, I might add; and, as always, we recommend that everyone read the original. It has lots more adjectives, reasons why the Pope isn’t trustworthy, etc.  

Obviously the author doesn’t read Elemental Zoo Two, or Jeremy Bentham, for that matter. The Pope makes a point about science; he thinks our globe is warming, because today we humans burn too much fossil fuel. The burning releases carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, which helps our planet retain heat from the sun. Too much additional carbon dioxide will tend to over-heat the planet. Apparently many scientists agree.[7]

Why then is his opinion “demonstrably false?” Because people didn’t worry about this kind of thing until recently? Because the Pope has a bad background, or teaches unpopular things or is trying to ingratiate himself with the liberal media? Because he’s just not modern enough to have an opinion? That’s weird!

I called Phil and asked him to look at the article, apply Jeremy Bentham, and make some comments. He agreed, but like most contributors, said I couldn’t edit his opinions for content. As usual, I agreed. I have enough trouble keeping track of the grammar.

Help me out, Phil!]

And I will. But first, for new readers let’s talk briefly about Bentham. He lived from 1748 to 1832; was a well-known philosopher in his day; and wrote a lot about political rhetoric. Those papers were collected by a friend and published in 1824 as The Book of Fallacies.[8] You might say that, even today and for all its faults, that book is pretty good index to the ways politicians fool the public.

The original isn’t easy to read, but once you settle into it, you’ll see what I mean. Bentham originated, or at least popularized the notion of a political fallacy. Basically political fallacies are the rhetorical tricks and dodges politicians use to divert us from the merits of a dispute, and refocus our attention on irrelevancies and, most likely, on emotion. Politicians [or commentators] who do this generally are not very smart, or think their audience is stupid, or both.[9]

Now let’s move on to the opinion piece in the Washington Post.

Fossil Fuels Were Vital to the Industrial Revolution

This argument is, basically, our ancestors were wiser than us, and for that reason we should continue to do what they did.[10] We should follow the “Wisdom of the Ancients.” So if fossil fuels were essential to the industrial revolution, we should continue to burn more and more of them no matter what.

If you believe that “experience is the mother of wisdom,” says Bentham, then you have to recognize that we, who live today, are more experienced than those who came before us. We’re still alive and learning; they aren’t. So we have the benefit of their experience, plus ours. In a very real sense the older generations were younger than us, in that they knew less then than we do now.[11]

No doubt our ancestors were great consumers of fossil fuels, quite likely because they knew of no better way to generate the energy they needed. But we know more than they did; we know, for example, how to conserve more, use less and exploit alternative sources of energy; and we know, or strongly suspect, that the environmental cost of continuing with fossil fuels at the present rate, or increasing it, might be catastrophic. So given that, it makes perfectly good sense to abandon the “wisdom” of prior times and look for new solutions.

Capitalism Made Economic Growth Possible

This is basically the “Wisdom of the Ancients” repackaged. Capitalism, it is said, drove progress from the late medieval period through the 19th Century. If that’s true, then we should continue that mode of development forever. There is nothing to be learned from our experience with it in the 20th and now the 21st Centuries.

Why is that persuasive? As Bentham says, our forefathers may have been pretty smart for their times, but we probably know more than they did, because we come after them. We have the benefit of their experience, and ours as well. So if capitalism has to be reined in a bit to avoid a climate catastrophe, economic collapse, or even gross unfairness to the majority of us, I’m good with that. Circumstances change, and sometimes rules must change with them.

Rancid Political Culture Under Juan Peron

The Pope says, we’re generating too much carbon dioxide [and other greenhouse gasses]; and the answer is: “You believe that because you were raised in a ‘rancid political culture.’” Really? What does his early life have to do with the effect of carbon dioxide on our planet’s surface temperature?

This and the next two entries are examples of Bentham’s “fallacies of danger” or, more specifically, of the ones used by “vituperative personalities.”[12] There are six of them, but they’re very similar. They take the form of personal attacks and are supposed to divert our attention from issues to personalities. “Of the fallacies belonging to this class, the common character is the endeavor to draw aside attention from the measure to the man.”[13] Or, today I suppose we’d say: “from a proposal to the person making it.”

Basically the argument is that the Pope is a bad man because he lived when a bad man ruled Argentina. So if true, which I doubt, does that make everything the Pope supports bad?

Usually there are bad people in every large group. Suppose, for example, there are 535 members in a legislature, and each of them proposes laws. Are the laws proposed by the good people the only good ones? What if A, a good person, proposes a law, and B, a bad one, supports it? Is the law good or bad? If A proposes the law on Monday, is it good then? And if so, does it become bad only when B lends his support on Tuesday?[14]

The point, of course, is that proposals have to be evaluated on their own merits, not on the merits of their supporters. This is especially true when they involve matters of science. We have a way of determining such things. It’s called the scientific method; it doesn’t involve personalities; and, by the way, there’s really not much dispute about whether global temperatures are rising.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [the IPCC] reports “[w]arming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.”[15]

Now there’s an inconvenient fact the Post columnist didn’t mention!

Catholic Church’s Teachings Are Spurned by Many

The church teachings referenced here are the ones dealing with contraception, abortion, gay marriage and so forth. Since they’re not relevant to the question of whether the Earth is warming, why bring them up? I guess from the Conservative perspective the better question is, why not? Liberals generally don’t like these teachings, so let’s change the subject and discuss them rather than the science of global warming.

Bentham calls this the “Imputation founded on identity of denomination,”[16] and counts it as a political fallacy because, of course, its sole purpose is to encourage people to distrust the speaker rather than examine what he says about the issue at hand.[17]

Pivot to Environmentalism

The Pope is advocating on environmental issues because he wants to make the Catholic Church more acceptable to the mainstream media. He has a bad motive; therefore his proposal – to reduce greenhouse gasses – is bad.[18] As you might guess from the foregoing, Bentham also rejects this form of argument. First, it’s problematic, because it’s hard to know anyone’s true motives; one can only speculate; and second, if the Pope is right, it would be absurd to reject his proposal “on account of the motives of its author.”[19]

And is the Pope right? Well, once again we have to go to science, not demagoguery, to determine that. See above.

The Pope Stands against Modernity, etc.

This one is a bit hard to classify. Remember, the question is whether society should cut back on its appetite for fossil fuels, either by conservation or through developing new energy sources, or whether it should continue on the old way, merrily burning oil, etc. and dumping carbon into the atmosphere. The Pope advocates new initiatives; cutting back, alternative fuel sources, etc.; not sticking with the wisdom of our ancient industrialists. Why? Because there’s new information out there! Scientists know better, now. Conservatives don’t want to change. So really, who is “standing against modernity?”


[Thanks, Phil, and we’ll end on that note. One thing that bothers me about Conservatives is that they don’t seem to understand even simple points about science. For example, the Pope has been quoted as saying “God always forgives, people sometimes forgive, and nature never forgives.”[20] So the article we’ve discussed immediately asks “Is Francis intimating that environmental damage is irreversible?” Probably not, I would say. After all, his proposal is that humans should cut back on the total greenhouse gasses they dump into the atmosphere. Why do that if it’s too late? Of course, there is a big difference between reversing something, and ameliorating it.

Actually, I think the Pope’s comment should be interpreted as nothing more than a point about science. For example, if you’re foolish enough to jump off a 20 story building, your rate of acceleration – until you go splat! – can be calculated. Also, it  will be the same if you manage to jump 19 times more. Nature will not forgive you. You will not be able to debate with Nature about it. You will not be able to flap your arms and fly away. So the best thing to do, if you’re worried about your health, is not to jump. That’s what the Pope is saying about global warming. Don’t jump!

At least, that’s what I think.]

[1] See Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (6th Edition, 2004) at Anatole France, p. 331, n. 20.

[2] See the blog of 09/19/2015, Fallacies of Delay, available at https://opsrus.wordpress.com/2015/09/19/fallacies-of-delay/

[3] See Bentham & Bingham, The Book of Fallacies (Hunt, 1824) (Nabu reprint, circa 2010). Nabu reprints are photocopies of the original, so page citations necessarily are to the 1824 edition. Hereafter, the book will be cited as Political Fallacies at ___.

[4] See the blog of 05/31/2015, Addendum, available at https://opsrus.wordpress.com/2015/05/31/addendum/ .

[5] See Washington Post, Will, Pope Francis’s fact-free flamboyance (Sunday, September 20, 2015) at p. A21.

[6] Id.

[7] We’ve discussed this before. See the blog of 09/05/2015, Pope Francis Comes to America, available at https://opsrus.wordpress.com/2015/09/05/pope-francis-comes-to-america/   .

[8] See Political Fallacies at p. 339, 340.

[9] See Political Fallacies at p. 359, 360: “Upon the whole, the following are … in common to all the several arguments here distinguished by the name of fallacies: (1) Whatsoever be the measure at hand, they are, with relation to it, irrelevant … (7) on the part of those who … give utterance to them, they are indicative either of improbity or intellectual weakness, or of a contempt for the understanding of those on whose minds they are destined to operate.”

[10] See Political Fallacies at Chapter II, The Wisdom of Our Ancestors, p. 69 -81.

[11] See id. at p. 71: “In giving the name old or elder to the earlier generation … the misrepresentation is not less gross, nor the folly of it less incontestable, than if the name of old man or old woman were given to the infant in its cradle.”

[12] See Political Fallacies at Part II, Fallacies of Danger, Chapter I, Vituperative Personalities, p. 127 – 142.

[13] Id. at p. 128.

[14] See id. at 131: “Among 658 or any such large group of persons taken at random, there will be persons of all characters: if the measure is a good one, will it become bad because it is supported by a bad man? If it is bad will it become good if supported by a good man? If the measure be really inexpedient, why not at once show that it is so?”

[15] See IPCC,  Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis, available at http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg1/ and specifically, the Summary for Policymakers, at §B, Observed Changes in the Climate System, available at http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/wg1/WG1AR5_SPM_FINAL.pdf

[16] See Political Fallacies at p. 137 – 140. By the way, our copy of this book is missing a couple of pages from this section.

[17] See also id.at Fallacy of Distrust, p. 154 – 157. The implied argument might be: If we accept what you say about global warming, then at a later date you’ll try to convince us that abortion, birth control, etc. are wrong. So we had better reject your views on global warming.

[18] Id. at 129: The form of the argument is: “he is actuated by a bad motive, therefore the measure is bad …”

[19] Id. at 133: “The proposer of the measure, it is asserted, is actuated by bad motives, from whence it is inferred that he entertains some bad design. This, again, is no more than a modification of the fallacy of distrust; but one of the very weakest; 1. because motives are hidden in the human breast; 2. because, if the measure is beneficial, it would be absurd to reject it on account of the motives of its author.”

[20] This is the abbreviated version. You can find the correct quote at National Geographic, Nature Never Forgives: 7 of Pope Francis’s Greenest Quotes available at http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/09/120150920-pope-francis-environment-climate-quotes/