How to Downplay an Argument

I began writing this as a comment over at Climate Audit to point out problems with two recent posts there. It started getting too long for a comment, which is when I realized the subject matter would make for a useful post here. The problems with the posts at Climate Audit are just examples of a general type of problem I see all the time.

The problem revolves around a basic logical fallacy, the straw man argument. Straw man arguments are often understood to involve misrepresenting a person's argument as something they don't support which is easy to "knock down." Another form of it exists, however. This form of the straw man argument portrays a part a person's argument as their entire argument. One generally uses it by portraying the weakest part of a person's argument as their entire argument. This makes their argument seem weaker than it is, making it easier to rebut.

That is what happened over at Climate Audit in two posts about a libel lawsuit filed by a person, Andrew Weaver, against the National Post newspaper for alledgedly misrepresenting him in a series of articles. The judge handling this lawsuit ruled in favor of Weaver to the tune of $50,000. The two Climate Audit posts argue the ruling was wrong on many points.

One of these points revolves around a line of reasoning in the judge's ruling which was given a significant amount of space. Some of what the judge said on the issue is:

[221] The evidence established Dr. Weaver’s writings and position on this was consistent and clear. It included articles authored by Dr. Weaver and his book Keeping Our Cool. These publications establish Dr. Weaver does not link current weather and temperature events with global warming, as noted in Climate Agency Going up in Flames. Rather, Dr. Weaver is consistently cautious when questioned about the relationship between specific weather events on global warming. In Keeping Our Cool, Dr. Weaver explains the distinction between weather and climate and the relationship between the statistics of weather and climate. Dr. Weaver does not link current temperature events with global warming.

[222] In that context, I agree Mr. Corcoran, in Climate Agency Going up in Flames, took a quote from a 2007 Association Press article by Dr. Weaver and gave it a different meaning to incorrectly support the assertion that Dr. Weaver was linking current weather and temperature events to global warming. He inserted the word “temperature” and adding an exclamation point after the word “warming”. As part of the article, he said:

Not only is Mr. Weaver an IPCC insider. He has also, over the years, generated his own volume of climate advocacy that often seemed to have crossed that dangerous line between hype and science. …

He has also made numerous television appearances linking current weather and temperature events with global warming, painting sensational pictures and dramatic links.

“When you see these [temperature] numbers, it’s screaming out at you: “This is global warming!”

[Emphasis added.]

[223] The numbers in the quote Dr. Weaver was referring to in his article were “the global average surface temperatures” and not weather and/or temperature events. It was also clear from Mr. Corcoran’s testimony that he knew the difference between these two concepts; he knew Dr. Weaver was referring to global average surface temperatures but changed the quote for his own purposes.

This is only a sample of what the judge said on this issue. There were many more paragraphs examining it, including a significant number discussing at least one previous instance where the National Post had portrayed Weaver in the same way (as having linked specific weather events with global warming). In doing so, the judge found Weaver had consistently done the opposite, often stating it is impossible to link specific weather events to global warming.

This is an incredibly simple issue. Andrew Weaver does not link specific weather events to global warming; he says it is impossible to do that. The National Post took a quote of his, made a few changes to it and said:

He has also made numerous television appearances linking current weather and temperature events with global warming, painting sensational pictures and dramatic links.

“When you see these [temperature] numbers, it’s screaming out at you: “This is global warming!”

This portrayal is a pure fabrication on the National Post's part. It has no basis in reality, and it is intended to make Weaver look bad. That makes it libelous. There is no way to dispute this on a factual basis. One can argue it is not sufficiently damaging to be actionable, but there is no question fabricating a claim to make a person look bad is committing libel.

There is also no question the quote used by the National Post was changed. The colon in the quotation was originally a comma, the exclamation mark was originally a period, and of course "[temperature]" was not in the original quotation. That these are changes is indisputable. What is not indisputable, however, is whether or not these changes affect how the quote would be interpreted.

To show the judge was wrong to consider this example libelous, one would need to show neither of two issues are libelous: 1) the false context given to the quote; 2) the changes to the quote. This is how a Climate Audit post attempted to do so:

4. a fourth important issue was whether Corcoran had “changed [a Weaver] quote for his own purposes”, a finding that appears to have influenced the following very severe and (in my opinion) totally unwarranted characterization by J Burke:

the defendants altered the complexion of the facts and omitted facts sufficiently fundamental that they undermine the accuracy of the facts expressed in the commentary to the extent the facts cannot be properly regarded as a true statement of the facts.

In a 2007 interview, commenting on then newly released estimates of 2007 annual (global) temperature data, Weaver said:

When you see these numbers, it’s screaming out at you, “This is global warming.”

In one of the opinion columns, Corcoran transcribed the quotation as follows:

When you see these [temperature] numbers, it’s screaming out at you: ‘This is global warming!”

The numbers on which Weaver had been commenting had indeed been temperature numbers, but the judge still took enormous umbrage at the insertion of the clearly marked “[temperature]”. She wrote:

The numbers in the quote Dr. Weaver was referring to in his article were “the global average surface temperatures” and not weather and/or temperature events. It was also clear from Mr. Corcoran’s testimony that he knew the difference between these two concepts; he knew Dr. Weaver was referring to global average surface temperatures but changed the quote for his own purposes.

In a debate over climate, the 2007 global annual temperature is a “temperature event”. It is deranged to say that Corcoran’s insertion of the explanatory “[temperature]” means that he “changed the quote for his own purposes”. It is hard to be sufficiently vehement about this sort of nonsense.

As you can see, the post does not even attempt to address point 1. It portrays the entire argument as being about point 2. This is a perfect example of the type of straw man argument I mentioned at the start of the post. It is true the changes to the quotation were relatively minor, and it is easy to argue they do not affect how the quotation would be interpreted. That simply doesn't address point 1, that this portion of the article given as context for the quotation was a complete fabrication:

He has also made numerous television appearances linking current weather and temperature events with global warming, painting sensational pictures and dramatic links.

By portraying a weak point (the change to the quotation) as the entirety of the argument, Steve McIntyre was able to appear to rebut a strong argument he could not actually rebut - the portrayal the National Post gave, by both changing a quotation and giving false context to the quotation, was libelous.


The next post at Climate Audit about this lawsuit repeated the tactic. In discussing whether or not Weaver had called for the chairman of the IPCC to resign, the post said:

In his Statement of Claim, Weaver claimed (para 39) that the words listed below (there are many other claims, I’m focusing here on the Pachauri issues) were defamatory in their “literal meaning” as follows:

b. The plaintiff is not/not “calling for the replacement of IPCC leadership. ” In his interview with National Post reporter Richard Foot, the plaintiff specifically told Mr. Foot that he is not calling for the leadership to change.

c. The plaintiff is not/not “calling for . .. institutional reform” of the IPCC. This statement in the Defamatory Corcoran January Expression is a fabrication.

Oddly, J Burke did not actually rule on whether these (or any other) statements were defamatory in their “literal meaning”, though this is an ordinarily an important aspect of the case. Perhaps this was because the statements were manifestly not defamatory in their literal meaning.

Secondly, Weaver claimed the following (extravagant) “inferential meaning” (the “natural and ordinary meanings to the ordinary, reasonable reader”) of the words concerning Weaver’s supposed call for Pachauri’s resignation:

40. Further, and in the alternative, the Defamatory Corcoran January Expression was understood to bear, and was intended by the defendants to bear, the following inferential meanings of and concerning the plaintiff, which are the natural and ordinary meanings to the ordinary, reasonable reader:

a. The plaintiff knows or believes that the IPCC reports concerning global warming are unscientific and fraudulent and he now deviously seeks to avoid personal accountability for hype, manipulation and distortion in IPCC reports by dissociating himself from that organization and calling for replacement of its leadership and institutional reform of the IPCC;

It then went on to say:

[143] The impression created by Climate Agency Going up in Flames, the third article at issue, was that Dr. Weaver knew or believed the IPCC reports concerning global warming were unscientific and fraudulent and sought to avoid personal responsibility by disassociating himself from that organization.

However, as noted above, this was unequivocally not the literal meaning of the opinion column, but only an extravagant and unjustified inferential meaning fantasized by Weaver and accepted by J Burke: many other commentators, as noted above, had also called for Pachauri’s resignation precisely because they were concerned that Pachauri controversy would adversely impact their message about global warming. The above statement by J Burke should be firmly rejected.

This is an apparently strong position. However, this position becomes far less strong when one looks at what the Climate Audit post did not quote. For instance, while the post quotes points b and c as saying Weaver is not "calling for the replacement of IPCC leadership" or "calling for ... institutional reform," it does not quote point a which says:

a. The plaintiff is not/not "heading for the exits" nor is he "getting out" of the IPCC. In fact, the plaintiff fully intends to participate in the next IPCC process.

Or point d which says:

The plaintiff is not/not "blaming the IPCC's upper echelon for the looming crisis." The plaintiff does not even believe there is a "looming crisis" at the IPCC.

While neither of those quotes necessarily matter for the issue of whether or not Weaver called for Pachauri to resign, they are certainly relevant to the claim:

40. Further, and in the alternative, the Defamatory Corcoran January Expression was understood to bear, and was intended by the defendants to bear, the following inferential meanings of and concerning the plaintiff, which are the natural and ordinary meanings to the ordinary, reasonable reader:

a. The plaintiff knows or believes that the IPCC reports concerning global warming are unscientific and fraudulent and he now deviously seeks to avoid personal accountability for hype, manipulation and distortion in IPCC reports by dissociating himself from that organization and calling for replacement of its leadership and institutional reform of the IPCC;

The Climate Audit post portrays this argument as being based solely upon "Weaver’s supposed call for Pachauri’s resignation," but that is a false portrayal. The argument is about what Weaver believes about the IPCC. When it comes to what Weaver believes about the IPCC, it is unquestionably relevant if Weaver is "heading for the exits" and "getting out" of the IPCC. It is certainly relevant if Weaver believes there is a "looming crisis," much less if he is "blaming the IPCC's upper echelon for" it.


I should point out this post isn't intended to single out Climate Audit. This sort of straw man argument is disturbingly common. I'm focusing on these examples from Climate Audit because I was asked to explain my views on the issues, and I think they make for good examples.

The reason I think they make good examples is how obvious they are. I don't find the Weaver lawsuit very interesting, and I didn't spend much time researching it. Even so, I spotted these problems immediately. They were so obvious to me I didn't bother looking further. If the level of discussion is such people can't even get obvious points right, what point is there in participating?

On the other hand, this happens all the time. Sometimes it is intentional, but usually, it isn't. People just somehow come to believe things which are obviously wrong. They do so despite looking at material which shows they are wrong.

And it happens all the time. I don't get it. It's crazy.

9 comments

  1. This case seems to have been stretched, folded, spindled and mutilated far beyond its intrinsic importance. I haven't read the decision itself and am (honestly) not that interested to do so. Nevertheless let me jump into the deep end: If the judge made her decision that libel happened based on the assertions found on the the first quoted sentence "He has made numerous television appearances..." then her torturing of the insignificant changes and additions to the next sentence as libelous is unnecessary and superfluous. If however the judge based her finding of libel on an explanatory parenthetical and the substitution of an exclamation mark in place of a period (!), then I think CA has a point. In either case, relying on the additions to the second sentence for libelous intent is absurd. I guess this means that your stawman point is a good one if, but only if, the finding of libel is clearly based on the untruth of the first sentence.

  2. Jumrjbob, before I respond, I should point out this is only a bit of what was discussed in the judge's ruling. There are a number of other issues I haven't highlighted. It's not like the entire lawsuit hinged upon just these two things.

    In any event, I don't see why this being a good point would depend on if "the finding of libel is clearly based on the untruth of the first sentence." This is unquestionably a straw man argument. Straw man arguments are bad. Both of those sentences are true regardless of how important this particular straw man argument is. That said, the judge focused far more on the false context given for the quote than she did the changes to it. She clearly thought the false context was more important. She just thought the changes to the quote served to enhance the false impression created by the false context so they merited comment.

  3. We are saying tha same thing. To base a judicial finding of libelous intent solely on the changes made to sentence #2 would be preposterous under any circumstance that I can think of (CA's position I think); thus if sentence #1 is libelous, (which can be decided by clear evidentiary standards) then inferring that libelous intent is manifested by the changes made to sentence #2 becomes unnecessary to the extent of almost being obiter dicta. In addition, in warping the intent of that sentence into a libel, the decision takes the focus off the real legal decision which is that it is untrue and libelous to say that the professor made numerous TV appearances linking singular climate events with global warming (i.e. sentence #1). This is exactly why dicta is usually not a good idea and judges should just stick to the facts which clearly and sufficiently prove the case. So your point is the other side of my coin.

  4. Ah. I think what threw me off is regardless of whether or not the judge's decision was wrong, I'd still consider it quite relevant that people criticizing her created an obvious straw man. Using straw man arguments is bad even if the real argument is weak.

    In any event, I agree the changes to the quote aren't very important, but I think any judge would be expected to remark on them. Those changes do serve to enhance the impression given by the false context (and if they didn't, it'd be worth remarking on them to establish they are considered to be a non-issue for the ruling). It may be a minor matter, but cases can rest upon the combined effect of many minor matters.

  5. I agree with your last sentence but only when there aren't "major" facts or matters on which to base a decision. That's why it is said hard cases make bad law. Example: finding libelous intent based only on #2 would be a terrible decision. Anyway I want to say thanks for your blog. It helps non-scientists like me at least understand what some of the statistics/mathematics/physics issues are. Ebook too.

  6. Oh, definitely. If there are "major" facts that make things clear, there's little reason to focus on "minor" ones. You need to if there's concern the minor ones could mitigate the major ones (such as having a major fact favoring the plaintiff while many minor facts favor the defendant) or something like that, but otherwise, nah. So yeah, I agree with everything you just said.

    And you're welcome! I'm always glad to hear people get something from my writing. When I started this site, I did so with the intention of it being a journal, of sorts. It was a way to express thoughts without having to pester people in direct conversation. I figured this would give me a way to express my thoughts and let people choose whether or not they want to hear them. This place has since morphed more into a typical blog format, but that's still the main reason I post things to it. I'm glad to hear it is serving its role.

    By the way, I'm embarrassed to admit this, but I had completely forgotten about my eBook until you just mentioned it. I am way behind on getting Part Two out. I kept letting myself get distracted from working on that, and a week or two ago, I managed to forget all about it. That's horrible. I can't believe I'm more than a month past my deadline for it. I need to work on it. Like, now.

  7. I think that is part of it. Andrew Weaver went out of his way when complaining about these articles to say he thinks the decision should be made by the IPCC, not himself. That is distancing himself from the decision, meaning he doesn't want to be personally calling for it.

    I don't think that's the only issue he's complaining about though. He seems to have a lot to complain about.

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