Tag Archives: Semantics

Strange Comparisons

Today I am going to discuss something I find confusing, not because it is confusing but because so many people don't seem to understand it. To see what I'm referring to, look at this tweet:

If you follow the climate debate, you've likely heard this claim before. Part of the global warming debate is figuring out how much influence humans are having on the planet's temperatures. This tweet shows a "mainstream" position, that humans are causing all of it and more. You can find this argument posted in many locations. For one example, you can look here to see an argument humans might be causing as much as 160% of global warming.

I'm not going to delve into that today. People are so polarized on climate issues it seems most people will agree with you if you're on their "side" and disagree with you if you're not. I want to avoid that trap. I want to avoid it because what's wrong with that argument has nothing to do with climate or how it might change. It's entirely about logic and forthrightness.

Put simply, it is nonsensical and misleading to say humans have caused 110% of global warming just as it would be nonsensical and misleading to say Black people caused 894% of Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote in the recent United States presidential election.
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For the Record

I had a different post planned for today, but the reactions to my last post make me think I should spend a little more time on some things. As you may recall, the last post discussed how the United States often enters treaties with other nations under what is called an "executive agreement." Under U.S. law, the President can enter into these executive agreements without the approval of anyone else in the government.

This is important because the U.S. Constitution says one of the branches of Congress, the Senate, must consent to all "treaties" by a margin of two-thirds. The proprietor of The Blackboard, lucia, has used that requirement to justify insulting a journalist and what he's written about an international treaty known as the Paris Agreement.

There is some confusion here because under international law the Paris Agreement can be a treaty even though it is only an executive agreement under U.S. law. This confusion contributed to lucia writing a completely misguided post. Rather than correct her errors, lucia has since double down on them by making up quotations and even flat-out saying the U.S. Constitution says things it does not.

For today's post, I'd like to review some things people have been saying and set the record straight on a number of factual matters. I don't expect it to do much good, but I can't just ignore people making things up.
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Intentionally Misleading or Totally Ignorant?

I saw an odd post over at The Blackboard today. I want to discuss some of what I saw in it. Given my recent history over there and the... questionable nature of what is being said at that site of late, I thought it'd be best to make a new post for this.

The topic of the post was an article written by Paul Voosen, in which he discusses what Donald Trump may or may not be able to do about climate change policies as President of the United States. This is an interesting topic. Unfortunately, the response to it at The Blackboard is quite poor. I will try to give a better one.

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Nothing is Random, but Semantics

This world is filled with crazy stuff. I get tempted to write posts about a lot of things. I try to resist most of the time. I figure if I can resist writing about something, it wasn't worth writing about in the first place. Today's topic is one I managed to resist writing about for a while, but I misspoke about it on Twitter so now I feel obliged to. It began with this tweet of mine:

Which was regarding this blog post by William Briggs I saw highlighted in my Twitter feed. The post as a whole bugged me. It criticized a blog post at RealClimate, portraying it as completely incompetent. Briggs was very uninterested in what I had to say, blocking me after just a couple tweets. Presumably that explains why he didn't respond when I specifically pointed out what his misquotation was:

The RealClimate post had said:

They are not confidence intervals on whether a warming has taken place – it certainly has.

But despite quoting that sentence, Briggs wrote:

Second, the author says that a trend “certainly was” in the data.

The difference between "certainly has" and "certainly was" is rather minor. It was just the proverbial straw. Briggs's post contained misrepresentation after misrepresentation, so when he flat-out misquoted someone, I gave up. I have little respect for people who consistently misrepresent what people say in order to belittle it. For instance, when Rahmstorf said:

Rather, these confidence intervals refer to the confidence with which you can reject the null hypothesis that the observed warming trend is just due to random variability

Briggs responded by saying:

He claimed his test was needed to rule out whether the data was caused by (or was “due to”) “random variability“.

But this is an misrepresentation. Rahmstorf clearly referred to "the observed warming trend" not "the data" when he discussed random variability. Briggs uses this obvious misrepresentation to then say:

This term is nonsensical. It quite literally has no meaning.

I don't think Briggs is a person who should be listened to in determining what "is nonsensical" if he's going to misquote the person he criticizes and misrepresent what the guy is talking about in obvious ways. This is especially true when much of Briggs's post is based upon nothing but rhetoric. The next part is:

Randomness, as I’ve said thousands of times, cannot cause anything. Instead, something caused each and every temperature datum to take the value it did.

Again, Briggs is talking about the data, not the trend. That's not the important part though. The important part is: What in the world is he smoking?!

Technically speaking, nothing is random.* Everything has a cause. When you flip a coin, you do not have a "random" chance of it landing on heads or tails. The coin will land on heads or land on tails, depending upon a variety of factors like the height from which you flip it, the force your thumb applies to the coin, the angle that force is applied at, the amount and direction of airflow in the area the coin passes through, the amount of air pressure, the temperature of the area, the elevation you are standing at (affects gravity), any surface the coins hits, and hundreds of other factors.

But who in the world would think that's a meaningful criticism of what Stefan Rahmstorf said? If I'm playing a game with a friend and say, "Let's decide who goes first randomly" and pull out a coin, who would respond with a tirade about how nothing is random? Nobody. Everybody would understand what I meant, just like everybody would understand what Rahmstorf meant.

I tried to highlight this issue on Twitter, but I was using a phone, and I did a terrible job of explaining the nuance in 140 characters:

That tweet is horribly unclear. That's why I felt obligated to write this post. The point I was trying to make is Rahmstorf began the ridiculous sidetrack by saying "caused by (or was 'due to')." These phrases are generally interchangeable. However, switching from "due to" to "caused by" allowed Briggs to pretend it made sense to say, "Randomness... cannot cause anything."

I'll demonstrate. I ran out of milk this weekend. Due to that, I went to the grocery store today. One could fairly say, "My trip to the grocery store was caused by my lack of milk."

Only, Briggs would then come along and say, "No it wasn't. Your desire could only cause you to think about how much you wanted milk, which could make you think about the time it would take to go to the store, which could make you..." and continue on and on for a few hours explaining exactly what chain of causality existed.

The switch from "due to" to "caused by" allowed Briggs to be hyper-literal and pretend Rahmstorf was saying something ridiculous in order to dismiss it. That let him then write things like:

Don’t skimp your thinking on this. Prove to yourself how bizarre the author’s notion is.

Which one can only do by intentionally ignoring the obvious meaning the author had in mind.


I don't know that somebody writing such ridiculous things merits a blog post. If so, there are probably other parts of William Briggs's post I should have focused on instead. He makes a number of claims about statistics and mathematics which are just as wrong. There might at least might be some value in clarifying what's wrong about them since they don't rely upon obvious semantic tricks anyone should be able to spot. Still, I tried and failed to explain this issue so I feel it's the one I ought to focus on.

*This statement isn't provably true. There are parts of our universe where we cannot know there is a particular cause to an observed effect. Quantum mechanics is a prime example, as is the human consciousness. There could be randomness in either, or there could just be some deeper pattern we are unaware of. Because of uncertainty like that, in fields like cryptography, "random" is understood to not be literally random. It merely means "random enough we cannot discern a pattern." That, of course, fits perfectly with how people commonly view "random" in regard to things like coin flips. It also rebukes Briggs's argument by showing "randomness" is often used to merely refer to a set of factors so complicated we can't discern whatever pattern there is.