Sunday, December 27, 2009

Godwinning Debates (aka Six Degrees of Hitler)

Godwin's Law (also known as Godwin's Rule of Nazi Analogies or Godwin's Law of Nazi Analogies)[1][2] is a humorous observation made by Mike Godwin in 1990 which has become an Internet adage. It states: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1."

Godwin's Law doesn't just apply to the Internet anymore (to the extent that it ever did). While not a logical fallacy per se (though it has given rise to the term "reductio ad Hitlerum"), it is a pretty good indicator that your erstwhile debate opponent is running short of cogent arguments - colloquially, the debate can be said to have "jumped the shark". Let's look at several contentious debates in society - or at least, contentious in American society.

First, one of the oldest: abortion. Godwin's Law has been a regular feature of this debate from the beginning. Just Google "abortion holocaust", and you'll find sites such as AntiAbortionSigns.Com (Warning: graphic images). A group that is (in)famous for using this comparison is the Genocide Awareness Project, which is run by the innocuous-sounding Centre for Bioethical Reform. I suppose technically this doesn't constitute Godwin's Law, but it's only about one degree separated.

Second, the evolution-creationism debate. One need look no further than Ben Stein's recent abortion (no pun intended) of a film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. In it, an explicit claim is made that Darwinism led to Nazism and, by extension, the Holocaust. Needless to say, this claim is ridiculous and tendentious in the extreme.

Third, the anti-vaccination movement. As a recent post over at Age of Autism demonstrated, now people advocating vaccinations are being compared to baby-eating monsters. Again, strictly speaking this isn't an instance of Godwin's Law at work, but it didn't take long for commenters over at AoA to invoke the Holocaust in comparison:

It's a horrible image. So are the images of boxcar loads of men, women and children going to Dachau, or the image of the napalm scorched Vietnamese girl running down the road. Obviously reality is horrifying. Sins of omission do just as much damage.

There's also no shortage of other people invoking comparisons between vaccinations and Nazi Germany.

Fourth, the health care debate in the United States. Numerous pundits and countless tea-baggers have invoked comparisons between Obama and Hitler, but it takes a special kind of stupid to compare your opponents to Nazis because they want to ensure that everyone has access to health care. Laura Ingraham recently provided a particularly good example of this, for which Jon Stewart promptly took her to task.

Fifth, and perhaps the biggest stretch of all, is the anthropogenic global warming debate. A recent post at the blog blames the "Neo-progressive movement" for promoting AGW, invoking comparisons to - yup, you guessed it - eugenics. Then there was Glenn Beck's thinly-veiled Godwin when he said that America was "an Axis country" when it came to climate change. Or noted wingnut Lord Monckton calling young climate change activists "Hitler youth" (@2:52). Or Republican congressman James Sensenbrenner accusing scientists of engaging in "scientific fascism". On the other side of the political spectrum (although these days, apparently it's the same side), we have a Wall Street Journal editorial calling climate scientists "closet Stalinists".

To be fair, I should also address the usage of the term "climate denier" by AGW proponents. I don't think this qualifies as a Godwin, because usage of the term is not (so far as I have experienced) intended to imply that the person is a Nazi. There is, no doubt an unavoidable connotation by association with the term "Holocaust denier", but it seems to me that the analogy is intended to be epistemological, not political. That is, a climate denier is someone who steadfastly refuses to look at the available evidence and will go through all manner of logical contortions and cognitive dissonance to avoid being confronted by historical fact. That doesn't make someone a Nazi - that just makes them willfully ignorant.

Finally, the icing on the cake is the rather pathetic attempt at historical revisionism by the American right to cast Nazism as a liberal (and by "liberal", they mean "leftist") movement. The most high-profile example of this is Jonah Goldberg's book Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, an exercise in guilt by association (e.g., Hitler was a vegetarian, many liberals are vegetarians, therefore liberals are like Hitler). There's a comprehensive review and series of rebuttals of this revisionist nonsense over at Orcinus.

I forgot one of the big topics: gun control (My personal views on this subject are somewhat nuanced and may be the subject of a future post). Perhaps nowhere is the Godwin tactic more often used than in gun control arguments (in fact, it's one of the two topics specifically mentioned in the Godwin FAQ, the other being abortion). Inevitably, the argument is made that any attempts at gun registration or gun control are the first step towards a Nazi/totalitarian government. People will try to lamely argue that the Nazis had to disarm the Jews before they could carry out their "final solution". This argument is so ridiculous that even the very pro-gun site GunCite.Com says:

The simple conclusion is that there are no lessons about the efficacy of gun control to be learned from the Germany of the first half of this century. It is all too easy to forget the seductive allure that fascism presented to all the West, bogged down in economic and social morass. What must be remembered is that the Nazis were master manipulators of popular emotion and sentiment, and were disdainful of people thinking for themselves. There is the danger to which we should pay great heed. Not fanciful stories about Nazi's seizing guns.

Addendum #2:
I also forgot another whopper: atheism. This topic would have to vie with gun control for most frequent Godwinning. I suspect there isn't a discussion concerning atheism anywhere on the Internet where someone hasn't pulled the "Oh yeah, well Hitler was an atheist" card. Of course, Hitler was no such thing. However, this topic also probably requires corollaries to Godwin's Law involving Mao, Stalin, and Pol Pot.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

On hiatus, already!

I know my thousands of dedicated followers have been waiting with bated breath for my next post, but you will all have to wait a little bit longer. I'll be on vacation in Tasmania until Dec. 25.

Watch this space when I return - the next post I have up my sleeve has to do with the strange state of American conservatism these days.

Happy solstice!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

What comes first: searching, or researching?

Over on Roger Pielke Sr.'s blog, there was recently a guest contribution by Madhav Khandekar. In reference to the melting of Himalayan glaciers, he alleges that "the IPCC authors misread 2350 as 2035" in the 2007 Working Group II document. His basis for this allegation is that a 1996 UNESCO report entitled "Variations of Snow and Ice in the Past and at Present on a Global and Regional Scale, Technical Documents in Hydrology" by V.M. Kotlyakov contains a reference to the year 2350. Khandekar then assumes - on what basis, I have no idea - that the IPCC transposed these numbers in the Working Group document to get 2035. From here, he goes on to say that "we have a raging debate about impending glacier melt-down because of sloppiness of some IPCC authors"

The sloppiness here is entirely on Khandekar's part. Let's follow the chain of citations, shall we?

Fortunately, Khandekar provides an exact citation for the alleged error: the IPCC Working Group II, p. 493. Turning to that page, within section 10.6 (Case Studies), subsection 2 (The Himalayan Glaciers) we find the 2035 number:

Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other part of the world (see Table 10.9) and, if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate. Its total area will likely shrink from the present 500,000 to 100,000 km2 by the year 2035 (WWF, 2005).

There are a couple of things to note here. First, that the IPCC report is talking specifically about Himalayan glaciers; and second, that the citation is WWF, 2005 - not Kotlyakov, 1996.

So let's look up the WWF reference, which is:

WWF (WorldWildlife Fund), 2005:An overview of glaciers, glacier retreat, and subsequent impacts in Nepal, India and China.WorldWildlife Fund, Nepal Programme, 79 pp.

Page 29 of that report says:
In 1999, a report by the Working Group on Himalayan Glaciology (WGHG) of the International Commission for Snow and Ice (ICSI) stated: “glaciers in the Himalayas are receding faster than in any other part of the world and, if the present rate continues, the livelihood [sic] of them disappearing by the year 2035 is very high”.

The trail appears to run more-or-less cold here, since I haven't been able to find the ICSI report being referenced (at least online), although it might be this one:

The above seems like a likely candidate because the author, Syed Hasnain, was quoted in numerous news stories as having said that Himalayan glaciers were likely to disappear by 2035. Although this date doesn't appear in the report, it seems likely that this is the source of the figure used in the WWF/IPCC report.

I should point out, however, that there does appear to be an error in the IPCC report - namely, the quote referring to ice area shrinking from 500,000 km^2 to 100,000 km^2 by 2035. That area could only be referring to global glacier coverage, but it appears within a section referring specifically to Himalayan glaciers. It seems that this area reference (which does appear in the Kotlyakov paper) is what Khandekar latched onto, and assumed that the date figure must also have been cribbed from the same source.

Postscript: I started this post three days ago, but I have since been beaten to the punch by a few other blogs. Drat!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Welcome to the first post at Demon-haunted World

Those of you who are Carl Sagan fans will, of course, recognize the homage in this blog's title. In many ways, Sagan is a hero of mine; for the way he managed to inspire public interest in science (despite having never said the apocryphal phrase "billions and billions"); for his talent as a writer and a scientist (
Contact remains one of my favourite books, and got a decent translation into film); and for his approach towards life and truth, an approach nicely captured in Ann Druyan's epilogue to Billions and Billions (emphasis mine):

"Contrary to the fantasies of the fundamentalists, there was no deathbed conversion, no last minute refuge taken in a comforting vision of a heaven or an afterlife. For Carl, what mattered most was what was true, not merely what would make us feel better. Even at this moment when anyone would be forgiven for turning away from the reality of our situation, Carl was unflinching."

In this spirit, the topics I hope to cover on this blog will be wide-ranging. I expect that there will be a heavy emphasis on climate change science, but I also expect to comment on issues related to biology, medicine, and religion. Since I'm currently a Ph.D. student in theoretical ecology, my goal is to provide a perspective on science "from the trenches" as it were.

Just recently, I changed my political affiliation on Facebook from "libertarian" to "data-driven". I still think that "libertarian" is the best one-word descriptor of my political views, but I've grown increasingly disenchanted with the views of people calling themselves libertarians these days. With the seeming implosion of the Republican party in the United States, it seems that libertarian is the new black (I'm referring to fashion, not skin color). Part of this is due to the Ron Paul phenomenon, which is in itself curious. Here you have a man who doesn't accept evolution, doesn't accept anthropogenic global warming, and endorses crank medicine. He's had questionable ties to white supremacist groups and right-wing militia groups. He plays up fears about conspiracies such as the North American Union. He's strongly anti-abortion, is disingenuous about his views on gay marriage, and believes that the American Constitution is "replete with references to God." Then there's his bizarre obsession with the Federal Reserve and fundamentalist obeisance to Austrian economics. This man is supposed to be leading a new Republican revolution? Sounds more like a whackjob theocrat in libertarian clothing to me.

But I digress. What does it mean to have a "data-driven" political viewpoint? Well, to take an idealistic view of politics, one could argue that the entire point of the political exercise is to ensure the smooth running of society and - even more idealistically - advance human civilization, or at least keep it from running off the rails. If this is the case, what's more important than blindly following a political ideology of liberalism, conservatism, or whatever variant happens to be the flavour-of-the-month, is to pursue policies that work. If the end result can be agreed upon - and, despite appearances, this isn't actually impossible (reducing crime, reducing pollution, alleviating poverty, etc.) - what should matter is whether the end result is actually achievable by a proposed policy, not whether it aligns with some idealistic political principle. For example, a typical "conservative" approach to reducing crime would be something like mandatory minimum sentencing, or seeking capital punishment. A typical "liberal" approach to reducing crime would be something like rehabilitation, community policing, and poverty reduction. In my view, the answer is irrelevant if it doesn't work to achieve what it sets out to do. I should clarify that I'm not advocating an "ends justifies the means" approach. What I'm advocating is a "means must be tested by the ends" approach. In this example, would I support capital punishment if there was solid evidence that it reduced crime (for the record, I'm not aware of any such data)? Probably not, because there's also ample evidence that the false-conviction rate (among other things) remains far too high for this solution to be justifiable.

In this regard, libertarians are capable of being just as guilty as anyone else, particularly when it comes to belief in free market infallibility. In fact, I fundamentally agree with one conservative's assessment that libertarianism is (or can be) the "Marxism of the right". Isn't it strange to call myself a libertarian on one hand, and disparage it on the other? To me, no. This sort of introspection and self-criticism is vitally important and far too rare in politics these days.

Inevitably, of course, people will always argue that the facts are on their side. Rarely, however, is this actually the case. This is where sound science and impartial analysis are so important. Despite the popular protestations of the American right, there is no "liberal" science or, for that matter, "conservative" science. There is only good science and bad science.

Now, if only we could train our politicians to recognize the difference.