Friday, April 24, 2015

The invisible modifier and another fine mess in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapse

There's a philosophical significance to the recent papers suggesting WAIS collapse is now unstoppable over the course of 200-900 years. The documentary video below depicting global climate change policy management since we became aware of the issue in 1896 gives the context:

Now we've really done it. Many of the other large-scale harms caused by climate change are reversible. On a human scale, the loss of life isn't, but this type of planetary modification takes it to a different level. I've been noncommittal on whether tipping-point arguments are convincing, but if these studies are correct, then we need to acknowledge that we've tipped into a fine mess.

As Eli discusses below, Andy Revkin completely misses this and instead makes what I call the "invisible modifier" argument that when somebody says X, the invisible modifier turns it into Y. This invisible modifier could be a shield, so when I say A and you point out that A is grossly exaggerated, I say that A only refers to certain situations I hadn't actually said it was limited to. Invisible modifier to the rescue! Here, Andy uses it as a sword:
Some headlines are completely overwrought — as with this NBC offering: “West Antarctic Ice Sheet’s Collapse Triggers Sea Level Warning.” This kind of coverage could be interpreted to mean there’s an imminent crisis. It’s hard to justify that conclusion given the core findings in the studies.
Here, Andy says the invisible modifier added the words "of an Imminent Crisis" to the end of the headline. That modifier was so powerful it even covered up the article's first sentence, "Two teams of scientists say the long-feared collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has begun, kicking off what they say will be a centuries-long, 'unstoppable' process that could raise sea levels by as much as 15 feet."

Like the slippery slope and many other bad arguments, what makes it worse is that it is on occasion a valid argument - not everything is always stated, so there could be an unstated qualifier that could reasonably limit or unreasonably overextend an argument. Here, it's pretty clear that Revkin is wrong.

The key issue is the near-permanence and this tipping point demonstration of climate change.