The Ranting Kraut

19.3.2006 – 27.9.2010

Al Gore’s tenth mistake

Posted by rantingkraut on October 12, 2007

A UK judge has pointed out nine mistakes in Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. I am pleased to contribute a tenth: In his film, Al Gore warms up the old tale about the frog which supposedly doesn’t notice a gradual increase in water temperature and therefore dies when the water eventually becomes too hot, although in Al Gore’s version of the tale the frog is rescued by a benevolent outside force.

I doubt that Al Gore has tested his frog hypothesis, but apparently Prof. Hutchinson of Oklahoma University has and found that frogs will definitely attempt to escape if the water becomes too hot –however slowly (source). Maybe humans should be given some more credit as well.

Of course, frog sensitivity deniers will now contend that the inconvenient truth we should focus on is global warming and that temperate froggitude is unimportant in this context. They would be right about global warming and wrong about ‘An Inconvenient Truth’.

‘An Inconvenient Truth’ is normally regarded as a film about global warming –it isn’t. It is a film about Al Gore first and global warming second. In so far as the film does address global warming, it does so in the worst possible way: by mobilising emotion against rational contemplation of the facts.

This is the bottom line: it just doesn’t look as if Al Gore presents his slide-show to inform rather than to scare people. And where he scares them on the one hand, he seems to offer comfort on the other. This comfort of course is available only to those who accept saviour Al Gore and follow him blindly. In fact, Al Gore’s film starts with one of these distracting pieces of navel-gazing with which ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ is interspersed whenever the slide show gets to tedious: instead of addressing global warming directly, the viewer gets treated to Al Gore waffling about flowing rivers etc.

The introductory kitsch-attack merely sets the scene for the follow up instalments. When Al Gore nearly lost his son in an accident he recognised what really matters in life—and, one may infer, this knowledge is not something any member of his audience should presume to have. After his sister died of cancer he realised that his family had been oblivious to the evils of growing tobacco for too long, just as society is oblivious to environmental threats now—but at least Al Gore is there and he knows! and so it goes on …

To the critical observer, it will be obvious which purpose these emotive interludes are likely to serve. Having been frightened by the background theme of global warming based doomsday predictions the viewer is offered periodic intimate glimpses of the insights and experiences that give its saviour his imputed super-human stature.

One of these personal narratives probably reveals more than the author intended. Al Gore elaborates at length on his failed bit for the US presidency: he makes it clear how disappointed he was and that he sought refuge in delivering his slide-show again. One can only guess that this episode was intended to portray Al Gore as someone who never gives up. What it also shows is that Al Gore—a failed politician with lasting but unsatisfied ambitions—now only has his global warming crusade to cling to. If he wants to lead or save humanity, then this has to be it.

There is, of course, nothing wrong in principle with being ambitious or longing for recognition for ones efforts. The problem with Al Gore is that he has effectively painted himself into a corner where he has a vested interest not only in the most catastrophic interpretation of anthropogenic global warming but also in an advocacy of remedial measures which call for a strong and ruthless leader. This is the mandate he needs to aspire to if he is to obtain anything like a surrogate for the US presidency which so narrowly escaped him.

This desperate need explains the last and most damning aspect of his propaganda crusade. Al Gore states (about 25 minutes into his film) that agreeing with his message is a moral necessity –and by implication that it is immoral to disagree with him. This approach is re-enforced by derogatory references to ‘so-called sceptics’ and, towards the end of the film, by explicit claims that anyone doubting the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis must in some way be corrupt or in the pay of those with vested interests in its refutation.

The counterpart of these undifferentiated attacks against global warming dissidents are exaggerated claims to the predictive power of anthropogenic global warming proponents. Approximately one hour into the film, Al Gore claims that scientists can exactly measure the future impact of global warming. This is odd, since he admitted before that members of the same scientific community had under-predicted the extent of Antarctic ice-cap melting. This claim to predictive certainty also appears to be at odds with his previous claim that, once the arctic ice-caps had molten, just about anything could happen to sea currents.

One shouldn’t blame scientists for occasionally making mistakes or for being less than certain about their predictions. Scientists are human and therefore capable of erring. This is precisely why inter-subjective testing is so important in any science. This is also why scepticism should not be a problem in scientific discussion –gravity sceptics, after all, are welcome to make their case if they have any evidence to present. Few would call them immoral for trying—at worst they would appear quixotic in their quest.

The main problem with ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ lies in its authoritarian claim that the debate is over and that anyone who disagrees is immoral or corrupt. In science, no debate is ever over. Theories may be very well supported, but this does not mean that they shouldn’t be open to challenge in principle. By attempting to shut down debate, Al Gore and those who argue like him create the impression that there is something badly wrong with their argument—why else should they attempt to stifle dissent?

This at least is the effect that the hysteric tone of the debate had on me. The hypothesis that human CO2 emissions contribute to global warming and that this may lead to a number of problems, has always struck me as plausible. The same can not be said for all measures proposed in response nor for the spreading refusal to discuss the magnitude and urgency of the problem. Like most, I am no scientist and have to rely on the expert opinion of others in this matter. One need not be a scientist though to see what is wrong with Al Gore’s approach.

On a personal level, Al Gore may have obtained what he longed for when he received the Nobel peace prize this week. Yet, even if all empirical claims in ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ were correct, Al Gore would still have done his cause a poor service: by seeking to by-pass rational discussion, he gives the impression of defending a quasi religious dogma rather than pointing to an under-appreciated scientific insight.

See also here for a critique of Al Gore.

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