Politics Science Skepticism/critical thinking

Al Gore’s planet fever: Stupidest analogy about global warming ever?

I just heard on the radio last night while driving home what has to be one of the worst analogy about global warming that I’ve ever heard, and, at the risk of annoying fellow SB’ers who frequently write about these topics, like Chris Mooney or Tim Lambert, I felt like commenting.

Oddly enough, the soundbite came from Al Gore, of all people, the last person I would expect to make such a flawed analogy:

The planet has a fever,” Gore said. “If your baby has a fever, you go to the doctor. If the doctor says you need to intervene here, you don’t say, ‘Well, I read a science fiction novel that told me it’s not a problem.’ If the crib’s on fire, you don’t speculate that the baby is flame retardant. You take action.”

This sort of astoundingly bad analogy is not helpful in persuading the public that global warming is happening and that a large proportion of the cause is human activity, both contentions that I have come to accept based on the science. All it does is provide fodder for conservative bloggers and right wing pundits to mock Al Gore and a soundbite that the media focused on almost to the exclusion of the non-inane statements Gore made, without adding anything substantive to the discussion. (Heck, if I were a global warming “skeptic,” I’d have a field day with it, particularly the part about the flame retardant baby. That’s a line that, amazingly, accomplishes what I would have thought to be impossible: It almost makes global warming über-“skeptic” Senator James Inofe seem less stupid by comparison. Almost.) I could go into detail about how many ways this analogy is bad. For one, fever is a defense mechanism designed to help fight off infection that sometimes gets out of control. Is Al Gore claiming that global warming is a defense mechanism to rid the world of an infection? Maybe he is, if you consider humans to be an infection giving the earth a “fever.” For another thing, the vast majority of fevers in children are due to benign, self-limited viral illnesses requiring symptomatic relief and nothing else. If climate scientists are correct about global warming (and the emerging consensus suggests that the probably are), then it is not going to be benign or self-limited.

I leave it as an exercise to the reader to come up with more ways this analogy is off-base.

I understand the reason one might make up such an analogy. Global warming is a really complex issue that few understand, and there is an attraction in putting it in very simple terms that anyone can understand. However, comparing it to the planet “having a fever” is so ridiculous that it obfuscates far more than it enlightens. Unfortunately, even NASA, apparently, is not above using this bad analogy.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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