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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Homo stramineus

On the use of straw men in scientific arguments

I found this on John Hawks's anthropology blog. He's writing about the sometimes heated debate over whether Homo floresiensis is a species or a deformity:

What I notice is that when I write about this, I have to correct a lot of false claims about what the anti-floresiensis scientists have said. Why do I so rarely have to correct false claims about what the pro-floresiensis scientists say? This is a generalization, but I've written enough about this to have a good impression. The media reports skeptical arguments very poorly. I think it's a systematic problem with science writing.

With the H. floresiensis issue, the science writers have been abetted by some careless scholars. A reporter may quote a pro-floresiensis scientist who says his critics believe something totally nonsensical, and they report that uncritically. This is another example of the same. I challenge anybody to find an anti-floresiensis scholar who has written that "nature moves inexorably towards bigger brains".

Hawks is dead right on both points. First, sceptical arguments get caricatured most; second, this is because people don't read the views they don't agree with. Instead they read their friends' caricatures of their enemies' arguments. This is the story of the Nature-Nurture debate over many decades, where the orthdox scientific church -- which insisted that nurture was all -- indulged in furious denunciations of straw men genetic determinists based on only reading their friends' versions of what their enemies said. The opposite sometimes happened as well but not so much.

The point applies especially to climate science today. If you try to find rebuttals of heretic climate sceptics, again and again you find yourself wading through articles attacking straw men that bear little resemblance to the sceptics' actual arguments. I have yet to read a defence of the hockey stick graph, for example, that understands, let alone does justice to, Steve McIntyre's critique before dismissing it. RealClimate is an egregious offender in this regard.

The Muir Russell report employed the straw man technique, as related by McIntyre:

Unfortunately, Monbiot and others had uncritically accepted disinformation from the Muir Russell inquiry, which, on this point (as on some others), instead of examining (with citations) actual criticisms from sources like Climate Audit, preferred instead to construct its own allegations which, in this case, they described as "broad allegations which are prevalent in the public domain"

The straw man allegation in question is that the CRU distorted the temperature data it got from the stations to show false warming -- something NASA genuinely stands accused of. It's not clear if CRU has ever been accused of that at least by any of the critics attacked in the emails. The actual McIntyre allegation is that the CRU refused to divulge what it did to the raw data it was paid so much to collate, and that it apparently failed to adjust the data for urban heat islands. Weirdly, it seems the Russell report writers could not bring themselves to read McIntyre's actual writings, or at least not carefully.

Andrew Revkin does something similar re the hockey stick, as discussed here by Bishop Hill, describing the criticisms of the graph in inaccurate terms.

If you disagree with somebody, always take the trouble to read your target's actual words and rebut what he actually said, not what you say he said. It is amazing how few do this. I am sure I have been guilty of this in the past, too.