There is a video of a Polar Bear that went viral on the internet a few days ago. It has generated quite a buzz. The footage shows an adult Polar Bear in obvious distress struggling to move across a barren landscape. Later in the same video the bear is shown picking inedible-looking scraps from a trash bin. The implication, as developed in the supporting article, suggests that the bear is starving, and that he is starving because of global warming.

The video was first presented on National Geographic’s website along with an article whose narrative was laden with political assertions. A few days later National Geographic posted a follow up article containing questions and answers inspired by the video. This post also included a not-so-subtle editorial slant. Both articles can be found by following the links below…

Many websites across the internet soon picked up on the disturbing video, and each tended to present the compelling story inline with their own political bent. Some sites offered it up as powerful proof that global warming was wreaking havoc, while others questioned the veracity of the claim. Below is a selection of some of these articles, both for and against…

The assertion that global warming is responsible for the plight of the Polar Bear is a powerful one. But is it correct? It’s important to ask such a question because the veracity of global warming is such a critical issue. It is said that proponents of one side of the global warming issue value science and the scientific method, while the other side does not. That makes the way a video like this is interpreted extremely important.

Science and Not Science.

Merriam-Webster defines science in this way… the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment. What that means is that when a phenomenon is observed, purveyors of science will develop hypotheses that attempt to explain the observation. Scientists will then test the hypotheses with carefully planned experiments in order to determine which answers produce the best and most consistent results. A pragmatism is necessary in this pursuit. Exotic possibilities should be excluded when the commonplace will do.

Can it be shown—in a scientific way— that this bear is starving due to global warming given the supporting data provided by the video and accompanying narrative? Objectively, the answer to that question is an unequivocal NO.

Certainly the emotional persuasiveness of this video is strong. Many people will come away from viewing this video firmly believing they have seen conclusive and heartrending evidence that global warming is occurring and impacting wildlife. They will see this video as proof.

But, people who feel this way are not analyzing the information objectively. Instead, they are experiencing something know as confirmation bias—a tendency to perceive as proof anything that reinforces an already established belief system. One way confirmation bias manifests itself is by diluting reasonable and prudent skepticism. We should all try to stay self aware when it comes to confirmation bias. This kind of bias should be recognized and challenged with reasonable skepticism and self-evaluation in order to maintain fair and balanced positions. It is always important to foster a healthy skepticism.

In the case of the Polar Bear in the video, starvation due to global warming and the shrinking of the polar ice is the assertion. It’s what the people who recorded and presented the video want you to believe. But the evidence they provide is only anecdotal.

Real science needs to be much more disciplined and conservative than that. Real science would begin by considering simple and commonplace possible explanations before moving on to the more exotic. Of course, it’s OK to explore extreme possibilities, but only after commonplace answers have proven insufficient. If there is a solid hypothesis that leaves out the exotic, it should be considered first.

If you are going to claim to own the scientific position, then your evidence needs to be scientific. To make a complete case, additional data concerning this situation would need to be collected over an extended period of time. Then a thorough analysis of that data would need to be done.

The presentation provided by National Geographic left many important questions unanswered. How long had the Polar Bear been observed? What was his condition in the beginning? Is there anything else unusual about the bear or his situation? Are other bears in the area suffering in a similar way? What are the normal and expected weather patterns for this location? How different are conditions from the norm? How do we know that the norm was optimal for Polar Bears? The list goes on and on.

As it turns out, Polar Bears are mortal creatures just like the rest of us. They live and then they die. Polar Bears are subject to disease, parasites, injury, and old age just like all other creatures. There are a multitude of commonplace reasons for a bear to find itself at the end of the road. Polar Bears have no natural predators—because of this most do die of starvation. When a sick, injured, or aged Polar Bear no longer has the strength to fend for itself, it will go hungry. That is just the way of things. A scene like this one has surely played itself out time and time again over the eons. Aged Polar Bears get weak and die, global warming or no.

With only the information provided by the video and accompanying text, there are very few conclusions that can be drawn about the bear’s plight, other than the video illustrates a Polar Bear in some degree of distress. That’s it, nothing more. Taking the leap to global warming causation is a leap too far, and it is NOT science.

This is important to recognize, because global warming is an issue whose solution will likely require massive societal and economic changes. A problem of this magnitude demands that evidence in the affirmative be presented with great discipline, and in a scientific and objective way. Anything less only serves to undermine the foundational position at a time when so many people are already skeptical and only see the issue of global warming as nothing more than an unbridled attempt at a massive political power grab.

Emotional based appeals serve only to muddy the waters. A skeptic will view a video like this one and perceive the disconnect—possibly rejecting the affirmative argument in its entirety—even if they don’t quite understand why. Few people will have the time or energy to do a comprehensive analysis and enumerate all of the issues with the case presented, but anyone with even a semi-working BS detector should perceive a problem here.

Persuasion by emotional manipulation is effective in some ways. It definitely gets people’s attention. But, recruits attracted to a cause using this technique may not be high quality advocates. They will believe simply because they want to believe, not because they are knowledgeable and well-informed. What you are left with is a position that is hard to defend, and easy for the opposition to discredit. It’s very unlikely a tactic like this will ultimately strengthen the case or advance the cause. The best persuasion will always come from a position based on rock solid integrity. In the end, emotional manipulation does not strengthen a position. It undermines it.

Conservation and environmentalism are important causes. The effort to pursue solutions to issues in these realms must be tempered with discipline. When flawed or manipulative cases are presented, they only serve to sabotage the ultimate objective of conserving as much of the natural world as possible.

It is OK to be skeptical. A flawed or erroneous case should be rejected by everyone, regardless of politics or the argument’s emotional power to persuade. Integrity and scientific purity should remain the foundation for making appeals to reason—especially in instances of the potential magnitude and importance of global warming.