The Creeping Tolerance of Pseudo-Science

How do we explain so-called ‘Glaciergate?’

Glaciergate refers to a claim made in the IPCC 4th assessment report (2007) that, at the present rate of warming, all the Himalayan glaciers are likely to disappear by 2035. If these glaciers did all disappear, it would have devastating consequences for millions of people living downstream who rely on the glaciers for year-round supply of water. And so if this were likely to happen soon, then it would be the causes for some alarm for all these peoples and their governments. When a report submitted to the Indian government in 2009 brought this claim into question, the head of the IPCC called it ‘voodoo science.’ Only in January 2010, after it had scandalised the press, did the IPCC retract the claim.

How exactly the 2035 date made it into the IPCC report remains unclear, but we do know that the (non-peer review) WWF report cited for the claim was in turn based on information in a magazine article (New Scientist) which was based on a single interview with a single glaciologist who claims his speculation was never so precise as to propose a dated prediction.

What makes this so scandalous for science is that it seemed that anyone with any expertise would not support the claim — in fact it would be absurd to suggest that such large masses of ice could melt so fast. And many had already said so. Expert reviewers had queried the claim before the report was published, and others did so very publicly after it was published, and long before the scandal and the retraction.

As outrageous as the whole affair appears to outsiders, there are those who would say that we should not be surprised by the survival in scientific documents of such unsubstantiated claims as this. In fact, critics of such pseudo-science show how the persistence in scientific literature of such unsubstantiated and/or refuted claims is not at all unusual. And as Bjorn Lomborg (and also, more recently, Aynsley Kellow) has shown, such phoney science is most especially prevalent in the environmental sciences.

Martin Luther greasing the Peasants' book

Politicised Science (Theology) in the 16th Century: Martin Luther depicted by Catholic opponents greasing the Peasants' boot during the Peasants' War - the 'buntschuch' was the symbol of their rebellion. In fact, Luther was to use his status as a theologian to condone the slaughter of the 'marauding' peasants by their princes' armies.

The Politicisation of Science

In a speech of 2003 the famous fiction writer, Michael Crichton, shows how there has been a creeping toleration of pseudo-science in government-funded science during the latter decades of the 20th century. This is where claims are upheld despite the fact that there is a lack of scientific evidence for them, or the apparent evidence has been show to be unsound. He cites recent climate science as constituting the most extreme example yet.

In the history of the movement to mitigate anthropogenic global warming (AGW) there has often been an implicitly or explicitly stated licence to exaggerate the negative impacts. This is so as to raise the alarm with frightening scenario in order to prompt people and governments into action. Here is one of the founders of the movement, Stephen Schneider, talking to Discover magazine in 1989:

On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but – which means that we must include all doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climate change. To do that we need to get some broad based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, means getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have.

Given this licence to raise the alarm by bending the facts, we should therefore not be surprised that, after the Glaciergate scandal emerged, the author overseeing the chapter that included the 2035 melt claim would be reported defending the inclusion of this claim, despite knowing it came from outside the peer review process, because it related to several countries in this region and their water sources. Well, yes, that is a reason that it is important to get it right. But he goes on to say: we thought that if we can highlight it, it will impact policy-makers and politicians and encourage them to take some concrete action. What he seems to be suggesting is that a claim that was not on good authority was included because it would cause alarm.

While exaggerated predictions of future doom is a big part of AGW alarmism, it is not the only problem. There is also the claims about the degenerate conditions of the world as it is. Lomborg’s book, The Sceptical Environmentalist is subtitled measuring the real state of the world as a challenge to the annual State of the World report and its ‘litany’ of environment ills, declining from bad to worse. On the evidence, as Lomborg sets forth, things are not so bad, and mostly seem to be getting better. How could it be that the accepted science could be so wrong?

Scientific Alarmism before AGW: Aliens, Nuclear Winter, Passive Smoking…

Michael Crichton attempts to explain this plague of false science from an historical perspective. This doom and gloom pseudo-science seems to have arisen with the public policy advocacy of a set of prominent scientists of the 1960s and 70s. This group includes Schneider, but more famously Paul Erlich and Carl Sagan. For Crichton this is not exclusively a problem for environmental science, and he finds an early and influential precedent in the USA government-funded SETI program, the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. This program was in some ways legitimated by a grandiose but meaningless equation, the Drake equation. SETI had its critics but, Crichton says,

The fact that this equation was not met with screams of outrage similar to the screams of outrage that greet each Creationist new claim, for example – meant that now there was a crack in the door, a loosening of the definition of what constituted legitimate scientific procedure. And soon enough pernicious garbage began to squeeze through the cracks.

The next example Crichton gives is the pseudo-science of the Nuclear Winter, which, he says, included the claim that even a limited 5,000 megaton nuclear exchange would cause a global temperature drop of more than 35 degrees Centigrade, and this change would last for three months. Crichton shows how the Nuclear Winter scenario had begun to be widely promoted in the popular media (including talk-shows and films) by a group of scientist, including Carl Sagan and Paul Ehrlich, even before in came out  in a science journal. Again, the science was criticised, but the moral and political considerations expressed by Schnieder in 1988 (in the quote above) are already at play here in the Cold War 1970s, as Crichton explains:

Although Richard Feynman was characteristically blunt, saying, I really don’t think these guys know what they’re talking about, other prominent scientists were noticeably reticent. Freeman Dyson was quoted as saying It’s an absolutely atrocious piece of science but…who wants to be accused of being in favor of nuclear war? And Victor Weisskopf said, The science is terrible but—perhaps the psychology is good.

In another example – the refuted link between passive smoking and cancer — the USA EPA plays a role of a politicised government scientific organisation so as to foreshadow the more extremely politicised characteristics of the IPCC.

Virtuous Corruption

In most of Crichton’s examples, and in Lomborg’s environmentalist Litany, there is not only a strong and palpable political motive (sometimes explicitly licensed) to distort the science, but also a motive for others not to criticise it. Who wants to be seen to favour nuclear war? Who is for taking the side of Big Tobacco? or Big Oil? And who in the environmental sciences wants to be anti-environment?  Aynsley Kellow in his Science and Public Policy calls the phenomenon so affected, ‘virtuous corruption.’ And this will be the subject of another post.

– BernieL


7 thoughts on “The Creeping Tolerance of Pseudo-Science

  1. Don’t get too excited about Michael Crichton’s views. The arguments in his speech, at least in relation to passive smoking, were palpable nonsense. And lazy nonsense at that.

    The fact he had to base his argument on a study by the EPA in 1992 should immediately give strong grounds for concern. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that report (and the truth is a lot more complex than the tobacco industry’s claims which Crichton simply licked up), there has been a lot more evidence about the harm of passive smoking in the intervening years. Overarching assessments of available evidence were published in the British Medical Journal in 1997. They demonstrated that passive smoking is a cause of both lung cancer and heart disease. Since Crichton’s 2003 speech, those conclusions that passive smoking is harmful have been reaffirmed by further overview assessments by the WHO’s IARC in 2004, the UK’s Scientific Committee on Tobacco & Health in the same year and the US Surgeon General in 2006.

    His other claim, that “For reference, a risk factor below 3.0 is too small for action by the EPA. or for publication in the New England Journal of Medicine, for example” is equally nonsense, as he would have discovered had he done just a little research.

    That convention about relative risk applies when scientists are looking to draw conclusions from the results of a SINGLE study. It does not apply where a potential risk of harm has been scrutinised by a number of studies, as is the case with passive smoking in relation to several diseases. In fact, to prove the point absolutely, the New England Journal of Medicine published a report in 1999 (which Crichton would have seen had he made some basic checks). This study found that exposure to secondhand smoke led to a 25% increased risk of coronary heart disease and concluded that “Given the high prevalence of cigarette smoking, the public health consequences of passive smoking with regard to coronary heart disease may be important”.

    Conspiracy theorists might like what Crichton had to say. But if they scratch below the surface of his claims in an open-minded way, they should quickly see how shallow such claims are.

  2. Thanks for the warning, especially regarding the use of risk factors.
    Crichton‘s main issue seems to be with the use of science by the EPA in 1993, and then their response to the judgement of 1998 — which found that their conclusions were not based on the available evidence. This relates to the AGW controversy because we are finding scientists making strong claims that (implictly or explicitly) anticipate the hard evidence. The IPCC and the EPA could have said that they are not sure, that the evidence is not in yet. Why would they not say that? It is whether the science was distorted, and the reasons why, that are of interest to us here. However, it should be said that if by the time of Crichton’s lecture (2003) there were conclusive evidence to back the cancer link claim, then, while the judgement of 1998 might still be correct, his protest looses much of its impact.

    The BMJ article you refer to might be this editorial:
    Passive smoking: history repeats itself (registration required)

    The NEJM article may be this:
    Passive Smoking and the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease
    On cardiovascular effects see also here, but note that Crichton’s prime concern is the relationship between passive smoking and cancer in adults.

    After a quick search of Pubmed, one thing is clear – this was a very politicised debate in the 1980s and 90s. This is evident in the letters to these journals, including a plea in a previous issue of BMJ — Many claims about passive smoking are inadequately justified — from a researcher who quotes his detractors describing him as an “enthusiastic recipient of tobacco industry financial support who … has presented models … most favourable to the tobacco industry case.”

  3. Berniel: Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

    Michael Crichton’s remarks about the 1993 EPA report need to be read with extreme care. The report attracted a lot of controversy, true – but most of that was instigated by the tobacco lobby. You refer to the 1998 court judgement which ruled against the EPA report. But that court ruling was overturned in 2002 and has no standing (it is worth noting that the tobacco sponsors of the court case chose to raise this Federal action in North Carolina – I wonder why there…..).

    Moreover, subsequent assessments of the evidence have referred to the 1993 EPA report. Here’s section 7 of the 2006 US Surgeon General’s report, for instance. These other reports were never criticised in any way like the EPA. Surely, if everything the EPA’s work stood for was unsound, these later reports would have been strongly castigated?

    The Surgeon General’s assessment of the evidence might post-date Michael Crichton’s speech. But other assessments listed there were produced before then (e.g. Cal-EPA, 1999; USSG, 2001). The 1997 BMJ article I referred to was in fact this assessment of the evidence: Crichton should have been aware of all of these reports.

    While I agree with you that the issue of passive smoking has attracted a highly politicised address, it is possible to dig out legitimate science once the nonsense is scraped away (and actually, I’m not trying to suggest that all the evidence placed against passive smoking is necessarily sound). These assessments show that. And they consistently show that passive smoking IS harmful.

    But they are also cautious in linking passive smoking with harm. Reports consistently show a harmful link between passive smoking and lung cancer and coronary heart diseases. There is also evidence linking passive smoking with stroke and respiratory diseases such as emphysema. Yet the assessments tend not to conclude that a causal link to these has yet been demonstrated.

    Finally, my point about the NEJM was that Michael Crichton had claimed “For reference, a risk factor below 3.0 is too small for action by the EPA or for publication in the New England Journal of Medicine, for example.” I simply wanted to show how his claim was wrong.

  4. I showed in my post on Glaciergate:

    that the scientific community knew that the 2035 date invented by Hasnain was false some years before AR4 was ever published – it was shown to be so in the peer-reviewed literature! This makes its inclusion all the more damaging, i.e. citing grey non-reviewed advocacy literature when the point was known to be refuted by a paper from a Himalayan expert in a peer-reviewed Himalayan journal. That’s no mere oversight but a deliberate attempt to mislead.

  5. Thanks. Your Glaciergate post provides the best background I have seen to my statement above: …it seemed that anyone with any expertise would not support the [melt prediction]— in fact it would be absurd to suggest that such large masses of ice could melt so fast. And many had already said so.
    I recommend your post especially for the discussion of Dr Jack Ives’ criticism of glacier-melt alarmism, which was peer-reviewed and published back in 2005. Also of value is Dr Ives’s response to your post with its indictment of science journalists (including Fred Pearce) for irresponsible alarmist distortions of the views of scientists.
    You also touch on the financial incentives to this corruption of climate science, and for more background I can only recommend readers to MSM articles such as those by Christopher Booker (eg on glaciergate and on the supposed temp sensitivity of Amazon), but I am sure there are other web sources to recommend.

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