Greens are Just as anti-Science on Climate as on GE

Update: Keith Kloor has just told me on Twitter that he has also been critical of the term “denier” as he discusses on this post.- which certainly shows he is aware of the issues I am raising here; however, he does indeed use the term “denialism” in the post on Seralini, without any indication of what he is actually referring to, and thus seems to fall into exactly the same traps.

The anti-science tendencies and frequently evidence-free stance of the Green movement finds a recent major example with the publication last week of Seralini’s GE-corn/roundup-fed rat trial, complete with garish photos of rats puffed up with tumors, which is being used to create wide-spread fear and panic about the safety of eating genetically engineered food.

John Vidal in the Guardian provides an egregious example of defending the indefensible, for example defending Seralini for winning his libel case against Fellous, president of the French Association of Plant Biotechnology, who suggested Seralini might be biased by his funding sources; but then casually throws in his own equivalent slur – of guilt by association- with the comment that UC Davis “has close links to Monsanto and other GM companies” while providing no evidence whatsoever that this would in any way, or has in any way influenced the impartiality or compromised the integrity of the the biotech scientists working there.

(For the response of a public scientist to charges of “shill for Monsanto” read Kevin Folta’s superb piece here.)

There has been a vigorous response from scientists and bloggers condemning the study as hopelessly flawed. There were not enough subjects in the control groups. Not all the data was published (and there is, rather unusually, a petition of scientists calling for the release of same); there appears to be no statistical significance to the data we do have showing any meaningful difference between the groups, with some of the controls having a higher incidence of tumors than the test groups; and mysteriously, there appears to be no distinction between high-and low-dose groups of either the corn or Roundup, which the rats were also tested for (an appears to have the same effects), defying the basic premise of toxicology that it is all in the dose. The Sprague-Dawley rats used are well-known to be prone to developing cancer anyway after the (very long period for a rat) of 2 years.

In my opinion, the methods, stats and reporting of results are all well below the standard I would expect in a rigorous study – to be honest I am surprised it was accepted for publication.

opined Prof David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor of the Public Understanding Of Risk, University of Cambridge.

More damning still, the Statistical Laboratory at the University of Cambridge note:

I am grateful for the authors for publishing this paper, as it provides a fine case study for teaching a statistics class about poor design, analysis and reporting. I shall start using it immediately.

There is another even more startling point here as well, raised by @mem-somerville and taken up by Worstall which is that all lab-rats in the US have been eating some RR GE-corn for over a decade because that is just what the feed happens to be, with no noticeable effects or difference with European lab-rats where GE corn is not grown.

Apart from these flaws and the condemnation of so many scientists, it is obvious that the Seralini study is a put-up job to discredit GE crops and manipulate the political process.Seralini heads CRIIGEN which is an anti-GE activist group, he has a history of controversial studies producing results that have not been replicated and fly in the face of hundreds of other GE safety studies; and one of the co-authors of the report and president of CRIIGEN , Dr Joël Spiroux de Vendomoisis, is a homeopath.

Far from being a cheap shot” as Tim Worstall suggests, this is in itself enough to discredit the study because homeopaths reject the scientific method in the first place, relying on anecdote and their own method of “proving” their remedies, while science finds no evidence at all of their efficacy.

This is no accident; as we have seen in an earlier post on GE, quackery, in league with Big Organic and Big Green NGOs such as Greenpeace, is one of the bastions of the anti-GE movement; not only with a lot in common with the anti-vaccine movement, as Orac points out; they are the anti-vaccine movement, or comrades -in-arms with them under an umbrella of pure woo.

With its savvy media manipulation, including requirement for journalists to sign confidentiality agreements before getting the story, so as to ensure an undiluted message of terror with those photos went out before other scientific opinions could be heard- a practice that climate scientist Gavin Schmidt calls “both very unusual and, frankly, appalling…”- and its timing just a few weeks before California’s quack-backed Proposition-37 referendum on GE-labeling, this may indeed represent a new low in co-ordinated attacks on science, and one largely backed or accepted unquestioningly by the supposed “leftish” Greens movement, who of course oppose GE anyway.

As with so many issues, the environmentalists turn away from science and evidence and reason and side with extreme quackery. Genetic engineering, nuclear power, climate change, – is there anything issue where Greens do accept the consensus of scientists?

Wait a minute- did I say “climate change”? Isn’t that supposed to be the one major policy issue where Greens accept the science? You know, the consensus science, where all scientists bar a handful of paid right-wing lobbyists nut-jobs universally and categorically accept everything Al Gore says about the greatest environmental threat of them all?

New York science blogger Keith Kloor thinks so. In his widely read post on Slate, GMO Opponents Are the Climate Skeptics of the Left he quite rightly calls out Philpott of Mother Jones:

What’s beyond a doubt here is Philpott’s unwillingness to call bullshit when it’s staring him in the face.

but then goes on to complain:

The anti-GM bias also reveals a glaring intellectual inconsistency of the eco-concerned media. When it comes to climate science, for example, Grist and Mother Jones are quick to call out the denialism {my emphasis} of pundits and politicians. But when it comes to the science of genetic engineering, writers at these same outlets are quick to seize on pseudoscientific claims, based on the flimsiest of evidence, of cancer-causing, endocrine-disrupting, ecosystem-killing GMOs.

This does indeed pose a conundrum- why, when climate science is the only thing that Kloor and Mother Jones would apparently share in common, is science so readily undermined on issues such as Genetic Engineering?

But Kloor, like other scientists and science writers prone to casual use of the “denier” label, has got this part completely wrong. To explain why, we have take a careful look at how science actually works and define very carefully what we mean by terms such as “consensus on climate science” and such like.

The two issues here-  the safety of genetically engineered food, and the reality or otherwise of man-made global warming, are completely different animals. Safety in GE is determined largely by clinically controlled feeding trials which are repeatable, and verifiable, much like the clinical evidence for medicines. This kind of straight-forward science is how we know homeopathy doesn’t work, and GE is at least as safe a method of crop breeding as any other.

But what do we mean exactly by accepting or “denying” climate science?

I don’t like labels. For example, I don’t like the label “denier” that Kloor uses above, because it is never defined what exactly is being denied: usually the issue at stake is not the atmospheric physics of CO2 and its warming effect, the hard science, verifiable, testable data in other words, but on just how exactly, and how urgently, we should respond.

The word “denier” seems to me an inherently politically charged word reserved for the special case of climate science, and referring to putative deaths that will be caused in the future, as in a holocaust, if the “deniers” get their evil way.

But even if we accept that “the science is settled” that, say, human CO2 emissions are contributing to warming, there would appear to be a very large range of opinion on what happens next that might fall under the label “denialism”:

-maybe it refers to “skeptics” like Steve McIntyre who has performed extensive audits of the climate science of Michael Mann and found them wanting;

-maybe it could be used to refer to Professor Richard Muller who has said in an interview when asked about the proxy data used by Michael Mann and other to construct the famous “hockey stick”- given prominence in Al Gore’s film- that

What they did was, I think, shameful. And it was scientific malpractice. If they were licensed scientists, they should have to lose their licence.

-or to Bjorn Lomborg, who considers Kyoto-style approaches to cutting CO2 emissions unworkable, and “traditional” renewables such as wind and solar too costly and intermittent to make much difference;

-what about leading climate scientist and IPCC lead author Richard Betts who questions the widely agreed 2 degree limit to prevent “dangerous climate change” as being more a political expediency:

Most climate scientists do not subscribe to the 2 degrees “Dangerous Climate Change” meme (I know I don’t). “Dangerous” is a value judgement, and the relationship between any particular level of global mean temperature rise and impacts on society are fraught with uncertainties, including the nature of regional climate responses and the vulnerability/resilience of society.

Of course, Betts has never been called a “denialist”- that would be absurd- but I have been, just for pointing out that Al Gore’s film was politically motivated propaganda full of exaggerations and misleading representations of some of the evidence.

While we might agree, skeptics and activists alike, that burning fossil fuels is contributing to warming the planet, this is not at all where the fracture lines lie between the “climate skeptics” and the “alarmists”, who both accuse the other of exaggerating the evidence, or at least emphasizing their own preference of either urgency or caution and pragmatism. Beyond that, the important questions of “how much is it warming?” “how bad will this be?” and even more so “what should we do about it?” are not scientific questions alone- and there is anything but consensus amongst experts.

For example, Al Gore did not stick to the evidence. He projected an alarmist view to push a particular agenda, which may have been merely to gain more political influence- his proposed solutions of turning off appliances were wholly out of proportion to his message of apocalyptic doom.

Last week an article appeared claiming

The Earth’s changing climate is costing the global economy $1.2 trillion a year and killing 1,000 children a day, according to a new study—and the U.N. warns the summer’s record heat and drought could trigger a catastrophe.

Remind you of something? The Seralini study and the headlines that delivered it to the masses via a clearly manipulated news media? The environmentalist scare-mongering is just as prevalent on the subject of climate change as it is on GE or nuclear, and just as anti-science.

It is hard enough -and controversial enough- to attribute specific extreme weather events to climate change, never mind count the number of deaths, especially since deaths are so much more a function of poverty and other local conditions anyway.

So when Kloor aligns himself with say Mother Jones on climate change, is he supporting articles like this (also covered by Grist)? I’d call this “scare-mongering” much along the same lines that MJ scare-mongers around GE crops and nuclear power; it is not that there is no link between rising temperatures and the diseases mentioned, but there is hardly a scientific consensus that these are things we should most be worrying about, particularly when disease incidence and control is influenced so strongly by so many other factors, in particular simply how we respond locally in managing such diseases and of course in medical advancements. Just as Gore mislead his Inconvenient Truth audience with fear-mongering about malaria reaching higher latitudes in Nairobi- when in fact Nairobi has always had malaria and its control is dependent far more on draining swamps and basic health care than temperature- so MJ are using disease in order to alarm rather than inform about the risks of climate change.

Or what about this article also from Mother Jones:

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, heat waves could kill 150,000 Americans alone by 2099 (scary map of that here.)

Note the inclusion of a handy scary map. Is this science? Is it consensus science, settled science that warrants the epithet “denier” to be hurled at anyone who even dares to question it?  This is a quotation of an article by the National Defense resources Council who are discussing, not a scientific report by climate scientists, but their own report, written by themselves, who are in fact an NGO and not a scientific organisation at all. This is simply scare-mongering in exactly the same way Al gore’s film was scare-mongering; a “scary map” all in deep reds and oranges about projected numbers of deaths from climate change.

The number of deaths will depend very much on how we adapt; what is the point of posting such projections when they are certain to be wrong, since obviously we will adapt? We will of course take steps to avoid such a scenario, we will adapt to man-made climate change in just the same way as we will have always adapted to natural climate change.

This is indeed clearly stated in the report itself:

The study does not take into account potential acclimatization of individuals because it is difficult to determine the exact degree to which individual behavior

will change or how much change can realistically be

made. If individuals continue to respond to heat exposure

by purchasing air conditioners or avoiding the outdoors during heatwaves, mortality will be lower than the estimates produced here. However, there are limits to the extent of behavioral response. Those people living in poverty, who are among the most vulnerable to heat-waves, are constrained in their ability to find access to air conditioning. Likewise, many individuals are required by their job to spend time outside, so their options for reducing exposure may be limited.

So a study that explicitly takes no account of adaptation- that being something difficult to assess-appears to make simple extrapolations to come up with a scary headline and scary map of future heat deaths.

In addition of course, such “heat deaths” stories ignore the likely reduction in cold deaths, an issue explored extensively in Lomborg’s Skeptical Environmentalist; I am not saying these will necessarily outweigh or even significantly reduce heat deaths. I am saying they are ignored, this is not science, the non-scientific report is written with the deliberate intent to scare.

Just like Seralini’s rat study was written to scare.

{another example, not directly connected to the them of “denialism” but still relevant I think: compare the Grist take on the recent DARA report with Lomborg’s analysis: DARA lump several things  together in the strange new concept of “combined climate-carbon” economy in order to bump up scary-looking figures which look at first cursory glance to be attributable to climate change; in fact these figures include deaths from indoor particulate pollution, which is nothing to do with climate change, nor even anything to do with fossil fuels- indeed, were it practical to supply, lets say shale gas, to millions in the developing world who currently rely on wood stoves for cooking, these deaths could be dramatically reduced.}

David Roberts of Grist has an article on uncertainty where he makes some good points but goes badly wrong when he states:

We’re pretty sure we can already see that signal through the noise of natural weather variations, but the signal is sure to get stronger later this century.

So- we don’t have certainty from observable evidence yet but we are certain to have certainty in the future of this evidence.

The odd thing is, I found it quite hard to actually find any specific example of what could be called “denial” of the science of climate change being refuted by either MJ or Grist; and Kloor does not help with any examples either. Where such examples are found, they clearly are referring mostly to differences on policy responses, not the hard facts of CO2 being a warming gas.

Roberts for example says at the end of his article on uncertainty:

Conservatives, deniers, skeptics, whatever, try to argue that it is unwise to act until we have more certainty. This is bollocks. We know enough to know that we have to do something or we’re screwed.

Not very scientific language that is it? But again he provides no citation of what anyone actually has says regarding the wisdom or otherwise of “acting”; nor does he really spend much time laying out a plan of action. Indeed, his article would otherwise point to the conclusion that there is so much uncertainty about what we can and will do, and such a wide range of options and factors that come into play- all of them with their own unknown level of scientific and political uncertainty- from CCS to fracking reducing CO2, to what China will do, to how well we are able to adapt if our wealth and technology increases- that vigorous debate about such policy matters is to be expected- and, surely,  welcomed.

The logic of what Roberts says makes the strong case that there really are no easy options, we really do not have a clear-cut path ahead of us once we accept “the science”, but he avoids this conclusion and instead just engages in hand waving and insistence that we just have to do something.

This issue is clearly seen for example in Grist’s series on How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic by author Coby Beck, who considers any difference of opinion on anything from the role of the sun in climate change to the Kyoto protocol to, wait for it, views on Peak Oil as being denialism:

Fossil fuels are a non-renewable resource, and as such we have to make this global economic transformation regardless, whether now or a bit later. Many bright minds inside the industry think we are already at peak oil. So even if it turned out that climate mitigation was unnecessary, we would still be in a better place as a global society by making the coming switch sooner rather than later.

Seems like a win-win situation to me.

This is an astonishing claim- Coby’s personal opinion on what constitutes “bright minds inside the industry” becomes by sleight-of-hand de facto “settled science”, solid facts which only “deniers” would question. And he is talking of course about an industry who’s opinion on climate change would be laughed out of court…

Here is Corby again on Kyoto:

Clearly, the notion that it’s unfair to expect the largest historical polluters to make the greatest reductions is not only wrong, but it is a violation of an already signed and ratified treaty on the issue of global warming.

So would someone please tell me whether the “science is settled” that Kyoto-style emissions-reductions treaties is the only way to go, and that anyone with any other opinion is a “denier”? Because there really is a problem with this as a policy approach, even if Corby’s sentiment is fair, for as Robert Bryce points out:

…. if the USA were to go to 0 emissions today, the Chinese would replace those emissions in just 3.6 years.

Climate change alarmists have backed themselves into a corner by advocating a policy of specific but wholly unreachable  reductions targets as being essential to avoid “climate catastrophe”.

Any other policy option is marginalised and dismissed as denialism.

The fact is, Kyoto has achieved nothing, while shale gas- another bug-bear of most greens, has actually succeeded to some extent in its place, reducing US emissions by at least 4-5% over just the past decade by displacing much dirtier coal; but environmentalists tend to have a rather breezy attitude to what they consider to be “clean” technologies of wind and solar: they are clean, therefore they must just bloody-well work and anyone who disagrees is a denier.

There are serious technical challenges to harvesting the necessary vast amounts of energy needed to displace coal and oil with diffuse sources from the wind and the sun, as discussed by Vaclav Smil here.

Is Smil a denier for pointing out some basic facts of physics and how they interplay with the realities of the energy infrastructures of advanced modern societies?

MJ and Grist are bedfellows with the woo-dominated anti-GE movement. GMWatch ran a revealing piece from 2009 making this crystal clear:

Subscribers to Dr C.S.Prakash’s pro-biotech ‘AgBioView’ email list will be familiar with the names of some of the key global promoters of GM food and crops, most of whom are based in the USA, such as those named below. [website at http://www.agbioworld.org ]

Interestingly they all have websites that not only defend GM food but also attack the Kyoto Treaty on global warming:

This is under the article’s heading of Why do key GM advocates deny mainstream scientific opinion on climate change? Since when has advocating Kyoto been “mainstream scientific opinion”?

If these outlets really cared about climate change as being the most pressing environmental issue as they claim it is, they would support technologies like GE and nuclear that obviously have the potential to help mitigate CO2 emissions as well as address other environmental problems.

What the hell is “denialism” really and why is it bandied about in such a cavalier fashion by scientists and science writers alike? Biotech scientists and science policy writer Anastasia Bodnar very sensibly takes the view that she is not “pro-GMOs” but pro-science, pro-facts, pro-evidence; this echoes Prof. David MacKay’s comment that he is “not pro-nuclear, just pro-arithmetic”. But this cautious and measured scientific approach is betrayed when we use the word “denier”, a horribly politicized word designed to stifle and obscure the actual science, to stifle democratic and fair debate about some of the most important policy decisions this generation will have to make.

It is curious that any commentators and scientists seem to have this blind-spot for misrepresentation of science and policy on climate, when they deplore the same confusion on issues such as genetic engineering. As I have written before, my only hunch as to why this might happen- apart from political bias- is that scientists from the fields such as genetic engineering or medicine are used to very specific evidence from carefully controlled and repeatable clinical trials, which we know are the gold standard of testing causation; they seem unable to understand that the post-normal science of climate change is a completely different beast, with no simple verification process and multiple layers of shifting hypothesis, from “is CO2 a warming gas?” (testable) to “what precise energy mix is the correct one to avert dangerous climate change?” (a matter as much for policy makers as for science).

To return to Keith Kloor’s article: Kloor slips badly again when he invokes the Preacutionary Principle, a weasle-word/concept if ever there was one:

Still, being uneasy about a powerful, new technology doesn’t make you a wild-eyed paranoid. The precautionary principle is a worthy one to live by. But people should know that GMOs are tightly regulated (some scientists say in an overly burdensome manner).

The precautionary principle, one of the main foundations of the environmental movement, is meaningless, and just a rhetorical device used to stop anything the Greens don’t want. Caution- including scientific testing, suitable trial periods and proper regulation- is necessary and good- and, well, just normal; once you elevate such basic things to the lofty level of Principles you are entering Orwellian territory. Any good science journalist should unpack such misleading concepts.

Along with “denialism”, the Precautionary Principle should be thrown away.

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6 Comments

  1. Ah, yes. I have to say that I agree. Yes, CO2 (and other gasses) is a “greenhouse” gas, but it is a leap of catastrophic proportions to then say the “answer”is to cease CO2 output. Yes, CO2 (and other gasses such as methane) contributes but is it the driver of our world’s changing climate?

    Cutting 100 percent of our CO2 emissions lowers CO2 emissions by a whopping 1.5 percent of the carbon cycle, because the rest (210 billion metric tons per year) comes from natural processes.

    As Judith Curry wrote, “[T]he policy cart was put before the scientific horse, justified by the precautionary principle. Once the [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change] treaty was a done deal, the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] and its scientific conclusions were set on a track to become a self fulfilling prophecy. The entire framing of the IPCC was designed around identifying sufficient evidence so that the human-induced greenhouse warming could be declared unequivocal, and so providing the rationale for developing the political will to implement and enforce carbon stabilization targets. National and international science programs were funded to support the IPCC objectives.” (http://judithcurry.com/2010/11/03/reversing-the-direction-of-the-positive-feedback-loop/#more-930)

    The call for consensus is not science it’s woo.

    Reply
  2. I agree with a lot your piece, but I don’t think the assault on the word “denialism” that Keith used is fair. Mother Jones uses the term “denial” themselves, as you can see with a quick search: http://www.motherjones.com/search/apachesolr_search/denialism

    That looks to me like they are being quick to call out denialism of pundits and politicians, whether you like the use of that word or not. (Not that I was surprised by the data at MJ, of course, but there is the data…). The last paragraph of the top result which is currently about the Romney campaign on Aug. 8 specifically calls out CO2 levels.

    What’s additionally funny to me is that your assault on that word looks a lot like the heat I got when I called the anti-GMO factions anti-science on Keith’s blog. Which I still stand on, and agree with, but you used in the title. However, I think you get to use the terms you think meet the need.

    I will also say I fully agree that calling someone a “homeopath” isn’t a cheap shot. It’s like saying cardiologist of physicist–it’s a training path and a methodology, which in this case it completely relevant to how one approaches assessment of data.

    Reply
    • Thanks mem, but my question to Keith is, what exactly is denier or a skeptic? It simply isnt comparable to anti-GMO woo. That MJ piece states:

      “he believes it’s occurring, and that human activity contributes to it, but he doesn’t know to what extent”

      is that “denialism”? Do we have a certain scientific consensus- “settled science” – on what extent anthro. CO2 is heating the atmosphere? Do we know what the impacts are with surety? and most of all, do we know what to do about it? Because of course, this is about politics, of course I can see Romney is resisting CO2 cuts, that IS politics, there is no “settled science” of how much cuts we should make, given the likely high costs of doing so, and the difficulty of doing so- rushing in premature could be the wrong move esp. when technology is moving ahead so rapidly. Ive no horse in the US presidential race (Im sure Id vote Obama!) but this political position is in no way comparable to Seralini. That’s the whole point of my piece- I dont think we should side with MJ etc when they use “denialism” to slam politics they dont like. Most of the other examples from MJ and Grist I could find were also clearly calling out anyone who disagreed with their policy “denialsits” and “skeptics” as if this was an issue of hard, repeatable, laboratory science. In GE, the policy questions are much, much simpler: GE s safe, will be very useful, let’s go ahead with proper regulations. Climate policy is a very different matter, there is just no easy certain answer…

      Reply
      • Hmm. I am still not on board with the distinction you are making. Maybe it’s because I’ve been immersed in the US anti-GE battle for so long, I’ve seen all the same things at some point or another–from rhetoric or policy perspectives. I could give chapter and verse on identical uses (and misuses) of science on both science itself and for policy impact.

        It would help me if you told me what you would have written in place of “Grist and Mother Jones are quick to call out the denialism….” with a succinct item to make the same (or similar) point. Maybe there’s something I’m missing with how you want to say it.

        Partly this is because I need remedial help on nuance and restraint. Those are not really part of my phenotype, I’m afraid. I am more inclined to full-bore descriptions, especially when it’s aimed at those who have larger influence than just someone on twitter–the thought-leader type with bigger platforms.

        Reply
        • Yes I realise there is a difference of perception re US politics, but I think I understand the issue pretty well, they have their parallels in Europe to if not perhaps quite so extreme.
          I now have a lengthy new post following on from yesterday’s Twitter exchange with Keith, so I hope you will find your questions answered there; but specifically- I wouldn’t have written anything in place of that statement. The entire premise of Kloor’s piece is entirely mistaken. GMO-activists are not in any way like “climate deniers”- because climate science and policy is entirely different in every way from that of GMOs. When we say “anti-GMO = anti-science’ I think it is pretty clear what we are talking about- but delve a little into climate change sci and politics and you very quickly end up in a swamp. “Denier” is simply used by the Left for anyone- literally anyone, even the Met Office!- who doesnt happen to agree with their politics. That is literally all it means. Of course there are “anti-science” activities on the right, but I argue, these are just reactions to the obvious and in many cases even more extreme anti-science positions of the Left- on climate change just as much as on GMOs. Come back to me on the new thread if you like, really interested to know your thoughts!

          Reply
  3. And then there’s this humorous (okay, slightly amusing) video, “I’m a denier.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vx-t9k7epIk

    Reply

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