Big Tobacco and Climate Change Skeptics
A comment thrown at the “skeptics” or “deniers” is that they use a similar tactics to Big Tobacco in the fight against the harm that tobacco does to health(1). That is they issue false data and research to throw policy makers off the scent. Further, it is claimed they use similar arguments as Big Tobacco in opposing the climate change science.
This is a misleading analogy in four areas.
- On the tobacco issue, the first major study on the link between lung cancer, heart attacks and smoking was ground-breaking research based on questionnaires returned from over 34000 British doctors. This study was continued for 50 years, reinforcing the original findings. Further, independent studies not only corroborated these initial findings, but enhanced the detail. Much of the initial temperature data for AGW studies were more ambiguous, reliant on a loose correspondence between the rise in greenhouse gases and average global temperatures. Moreover, data is often not properly archived, whether early studies (eg. Jones et al 1990), or later ones (e.g. Kaufman et al 2009)
- On tobacco issues, it is possible to have a control group. That is, you can follow the health of a large representative group of people who smoke, and follow a similar cross-section of society group who do not smoke. The control for anthropogenic warming is temperature histories. That is, if recent warming is unprecedented in a thousand years or more, it can only be explained by anthropogenic factors. If however, the 20th century warming was no bigger than similar warmings at 1,000 and 2,000 years ago, then the anthropogenic element is likely to be small. Not only has the two most influential past temperatures reconstructions showing the former case have been rebutted (MBH 1998 – see especially Mcintyre 2008b and Briffa 2000), but also the total temperature reconstructions that show the medieval period was at least as warm as currently outnumber 7 to 1 that show the it was cooler.
- The selection criteria on medical research is published, along with sample sizes and the statistical tests on the results. Therefore, statisticians can check the results. The statistician and climate skeptic Steve McIntyre has his work cut out to get this information. See for instance the battle for the Briffa’s Yamal data or the Jones information.
- In general, the vast majority of medical research published in peer-reviewed journals is later refuted, or at least undermined. It is often of poor quality. Therefore in medicine, a peer reviewed research is but the first stage in getting an idea established. It needs to be replicated by other studies and cross-checked. Climate science is summarized by the UN IPCC is a form that reinforces a partisan viewpoint, rather than drawing conclusions through comparing and contrasting. For instance Steve McIntyre has posted his reviewer’s objections to the analysis of past temperatures in the 2007 assessment report, and the rejections. In the light of his subsequent exposure if the Yamal paper, these turn out to be entirely valid.
For the analogy to be upheld, climatologists need to show that their research programme is comparable in robustness and replication as the medical research was in the 1970s. My contention is that it falls far short. By implication, those who are either skeptical of the robustness of the results, or who deny completely the validity of the research programme, have much surer foundations for their doubts, even before presenting any research to the contrary.
1.See, for instance, Thomas Fuller (who, seeks communication between the opposing sides) at examiner.com
The fact that for many of the staunchest activists any bending is tantamount to surrender makes compromise difficult. They take their lessons from what happened with Big Tobacco, where the strategy of introducing doubt into the science allowed them to postpone accountability for their actions. They must take a blood oath or something to never admit error and never back down. I don’t admire them for that–they should trust the power of the truth.