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Why Facts Don't Matter

In a perfect world, every conversation we have about childhood vaccines, GMOs, alternative medicine, and global warming would be based on a set of facts agreed on by a majority of scientists working in those spheres. But we don’t live in a perfect world, so many conversations on the aforementioned subjects are often driven by emotion, ideology and politics.

For example, when I talk to some really smart friends who are opposed to biotechnology, I hear about Monsanto and how GMOs are not natural. I try to have a calm, rational, evidence-based discussion with them, but nothing I say really matters.

I have a similar experience with those who embrace unproven alternative health therapies. If they have already started dabbling in that world, then the chances of us engaging rationally in a science-based discussion are virtually nil, for reasons that Steven Novella explains here. (If you want me to save you time, the short answer is the power of personal experience.)

Sure, there are plenty of people in the respective anti-vaxx and anti-GMO orbits who point to various studies that back up their beliefs. It doesn’t matter that such research has largely been badly skewed, called into question, or taken out of context. It’s the veneer of science that counts.

The dynamics that govern most discussion of climate science are no different. Yet there is this persistent hope that one day reason will win over those who cling to the belief that man-made climate change is a manufactured issue. Matthew Herper, who covers science and medicine for Forbes, recently expressed this hope:

We have reached the point where every rational person who believes in making decisions based on science and available data should, if not fully believe that human beings are warming the planet by releasing greenhouse gases, at least recognize that this is what the data seem to suggest and that it is what the vast majority of scientists who study weather believe is the case.

He directs his plea to the last group of holdouts in the United States: Republicans. Herper goes on to methodically rebut the main objections he has heard from “conservative friends who do not believe in global warming.”

It’s good stuff. His one mistake is thinking he can have a rational, evidence-based discussion with those who are predisposed to thinking that Al Gore, climate scientists, and liberals are using climate change as a pretext to advance a political agenda. Thus, Herper will likely make no more headway on climate change with his conservative friends than I have on GMOs with my liberal friends. (There is a common denominator.) Both of us may have the facts on our side, but the naysayers have something even more powerful: “Motivated reasoning.”

Why are many conservatives inclined to dismiss climate change as a legitimate concern? On a recent post of mine that discussed climate adaptation, a reader sarcastically shot back:

Plan for preventing climate change: Embrace progressive values.

Plan for adapting to climate change: Embrace progressive values.

This is just one comment, but it is emblematic of how conservatives view climate change. People staunchly opposed to GMOs wear a similar ideological lens. That’s why facts don’t often matter in debates on climate change and biotechnology.


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  • did joshua win a bet with you Keith ? fwiw, my personal discomfort with GMOs stems more from a distrust of large multinationals to act in a manner that is consistent with broader notions of sustainability. small is beautiful. discuss.

    • Only large multinationals can bring GMO to the market because of all the legal barriers to GM, if GM had the same barriers as product genetically manipulated by other means, for example you can bombard a plant with radiation or chemical to produce random mutation and sell the offspring of that as organic, then small companies or even universities could sell GMO products. Universities often create lots of usefully GM product but they are left on the shelf, for example a banana was developed that could deliver medicines useful to the third world which they current have trouble getting because they have to be refrigerated.

      • The GM papaya wasn’t made by a multinational.

    • So what? Why single out GMOs? I’d be way more worried, for instance, about pesticides. Yet nobody is arguing that we should have labels to tell us what pesticides we should have on our food.

      • i agree. and fwiw, i think it’s unhelpful to single out GMO technology because it detracts from the other, more important issues that come with industrial scale agriculture.

      • Ok… DDT has likely saved more lives than any other chemical invented by mankind, except for maybe bleach. The number of people harmed and killed by malaria is far greater than those who have suffered from the overuse of DDT. Of course there are better chemicals available now.

        Where are you seeing this increase in death or sickness due to pesticide usage? (Other than farmworkers, who should be better protected.)

        • Would you care to back that assertion with ….oh, I don’t know–citations, maybe?

      • If your definition of pesticides is insecticides and herbicides, then the currently commercialized GMOs have both, which is one of the reasons the consumer gains no benefit while rightly perceiving a risk. The insecticide is bt ( cry proteins) which science has shown to be sufficiently immuno-reactive
        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10354369
        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10353588

        as to be considered as an adjuvant for vaccines

        (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15271892
        http://www.vkm.no/dav/0dea17091d.pdf )

        thus engendering a risk of intestinal inflammatory disorders.

        No clinical studies have been published examining associations between ingestion of cry proteins and inflammatory bowel disorders to date as the pro-GMO camp is married to the hypothesis that there are no mechanistic risks to the exclusion of backing the theory with clinical data..

        As well, if your definition of pesticides includes herbicides, now that weeds are evolving resistance to glyphosate ( which there are scientific reasons to believe is not as safe as claimed–would you like links to facts?) harsher herbicides( 2,4-D and dicamba + some newer ones- “the fops” of which the only available science is a single case report of cholestatic/hepatocellular liver Injury http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2022636/
        and another I suspect men care more about-elevated risk of hypospadias http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1626392/

        If you are bored or if you, unlike Keith, believe there is indeed value in FACTS, I’ll copy and paste more links on the wonders of 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic
        acid (2,4-D) in Dows GMOs flowing through the APHIS regulatory pipeline presently.

    • Is your television made by a large multinational? How about your computer? Your car? The wood that makes up your house? Does it discomfit you to use all those things?

      • no but then i don’t regularly eat my house…some sandboxes are ok for big capital to play in. others not so much.

        • although, even then that isn’t really the source of my discomfiture. it’s not so much a personal health concern rather than a concern about the socio-economic impacts of industrial agriculture. i’m confident, nonetheless, in predicting that we won’t have a fruitful conversation on the topic.

  • Hey, I feel like I’m making slow, steady progress on GMOs with my lefty friends…. thanks for the link. At least we’re having fun.

    • After reading a pile of research on GMOs, I’ve moved from a position of precautionary principle on all counts to thinking they’re probably safe for human consumption. That said, I think there’s much still to learn about ecological impacts. I’ll follow wherever good science leads from here.

      • Let me see your pile of research. Having read much of it, I can tell you quite confidently that it consists of ZERO clinical DATA.
        PS…actual science doesn’t survive on this blog,

  • I’m not sure why you think Herper is “good stuff”. Every point he raises has been dealt with in depth here over the years.

    The standstill in global warming isn’t just because of the 1998 El Nino. Numerous alternative explanations based on plausible physics have been offered. Fourier, Tyndall, and Arrhenius got the mechanism of the greenhouse effect wrong. (As physicists like Angstrom pointed out at the time.) Mars has more CO2 in its atmosphere than Earth does. (Although I agree the greenhouse effect is the reason for the planetary temperatures.) Scientists have admitted to making stuff up, and the idea that climate scientists could get better paid jobs in industry assumes industry would take them. Al Gore tells more than a few “over-exaggerations”, but his version of the science isn’t the issue. There are no new techniques that allow them to connect weather to climate. And we’ve got photos of climate sciences’s thermometers sat next to hot aircon vents and trash burners.

    It would take mere minutes for any well-informed sceptic to demolish any of those arguments. And anyone who’s spent any time debating sceptics would know it, probably knowing all the arguments just as well. Why would anyone publish this, or pay any attention to it?

    The answer seemingly appears part way through, when Professor Wuebbles is cited, who has recently made some very strange statements related to climate. They’re trying out their “climate communication” techniques – find voices conservatives will listen to, separate the science from the proposed solutions, reduce the threat to ideological identity, figure out compromise positions, take small steps. There’s obviously another publicity campaign on.

    It’s probably the right idea, the problem with it was that they didn’t find an actual conservative climate sceptic to craft the message – it looks more like it was constructed around what a progressive believer thinks a sceptic believes, and what an orthodox climate believer would think the rebuttals were. The arguments and the way they’re presented don’t quite ring true.

    If you wanted to find common ground between sceptics and climate science, you could. You could take a lot of the heat out of the fight that way. But ultimately, you’re only going to be able to persuade by taking the issues sceptics raise seriously, and doing something to fix the problems. Clean up the science by withdrawing bad results, opening up the data and methods, introducing quality standards, spend some time presenting the entire argument clearly and accessibly in detail in one place. Throw out the bad apples. Improve the instrumentation. And put honesty over effectiveness.

    That would not only get you a serious hearing from sceptics, but it would improve the science too. People like Curry, Edwards, and Betts are showing you the way. But the activists and campaigners are blinded by their own beliefs to what needs to be done.

    • 1998 was an El Nino year followed by two volcanoes that added a lot of fine particle to the upper atmosphere. ‘Numerous alternative explanations’, numerous explanations have been given as to why big foot hasn’t been found either, so what, the quality of climate change scepticism science is pathetic, we are talking papers that claim global warming is against the laws of physics because heat can’t move from the upper atmosphere to the lower, nobody said it was, the rate of heat lose from the lower to the upper has slowed.
      Mars doesn’t have more CO2 than the earth, it might have a higher percentage, mars atmosphere is extremely thin. ‘Scientists have admitted to making stuff up’, ‘As physicists like …’ science is a community exercise, cherry picking scientist that give you the answers you want is not science. Al Gore is not a scientists. There are plenty of people willing to pay climatologist who they think will give them the answer they want, the Koch brother have done this regularly, most recently failing when the scientist who original was a skeptic come to the collusion in a study paid for by the Koch brothers that, yes the earth is warming. Clean up the science by withdrawing bad results, why would you want to withdraw bad result, you should publish all the results so they can be studied. Opening up the data, Climatogist don’t own the data, they get the data from others under NDA and so the data is not made public until the owners of the data have finished there science. ‘And we’ve got photos of climate sciences’s thermometers sat next to hot aircon vents and trash burners’ anecdotal evidence is worthless, the quality of the data has been debated repeatedly, a climate change sceptic gave a list of the sites he considered good and the results from them only where just the same, climate change is about change, a thermometer that is located in a bad location will be consistently above or below average and will not reproduce an increase, satellite images also confirm global warming. CO2 driven global warming predicts greater increase in temp of the lower atmosphere to the upper which has come true, it predicts the pole will be effect more than the equator, that has come true increases in snow during the winter is because there is more water moister in the air. There are conservative climate scientist who accept global warming google it. ‘issues sceptics raise seriously’ the issues raised by sceptics are repeatedly answered, they just ignore the answer and continue to raise the same issue with out address why the answers they have gotten are not acceptable.

    • NiV,

      Who has dealt with Herpers’s points in depth? You? And by that, do you mean in comment threads. Or do you mean other climate skeptics at their various blogs?

      What I see from your comment is a mishmash of sweeping statements, grandiosity (“It would take mere minutes for any well-informed sceptic to demolish any of those arguments”) and rank speculation about motives (which I’ve noticed you tend to fall back on).

      To reaffirm a central point of my post, the issue isn’t how well-informed climate skeptics are–I’m sure many are! The issue is how their particular worldviews influence the information they choose to agree with and that they don’t.

      I realize that is a sore subject for such self-styled rigorous-minded climate skeptics such as yourself, BH and Watts. A shame you guys are in denial over this. As I’ve said before, if climate skeptics were true skeptics, I’d see ample evidence of it at the most popular climate skeptic blogs. Instead, I see the opposite.

      I’d find you a more credible voice if you emulated someone like Mosher, who is not afraid to call bs on anyone in the two camps at the opposite ends of the spectrum.

      • This just seems like a convenient excuse (errrr…..I mean social science) to shut down any debate with someone who has a conservative viewpoint. You are trudging through the same gutter of not debating the facts, but instead debating the politics of the opposing side.

        The proposed policies to combat global warming are legitimately viewed through one’s political perspective. Almost all proposed solutions from the left embrace a progressive view of centralized government control of the energy sector and taxes, subsidies, and more taxes. These policies would not even appear to be effective in tackling the problem. And yet you are surprised these aren’t embraced by the 47% of people who voted Republican?

        Motivated reasoning is a draw. Both sides have it in spades. It’s barely worth discussing.

  • fwiw, I recently was in a conversation with a man who stated he “didn’t believe” in global warming. I was shocked–this is a smart, successful businessman. I tried a different tack and first joked that I didn’t know that global warming was up there with fairies and Santa Claus, but then I said “Even if emissions aren’t causing global warming, do you REALLY think we should be spewing that crap into the air?”

    Astonishingly, he said “No, we shouldn’t” and we got into a good discussion on alternative energy sources.

    This might be a better way to approach a climate skeptic

  • Keith and Mr. Herper -

    Would both of you kindly stop using the strawman of the person who “doesn’t believe” in global warming. The issue is whether there is cause for alarm. Al Gore and a select group of climate scientists most certainly do advance their political agendas by falsely claiming alarm. Even James Annan, a pretty committed “Team” member recently said as much about the IPCC. The facts are on the side of us sceptics, who continue to claim, on the basis of the science, that there is no cause for alarm.

    • Maybe alarm is strong word. How about: a modern society should be able to manage its externalities on the basis of scientific evidence? Clearly were having trouble with that. I’m not saying we’re all going die. Ecosystems will be disrupted, desertification will intensify, people will be displaced, food prices will increase and unstable regions will further be destabilized. We don’t really know how bad it’s going to be, but it’s not going to be good. We also know there no reversing it over the near-term. Don’t you think we should get our act together and work with other nations to limit our carbon emissions and invest in alternative energies? Cap and trade, something like that? How is it that the richest country on earth can’t afford to work towards a better future for the planet?

  • Wow, I’m honored to have my comment highlighted. A brilliant insight I must say, ha ha.

    You are conflating belief in global warming (yes, the globe has warmed, I admit it, I guess that makes me an independent) with being a critic of attribution, climate model projections, and of the proposed policies to combat said global warming. That is where the debate goes off the rails.

  • I don’t think that the argument is whether or not climate change exists. I don’t even think the argument is with what is causing global warming. The argument arises when someone asserts that the American government can some how fix the problem of “Global” warming by taxing American car owners or power companies. How does a tax cool the planet? How long would taxes and government policies take to cure our planet? To what degree would it be cured? In 10 years will everything be back to normal and then the taxes and policies will go away. 20 years? 100 years? Never? Someone says there’s a problem and that we need money to fix it, but there has been no word on how long it will take or what it will cost. Its just a request for a blank check in perpetuity without an idea of the good it will do.

  • Keith,

    The climate activist lobby has relentlessly pounded this equation into the public mindset:

    Climate Change = Catastrophic Climate Change = Massive Federal Regulatory Intervention
    The common refrain is that 97% of climate scientists believe in global warming, so we need to stop burning coal, oil and natural gas immediately to stop the planet from frying tomorrow!

    Not much room for compromise there!

    If I were a Republican I’d avoid the topic altogether and work from a different angle: the budget. And – surprise! – that’s exactly what Republicans are doing.

    But the beauty of this circumstance is that it shows once again how the climate activist lobby’s all-or-nothing positions have been destructive to their own goals. They’ve achieved virtually nothing in 25 years. They’re as pathetic as the Republicans.

    It’s raining or snowing across the entire severe-drought region today. If Obama wants to take credit for saving the climate, he better move fast.

  • Climate change is a whole separate issue. It is really political in nature, not scientific. Sure there are climate change skeptics, but even if you agree, well now you get economists disagreeing on the impact, which includes those who see it as a net positive. Don’t get started on geo-engineering. And even the climate change crowd is starting to say that all the alarmism has backfired.

    Climate change is an example of abuse and politicization of science. It is funded by politicians and used to push a political agenda. Climate change advocates aren’t calling for an immigration halt from less developed countries, and they aren’t calling for development of thorium reactors. In fact, all their energy solutions produce far less energy than will be needed in future, while hiking taxes to slow the economic growth. So it’s clear the agenda is about something other than protecting the planet while keeping economic growth strong. In fact, given that taxes won’t do much and will do nothing to slow emissions growth from China, India, Indonesia, etc., it looks like a giant scam to many people.

    Now, vaccines, GMO, flouride, etc. are all more interesting because the main complain is science based and all are involving taking things into our bodies.


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