Copenhagen climate change blah blah

December 12th, 2009 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, denialism | 266 Comments »

Sorry, this felt a bit rushed and PollyFillaesque, I hope it’s vaguely interesting…

Ben Goldacre, The Guardian, Saturday 12 December 2009

So as we career towards a mediocre outcome in Copenhagen, why do roughly half the people in this country not believe in man-made climate change, when the vast, overwhelming majority of scientists do?

It certainly predates the leaked emails (on which there is surely nothing more to say). Firstly we have the obvious psychological issues. We’re predisposed to undervalue adverse outcomes which are a long way off in the future, especially if we might be old or dead soon. We’re inherently predisposed to find cracks in evidence that suggests we should do something we don’t want to do, hence the enduring appeal of stories about alcohol being good for you, and policy initiatives have hardly helped on this front. Suggesting that personal behaviour change will have a big role to play, when we know that telling people to do the right thing is a spectacularly weak way to change behaviour, is an incomplete story: you need policy changes to make better behaviour easier, and we all understand that fresh fruit on sale at schools is more effective than telling children not to eat sweets.

This is exacerbated, of course, because climate science is difficult. We could discuss everything you needed to know about MMR and autism in an hour: the experimental techniques of epidemiology and other disciplines, how they’ve been misrepresented, the results, strengths, and weaknesses of the key studies. Climate change will take two days of your life, for a relatively superficial understanding: if you’re interested, I’d recommend the IPCC website itself, where they have a series of three executive summaries for policy makers, which are perfectly good pieces of humourless popular science writing.

On top of that, we don’t trust governments on science, because we know they distort it. We see that a minister will sack Professor David Nutt, if the evidence on the relative harms of drugs is not to the government’s taste. We see the government brandish laughable reports to justify DNA retention by the police, or their stance on copyright, with flawed figures, suspicious missing data, and bogus arguments. We know that evidence based policy is window dressing, and now, when they want us to believe them on climate science, to justify Stern’s paltry 1% of global GDP to mitigate a global horror, we doubt.

Then, of course, the media privilege foolish contrarian views because they have novelty value, and also because “established” views get confused with “establishment” views, and anyone who comes along to have a pop at those gets David vs Goliath swagger.

But the key to all of this is the recurring mischief of criticisms mounted against climate change. I am very happy to affirm that I am not a giant expert on climate change: I know a bit, and I know that there’s not yet been a giant global conspiracy involving almost every scientist in the world (although I’d welcome examples). More than all that, I can spot the same rhetorical themes re-emerging in climate change foolishness that you see in aids denialism, homeopathy, and anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists.

Among all these, reigning supreme, is the “zombie argument”: arguments which survive to be raised again, for eternity, no matter how many times they are shot down. “Homeopathy worked for me”, and the rest. Zombie arguments survive, they get up and live again, immortal and resistant to all refutation, because they do not live or die by the normal standards of mortal arguments. There’s a huge list of them at, with refutations. There are huge lists of them everywhere. It makes no difference.

“CO2 isn’t an important greenhouse gas”, “Global warming is down to the sun”, “what about the cooling in the 1940s?” says your party bore. “Well,” you reply, “since the last time you raised this, I went and checked, and it turns out that there were loads of suphites in the air in the 1940s to block out the sun, made from the slightly different kind of industrial pollution we had back then, and the odd volcano, so that’s sort of been answered already, ages ago.”

And they knew that. And you know they knew you would find out, if you could be botheredbut they went ahead anyway and wasted your time, raising it, knowingly, as if it was unrefuted, as if it was unrefutable, and worse than that, you both know they’re going to do it again, to some other poor sap. And that is simply rude.

If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

266 Responses

  1. phayes said,

    December 28, 2009 at 9:50 am


    I sincerely hope your absurd mischaracterisations of the process of science and the nature of scientific consensus are not taught in high schools.

  2. Tetenterre said,

    December 28, 2009 at 12:27 pm

    @quasilobachevski (#194)

    We can continue this when you have learned and understood the meanings of /petitio principii/ and /false dichotomy/ and their implications for the validity of a scientific argument.

    (Additional clues: (a) CRU did destroy raw data (b) CRU staff did encourage others to destroy data (c) MetOffice has not yet recompiled the raw data so its current status is functionally indistinguishable from “destroyed”.)

    General point:

    I was recently reading a rather good book on science and I came across a few statements, made in relation to a different topic but which are, I submit, pertinent to any scientific enquiry:

    “…they don’t tell you how they randomised … This is a classic warning sign…” (Briffa’s cherry-picked tree rings?)

    “…it’s important that research is always published, in full, with its methods and results available for scrutiny. (…) In fact, as a general rule, it’s always worth worrying when people don’t give you sufficient details about their methods…” (Mann et al, CRU, etc. refusing to release full details; upward “corrections” to temperature data; etc.?)

  3. quasilobachevski said,

    December 28, 2009 at 5:56 pm


    I’m not making a scientific argument, I’m asking you to substantiate your assertion that CRU destroyed raw data.

    So far, I have only seen evidence that CRU lost data that was also stored elsewhere (at the Met Office), and for which the Met Office (rather than the CRU) were responsible. This seems very different from your claim (although I don’t think anyone would dispute that it would be preferable if the data were published in an accessible format).

    I don’t see how asking you to back up your own assertion is question-begging.

    Sorry for accusing you of mendacity (I assume that’s the false dichotomy you allude to) – that was over the top, I admit. But surely you can see that it’s frustrating when you make such strong claims and then back them up with such flimsy evidence?

  4. Dr Paul said,

    December 28, 2009 at 7:24 pm

    Ben, you are making a basic assumption and that assumption is that the climate scientists are, without question, right and you seemingly fail to question this. By doing so you are making a basic scientific error because everything should be questioned in order to gain a better understanding. Otherwise we would all still believe the earth is flat, not so? History is littered with scientific pronouncements that have been proven incorrect, even (or maybe particularly) in your field. Correct?

    This is not medicine where things are relatively simple – it works or it doesn’t and one knows in a relatively short period.

    Climate science is a science based on predictions and those predictions are based on computer models, which are supposedly based on past events, where the scientist tries to predict future events. By its very nature, this is unpredictable because future or unforeseen events may change or one may find that the evidence gained from past events was flawed. For example witness the met office trying to predict the weather. How often, in your own experience, are they right?

    I’m not a climate scientist so I can’t comment on the validity of the science but I am a computer scientist and if the model that was leaked on the internet from the East Anglia climate research centre is the model used then I think it is questionable and at the minimum should be investigated to validate the method used.

  5. PeterLondon said,

    December 30, 2009 at 10:09 pm

    Please don’t compare the argument to Aids deniers and MMR hoaxers. You’re a fine scientist Ben and your book enriched my life greatly. But I am a climate sceptic- since labels are so important in my new country there you have it. I was at Science Museum earlier today and was disgusted by the propaganda techniques used to promote the Copenhagen summit—-TO CHILDREN!

    You are a man of science. You are also correct in saying that lack of trust in government is also playing a role in the growing numbers of the anti-global warming crowd.

    We are too dependent on petroleum. In that case, let’s remove the subsidies we give this industry – including the subsidies that fund their ‘green’ research and consider allowing the entrepreneurs to get us out of this mess.

    Over a century ago the world was running out of ‘whale oil’. The world panicked over how they were going to enjoy indoor lighting. SOLUTION: A man by the name John D. Rockefeller who hired an R&D crew to create a by-product called Kerosene.

    Incase you case interested. I have not owned a car since 2000. I do not fill the void in my life with extravagant purchases but with good coffee at Monmouth, good company, a terrific career, good conversation and a family to die for.

    Ben, the debate is not over. I am an intelligent, educated man and incase you’re wondering, I am not a pawn of the oil industry.

    Solutions..or atleast a step in the right direction.. I still adore you Ben but please read on.

    1) End Subsidies to oil companies and you’ll see a sudden surge in innovation that makes the ones of the past 2 decades seem paltry in comparison. Patent laws are what’s killing us, not CO2/warming/ climate skeptics (or whatever other label we are pinned with)

    2) Stop threatening developing countries with trade wars if they don’t comply. that will lead to a real environmental disaster.

    3) I wish everyone a terrific 2010 – my girlfriend wants me to come to bed…sorry. — I wrote the solutions portion lastly by the way.

  6. phayes said,

    December 31, 2009 at 6:18 am

    Good grief!…

    Bad Science Antiphrasis of the Year Awards, 2009:

    1= “Climate sceptic”.
    1= “Computer scientist”.


  7. qdc said,

    January 4, 2010 at 9:02 pm

    The comments have trailed off somewhat.

    In reply to:
    #190.bodenca and
    December 28, 2009 at 5:56 pm
    who said:
    “I’m not making a scientific argument, I’m asking you to substantiate your assertion that CRU destroyed raw data.
    So far, I have only seen evidence that CRU lost data that was also stored elsewhere (at the Met Office), and for which the Met Office (rather than the CRU) were responsible. This seems very different from your claim (although I don’t think anyone would dispute that it would be preferable if the data were published in an accessible format).”

    See this video made prior to climategate.
    In passing, note Jones’s response in 2004 to a request for data:
    “Even if WMO [World Meteorological Organization] agrees, I will still not pass on the data. We have 25 or so years invested in the work. Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it.”

    But to confuse matters, see Realclimate (The AGW) blog at:
    38Jay says:
    20 November 2009 at 1:54 PM
    Again, I write to the moderator. What did I write that was so inflammatory that you would not post it? I have not attempted to stir anything up? I would like to know the truth. Thats all. The truth needs no moderation nor to be covered up. What is wrong with my saying that? Maybe you can post this and a response as I don’t see what could possibly be wrong with this post.
    My only questions now is…
    I hear a lot about the FOIA and data that was being withheld that is now lost or destroyed. Is there an explanation or a reference to that which would answer what I have been hearing on the other end?
    [Response: No data has been lost or destroyed. – gavin]
    (The response given here is presumably by Gavin Schmidt.)

    Then this newspaper report 9 days later reporting that CRU scientists admit that the raw data was destroyed:

    It would be difficult to summarize more succinctly (or brutally) the state of “consensus” climate science than has John Smith’s comment on January 04, 2010
    at 06:05 AM at:

    “David Welch – the methodology of climate change science is as follows:

    1. start with a (preferably apocalyptic) desired result
    2. select data to support the desired result, ignore or destroy data that does not support the desired result
    3. create models to predict the desired result – when the predictions turn out to be incorrect, obscure the predictions
    4. destroy or lose the unmanipulated raw data so that there is no possibility of independent (in)validation”

    to which I can add subverting peer review, look at this sorry tale written from first-hand experience & revealed by the climategate emails:

    As stated by many above who have contributed comments to this blog (very sensible comments, including Michael leahy, Tetenterre, markus82, Prospero, Ben Pile, Tyversky, Nomark, Squander Two, throg, DougieJ) we are hugely disappointed by Ben Goldacre’s treatment of this important topic.

    I especially appreciated #202.carpsio December 17, 2009 at 2:32 pm, who said:
    “Ah… the irony of coming to this blog and finding that even Ben Goldacre – a man I *worship* for his attempts to bring rationality to science coverage in this country – has fallen into step with the ’scientific consensus.’ … You. Are. Wrong.”

  8. proveyance said,

    February 4, 2010 at 3:55 am


    Having contrary to prevailing ideas that are giggled and snickered at by the populace makes me feel clever? That notion always irritates me, as it forgets the price I’ve paid to be skeptical of the majority views.

    Can’t a man ask how Usama bin Laden, who reportedly died at a US hospital in Dubai in late December 2001 is still issuing Jihadist rhetoric without uncomfortable smiles of displeasure? Not really. Try getting a promotion or laid with questions like this swimming around in your head. It’s been most stressful.

    More on Usama for the statistics buffs. Before Sept. 11, 2001 his recorded statements included on average 400 religious references per hour. Since that time, his average fell immediately to around 20. But what does that have to do with 9/11. Nothing really.

    My advice is to maintain a life of fact-finding, and withhold any conclusions. That is unless you are within arms reach of Dick Cheney. In that case, by all means do what comes naturally.

  9. DougieJ said,

    February 14, 2010 at 9:27 pm

    Hi Ben,
    I’ve been away on a desert island for the last few weeks.

    Anyway, I’m back now and I thought I’d pop in here to just, y’know, see if anything of note has happened on the climate change issue while I’ve been away.

    I’m sure it hasn’t, after all the issue is settled beyond all doubt (as an overwhelming majority of scientists overwhelmingly agree), but just in case I’ve missed anything, can you update me?


  10. Ben Goldacre said,

    February 14, 2010 at 9:34 pm

    Hi DougieJ,

    while you were away, a man who works in an organisation wasn’t very stylish about correcting a small error.


  11. DougieJ said,

    February 14, 2010 at 10:20 pm

    Thanks Ben,
    Glad to know there’s not been any examples of bad science uncovered. It would only give those nasty planet destroying big oil funded deniers further, ahem, fuel.

  12. Graham Stanford said,

    March 7, 2010 at 7:05 am

    Its common sense, mankind’s releasing greenhouse gases & particulates into the atmosphere will have some effect on climate. But “common sense” is not a useful tool for a practitioner of the scientific method. The fact that an overwhelming majority of scientists believe that there is a causal link is not in itself proof. The history of science is littered with cases where the scientific establishment has got it wrong. Scientists need to move away from the action committees and return to their position as professional sceptics, who require cast iron proof.

    The current conventional wisdom on climate change is based on a small increase in global temperature, extrapolated over a long period of time. If its not “Bad Science” its certainly “Weak Science”. If scientists vigorously pursue the case for intervention, they weaken their own position of impartiality.

    I am in favour of creating a sustainable future, but this can only happen if the population of the globe is convinced we are on the right track. This is a mammoth task, which needs to be moved forward slowly & surely. Creating dodgy doomsday scenarios will inevitably lead to a backlash, which will delay the process.

    It is simpler to convince people that breathing rubbish in the atmosphere is unhealthy and needs to be curtailed. There is widespread incidence of asthma, and the point can be easily made and is difficult for anyone to counter.

  13. arnuxii said,

    July 25, 2010 at 5:59 am

    This is one of the coldest periods in the history of the planet due to there being an land mass at the south pole.

    For most of the history of the planet it has been much warmer.

    So when the planet gets warmer and there is more co2 all hell will break loose and we will all die?
    I don’t think so.

    If it was so bad every time the climate gets warmer there would be a mass extinction but there is no correlation.

    The problem with the alarmists is they don’t know enough science to understand the consequences of global warming.

    Also, if runaway global warming was possible it would have already happened and we would not be here.

    Global warming is real and it’s almost all good.

  14. sphelps696 said,

    March 7, 2011 at 11:32 am

    I am not a climate science, but I am a scientist, and I seen many good reasons to be skeptical of some of the global warming claims. Part of the problem is a lack of transparency: too much emphasis is put on peer-review (in subscription-only journals closed to the general public) at the expense of making data and methods as transparent as possible. If more proponents of climate-change published their results and code on the web site in a format like this:

    as opposed to fancy subscription-only journals then I’d give them a lot more credence.

  15. Colin Dixon said,

    July 5, 2011 at 5:37 pm

    I like some of the storys on this blog and the theme as well. I’m thinking the IPPC is very Bad Science, a couple of Australian Scienitsts have a lot of data on this, have you looked at it. David Evans has a background in mathematics, computing, and electrical engineering. He helped build the carbon accounting model for the Australian Government that tracks carbon in plants, debris, soils, and agricultural and forest products. There is no evidence that man’s carbon emission are the main cause of global if convincing.

  16. SteveMD said,

    July 23, 2012 at 12:19 pm

    Surely part of the problem is the over-simplification of skeptical views. Not all skeptics “deny” climate change, nor even anthropomorphically-driven climate change. But many know hyperbole when they hear it and don’t appreciate being treated like sheep to be herded into compliance by scare-stories. Such tactics have been used to dupe us too often, so don’t be surprised when some of us react with the assumption that we are being conned again.