Anti-Vaxxer Approach to Climate Science

The whole autism-vaccine thing started with the publication of a paper in a highly respected medical journal, The Lancet, by Andrew Wakefield, claiming that the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine was associated with colitis and autism spectrum disorders. It was soon discovered that Wakefield failed to disclose multiple conflicts of interest and manipulated evidence. His paper was retracted by The Lancet, whose editor-in-chief described it as “utterly false” and said the journal had been “deceived.” Subsequent studies have established beyond doubt that Wakefield’s claims were wrong.


That should have been the end of it. But as most of you already know, it wasn’t. Instead it led to a host of claims that vaccines were a potential severe hazard to your children and a movement to warn parents against them, with its best-known spokesmodel being model/actress/playmate of the year Jenny McCarthy. Members of the movement are sometimes called “anti-vaxxers,” a moniker which has, to some, become synonymous with unqualified individuals embracing pseudo-science nonsense, while rejecting sound science by the truly qualified (the overwhelming consensus of actual scientists who work on the subject in question).

This phenomenon doesn’t plague just vaccinations. It’s a plague on climate science. In fact, the proliferation of pseudo-scientific approaches to climate is part of a strategy to stave off actually doing anything to prevent the worst from climate change. Because doing something means putting a stop to the root cause of man-made climate change, which is (according to the overwhelming consensus of actual scientists who work on the subject) pouring vast quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The main one is carbon dioxide (CO2), and it comes from burning fossil fuels. But there’s so much money in the fossil-fuel business that there are powerful and relentless efforts to create doubt about what we already know: climate is changing, it’s because of us, and it’s extremely, extraordinarily, tremendously dangerous.

But, new climate anti-vaxxers pop up all the time. The vast, vast, vast majority of them aren’t climate scientists, not even scientists. They haven’t been studying climate science for most of their lives, or for a decade or longer, or even many years, instead they “recently” started looking into it. But they’re ready to declare that the conclusions of the truly qualified (actual scientists, actual climate scientists even, those who have devoted multiple decades, even most of a lifetime to studying it) are wrong.

As for learning about climate science, the merest glance at the details of their opinions reveals that what they’ve been studying isn’t climate science, it’s climate pseudo-science. Most of their sources are like a playbook from the collected works of climate deniers. Much of their effort is dressed up in sciency-sounding terms and adorned with graphs to make it seem legitimate — that’s part of the strategy — but I’m sorry, Mr. climate anti-vaxxer, you’re really (truly) not qualified to evaluate the evidence or separate the science from the pseudo when it comes to climate, any more than Jenny McCarthy is about vaccinations.

So another thinks-he-knows-better-than-real-scientists pops up and makes his beliefs public. That’s not such a big deal. What is a big deal is that there are far too many climate anti-vaxxers who are also politicians. They’re senators, they’re congressmen, and a large number of them are running for president. Think what you care to think about democrats vs republicans, but know this: the vast majority of climate anti-vaxxer politicians, and all the climate anti-vaxxer presidential candidates, are republicans. Just a fact.

The greatest pity about the anti-vaxxer movement is that kids don’t get vaccinations. That doesn’t just threaten themselves, it threatens the people around them, because when they get measles, mumps, rubella, or other diseases those plagues can spread, sometimes even among the vaccinated.

The greatest pity about the climate anti-vaxxer movement is that we don’t get serious action. That doesn’t just threaten the climate anti-vaxxers, it threatens us all.


Plot idea: 97% of the world’s scientists contrive an environmental crisis, but are exposed by a plucky band of billionaires & oil companies.
— Scott Westerfeld

22 responses to “Anti-Vaxxer Approach to Climate Science

  1. I think the anti-vaccination movement is (ironically) a result of the massive success of mass vaccination programs, at least in the US. Today’s new parents are several generations removed from the worst ravages of childhood diseases; most of them won’t have a living relative that’s confined to an iron lung, or suffering from hearing loss or heart damage due to scarlet fever and measels.

    I also believe that parents today have very different relationships with their children than parents of 50 or 60 years ago. Not that my parents weren’t loving or protective, but neither were they obsessed with my well-being. They didn’t put quite as many safety pads on me, metaphorically speaking. And, frankly, we simply weren’t as well-informed about toxic effects of certain elements as we are now (we were still arguing about lead in paint and gasoline when I was a kid).

    So, naturally, today’s new parents hear “mercury” and freak the hell out, without looking at the context (as in, the actual mercury-containing compound, why it was used, why it isn’t used anymore except in a few cases, etc.).

    Yes, there are some people who cannot be vaccinated due to allergies or compromised immune systems, which is why it’s important for everybody else to get vaccinated and maintain that herd immunity.

    As far as climate…

    The real solution to climate change (stop burning fossil hydrocarbons now yesterday last year 20 years ago) involves some level of economic pain for everyone living in a technological society, which is why so many people gravitate to the deniers, even if the deniers’ arguments don’t make any damned sense.

    That, and, I hate to say it, but many of my peers just ain’t that bright.

  2. “…but are exposed by a plucky band of billionaires & oil companies.”

    And cranks. Don’t forget about the cranks. There are lots of powerful reasons why people go “skeptic” besides financial incentives.

  3. Germany’s “Green Transition” costs the average German about €60/year via a levy on electricity. That’s less than 20 cents USD per day. Is that really economic pain territory? And that’s not even taking into account the benefits e.g. merit order effect on wholesale electricity prices subsidies and grants for efficiency.

    One might argue that Germany isn’t changing fast enough: so quadruple it and it’s still less than a dollar a day.

    • The German green transition? Do you think quadrupling the amount will be enough to make the transition fast enough? Would that soon remove all emissions that are due to their economy/society?

  4. US politics really is depressing. On a more positive note, Tony Abbott gone, Harper gone. Hopefully a little less obstructionism in Paris.

  5. Philippe Chantreau

    The whole cost thing is complete horse puckey. I recommend the excellent report from MIT on hot dry rock technology; the numbers in it are truly staggering, especially when it comes to cost, but in a good way. HDR is the renewable that can easily, reliably produce baseload, and extinguish all objections to transitioning away from coal. The surface footprint is minuscule in proportion to the energy produced, the landscape and ecological impacts are far below all other sources, the need for rare earth elements is vey limited and the potential is so vast that it can provide more than we need when combined with solar and wind, and even without them. There is absolutely no valid reason why industrial scale coal burning can not be eradicated within 30 years in the US. The only factors preventing that from happening have nothing to do with physical or economic realities and long term planning. They’re exclusively owed to a few privileged individuals, with privileged access to the lawmaking process and the mass-media, working to keep their privileges just because they don’t want to bother doing something different or because they are so engrossed in ideology that reality can not get a foothold in their thinking.
    I seriously recommend this report:
    https://mitei.mit.edu/system/files/geothermal-energy-full.pdf
    Food for thought. Not produced by pseudo scientists, only top notch people from MIT and Idaho National Laboratory.
    The Los Alamos National Laboratory also has online publication freely available.

    • Ontario has almost completely eliminated coal from its power portfolio. I say almost because it still occasionally imports some coal-generated power from the US Midwest during periods of peak summer demand (think air conditioning during heat waves), but even that has been greatly reduced by building a few new peaking power natural gas plants. Of course we already had plenty of hydro and nuclear base load, and not many coal plants to begin with, but key was the fact that all of them were publicly owned, so there were no private owners to push back when deciding to close the coal plants – a completely different situation from the US.

  6. I’ve reduced my family’s direct fossil fuel consumption by well over 50% in the past five years and we’ve suffered no economic pain at all. On the contrary, we now spend considerably less money on road fuels, natural gas and electricity than we used to. And that’s despite enjoying a bigger car, and a warmer and larger house.

    There was some significant capital investment involved (home insulation, new heating system, solar panels, plug-in hybrid vehicle, LED lighting). But much of this was done as part of a home extension project, and some of these expenses would have had to be made anyway, as our ancient and inefficient heating system was becoming unreliable, and our 8-year-old diesel vehicle was starting to cost hundreds or thousands in maintenance.

    Naturally, we took advantage of government incentives on offer, including earning a feed-in tariff on solar generation.

    I figure these actions not only help me, and make a tiny but necessary contribution to the problem, they also send an important signal to manufacturers, government, friends and neighbours.

  7. Hmph! And I suppose you lot who accept climate change and vaccine science also believe in evilution.

  8. The Very Reverend Jebediah Hypotenuse

    Here’s an interactive map of vaccine-preventable outbreaks…

    http://www.cfr.org/interactives/GH_Vaccine_Map/#map

  9. Distrust of scientists on climate change and vaccines have overlapping sociopolitical bases too, as we learned in a series of surveys. See “Trust in scientists on climate change and vaccines,”
    http://sgo.sagepub.com/content/5/3/2158244015602752

    Also, “Conservative and liberal views of science: Does trust depend on the topic?”
    https://carsey.unh.edu/publication/views-of-science

    Both papers are open access.

  10. “Hmph! And I suppose you lot who accept climate change and vaccine science also believe in evilution.”

    We have data on evolution too. Also on nuclear power safety, and GMOs, which like the vaccine question were included on our surveys to test the belief that while conservatives often reject science on climate change and evolution, liberals would more often do so on vaccines, nuclear power or GMOs. But no, they do not.

    Key graph from the Carsey brief on “Conservative and liberal views of science” mentioned above:

  11. L Hamilton Your graphs show that liberals accept science more than conservatives in all categories. I don’t pretend to speak for all liberals but the problems I raise wrt GMOs has nothing to do with rejecting the science and everything to do with how it is applied by large multinational corporations. Obviously we can genetically modify organisms. Agriculture is the saving of seeds from one year to the next. GMO patent infringement prevents that. Monocroping is dangerous; Monsanto is encouraging that. Most commercial GMO crops are engineered to be used with fossil fuel derived chemicals leading to massive dead zones. Scientists who support GMOs simply have not thought through all the implications and unintended consequences of raw greed. This is why Nicolas Nassim Taleb considers GMOs an existential threat. it is not because he denies the science but precisely because he understands the implications of the science much better than many geneticists.

    WRT, nuclear power, I don’t know anybody who doubts the science. Clearly we can amplify fission commercially. What we so far have failed to do is dispose of the waste properly. I’ve never yet met a pro-nuke person who had any idea the size of U235 reserves. Is this source of energy even sustainable? It is funny. I was in a discussion with a pro-nuke guy and he was being typically patronizing as if obviously I was simply a NYMBY kind of guy. In the course of the discussion I discover he doesn’t even know what an isotope is. At that revelation and after my explanation of the process, he began to listen to me. I consider not knowing what an isotope is anti science regardless of one’s opinion on the practicality of nuclear power.

    When one rejects human caused climate change or evolution one is rejecting the science, when one is skeptical of GMOs or nuclear power one is questioning the application and raising legitimate issues. Do you really want a single large multinational corporation controlled by unelected officials controlling the world’s agricultural production? What can possibly go wrong? One is not questioning the science.

    But thanks for the papers. I will read them. Kind regards :+)

    Tony

  12. M. Chantreau,

    The total geothermal output of the Earth is about 44 terawatts. While total human energy use is only 18 terawatts, there are efficiency and space-use considerations that imply geothermal can never be that large a part of the mix. I am very much for developing HDR, but don’t depend on it too much. The geothermal flux at Earth’s surface only averages 0.087 watts per square meter–compare that to 161 W/m^2 from sunlight on average.

    • Philippe Chantreau

      Barton, it seems that you have not closely looked at the report. Also, my point was about the US. I’m getting my info from the MIT report and it does not address the World as a whole. The synopsis and executive summary states:
      ” Using reasonable assumptions regarding how heat would be mined from stimulated EGS reservoirs, we also estimated the extractable portion to
      exceed 200,000 EJ or about 2,000 times the annual consumption of primary energy in the United States in 2005. With technology improvements, the economically extractable amount of useful energy could increase by a factor of 10 or more, thus making EGS sustainable for centuries.”
      Figure 1.7 shows a graph with recoverable energy under variously conservative estimates. The report is 372 pages but it’s well worth reading.

  13. Hi Tamino, I just took delivery of your Understand Statistics book (ordered online a month or more back but I guess it came surface mail). I’m looking forward to getting a better appreciation of the statistics in your posts… I notice that the book is not mentioned on the Climate Data Links page where your Noise books is advertised – maybe it should be for others to find.
    Before I get started, is there an errata list?

  14. Tony, I agree with your point. Some previous authors have suggested that attitudes toward science depend on attitudes toward the topic itself, but our results suggest that’s not a strong force. Instead, it seems that liberals are more likely, and conservatives less likely, to trust science regardless of topic. Quoting from the Carsey brief,
    “Neither the vaccine nor the climate change survey question asks what people believe on these topics, but simply whether they trust scientists as a source of information. Science is a process for systematically learning about causes and effects, and the emerging knowledge about vaccines is a case in point.”
    https://carsey.unh.edu/publication/views-of-science

  15. Hi Lawrence
    Believe me, I respect and admire cognitive psychologists and sociologists and the wonderful body of knowledge that has been accumulated in the last several decades. Your work is great. The point I am trying to make I don’t think is so subtle. Denial of evolution or denial of human-caused climate change is denial of some or many scientific theories which are true such as natural selection or radiation physics, atomic theory or quantum mechanics.

    Skepticism about the safety of GMO crops or nuclear power has nothing to do with rejection of physical theories which are true but is specifically about questioning the motives of large multinational profit seeking corporations such as Monsanto in the case of GMO crops whose corporate behavior is not at all unrelated to the corporate behavior of ExxonMobil.

    Even Adam Smith saw the danger “The proposal of any new law or regulation which comes from [businessmen], ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention. It comes from an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.” – Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Cause of the Wealth of Nations, vol. 1, pt. xi, p.10 (at the conclusion of the chapter)(1776)

    So my question is when people are asked that question are they being asked whether they trust the scientists that a safe nuclear power plant is possible given the laws of physics or are they being asked whether they trust a profit-seeking corporation to construct and maintain such as plant for 60 years and then safely dispose of the waste? The science does not at all preclude the design and construction or unsafe nuclear power plants, nor does it safeguard the public against corporate malfeasance. And scientists can as easily genetically modify organisms for positive effect as well as for negative effect or indeed in a way that has unintended consequences which might be healthy or quite harmful.

    So are you asking the same thing when you ask whether a person trusts scientists that GMOs are safe and whether evolution is true?

    A couple of cognitive psychologists a few years ago tried to relate conservative opinion on human caused climate change with liberal views on gun control and I was thinking where is the IPCC report on gun control? This is like an apple and an orangutan.

    I haven’t had time to read your papers yet but I will. They look very interesting and important and I appreciate your work in seeking answers to these difficult and timely questions.

    Best and thank you

    Tony

  16. Philippe, I have no doubt it’s sustainable. What I doubt is that it can provide a large fraction of human energy needs in the foreseeable future. Do the math.

    • Philippe Chantreau

      Barton, the report does the math. As I said, my argument is about US energy. An extractable portion that, under conservative estimate, represents, 2000 times the annual consumption of primary energy in the US is nothing to be dismissed. I don’t see why it should not be considered as having the potential to provide a large portion of the US energy needs. The report states: “With a reasonable investment in R&D, EGS could provide 100 GWe or more of cost-competitive generating capacity in the next 50 years.” This is well supported by the data and analysis following in the report. Could you elaborate on your critic? I’ve looked at the math in the report and it seems to add up just fine.

  17. I’m really glad I came across your blog. It’s nice to hear another voice of reason out there. If you get a chance, you should check out my blog, a Carbon Love Affair, and let me know your thoughts. I would greatly appreciate the feedback.