Stupid Shit

Imagine every single report ever about the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer, from the 1960s when the surgeon general’s report came out up to the present day, beginning with the statement that “No single case of lung cancer can be definitively linked to smoking.

Now imagine being inundated by op-eds in the Wall Street Journal and reports from Fox News on the link between cigarettes and heart disease saying that People got heart disease long before there were cigarettes. Heart disease rates are always changing. It’s just a natural variation. Imagine someone “adjusting” rates of emphysema for the increase in population at risk, levels of ozone (natural of course, not man-made), the growth of urban vs. rural population, and concluding that emphysema has actually declined since people started smoking. Imagine someone repeating again and again that laryngeal cancer is mainly due to changes in the output of the sun.

Imagine the surgeon general pointing out that there is a huge consensus among physicians and medical researchers that smoking exaggerates all those illnesses, but a public relations guy appears and says there’s no such consensus — it’s based on flawed reports, he says, it’s just a made-up hoax. Imagine a “petition” from a group calling themselves the “Institute of science and medicine” claiming that over 31,000 scientists have signed their petition endorsing their view that There is no convincing scientific evidence that smoking is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic health impact … and that …there is substantial scientific evidence that increases in smoking produce many beneficial effects …

Imagine hearings in the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives disputing the health impacts of smoking. Imagine four U.S. Senators calling for an end to a smoking-education program, calling it “propaganda.” Imagine the chairman of the committee on space, science, and technology calling the scientific evidence a fraud. Imagine a congressman suggesting that increases in lung cancer, heart disease, and emphysema are due to rocks and dirt filling up our lungs. Imagine the Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania saying that one of the causes of lung cancer is … body heat from increased population.

Imagine the president of the United States tweeting that the smoking-disease link is just a hoax, a plot devised by the Chinese to make the American tobacco industry non-competitive.

If you can imagine that, then you know what the current political “climate” in the U.S.A. is like when it comes to the subject of man-made climate change.

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22 responses to “Stupid Shit

  1. I hereby invoke Tomlin’s rule “No matter how cynical you are, it’s never enough” Lily, that is, LilyTomlin

    Then see and and

    Even in the matters of cognitive and ethical compromise – one should follow the money.

  2. Yeah, but the susceptibility of the public to this guile, this form of argument ought to provide a clue as to the limitations of such public appreciating the argument, let alone acting upon it.

    Behavioral economics, per Kahneman and Twersky, among others, is the key.

    It is not only the evil politics of a particular group. It is that and the Collective Unwillingness to disrupt their lifesyles, their comforts, and their superior economic position for what they perceive to be an abstract if altruistic surrender.

    The more I read and think on this, the more I believe we are overestimating the ability of the democratic public to properly assess data, physics, and especially risk. They can’t. That’s been demonstrated time and time again.

    Question is, then, what do we do now? We aren’t going to educate them on fundamental ways of dealing with the world.

    I have some ideas, but these are not couched in optimism.

    [Response: I want to know your ideas, optimistic or not.]

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    Reposted from skeptical science.

    Feel free to moderate this out if you feel it does not belong on your blog Tamino.

    [Response: It belongs. You’re damn right it belongs. Keep ’em comin’.]

  4. Two words–Steve Milloy.

    Or should I say, “Cancer promotion?”

    Or just “Junk science?”

  5. Mal Adapted

    I predict Russell “nicotine slavery is a basic human right” Seitz will show up here pretty soon.

  6. The “nothing is proved” defence is the gift that keeps on giving for AGW theory haters (AKA “skeptics”) just as it is for those promoting tobacco and other substances for which there is a huge amount of evidence of harm.

    In the end Science doesn’t prove anything, as Popper, Einstein and others have pointed out but of which the general public seems to be unaware. I actually got into a rather heated debate on the subject at robertscribbler when I drew attention to this “no proof conundrum”: It was felt that i was giving succour to the AGW theory haters.

    • I’ve had the same debate on numerous occasions. But in a way it doesn’t matter, as if science *did* prove AGW in some quasi-mathematical sense, the deniers would just resort to, well, denial. True emotionally-based denial may start in something that appears to be sensible, but if pushed enough it will always take refuge in a fortress of fantastic, incoherent nonsense.

  7. Well, actually they did all that. Killed a lot of folks.

    • And to this day the out-of-context factoid of “science cannot predict which smokers will get cancers nor the month they will be diagnosed” is still true.

      Denial propaganda at its best and we see the climate equivalent argument every day.

  8. Tamino
    This is off topic for this post, but I was hoping you might answer a question for me. Could you briefly explain why anomalies rather than specific temperatures are used in plotting graphs of temperature? I am debating someone on Facebook, who said the following.
    “Measuring anomalies goes against all my science training. Plotting anomalies, and then talking trends?
    Never would have flown with my Physics professors.”

    I know I recently read a good explanation, but can’t seem to find it now.


    P.S. I have been reading your blog for about 10 years and really appreciate all that you do.

    [Response: When he said “Plotting anomalies, and then talking trends? Never would have flown with my Physics professors” he revealed that either his physics professors were idiots, or he is an idiot and pompous to boot.

    I’ve got plenty of very smart readers, and I think I’ll let them take this one. Have at it, guys & gals.]

    • Your correspondent is a moron. He has revealed that he is completely clueless about what we need to examine. The idea is that greenhouse gasses are a forcing over and above all the other forcings–that is the change we want to measure. Since the variability was there before the greenhouse gasses were added, subtract the “average”, and that is precisely where the trend emerges.

    • Michael Sweet

      For temperature it is much easier to measure anomalies than to measure absolute temperatures. For example if I know it is 84F in Denver how hot is it on Pikes Peak? On the other hand, it has been shown that anomalies are consistent over hundreds of miles. If it is +2F in Los Angeles it is probably +2F in San Diego, San Francisco and at the top of Mount Wilson (near LA).

      It has been shown that anomalies are consistent over 1200 km. Thus GISS can estimate the anomaly over the North Pole by the temperatures at Barrow, Alaska and Svalbard. They do not know the temperature but they can accurately estimate the anomaly.

      Even today the absolute temperature is not very well known for the entire Earth since areas like the tops of mountains and remote areas are poorly measured. The anomaly is known for these areas since it is the same as nearby areas.

      Deniers have argued for years that anomalies are a poor measure of temperature while scientists have used them for decades. Your friend is reading WUWT too much.

      • @sailrick, @Michael Sweet,

        The other way of reading Michael’s “consistent” as in “anomalies are consistent over 1200 km” is to say that anomalies correlate over space on the globe. Absolute temperatures do not, at least not to the same degree.

        This is how it’s known that somethin’s goin’ on.

    • Yet another reason: intercalibration of hundreds of thermometers over (sometimes) centuries is obviously problematic. Using anomalies rather than absolute temperature helps ameliorate the problem some, since the same instrument tends to be used in the same location over relatively long spans, and replacement dates may be detectible by either historic documentation or statistical analysis (ie., a detectible ‘breakpoint’ or step change in the data itself). That then allows corrections to be applied at breakpoints in order to arrive at a ‘homogenous’ record.

    • The most important thing about absolute measurements, when we’re interested about trends specifically, is that e.g. in a grid cell with several stations, every time you introduce a new station or an old one stops reporting it will shift the cell’s average temperature up or down, depending whether that station was hotter or colder than average. This may introduce huge jumps with stations of different altitude. With anomalies it’s much less of a problem, since nearby station anomalies correlate very well, even though a station might be clearly hotter or colder on average.

      Absolute temperatures are nice if you’re doing physics, but if you’re interested in the statistics of climate change, not so useful.

      NOAA concisely explains it here:

    • I put together a short Google doc (excerpted from a guest blog post I put together some time ago) that shows pictorially why anomalies are needed when you have stations with incomplete temperature records (as is the case with most GHCN temperature stations). Feel free to share if you find it worthwhile.

  9. TrueSceptic


    I could just point you to other sites such as realclimate or skepticalscience, but I’ll have a go myself with 2 of the most obvious reasons.

    If actual temperatures were used, they would not mean anything without constant references back to previous temperatures: we want to know if a given temperature is the same, less, or greater than previous ones and in particular how it compares to the average over a reference period, so we would need to perform that arithmetic every time. Using anomalies means that that arithmetic is already done for us.

    Anomalies have another useful function: they allow us to compare different months of the year directly, because they show how a month compares with the average for *that* month. This means we can see whether, for instance, Januarys are getting warmer (or cooler) faster than Julys.

  10. sailrick: I’ve decided to do a post about the anomaly thing, to put it in terms that even the stupid *might* be able to understand. Stay posted, it’ll be here soon, and when it arrives be sure to point your Facebook “friend” to it.

  11. It’s seven years old now, but Skeptical Science had a four-part series on temperature anomalies.

    There is also a (slightly) more recent DIY post on temperature data. The author of this one is Kevin Cowtan, of the Cowtan and Way temperature series.

  12. Thanks Tamino and everyone else. Most of what you all said is familiar, I just couldn’t knit it all together into a cogent comment. I read every post on this blog, and will keep my eyes open for the anomaly post.