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Contrarians and consensus: The case of the midwife toad

Filed under: — gavin @ 7 December 2008

I recently came across an old copy of Arthur Koestler’s “The Case of the Midwife Toad”. Originally published in 1971, it’s an exploration of a rather tragic footnote in the history of evolutionary science. Back in the early years of the 20th Century (prior to the understanding of DNA, but after Mendelian genetics had become well known), there was still a remnant of the biological community who preferred the Lamarckian idea of the inheritance of acquired characteristics over the Darwinian idea of natural selection of random mutations. One of the vanguard for the Lamarckian idea was Paul Kammerer whose specialty was the breeding of amphibians that apparently few others could match. He claimed that he could get his toads and salamanders to acquire characteristics that were useful in the new environments in which he raised his specimens. This was touted loudly (in the New York Times for instance) as proof of Lamarckian inheritance and Kammerer was hailed as a ‘new Darwin’. It all ended very badly when one toad specimen was found to be faked (by who remains a mystery), and Kammerer killed himself shortly afterwards (though there may have been more involved than scientific disgrace).

The details of the experiments and controversy can be read online (with various slants) here and here, and a more modern non-replication of one of his experiments is described here. However, the reason I bring this up here is much more related to how the scientific community and Koestler dealt with this scientific maverick and the analogies that has for the climate science and its contrarians.

There are (at least) four points where the analogies with climate science are strong: First, there were clear philosophical motives for supporting Lamarckism (as there are for denying human effects on climate change) (see below). These are strongly articulated in Koestler’s book, and it is obvious that the author feels some sympathy with that argument. Second, there is idealization of the romantic notion of the scientist-as-hero, sacrificing their all (literally in Kammerer’s case) for the pursuit of truth in the teeth of establishment opposition (cf Svensmark). Third, there is the outrage at the apparent dirty tricks, rumours and persecution. Finally, there is the longing for a redemption – a time when the paradigm shift will occur and the hero will be proven right.

Enough time has passed and enough additional scientific evidence has been gathered however to show that Kammerer’s ideas are never going to be accepted into the mainstream. Therefore, we can use this episode to highlight how people’s misunderstanding of scientific process can lead them astray.

So let’s start with the non-scientific reasons why Kammerer’s ideas had resonance. Martin Gardner in Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (1952) puts it well (p143):

Just as Lamarckianism combines easily with an idealism in which the entire creation is fulfilling God’s vast plan by constant upward striving, so also does it combine easily with political doctrines that emphasize the building of a better world.

The point is that without Lamarckianism, none of the striving and achievement of a parent impacts their progeny’s genetic material. That was a depressing thought for many people (what is the point of striving at all?), and hence there was a clear non-scientific yearning for Lamarckian inheritance to be correct. I use the past tense in referring to these almost 100 year-old arguments, but Koestler’s book and more recent attempts to rehabilitate these ideas tap into these same (misguided) romantic notions. (Odd aside, one of the most positive treatments of this “neo-Lamarckianism” is by Michael Duffy, a frequent climate contrarian Australian journalist). Note that I am distinguishing the classic ‘inheritance of acquired characteristics’ from the much more respectable study of epigenetics.

The scientist-as-hero meme is a very popular narrative device and is widespread in most discussions of progress in science. While it’s clearly true that some breakthroughs have happened through the work of a single person (special relativity is the classic case) and someone has to be the first to make a key observation (e.g. Watson and Crick), the vast majority of scientific progress occurs as the accumulation of small pieces of new information and their synthesis into a whole. While a focus on a single person makes for a good story, it is very rarely the whole or even a big part of the real story. Thus while Koestler can’t be uniquely faulted for thinking that Lamarckianism rose and fell with Kammerer, that perspective leads him to imbue certain events with much more significance than is really warranted.

For instance, one of the more subtle misconceptions in the book though is how Koestler thinks that scientific arguments get settled. He places enormous emphasis on a academic tour that Kammerer made to the UK which included a well-documented talk in Cambridge in which the subsequently-notorious specimen was also in attendance. In fact, Koestler devotes a large number of pages to first-hand recollections of the talk. Koestler also criticises heavily the arch-protagonist in this story (a Dr. Bateson) who did not attend Kammerer’s talk, even though he presumably could have, while continuing to criticise his conclusions. The talk is in fact held up to be the one missed opportunity for some academic mano-a-mano that Koestler presumably thinks would have settled things.

Except that this is not how controversial ideas get either accepted or rejected. Sure, publishing papers, giving talks and attending conferences are all useful in bringing ideas to a wider audience, but they are very rarely the occasion of some dramatic denouement and mass conversion of the skeptical. Instead, ideas get accepted because of the increasing weight of evidence that supports them – and that usually comes in dribs and drabs. A replication here, a theoretical insight there, a validated prediction etc. Only in hindsight does there appear to be a clean sequence of breakthroughs that can be seen to have led inexorably to the new conclusions. At the time, the landscape is far more ambiguous. Thus in focusing on one specific talk, and on its reception by one particularly outspoken opponent, Koestler misses the wider issue – which was that Kammerer’s ideas just didn’t have any independent support. The wider community thus saw his work (as far as I can tell) as a curiosity: possibly his findings were correct, but his interpretation was likely not, and maybe his findings weren’t all that reproducible in any case?

This remains the issue, if Lamarckian evolution were possible, it should have been viewable in hundreds of other systems that were much easier to replicate than Kammerer’s toads (nematodes perhaps?). Absent that replication, no amount of exciting talks will have persuaded scientists. In that, scientists are probably a little different from the public, or at least the public who went to Kammerer’s more public lectures where he was very warmly received.

In these circumstances, it is not surprising that Kammerer’s more vocal opponents would occasionally give vent to their true feelings. Koestler is particular critical of Bateson who, in retrospect, does appear to have gone a little far in his public critiques of Kammerer. However, Koestler perhaps doesn’t realise how common quite scathing criticism is in the halls of academe. This rarely gets written down explicitly, but it is nonetheless there, and forms a big part of how well some people’s ideas are received. If someone is perceived as an exaggerator, or an over-interpreter of their results, even their most careful work will not get a lot of support.

Koestler ends his book with the familiar refrain that since modern science is incomplete, alternative theories must continue to be pursued. He states that since “contemporary genetics has no answers to offer to the problem of the genesis of behaviour”, the replication the key experiments (which he clearly expected to vindicate Kammerer), would very likely make biologists ‘sit up’ and have a long-lasting impact on the field. This notion fails to take into account the vast amount of knowledge that already exists and that makes certain kinds of ‘alternative’ theories very unlikely to be true. The link between this optimistic expectation and discussions of climate change is persuasively demonstrated in this pastiche.

There is one additional characteristic of this story that has some modern resonance, and that’s the idea that once someone starts accepting one class of illogical arguments, that leads them to accept others that aren’t really connected, but share some of the same characteristics. Some people have called this ‘crank magnetism‘. In Kammerer’s case, he was a great believer in the meaningfulness of coincidences and wrote a book trying to elucidate the ‘laws’ that might govern them. Koestler himself became a big proponent of parapsychology. And today there are examples of climate contrarians who are creationists or anti-vaccine campaigners. Though possibly this is just coincidence (or is it….?).

Of course, the true worth of any scientific idea is whether it leads to more successful predictions than other theories. So I’ll finish with a 1923 prediction that Kammerer made while he was on a speaking tour of the US: “Take a very pertinent case. The next generation of Americans will be born without any desire for liquor if the prohibition law is continued and strictly enforced” (NYT, Nov 28).

703 Responses to “Contrarians and consensus: The case of the midwife toad”

  1. 51
    Mark says:

    re: 49. And the question should be “what are the disaster temperatures”. That’s what we want to miss out.

  2. 52
    Mark says:

    Anne, 42, that required reprogramming (much like all modern armies do): they must make “anyone else” “not human”.

    Religion is really good at that. There are others, but that’s the corker.

    Then you keep pounding “The Big Lie” that all their problems are the fault of “these others”. Then you use salami tactics.

    Then when they get to war, they aren’t killing *humans*, they’re removing the trash that shouldn’t be there.

    Moder armies do this too: it is VERY difficult to get people to really shoot at other people.

    Gangs make “us and them” and make out they aren’t really human, they’re animals. Helps ensure the gang shoots first.

    And the media do that too (often at the behest of the government). See, terrorism, paedophiles and mass murderers. Oh, and pirates.

  3. 53
    Mark says:

    Figen, 41. It doesn’t. But it DOES make for good copy for the more fundamentalist religious nut: we aren’t animals, we’re ***special***.

    It also requires a huge amount of ignorance (deliberately) against anything that would shake that assumption.

    Common with the IDers.

  4. 54
    Andrew says:


    The temperature range human civilzation can cope with is very wide.

    According to the IPCC, agriculture productivity is expected to increase with rising temperatures.

    [Response:Not true. You should read the IPCC AR4 WGII report more closely In the tropics, there is a projected decline in cereal crop productivity for even very moderate warming. Only in the extratropics, does productivity of certain crops increase (due to longer growing seasons), and this is for only moderate warming, for higher-end warming scenarios, even here productivity decreases. And a caveat to all of the above it neglects potential decreases in water availability and soil moisture in many of these regions, i.e. even the above may be a best case scenario. -mike]

    A good thing since CO2 levels are not just rising, but accelerating!

  5. 55
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Hugh R., I think everyone here is aware of Rp Sr./Jr.. I am not sure that they are elements in the set that Gavin is targeting. They do accept that adding CO2 has to warm things. They just seem focused on casting doubt on how much. It would be one thing if they took a consistent position, but one month they’re tackling land use. The next, they’re trying to cast doubt on models (while not quite understanding them, it seems). I’ve never seen them address the physics and present an alternative explanation that sheds light on how climate works–paleoclimate, perturbations like volcanic eruptions, etc.–without significant CO2 forcing. I have to say, I don’t find his arguments particularly cogent or deep. It’s as if he’s saying: “Well, we probably shouldn’t treat this cancer, since you have a family history of heart disease that will probably kill you anyway.”

  6. 56
    Mark says:

    Andrew 53: However, the expanding desserts and the removal of much of the summer growing season from the Mid West breadbasket and the uncounted leagues of the Russian grasslands mean that although productivity has gone up, that won’t last long and will have less land to work with anyway.

  7. 57
    Maya says:

    “The temperature range human civilzation can cope with is very wide.”

    We can’t possibly know that for sure. We like to be optimistic, sure, but I for one don’t think that food and water shortages (which ARE predicted by the IPCC reports) are going to be all that beneficial for civilized society.

    And what exactly is “very wide”? Two degrees C? Four? Six? More?

    What is “cope”? Flourishing, or status quo, or just having homo sapiens survive?

    But perhaps I’m wrong, and a temperature rise that leads to great difficulties will bring out the best in humans, and we’ll be learn to be cooperative, generous, and think of long-term consequences of our actions. Given our history, however …. mmmm, probably not.

    I’m reminded of one of my favorite sayings: In nature there are no rewards or punishments, only consequences.

  8. 58
    Andrew says:

    The confidence level of the impact to tropical regions and for further warming is between medium to low.
    So, while there may be a negative impact, we can also build good irrigation systems.
    Besides that, the biggest threat to food supplies is not global warming.

    Page 36:

    In mid- to high-latitude regions, moderate warming benefits
    cereal crop and pasture yields, but even slight warming
    decreases yields in seasonally dry and tropical regions(medium confidence).

    Modelling results for a range of sites find that, in temperate regions,
    moderate to medium increases in local mean temperature (1 to
    3°C), alongwith associated CO2 increase and rainfall changes, can
    have small beneficial impacts on crop yields. At lower latitudes,
    especially the seasonally dry tropics, even moderate temperature
    increases (1 to 2°C) are likely to have negative yield impacts for
    major cereals, which would increase the risk of hunger. Further
    warming has increasingly negative impacts in all regions (medium
    to low confidence)

  9. 59
    Marcus says:

    Andrew: #57: Um. The medium confidence seems to apply both to the “even slight warming decreases yields in seasonally dry and tropical regions” and “In mid- to high-latitude regions, moderate warming benefits cereal crop and pasture yields”. You can’t selectively state “According to the IPCC, agriculture productivity is expected to increase with rising temperatures.” and then turn around and ignore statements with the same level of confidence that don’t agree with your hypothesis.

    Also, irrigation depends on access to water. Water is already an issue in many places worldwide, and climate change will make water availability worse in many regions during key seasons. Increased use of dams may ameliorate the problem that snowmelt and mountain runoff keeps coming earlier, but those dams lead to increased evaporation and other environmental problems. Underground aquifers are being depleted unsustainably already, and use of desalinization is expensive and increases energy use dramatically which makes it even more likely that we will exceed “moderate” levels of warming.

    Also, human civilization can survive a wide range of temperatures. However, all of our infrastructure is built with the current climate in mind, and significant changes to that climate will result in the need for expensive adaptation – and in many cases, that adaptation is likely to be reactive and not anticipatory (eg, we’ll see many heat wave deaths before more air conditioners are installed, or we’ll see intense storm and flood deaths before appropriate dikes are built or habitation moved away from flood zones, etc. etc.)

  10. 60
    Maya says:

    Also from page 36:

    Semi-arid and arid areas are particularly exposed to the
    impacts of climate change on freshwater (high confidence).

    … and …

    Climate change affects the function and operation of existing
    water infrastructure as well as water management practices
    (very high confidence).

    … and on page 37 …

    The negative impacts of climate change on freshwater
    systems outweigh its benefits (high confidence).

    I fail to see how the biggest threat to food supplies is not global warming. If it’s the rainfall pattern changes you’re talking about, those are directly attributable to climate change.

  11. 61
    Jess says:

    Andrew #57–

    I wouldn’t place too much confidence in better irrigation systems. Part of the problem is evaporation loss– this is simply huge in California (if you fill a shallow basin with water and leave it in the sun you will see why). On top of that, there is demand. There is a reason that the LA river is now used for car-chase scenes — there is hardly any water in it anymore.

    Transporting water, dealing with altered rainfall patterns — some of it may benefit some areas, but some may not. The best you can hope for is a wash, and that is not good enough for anything like sustainability.

    If you want to see how a modern society can fall apart when there is any stress on the system, just look at the former USSR. In the center (Moscow and the old RSFSR) things sort of held together. In the wastern portions — the baltics, the old Warsaw Pact — most countries were connected to the infrastructure in neighboring countries. So people were able to go about their lives.

    Go to Tajikstan and other parts of Central Asia and the situation was very different. THe infrastructure — regular shipments of goods and energy from the center — dried up. No money. No goods. Nothing anymore. All of those countries descended into civil unrest for years, and in the case of Tajikstan a brutal civil war.

    Now, imagine the rain stops in Kansas. And in Nebraska. Imagine the farmers can’t grow anything but drought-resistant crops anymore — say, olives and dates. Fresno becomes a true desert. On top of that, the summer in the Dakotas — already pretty dry — gets even hotter.

    Toss in a northward movement of rainfall patterns, just for fun. So you move all the productive land out of the midwest into Canada, and get a dust bowl again in Iowa and southern Illinois. How long you think we could keep much of the Midwest and Mountain West operating?

  12. 62
    Paul says:

    I have been having an email debate with a climate change skeptic, and he has offered to give me space in his newsletter to answer the following questions (see below). I am not a scientist, I work in environmental policy, and so I don’t have specific answers to these as I don’t directly use models in my work.

    Can anyone help?

    This is what he has written:
    “From our research, we did not find a convincing case that the warming observed was due primarily to human activity, namely the burning of fossil fuels and other activities which contribute ‘excess’ carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. When we informed our readers of those results, we cautioned them that our findings should not be taken as conclusive. And, we urged them to conduct their own research. We invited them to share with us any of their findings which came to a different conclusion. And, we offered to publish their contrary findings so that our readers could see both sides of the question.

    It’s that opportunity that I’m extending to you. I know our readers would be very interested to hear your case. If you would like to pursue this, please answer the following questions. For each answer, please provide the on-line source. If the source is a multi-page document, please provide the page reference so that our readers can easily look it up.

    01. Which is your preferred data set for global mean temperature over time?

    02. What are the 1st and last years in that data set?

    03. What did that data set give as the global mean temperature for each of those 2 years?

    04. What did that data set give as the global mean temperature for each of the last 10 years?

    05. What is the formula used to calculate the global mean temperatures in that data set?

    06. What is the confidence level for each of those calculations?

    07. How are changes in the location of reporting stations handled in this data set?

    08. How are changes in land use in the area of reporting stations handled in this data set?

    09. Which is your preferred model for projecting global mean temperature in future years?

    10. What are the 1st and last years in that model?

    11. What did that model project as the global mean temperature for each of those 2 years?

    12. What did that model project as the global mean temperature for each 5-year interval?

    13. What is the formula used in that model to project the global mean temperatures?

    14. What is the confidence level for each of those calculations?

    15. How does that model account for changes in solar activity in projecting climate change?

    16. How does that model account for changes in cloud cover in projecting climate change?

    17. What percentage of greenhouse gases does that model assign to carbon dioxide?

    18. What percentage of carbon dioxide does that model assign to human activity?

    19. What is the confidence level for each of those calculations?

    20. What is the mathematical relationship in that model between man-made carbon dioxide and temperature increase?”

  13. 63
    John Mashey says:

    re: #53
    Anyone who wants to talk about CO2 fertilization’s great effects on widespread agriculture *really* needs to know Liebig’s Law of the Minimum. Farm kids learn this (if not the formal name) by the time they’re 10, at least, I did, so it’s hardly rocket science.

    CO2 is quite useful in pressurized greenhouses adequately supplied with sunlight, water, nutrients, but that doesn’t much resemble most food production.

  14. 64
    jcbmack says:

    Actually humans are very adaptable, but the rise in global tempertaures will pose major problems.

  15. 65
    Jim Cross says:

    Can we name names?

    There are four categories of analogies mentioned:

    1- Philosophical motives for denying human effects on climate change

    A single reference to a journalist.

    2- Idealization of the romantic notion of the scientist-as-hero

    Link to Svensmark book review by Gavin.

    3- Outrage at the apparent dirty tricks, rumours and persecution.

    No names. No links. No quotes.

    4- Longing for a redemption – a time when the paradigm shift will occur and the hero will be proven right.

    No names. No links. No quotes.

    This looks to be nothing more than an attack against Svensmark trying to cast him as a modern day Kammerer.

    So why don’t we just label it as such and be done with it?

    On another note, apparently Lamarckism is making something of a minor comeback. This article on Edward Steele mentions two recent papers on reverse transcription passing on to progeny.

  16. 66
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Paul: Your skeptic friend can’t spend a day to find these answers for himself?

    One word: Lazy.

  17. 67
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Two other interesting topics could be relevant to this thread: Velikovsky and Lysenko.

  18. 68
    David B. Benson says:

    Paul (62) — I find HadCRUTv3, available via the Handley Centre link quite useful in that it begins in 1850 CE with CO2 at 288 ppm. The usual formula for CO2 forcing is found in

    wherein I use a climate sensitivity of 3 K. Several pages of IPCC AR4 WG1 are devoted to matters of various forcdings and some further information can be gleaned from

  19. 69
    Hank Roberts says:

    Paul, he’s scamming you.

    > a convincing case that the warming observed was
    > due primarily to human activity

    They can throw out anything you suggest with “convincing … observed … primarily” as their criteria, because warming to date is a small signal emerging from natural variation; most of the warming predicted is in the future. As to specifics they can look them up as easily as you can, but don’t let them claim no single model has all the answers so none of them can help figure out the answer.

  20. 70
    Hank Roberts says:

    One more for Paul, and this makes the point about the signal only beginning to emerge:

    Chris Colose does a good job on this, see his blog for the story behind this illustration:

  21. 71
    Marcus says:

    Paul (#62): For questions 9 to 14 I’d recommend going to Webster (2003) “Uncertainty Analysis of Climate Change and Policy Response” in Climatic Change (Google Scholar will find it for you, though it is becoming outdated, unfortunately). I recommend this over the other models because it treats economic and physical uncertainty in a single consistent fashion. Because it is an uncertainty analysis, it gives a nice answer to #14. Unfortunately, your skeptic friend leaves some important factors unspecified in his questions: eg, if you are trying to predict global temperature, you need to know something about the future scenario: do we assume that humans ignore climate change and just let the earth get warmer?

    Question 15: To the best of my knowledge, no climate model tries to predict solar fluctuations (aside from perhaps a standard sunspot cycle). However, the magnitude of the human forcing increase in the BAU case in the next 100 years is probably at least an order of magnitude larger than any reliable estimates of solar fluctuation in the past 1000 years that we have estimates, so assuming that the sun is close to constant is not a bad assumption. You can probably point to the Lean solar reconstruction for this.

    Question 16: Most models have parameterizations for clouds (the resolution to resolve them would lead to climate runs that would take years to solve). Webster (2003) actually uses this parameterization to handle the climate sensitivity uncertainty.

    Question 17: Again, ill-posed. The percentage of current forcing attributed to CO2? The percentage of forcing change since preindustrial? The percentage of forcing change between present and the end of the future model run? If the question is percentage of current forcing, there isn’t even a single # answer to that: I’d point him at the “Water Vapour: feedback or forcing?” link under Highlights. If it is the 2nd question, then I’d point him at IPCC AR4 WGI Ch. 2. That has percentages for all the greenhouse gases (of course, given that there are negative forcings in there, the percentage might be “more than 1”). If it is the 3rd question, go look at Webster (2003).

    Question 18: Um. Ill-posed. The percentage of CO2 emissions? Small. The percentage of CO2 increase attributable to human activity? 100%. Skeptics never seem to understand this, and keep recycling this “5 year lifetime” argument.

    And finally, question 20: There’s the standard forcing approximation 5.3 ln (C/C0), though many models have more complex radiative forcing codes. Note that this is an _approximation_ that only holds around current concentrations: skeptics often try to do calculations assuming that C0 can be “1” or something else. There is no direct CO2 to temperature equation – that’s the whole point of having a complex climate model. But, assuming that there are no exogenous forcings except for CO2 (eg, all other gases except water vapor held constant, and greenland and antarctica fixed) then the temperature change arising from a doubling of CO2 is equal to the climate sensitivity of the model, which usually ranges from 2 to 4.5 degrees (IPCC AR4 WGI).

    Of course, the entire set-up of the questions is designed to be misleading, but hopefully at least you can set straight a few common misconceptions.

    ReCaptcha: Pay Nature. *Yeah, I’m worried that our bill with Nature will come due one day…*

  22. 72
    markr says:

    #36 Lynne Vincent Nathan: thank you for defending the true role of emotion and religion in the human species. While scientific method is a great tool, and the most humbling of truth-tests, its amoral application got us to where we are today (in part). Which is to say, application without regard to consequences creates monumental disaster. No matter what, we are stuck with our evolutionarily-logical human structure, and pure logic won’t save us from ourselves. Attacking religion and emotion is a bogus solution to the conundrum of human existence.

  23. 73
    jcbmack says:

    #41 misinterpretation on your part, epigenetic changes were already mentioned by Gavin. That is not the same thing as acquired characteristics.

  24. 74
    Donald says:

    “He states that since “contemporary genetics has no answers to offer to the problem of the genesis of behaviour”, the replication [?] the key experiments (which he clearly expected to vindicate Kammerer), would very likely make biologists ‘sit up’ and have a long-lasting impact on the field.”

    Is this a typo?

    “And today there are examples of climate contrarians who are creationists or anti-vaccine campaigners. Though possibly this is just coincidence (or is it….?).”

    Well creationists also believe in the second coming, when God will sort out all the problems on the earth. The belief among such Christians seems to be that the earth was given by God to be exploited until such time. I think it’s unlikely that people who expect their children to be meeting Jesus in 2050 will be worried too much about a bit of global warming.

  25. 75
    truth says:

    Lyn Vincentnathan:
    You say that mitigation is ‘beneficial to one’s finances’, but I’d like to know how it can be, as Obama said that electricity prices would have to rise enormously with the phasing out of coal-fired power.
    How could it be that products and services would not also become enormously more expensive, since everything has electricity costs as an input—leading to higher inflation, higher interest rates, loss of jobs etc?
    Which renewables would you expect to provide base load power before the phase-out time for coal-fired power, and how could they possibly be cheaper for domestic users anyway—-especially in countries where neither sun nor wind are reliable?
    We’ve already had the debacle of world-wide food shortages due to one of the mitigation measures—the ill-thought-out biofuel option—the damage done by that continues, and is irreversible in some areas , but little is heard from AGW proponents on that—even though some of the world’s most efficient carbon sinks are disappearing at an alarming rate. Don’t they care about that?
    Even worse could ensue, if a great many countries take the nuclear option.
    How can we be sure proliferation of nuclear power facilities around the world in seismically and politically unstable countries, won’t produce infinitely worse consequences than fossil fuel?
    I’m not religious at all, and accept the theory of evolution, but I think you’re absolutely over the top in your claim that people who believe in creationism and intelligent design are committing a sin—and that people who don’t buy the AGW ‘consensus’ , or who question it, or refuse to mitigate, are committing a serious sin.[ Our family has been mitigating for years, by the way, so I’m all for sensible , but not panicked mitigation.]
    I’m really surprised that you are allowed to say that, yet I’m canned for just asking a few questions that AGW proponents should be willing to answer, if they’re at all serious about doing what’s right for the future.
    You attacked religious and other people who don’t toe your line, and then in the next sentence say they shouldn’t be viciously attacked—there’s something wrong there.

  26. 76
    Bernard J. says:

    Lest anyone has the slightest doubt that Lamarkian inheritance is no more than non-scientific fancy, consider the hundreds of generations of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim boys and men who have been separated from their foreskins.

    If Lamarkian inheritance had even the slightest influence on the phenotype of the decendants of a ‘modified’ organism, foreskins for one would not be so persistently stubborn in their appearance on every baby boy…

  27. 77
    Ray Ladbury says:

    The ironically named “truth” asks how we won’t break the bank if energy costs increase. Well, don’t know about you, but I like to look at analogous historical events. In the 1970s, the price of petroleum and other fossil fuels increased dramatically. After the initial shock to the economy, what happened? Prices of goods and services did not increase commensurately because people found ways of manufacturing them in a more energy efficient manner. This increased efficiency was one of the reasons we didn’t see dramatic inflation during the latest energy price spike. In any case, you are missing the point: energy prices are going to rise significantly in any case due to the advent of peak oil. Now perhaps if we exploit coal, we can limit the shock somewhat, only to be confronted with the same problem–and no good options–100 years later. Or we can solve the problem once and for all now and develop a sustainable economy based on renewables. And in the bargain, we also confront the threat due to climate change–now which of these sounds responsible to you?
    ReCAPTCHA goes all full-metal jacket on me: enjoyment war

  28. 78

    #75 & “You say that mitigation is ‘beneficial to one’s finances’, but I’d like to know how it can be, as Obama said that electricity prices would have to rise enormously with the phasing out of coal-fired power.”

    REDUCE, REUSE — that will get us down 1/3 to 1/2 our CO2 emissions without doing anything with our energy source. My husband & I did it, before going on to Green Mountain 100% wind (& we could have done much more to reduce — there are a myriad of ways).

    Since the 70s oil crunch & my awareness of entropy, I’ve been making sure we live within a mile or so of work…so I’m not even counting that in my GHG reductions. But that would be a good move for others that on their next move find a home (acc to their specs) as close as possible to work/schools/shops.

    STEP 2 – take away the massive subsidies & tax breaks from oil & coal, and put them into wind, solar, geothermal, & other alt energy. Let people then decide whether or not to stick with expensive, polluting energy or cheap, clean energy. And hopefully electric and plug-in hybrids will be available on mass scale within a few years, so I can plug into the wind (which is cheaper now than polluting electricity).

    It’s really a no-brainer.

    RE sticking to creationism, I’m only saying that may be a sin, akin to lying. I’m no theologian. And, of course, it would not be a sin for my grandmother (1887-1973) or earlier peoples, or others who never got the chance to learn about evolution.

    It may also be an insult to God, conceiving of God on our own terms/images as some David Cooperfield magician. What evolutionary thinking has done for me since 1950s, when I was a child, is greatly increase my awe of God, and my appreciation that God is truly beyond our finite knowing & imagery. Many saints would agree with this latter idea. Also there are beautiful parallels re God coming to us as a tiny, seemingly insignificant being (think big bang, evolutionary slime soup to…us, baby Jesus in a stable, the Eucharist).

    RE AGW as a sin – as long as killing people & harming their subsistence remain sins in the good books, AGW would be a sin. That’s a no-brainer.

  29. 79
    Andrew says:

    OK; I surrender.

    Suppose global warming has already reduced agricultural output, despite the IPCC’s confusing statements. Does anybody really think farmers will enhance output without increasing carbon emission? Farm equipment and irrigation systems run most economically on carbon based fuels. Same for transportation, and don’t forget about slash and burn agriculture. That’s very popular in the tropics where agriculture is most at risk.

    Face it; the opposition to Global Warming is not based in science. Rather it’s an economic problem and I don’t believe a lot of people realize this. The best science can do it to properly characterize the problem. Solutions need to factor in economics and human behaviors. The economics of carbon are so compelling and vital, that seriously limiting CO2 emissions is not a practical solution.

    Humans can exist self sufficiently in every climate on earth if they burn carbon. Restrict carbon emissions and viable areas are greatly reduced. A self sufficient community could even exist on an ice cap if there was oil underneath.

    If there is going to be a global catastrophe, then it will be when carbon based fuels run out because then the cost of energy is going to rise dramatically. That is economics. We can push for improved efficiency when using carbon based fuels, but if people can afford to, then will even circumvent that.

  30. 80
    JCH says:

    “We’ve already had the debacle of world-wide food shortages due to one of the mitigation measures—the ill-thought-out biofuel option—the damage done by that continues …” – truth

    Droughts? Floods? Insects? Overpopulation? Suburban growth? Highest demand for petroleum in the age of oil?

  31. 81
    Chris Colose says:

    truth (75)

    In most cases on the internet, AGW “skepticism” and “asking questions” actually means creating lots of noise and posting clearly erroneous or misleading claims (of course, under the disguise of an objective quest for the truth). To my knowledge, no one who asks serious questions is attacked at RC or other serious academic venues.

    Creationism and ID is not the same thing as “religion” or “the existence of God(s)”, etc. I hardly think any religion’s deity would condone using similar tactics of quote-mining and misrepresenting scientific evidence to get a certain viewpoint out the public. Really, the goal of leading creationist establishments is to undermine the mainstream scientific community and create their own science (such as saying how radiometric dating is invalid, the ice ages were caused by big floods, etc). I have yet to see an example of someone who got up to undermine AGW for solely scientific reasons.

  32. 82
    Chris Colose says:

    Paul, many of these questions are loaded and will be set up (and there answers set up) to do something shady. For instance, the groups who put out temperature products report temperature anomalies, not the global mean temperature at a particular instance. Anomalies tend to be well-correlated over large areas(and the final product involves averaging and spatially weighting) and the techniques to account for urban heat islands, etc are described in various publications in GISS, Hadley, etc…the Realclimate post “Man is not an urban heat island” I believe gave some links which you may find useful. I am not sure what value the “first and last year” in a data set or a model is supposed to have…you’re evaluating a climate trend/change, not particular information of a handful of data points.

  33. 83
    Jim Eager says:

    Re so-called “truth” @75: “We’ve already had the debacle of world-wide food shortages due to one of the mitigation measures—the ill-thought-out biofuel option….but little is heard from AGW proponents on that…Don’t they care about that?”

    More stock and trade AGW denialist bull plop talking points.

    The chorus of AGW realists who warned that corn to ethanol and canola or palm oil to biodiesel schemes would be worse than a financial boondoggle with serious and potentially devastating impacts on food prices and supply, and land and forest degradation was legion. Yet AGW denialists continue to push this dishonest meme, hoping no one who was actually paying attention will call them on it.

    “Truth” pedals anything but.

  34. 84
    Jim Eager says:

    Re Andrew @79: “If there is going to be a global catastrophe, then it will be when carbon based fuels run out because then the cost of energy is going to rise dramatically.”

    No, that would be a catastrophe for the human species only. So, given the magnitude of your pessimism, we humans might as well all lie down and die now?

    Or, we can 1) work to dramatically reduce the amount of energy that we use, 2) strive to increase the efficiency with which we use energy, 3) rapidly develop renewable non-carbon sources of energy, energy storage and transmission.

    As has been pointed out here before, since it currently requires fossil fuel energy to manufacture its replacement, it makes no sense what so ever to wait until we run out of fossil fuels to manufacture its replacement. That would indeed lead to the catastrophe that you fear.

  35. 85
    Maya says:

    Paul, wow, you could write an entire BOOK trying to answer and explain those questions. As others here pointed out, they’re ill-posed; I would says simplistic. Each question gives rise to multiple others.

    Good luck! You’re fighting the good fight!

  36. 86
    Maya says:

    “Does anybody really think farmers will enhance output without increasing carbon emission?”

    I think it’s possible, actually. If and how that will be done remains to be seen.

    Here’s a really good place to start. It’s a little long, but a fascinating and (I thought) well-thought-out treatise.

  37. 87
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Andrew, you hit the nail on the head when you said: “Face it; the opposition to Global Warming is not based in science. Rather it’s an economic problem and I don’t believe a lot of people realize this.”
    EXCEPT that the scientists all realize that the opposition is economically/politically/philosophically motivated. The problem: they keep attacking the science–and they do so in lay venues where people will not see through the lies. If people would merely let the science play out, the scientists would be more than happy to simply tell the decision makers, “Hey, you might want to look at doing something about this,” and get back to the business of science and actually quantifying the risks we face. Meanwhile the debate of what to do about climate change–the only place where legitimate debate remains–could get started. Instead, we have people utterly ignorant of the most basic science charging in with Congressional subpoenas for climate scientists, cancelling satellites that would answer our questions about climate change definitively and “auditing” the science. And best of all, when you diagnose their ignorance–an invitation to avail themselves of the resources presented by this website–they accuse you of ad hominem attack, genocide and kicking dogs. While they teach us nothing about climate, they do give us a refresher course on abnormal psychology.

  38. 88
    SecularAnimist says:

    “Does anybody really think farmers will enhance output without increasing carbon emission?”

    Farmers are already enhancing output, not only without increasing carbon emissions, but sequestering atmospheric carbon into soils — using organic agricultural techniques.

  39. 89
    Hank Roberts says:

    > enhance output without increasing carbon emission

    I’ve known this guy a long time; he’s been doing it for a long time:

  40. 90
    Edward says:

    I find the discussion on this entire string diametrically opposed to the stated description of this blog site. How about skeptics and proponents discuss some relevant topics like, recent water vapor studies, lack of sunspot activity, shrinking sea levels, La Nina and Enso events, how to improve temperature records and how to pursue alternative energy sources? Please find the stated blog purpose below:
    “RealClimate is a commentary site on climate science by working climate scientists for the interested public and journalists. We aim to provide a quick response to developing stories and provide the context sometimes missing in mainstream commentary. The discussion here is restricted to scientific topics and will not get involved in any political or economic implications of the science.”

    [Response: I write about things that interest me, and this did. You are under no obligation to read it. Nor do I have an obligation to address every random thought that the blogosphere gets excited about. Sorry. – gavin]

  41. 91

    #89–Great link, Hank. Thank you.

  42. 92
    simon abingdon says:

    Ray #87 Remember the encounter between Churchill and Bohr? Let’s hope you can benefit constructively from your “refresher course on abnormal psychology”.

  43. 93
    jcbmack says:

    Ray, I fear that if the engineers and political process do not catch up in practical applications with the science we will be in trouble over the next two decades. (even with being more conservative than Hansen)

    Also, the green movements are even more dangerous than the denialists at times. Do you, Ray think we have some practical means of both cutting through red tape and reducing GHG’s? As always I look forward and respect your replies.

  44. 94
    Dave Andrews says:


    if people would merely let the science play out, the scientists would be more than happy to simply tell the decision makers, “Hey, you might want to look at doing something about this,” and get back to the business of science and actually quantifying the risks we face

    That comment makes no sense in view of the prognostications of Hansen over the last few years.

  45. 95
    snorbert zangox says:


    I found this article similar to but less convincing than an article that Michael Crichton wrote a few years ago. In that article, Crichton compared the modern AGW movement to the Eugenics movement among scientists and other intelligentsia during the early to mid part of the 20th century. The list of names of those who subscribed is astounding.

    I also think that you did not quite succeed in your attempt to paint all AGW skeptics with the Lamarckian brush. I think that is because the skeptics are not monolithic, they are many and varied. Further, no one set out to disbelieve that human behavior affects climate, I think that most would agree that human behavior does have some effect on climate, but skeptics find that the AGW hypothesis has failed to pass several objective tests. Insofar as I am aware, none thinks that they have found an alternative model that fully describes the physics of the climate warming that occurred during the past century. Personally, I think that the search for alternative hypotheses has received short shrift.

    Svensmark may believe that he has all of the answers, or he may not. His work has attracted attention but I have seen no bandwagon full of skeptics beating the drum. It is merely another possibility, perhaps a good one. The possibility surely deserves investigation. We know that a couple of Israeli scientists (I forget their names, but am sure that you are familiar with the papers) tracked the onset of Ice Ages with cosmic ray flux as modified by the position of the galaxy relative to the universe of supernovae. So, the idea of CRF effects on climate is not new with Svensmark.

    I also would like to point out (as did Crichton) that there seems to be a need among many humans to blame humanity for anything that goes wrong in the world. The attractiveness of this belief (hubris?) seems as strong as the need to feel that it is possible to pass better behavior along to future generations. I recognize that the term “better behavior” is emotional and that its definition is cultural.

    [Response: You are misreading the piece. I don’t think all sceptics are Lamarckian’s (though Crichton’s equating of the mainstream climate science with Eugenics was much more direct). I read the book and I saw many similarities with how climate science deals with its contrarians, that’s all. I recommend reading the New York Times coverage of Kammerer’s work to find plenty of examples of how not to report science. – gavin]

  46. 96
    Jess says:

    to “truth” and some others:

    People forget that much of our carbon infrastructure is heavily subsidized, usually indirectly. In addition, traditional economics takes infinite resources/energy as a given, on the premise that technology will allow for more efficient use.

    But the more efficient use doesn’t always increase asymptotically, nor does it do so without incentives. One reason SUVs exist(ed) at all as a viable sale was that gas is actually cheaper than it was in 1980, inflation – adjusted. Oil would have to hit $100 per barrel and stay there to reach the 1980s peak.

    Why did it get cheaper? Some of it was reduced demand from the huge recessions that hit the US in 1981-82 or so and the rest of the world a decade or so later. Some of it was opening up the Russian market. And some was the downward price pressure from rich countries essentially outsourcing all the labor-intensive stuff to poor ones.

    But whateve rthe price fluctuations in energy prices, the amount of oil in the world is finite. No matter how efficiently you use it, the amount left goes to zero eventually. This is true of every resource. The question then, is how we use the non-renewable ones as little as possible (recycling when we can) and the renewable ones as efficiently as possible. It’s not all that complicated.

    There isn’t any need for people to live in McMansions. There is no conceivable need for most people to drive SUVs. Just as we got along without slaves (though they were a great labor-saver for the owners), we can learn to live without SUVs. We aren’t going to get all the goodies we want. Tough. We can’t own people anymore either.

    Now, is it possible that all the people talking about AGW are wrong? I suppose it is. But it’s also possible that all the people who said smoking causes cancer were wrong, and have been all this time. It’s possible that DDT really doesn’t have any effect at all. It’s just possible that lead paint isn’t a problem either. After all, you can’t prove any of it the way you can a mathematical theorem.

    Anything is possible, but I don’t see anyone recommending smoking on that basis.

  47. 97
    SecularAnimist says:

    snorbert zangox wrote: “… there seems to be a need among many humans to blame humanity for anything that goes wrong in the world.”

    Perhaps there is such a need. That’s an appropriate and interesting question for social psychology or anthropology or some such discipline to address.

    However, it has absolutely nothing to do with the empirically observed facts:

    (1) that human activities, principally the burning of fossil fuels, but also agriculture, forestry and other practices, have for over a century been releasing increasingly large amounts of previously sequestered carbon into the atmosphere in the form of CO2;

    (2) that the resulting rapid and extreme anthropogenic increase in the atmospheric concentration of CO2 and other so-called “greenhouse gases” is causing the Earth system to retain more of the Sun’s energy; and

    (3) that the resulting rapid and extreme anthropogenic “warming” of the Earth system is already having rapid and extreme effects on the Earth’s climate, hydrosphere and biosphere.

    Taken together these effects constitute a grave threat to the well-being, and even the survival, not only of the human species but of the rich, diverse Holocene biosphere in which the human species and human civilization have evolved and upon which we are utterly dependent.

    Of all the varieties of pseudo-skeptics who obstinately deny the reality of anthropogenic global warming and consequent climate change, those like Crichton who claim that acceptance of that reality is an irrational belief driven by some conjectured psychological “need”, or that it is a “hoax” driven by some malicious desire to “destroy capitalism” or a hatred of technological modernity, are probably the least credible.

  48. 98
    harold says:

    I still do not get the basic analogy. Paul Kammerer did an experiment where he “proved” adaptation, either he cheated or he was “helped” by associates. Yes, he clearly was a speculative scientist who had temporary views, but he did an experiment which unfortunately did not falsify his theory. We do not know if he was duped or not, but the analogy with crackpot deniers puzzles me.
    Gavin, you quote Martin Gardner:
    “Just as Lamarckianism combines easily with an idealism in which the entire creation is fulfilling God’s vast plan by constant upward striving, so also does it combine easily with political doctrines that emphasize the building of a better world.”
    My take is that the doctrine of homo politicus is an emphasis on building a better (CO2 free) world.( a nit but Gardner’s book was issued in 1952 as In The Name Of Science, the revised and expanded 1957 edition had the better prefix Fads And Fallacies.)
    I am glad you write about things that interest you, but Edward surely has a point about the blog policy.

    [Response: But no-one would care about CO2 if it wasn’t a greenhouse gas or didn’t make the oceans more acidic – what possible motive is there for reducing CO2 emissions otherwise? There is no constituency for ‘a CO2 free’ world (even if you just mean the anthropogenic component). And as for Kammerer, you are missing the point as well. The issue is how people see science and how that colours their interpretation of what happened. Koestler’s views on the process are very similar to Crichton’s in some respects in that they miss the context in which ‘contrary’ ideas are placed and this leads them to focus on issues that are not germane (a single talk in Cambridge, or suspicions of establishment malfeasance). The point is not to say that Kammerer was a crackpot nor a fraud. But to see how how contrarians fare battling a consensus in another context. – gavin]

  49. 99
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Snorbert says “I also would like to point out (as did Crichton) that there seems to be a need among many humans to blame humanity for anything that goes wrong in the world.”

    Um, who else is to blame for: overfishing, arable land degradation, habitat destruction, deforestation, ocean eutrophication, persistent organic pollutants, freshwater depletion, ozone destruction, acid rain…?

    God? Satan? Elves? Aliens?

  50. 100
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Simon Abingdon, I’m afraid I don’t understand your point about Bohr and Churchill. Yes, Bohr was probably naive, but so was Churchill. For that matter, so was everyone at the beginning of the nuclear age. It was a new world. What is more, Bohr’s approach would have led at worst to failure followed by reassessment, while Churchill’s would have led to war, and probably nuclear war.