Science & Technology

From germ theory to global warming, science denialism is beyond parody

Dan Farber

If you’re inclined to doubt science, why not start with the germ theory of disease? After all, isn’t it implausible that illness, death, and even mass epidemics are caused by tiny invisible organisms that invade our bodies?

painting of Louis Pasteur in his lab

19th-century French scientist Louis Pasteur, as painted by artist Robert Thom

And what’s the evidence for that, really?  Just the findings of scientists who can get big grants from NIH to study these so-called bacteria — not to mention studies financed by Big Pharm which makes a lot of money with supposed cures — and the views of doctors whose professional status and incomes are pumped up by their use of chemical antibiotics to treat diseases. And don’t forget about the massive government spending for sanitation and water treatment to eliminate “germs,” and the extensive regulation of the food industry, Big Government in action!

The germ theory of disease was a 19th-century creation of men like Pasteur and Lister. Even after it gained general acceptance, not everyone was convinced. I was planning to write a parody of climate denial in terms germ denial. I assumed everyone would agree that germ denial was ridiculous.

But we live in a world where parody is difficult. As it turns out, there actually are germ denialists who accept that germs exist but don’t think they’re the real cause of disease. Rejection of the germ theory is found across the political spectrum, including some believers in alternative medicine, not to mention those like Christian Scientists who have theological reasons to reject it.

So far as I know, there aren’t many people who think that bacteria and viruses don’t exist at all and are just optical illusions created by microscope lenses. But there are a significant number who deny their medical importance. Some think that bacteria and viruses are a symptom of disease rather than a cause, finding a hospitable environment in the ill patient. Others admit that they cause the symptoms of disease, but think that the “real” cause is some weakness in the body’s defenses, thus making vaccines and other preventive measures pointless.

Of course, there’s a small grain of truth to that, since lower immunity or other health conditions do make infection easier. But that’s hardly a reason for rejecting vaccines or antibiotics.

The germ theory has been rock solid science for over a century. It’s hard to know what lesson to draw in terms of climate denialism. On the one hand, you could find this to be grounds for despair — no matter how strong the science or how visible the practical benefits of a scientific theory, there will still be people who reject it. On the other hand, these people are only the fringe, so maybe someday we will be able to get the vast majority of the public to understand that germs cause disease, the earth goes around the sun, species evolve — and yes, greenhouse gases do cause climate change.

Cross-posted from the environmental law and policy blog Legal Planet.

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Comments to "From germ theory to global warming, science denialism is beyond parody":
    • wade stanton

      more time, breath and money spent disproving climate change than discrediting phoney weight loss and get rich schemes. If both sides came together just think of potential for profits. Come on you scientists and professors get marketing pointers from some real scammers very few of them create any controversy and they are allowed to fill the airways with their ads.

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    • Mike Post

      And almost all the world’s doctors denied that stomach ulcers were caused by bacteria. Thanks to two brilliant Australians, the consensus was proved wrong. Science is not done by consensus!

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    • lapogus

      Prof. Farber appears to be remarkably ill-informed about the climate debate and even the basics of climate science. Very few sceptics (btw many find the term “deniers” offensive) question that greenhouse gases play an important role in the climate system and keep the Earth warmer than it would be with out them.

      The question is how much warming will result from a little extra CO2, and whether CO2 is a significant player in our complex and chaotic non-linear climate system. (The technical term for this is climate sensitivity). Water vapour is responsible for impeding about 80% of the outward longwave radiation. CO2 is responsible for about 7-12%. And total anthropogenic CO2 emissions are only about 4% of natural emissions.

      And then one has to take into account the fact that CO2’s radiative properties are governed by the Steffan-Boltmann Law, such that once CO2 levels are above 300ppm, an extra 100 or 200ppm won’t make much if any difference to the amount of outgoing LW radiation intercepted, as most of it at that band has already been intercepted by the water vapour and existing CO2.

      In plain English, think Law of Diminishing Returns. And there is the question of feedbacks from any extra warming from CO2, which history suggests would appear to be negative, and not positive.

      The http://www.foresight.org/nanodot/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/vostok.png (last 440,000 years) and GISP2 (Greenland) ice core proxy (last 10,000 years) clearly show that there have been much warmer periods in previous inter-glacials and in the Holocene. But we have never experienced the run-away-warming scenario posited by the alarmists.

      Meanwhile there has been no statistically significant increase in global average temperatures for 17 years despite a 15% increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration over the same period, and the global climate models upon which the still un-proven CO2 AGW thesis is founded completely failed to predict or project this hiatus/pause/(plateau?), and become more laughable by the year.

      As I said in my comment on “Why defamation suite against climate denialists is the right move,” climate science has been politicised and corrupted. It is populated with more than a few rather unpleasant individuals, who have been very selective with data, used dubious statistical techniques, down-played uncertainties, lacked transparency, and mislead decision makers. But don’t just take it from me, read what climate scientists themselves have written, e.g:

      “What if climate change appears to be just mainly a multidecadal natural fluctuation? They’ll kill us probably…”
      Tommy Wils, climategate1

      Many more here and here.

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    • lapogus

      Correction – while the Steffan-Boltmann Law is key to calculating the Earth’s (as a ‘black body’) radiation balance, it is the Beer-Lambert Law which governs the magnitude of the resulting ‘back radiation’ from any increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration. It is widely accepted by climate scientists (and most sceptics) that a doubling of atmospheric CO2 will result in a warming of about 1C, which will have a net positive impact in ecological and economic terms. (Economists Like Richard Tol suggest that the negative economic impacts of global warming kick in about about 2C).

      The scary projections of 3C or even 5C warming by 2080 all depend on there being positive feedbacks, and this is where Don is correct to question the models, as they are predicated on many uncertainties and even erroneous assumptions. For example that increased warming from CO2 will lead to increased water vapour (the significant greenhouse gas) and hence be a positive feedback – however, increased water vapour will also lead to increased clouds, increased albedo and lower insolation, which in the tropics and mid latitudes evidently have a net cooling effect on average global temperatures:

      Climate for You; cloud cover verses air temps, tropics graph

      So the satellite data (and the ice core proxies) clearly suggest that negative feedbacks dominate and that the scary and alarmist run-away warming scenarios as promoted by the IPCC and our scientifically challenged media organisations and politicians, are highly questionable.

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    • Katherine

      Science is largely funded by the public. It’s the scientists’ job to make sure the public view their work as credible. When this doesn’t happen, what we see a lot of articles ridiculing people for their lack of faith in science. It doesn’t help that the nature of scientific work sometimes involves disproving widely accepted scientific theories.

      Regardless of how crazy it might seem, the scientific community that John Smith doesn’t accept (x), the onus is on that community to change Mr. Smith’s mind. (Talking amongst themselves about how crazy he is does not work.)

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    • Don

      Here is my problem with climate theory that I like would to have addressed. I have no political or scientific basis to refute the current climate theory but I do question the predictive modeling.

      What climate theory requires one to believe is that scientists have developed a computer model that accurately portrays the millions of variables that determine the average temperature of the planet for the next 20 and 50 years. Then they have normalized for every single significant variable and have determined that ONE variable, man-made carbon emissions, is having a dramatic impact on the model.

      That is just exactly like saying that a computer model has been developed to predict not just the stock market of the USA but the economy of the entire world. And the model has determined that grain sales in Lawrence, Kansas will cause a massive depression.

      It’s not impossible, just extremely difficult to believe that a model with many dynamic variables can possibly predict an outcome especially when narrowed to such a small variable.

      I hope this makes sense.

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    • Prof. Gene Rochlin

      I’m afraid it does not make much sense. Taking aside the matter of “millions of variables” (there are lot, but not millions), and the false comparison to the stock market (which is a human activity, much harder to predict than a scientific one), the effect of CO2 on global average temperatures is well established. Without the greenhouse effect, to which CO2 is the largest contributor, the average temperature of the earth’s surface would be about 0 degrees F, freezing the entire surface (including the oceans) solid. So the particular variable that concerns you (carbon) is not a small one at all.

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      • zefal

        “the effect of CO2 on global average temperatures is well established.”

        Could you state how that has been established. What proof that the varied temperatures in the 20th century were unusual? Please don’t say Keith Briffa or Michael Mann’s discredited tree ring data.

        We are heading for 18 years of static temperatures even though 40% of CO2 produced by humans have been released in the last 20 years. That time frame represents 11% of the time passed since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Flat temperatures with 40% of CO2 in 11% time period. Consider myself unswayed. I remember the neat graphs showing temperature increase from the mid 70s thru the late 90s walking hand-in-hand with CO2 increase; what happened?

        You ever heard of the static state of the universe theory? People who sell AGW are practitioners of the static state of climate believers.

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    • Prof. Jeremy Thorner, MCB Dept., UC Berkeley

      Thank you very much for illustrating the folly of rejecting well-established, objectively obtained, and more than amply verified truths about the way our biosphere operates. Denialism and ignorance never provide a workable alternative, and mislead and endanger those who don’t have the means or the will to face reality.

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