The Manhattan Contrarian Guide To Evaluating Environmental Scares: Glyphosate And Climate Change

You may have seen that last week a California jury handed down a verdict finding Monsanto civilly liable for some $289 million in damages to a man who claimed that his blood cancer was caused by the weed killer glyphosate (brand name Roundup).  That's enough money to notice!  Especially since there are a few thousand more potential plaintiffs lined up to sue for allegedly getting cancer from exposure to Roundup.  And it's especially noticeable to the people at Bayer, who just finished buying Monsanto for some $66 billion a couple of months ago.

If you've been a reader here for a while, you will know that I don't think much of the "science" supporting a supposed causal relationship between glyphosate exposure and cancer.  See this November 2017 post "Can Intervention By The Rational Stop A Pseudoscientific Scare Backed By Big Money?"   

And indeed, I'm far from alone in my views as to glyphosate, this jury's verdict notwithstanding.  There appears to be some kind of near-consensus of the relevant scientific community on the side that glyphosate does not cause cancer.  But then there's climate change.  Over in that field, we find advocates of climate alarm making frequent claims of "scientific consensus" for their position of a causal relationship between human greenhouse gas emissions and projected catastrophic global warming.  In that field, I would dispute that there is anything close to a "consensus," but I could not dispute the proposition that a substantial plurality of those calling themselves "climate scientists" are supporting the cause of global warming alarm.  Even so, I think their claims are nonsense.

So how can you, as a reasonably informed citizen, hope to come to a rational view as to which scary scientific claims to credit and which to dismiss?  Unfortunately, most people's default approach to dealing with scientific issues as to which they have no personal expertise is to defer to the asserted authority of a "consensus" of experts.  You may follow that approach yourself.  Here is an unfortunate example of same from Baylen Linnekin at the usually excellent website over the past weekend:

The mountains of studies Partridge cites place the scientific consensus about the lack of a link between glyphosate and cancer on par with the vast evidence demonstrating the safety of GMOs generally and with the overwhelming consensusthat manmade factors cause climate change.

At least in my view, following the so-called "overwhelming consensus" has led Mr. Linnekin badly wrong.  So, perhaps, how about going to the other extreme, and flatly rejecting any and all asserted scares of harms based on environmental factors, particularly given the deplorable recent spate of such scares that have proved to be scams?  Unfortunately, that won't work either.  There are numerous examples of claims of harm from environmental factors that have stood the test of time and evidence accumulation.  Notable examples include the association of cigarette smoking with lung cancer and the association of asbestos exposure with mesothelioma.

Therefore, there is a need for a Manhattan Contrarian Guide To Evaluating Environmental Scares.  I have a proposed framework for you to apply.  It's a little more complicated than either the "follow the consensus" or "reject them all" approaches.  But the good news is that it's not all that much more complicated.  And the even better news is that I think you will get the right answer in nearly every case; with, however, the proviso that that "right" answer may be ambiguity in many cases.

The Manhattan Contrarian Guide To Evaluating Environmental Scares can be summarized in four words:  Follow The Scientific Method.  Unfortunately, almost no journalist knows the basics of the Scientific Method (even though probably all of them were exposed to it somewhere in high school or even junior high school); and therefore, almost everything you read about environmental scares claiming the mantle of science is at the minimum misleading, if not downright wrong.  Following the Scientific Method really directs you to looking at only three key questions to lead you to the right answer:

  1. What is the falsifiable hypothesis?  The Scientific Method requires a falsifiable hypothesis.  A falsifiable hypothesis requires a statement of the proposition at issue that by its nature can be falsified and thereby invalidated by some evidence that it is possible to acquire, and also a recognition by the proponents of the hypothesis as to what evidence, if it emerged, would be sufficient to falsify and invalidate the hypothesis.  Without a statement of a falsifiable hypothesis, it is not science, no matter what the proponents may say, and therefore any claims of "scientific" consensus or "scientific" validity are an obvious fallacy.  
  2. What is the most damning adverse evidence against the falsifiable hypothesis?  The Scientific Method provides that no hypothesis can ever be definitively proved, although accumulation of evidence consistent with the hypothesis can give increasing confidence over time of its correctness.  However, one piece of adverse evidence can disprove a scientific hypothesis; and indeed, if an advocate of a scientific hypothesis does not concede that proposition, then you know that this is not real science.  In any event, it is always much more important to look to adverse evidence challenging a hypothesis, no matter how little of it there may be, than to whatever reams and reams of evidence there may be allegedly consistent with the hypothesis.  That stuff can regularly be used by advocates to mislead and misdirect you.
  3. How do advocates of the hypothesis respond to the most damning adverse evidence?  If they have an answer to it, let's see it!  It is particularly telling if advocates just refuse to address the best points of their opponents.  If that is going on, you are completely justified in concluding that they have no answers, and that their proposition is false.  

Now, let us apply these three questions to the cases of glyphosate and climate change.


  1. What is the falsifiable hypothesis?  I would say that it is this:  "High levels of exposure to glyphosate are associated with increased risk of developing blood cancers, particularly non-Hodgkins lymphoma."  It's easy and clear.  And clearly falsifiable.
  2. What is the most damning adverse evidence against the falsifiable hypothesis?  Well, there is this from the statement of Monsanto VP Scott Partridge after the jury verdict:  "More than 800 scientific studies and reviews—and conclusions by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. National Institutes of Health and regulatory authorities around the world—support the fact that glyphosate does not cause cancer."  That's a start.  To pick just one of the 800, in my November 2017 post I cited the U.S. Agricultural Health Study, which followed 89,000 farmers and their wives for 23 years from 1993 to 2016, and found "no association between glyphosate exposure and all cancer incidence or most of the specific cancer subtypes we evaluated, including NHL [non-Hodgkins lymphoma]. . . .”  
  3. How do the advocates respond to the most damning evidence?  In this case, the answer is, basically, they have little in response.  My understanding is that, rather than addressing the mountain of adverse studies (mostly done by people having no association with Monsanto), they principally relied on one outlier UN report, produced by a guy who promptly became a consultant to the plaintiffs' lawsuit industry, and which reached its ambiguous conclusion in significant part by altering the conclusions of the underlying work that it cited.  For more details, read my November 2017 post.  But the most significant point is that, under the Scientific Method, the adverse evidence is far more important than any evidence that might be cited as consistent with the hypothesis, even if extensive.  In this case, a falsifiable hypothesis has been quite definitively invalidated.

As you can see, if you just follow the Scientific Method, you quickly find that those on the side that glyphosate does not cause cancer have far the better side of the argument.  Perhaps it is not 100% definitive, but it is close.

Climate Change  

  1. What is the falsifiable hypothesis?  There isn't one!  And good luck trying to find a statement of the official falsifiable hypothesis from any advocate of climate alarmism.  I have previously invited readers and commenters on this blog to give me a statement of the falsifiable hypothesis on which climate alarmists claim there is a "consensus," and I have never gotten even an attempt of any kind.  I hereby make the invitation again.  To get an idea of the shell game you are dealing with, try going to this NASA web page titled "Global Climate Change/Facts."  (What is that page still doing there over a year and a half into a Trump presidency??!!)  Here's the leading headline:  "Scientific Consensus:  Earth's climate is warming."  Is that a falsifiable hypothesis?  Absolutely not!  It's a trivial non-falsifiable statement whose result can be manipulated by whoever gets to pick the start date of the analysis.  See my post of August 9 here.  And then they provide a list of some dozens of pooh-bah "scientific" organizations that supposedly subscribe to this non-falsifiable non-scientific proposition, everything from AAAS, to ACS, to AGU, to AMA, to AMS, to APS, to NAS, and on and on and on.  It's embarrassing!  How stupid do they think you are?  (Another question is, how stupid are they?  Do our scientific leaders even understand what the Scientific Method is?)  Any other candidates for the falsifiable hypothesis?  Now this is me trying to help these guys out, rather than them speaking for themselves, but how about "the climate is warming and we are the cause"?  Or maybe, "accumulating greenhouse gases from human sources are causing catastrophic warming of the atmosphere"?  OK then, what is the evidence that, if it emerged, would be conceded to invalidate whichever of these hypothesis (or some other one) that you pick?  You will never get that out of them.
  2. What is the most damning adverse evidence against the falsifiable hypothesis?  This is a little tough to deal with when no one will tell you the falsifiable hypothesis, but let's assume it is the last one there ("accumulating greenhouse gases from human sources are causing catastrophic warming of the atmosphere").  Well, there is the clear demonstration that natural factors such as solar effects, ocean currents (El Niño/La Niña), and volcanoes are more than sufficient to explain all global temperature variations since reasonably accurate data are available (the 1950s) without the need to take into account any effects from human greenhouse gas emission.  And then there is the demonstration that the so-called "tropical hot spot" (decreased lapse rate of temperatures with increasing altitude in the tropics that would necessarily accompany any hypothesized greenhouse warming caused by human emissions) does not exist in the data. And then there is the demonstration that the earth's temperatures were warmer in early years (Medieval Warm Period, Roman Warm Period, Holocene Climate Optimum, etc.) -- when human greenhouse gas influences could not have played a part -- than they are today.  And then there is the demonstration of alteration of the global temperature record by the advocates of alarmism to remove the peak of temperatures that previously existed in the early 1940s.  I could go on.
  3. How do the advocates respond to the most damning evidence against the hypothesis?  And here the answer is, they don't and they won't.  Go to anything resembling an official defense of the "global warming consensus" and see if you can find any kind of answer to any of these damning points.  For example, try NASA's Global Climate Change site, under the heading "Evidence."   You will just find point after point of evidence supposedly  consistent with the hypothesis (stated here as "warming of the climate system is unequivocal" -- again, obviously non-falsifiable).  Temperatures have risen!  The oceans have warmed!  Ice sheets have shrunk!  Less snow!  Sea levels have risen!  OK, guys, but how do you know that slightly higher temperatures underlying all of these things have not been caused by something natural like increasing solar activity, shifting ocean currents, or temporarily low volcanic activity?  They just won't address these things!  Why not?  Really, it's embarrassing.

If you arm you brain with the basics of the Scientific Method, it is immediately obvious that this whole thing is a charade.