Monday, November 30, 2009

Climategate: scientific integrity compromised?

Global warming has been a hot topic in the news for several years now. And, there's been a lot of flap on the internet over the past week alleging skullduggery among some climate scientists. So, although what I know about global warming will fit on the head of a pin, the issue merits some comment.

In 2007, former US vice-president Al Gore, and the IPCC ( Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) won the Nobel Peace Prize for their fight against global warming. The IPCC is a UN organization that provides advice to governments on climate and climate change.

Gore's documentary film,"An Inconvenient Truth", won two Oscars, Best Documentary and Best Original Song. The film is being widely distributed to US schools, ostensibly to alert young people to the dangers inherent in man made global warming.

Said Gore: “We face a true planetary emergency. The climate crisis is not a political issue, it is a moral and spiritual challenge to all of humanity." As it turns out, that may not be the case. Politics may be playing a bigger part in the controversy over global warming than has been made public.

Proponents of global warming, which apparently constitutes a majority among climate scientists, insist that the alleged crisis is man made, caused largely by the burning of fossil fuels. Therefore, their solution is to reduce greenhouse gases, particularly carbon emissions, around the globe.

But, no matter how the reduction in CO2 emissions is carried out, it is likely to adversely impact economies in the developed world.

Skeptics point out that variations in the earth's temperature are natural events that have occurred throughout the history of the planet. Some claim there is no evidence of trends that can be attributed to human causes; that variations in solar activity, not greenhouse gases are the true driver of climate change.

A global climate conference is scheduled to take place in Copenhagen from Dec. 7 to 18. The summit will be attended by many world leaders, including US President Barack Obama.

But some recently leaked documents from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia (Great Britain) may prove to be something of an embarrassment to those promoting the doom and gloom scenario. The CRU is a world-renowned climate change research centre and a repository for much of the data on climate change.

The leaked (or hacked) documents contain more than 1,000 emails and 2,000 other documents which, in some circles, are being interpreted as proof of "the greatest act of scientific fraud in history".

In the UK, there have been calls for the head of the CRU (Phil Jones) to resign over the scandal. The former chancellor, Lord Lawson, who has launched a new think tank, the Global Warming Policy Foundation to challenge the consensus on global warming policy, is calling for a full-scale public inquiry.

The hijacked e-mail exchanges appear to indicate that scientific data has been manipulated to strengthen the case for man-made global warming. In addition, some e-mails refer to efforts by those scientists who believe man is responsible for global warming, to exclude contrary views from important scientific publications and also attempts to avoid queries under freedom of information legislation.

One e-mail, from CRU director Phil Jones, suggested to climate scientist Michael Mann of Penn State University that research from skeptics was unwelcome: “We will keep them out somehow -- even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!"

A Wall Street Journal article by Keith Johnson notes that:: “The American Association for the Advancement of Science, a large professional organization, expressed concern that the hacked emails would weaken global resolve to curb greenhouse-gas emissions. The association believes "that climate change is real, it is related to human activities, and the need to counteract its impacts is now urgent," said Ginger Pinholster, an association spokeswoman. She added that the association's journal, Science, evaluates papers solely on scientific merit.”

Johnson's article also notes that: “John Christy, a scientist at the University of Alabama at Huntsville attacked in the emails for asking that an IPCC report include dissenting viewpoints, said, "It's disconcerting to realize that legislative actions this nation is preparing to take, and which will cost trillions of dollars, are based upon a view of climate that has not been completely scientifically tested."

And, therein lies the crux of the matter.

If those scientists promoting the theory of man made global warming have the evidence they claim, why would there be a need to manipulate data and stifle dissenting views? If global warming is such a grave threat to humanity, why not share their data with the skeptics and encourage a full and open debate?

Deceit and deception will not further their cause. It will adversely impact on their own credibility and the integrity of science in general.

The public deserves better from the scientific community, especially on such an important global issue.

Additional reading:
Climategate: The Fallout Continues (Wall Street Journal Online)
And, check out this weeks video on the same topic

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Should you trust some guy with a blog? Hell, no.

MOH's in Ontario have a statutory duty to undertake efforts such as this to protect the public's health. Peel's MOH has specifically stated that measures such as those proposed in the report are a matter of balancing public health and personal autonomy (as are most smoking-related proposals).

You are of course entitled to make conclusions based on as much non-empirical evidence as you like. But I would caution you against impugning the credibility of public health officials.

"Trust me, I'm a doctor." Yes I think I will trust a public health physician who has spent a career protecting the public's health, thank you very much. Or should I trust some guy with a blog? That, sir, would truly be "lunacy".

The above comments were posted in response to my last two columns.

In those columns, (prior to a brief and unexpected hiatus), I commented on a report prepared by public health officials in Peel Region (Toronto's neighbours to the West and Northwest) calling for a province wide ban on smoking in apartments and condos. The objective of the ban was, allegedly, to protect non-smoking residents in multi-unit dwellings from exposure to second-hand smoke.

I opined that there were measures short of an outright ban that might be used to mitigate the grossly exaggerated hazards associated with exposure to secondhand smoke seeping through electrical outlets and through the plumbing.

The problem, of course, is that there was no effort whatever to balance the issues of public health and personal autonomy. The authors of the report assumed the position that secondhand smoke wiggling through cracks in walls and floors of multi-unit dwellings was a health hazard of such significance that it warrants stripping smokers of any right to personal autonomy in their own homes. No other potential solutions were considered.

Let's look at the facts.

According to the October 19, 2009 article by Madeleine White for Torstar News Service, the report was compiled because Peel region “had been receiving an average of five calls a month from tenants complaining about second-hand smoke seeping into their dwellings from other units and open windows”.

There is no indication that health officials investigated the validity of any of the five complaints a month. How old were the buildings from which the complaints originated? What type of construction was involved? What kind of ventilation/heating system was installed? Was there any attempt to quantize the alleged problems? How much secondhand smoke were non-smokers being “forced” to inhale on a daily basis?

Were the complaints related to legitimate health concerns as opposed to the simple nuisance of what many non-smokers consider the “obnoxious smell” of secondhand smoke?

The point of my columns was to show that the extent of the alleged hazard will vary, depending on the age of the building, method of construction, ventilation , etc. In addition, there are a variety of methods available to alleviate the problem of smoke migrating from one apartment to another. There is no demonstrable need for draconian and discriminatory smoking bans.

And, I'm not alone in my observations. Hazel McCallion, the Mayor of Mississauga, the largest municipality in Peel Region, has suggested building code changes are among measures that could be taken; changes that would require retrofitting ventilation systems in old buildings and ensuring that new ones are capable of filtering out second-hand smoke.

The report from Peel Region health officials appears to have ignored all other potential solutions in favour of a blanket policy which would dictate what behaviour individuals would be permitted in the privacy of their own homes; a gross infringement on personal autonomy. And, their one size fits all solution, in the form of a province-wide smoking ban, is being promoted by anti-smoker activists despite the fact that there is absolutely no definitive evidence that any significant health hazard exists.

When groups formulate policy recommendations without addressing the science, it makes their motivation suspect. And, that has a negative impact on the credibility of their policy recommendations.

In fact, the evidence that secondhand smoke in any quantity represents a significant health risk to non-smokers remains open for debate. The anonymous commenter to my columns asks whether he (she) should trust a public health physician who has spent a career protecting the public's health or some guy with a blog?

My suggestion is that he (or she) should conduct a little research and trust the evidence. Start with a few of my previous columns. (The WHO Study (Part 1)), The WHO Study (Part 2), Faulty science from EPA) Then read about the secondhand smoke study conducted by professors James Enstrom and Geoffery Kabat on Enstrom's web site, the Scientific Integrity Institute.

Perhaps he/she may gain some insight as to why I question the credibility of many public health officials.

The Regional Municipality of Peel has a population of roughly 1.15 million people. Health officials claim to receive 60 complaints a year about secondhand smoke seeping into their apartments. On that basis those officials are now recommending that hundreds of thousands of smokers across Ontario be deprived of their right to use a perfectly legal product in the privacy of their own home.

Sorry, neighbour. The report from Peel Region should be filed under the category of bullshit and bafflegab.