Category Archives: environment

Citing scientific studies and the arrogance of ignorance

Image credit: Why Citing a Scientific Study Does Not Finish An Argument

One thing that gets me going (as readers here probably know) is the way scientific citations are cherry-picked and dragged in to support biased positions. It’s a common form of confirmation bias in the fluoridation debate. And I get even angrier when the perpetrators of this thoughtless and cherry-picking citations will then claim they “have science on their side.”

Parroting citations and (often unconnected) claims are not what science is about!

So I was very pleased to see this article Why Citing a Scientific Study Does Not Finish An Argument by Jonny Anomaly and Brian Boutwell at Quillette. They point out that throwing down a gauntlet like “actually, studies show . . . “ often kills the discussion:

“It’s hard to know what to say when people cite scientific studies to prove their point. Sometimes we know the study and its relative merits. But most of the time we just don’t know enough to confirm or refute the statement that the study is supposed to support. We are floating in a sea of information, and all we can do is flounder around for the nearest buoy to support a view that’s vaguely related to the conversation.”

I think this is why anti-fluoride propagandists rarely get challenged when they come out with their misinformed claims that fluoridation causes IQ loss, ADHD, hypothyroidism, etc. Their discussion partners are often not familiar enough with the scientific literature to challenge the claims. Of course 99 times out of 100 the propagandist is also completely unfamiliar with the literature and is simply parroting a claim they saw in one of their “nature news” newsletters, or similar. And surely throwing out citations one has never read is a clear example of the arrogance of ignorance.

The fact is: “All of us lack the time to understand more than a small fraction of scientific research.” But when the discussion partner is familiar with the cited studies the propagandist quickly lurches into a Gish Gallop – or deletes the online discussion and bans the person. Those of us who have entered into this debate with the motivation of clarifying the science will know what I am talking about.

We should be wary of arguments relying on citations even in cases where the proponent has read the literature. Citing an individual study is really meaningless:

“Of course, that’s not always how science works, or how knowledge is spread. A single study is rarely anything more than suggestive, and often it takes many replications under a variety of circumstances to provide strong justification for a conclusion. And yet, poorly supported studies often make their way into newspapers and conversations as if they are iron clad truths.”

That’s another thing that angers me – even fairly reputable magazines will report individual studies as if we should take the results as “gospel truth,” without even considering the quality of the research – let alone any supporting research.

The problem of correlations

Often such poorly supported studies rely on correlations – and the way commenters and the media cite such correlations as “evidence” is another bugbear of mine. The authors rip into this problem:

“Correlations are everywhere, and given enough data from enough studies, we will find correlations that are surprising and interesting. But . . .  causation is difficult to infer, and some correlations are flukes that don’t admit of a common cause, or that can’t be consistently replicated.

“We are pattern-seeking creatures, and correlations are patterns that cry out for explanation. But sometimes our political views infect our prior beliefs, and these beliefs lead us to look for patterns until we find them. Given enough tests and time, we will find them.”

I am amazed at how studies relying on the poor use of correlations often make it into scientific journals. I have written about one example in ADHD linked to elevation not fluoridation.” There is a similar situation for the recent paper of Hirzy et al. (2016) which I discuss in Anti-fluoride authors indulge in data manipulation and statistical porkies. Although I understand that particular paper was rejected by several scientific journals before it ended up in Fluoride which accepts anything that is anti-fluoridation.

Frankly, I think more papers like this should be challenged and that journals have an ethical responsibility to publish critiques of such papers. Unfortunately, I think I am being a bit idealistic here as many editors have their own biases.

When it comes down to it I think even with the scientific literature it is a case of reader beware. One should never take citations at face value – especially when used to confirm a biased argument. Rather than accepting such arguments we should follow them up, read the cited paper – and other papers in the research area of we have time. We should approach all such claims using citations critically and sensibly.

This is in line with the conclusion the authors make to their article:

“We’re not advising you to commit social suicide by interrupting every conversation with a demand for more evidence. But we do think the phrase “studies show…” should be met with cautious skepticism, especially when the study supports the politically-motivated preconceptions of the person who’s talking.”

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Climate deal signed – now for the hard bit: action



In the words of Prof Richard Allan, Reading University:

“The human race has a climate crisis, Paris has delivered a plan, next begins the hard bit: action.”

The final draft text of a climate agreement has been accepted by delegates in Paris. It’s 31 pages long and full of the normal political phrases. Download the full text if you wish to browse through the details.

The important bits are that it sets the goal of limiting the world’s rise in average temperature to “well below 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius”.

Countries will be required to report on “national inventories of emissions by source” and also to report on their mitigation efforts. There will be an ongoing structure to enable this and check compliance.

NZ researchers comments

Here are some comments from New Zealand researchers gathered by the NZ Science Media Centre:

Professor James Renwick, Climate Scientist, School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences, Victoria University, comments: 

“The Paris Agreement is a great achievement, the most positive thing to come out of the COP negotiations to date. The call for transparency, continual ratcheting up of emissions targets, and the provisions for climate finance, are very positive outcomes.

“Great to see (in article 4) that developed countries shall undertake “economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets”. Take note, New Zealand – no hot-air credits, actual emissions reductions are required. But, targets remain voluntary and the required actions remain daunting.

“The review of a 1.5°C warming limit may come too late as we are well on the way to 1.5°C with present greenhouse gas levels. Staying below 2°C warming is a big ask, but this document provides a framework for action. Now we just need the action.”

Professor Ralph Sims, Director, Centre for Energy Research, Massey University, comments:

“The Paris Agreement is certainly a major step forward given all the national constraints and differences. It is in many ways a compromise and I doubt will have any immediate impacts on NZ government policies.

“Minister Paula Bennett will take some time to come to grips with her new portfolio and the Royal Society’s Climate Change Mitigation panel that I chair will be producing outputs that should help with the realisation that there is much New Zealand can do to reduce our GHG emissions – and not rely on buying carbon credits from offshore as is the current intention.

“The only mention of carbon pricing in the Agreement is below – with nothing about carbon trading far as I am aware: ‘Also recognizes the important role of providing incentives for emission reduction activities, including tools such as domestic policies and carbon pricing’.

“The really positive outcome of the COP21 was in fact outside the Plenary rooms.

“The momentum of businesses, cities, NGOs, financiers, bankers, indeed across all civil society, in their intent to move towards a rapid transformation to a low-carbon economy was far more impressive than the formal negotiations.

“There will be many years of further negotiations needed to support the principles of this Agreement. But COP21 will be remembered for the event where global society came to fully understand the many opportunities and co-benefits that climate change mitigation and adaptation methods provide.

“This indeed was a key message of the IPCC Mitigation 5th Assessment Report. After working on renewable energy systems for over 40 years at Massey University, it is pleasing to see that it will now have a major contribution to make worldwide alongside energy efficiency and innovative technology development. Technologies will not solve it alone – and behavioural change and social issues are key – but the transformation has begun.

“Overall the COP reminded me of a two week-long Telethon with announcements, celebrities, new funding announcements – “Thank you very much for your kind donation!”

“NZ will have to become more nimble and innovative to reduce our emissions across all sectors and keep up with the leading countries I think.”

Comments from UK researchers

The following comments, and Prof Allan’s above, were gathered by the UK Science Media Centre:

Ajay Gambhir, Senior Research Fellow at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment, Imperial College London, said:

“It is remarkable that a text of this ambition has been agreed by all Parties, given the much less ambitious options still on the table just three days ago. However, the gap between the agreement’s goal to limit warming to well below 2 degrees C and the current combined level of countries’ emissions pledges – which are not nearly enough to achieve this goal –  means there is considerable work to do over the coming years.”

Prof Daniela Schmidt, Bristol University, said:

“Limiting the rate and magnitude of climate change will have a large impact on the reaction of the world’s ecosytems.  The challenge will be in everybody’s commitments to be visionary to achieve this goal.”

Dr Ilan Kelman, University College London, said:

“The Paris outcome is momentous, but let’s not get too carried away. The initial draft’s limitations are not overcome, especially that key parts remain voluntary. Major hurdles still exist in countries taking forward this agreement – given that governments change and that strongly opposed interests have not disappeared. Then, we have implementation on the ground which will take years. Today is not the end, but the beginning of a journey which has already taken too long to start.”

Prof Simon Lewis, Professor of global change science, University College London, said:

“The new Paris Agreement is historic, important, world-changing and inadequate all at the same time. It is astonishing that all the countries of the world have agreed a pathway together to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But the proof that this will happen will depend on  policy changes.

“To meet a target of well below 2 degrees C above per-industrial levels will require leaving the vast majority of fossil fuel reserves in the ground. Will the deployment of renewable technologies be quick enough and cheap enough to keep fossil fuels in the ground? Personally I hope so. The proof will be whether globally investors shun fossil fuels and we soon see coal companies going out of business while investments in renewable technologies skyrocket.”

Prof David Reay, Professor of Carbon Management, University of Edinburgh, said:

“This is a game-changer. The long nights of negotiations have paid dividends. Legally binding, a robust way to increase emissions reductions, and strong reporting requirements – really impressive.  This agreement is the first concrete step on our collective way towards avoiding dangerous climate change. Paris already has the world’s sympathy, today it also has the world’s gratitude.”

Summaries from the New York Times

The New York Times also has commentary and reactions to the following specific clauses (see Nations Approve Landmark Climate Accord in Paris and Inside the Paris Climate Deal).

Temperature Increase

“Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.”

Preservation of forests

“Parties are encouraged to take action to implement and support, including through results-based payments, the existing framework as set out in related guidance and decisions already agreed under the Convention for: policy approaches and positive incentives for activities relating to reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, and the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries; and alternative policy approaches, such as joint mitigation and adaptation approaches for the integral and sustainable management of forests, while reaffirming the importance of incentivizing, as appropriate, non-carbon benefits associated with such approaches.”

Bearing the cost

“As part of a global effort, developed country Parties should continue to take the lead in mobilizing climate finance from a wide variety of sources, instruments and channels, noting the significant role of public funds, through a variety of actions, including supporting country-driven strategies, and taking into account the needs and priorities of developing country Parties. Such mobilization of climate finance should represent a progression beyond previous efforts.”


“In order to build mutual trust and confidence and to promote effective implementation, an enhanced transparency framework for action and support, with built-in flexibility which takes into account Parties’ different capacities and builds upon collective experience is hereby established.”

Absence of “Greenhouse Gasd Emissions Neutrality”

“In order to achieve the long-term temperature goal set out in Article 2, Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science, so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty.”

Loss and damage

“Parties recognize the importance of averting, minimizing and addressing loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change, including extreme weather events and slow onset events, and the role of sustainable development in reducing the risk of loss and damage.”

Five-year contributions

“Each Party shall communicate a nationally determined contribution every five years in accordance with decision 1/CP.21 and any relevant decisions of the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement and be informed by the outcomes of the global stocktake referred to in Article 14.”

See details of comments on these clauses at  Inside the Paris Climate Deal – The New York Times.

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Talk of “mini ice age” bunkum


The global mean temperature difference is shown for the time period 1900 to 2100 for the IPCC A2 emissions scenario (relative to zero for the average temperature during the years 1961 to 1990). The red line shows predicted temperature change for the current level of solar activity, the blue line shows predicted temperature change for solar activity at the much lower level of the Maunder Minimum, and the black line shows observed temperatures from the NASA GISS dataset through 2010. Adapted from Feulner & Rahmstorf (2010). Credit: Skeptical science

Irresponsible and misleading reporting of scientific issues always annoys me. But I have been particularly annoyed with the recent headlines of the sort Now it looks like we’re in for an ice-age.” Here reporters have taken it on themselves to naively extrapolate research on the modelling of solar cycles to predictions about climate. Without considering any of the whole complex of inputs into climate change.

I would have thought  with all the controversy, and political and scientific discussion, about climate change over the last few years, that even the most junior reporter would recognise this complexity. That they would not make such naive extrapolations. And, particularly, they would completely ignore the role of the major recent inputs into climate change – anthropogenic atmospheric carbon dioxide.

The research sparking the media reports was published last year –  Sheperd et al., (2014). Prediction of Solar Activity from Solar Background Magnetic Field Variations in Cycles 21-23. This paper does not talk about climate – in fact, it doesn’t even include the word temperature. Nor did the Royal Astronomical Society press release referring to this modelling work (see Irregular heartbeat of the Sun driven by double dynamo).

Yet the  media article linked above claims the researchers say “fluid movements within the Sun will converge in such a way that temperatures will fall dramatically in the 2030s.”

Of course, if the solar model reported in this paper is accepted by other researchers it will be used in  modelling of future climate change. But we can get an idea of the likely effect of including this solar model from what  such modelling has shown in the past (see What is causing warming of the earth?)

Better still – the figure above is from Skeptical Science – using data from Feulner & Rahmstorf (2010). This shows the predicted future temperature of the earth modelled using current solar levels and the grand solar minimum of the sort predicted by Sheperd et al., (2014).

So much for the claim we are headed fo a “mini-ice age.”

See also:

A grand solar minimum would barely make a dent in human-caused global warming
Media Reports The World Will Enter A ‘Mini Ice Age’ In The 2030s. The Reverse Is True.
No, Earth is not heading toward a ‘mini ice age’
The ‘mini Ice Age’ media sensation – and the reality

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Putting politicans in their place on climate change

The US is a strange country. It has some great comedians (and some great scientists) but it also has some lousy politicians.

It’s a real mystery to me how the US House Committee on Science, Space and Technology can have so many idiots on board.

These Congressmen Think They’re Smarter Than Scientists. Jon Stewart Disproves That Real Quick..

Jon Stewart would have made a great science teacher.

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A balanced debate

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO): Climate Change Debate.

This is the way to handle these debates – love to see it with creationism, vaccinations and fluoridation as well.

Thanks to Paryngula.

Is anyone listening?


Thanks to: Twitter / SonyKapoor: “Is this mic actually on?” ….

Astro-turfing for scientific credibility

In my article Anti-fluoridation study flawed – petition rejected  I referred to Bill Hirzy’s flawed paper, Hirzy et al. (2013)on fluoridation chemicals. He has now submitted a correction to this paper. Interested readers can see it at  Corrigendum to “Comparison of hydrofluorosilicic acid and pharmaceutical sodium fluoride as fluoridating agents—A cost–benefit analysis” [Environ. Sci. Policy 29 (2013) 81–86].

Hirzy does admit to embarrassment for the major mistake in his calculations. However, he doesn’t hold back on his political line. He concludes that his arguments for making bottled water fluoridated with NaF available is:

“an economically and socially feasible alternative to putting industrial grade HFSA into 100 gallons per day per capita and flushing more that 98 percent of that into municipal waste water treatment plants. Of course the phosphate industry would have to find some other means of dealing with 250,000 tons per year of HFSA than shipping it from their factories to drinking water treatment plants, passing it through households and into waste water treatment plants.”

Well, I guess he is primarily a political activist (this paper and its correction seem to be the total of his scientific publication list).

American Environmental Health Sciences

However, I was interested to see his contact details given in the paper as: “American Environmental Health Sciences, 506 E Street, N.E., Washington, DC 20002, USA.” I wondered, who the hell is the American Environment Health Science organisation, so did an internet search. Try it and see if you can find out anything more than I did.

Sum total was 2 links. One to a Chinese Hardware Co which referred to:

” American Environmental Health Sciences researcher One study found that 99 percent of American families with dogs and cats allergens, but only less than half of which the family cat or dog . Most of the family pet allergens from schools, hospitals , shopping malls , cinemas and other public places .”

Not much sense there.

The other was to a conference programme (The Middle East Waste Summit 2009). One of the speakers (our old friend Paul Connett) was described as “Director, American Environmental Health Science Projects.” Not as coincidental as one might think – Bill Hirzy works for Paul Connett’s Fluoride Action Network as a paid political lobbyist.

Still – how credible is this organisation. A search of its postal address showed it to be a residential house in Washington. In fact, it seems to be the house in which Bill Hirzy lives!

My conclusion – another astroturf organisation with a sciency name used to give some sort of credibility to Bill Hirzy and Paul Connett. I know the anti-fluoridation movement has a track record in setting up astro-turf organisations for this sort of purpose (see my article Anti-fluoridationist astro-turfing and media manipulation). But I wonder how widespread this practice is for supplying credibility in scientific journals and conferences?

Note: A reader brought to my attention that the address for the International Society for Fluoride Research Inc., publisher of the Fluoride journal, is 727 Brighton Road, Ocean View, Dunedin 9035. Another residential address.

By the way the  International Society for Fluoride Research Inc. is registered in New Zealand as a charity where you can view details of its rules and financial reports.

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Conspiracy theorists misuse analytical evidence

The normal cherry picking and confirmation bias approach to science of the ideologically driven is annoying enough. At least we can discuss this and offer alternative scientific findings. And let’s face it – we are all prone to cherry picking and confirmation bias.

But some peopel carry this opportunist and naive use of science  to extremes. This is particularly true of conspiracy theorists obsessed with contaminants. For them, the very fact that a contaminant is detected, irrespective of its extremely low concentration, is “proof” of contamination. The means they can feed their obsession with analytical evidence which actually does not support their argument.

Reminds me of the old days when some people used to claim radioactive contamination of the environment because they could get a few background clicks on a Geiger counter.

Here’s one from NORTHLAND NEW ZEALAND CHEMTRAILS WATCH. (It is hard to get a more extreme conspiracy theory than chemtrails!). In Rainwater Test Result From Nelson Shows Aluminium, Barium & Strontium Present  they cling to an analytical report showing the presence of “three elements known to be linked to geoengineering globally” in Nelson rainwater.

(Click image to enlarge)


For them, simply the ability to detect something (or maybe even to include the elements in an analytical report, feeds their conspiracy theory.

Despite the fact  amounts detected are barely over the detection limit!

Of course, when we reject this sort of “evidence” as meaningless this becomes evidence for another conspiracy theory.

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Where is the heat going?


It is a good article but a lousy headline.  The December 7 issue of New Scientist has a cover head-line Climate showdown: Is it time to stop worrying about global warming? That will create the wrong impression among those many people who get no further than headlines. And it certainly doesn’t convey the message of the article itself.

The article does acknowledge that “the average surface temperature of the planet seems to have increased far more slowly over [recent years] than it did over the precious decades.”

But says:

“This doesn’t mean that climate change has stopped, any more than the very rapid warming seen in the 1990s meant it had accelerated.”

Several reasons

The article a describes several reasons that help explain the current situation. To do this it stresses “it helps to think about heat energy rather than temperature.” In summary:

“In terms of heat. There are three possible reasons why the Earth’s surface temperature hasn’t increased much recently”

  1. Less heat arriving from the sun. “The sun’s heat output rises and falls in an 11-year cycle and measurements by spacecraft such as SOHO show it did dip particularly low recently.”
  2. Increased levels of sulphur aerosols in the atmosphere could have reflected more of the sun’s heat back into space. “Levels of sulphur dioxide have risen in the past decade, mainly due to lots of small volcanic eruptions.”
  3. More of the heat gained by the planet “ends up somewhere other than the lower atmosphere, whose temperature we focus on.”

Ocean – the main culprit

The article points out the most likely storage place for this heat is the ocean.

“Water covers more than 70% of the planet and the stuff has a huge capacity to absorb heat: around 3000 times as much energy is needed to warm a given volume of water by 1°C as is needed to warm the same volume of air.

“Observations show that a whopping 94% of the heat energy gained by the planet since 1971 has ended up in the oceans, with another 4% absorbed by land and ice. . . . So all the surface warming since 1971 is due to just 2 per cent of the heat. If just a little more heat than usual has been going into the oceans, it will have had only a slight effect on ocean surface temperatures, because of water’s huge capacity to absorb heat, but a large effect on atmospheric temperature. And several studies show that the oceans have indeed been soaking up even more heat than normal.”

The article goes on to suggest this is because there have been lots of La Niňas (which cause the Pacific to soak up heat – thus cooling the planet) lately but no major El Niňo (which extract heat from the Pacific to the atmosphere and warm the planet) for the past 15 years.

The graphic from the article illustrates where the heat has gone.


The whole process is obviously complicated and there are various opinions among climate scientists about the relative importance of the different processes distributing heat. There is even a suggestion “that soaring aerosol emissions from China may have contributed to the slowdown” of surface temperature increases. However:

“the mainstream view expressed in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report is that about half of the surface slowdown is due to the oceans, and the other half due to the sun and extra volcanic aerosols.”

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NZ climate change “sceptics” abandon appeal


Credit: Rod Quantock: global warming’s just not funny

Most of us by now have moved on and forgotten the NZ High Court ruling which rejected attempts by local climate change “sceptics” to get a judicial review of the climate change data held by the National Insitute of Water and Atmospheric Research  (NIWA) (see High Court ruled on integrity – not science). But these “sceptics” were persistent and the “New Zealand Climate Science Education Trust” had decided  to challenge the ruling in the Court of Appeal

But this week the group withdrew the appeal:

“Barry Brill, who acted as solicitor for the trust, said his clients could not see a way forward after coming upon a procedural issue. The judges had noted two scientists involved in the reports were not cross-examined – something his clients were unaware could be done during the earlier court process.”

Sounds like sour grapes, or the group had gone into the original court case unprepared.

I guess they didn’t want to throw good money after bad. Although there will be further costs related to the aborted appeal (see Sceptics bail on climate court case).

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