The Climate Change Burger And The Horsemeat Argument

  • Date: 13/02/13
  • Judith Curry, Climate Etc

So, what does the UK scandal involving horsemeat in lasagna have to do with climate change? 

Roger Pielke Jr has a post that is both clever and profound entitled The Horsemeat in Your Lasagne.   A summary of the scandal:

It turns out that packages of Findus lasagne labelled as beef turned out to contain from 60% to 100% horsemeat. As a result the product was pulled and tough questions are being asked about food safety. The scandal is spreading to other food products and other countries. Some might say, so what? Meat is meat, right?

So what does the horsemeat scandal have to do with climate change?  RP Jr argues that the same ‘end justifies the means’ logic is being used in promoting the extreme weather meme as a reason for major government response to climate change.  In spite of the fact that the link between extreme weather events and human induced climate change is very weak, where it exists at all (see previous post on the IPCC SREX Report).  This reasoning is exemplified by the following quote from a tweet from Clark Miller:

Climate events have people thinking. Now maybe think mitigation. Social not natural causality. Whats not to like?

Now we get to the profound part of RP Jr’s post:

What does it matter if people wrongly associate recent extreme events and disaster costs with climate change? Responding to it is a good thing, and if people support mitigation action for the wrong reasons, so what?

There are three objections here.

First, an argument that mitigation of greenhouse gases makes sense in terms of decreasing the future costs of extreme events is not a strong one: Even under the assumptions of IPCC, Stern Review, etc. the future costs of extreme events under the most aggressive scenarios of climate change actually decrease as a proportion of GDP.

The second objection is that the discovery of a little horsemeat in lasagne ruins the entire product. You might cite the tasty (and safe) noodles and tomato sauce, but the presence of horsemeat in the product defeats your argument. The science is just not there to connect increasing costs of disasters to climate change, much less individual phenomena like drought, floods and storms. It is horsemeat — and don’t put it into your product lest you compromise the whole package.

The third reason should be obvious but often appears to escape the calculus of many campaigners and journalists. Telling people that their lasagne contains beef, when it actually contains horsemeat is just wrong.

Mouse proxies

Shortly after reading the horsemeat post, Kip Hansen sent me a link to a NYTimes article Mice Fall Short as Test Subjects for Humans’ Ills.  Excerpts:

For decades, mice have been the species of choice in the study of human diseases. But now, researchers report evidence that the mouse model has been totally misleading for at least three major killers —sepsis, burns and trauma. As a result, years and billions of dollars have been wasted following false leads, they say.

The paper, published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, helps explain why every one of nearly 150 drugs tested at a huge expense in patients with sepsis has failed. The drug tests all were based on studies in mice. And mice, it turns out, can have something that looks like sepsis in humans, but is very different from the condition in humans.

The group had tried to publish its findings in several papers. One objection, Dr. Davis said, was that the researchers had not shown the same gene response had happened in mice.

“They were so used to doing mouse studies that they thought that was how you validate things,” he said. “They are so ingrained in trying to cure mice that they forget we are trying to cure humans.”

“That started us thinking,” he continued. “Is it the same in the mouse or not?”

The group decided to look, expecting to find some similarities. But when the data were analyzed, there were none at all.

The drug failures became clear. For example, often in mice, a gene would be used, while in humans, the comparable gene would be suppressed. A drug that worked in mice by disabling that gene could make the response even more deadly in humans.

The study’s investigators tried for more than a year to publish their paper, which showed that there was no relationship between the genetic responses of mice and those of humans. They submitted it to the publications Science and Nature, hoping to reach a wide audience. It was rejected from both.

Still, Dr. Davis said, reviewers did not point out scientific errors. Instead, he said, “the most common response was, ‘It has to be wrong. I don’t know why it is wrong, but it has to be wrong.’ ”

Some researchers, reading the paper now, say they are as astonished as the researchers were when they saw the data.

“When I read the paper, I was stunned by just how bad the mouse data are,” Dr. Fink said. “It’s really amazing — no correlation at all. These data are so persuasive and so robust that I think funding agencies are going to take note.” Until now, he said, “to get funding, you had to propose experiments using the mouse model.”

Mouse meat

The horsemeat argument (aka ends justify means) has been used to justify a range of strategies in communicating climate change to the public:

  • extreme events are used as focusing events to alarm people and stimulate action on climate change, playing on their fears, losses and feeling of impotence in the face of say an event like Hurricane Sandy
  • the faux story of Richard Muller as a converted climate change skeptic, which acted as a counter to real skeptical arguments, i.e. if you were a smart Berkeley physics professor and actually did the research, you would be convinced too.
  • Peter Gleick’s strategy of apparently breaking laws for the ‘greater good’ of  discrediting the Heartland Institute and its position on climate change (note:  WUWT reports on breaking news that is embargoed until 2 pm on Thurs)
  • and of course there are dozens of examples in the climategate emails of attempts to stymie the publication and press attention of skeptical papers and jerry rig the acceptance of papers needed to support their arguments (e.g. Wahl and Amman).

RP Jr eloquently states the objections to the ends justify the means strategies and arguments.  But the mouse proxy  example raises an even more fundamental objection to the horsemeat argument.  For example, in the consensus climate change attribution arguments, natural internal variability and solar forcing have been largely dismissed because ‘It has to be wrong. I don’t know why it is wrong, but it has to be wrong.’   Recent research is suggesting a greater role for both (stay tuned for my next post on sensitivity).

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