Smoking Out Unreasonable Certainty

by | Aug 1, 2008

In conversations with our exasperated green friends, we are often asked what we would accept as ‘proof’ that global warming ‘is real, and is happening’. This is a fairly typical misunderstanding of the sceptical position. Well, ours anyway. We do not argue that humans have not caused global warming. Our position is that even scientific proof of mankind’s influence on the climate is not sufficient to legitimise Environmentalism, or the environmental policies being created by governments in response to pressure from Environmentalists. It is possible to decide that even 10 metres of sea level rise is a price worth paying for constantly increasing living standards; the problem would be in extending the benefits of that increase to those who, in the short term, might lose out. But too often, environmental policies and rhetoric bear no relation to science whatsoever, let alone ‘proof’.

What we believe is happening when people mistake political arguments for scientific ones is that people have lost confidence in making calculations about human values, and so turn to ‘science’ to provide them. Thus we see a mad rush to derive ‘ethics’ from the issue of climate change. It is much easier to create a direction for your otherwise defunct moral compass with a crisis on the horizon. It gives purpose to otherwise purposeless politics. That huge looming catastrophe overwhelms any other considerations that might get in the way. Environmentalism epitomises the widespread loss of moral reasoning. Its desire to possess an unchallengeable moral imperative – as though it were the unmitigated word of God – doesn’t reflect its actually possessing it, but the disorientation of its constituency. When you are lost, you do not look for detail, you look for the biggest thing to orientate you. So it is for Environmentalism. And what could be bigger than the end of the world?

Accordingly, Environmentalists have had to defend the idea that catastrophe is just around the corner. It is where their entire political capital is invested. Without it, they are disoriented; disaster avoidance is a poor substitute for goal-seeking. In lieu of a definitive scientific proposition linking anthropogenic CO2 to the imminent end of the world, the idea of a ‘consensus’ was forged out of necessity (not through scientific discovery), allegedly consisting of ‘the vast majority of the world’s top climate scientists’. These scientists agree, we are told, that ‘something must be done’, even if they don’t agree about why, or how they know. It turns out, in fact, that ‘certainty’ relates not to the scientific understanding of the influence of CO2 on natural processes, but the application of the precautionary principle.

This fragile and nebulous consensus is protected by a variety of myths about anybody who wishes and dares to challenge it: they have vested interests; they have prostituted themselves; they belong to an organised conspiracy; they stand lonely against a vast and entirely unanimous scientific body. One of the most prominent myths is that sceptics employ a ‘tactic’ to subvert the public’s trust in the consensus by challenging the integrity of the scientific theories it is assumed to consist of (even though these theories have not been identified, let alone confidence in them measured). Along these lines, Naomi Oreskes’ thesis gives it the title ‘the tobacco strategy’, which itself owes much to George Monbiot’s book, Heat, which in turn draws on the website run by Greenpeace. We have written about the ‘tobacco strategy‘ and its variants before. But it hasn’t gone away, and so, reading an article by custard-pie-thrower-turned-respectable-‘science’-writer, and shrill Gaia-botherer, Mark Lynas, we thought it deserved some further attention.

Like the tobacco lobbyists who spent years denying the links between smoking and cancer, global warming denialists don’t have to win the debate – they simply have to confuse the public indefinitely to successfully undermine any political action which might hit the interests of their backers in the fossil fuel industries

The tactic is, according to Lynas, Oreskes, and Monbiot, to generate doubt about the certainty of the science being presented by climate activists, in order to win public opinion.

It is interesting that all Lynas believes he has to win the debate is to claim that the sceptics don’t have to win the debate, and to somehow link ‘denial’ of one form to another, rather than actually have it. He excuses himself from the debate by saying that all that his would-be counterparts would have to do to win it would be to show that doubt exists. Environmentalists generally, and Lynas particularly, don’t like debate, and avoid it. He doesn’t think he needs to have one; ‘the science’ is settled. And from ‘the science’ flow all of the imperatives and moral absolutes, as if from the mouth of God. Instead of making the case, he insists that it is made. Done. Finished. Over. Settled. ‘In’. Won.

So, what of the link between the denial of the link between cancer and smoking on the one hand, and the denial of the end of the world on the other? What function is it serving, other than to divert attention from the substance of the case for mitigation, which has not in fact been made?

In the case of smoking, ‘denial’ had very little to do with convincing the public that it was safe. Instead, tobacco companies were forced to establish doubt about the link between smoking and cancer because they faced litigation. Whatever the wrongs of ‘denying’ the scientific evidence generally, in the face of litigation it is entirely reasonable to cast doubt on whatever case is being bought against you. That’s the whole point of the legal process; no matter how grievous the crime you are accused of is, and no matter what the strength of the moral case for damages is, you are entitled to a defence. No matter how culpable you are in actual fact, you are entitled to have your defence heard. Courts of law are established on this principle.

In the simple black and white moral universe, anti smoking activists and lawyers set to make many millions of dollars are the goodies, and those profiting from the sale of cancer-causing cigarettes are the baddies. But in the real world, things aren’t like that. Yes, smoking is ‘bad’, and the world would possibly be a better place if no one damaged themselves by smoking. But the anti-smokers ought to have considered the consequences of challenging the tobacco industry in the courts. Would it ever make the world a better place? How would it be effective? In the end, it opened the door to lawyers in search of a huge payoff. That is why and how the ‘denial’ industry – if it exists – began. If this ‘denial machine’ is a monster, the part of Frankenstein is played by those who sought to close down the tobacco industry – and free all those slaves to tobacco – in the courts.

Nonetheless, prominent environmental activists like Monbiot and Oreskes – who, given their academic positions, ought to know better – maintain the image of the evil tobacco lobby in order to ‘link’ its modus operandi to climate sceptics. It’s a cheap shot. And it makes very little sense, not least because, as has been discussed, such ‘denial’ constitutes a legitimate legal defence in the face of litigation bought about by the ‘goodies’, but also because there is no real substance between the two strategies that we wouldn’t find between any form of positive claim about the material universe, and any scepticism of that claim. That is to say that anyone challenging any form of assertion can only go about challenging that claim by casting doubt over it. Monbiot, according to his own website, held a position (fellow, or professorship) in the philosophy department at Bristol University. The mind boggles. Let’s hope that it was not logic which Mobiot ‘taught’. Lynas – not an academic – also objects to challenges to ‘consensus’ science from sceptics.

The arguments change all the time: this year it is “global warming has stopped”, while last year it was “hurricanes aren’t linked with warming”, and the year before “satellites don’t show any warming of the atmosphere”. As each argument is laboriously refuted by scientists, the deniers simply drop it and skip onto the next one.

In fact, there is some fairly compelling evidence that global warming has stopped since 1998, such as it has not actually got any warmer over the last decade. That’s not to say that anthropogenic global warming has ‘gone away’, of course. And there is some even more compelling evidence that neither hurricane frequency nor intensity have increased with global warming. While IPCC AR4 WGI states that there is a ‘slight’ increase in activity and intensity, they also admit that there is a great deal of ‘natural variability’ masking it. It is, of course, always ‘natural variability’ which is used to wave away evidence that is not consistent with the theory. Never mind that ‘natural variability’ indicates a substantial unknown which needs to be isolated before any guilt can be attributed to humans for changing the atmosphere. And never mind that, as Roger Pielke Jr has shown, normalising storm damage against inflation, population, and wealth yields no signal which would excite warmers. Regardless of whether or not hurricane frequency and intensity have increased, the effect of that increase has been more than mediated by our increasing wealth and population. But that doesn’t stop Lynas using the ‘fact’ (it may well not be one) of increasing intensity and frequency to argue in favour of reducing the very wealth that buffers us against environmental problems! Shooting himself in the foot to mediate the effects of shooting himself in the foot would be less stupid. At least that way, he might still have a leg to stand on.

No surprise, then, that Lynas – clearly no friend of logic – refuses to recognise the legitimacy of debate and challenges to the orthodoxy on which his argument is constructed. No prizes for guessing what he fears debate might reveal. Yet sceptics have helped the scientific process produce some notable shifts in the argument coming from the side Lynas believes to be beyond reproach. For example, Steve McIntyre’s continuing work looking at the way global temperatures are derived from proxies has prompted NASA GISS to adjust their methodology, and the temperature record was adjusted as a consequence. Also thanks to McIntyre, the IPCC no longer uses Mann’s famous ‘Hockey Stick’ graph which was the source of so much panic in 2001, when it appeared as a key graphic. This case should tell us about the value of scepticism to the scientific process. Of course, NASA GISS, like many others, constantly appraise their own work. But this process should be open and transparent, particularly as the research is used to inform policy-making decisions throughout the world, affecting the lives – and possibly even the deaths – of billions of people.

As it happens, it is very difficult for sceptics to challenge climate science, because those engaged in creating models of past and future climate do not cooperate with challenges to their methodology, and refuse to release their working. Like Lynas, they too seem to feel that the moral high-ground belongs to them. Climatologist and Professor at the UK’s UEA, Phil Jones – who worked with Mann on the infamous ‘hockey stick’ – for example, told climate-realist, Warwick Hughes, who had asked for details about his methodology,

We have 25 or so years invested in the work. Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it.

Why indeed? So much for ‘the science’ then. The ‘settled science’. The science which is ‘in’. The science which ‘won’ the ‘debate’. The science to which the ‘vast majority’ of ‘the world’s top scientists’ all subscribe, yet which they have not seen, they cannot see, and can only have access to if they will not subject it to scrutiny.

And there’s the rub. Oreskes, Monbiot, and Lynas – none of them climate scientists, incidentally – make shrill noises about ‘manufacturing doubt’. But in maintaining that the ‘tobacco strategy’ acts against the public interest, they must reject the idea that debate is in keeping with the spirit of the scientific method. Ditto, debate – the fundamental essence of democracy – must also be against the public interest. Who’d have thought that transparent scientific processes and debate are against the public interest? So much for the Enlightenment, too; the age of reason must be over. We must take it on faith that Lynas, Monbiot, Oreskes, and Jones are acting not their own interests but in ours. We have no way of testing that. And they have no way of proving it. We cannot engage in the discussion, we must just accept it. Yet they want the entire world to reorganise its political, social, and economic structures; for the entire world to live different lifestyles; and for our ambitions to be diminished, lest they cause us to behave ‘unsustainably’. That’s easy for them to say. No wonder that all this stuff about doubt and uncertainty becomes so important. Smoke and mirrors.

As we have said, the ‘manufacture of doubt’, or ‘the tobacco strategy’ has been presented by various environmental activists as the work of nefarious conspiracy. The story tells that interests within the oil industry have simply re-run the same script to achieve the same effect on public opinion, for the same ends: continued profit. The oil companies, the tobacco companies, and the hired scientific opinion are the ‘baddies’, and the climate change activists, IPCC scientists, and the class-action lawyers are the good guys. That’s all you need to know.

But think a little deeper, and a different picture emerges. If the tobacco strategy has its roots in a defence against litigation, it follows that the ‘standard of proof’ set by Oreskes, Lynas and Monbiot to legitimise political action to mitigate climate change is ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. Our exasperated Environmentalist friends, who asked us what ‘proof’ would change our mind, set the bar (pardon the pun) and invite the legal defence. All that needs to be provided to challenge unreasonable certainty is reasonable doubt. It is entirely legitimate, therefore, for sceptics to cast doubt over the scientific case, because the narrative with which Lynas, Oreskes, and Monbiot chose to advance their cause is a courtroom drama. But not only did they invite the legal defence, they also honed the tactics that are now being turned against them by the opposition – they are now on the receiving end of the very precautionary principle that has served them so well for so long.

However, what is being sought by this court is not ‘truth’, but guilt. In spite of green claims to possess scientific truth, the emphasis of this process is not establishing material fact, but the elevation of Environmentalism by diminishing the moral character of its detractors. Environmentalists have failed to make the political argument for Environmentalism using science. Instead of achieving momentum for their political ambitions through mass politics (ie, winning the debate, and getting people to join up), the rhetoric instead takes the form of a kangaroo courtroom drama. The guilt is already established: we, the audience, have already seen the ‘crime’: the ‘denial’ of the link between smoking and cancer. Now, we watch the morality play unfold, just as it did during the tobacco wars.

If a parallel is to be drawn between then and now, it’s that in both cases the ‘denialists’ were created by the ‘good guys’. Neither the case against smoking nor the case for immediate mitigative action on climate change is justified by the science alone. There are the pesky matters of personal sovereignty and responsibility, political legitimacy, democratic process, and other costs/benefits to consider. Being right and being righteous are different things. Which is why Environmentalists have had to resort to consensuses, to legal action, to judgements by unelected bodies, and to denying the very legitimacy of opposition, in order to advance its arguments.


  1. lightemup

    I’m looking forward to Martin Durkin turning his attention to the bleeding-hearts and handwringers behind the anti-smoking industry and giving us the facts behind THE GREAT LUNG CANCER CONSPIRACY!

  2. Robert Wood

    I haven’t finished reading this article, so you may have covered these points.

    The left has adopted enviromentalism (sic) as a “saving cause”. It started with the Brundtland report in the 1980s, just when the Soviet Union, and socialism in general, was collapsing, losing its moral purpose.

    There are obvious parallels between traditional religion, which defined moral purpose, with Day-of-judgement Swords of Damocles hanging over one’s head, and the new pantheist religion, with it’s Death of the Planet, performing the same function of providing moral the purpose that the left had lost.

    Further, the enviromentalist totalitarian zeal makes socialists feel very much at home.

    There is still the appeal to “science”. Remember that Marxism was a supposed scientific analysis of society and economy, as is “global warming” supposedly science. And if one doesn’t get it, then one will be re-educated.

    So, to sum up: Enviromentalism has been adopted by socialists. It fulfills all the requirements of a religion, as did socialism of old. There is a belief that provides justification for over-reaching zeal: the very end of the world, judgement day. It provides an intellectual fabric to justify the stoning of non-believers and the persecution of apostacy. It provides a very simple means to make moral judgements.

    By following a few very simple ceremonies, such as candle-lit Earth Hours, and donating money to the high priests for carbon credits, or indulgences, one can assuage one’s guilt for being human and publicly demonstrate one’s adherence to the orthodoxy.

  3. Robert Wood

    You said: “Environmentalism epitomises the widespread loss of moral reasoning.”

    Au contraire, the attraction of hysterical enviromentalism is that it provides a moral basis to life; sure, a skewed and delusional one, but a basis anyway.

  4. Robert Wood

    OK I’ve finished the article. I liked your points about the tobacco industry argument refutation technique; quite to the point.

    But you lost the “moral compass” after the first two paragraphs :-) May I suggest youd rop the frist three paragraphs. The rest is cogent.

  5. Editors


    We would agree that the Left has adopted environmentalism as a “saving cause.” Unfortunately for your thesis, however, so has the Right. It was Margaret Thatcher, no less, who introduced the spectre of climate change and sustainability to mainstream UK politics, and the UK political parties are now all but indistinguishable on environmental policies. Indeed, David Cameron, leader of the opposition Conservatives is generally seen as the greenest of them all. In the US, even John McCain and Bob Barr are now singing to Gore’s tune. Certainly, a few right-wingers are refusing to be swept along with the tide – you would seem to be one such – but so too is a handful of Lefties. So, while we would also agree with you that “the attraction of hysterical enviromentalism is that it provides a moral basis to life; sure, a skewed and delusional one, but a basis anyway”, we suggest that that applies equally to the Left and Right.

    It is too easy to write off global warming as some sort of flawed science, as you seem to be doing. It is just science. And that is what seems to be forgotten. Sure, it tends not to be subject to the same scrutiny as most science. But that is not a fault of the science per se. It’s what happens when science is invested with moral/political authority. Which, in turn, is what happens when politics – Left and Right – has lost its orientation.

    We’ve dealt with this in more detail in various posts, most of which you can find at

  6. G Alston

    I’ve given some thought to the nefarious conspiracy claims and Oreskes and so on. Seems to me that this is a dimwitted claim by definition.

    Of the oil used in the USA, under half of this is actually burned as fuel. The rest is used in plastics and so on. Oil is much too valuable to simply burn.

    If magically tomorrow morning we all woke up to super efficient 400 bhp electric cars with 10,000 miles of range and 100% free electric running from a clean and pure source of Unobtanium, Exxon would still be in business. Given supply/demand curves Exxon would basically be doing the same amount of profit it’s doing now. Again this is because… Oil is much too valuable to simply burn.

    The Oreskes claim seems premised on the supposition that if we simply stopped burning oil Exxon would go out of business, hence Exxon must be secretly fighting the “settled science” to stop from going under. It’s the only possible reason Exxon would have to engage in this supposed battle — to save itself (and die in a capitalist orgy of frenzied money.)

    It’s a real hoot that these clowns can advance this argument because it ignores the reality of what oil is used for, how Exxon makes their money, and Exxon’s long term interest (eak out the profit for generations if possible. Duh.) It’s less of a hoot however that the left seems to have the collective IQ of broccoli since they all seem to buy the Orsekes argument.

    You post reads (to me) that you’re willing to view the left as potential good guys if only you could get them to see. I view them differently; if we lived 20,000 years ago they would be… food.

  7. DOdgy Geezer

    “lightemup said,
    I’m looking forward to Martin Durkin turning his attention to the bleeding-hearts and handwringers behind the anti-smoking industry and giving us the facts behind THE GREAT LUNG CANCER CONSPIRACY!”

    Well, no one has yet explained the mechanism by which smoking causes lung cancer, so it could well be a myth – though there seems to be a reasonable statistical co-relation.

    But I would be happy to start the ball rolling on THE GREAT PASSIVE SMOKING CONSPIRACY!

  8. JMW

    “It’s a real hoot that these clowns can advance this argument because it ignores the reality of what oil is used for, how Exxon makes their money, and Exxon’s long term interest (eak out the profit for generations if possible. Duh.) It’s less of a hoot however that the left seems to have the collective IQ of broccoli since they all seem to buy the Orsekes argument.”

    Reminds me of a post over at the Border Wars blog [a dog blog], where the poster points out the hypocrisy of people who protest against things like “war for oil”:

    “Every component of [the protester’s] sign is made from oil. The foam core, the plastic handle, the paints, the glues: all petroleum based products. The price of any one of those doubles and you won’t see too many out of work “students” waving those signs.

    The fact that the protesters’ umbrella awning was made from oil, their ice chest was made from oil, the ice in the ice chest was created using refrigerants made from oil, the plastic bottles holding the water in the ice chest were made from oil, and all the filters, hoses, gaskets, and pumps required to get the water into the bottles are made from oil.”

    Read the rest here:



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