Paging Dr. Goldacre… Warmer Zombies on the Climate Ward

by | Dec 12, 2009

On BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions last night, and in his Bad Science column in the Guardian today, Dr Ben Goldacre lays into what he calls the ‘zombie arguments’ of climate sceptics:

…reigning supreme, is the “zombie argument”: arguments which survive to be raised again, for eternity, no matter how many times they are shot down[]. “Homeopathy worked for me”, and the rest.

Zombie arguments survive, they get up and live again, immortal and resistant to all refutation, because they do not live or die by the normal standards of mortal arguments. There’s a huge list of them at, with refutations. There are huge lists[] of them everywhere[]. It makes no difference.

“CO2 isn’t an important greenhouse gas”, “Global warming is down to the sun”, “what about the cooling in the 1940s?” says your party bore. “Well,” you reply, “since the last time you raised this, I went and checked, and it turns out that there were loads of suphites [sic] in the air in the 1940s to block out the sun, made from the slightly different kind of industrial pollution we had back then, and the odd volcano, so that’s sort of been answered already, ages ago.”

Goldacre’s sulphites example is very poorly chosen, and for a professional sceptic, he appears remarkably willing to defer uncritically to zombie lists of zombie arguments. Moreover, if zombie arguments are what bothers him, what about those deployed by the living dead of the climate orthodoxy? Here are some of the claims repeated ad nauseam by and in support of the climate change orthodoxy, along with our responses:

1. Climate change will be worse for the poor.

Everything is worse for the poor. The issue is poverty and inequality, then, not climate. Small differences in climate that produce negative human effects do so because of a lack of wealth or otherwise a lack of civil infrastructure. The outcome of policies and international agreements to limit productive activity and development can therefore only increase inequality and decrease wealth, putting poorer people closer to their environment, for a marginal – if any – positive change in the weather. Environmentalism will be worse for the poor.

Painting Pictures of Poverty
Who’s the Basket-Case, Oxfam?
Backwards to the Future
Climate Science and Climate Scepticism
The Age of the Age of Stupid

2. An organised and well-funded network of climate change deniers has distorted the public debate.

The environmental message has been faithfully and sympathetically reproduced by the UK’s media. The BBC’s output is predominantly green, and its news rarely covers the climate debate critically. The few hours of programming that have been broadcast on UK television networks that have given an airing to scepticism have become the object of anger. But you can probably count the number of such programs broadcast in the last decade on one finger. Meanwhile, there are many hours of programming each week, reflecting the orthodox, consensus position, within lifestyle, current affairs, science, and ethics programming.

Print media is more divided, with all papers occasionally featuring sceptical perspectives. In the case of UK newspapers, the Guardian, Independent have clearly climate-orthodox editorial agendas – climate change is anthropogenic and a looming catastrophe, and we must all reduce emissions now. The Times and Telegraph are more sceptical, but not (Christopher Booker aside) of the idea that the planet is warming and much of that is anthropogenic. The Daily Mail does take a more sceptical view of the basic science, to the fury of environmental activists. The Sun, Mirror and Express are widely assumed to push a sceptical line, but they clearly do not – see herehere, and here.

The three main political parties embraced the green agenda comprehensively, each promising to take it more seriously than the last. Yet the principles these parties have taken up have not once been tested democratically. No party has dared to step out of line on the climate issue.

The public debate has been entirely dominated by the orthodox position. If there has been an attempt to distort the public debate it has been entirely ineffectual. It does not get airtime. It has not bought politicians. It has failed to establish an organised, institutional response. The media is dominated by the environmental message, companies go out of their way to demonstrate their environmental ethical credentials, politicians rarely ever dare to challenge environmental issues. The image of the climate sceptic remains one who speaks for himself rather than one who speaks from within the academy, party, corporation, and against the majority of his peers. Yet the public have not been convinced. This can’t be explained as the consequence of a new trust in mavericks, and the influence of a conspiracy to distort the debate.

As for the ubiquitous claim that the debate has been skewed by corporate funding – especially oil money – what tends to be forgotten are the much larger sums available to the likes of Greenpeace and WWF to push their own exaggerated alarmist line.

90 Minutes of TV; 16 Months of Handwaving…
The Well-Funded “Well-Funded Denial Machine” Denial Machine
The Well Funded World Wide Fund for Fear

3. There are just N years/months/days left to save the planet

Or in the words of Susan Watts, science editor of the BBC’s prestigious Newsnight, ‘In fact scientists calculate that Obama has four years in which to save the world.’ The argument for action to mitigate climate change has always depended on generating a sense of urgency to get itself heard above the background noise of apathy, disinterest and disengagement from contemporary politics. The comprehensive change in our political, economic, and industrial mode of existence that greens want to create will take some persuasion. Accordingly, those riding the climate change bandwagon have had to illustrate their narratives with claims about when climate change will reach its ‘tipping point’, when we can expect disaster to arrive, and at what point we will pass the deadline for creating the comprehensive legal and institutional response to climate change. As there is a perception that the public conceive of climate change as some far away distant prospect, this strategy is perhaps intended to bring the realities of climate change closer to our imaginations. Yet it depends on myth-making, and overstating the predictive abilities of climate science.

Has Climate Porn Already Tipped?
Tipping Point for the Climate Porn Industry
Folie à Deux
Only Four Years Left to Save Environmentalism

4. The vast majority of scientists agree that…

The ‘scientific consensus’ that late 20th century warming can be attributed to human activity is routinely confused with the putative consequences of climate change – particularly social effects – and the political arguments for climate change mitigation. But even if there exists a consensus about the temperature record and its cause, there remains less of a consensus about what the first, second, third, and Nth-order effects of climate change will be. There is, for instance, much less agreement about how global warming will turn into sea level rise, species extinction, and human effects. The consensus on attribution cannot reasonably extend to represent an agreement about what the effects of climate change are, and what is the best policy response is. The failure to delineate the principle cause and its effects, and the effect of its effects, is a mistake that leads to the unhelpful polarisation of the climate debate, opening up proponents of climate change mitigation policies to the criticism that they have hidden prejudice and bad faith behind ‘science’.

The Illusion and Politics of Necessity

5. The IPCC consists of N-thousand of the worlds top climate scientists who all agree…

It is frequently argued by scientist activists, politicians, and campaigners that the IPCC represents thousands of the worlds top climate scientists. This is a misconception of the IPCC, of its contributors, function, purpose, and process.

The IPCC does little science itself, and does not measure the opinions of the contributing authors. It is divided into three working groups, focusing respectively on the physical science basis (WGI), impacts, adaptation and vulnerability (WGII), and mitigation of climate change (WGIII), each reviewing the existing literature in their fields. Each of these working groups is further divided into chapters, and again into sections. A contributing author to chapter 3 of WGI may never enter a working relationship with a contributing author to chapter 4. They may have very little to say about each other’s work, and are not asked to agree or disagree with it.

WGII and WGIII cannot be characterised as populated entirely by scientists, as the zombie argument claims. Instead, these working groups consist of social scientists, economists, and other non-climate and social-scientific disciplines. Moreover, as their task is to understand the impact of climate change on human society, we have argued that this process requires political and subjective precepts which assume a relationship between society and the climate/environment. These precepts and assumptions are not necessarily well-grounded in science, and take as their premises the conclusion to their own study: environmental determinism, and the inevitability of catastrophe. Worst still, these prejudices are the tenets of political environmentalism. That is to say that the IPCC’s work is ‘institutionally environmentalist’, and has been established to fulfill a political need: not simply to provide the political process with evidence with which to make decisions, but to give moral authority to governments embracing the same environmental agenda.

Physician, Heal Thyself
WGIII – But is it Science?
People in Greenhouses Throwing Stones

7. The politics flows from the science

The implication of the argument that ‘the science’ attributing global warming to human activity is settled is that this creates imperatives to cease such activity, and to reorganise life around the principles of environmental sustainability. Frequently, politicians making arguments for mitigation express their adherence to ‘the science’, and that ‘the science is clear’. Creeping lines on charts representing the loss of Arctic sea ice return each summer, and are held each summer to speak for themselves as ‘canaries in the coal mine’ signaling our imminent demise.

But the environmental argument in fact posits a political claim prior to science. It holds that human society can only exist within unchanging environmental circumstances, and that the normal process of politics must therefore be suspended in order to balance the concentrations of gases in the atmosphere. ‘The science’ merely serves to confirm that the world is changing, rather than to substantiate the basis of environmental determinism. As we argue often here on CR, ‘the politics is prior to the science’ in the climate debate, and the emphasis both ‘sides’ in the debate place on science impedes any progress on understanding the political claims either side are making. As we also often say, in order to understand what ‘science says’, it is necessary to understand what it has been asked.

Hacking the Climate da Vinci Code
The Politics is Prior

As Goldacre observes, the same arguments return to the climate debate. But his perspective is too narrow, and he neglects to scan his critical eye over the substance of the claims made by the camp he seemingly attaches himself to. In the process, he has summoned up an inconvenient metaphor.

Environmentalism is zombie politics. It is oblivious to human ambitions, desires and development, other than it seeks to devour them as it turns humans into copies of itself: lifeless, purposeless, walking corpses that would be better off dead. Human life is reduced to meeting necessity and politics becomes the process of managing subsistence rather than contesting ideas about possible futures. It turns humans against humanity.


  1. artwest

    Like many loud pseudo-sceptics, Goldacre is actually very conventional and is often blindly unquestioning. Outside of his own field of medicine he almost always clings to the “consensus” and peer review while giving true sceptics a good kicking. With medicine he plucks the low hanging fruit of some of the more obviously egregious studies paid for by drug companies but otherwise wears blinkers.

    Of course, some conventional scientific wisdom is correct and some sceptical arguments on some subjects are barkingly wrong, but it seems that Goldacre rarely bothers to try to tell the difference before dogmatically mouthing off.

  2. Vinny Burgoo

    Goldacre was on Radio 4’s The Moral Maze recently. He said that he knew very little about either ‘climate stuff’ (the science) or ‘climate denialists’ and declined to comment specifically on either subject. His admission of ignorance was a bit odd given that he has been examining scientific controversies for the best part of a decade and no scientific controversy is currently bigger than climate change, but he deserved a pat on the back for not mouthing off about it.

    A week later, and he’s read a few executive summaries and browsed the Web a bit and can now talk confidently about the Stern Report and dismiss criticisms of the IPCC consensus as ‘mischief’ and ‘foolishness’ and ‘childish contrarian views’ and ‘zombie arguments’ – this despite acknowledging that ‘climate science is difficult’ and you get only a ‘relatively superficial understanding’ of it from a couple of days of reading about it.

    What a plonker!

    (Another excellent article, CR.)

  3. Blue Swan

    Here’s something that struck me while thinking about the “climate scientists” over the weekend.

    This whole “project” of research has been going on for what…20 years now? If we date it back to Hansen and his tenure at NASA let’s say. Well, all right, now you’d think that if we’ve had this long to worry about such a topic, we would be spending millions, if not billions on researching Climate. We would have the equivalent of the Large Hadron Collider or the International Space Station. We would be building simulators like Biosphere II to try and collect real world data.

    But we don’t ! So far, this entire thing rests on a few software models! Where is all the research that has been funded by two decades of taxes? Al Gore goes around citing 1000 papers. I looked up those papers on Google and more than 95 percent of them are based on computer models. There is almost no primary research about global warming, or its effects. At best, most of it is hearsay or repeated “data” from other people who don’t really know what they are talking about!

    The real “deniers” have to be this entire industry of “scientists” who even if taken at face value simply aren’t doing anything at all for Climate Change, or research…or whatever!

  4. Bass

    Methinks thou dost protest too much.

    1. So its obvious?
    2. That isn’t how it works, and you know it. A few bluff characters (Imhofe, Lawson, Melanie Philips) who claim to see the blindingly obvious missed by those stupid scientists but on investigation don’t understand any of it use the standard trick of over-simplification and economy with the truth. So much easier to “understand” Anthony Watts and his concerns about surface stations, so much more difficult to understand why the raw data needs normalising: yet its the same thing. Have to work at understanding something and give up my SUV, or be spoonfed an answer and keep it. No brainer for too many.
    3. Is politics not science, a well-meaning attempt to bring home the urgency of the situation. No-one is really suggesting that and agreement on 18th March 2018 is in the nick of time and on the 19th we’re all dead.
    4. You’re being very selective. The vast majority agree on the key points. But science is by nature sceptical and asks questions, so OF COURSE there is wide debate on all sorts of parts of the theoretical basis. But not on the fundamentals: the world is warming, the warming is fast, CO2 is a plausible driver for said warming, it is the only plausible driver for said warming. That is pretty settled. Whether it will cause more and/or stronger hurricanes is not.
    5. Never heard that said in that way. Yes, the overwhelming majority of scientists who know something about the subject agree. You disagree? And any lingering respect I might have will disappear if you mention Oregon.
    6. Pure unadulterated nonsense. Environmental change is constant and inevitable, I haven’t heard anyone deny this. Excessively fast environmental change that is damaging the ability of our planet to sustain life is not healthy. It is the difference between driving down a leafy country road at 40 kph and careering towards a cliff edge at 200.

  5. Editors


    1. What are you trying to say?

    2. Please read the links. You seem to have missed something.

    3. “No-one is really suggesting that and agreement on 18th March 2018 is in the nick of time and on the 19th we’re all dead.”

    We didn’t say that they were. They do say things like this, though:

    “We have only four years left to act on climate change” – James Hansen.

    “There are now fewer than 50 days to set the course of the next 50 years and more. So, as we convene here, we carry great responsibilities, and the world is watching. If we do not reach a deal at this time, let us be in no doubt: once the damage from unchecked emissions growth is done, no retrospective global agreement, in some future period, can undo that choice. By then it will be irretrievably too late. – Gordon Brown.

    In his keynote speech of the South American visit The Prince will tell business leaders in Brazil nations have “less than 100 months to act” before the damage caused by climate-change becomes irreversible. – Prince Charles.

    in just 100 months’ time, if we are lucky, and based on a quite conservative estimate, we could reach a tipping point for the beginnings of runaway climate change. – Andrew Simms.

    4. We weren’t being selective at all, but on the contrary, very general. The point stands that the consequences of climate change remain logically distinct to the fact of anthropogenic climate change, yet they are routinely treated as equivalents. There are links beneath each of the 6 points that you can follow to get a better idea about what we’re trying to say. I can see that you’ve ignored them.

    5. “Never heard that said in that way. Yes, the overwhelming majority of scientists who know something about the subject agree.” The point isn’t about what scientists agree on, but about what people say N-thousand agree on. You don’t seem to have understood the point.

    6. “Pure unadulterated nonsense… It is the difference between driving down a leafy country road at 40 kph and careering towards a cliff edge at 200.”

    Brilliant. A perfect parody of an environmentalist’s interpretation of the science.

  6. Richard Brodie

    Let’s pretend that the AGW alarmists are right about CO2 being a “greenhouse gas” that can form a blanket to warm up the earth. And let’s also pretend that we are now going into a warming phase of the climate cycle. I don’t think these people are such climate deniers as to contend that the earth will never again experience a cooling phase. And what then? Are they going to advocate retrofitting back to coal and other fossil fuels so as to put as much CO2 into the atmosphere as possible before we have glaciers all the way down to Missouri again? Maybe instead of retrofitting existing CO2 emitting power plants, they should be advocating leaving such “brown” plants intact, and building whole new “green” plants next door. That way whenever the sun decides to go to one extreme or the other, they can switch over to whichever approach would be required to give the sun their middle finger.

  7. optimist

    other AGW zombie arguments: no matter how hard you knock hem down they keep getting up again —
    North-west passage

  8. Martin

    Declaring a resurfacing argument as a ‘zombie argument’ is a good way of trying to avoid one possible reason why it does: that it hasn’t been refuted.

    Oh and for a shameless blog pimp, here’s my take on the CRU team, including a dig at Ben who is not really a plonker but does step outside his expertise sometimes, like many of us do, heh:

    Still not done an article on the isotope thing. Will do one day….

  9. Rob

    Please forgive me, but having read most (not all-life’s too short) of the above article and comments I am at a loss to know what exactly is the point you are trying to make? Even if global warming is a figment of the imagination I fail to see what is to be achieved by slagging off the likes of Greenpeace and other “warmists”. Personally I think it is probably quite a good thing to look for alternative and cleaner technologies. The human race does tend to move on. So, unless you are in the oil business, what’s wrong with windmills?

  10. Editors

    Rob: “having read most (not all-life’s too short) of the above article and comments I am at a loss to know what exactly is the point you are trying to make?”

    We felt that our closing paragraph was a fairly conclusive point:

    Environmentalism is zombie politics. It is oblivious to human ambitions, desires and development, other than it seeks to devour them as it turns humans into copies of itself: lifeless, purposeless, walking corpses that would be better off dead. Human life is reduced to meeting necessity and politics becomes the process of managing subsistence rather than contesting ideas about possible futures. It turns humans against humanity.

    It isn’t exactly ambiguous. Perhaps you didn’t read that far.

  11. George Carty

    The problem with windmills is that they are not controllable but are at the mercy of the weather. (Note that the power generated by a wind turbine is proportional to the CUBE of the wind speed.)

    Since electricity cannot be stored (except with extreme difficulty) and thus must be generated as it is used, wind power is therefore in practice merely a supplement to natural gas (coal and nuclear are much less suitable as backup, because they cannot quickly respond to changes in wind speed as gas can) rather than a freely-standing power source.

    Natural gas is still a fossil fuel, and probably as greenhouse-emitting as coal once leaks are accounted for. Worse, since North Sea gas is running out, increased use of gas for electricity generation will put us at Russia’s mercy.

    Former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder oversaw a big expansion in both wind and solar power, and passed a bill committing his country to phase out nuclear power by 2021. Almost immediately after leaving office he got a job with NordStream AG, a company with a controlling stake controlled by the nationalized Russian gas company Gazprom.

    If I had my way, he would have gone on trial for treason!

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