Flat White

Doctor knows best? Here’s a tale of climate activism and censorship

11 December 2019

5:00 AM

11 December 2019

5:00 AM

Introduction

When it comes to climate change, do you think that medical journals publish all the science that’s fit to print? Think again. It’s important to share my experience, so that when you hear activists claim “the science says” you can understand that data or analysis must first conform to the values of climate activism. 

I wrote an op-ed style perspective for the Medical Journal of Australia’s (MJA) online discussion section, Insight+; specifically, to give a different (classical liberal) perspective on the topic. It was due to appear on a Monday, but the Friday before I received an email — reproduced below –basically saying that they would not be publishing the article. The full email is below.  

The article explored the concept that if you radically change any system, there is at least the possibility that some people might suffer; often the most vulnerable. How do you trade off one group’s welfare for another? No one is saying don’t do anything, but there are balances to be made. I took the liberty of starting the perspective with a quote from Monty Python to show how sometimes these balancing acts can be tricky! 

The email gave a number of reasons why the MJA was not going to publish the article. Firstly, that they were publishing a report on climate action and my perspective did not comport with their activism: “First of all, you may have noticed that yesterday we published the MJA-Lancet Countdown on health and climate change 2019 report. It’s a significant piece of work, and it speaks to the core values of the MJA, our publishers AMPCo, and our owners, the AMA. We do advocate for climate change action.” 

The editor then gave a somewhat curious reason as relates to a couple of my references. I included 30 references, including from Greenpeace, the WHO, The World in Data, Nature, NPR, The World Bank, the IEA and so far.  

The editor’s remark about Dr Roy Spencer, one of the world’s leading authorities on measuring climate change, was extraordinarily concerning. His website is a readable website for people to check the UAH satellite data for themselves. The data I referenced was, in fact, easily findable on the first screen, such that the MJA’s “digging” was questionable. 

I referenced HumanProgress.org for statistics on poverty and lack of electricity as well as ongoing feats of ingenuity to solve many problems that face humanity. Does the MJA actually not believe that there are hundreds of millions of our fellow human beings living in abject poverty and without electricity? Really? I shouldn’t have to reference that at all.  

And we know that the decision has nothing to do with the references. If it was, standard procedure and basic common courtesy would be to say, “Hey, Mike could you just clarify those references or send some more?”. Especially after asking an author to spend so much time writing a piece. And some of the references the MJA uncritically accepts to bolster climate change alarmism in the opinion section should be seen!  

No, in a follow-up email I was told that the decision “is final”. 

You’ll see reference to The Conversation in the MJA’s email. This relates to the partially taxpayer-funded site The Conversation, which censors what they call “climate change deniers”. 

My article also helps to establish the concept of science abuse. A counter to the absurd and hate-filled term “science denier”.  

I ask the MJA to print the article so their readers can judge for themselves and debate the concepts. The full text appears below the email.

Hi Mike 

After careful consideration, we’ve decided not to publish your climate change article. It’s been the subject of some robust discussion for the past 24 hours, but there are some concerns that myself, my colleagues, and my bosses have. 

First of all, you may have noticed that yesterday we published the MJA-Lancet Countdown on health and climate change 2019 report. It’s a significant piece of work, and it speaks to the core values of the MJA, our publishers AMPCo, and our owners, the AMA. We do advocate for climate change action.

We are not, at this stage, contemplating a Conversation-like policy, but we do want to stay focused on what we believe is solid science pointing at the need for climate change action. 

There were also concerns about some of your references — Roy Spencer’s website, for example, raised questions, and even digging into the original sources of his data, it was hard to find support for some of your statements. HumanProgress is an arm of the Cato Foundation, which is a right-wing think tank, rather than an academic institution, and therefore it’s hard for us to assess the objectivity of the data. 

I understand your beef with the Conversation — this is not a matter of censorship. The timing is not great because of the Countdown report, and I worry too that in the middle of catastrophic fires up here in NSW and Queensland, you would be opening yourself up to some potentially vitriolic forces. 

InSight+ is not in a position to publish this particular article.   

Apologies for the late decision. I hope you continue to pitch article ideas to us in the future. 

Best wishes 

Cate 

Cate Swannell
News and Online Editor
Medical Journal of Australia

Editor
MJA InSight 

Here’s the full text of the rejected piece

“Blimey, this redistribution of wealth is trickier than I thought”, muses John Cleese as Monty Python’s fictitious highwayman Dennis Moore who ultimately and unwittingly “steals from the poor and he gives to the rich….”(1) History teaches us many lessons about human endeavour. And the devastatingly-insightful satire of Monty Python is exquisitely relevant to current climate changes debates; much of the recent news regarding climate-change can be viewed through this fundamental perspective. 

No moral person could forcefully demand that one group of people sacrifice their wellbeing to make a better-off group even better, either geographically, or in the case of climate change temporally. To make the argument for radical action on climate change it is necessary to be assured that people living in one hundred years will be worse off than we are today, despite 100 years of technological, biological, medical, sociological, agricultural, engineering and political advancement and large increases in economic development and growth, life expectancy, artificial intelligence and systemic appreciation of disaster preparation and mitigation.  

Put simply, this is the fundamental issue of contention for many who are sceptical of demands for radical action on climate change. There are still hundreds of millions of our fellow human beings living in despicable poverty (2) in parts of the world who have no access to electricity (3), as well as many of our vulnerable citizens in the developed world who need cheap energy to lift themselves out of poverty. 

Lack of development leads to deprivation in life and heart-wrenching inequality in basic health outcomes as well as political and human rights inequalities. This likely dwarfs the effect of a degree or two difference in average temperature, for which we have a 100 years to prepare. (4) Even a most preposterously pessimistic estimate is that in 2100 our descendants will ONLY be 270% better off rather than a supposedly 300% better off if we adopt radical carbon reduction.(5) 

Readily available energy is needed for development. (6) Fossil fuels have allowed many of us in certain parts of the world to experience human flourishing that would have been unthinkable before the industrial revolution. And those who want to experience that same flourishing for themselves and their children are explicitly and unambiguously reflecting how they view the balance of development now versus a degree or two average temperature increase in a more advanced world, 100 years from now. This can be seen by the number of coal-fired power stations being built by countries such as India and China (7) (8) (9)(10), and this would potentially be higher if the World Bank and private investors weren’t preventing projects that utilize fossil fuels. (11) 

The importance of viewing the problem of climate change with the above perspective is that it allows us to understand that there are genuine people on both sides who can listen to each other’s concerns. No one is saying we shouldn’t do anything about climate change. But it is complicated, that’s all. 

And I put my money where my mouth is. My little charity contributes to those in the developing world as well as the Hamlin Fistula organization; obstetric fistulas being a common, terrible burden for women in the developing world that have, thankfully almost disappeared in the developed world. So that is where I’m coming from.  

It is disappointing that many of the recent events related to climate change have increased hostility and increased the partisan divide that polarizes modern sociopolitical discourse, and which discourages genuine exploration of ways to help the truly vulnerable. Opposing viewpoints are being silenced and proponents humiliated. However, as the equation above shows, we greatly need more transparency and debate for if we get this wrong, billions of people may needlessly suffer. 

In this regard, it is disappointing that the publicly-funded The Conversation “is implementing a zero-tolerance approach to moderating climate change deniers, and sceptics. Not only will we be removing their comments, we’ll be locking their accounts.”(12) 

What is the threshold for “scepticism”? What test will they apply? And unless 100% accurate, the accuracy of that test will be dependent on the pre-test probability of “scepticism”. How many false positives of denouncements of “scepticism” will they be willing to accept? The obvious question is: sceptical of what? The Conversation recently published an article equating those that don’t agree with radical action on climate change with child abusers. (13) Should anything short of that be denounced as intolerable “denialism”, for which The Conversation analyses climate “denialism” using the framework used to analyze purveyors of genocide (14), and which should be deleted from our collective consciousness? 

Would they have banned a non-peer-reviewed blog post by Nic Lewis (15), who was sceptical of a major peer-reviewed Nature paper, titled “Earth’s oceans have absorbed 60 per cent more heat per year than previously thought”, which suggested, “The strong ocean warming the researchers found suggests that Earth is more sensitive to fossil-fuel emissions than previously thought.” Thanks to “deniers”, recently, the paper was retracted by Nature.(16) 

That’s how real science works; it is challenged. Consider the reproducibility crisis in even benchtop biological science, in which the experimental milieu can be completely controlled and repeated.(17) At the next step up, consider the difficulty in understanding the complex systems involved in clinical medicine(18). It can take decades of fierce exploration to clarify the clinical effect of a single drug where experiments can be done repeatedly (not merely relying on models) and about which debate rages. Even a long-time proponent of evidence-based medicine has conceded that EBM has often not provided useful data (19). Global climate systems are a step above. Economists understood over 70 years ago about the hopelessness of being able to predict and shape markets using experts’ assessment of the data; “the knowledge problem.”(20) 

How to judge what is relevant in the data (the ‘facts’) and what those facts mean is incredibly complex and is also a function of the person judging it; I.e. who holds the power. This is understood in the legal profession.  Many Australians know of the socio-cultural battles that are played out in the United States Supreme Court. Do we really believe that Justices Kavanaugh, Gorsuch and Thomas, use the FACTS to DEBUNK, the assessment of the evidence by Justices Ruth Bader-Ginsburg (RBG) and Sotomayor? There are differences in interpretation of the cumulative complexity of many different elements. And the US Constitution and limited case law is much less complex than global climate systems. And maybe think about what it would do to the body of judicial scholarship if any dissenter who agreed with RBG was labelled a “denier” and if the establishment of any academic centre that might allow scholarly work that gave a dissenting voice was prevented?  

We see in the analysis of medical research studies all the time that one group says “what about that, that’s not how we do it, so those data might not be relevant”, and the other group stands by it and says, “yes, it is”… “no it’s not”…..”yes it is”. Should we ONLY allow the “yes, it is” group? In this context, interestingly, an article on The Conversation analyzed, confidently and without doubt, the psychology of climate change “deniers” through the same framework as that for “genocide and other atrocities”.(14) The irony being that psychology is at the epicentre of the reproducibility crisis.(21) 

In the context of the history of scholastic endeavour, it would be incumbent on those wishing to ban heretical “deniers” to prove that the current relatively immature (compared with medical science) discipline of climate change modelling is without fail in its fidelity to exactly predict the behaviour of an immensely complex system. They have not. 

Climate-related studies and models are incredibly complex (all with inherent assumptions based on opinion). Just as you see with partisan political jousts, the debunking of the debunking of the debunked, becomes futile. You can see the most persuasive spin on a topic…. until you see the other side! The Conversation “debunks” the “myth” that climate models are running “hot” compared to actual temperatures(22). But other scientists, more recently, debunk that debunking.(23) 

So, what do we know about the basic facts? The bare-bones! The most objective data are from the satellite record, which started in the late 1970s, which itself was a relatively cold period. Even though it started in a relatively cold period, the data shows that the temperature has been increasing at 0.13 degrees per decade(24); in 2100 it will be about 1 degree hotter.   

The world has already increased 1 degree since the start of the industrial revolution. The experiment has already been run. The plight of our ancestors was “catastrophically” worse when it was #onedegreecolder in 1850, not the other way around. Do we really believe that those selfish buggers in 1850 should have never started the industrial revolution knowing what a climate catastrophe we are suffering through in 2019? If only we could go back to the utopia, the panacea even, of 1850 when it was a degree colder.  

It is simply not acceptable to generate wild speculation about increased hot days, heat waves, bush fires without acknowledging the technological increases that will prevent and mitigate the effects. Let’s take climate-change activists at their word. Let’s assume that all these natural disasters are increasing (although on many indices the data suggests that there are not large increases (25)). What is the overall effect? Don’t worry kids, you actually have about 100th the chance of dying in a climate-related event now than 100 years ago (26) when it was #onedegreecolder. Will our descendants in 100 years mourn for a world that was one or two degrees colder but where children died of bone cancer, leukaemia or simple diarrhoea en-masse in the developing world? That will be a historic remnant by 2100. I ask readers to look at even a small amount of the innovation that is happening to address problems that cause human suffering(27), and then consider all the innovation that hasn’t even been thought of yet that will benefit our descendants in the next 100 years. 

Confidently and reproducibly knowing what the temperature will be in 100 years and knowing what the world will be like after 100 years of breathtaking human innovation and how people will respond to climate changes in the context of economic growth and, for example, reduction in cold-weather-related mortality and then make intergenerational moral judgments about the relative benefits of the institutional, civilization and technological advancements that will occur, is asking science to do something that science cannot do. That is not science. That is an abuse of science.  

In this regard, for the sake of rationality and humanity, we need to introduce a new phrase to the lexicon. For those that claim “science” shows the need for radical action on climate change, that is an abuse of what science can do. Sometimes you have to isolate extremists on all sides.  The phrase “climate change denier”, is an obvious allusion to Holocaust denial. Equating those that seek scientific enquiry into the degree and consequence of changes in climate, with the deliberate cold-blooded murder of over 6 million innocent people, must be called out as hate speech. Those that use that phrase should be immediately labelled a “science abuser” or “climate change abuser”. Fair’s fair now! 

Any given climate-related outcome becomes: change in climate + change in technology + societal and institutional awareness = outcome. To willfully omit known parts of the system and only describe one part (change in climate) is not science, but science abuse. 


For reasonable doctors, there has now come a point where it is ok to say, I want to see both sides of this difficult equation. The World Health Organization states that “Each year, close to 4 million people die prematurely from illness attributable to household air pollution from inefficient cooking practices using polluting stoves paired with solid fuels and kerosene.” (including many children needless dying from pneumonia).(28) I say to the medical profession in Australia don’t be modern-day Marie Antionettes; when told that people are dying through a lack of affordable energy by the millions, don’t disdainfully reply, “let them have solar”. Don’t be a Dennis Moore.   

And to the child activist who should not be named (she’s a child and should not be used like this), you’re right, you “shouldn’t be in New York”, you (or more appropriately, your adult enablers) should try living in rural energy-starved Bangladesh, with no chance of rescue back to privileged, carbon-enabled western luxury. Those people who live there have spoken. They want electricity. They don’t want their children dying horrible deaths that are unimaginable to us. Look a child in the eye from the developing world and feel their pain…. don’t say “let them have solar”.  

I ask reasonable people with a kind heart to come together to share their rationale for alleviating the suffering of those they earnestly believe are most at risk. We may disagree on the overall equation and who is most at risk (current versus future generations) but let’s work together, not ban people or fear-monger. 

Michael Keane is an adjunct associate professor at Swinburne University, adjunct lecturer at Monash University and consultant anaesthetist. He has academic interests in bioethics, human factors engineering, the use of evidence-based medicine and health policy.

References

1) Dennis Moore, Monty Python 

https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x3e844c 

2) Poverty 

https://humanprogress.org/statline?p=1210&yf=1820&yl=2015 

3) Electricity access 

https://humanprogress.org/dwworld?p=473&yf=1990&yl=2016&col=1 

4) Effect of development and human ingenuity to alleviate human problems 

https://humanprogress.org 

5) Economy will be much better off even accounting for costs of climate  

https://nypost.com/2018/11/28/the-media-got-it-all-wrong-on-the-new-us-climate-report/ 

6) Readily available energy is needed for development 

University of Calgary 

https://energyeducation.ca/encyclopedia/Access_to_electricity 

7) International Energy Agency 

https://www.iea.org/tcep/power/coal/ 

8) Increase in coal-fired power plants in China from Greenpeace (definitely not pro-coal) 

https://unearthed.greenpeace.org/2019/03/28/china-new-coal-plants-2030-climate/ 

9) Increase in coal-fired power plants 

https://wattsupwiththat.com/2017/07/03/forget-paris-1600-new-coal-power-plants-built-around-the-world/ 

10) Increase in coal-fired power plants by China. NPR 

https://www.npr.org/2019/04/29/716347646/why-is-china-placing-a-global-bet-on-coal 

11) Restrictions on funding coal-fired power plants 

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-worldbank-climate-coal/world-bank-to-limit-financing-of-coal-fired-plants-idUSBRE96F19U20130716 

http://ieefa.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/IEEFA-Report_100-and-counting_Coal-Exit_Feb-2019.pdf 

12) Zero tolerance approach by The Conversation 

http://theconversation.com/climate-change-deniers-are-dangerous-they-dont-deserve-a-place-on-our-site-123164 

13) The Conversation. Climate Denial equated to child abuse 

https://theconversation.com/the-gloves-are-off-predatory-climate-deniers-are-a-threat-to-our-children-123594 

14) The Conversation. Denialism and genocide 

https://theconversation.com/there-are-three-types-of-climate-change-denier-and-most-of-us-are-at-least-one-124574 

15) Nic Lewis challenged the Nature paper 

https://phys.org/news/2018-11-climate-contrarian-uncovers-scientific-error.html 

16) Nature. Retraction of study. 

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-019-1585-5 

17) Reproducibility crisis 

Nature Editorial. Reality check on reproducibility. Nature 2016;533:437 

https://www.nature.com/articles/533437a 

18) The complexity of clinical medicine 

Is Science the Answer? British Journal of Anaesthesia. 

https://bjanaesthesia.org/article/S0007-0912(17)54133-1/pdf 

19) The failure of EBM. This is one of the articles written by the worldrenowned researcher, John Ioannidis. 

Ioannidis JPA. Why most clinical research is not useful. PLoS Med 2016; 13: e1002049 doi:10.1371/journal.pmed. 100204 

https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1002049 

20) Hayek FA. The use of knowledge in society. Am Econ Rev 1945; 35:519–30 

https://www.econlib.org/library/Essays/hykKnw.html 

21) Replication crisis in psychology 

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/11/psychologys-replication-crisis-real/576223/ 

https://www.nature.com/news/over-half-of-psychology-studies-fail-reproducibility-test-1.18248 

22) The Conversation “debunking” climate denial myths, including that climate models are running too hot 

https://theconversation.com/five-climate-change-science-misconceptions-debunked-122570 

23) More recent discussion demonstrating that the models are running too hot 

http://www.drroyspencer.com/2019/11/comments-by-ross-mckitrick-on-the-continuation-of-climate-model-failure/ 

24) Satellite temperature including the warming trend per decade 

http://www.drroyspencer.com/2019/11/uah-global-temperature-update-for-october-2019-0-46-deg-c/ 

25) Fascinating resource with data on many phenomenon including natural disasters 

https://ourworldindata.org/ 

26) https://twitter.com/HumanProgress/status/1111624855982690304 

27) Human innovation to improve our lives 

https://humanprogress.org 

https://twitter.com/HumanProgress 

28) https://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/household-air-pollution-and-health 

Illustration: Pinterest.

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