Sunday, June 24, 2007

Climate Activists' Credibility Gap

By Steven Milloy

Organic yogurt king and Stonyfield Farm CEO Gary Hirshberg may have thought that he avoided the buzzsaw this week by ducking a TV appearance with me. Guess I'll just have to go on without him. The news hook for our scheduled appearance was Hirshberg's new global warming effort called ClimateCounts. The project's ostensible goal is to help consumers make "climate-conscious" purchasing decisions. Electronics/computer shoppers, for example, are steered toward IBM and Sony products, rather than Apple's, since the latter fared abysmally in ClimateCounts' survey of the so-called "carbon footprints" of 56 consumer products companies.

Global warming hysteria and the concept of the carbon footprint, in particular, have been debunked many times in this column already. Suffice to say, the ClimateCounts survey commands no credibility here, and consumers who shop based on the survey's recommendations may as well consult with an astrologist to guide their purchasing decisions. So here are some other relevant tidbits about ClimateCounts' leadership that viewers may have heard from me had Hirshberg not gotten cold feet about appearing on CNBC's "On the Money" program on June 19.

Stonyfield Farm's organic yogurt has long been marketed through dubious efforts to scare consumers away from conventional (i.e., not marketed as "organic") yogurt. One Stonyfield ad, for example, reads: "Synthetic Bovine Growth Hormone. Your baby doesn't want it. We're pretty sure cows don't either." Synthetic bovine growth hormone (also known as rbST) is widely administered to dairy cows to increase milk production. According to the Food and Drug Administration - but contrary to the Stonyfield ad - rbST is safe to humans and cows. Milk from cows given rbST contains no more bovine growth hormone than milk from cows not treated with rbST.

Organic dairy producers, who are desperately in need of reasons to get consumers to buy their more expensive products, nevertheless try to scare consumers about conventionally produced milk - even though the Department of Agriculture has stated that "organic" is strictly a marketing term without any health or environmental connotations, and the FDA and state regulators specifically have warned organic dairy producers against scaring consumers about rbST.

Another fearmongering Stonyfield ad reads, "Earth to mom! Yogurts made without the use of antibiotics, hormones and toxic pesticides." It seems that Stonyfield would almost have consumers believe that conventional yogurt makers actually add these substances to their products. Stonyfield coupons feature a cow with a talk bubble that reads "You are what I eat." Below the cow, the label reads "No Hormones. No Phony Ingredients. No Yucky Stuff." Another Stonyfield ad reads, "Because very few recipes call for antibiotics and toxic persistent pesticides." Finally, the above-mentioned "Your baby doesn't want it either" ad states that "pediatricians recommend milk that doesn't come from cows treated with synthetic bovine growth hormone."

I'm not sure to which "pediatricians" Stonyfield refers, but both the American Academy of Pediatrics and American Medical Association have deemed milk from rbST-treated cows to be safe. Hirshberg's Stonyfield, therefore, hardly has a surplus of scientific credibility that it can share with ClimateCounts.

But the credibility gap with ClimateCounts doesn't end with Hirshberg. The group's executive vice president is Lisa Witter, who is also chairman of Fenton Communications - a name that should be very familiar to aficionados of the history of health and environmental scare-mongering. Fenton Communications is the infamous, left-wing public relations group that orchestrated actress Meryl Streep, CBS' 60 Minutes and the Natural Resources Defense Council to bring about the entirely bogus 1989 scare involving the apple-ripening chemical Alar. Even assuming it were true that Alar slightly increased cancer risk in laboratory rats - no small assumption given the well-known limitations of laboratory animal studies in determining human cancer risk - a human would have to consume 19,000 quarts of apple juice per day for life to get the same dose of Alar as the rats.

Moreover, the purpose of the scare was fundraising for environmental activists. The head of Fenton subsequently acknowledged that the scare "was designed so that revenue would flow back to the NRDC from the public." Fenton also was a major force in the silicone breast implant scare, serving as the PR firm to the trial lawyers in implant litigation. Fenton once issued a phony press release hyperventilating about the results of a breast implant study that appeared in the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet. Five days later, the journal forced a correction from Fenton because the PR firm had made it look as though The Lancet had issued the scary release, rather than the Command Trust, Fenton's trial lawyer front-group.

As laid out in the August 2000 report entitled "Fear Profiteers" that I helped edit, Fenton Communications has also been a key player in numerous scares, including those involving biotech foods, "toxic" chemicals in breast milk, toys and medical equipment made with PVC plastic, chemicals in the environment alleged to mimic hormones and, of course, rbST. None of these scares have a scientific leg to stand on and all have been debunked over the course of time. Whether you believe in manmade global warming or not, you ought to question the bona fides of ClimateCounts given its roots - Stonyfield Farm's dubious marketing and Fenton Communications' fear profiteering.


Icebergs good for marine life

Icebergs released into Antarctic waters by global warming [released by LOCAL warming would be more accurate] are hotspots for wildlife, researchers have found. The break-up of Antarctic ice shelves has increased dramatically the number of icebergs and they have proved an unexpectedly rich habitat. Nutrients released into the water by the melting ice promote the growth of phytoplankton, which attract krill, which are then preyed on by bigger animals such as whales. Sea areas that would normally be barren - up to two miles (3km) from the icebergs - have become rich in animal life, including a variety of fish.

Among the birds observed by scientists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, in the US, were Cape petrels and Antarctic fulmars. Penguins, whales and seals are attracted by the krill and fish.

Almost 1,000 icebergs were counted in 4,300 sq miles (11,000 sq km) of the Weddell Sea, and scientists calculated that overall they had increased the "biological productivity" in nearly 40 per cent of the sea. Life thrives in such quantities around the icebergs studied that the researchers describe them as free-floating estuaries. "We envision free-drifting icebergs in the Weddell Sea as hotspots of continual micro-nutrient release that sustain the accompanying attached and pelagic communities," they say in their report, published in the journal Science."

The researchers suggest that the eruption of life around the icebergs could be helping to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Some of the greenhouse gas is absorbed by the ocean and, in turn, by animal life which, when it dies, can sink to the seabed where the carbon is trapped. Because more animal life is being created in the region there is more that can sink to the sea floor and therefore increase the quantity of carbon removed from the atmosphere. "Free-drifting icebergs could serve as areas of increased production and sequestration of organic carbon to the deep sea, a process unaccounted-for in current global carbon budgets," they say.


Rediscovered: Prophecies are almost always wrong

More than 100 studies have found that experts are often poor forecasters. In one survey Professor Philip Tetlock, of the University of California at Berkeley, obtained 82,361 forecasts from 284 academics, other commentators and professional advisers in the areas of politics and economics. The experts had to select one of three answers (that a situation would not change or would get better or get worse).

The experts performed more poorly than they would have done had they allocated forecasts at random. As an article on Tetlock by Louis Menand in The New Yorker put it: "Human beings who spend their lives studying the state of the world, in other words, are poorer forecasters than dart-throwing monkeys, who would have distributed their picks evenly over the three choices." Tetlock found that the more famous the commentators or forecasters, the more unreliable their forecasts.

Given the compelling evidence for the futility of predictions in many fields, why do they continue to be made by experts and eagerly consumed by most of us? Taleb speculates it's because human nature craves explanations. When we were evolving as hunter-gatherers, those of us who could make snap judgments about simple matters, such as whether a stranger was an enemy or the direction in which prey had run off, survived. Our ancestors had to explain something to themselves quickly and then act on that explanation. We also needed explanations for other simple but important phenomena, such as the significance of changing seasons for living arrangements.

Taleb proposes that as result of this, human nature has a hunger for explanations that overrides everything else, even intelligence. Most of us cannot tolerate uncertainty about things that are important to us, to the point where a bad explanation is better than no explanation. So our hearts avidly consume predictions even though our heads know that the future is unpredictable.

Taleb doesn't say so, but this theory could explain why predictions have become more common with the decline of religion and its explanation of the (long-term) future. Human nature abhors a vacuum. (At this point in the column I'd planned to drop in G.K. Chesterton's famous comment that a person who no longer believes in God will believe in anything. Unfortunately, Taleb didn't use those words, although he came close several times.)

Our craving for explanations applies not just to the future, but to the past. Taleb suggests most of the explanations given by historians for important events are unprovable or demonstrably wrong. One example is the popular historians' view that World War I was seen as inevitable by contemporaries due to a series of mounting tensions and escalating crises. I recall having to regurgitate this view when invited to explain the causes of the war in my School Certificate examination. But the historian Niall Ferguson has shown, by looking at the prices of British imperial bonds that reflected investors' views on the government's future financing needs, that well-informed people had no idea war was coming.

Taleb calls this need to impose explanations on the flux of facts of which life consists the "narrative fallacy". We find too many facts impossible to handle, maybe because life now is far more complex than when we evolved in the Pleistocene era. As soon as the flux starts to confuse us, we embrace ideas prematurely and then cling to them through "confirmation bias", ignoring or downplaying evidence that contradicts them. We tend to like the explanations that those around us like, because this promotes group solidarity.

Experts in non-testable areas of knowledge are just as susceptible to this as the rest of us. Knowledge can inform a choice of explanation. Beyond that, it can make it more "sticky", harder to change. The danger with experts in many fields is that while their judgments might be no better than ours, their capacity to (apparently) justify those judgments is far greater.

What do we miss when we seek to understand the flux of randomness with false explanations? Taleb believes most of us underestimate the role played by chance and by the improbable. What is portrayed as merit in careers and lives is often just luck.



I regret that your report (Feb 22) on Isaac Newton's beliefs failed to put them into any historical context. What is noteworthy about recent research is not that Newton was an "apocalyptic" thinker: all Protestant scholars in 17th-century Britain held such views. The apocalyptic consensus is not difficult to understand, given that any departure from the literal reading of the Book of Revelation was considered heresy. Edmond Halley, who was confronted with this accusation in 1691, presented papers to the Royal Society on "the necessity of the world's coming to an end", to prove "that I am not guilty of asserting the eternity of the world".

In Newton's days nearly everyone believed in heavenly retribution and the catastrophic end of the world. The Church worked hard to scare an insubordinate flock, while political radicals prophesied cometary disaster and social upheaval. Newton, in contrast, kept publicly quiet on the subject for most of his life. He endeavoured to discredit both camps by debunking their shared belief in impending doomsday.

In the unpublished manuscripts referred to, Newton did ponder the end of the world "in the year of the Lord 2060", but stressed: "I mention this period not to assert it, but only to show that there is little reason to expect it earlier, and thereby to put a stop to the rash conjectures of interpreters who are frequently assigning the time of the end, and thereby bringing the sacred prophecies into discredit as often as their conjectures do not come to pass. It is not for us to know the times and seasons which God hath put in his own breast."

By pushing back a tentative date for the apocalypse by more than 500 years (if not advocating an indefinite point in time), Newton assailed both an over-zealous orthodoxy and political radicals whose fanaticism had led to a century of mayhem and who threatened the stability of British society. Far from being a prophet of doom, Newton calculatingly established the foundations of the scientific age that turned terrifying comets into predictable objects and wild fear-mongering into dispassionate risk analysis.



Many people would like to be kind to others so Leftists exploit that with their nonsense about equality. Most people want a clean, green environment so Greenies exploit that by inventing all sorts of far-fetched threats to the environment. But for both, the real motive is generally to promote themselves as wiser and better than everyone else, truth regardless.

Global warming has taken the place of Communism as an absurdity that "liberals" will defend to the death regardless of the evidence showing its folly. Evidence never has mattered to real Leftists

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For times when is playing up, there are mirrors of this site here and here.


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