An Invalid Analogy

In our paper, a professor from our university claimed our congressional representative was ignoring the science on climate change.

He first makes the tired 97% agreement claim. Yes, 97% of the 79 people who wrote the most peer-reviewed articles in peer-reviewed journals. Translation: 97% of 79 people who’s fellow climate scientists agreed with what they wrote think climate science is true. Of course, consensus does not determine truth in science, so even if 99% of 3000 scientists agreed, it would not make the hypothesis or theory true. Only evidence and testing and open review can do that.

Then came the now standard “If you had cancer, you would go to an oncologist, right?” The clear implication is you must have a specialist or appropriate authority for scientific decisions. Thus, you need the IPCC (which is not science organization, but rather a political one that decides what the whole world needs to do) and James Hansen to tell you about climate change.

There is a serious flaw in this claim—or maybe it’s a deliberate slight. Yes, you do go to an oncologist for treatment of cancer, but very often a family doctor or even a dentist makes the referral. This means a non-specialist can recognize cancer or potential cancer. The understanding of what cancer is is present in these “non-specialists”, unlike climate science where anyone outside the elite peer-reviewed are often ignored or downright vilified. Can you imagine an oncologist refusing to see you because your lowly GP thinks you have cancer? Who is your GP to make a diagnosis like that? If the oncologist said you did not have cancer but your GP did, would you seek a second opinion or just go with the specialist who is the authority and ignore the non-authority GP?

There are many different ways of treating cancer and a recognition that there is much more to be learned. There is no consensus in what will work because consensus is not important—results are. Money is always being raised for new studies on cancer and treatments for it. It is not “settled” science.

The second problem with the comparison is oncologists success is measured by remission and cure rates. No one checks for how many articles the oncologist has published or is his cure rate is peer-reviewed. This is because there are concrete, testable practices in oncology. If a treatment fails, it is evident in a short period of time. Contrast this to climate change which is mostly mathematics and computer modeling. There is no immediate, concrete verification of the theory. Much of the damage is forecast decades out. How can a person have any idea if a theory that cannot be verified for 50 years is even close to accurate? To be science, the theory has to be testable and falsifiable. Climate change theory is neither. Oncology is.

If oncology worked like climate change, an oncologist would do a few tests of how you are feeling and feed the information into a computer program to produce a graph that show possible outcomes. He cannot use any empirical information outside of a biopsy to diagnose the cancer. Everything else is a CI or probability graph. If the graph says “treat now and agressively” and that translates to “cut the limb off or the cancer COULD spread”, you would have to amputate the limb because it COULD save your life.

In reality, an oncologist would do empirical tests, then give the patient choices for treatment. The patient may opt to go for amputating the limb to avoid the possibility that he could die if he does not. In oncology, that is a choice. In climate science, it is not. The treatment is prescribed for the world and there is NO discussion in any of it.
If your oncologist treated your cancer using computer models and decided FOR you the treatment, then and only then could going to an oncologist for treatment be somewhat comparable to going to an expert in climate science to get the diagnoses and treatment for the planet.

Empirical science is not the same as theoretical. Biopsies are not the same as inputting “average” temperatures from various places around the globe and manipulating the data, the declaring the earth is warming. The comparison is invalid and climate scientists should be looking for something that is similar if they want to get climate science questioners to consider their behaviour and analogies to be scientific.


17 comments on “An Invalid Analogy

  1. Glenn Tamblyn says:

    Just a simple observation, using your oncologist example.

    Yes, your GP can refer you to the oncologist. However the question is whether your GP is competent to decide NOT to refer you to the oncologist.

    This reflects a basic asymmetry where detailed technical knowledge is concerned. Someone, you, I, anyone, can recognize the limitations of our expertise and take the view that we should presume that the more expert party is more knowledgeable than us and defer to them. However, if we wish to hold a contrary view to that expert party, we need the same level of expertise to them before we can justify our contrary view.

    Your example of cutting off limbs etc. Lets explore that. A better example, oncologically, would be that the oncologist believes, on the basis of a range of evidence, theory and science that you have cancer type X. But they aren’t 100% certain, just 90% They advocate immediate surgery to remove the cancer.

    Perhaps they are wrong. There is no cancer, or it is less aggressive, less invasive or whatever. So one approach might be – ‘lets wait and see’. Lets just see how things progress until we can be more certain about it. Perhaps 99.9% certain.

    But your oncologist points out a basic issue with this approach. ‘By the time we reach that 99.9% probability point, the cancer, if it is there, will have spread throughout your whole body, Surgery will not be an option, chemotherapy/radiotherapy may be ineffective or worse than the cancer. If the cancer is real but we wait till our degree of certainty rises that high, you will die’.

    Then you make this comment:
    “Empirical science is not the same as theoretical. Biopsies are not the same as inputting “average” temperatures from various places around the globe and manipulating the data, the declaring the earth is warming. The comparison is invalid and climate scientists should be looking for something that is similar if they want to get climate science questioners to consider their behaviour and analogies to be scientific.”

    Just as well that is not what happens isn’t it.

    • What would tell me that my GP is not qualified? Why would I have reason to doubt him? What would make me “go over his head” and to to an oncologist anyway?

      The oncologist example will be answered later on.

      • Glenn Tamblyn says:

        You may not know that your GP is not qualified. A basic, totally reasonable assumption is that your GP is less qualified than the oncologist. Quite simply, they do not have the same detailed knowledge of oncology that the oncologist does – your GP is a generalist. Which then raises the serious question of how the less qualified person, in any field, is able to judge whether their level of qualifications are sufficient to the question they are dealing with.

        This goes to the heart of the question of how well any person can form a good opinion (by which I mean one that is as close as possible to actually agreeing with physical reality) if their knowledge-base is inadequate. In Rummy’s fractured english: what are the effects of unknown unknowns on decision making and judgements? The more knowledgeable a person is about a subject, the fewer unknown unknowns there will be for them.

        Where Climate Change is concerned, the discussions one sees in the blogosphere from those skeptical of the science are at times simply stunning for the level of ignorance shown by some people in expressing opinions which they then express with great vehemence. And that is an observation from someone (myself) who knows some things about the science but is well aware that I am certainly not expert on the subject.

        I suggest a basic working assumption for anyone looking at the science, if they reach conclusions that differ from the scientists, should be that they doubt their own conclusions. What have I missed, what have I got wrong, what don’t I know?

        Yet consider the tenor of most skeptic blogs and comments. If their conclusion/opinion differs from the experts they presume that their analysis is correct and that the scientists are wrong/stupid/ignorant/mendacious.

        The hubris, the utter lack of humility in the attitude embodied in this (I am referring to peoples attitude ABOUT their opinions, not the merit of their opinion) can be quite stunning. The anonymity and cheap notoriety that the Internet affords often seems to artificially inflate peoples ego’s and sense of importance. Perhaps that is the seductive appeal of the damn thing.

  2. Tony Duncan says:


    PLEASE give an example where the experts are giving a diagnosis that is questionable and the non expert is giving a diagnosis that is more “reasonable”

    You are for some reason misunderstanding my explanation of your faulty analogy.
    If you have lung cnacer and it is caused by smoking. The VAST majority of oncologists will tell you to stop smoking. They will INSIST that in order to have a chance agaisnt the cancer that is the number one most important thing to do.
    Scientists have less power than doctors to enforce ANYHING, that is up to politicans and to companies, organizations, and individuals. Politician’s ARE able to keep telling people that smoking may not be such a bad thing and confuse the issue enough so that the members of the public that want to BELIEVE smoking is not that bad will not vote them out of office and people continue dying unnecesarly from lung seems to me youa re accepting the non extp[erts points without borthering to see what the expert response is to those p[oints. and you seem to be accepting the non experts interpretation of what the experts are saying, when in my experience they often distort what information is actually there.

    • One example I can give you is a news item I read along time ago, and just it’s just from my memory, of a woman with a rare cancer in her head who kept going to doctors and specialists. No one could find anything wrong, but the woman kept insisting her head sounded “hollow” when she scratched a particular area in back. Finally the cancer was diagnosed and treatment done, but she was told most people die of the cancer because it’s missed. Had she not kept insisting, she would have died.
      I went to an infectious disease doctor for thrush. After several rounds with anti-fungals, I started to question why we were not making any progress. I was told the testing clearly showed thrush. It did–and it was–until after the first or second round of anti-fungals. After which it was oral lichen planus, which does look a lot like thrush. The specialist had become locked into the original diagnosis in the field in which he was working. He just couldn’t see beyond that. I went to an additional two specialists before getting the correct diagnosis.

      I understand oncologists will insist you stop smoking before treating for cancer–and I know people will quit just long enough for treatment sometimes. You are also required to stop smoking for a lung transplant. However, if you can’t or don’t want to quit smoking, you can not accept treatment. Yes, you will likely die, but it is your option.

      Of course some people will smoke and think it won’t hurt them. And they will believe what they want even if the science is against them. I don’t tell people that smoking won’t hurt them–it will. My father died of lung cancer and knew full well it could happen but could not quit smoking. Was he “unscientific”? No, he just could not seem to give up smoking. He never said it was good for him. Nor the weed spray that gave him the heart arrhythmia. Yet he still smoked and worked with herbicides. People do things that are bad for them a lot of time. Maybe they delude themselves, maybe they don’t care. It’s just how people are. No matter how much you “scientifically” or “unscientifically” tell people things, they are still going to do bad and stupid things.

      Politicians distort most everything. I do not use political opinion when considering climate science. Not even the IPCC, which in spite of its compiling of science data, is bottom line a political organization. I don’t go by what my senator, the MD says either. He has an Md yet does not understand a lot of science and his goal now is not to stick with science but to get his face on TV and get re-elected. He still does “health minutes” on local news. Honestly, I probably would not go to him for medical care since he is more of a politician now than a doctor. It would take a really tough spot before I would do so. Same for Dr. Oz and other television doctors.

      I read all sides of an issue–as noted elsewhere, many of the documents on my computer are pro-climate change. Perhaps my writing out my process in future posts will help you understand. I did not realize just how confusing the refusal to trust experts really is to people. That is why I am going to the write-up on how to know if science is good (right or maybe right) to hopefully help explain.

  3. Lazarus says:

    Columbus knew the shape of the earth.

    This was known from around the 6th century BC. _snip- Give it up. I told you I can snip all day long.

    • I bow to your knowledge of when the earth was determined to be round. The date really is not relevant to the discussion. When people knew the earth was round due to empirical evidence is when it was no longer rational to deny it. We are way past that point, so anyone claiming the earth is flat in 2013 is not using science.

  4. No, I am saying I reject poorly done science. That is not the same thing. I REJECT bad science, but ACCEPT well-done science.

    I do not accept pseudoscience–it is a perfect example of bad or no scientific methods. Generally, more the use of anecdotes than actual data, since there is little or data available.

    It is NOT the same as not believing the world is round. I don’t need a mathematical model to tell me the world is round. Getting into space proved that. Mathematical manipulation of data is the ONLY way AGW is proven. You measure temperatures at whatever locations you choose to put thermometers, gather the data, throw out whatever outliers you choose, “adjust” the data, calculate a mean, prepare a graph and then draw a line representing what you believe to be the best fit or a trend line. All of that is math. Not even close to the same thing as whether the earth is round. Now, if this was Galileo’s time and he was proving the earth was round via math, then you could have a point. Same would be true if he was proving the world was flat using math.

    • Lazarus says:

      Reality check says:

      “No, I am saying I reject poorly done science.”

      -snip-(you know better)

      “It is NOT the same as not believing the world is round. I don’t need a mathematical model to tell me the world is round. Getting into space proved that.”

      So by your own logic, you would have believed the world was flat before we sent up space rockets.

      • No, up to the time there was physical validation of the earth being round (which probably would date back to Columbus, since he didn’t sail off the edge of the earth), I would said we do not have adequate evidence to make that statement.

        Also, prior to physical validation, by your logic, we went by the best experts of the time. What did the experts in say, 1200 AD say about the shape of the earth?

  5. No. I am saying that if the experts all gave me the same diagnosis but their reasoning for the diagnosis was questionable and the non-expert gave me a well-reasoned diagnosis that was different than the experts, I would go with the reasonable explanation.

    • Lazarus says:

      Isn’t that what I said -snip- (insult only–leave it out)?

      You won’t accept expert opinion, no matter how much it is supported by research and empirical evidence -snip- (you know better). If pseudo-science sounds well reasoned you will choose that every time.

      That is the modern equivalent to refusing to believe the world is round. How can scientists be right by saying the earth is round, everyone knows that if it was everything would slip of the sides and fall of the bottom.

  6. Lazarus says:

    It was a straight forward question, if the vast majority of experts give you the same diagnosis do you ignore it in favour of a less qualified person. You do seem to be saying you would if you simply do not understand the experts. Are you stating that is the case, yes or no?

  7. No, it is climate scientists agreeing with climate scientists who have published the most articles in peer-reviewed journals. There are thousands of scientists who disagree with the theory–meteorologists, physicists, climatologists (some used to be state climatologists), engineers, etc.

    I go with the thousands of scientists whose research makes sense, rather than the “expert” whose science and research looks more like a political agenda than science. I do ignore experts whose explanations do not follow the scientific method. I go with the data.

  8. Lazarus says:

    You have failed to understand scientific consensus. It is NOT the majority of scientists agreeing with other scientists. It is the majority agreeing with the science.

    And I fail to understand the significance of your analogy that a doctor might refer a patient to a specialist. So what?

    ” If the oncologist said you did not have cancer but your GP did, would you seek a second opinion or just go with the specialist who is the authority and ignore the non-authority GP?”

    I would seek a second opinion, and I think you would too. So what would you do when 97% of those specialists tell you the same thing? Ignore their expertise because you prefer what the non specialist is telling you?

  9. Tony Duncan says:

    not sure that you want my input anymore, since this is similar to my other responses but here goes.

    it seems to me your analogy is quite flawed. More accurate would be that your doctor sends you to an oncologist because he thinks you have cancer. you go to one and he says you have cancer. You get a second opinion from another oncologist and he also says you have cancer. Your brother in law, who has a friend who works for a vitamin compny says that your body is just suffering from a vitamin D deficiency and the oncologists don’t understand how is disturbed and that you don’t really have cancer, your symptoms are really due to the stress of life and that vitamin D is not properly absorbed in the way mainstream oncologists understand, and he sends you links to dozens of “experts on alternative theories fof cancer and vitamins, each of which has very different explanations of what is actually your problem. Each of which has a different argument about WHY the oncologists are wrong, but ALL say that the oncologists are lying to you because they want people to pay them for treatment so they can get rich and the oncology organization is a scam that is hiding true research that shows that vitamins are actually the issue.
    You tell this to your two oncologists and they tell you this is hogwash, and that almost all the ther oncologists agree. it turns out there ARE a couple of oncologists who think that you don’t have cancer and that vitamin deficiency is the answer, but there are 97 more that are sure you have cnacer. SOEM of those 97 think that vitamin deficiency was a partial caue of the cancer and even more think that tyhe treatment your oncologist prescribes is not the best one. And it tunrs out there is a huge controversy between even halves about whether the cnacer is cuased by a virus or some genetic predispostion. And there are all sorts of other disagreements among those 97 oncologists, but they all agree you have cancer, and your brother in laws friends and all his links don;t really show any proof that their vitamins have cured people except in isolated cases, and they don;t alow any testing to be down on their results, but they assure you the oncologists are all wrong and they are right.

    your description of how cliamte scientist determine results is not, as far as I can see based on any realistic account of how the science is actually done. I wanted to be a scientist and i know a number of scientists i even know a couple of cliamte scientists and none of them operate the way you describe above.
    In fact your assertion that climate scientists insist that they know the exact treatment and there is no discussion allowed is completely wrong. Climate scientists actually say that you have this disease and if you do NOTHING it will likely kill you. If you stop smoking that will decrease the chances of death significantly. If you cut DOWN smoking it will decrease the cnaces somewhat. if you smoke MORE it will make your death more likely and sooner. . But you can ALSO remove the nicotene from cigarettes. You can suck on an orange instead of smoking. There are ALL SORTS of treatments that might help in different ways, but stopping smoking will be the sure thing that decreases your odds of death.

    -snip- (Claims of ignorance on the part of the writer are to be made with specific data only. Broad generalizations are not allowed.)
    I am just pointing out the reality that I know and am confident of having looked at this isue as an amateur for four years and having had discussions with real climate scientists over the years.

    • The difference is the cancer patient has the option to make a bad choice. With climate change, the solution is imposed on everyone–stop burning fossil fuels, etc.. Unless you are advocating forceable treatment of cancer patients by conventional means, it’s not the same.

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