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Half-baked Science: From Keys to Mann

by Christopher Chantrill
March 27, 2012 at 12:00 am

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THE MORE we learn about climate science the more we learn what a shabby, back-of-the-envelope business it is. Dr. Michael Mann, the climate science poster boy that simplified the global climate of the last millennium into a hockey stick, just came out with a book to remind us how anyone who disagrees with him is a shill for dark forces. He’s a bully, and in the ClimateGate emails, he even bullies his colleagues.

It’s déjà vu all over again, of course. Fifty years ago another academic published a shabby little paper and then succeeded in bullying everyone into endorsing his view that saturated fat was the cause of heart disease. Gary Taubes describes this researcher’s personality in Good Calories, Bad Calories:

Henry Blackburn, the long-time collaborator at [the University of] Minnesota, described him as “frank to the point of bluntness, and critical to the point of sharpness.” David Kritchevsky, who studied cholesterol metabolism at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia and was a competitor, described [him] as “pretty ruthless” and not a likely winner of any “Mr. Congeniality” awards.

This “frank... critical... ruthless” academic was Ancel Keys, inventor of the K-ration. He and his wife (an expert in measuring cholesterol) investigated several hundred people in the general population of Naples, Italy, in the early 1950s and found that they measured low on cholesterol and had less heart disease than the fat-eating Neapolitan rich. Keys decided pretty quickly that dietary fat was the main cause of heart disease and spent the next couple of decades doing research to confirm his hypothesis.

The political situation back then was eerily familiar to our own time. In the early 1950s, the health establishment had just finished up the great public health success story of all time. With sanitation and vaccination, public heath had conquered the great scourges of infectious disease. So what could it do for an encore? It could solve the post World War II heart-disease scare and apply the same epidemiological tools that had isolated the cause of cholera and typhoid. It was a no-brainer.

Fast forward to climate science in the 1980s. The environmental establishment had just achieved the great goals of clean air and clean water, and had transformed the US metropolitan environment. What could it do for an encore? It could apply the same science, public relations and regulatory tools used for the environmental success and save the planet from catastrophic global warming!

As we skeptics have seen, the global warming enthusiasts often had more enthusiasm than science. Climate science is a young science and it doesn’t know all that much about the climate. Not yet. The same was true back when heart-disease became the #1 killer in the years immediately after World War II. What was killing all those middle-class Americans? Ancel Keys decided it was the saturated fat in foods, and he couldn’t wait for the results of his research: people were dying. So he persuaded the government to fight cholesterol with low-fat diets right away. When the research results came in, they were close to the Folger’s taste test: “no difference.” But by then big budgets and reputations were committed to the idea that a high-fat diet causes heart disease, and the government couldn’t change its mind.

People with half-baked ideas that are not ready for prime time instinctively grasp that they need the bludgeon of government force. There’s a long and tragic history of half-baked ideas linked up to government, from Horace Mann’s half-baked idea in the 1830s that government education would reduce crime, Marx’s half-baked critique of capitalism, and on to Lysenko and “whole language” reading. It makes sense that Michael Mann’s flawed Hockey Stick paper would be boosted at the dawn of climate science by the global-warming alarmists and given an authority it didn’t deserve. So also did Ancel Keys’ cholesterol theory get established into a huge government war on fat.

You can see how young folk get sucked into this. Young Karl Marx looked out at the world in the 1840s and saw an out-of-control industrial revolution. Something had to be done before the world ended! Same with Ancel Keys, when he had his Aha! moment about cholesterol at a conference on nutrition and disease in Naples in 1951. No doubt the young James Hansen and the young Michael Mann had their Aha! moments as well.

The separation of church and state is an attempt to keep religious enthusiasm at a distance from the temptations of government force. Only now we need a separation of secular church and state. That way we can keep secular-religious ideas on saving the planet at a distance from political power.

Then, when we’ve made progress on that front, we could try the separation of science and state, and even the separation of economy and state.

We’ve just got to save the planet from second-rate scientists and their half-baked ideas.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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presented by Christopher Chantrill

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