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How to Fray the Mantle of Science

One of the preeminent scientists of the 20th century, Richard Feynman, made some comments that, at first glance, make it look like he had a jaundiced view of science:

Science is the belief in the ignorance of the experts. — Richard Feynman

However, he was simply warning us that the unverified pronouncements of experts are not “science.” Even a world preeminent expert on a subject cannot claim, “I, being an expert in the field, have spoken. Therefore, my words are the current science on the subject and to disagree is to be unscientific.”

It doesn’t matter how beautiful our theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it is wrong. — Richard Feynman

In fact, if someone, anyone, states a scientific theory, then claims, “To disagree is to be anti-science,” the theory is probably not worth the electronic ink it took to propagate that theory. Science is the result of tests, evaluations and proofs, not proclamations.

This article (Climate Change is Causing Unwanted Abortions) is a good example of what not to do when engaging in a scientific and/or philosophical argument. Let’s peruse the article, shall we?

I don’t really want to get down into the abortion issue, but this is how the article leads off and it is the source of the first untruth. I say “untruth” rather than “lie” because I am not sure if the writer believes the statement to be true.

He mentions “reports of a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion that will soon overturn Roe v Wade + Casey — and thus foreclose reproductive rights in the US.”

Anyone who has paid any attention at all knows the the overturn of Roe v Wade will “foreclose” nothing. It will just mean that the question of how to address the abortion issue will be returned to each individual state. Some states will continue to allow unfettered abortion and some states will ban it. Most states will allow abortion for a prescribed time and then close the window.

[UPDATE: since writing the above, the Supreme Court indeed overturned Roe v. Wade. The result of the ruling was to return the abortion issue to the states. The response, however, has been disappointing. I was looking forward to arguing with the pro-abortionists. However, of all the heated reaction, I have yet heard a single disagreement based on the content of the ruling itself.]

However, I am anxious to get to the scientific part of the article. I mention the abortion claim only to illustrate the disregard or lack of rigor on the the part of the author. However, ignorance of the law and/or politics does not suggest ignorance of science. So we must examine that separately.

First, let’s clearly state the thesis of the article. Pro-lifers make a big show of wanting to “protect the unborn” but their main attack is to ban abortions. Yet these same people fight against the effort to fight climate change, even though global warming is also a killer of children.

As a “proof” of this thesis, the author mentions that

“500,000 newborns globally will still die this year from air pollution.”

There are two problems with this implication. First, according to the linked site, “Most of these deaths occurred in poor countries, with nearly half in sub-Saharan Africa.” While this doesn’t lessen the tragedy of infant deaths, very few of those deaths occur in the US. In the US, many more children die from abortion than air pollution so it is not at all out of the ordinary that people would concentrate their efforts on the more severe, local problem. Also, no indication is given that these people don’t already support charities that operate globally to reduce air pollution in those areas that are hardest hit. People are quite capable of supporting multiple causes at the same time.

Second, while 500,000 may seem like a shockingly large value, that number is never placed in perspective. While still large, it is right at the lowest number of infant deaths of all causes in the last 220 years.

https%3A%2F%2Fourworldindata.org%2Fgrapher%2Fglobal-child-mortality-timeseries%3Fcountry%3D~OWID_WRL

We have made huge strides in the last century in reducing infant mortality. And the trend is still going down, so it’s not as if we have reached the point where we are walking away, wiping our hands and saying, “Close enough.”

Here is a closeup, zooming in on just the last 70 years.

https%3A%2F%2Fourworldindata.org%2Fgrapher%2Fchild-mortality-around-the-world

Finally the author appears to be bringing it all back to climate change:

“And of the 2 million-plus stillbirths that will occur around the world — 1 every 16 seconds — up to 19% will still be caused by climate change.”

There is so much wrong here, one is challenged to place them is some sort of order. I’ve already addressed the fact that child mortality, for all causes, are at all-time lows. Now we are told that “up to 19%” will be caused by climate change. But where did this 19% figure come from? What exactly constitutes death by climate change?

Maybe the included link provides some answers? No. Follow the link in the quote above and read the article. The second paragraph say:

Researchers … reviewed 12 studies, finding extreme ambient temperature exposures throughout pregnancy appeared to increase risk of stillbirth, particularly late in pregnancy. (Emphasis mine.)

Appeared to…?

And what are these extreme ambient temperatures? This, at least, is answered:

“…below 15 degrees Celcius[sic] and above 23.4 degrees Celsius, with the highest risk being above 29.4 degrees Celsius.”

The absurdity of this statement becomes clearer (for us in the US) when translated into more familiar values: “below 59 degrees Fahrenheit and above 74 degrees Fahrenheit, with the highest risk being above 85 degrees Fahrenheit.”

That’s a 15 to 26 degree range! Does this mean that a pregnant woman should never leave her heated and air conditioned home for the duration of her pregnancy?

When I first read this, from the comfort of my Phoenix home, it was partly cloudy outside. The thermometer read a balmy 96 degrees Fahrenheit. Today it is a more normal 104. During the entire summer season, it will rarely hit 85 degrees even at the coolest part of the night! Granted, during these four months, nobody spends any more time outside than absolutely necessary, but there are no particular concerns regarding pregnant women. The stillborn data for Phoenix, even looking at only these summer months, are no higher than for, say, Ontario.

Furthermore, the linked article is heavy with hedge words:

“…appeared to increase…”
“…a possible link…”
“…appears to increase…”
“…are potentially attributable…”
“…will potentially increase…”
“…the findings suggested that…”
“If the link apparent in this research bears out…”

And finally:

“But these findings are from the very limited research currently available, … there’s still plenty of follow-up research that needs to happen.”

However, the kicker is this. Remember that the link that sent us to this article stated “up to 19% [of stillbirths] will still be caused by climate change.” Search the linked article and this is what we find:

“An estimated 17 to 19 per cent of stillbirths are potentially attributable to chronic exposure to extreme hot and cold temperatures during pregnancy.”

So somehow, all the potential stillbirths from exposure to extreme temperatures (temperatures known in Phoenix as “downright comfy”) are to be attributed to climate change.

This is not at all what the linked article claims. That’s one slick rhetorical sleight of hand. This is charlatanism, not science.

Let’s dispense with a tedious point-by-point analysis and get directly to the heart of the matter. What about all the deadly effects of climate change?

We have just examined one supposed effect: the stillbirths due to “chronic exposure to extreme hot and cold temperatures during pregnancy.” But how many places on Earth have a constrained temperature range of 15°-23.4° C (59°-74° F) all year round? Apparently, pregnant women have had to deal with “extreme” temperatures for the entirety of human history. As we have seen from the charts above, the infant mortality rate has continued to improve so climate change has not had an adverse effect on infant mortality.

The fact is that global warming will first appear in the cooler regions, causing warmer winters rather than hotter summers. Therefore, the first results will be in the area with a temperature range at or below the “severe cold” temperatures listed above. So the first effect of global warming will be to raise the temperatures that are slightly below 15° C to slightly above 15° C. According to the cited article, this should have a beneficial effect on live births as it will bring more of the Earth within the nominal birthing temperature range. So there should be fewer stillbirths.

Why is this not good news?

The point is, there is not a single verifiable fact stated in the article that support the claim of the title, that climate change is causing unwanted abortions.

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Tomm Carr

Tomm Carr

A retired software engineer who hates retirement with a passion. My hobbies are economics, philosophy and futurism.