The Supraterranean War On Sanity: Scientists Versus Civilians

As near as I can tell, this image is actual size
Cast your mind back to 1980. Nobody, not a soul, knew that gaspers, coffin nails, and cancer sticks were bad for you.1 Tobacco companies used an advanced form of mind control (the technology in now in the hands of the government) to envelope the nation in a smoky cloud of ignorance.

Yet somehow, mysteriously, people awakened from their nicotine-induced slumber.

Hop in your time machine and pop forward a decade to 1990. Remember how we are all going to die of that noble and brave disease, AIDS? Well, maybe not all of us, but most of us were going to kick over, horribly and soon. Everybody was at risk.

Yet somehow, most of us didn’t.

Now shift forward eight years. That’s 1998, for you Brown University graduates. We were all going to die of heat frustration, choking on our own exhaust; we were all going to drown in our own sweat. The end was nigh.

Yet somehow the heat went into hiding. Nobody knows where it is.

If there’s one thing you can count on in a scientist, it’s that he never lets his failures hold him back. How could they? He never remembers them. No matter how many mistakes the scientist has made, no matter how over-certain he has in the past proved to be, he will sally forth boldly in his newest venture chock full of assuredness.

And, boy, will he be angry if you don’t fall in at his heels chirping, “You’re so smart. We ought to listen to you.” If you have the temerity to remind him of his previous sins, he will boast, “Science is self-correcting!”, never realizing that this argument is fallacious. Self-correcting science may be, but this is not evidence that the theory in front of us does not need correcting. Tell a modern scientist this and he begins to babble about “deniers”.

Consider this silly whine—The Subterranean War on Science—from Stephan Lewandowsky, Mike Mann, Linda Bauld, Gerard Hastings, and, I’m sad to report, Elizabeth Loftus in the Association for Psychological Science’s Observer.

Lewandowsky in particular, like most who teeter on the leftmost fringe of thought, finds it unfathomable that anybody can differ from his opinion. He dismisses as ludicrous the idea his opponents hold reasonable arguments. No: it must be some deep-seated pathology, some psychological aberration that accounts for the deviant behavior he feels surrounds him, that is closing in on him, constricting his movements, tightening the noose…it’s a conspiracy of oil companies and nefarious corporations! Not corporations like Apple and Solyndra, of course; bad corporations.

He and his co-authors are amazed—amazed!—that after years of nannying the citizenry over how much pop they can drink, what time they should go to bed; that after decades of stridently insisting that citizens should stay away from deadly potato chips, ice cream, popcorn; after the increasing hectoring of citizens about the sacking in which they carry their groceries, of what type of water containers are forbidden and on and on and ever on, that citizens are beginning to push back and tell the experts to mind their own damn business.

The world views of the experts are being challenged, and the experts are aghast, unsure what to do about it. Lewandowsky, after all but labeling his opponents mentally ill dimwits, was horrified—he tells us this—I almost can’t bring myself to type it—that somebody called him a bad name. Oh, the humanity!

Mann is a pest, an intellectual lightweight who in his imagination sees himself sparring with the big boys, but who puts on his glasses and whimpers at the first sign of trouble. Somebody dared asked for proof of his statistical, government-funded ravings and the poor dear was reduced to a blubbering mess.

Bauld and Hastings never go out after dark because they fret that every glowing cigarette—there’s one in every bush—is attached to an assassin dispatched by Big Tobacco.

Loftus, whom I admire, took one in the neck, too. But from a rival, as it were, and not a vexed citizen.

Look, some of the challenges by citizens of science are sensible, some not so much. But then, some of what scientists say is sensible, some not so much. Neither side can boast of a record when it comes to those areas which affect people. Not all science attains the same level of veracity, either. People know the difference. This is why you never see marches for or against the Standard Model in physics, or agitations pro and con over the best doping agents in transistors.

We’re not done with this paper, not by far.


1First OED appearance as slang for cigarettes: Gaspers, 1914; Coffin-nail, 1888; Cancer-stick, 1958.


  1. Sheri

    Narcissistic personality disorder. Though I expect that to be removed from the list of mental illnesses since it has become so widespread it can hardly be considered a “disorder” at this point. It’s more of a lifestyle choice.

  2. A possible explanation of scientific arrogance and truculence…
    “It is one of the essential features of such incompetence that the person so afflicted is incapable of knowing that he is incompetent. To have such knowledge would already be to remedy a good portion of the offense.”
    (Miller, 1993 , p. 4)(Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, American Psychological Association)

  3. Ray

    This type of people were leaders in the eugenics movement and this is nothing but the new eugenics. They evidently didn’t learn anything from the old eugenics movement. The commenters don’t seem too impressed with the paper.

  4. vuurklip

    An EX something or other, but it aint good.

  5. Scotian

    I’m not sure that the problem is scientists as much as rogue statisticians working as epidemiologists. 🙂
    I am, like you, sorry to hear that Loftus has drank the kool-aid but then again as we grow older we find that all our heroes have feet of clay.

  6. jeremyp99

    “Ray on 3 November 2013 at 1:23 pm said:
    This type of people were leaders in the eugenics movement and this is nothing but the new eugenics. They evidently didn’t learn anything from the old eugenics movement. The commenters don’t seem too impressed with the paper.”

    Mann and Lewy have a 100% record to date of suppressing dissent. So something is going on that critical comments are being published. I can only assume that they will be harvested and used in their next paper, entitled “We Told You So”.

    Lowest of the low. And yes, NPD, would seem to be a factor.

  7. John Shade

    So many science-quoting scares have turned out to be false-alarms. The climate and CO2 one, which sadly has brought folks such as Mann and Lewandowsky to our attention, seems to be comfortably fitting into that category. The book ‘But Is It True?’ by Aaron Wikdavsky contains reports of investigations by non-scientists into a good many eco- and other scares, and he reports considerable success with them.

    On the climate front, there are dozens of blogs or sites which can help citizens with their efforts to pin down the arguments. Subject-matter specialists are also willing to help from time to time. Wildavsky believed that responsible citizens can and should tackle such issues, provided they are willing to tackle, over many months or years, the relevant scientific literature. He notes that this is ‘not easy’, but adds ‘”Difficult but doable” preserves citizenship.’

    The alternative would seem to be the primitive state of ceding all to whatever is deemed the ‘authority’. In the climate game, that would appear to be the IPCC. A body whose behaviour has been compared to that of a delinquent teenager by the assiduous journalist (exemplary citizen) Donna Laframboise.

    Relevant works of Mann and Lewandowsky have been eviscerated by such public-spirited efforts on the web, at WUWT and elsewhere. I get the impression that the half-life of sloppy papers in support of climate alarm has become dramatically shorter in recent years. It is hard for citizens to keep up with the pace, but it is also very encouraging to see just how fallible zealots can be not just when rootin’ and tootin’ for their cause, but also when trying in vain to shore up its foundations.

  8. Bill S

    Kudos Briggs.
    I didn’t make it past the first paragraph before my BS meter pegged and my delicate stomach had enough.

  9. Andrew

    First, it is perplexing to me that in one post, the blogger can defend Bloomberg’s chief henchman Kelly, and in the next post he tells a story where the antagonist is a nanny telling people what to eat, among other orders.

    The blogger then mocks liberals en generale for bedamning corporations hypocritically; (They don’t mind “Apple” or “Solyndra.”)

    Oh the Irony. Of course, do not take my response as a denouncement of the sentiment in the article. I do tire of the nannies, the nanny state, and the chicken littles. You must admit too that sometimes there is a profit motive that causes these fads; that may or may not have anything to do with corporate conspiracies.

  10. John Moore

    @Briggs… not sure where 1980 comes in on cigarettes… but anyway…

    The ~1990 era AIDS scare seems to have been a propaganda campaign to get more funding for treatment for a diseas that, at the time, was killing pretty much only male homosexuals and drug users. The received wisdom from the press was “we are all at risk,” but scientists and anyone who took more than a superficial look knew the reality.

  11. John Moore

    @Andrew, you need to go back to the Kelly post and read for comprehension (do they still do that at Brown?). Briggs wasn’t “defending Kelly.”

    You are somewhat right about the profit motive, but not in the way you think. The global warming, err climate change alarmists indeed have a financial gain (and a career gain) from their scare, but they are government funded researchers, not corporations. Only recently have corporations such as Solyndra started to reap big gains (if they aren’t incompetent – see Solyndra) from the hype.

  12. Andrew

    @John – I will not admit to poor reading comprehension, but I will plead guilty to stretching the bounds of interpretation.

  13. Don Jackson

    Almost all of the academically sanctioned terms of analysis needed to understand this paper are given here….
    But the authors left out the Freudian concept of “projection” (see here, specially…). Luckily, none of them was qualified in the field of human psychology! 🙂

  14. Harpo

    Lol… I reckon you could arrange a demo related to doping of Semiconductors. Restore The Reputation Of Group V…. an NGO opposed to the derogatory “negative” label associated Group V elements. Why should Group VII get to be called “positive”… this is akin to racism… it’s elementalism!!!.. you could get People for the restoration of equality among Quarks to support it with signs that say “Strange Quarks are beautiful too”… you could include a politicised rant about how even though electrons move the power structure lies and teaches us that “Conventional” current is the right and positive way… it would be a highly charged debate…

  15. Fletcher Christian

    John Moore – It’s my opinion that one of the biggest problems in society is an excess of tolerance – in some cases, it almost seems as if aberrant behaviour is regarded as superior.

    To redress the balance, I would like to offer a partial solution. In your post, try inserting the phrase “fags and junkies” where appropriate, as a replacement. Or for Brits and (IIRC) Australians, “poofs and junkies”.

    Another minor, but important, abuse of language IMHO is the hijacking of a once-useful word (“gay”) by a 5% (at most) minority of the population.

  16. pauld

    I have always been perplexed by the claim that the tactics of tobacco companies were a PR success. I don’t know anyone who does not know that cigarettes are bad for one’s health. Certainly by the early 60’s their dangers were widely known and accepted by nearly everyone. When exactly did the tobacco companies successfully mislead the public?

  17. Harpo

    Mr Christian!!!! I do not have an excess of tolerance for labelling Australians as “Junkies”. Weed, Speed, Ecstacy, Ice, Ketamine, Booze, Prescription Drugs (we have a socialised medical system) and BS are staples in the recreational diet of Australians… but Heroin is nowhere near as popular as you may think. In Australia, “Junkies” are intravenous (IV) injectors of heroin (or related opiate derivatives)… It is not a general term for drug users, nor is it a general term for IV drug users. For example an insulin dependant diabetic would be most upset at being labelled a “Junkie”, and an IV user of meth would refer to the act as “Blasting” rather than “shooting up”, “main-lining” or some other heroin related term. A word of warning… should you encounter somebody with a needle in their arm I suggest that you not make eye contact. However, if you are forced to interact with them you should assume that they are on crystal and refrain from using the highly emotive anf potentially offensive term “Junkie”. The reasoning for this is that a meth head can do you damage if you call them a “Junkie”, where as a Junkie will just get upset… A good way to tell the difference between a Junkie and a Meth Head is to observe the level of alertness of the subject. Meth Heads tend to have wild eyes (but as advised previously you should avoid making eye contact) where as Junkies will have a tendency to fall asleep momentarily(nod off). This general behaviour is known as “The Noddies” As for the term “Fag”… that is a cigarette… and to “bum a fag” is to hit up a smoker for a cigarette because you don’t have one… or you only smoke when you are drunk or high on crystal (smoking meth \ ice or whatever)… as for the word “Gay”… I can only suggest you look up the lyrics of “Kookaburra Sits In The Old Gum Tree” to see how this has changed the average Australians view of ornithology…

  18. Howard

    “If there’s one thing you can count on in a scientist, it’s that he never lets his failures hold him back.”

    I can’t be impressed with a statistician who sees 3 different, unrelated stories, and attributes them all to a single actor created from his imagination.

  19. Justin

    In the post’s headline, what does Supraterranean mean?

  20. Briggs


    I suggest homework of reading the article I’m critiquing and you’ll see where these three things arise. Somehow the original authors managed to tie these things together, too.


    Above ground. See the original article.

  21. Andy

    Andrew does not understand what irony is.

  22. John M


    “Certainly by the early 60′s their dangers were widely known and accepted by nearly everyone. When exactly did the tobacco companies successfully mislead the public?”

    My non-native speaking immigrant Father with a High School equivalency diploma worked on a loading dock. He quit smoking shortly after the warnings came out in 1963.

    When I entered college about 10 years later, a lot of the students and profs smoked.

    Correlation, causation, whatever.

  23. Doug Proctor

    As long as the scientists and warmist supporters use conditionals, skepticism is as valid as their opinions, for that is what the use of conditionals means: “may”, “could”, “might” and even “should”, indicate that the outcome is by no means certain. Which means that the alternate conditionals, “may not”, “could not” and “should not” have some validity.

    When our so-called experts say “will”, “shall” and “does”, and when we can look to see if they “are doing”, “did” and “have done”, then there will be no reason or validity to be skeptical.

    We do not have marches against the theories of nuclear physics because the theories have been tested in a falsifiable way and proved themselves – at least until some detail requires tweaking. Climate science is not at the “tweaking” stage.

  24. John Moore

    While I am quite skeptical of a lot of climate change science, I think you are a bit too harsh. Few scientists have the opportunity to work in a field like particle physics where five sigma experiments can be done. Scientists in the climate field sometimes do have useful results, but useful is not the same as certain. For example, the one dimensional radiative balance model for CO2 is accepted by both warmists and skeptics. It’s useful in that regard, and it is almost certainly right in its rather narrow field of use.

    I would much have them using qualifiers like might than asserting, as some do, without qualification.

  25. John Moore

    On smoking…

    I’m not sure why it’s in this discussion, but I’ll throw in my experience. I started smoking in 1967 while in US Navy boot camp. I knew that smoking was almost certainly a cause of cancer, but I reasoned that smoking for the few months of boot camp hell would not be much of a risk.

    What I did not know is that inhaled nicotine is one of the most addictive drugs on the planet. In that regard, I was mislead by the stop-smoking campaigns because they implied it was easy. Had I known, I probably wouldn’t have started.

    It took me 13 years to actually, successfully quit. During the latter part of that time the FDA “protected” me by keeping nicotine gum and patches off the market, or I might have been able to quit sooner.

  26. DocMartyn

    “If there’s one thing you can count on in a scientist, it’s that he never lets his failures hold him back. How could they? He never remembers them. No matter how many mistakes the scientist has made, no matter how over-certain he has in the past proved to be, he will sally forth boldly in his newest venture chock full of assuredness”

    I am aware that most of my postulates are false, my lab book and hard drive is filled with dead ends, most of the things I measure turnout to be artifact and I know one of my co-authors doesn’t believe the work we published a decade ago.
    However, I do know that it is my job to insert my brain into a crack in ignorance and twist until one breaks. Scientists personalities are stamped by continued failure; you either look ahead like Odie, depressed like Eeyore or you only report the stuff that works and pretend you are a seer.

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