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Cell Phones and Cancer

Ever since the publication of physicist Dr. Bernard Leikind’s article in Skeptic (see eSkeptic for June 9, 2010) and my subsequent column in Scientific American in which I cited Leikind’s arguments (both of which were skeptical of claims that cell phone use causes brain cancer), we have been inundated with letters disputing our skepticism. The letters come in a variety of flavors, so what follows are Dr. Leikind’s responses to the critics that he identifies by their email names. My own response to critics will appear in the next issue of Scientific American, so in the meantime I defer to Dr. Leikind’s responses below, as well as to the SkepDoc Harriet Hall, M.D. along with oncologist Dr. David Gorski, both of whom blog at, which covers the ongoing controversy over cell phones and cancer.

For example, when I queried her on my critics, Dr. Hall responded to me:

I agree that it is premature to say that cell phones “can’t possibly” cause cancer, although Leikind is correct to say physics shows they can’t possibly do it by the mechanisms that have been commonly proposed. The fact remains: there is no good evidence that cell phones do cause cancer. And so far I’m not convinced by the proposed mechanisms by which they might cause cancer. The radiation/mutation and tissue heating explanations have pretty well been debunked. I’m going to continue to think that cell phones don’t cause cancer — and that there is a high probability that the kind of radiation they emit “can’t” cause cancer — until I see something much more convincing in the way of evidence. If they do somehow cause cancer, studies to date have established that any effect can’t be a very large one. Any potential cancer risk pales against the high risk of accidents from using them while driving, and against the convenience and safety effects of having instant communication.

And I asked Dr. Gorski as well, and he responded to me thusly (with links to further reading):

Basically, as I said, the article is correct in dubbing the idea that cell phone radiation causes cancer as very, very improbable, but I thought Leikind went too far in declaring it “impossible” based a priori on physics because, quite frankly, he completely ignores newer biological understanding of mechanisms of carcinogenesis. As I said in my post, I do not believe that cell phones cause cancer. I consider it highly unlikely and implausible. I do think, however, that declaring it “impossible” is premature. More reading from

And, here’s my explanation on just how complex cancer is:

Finally, Dr. Leikind sent me this wonderful general response to the critics, which I happen to agree with and will be interested in hearing from readers about this ongoing controversy:

It interests me that so many readers see “microwaves from cell phones cannot cause cancer” and understand us to be saying “there are no physiological effects from microwaves.” But our message is not that there are no physiological effects, but that we (the appropriate scientists and engineers) know exactly what the physiological effects of absorbing microwaves are. And those effects cannot cause cancer, and we know this because there are many identical but more powerful similar effects, such as exercise. No one thinks that exercise causes cancer. I also find it persuasive that no one is concerned about cell phone microwaves causing skin cancer. But the radiation is more intense in our hands, ears, and scalp than it is in brains or optic or auditory nerves, and skin cells reproduce many times more frequently than any glial brain cells, and even many more times more frequently than any neuron cells.

Dr. Leikind’s responses to the posted critiques of my and his claims follow:

GreenMind suspects that I may have ties to the cell phone industry. I use an old model Motorola RAZR V3 cell phone and pay T-Mobile about $40 per month for my cell phone service. I would be happy to earn some money from my investigation and writing about cell phones and cancer.

The precautionary principle draws passionate support from public health care professional, Dr. Martin Donohoe. In the case of cell phone microwave radiation, scientists have already done the appropriate research. We know exactly what happens when any material, including living tissue, absorbs microwave radiation. The microwave energy appears as additional shaking, jostling, rattling and rolling of the molecules. In a living human being with her powerful temperature control mechanisms functioning and her blood flowing, we know that there is no potential for microwave radiation from a cell phone to cause significant, widespread or irreparable harm. Therefore, the precautionary principle does not apply. The situation is different when someone invents a new chemical. The precautionary principle would apply to eating cell phones but not to talking on them. It would not apply to texting while driving because the harmful potential is well known.

Freedom for All and dideldum worry about power levels and heating. A cell phone emits about a watt of microwave radiation. Some of that power enters the user’s hand, ear, scalp, skull, and brain and other tissues. To produce this watt of microwave radiation, the cell phone’s electronics must convert somewhat more than a watt of power from its batteries. The excess power and all of the power that goes to operate the circuitry of the phone appears as a temperature increase in the phone. The phone may feel warm. This energy transfers to the user’s hand or ear. Some may transfer to the environment by infrared radiation or convection. This energy does not cause cancer. The temperature increase in the human brain from absorbed cell phone microwave radiation is so small that many researchers mistakenly believe that there are non-thermal effects. The temperature never reaches the various potentially harmful temperatures that Freedom cites.

GreenMind questions Dr. Shermer’s and my statement that there is no known mechanism by which cell phone microwaves might cause cancer. I claim more than that there is no known mechanism. I assert that there is no unknown mechanism.

To summarize, here is the proof. We know exactly what happens to the cell phone microwaves the body absorbs. The energy transfers from the radiation to jostling, jiggling, vibrating and twisting of the molecules. From there, the energy enters to flowing blood, reaches the entire body, and moves to the environment. If the power flow is large, the transfer to the environment will occur primarily by the evaporation of sweat. For the watt or less absorbed from cell phones, the transfer will occur by small changes to the flow of blood to the body’s surface causing slight increases in radiation, conduction, and convection to the environment. There is little temperature increase in a living human being from cell phone microwaves. We know many other processes and effects that produce exactly the same effects at much greater energy and power levels, and all of these are safe and do not cause cancer. Exercise is one such process. Wearing a ski cap is another.

Any researcher who proposes a mechanism by which cell phone radiation might trigger or enhance carcinogenesis is welcome to do so, but must begin with the process described, and also explain why much larger, but otherwise identical processes, do not trigger the proposed mechanism. This thought informs my consideration of the many real and supposed physiological effects of microwave radiation cited by readers.

In the following, I use colloquial language but I could have used the technical terms. Knowledgeable scientists will recognize what these are. I mention specific readers in these notes, but often other readers made similar points.

Richard2010 correctly asserts that it might be possible to modify the complicated and lengthy process by which an initiating incident leads to cancer. He says that microwaves might influence any of the intermediate steps that do not involve breakage of DNA. The only means by which cell phone microwave radiation might influence those steps is through the jiggling, jostling, rocking and rolling that occur when the organism’s thermal control system is functioning. Test tube experiments that do not reproduce the stable temperature conditions in a living organism, however, are not relevant. While some can imagine putative carcinogenic mechanisms from electromagnetic radiation, the only forms of electromagnetic radiation that cause cancer, ultraviolet, X-rays, and gamma rays, operate by breaking chemical bonds in DNA.

Megahurtz, Richard2010, and many other readers assert that microwaves have physiological effects. Some readers cite Russian studies, well known to researchers in this field. Western scientists could not replicate the Russian studies, and do not credit them. Readers point to therapeutic methods. Every therapeutic method that involves microwaves begins with the process I describe. Therapeutic use of microwaves always involves heating tissues.

Monastralblue asserts that microwaves modify chemical bonds or transfer molecules from one quantum state to another nearby state without breaking the bonds. Quantum states of molecules that differ by such a small amount of energy that a microwave photon might cause a transition from one state, the supposedly safe one, to another, the supposedly bad one, will be virtually equally populated in the living organism because of the random shaking, rattling, and rolling of the organism’s molecules. The supposedly bad state will not be empty. If population of the supposed state were bad in some way, carcinogenic or cancer enhancing, then the state would be doing its dirty work at all times.

fscr37 says that Dr. Shermer and I have unstated assumptions and implies that these may be unjustified. The primary scientific assumption that pertains to the question of cell phones and cancer is that the laws of physics apply to biological systems, to organisms, just as they apply to anything else.

The various speculative models, such as the resonance effects to which fscr37 refers, are unphysical and unbiological because they neglect to consider the environment in an organism when they supposedly occur. The energy exchange time, the time it takes for a molecule to transfer energy within its own modes of oscillation or with its neighbors, is about a hundred quadrillionths of a second, 10-13 seconds. This is the result of direct measurements. The oscillation periods of microwave radiation are about a hundred trillionth of a second, 10-10 seconds. That is, molecular jostling will interrupt any buildup of energy by any individual molecule or bond long before the processes frscr37 cites might develop.

Iward notes that the risk that a cell may become cancerous relates to the rate at which it divides. In the brain, for example, neurons divide rarely, if at all, while glial cells divide more often. In adults, brain cancers are gliomas, not neuromas. If there were some effect of microwaves on carcinogenesis related to the division rate of cells, we’d expect that the microwaves might cause skin cancer in phone users’ hands, ears, and scalp. The skin cells divide much more rapidly than any brain cells, and the intensity of the radiation is higher in these skin cells than in any brain cells. Cell phone radiation does not cause skin cancer, and no one fears that it might.

Iward, hereticoftruth, Mark Pine guess that cell phone microwave radiation might have chemical effects other than breaking DNA molecules and refer specifically to denaturing of enzymes. Large, complex biological molecules (and small ones too) take on their shapes through a combination of strong covalent bonds and many weaker chemical bonds, such as hydrogen bonds, van der Waals bonds, and others. Denaturing a molecule refers to the process by which the molecule assumes another form, denaturing. It assumes the denatured form by breaking bonds, mostly weak ones. A cell phone’s microwave radiation absorbed by a living human being cannot denature any biological protein or enzyme unless that radiation can substantially increase the tissue’s temperature in the living organism. High power microwave radiation, much higher than from any cell phone, may damage the cornea in this way. Cooking tissue is bad, but does not cause cancer.

Rivk, tomerg compares microwave cooking with absorbing microwave radiation from a cell phone. Sending microwave power into a roast in a microwave oven causes the temperature of the meat to rise. Sending the same microwave power into a living human being causes the person to sweat with little temperature increase. Dr. Eleanor Adair and others have done this experiment many times. Microwaving a human being causes sweat, not cancer. Can readers guess the difference between a cut of meat and a human being?

Microwaving a person with power levels similar to those of a microwave oven is safe and does not cause cancer. It is not a good idea to microwave a man’s testicles because they prefer temperatures lower than core body temperature. It is a bad idea to microwave your cornea or lens because they have little or no blood supply to provide cooling.

Kiya, jschunke, and pradhangegeorge say that they and other people are hypersensitive to electromagnetic radiation and cite personal experience of these effects from their cell phone use. There is no such thing as electromagnetic sensitivity. It is an imaginary ailment. All double blind tests show that no one can tell if a cell phone or cell phone tower is radiating except through the usual human senses, such as looking at the screen or holding the phone and noting that it is warm. There have been many amusing reports of locals developing vague symptoms when the phone company installs a tower, symptoms that disappear when investigation reveals that the company has not yet installed the amplifiers. Perhaps Kiya would be less prone to headaches if he or she were to choose less annoying people to talk to.

Richard2010 refers to non-thermal effects of microwave radiation. There are none in living organisms, in humans. This fact has not prevented mistaken researchers from doing studies and publishing about non-thermal effects. These researchers mistake the fact that they do not observe a temperature increase with something non-thermal taking place. By their definition, an ice cube melting in a glass of tea or water boiling would be non-thermal effects, but they are thermal effects. Every effect of cell phone microwave radiation must be a thermal effect because the absorbed energy goes into shaking, wiggling, rocking and rolling of the molecules. None of the energy goes anywhere else. If this causes changes to the blood-brain barrier, just to choose one example, then plenty of other things would also cause changes to the blood-brain barrier, such as wearing a ski cap. Wearing a ski cap is safe as long as it doesn’t cover your eyes.

Islesin refers to a comment in Microwave News. This journal has long added to the public’s fears of imagined harm from electromagnetic fields. Scientific American readers may remember the kerfuffle about potential harm from high voltage power lines and household appliances. Microwave News was on the wrong side of that issue too.

On the Internet I am often known as Left Coast Bernard. I say to my neighbor, CaliforniaJoe, that photons are the chunks of energy that carry all forms of electromagnetic radiation, not just visible light.

Agdavis comments on the units in Dr. Shermer’s column, which come from my Skeptic magazine essays. Chemists like to use kJ/mol, kilojoules per mole, which is an energy density, because they like matters relevant to test tube quantities. Using kJ/mol to refer to the energy in a chemical bond is telling us how much energy is in an Avogadro number of bonds, 6 X 1023. An Avogadro number of things is known as a mole, abbreviated mol. A watt-hour is a unit of energy (not a watt per hour); Joules. Physicists would prefer to use a density, just as chemists do. They would refer to Joules/bond or Joules/molecule, while the chemists like Joules per mole, a much larger, test tube sized number. Another reader confuses a mole of cell phones with a mole of photons from a cell phone. Comparing the energy in a mole of chemical bonds with the energy in a mole of microwave photons is correct thinking because it is also comparing the energy in a single bond with the energy in a single photon. The physical effect is, as always, one photon to one bond. Microwave photons do not have sufficient energy to modify any chemical bond, strong or weak.

Monastralblue comments upon safety factors. Here is the way, roughly speaking, that the appropriate organizations establish safety factors for non-ionizing radiation. Since it is a well-established fact that this radiation transfers its energy into tissues as additional shaking, rattling, and rolling, the safety committees find the lowest detectable power level that produces a detectable temperature change, not the lowest level at which some harm occurs. Then they divide this level by 10 or 100. This becomes the official safe level. Exceeding the safe level only means that some temperature increase might be noticed, not that any harm would occur.

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An Inside Look at an Inside Job

A review of Inside Job, produced, written, and directed by Charles Ferguson, produced by Audry Marrs, 108 minutes, narrated by Matt Damon.

detail of movie poster

In this disturbing and often infuriating look at the financial meltdown, the Academy Award-nominated (No End in Sight) documentary filmmaker Charles Ferguson promises viewers an inside look into the “inside job” (use intended to convey criminality) that he believes explains the financial meltdown and subsequent recession. Inside Job is a well produced, artfully edited, and dramatic reconstruction of the rise and fall (and rise) of the Wall Street financial industry. Most of us are painfully aware of what happened to the economy, so this film packs into less than two hours what took two years to unfold, and so the emotional impact is commensurate with the eye-blurring number of events tightly repackaged in cinematic gravitas.

With Inside Job I expected a Michael Moore-like liberal attack on all things free market, but that is not the case here. Instead, there is what is said and what is not said. In other words, there were no lies of commission, but there were some lies of omission. What is said in Inside Job (that I found to be accurate although Ferguson does not phrase it this way) is that, in fact, we do not practice free market capitalism because the government (both Bush and Obama administrations are indicted in the film) are in bed with Wall Street tycoons, reducing risk taking through the moral hazard of promised bailouts. The whole point of capitalism is to make a profit by taking risks. Low risk taking typically results in slow and steady growth, whereas high risk taking historically produces both high profits and steep losses. By entering the business of risk protection, the government is sending a clear signal to the market: don’t worry about taking big risks with your own and investors’ money; we’ll bail you out. In profits we’re capitalists, in losses we’re socialists. This is what Ralph Nader would call corporate welfare, and in the case of the financial meltdown and subsequent bailout he would be right.

What infuriates in particular in the film is just how much of an old-boys club Wall Street is (and what little chance any of us little guys have in competing fairly), and how much of the club roster includes prominent politicians and members of the Federal Reserve. It reminded me of my research on doping in sports, in which it has become abundantly clear that nearly everyone seems to turn a blind eye to the problem and former athletes are now running the sanctioning bodies and doping agencies are in the pay of said sanctioning bodies. When Ferguson reminds us that Obama left in place all the major players in the game—Bernanke, Geithner, Paulson, Sumners, et al.—it made me think of what would happen if Major League Baseball put Barry Bonds in charge of ending steroid use, or Marion Jones was the executive director of the World Anti-Doping Association.

The greed of Wall Street bankers and financiers is the leitmotif throughout Inside Job, and there is certainly no shortage of it on Wall Street. As one trader noted, there is no point of going anywhere near that part of Manhattan if your primary goal is not to make a pile of money. But Wall Street greed is only half the story; the other half is Main Street greed. Those greedy bankers were giving questionable loans to greedy buyers, and everyone was hoping to cash in through escalating risk taking in financial and real estate markets.

Now, behavioral economists have demonstrated that humans are normally very risk averse. Specifically, the research shows that losses hurt twice as much as gains feel good. That is, in order to get someone to invest their hard-earned money you have to convince them that the potential gains are twice as much as the possible losses. So why weren’t all these Wall Street bankers and Main Street buyers risk averse? Two reasons: short term thinking and reduced risk signals. First, potential home buyers and investors mistakenly assumed that the increasing trend line in housing prices would continue unabated indefinitely. Two, loan officers and their financial institutions intentionally and deceptively reduced the normal risk signals sent to potential customers in hopes that the artificial bubble would not burst. It did, and here we are.

Since corporations and financial institutions are run by people, they should show the same risk aversion that individuals do when investing money and granting loans. Normally they do, but over the past decade something happened to remove or delay the risk. That something was a combination of government intervention into the financial marketplace and private repackaging and selling of loans to organizations too distant from the risk to feel averse to the potential loss. For example, in the spring of 1999 a pilot program was launched by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Recall that Fannie and Freddie are government-run organizations that do not make loans directly to customers—they buy loans from banks, which make those loans directly. So, here already the risk was removed a step from the brains of the risk assessors, but risk aversion was further attenuated by government interference with the pricing mechanism that normally adjusts for risk.

In that pilot program the nation’s largest underwriter of home mortgages came under pressure from the Clinton administration in its desire to achieve an “ownership society,” along with insistence from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that Fannie and Freddie increase their portfolio of loans made to lower and moderate-income borrowers from 44 percent to 50 percent by 2001. That meant granting loans to higher risk customers.

There’s nothing wrong with corporations and institutions taking higher risks, as long as they adjust for it by charging more. The higher price acts as a risk signal to both buyers and sellers, thereby dialing up their emotion of risk aversion. This is what Fannie Mae was already doing by only purchasing loans that banks made charging three to four percentage points higher than conventional loans. But under the new program implemented in 1999, higher-risk people with lower incomes, negligible savings, and poorer credit ratings could now qualify for a mortgage that was only one point above a conventional 30-year fixed rate mortgage (and that added point was dropped after two years of steady payments).

In other words, the normal risk signal sent to high risk customers—you can have the loan but it’s going to cost you a lot more—was removed. Lower the risk signal and you lower risk aversion.

None of this is part of Inside Job, and that’s a shame because it misses an opportunity for a deeper look into the well of human nature that can lead any of us down a greedy path of blind profit seeking through rent seeking—the term used by economists to describe actions of individuals or firms to seek profits through political manipulation instead of economic competition. The problem is not greed per se, since that is part of our nature that when channeled properly through clearly defined and strictly enforced rules can result in much human progress. The problem is the attenuation or elimination of risk signals that keep greed in check.

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Of Testosterone and Pheromones

This post is a review of Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, Directed and Produced by Alex Gibney.

Client 9 movie ad

CLIENT 9 IS AN ARTFULLY PRODUCED, smartly edited, and dramatic reconstruction (and revisionism) of the rise and fall of “The Sheriff of Wall Street,” the man who dared to challenge the “Masters of the Universe,” Eliot Spitzer. Most of us are well aware of what happened to Spitzer in his fall from grace in a now all-too-familiar story of sexual shenanigans gone awry, but there is a redemption story here as well. Whether that works for viewers or not probably depends on one’s political persuasions and personal predilections on matters political and prostitutional.

Alex Gibney, whose previous film was another rise-and-fall epic tale entitled Enron: The Smartest Guys In the Room, is unabashedly sympathetic to Eliot Spitzer in Client 9 (his designation by the madam who orchestrated his hook ups). In an on-camera narrative that runs throughout the film, Spitzer makes no excuses for either his overweening ambition as the left’s lawman against Corporate Corruption, or for his biblical-like fall from grace as the right’s punishment for those who fly (and pry) too high and deep. The central thesis of Client 9 is that Spitzer was the victim of Wall Street heavy-hitters who would brook no probes into their sleazy back-room deals that Spitzer was on the verge of uncovering just before he was busted for his personal patronage of a high-paid prostitution ring. A cast of characters is then paraded throughout the film as those who would bring Spitzer down: the former Republican Majority leader of the New York State Senate Joe Bruno, the former chairman of A.I.G. Maurice R. Greenberg, the former director of the New York Stock Exchange Kenneth G. Langone, and a flamboyant Republican political consultant named Roger Stone. Hinted at but never directly stated, the film implies that had Spitzer not been sabotaged in his investigations of Wall Street corruption the economic collapse might have been averted. The evidence for the central thesis is circumstantial; the evidence for the covert thesis is nonexistent.

Eliot Spitzer and spouse, Silda Wall
(click image to enlarge)

In point of fact, in the final on-camera interview statement by Spitzer, when asked if he thought he was the victim of his Wall Street enemies he unhesitatingly denies the thesis and takes full responsibility for his collapse and apologizes to his family for his own misdeeds, pointing no fingers at anyone but himself. In this sense, if the point of the film was to resurrect respect for Eliot Spitzer, it does have that effect through his own words. However, as in all nonfiction works, from books to documentaries, there is here an element of what is said versus what is not said.

What is said is that Spitzer was a crusader for the little guy who stands no chance against the mighty Wall Street bankers and financiers—the regular Joes and Janes whose tiny IRAs and 401Ks are in the hands of high-stakes gamblers who do not give a damn about long-term retirement investments that are the backbone of a stable economy. (Recall in the run-up to the meltdown that far too many people quit saving and started gambling with adjustable rate mortgages but could not “flip this house” before the higher monthly payments came due—more on that in my review of the documentary film Inside Job next week, which also leaves out the greed of American consumers while focusing on the greed of Wall Street bankers and housing lenders.)

What is not said is that Spitzer’s tough-guy, law-and-order crime-busting activities included breaking up and prosecuting prostitution rings in New York, which is how he came to know (intimately) the inner-workings of the system that he then exploited for his personal pleasure, arranging sexual liaisons with women whom he couldn’t even be bothered to engage in conversation with before getting down to the dirty deed of wham, bam, thank you ma’am. (Upon realizing who her client was, one of the women—whose working name was “Angelina” and who was portrayed by an actress in the film—recounted how she really wanted to talk to Spitzer because of his reputation of being so smart and worldly, but apparently Spitzer’s tongue was tied that night.) The liberal man of the people—the voice of the voiceless, the power of the powerless—treated women as little more than fresh flesh. Oddly (or perhaps not) the infamous Ashley Dupré, whose quarter-hour of fame has now come and gone, refused to be interviewed for the film having, I suppose, shed her crocodile tears before a scolding Diane Sawyer in an exclusive ABC television interview (orchestrated with the launch of her singing career).

magazine cover

Ashley Dupré on the cover of Playboy magazine, May 2010 (click image to enlarge)

Here the film offers some insights into a world few can afford: The $1000 to $3000 an hour call girl. As the head of the Emperor’s Club explained, these are not alcoholic drug-addicted women who were abused as children and kept as virtual slaves to their pimps; these are ambitious beauties who, as one of them explained, likes to have her bank account filled and is now so spoiled with riches, jewels, trips, and the accoutrements of the lifestyles of the rich and famous that she can no longer date regular guys. These women are so hot that one of Ashley Dupré’s co-workers described her as possessing “great pheromones” and “an amazing coochie” (one of the service’s websites even includes a checklist of requests, from blond, brunette, or redhead to shaved, unshaved, or partial) that men could not resist, especially high testosterone men like Eliot Spitzer who can afford rates commensurate with such assets. (During the scandal I recall an interview with an evolutionary psychologist, who explained that you can tell Spitzer has high testosterone because of his boney features and high cheek bones.) One memorably funny line is when the head of The Emperor’s Club explains how she computed a full-day rate: just add a zero to the hourly rate (said with a sophomoric giggle but with a twinkle in her eyes as if to say “I can’t believe this rich bastard fell for this scheme)! A woman who goes for $2000 an hour will give you a full day (and night) of her time (and body) for $20,000. What is not said is what the agency’s commission was, but the women were apparently not complaining, and you can’t exactly go to the labor board to complain.

The salacious material, however, is secondary to the deeper Greek tragedy (think Icarus) theme of hubris and arrogance punished by the gods. Seen in conjunction with the documentary about the collapse of Wall Street and the subsequent recession—Inside Job (in which Spitzer also makes an appearance)—Client 9 is well worth seeing as long as you keep in mind that this film, as all films, has an affective agenda. But do bear in mind that Spitzer landed his own television series on CNN before this film was released. So the resurrection process had already begun.

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Throwing Cold Water on a Hot Topic

This post is a review of Cool It, a film by Bjorn Lomborg, directed by Ondi Timoner, produced by Roadside Attractions and 1019 Entertainment. Written by Terry Botwick, Sarah Gibson, and Bjorn Lomborg. Based on the book by Bjorn Lomborg. 88 minutes.

COOL IT (movie poster)

I FIRST MET BJORN LOMBORG IN 2001 upon the publication of his Cambridge University Press book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, which I found to be a refreshing perspective on what had been the doom-and-gloom, end-of-the-world scenarios that I had been hearing since I was an undergraduate in the early 1970s. Back then we were told that overpopulation would lead to worldwide hunger and starvation, that there would be massive oil depletion, precious mineral exhaustion, and rainforest extinction by the 1990s. These predictions failed utterly. I felt I had been lied to for decades by the environmentalist movement that seemed to me to be little more than a political movement that raised money by raising fears.

Lomborg’s publicist thought that I might be interested in hosting him for the Skeptics Society’s public science lecture series at the California Institute of Technology that I organize and host. I was, but given the highly debatable nature of many of Lomborg’s claims I only agreed to host him if it could be a debate. Lomborg agreed at once to debate anyone, and this is where the trouble began. I could not find anyone to debate Lomborg. I contacted all of the top environmental organizations, and to a one they all refused to participate. “There is no debate,” one told me. “We don’t want to dignify that book,” said another. I even called Paul Ehrlich, the author of the wildly popular bestselling book The Population Bomb — another apocalyptic prognostication that served as something of a catalyst in the 1970s for delimiting population growth — but he turned me down flat, warning me in no uncertain language that my reputation within the scientific community would be irreparably harmed if I went through with it. So of course I did because (A) truth is more important than reputation, and (B) no one threatens me and gets away with it. My own Senior Editor, Frank Miele, who is an expert on evolutionary biology and biodiversity (and is one of the fastest and most facile researchers I’ve ever known), challenged Lomborg on several of the chapters in his book, and we had a lively and successful debate.

My experience is symptomatic of deep problems that have long plagued the environmental movement, and for a time the political pollution of the science turned me into an environmental skeptic. That alone would be meaningless, given that I have only ever written one article on the subject (my June 2006 Scientific American column explaining that I flipped from climate skeptic to believer), but I believe that the environmental extremists had a similar effect on millions of others who remain skeptical in the teeth of what now appears to be reasonably solid evidence for anthropogenic global warming.

In fact, the documentary film Cool It, based on Lomborg’s book of the same title that serves as the popular version of his more technical and scholarly first tome, opens with him stating unequivocally that global warming is real and human caused. Wait! I thought Lomborg was a climate denier? That is what his critics have accused him of being, in fact, which apparently is the charge delivered if one does not accept in full all the claims in Cool It’s erstwhile anti-avatar, Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth. Here it might be useful to distinguish the two films by breaking down the subject matter into five questions:

  1. Is the earth getting warmer?
  2. Is the cause of global warming human activity?
  3. How much warmer is it going to get?
  4. What are the consequences of a warmer climate?
  5. How much should we invest in altering the climate?
Al Gore’s answers Bjorn Lomborg’s answers in Cool It
1 Yes Yes
2 Yes Yes
3 A lot Probably a little, very unlikely a lot
4 Cataclysmic. Debatable depending on how much warmer it will get, but very likely the consequences will be minor
5 Trillions of dollars, mostly top-down government programs to curtail oil and coal use and reduce greenhouse gases Billions

Global warming is real and primarily human caused. With questions 3 and 4, however, estimates include error bars that grow wider the further out we run the models because complex systems like climate are notoriously difficult to predict. Lomborg (and myself) provisionally accept the estimate of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that the mean global temperature by 2100 will increase by around 4–5 degrees Fahrenheit, and that sea levels will rise by about one foot, which Lomborg reminds us is about the same level that sea levels have risen since 1860, without any major (or for that matter minor) consequences. In other words, man-made global warming will be moderate, causing moderate changes.

Examining question 4 more closely, Lomborg computes that if global warming continues unchecked through the end of the century there will be 400,000 more heat-related deaths annually, but he then notes that there will be also be 1.8 million fewer cold-related deaths, for a net gain of 1.4 million lives. This is a typical calculation that Lomborg makes in what is essentially an economic triage for global warming — he is not saying that global warming is good or inconsequential, only that its consequences must be weighed in the balance against other problems. For example, Lomborg sites data from the World Wildlife Fund that at most we will lose 15 polar bears a year due to global warming, but what doesn’t get reported is that 49 bears are shot each year. What would be more cost-effective to save polar bear lives — spend hundreds of billions of dollars to lower CO2 emissions and (maybe) lower the mean global temperature by a fraction of a degree, or limit hunting permits?

This leads to question 5 — the economics of global climate change — which Lomborg notes that if all countries had ratified the Kyoto Protocol and lived up to its standards (which most did not), according to the IPCC at best it would have postponed the 4.7°F average increase just five years from 2100 to 2105, at a cost of $180 billion a year! By comparison, although global warming may cause an increase of two million deaths due to hunger annually by 2100, the U.N. estimates that for $10 billion a year we could save 229 million people from hunger annually today.

Economics is about the efficient allocation of limited resources that have alternative uses. If you had, say, $50 billion a year to make the world a better place for more people, how would you spend it? Cool It traces Lomborg’s attempt to answer this question through a group of scientists, economists, and world leaders whom he gathered in 2004 in Copenhagen to reach what he calls the “Copenhagen Consensus.” These experts ranked reduction of CO2 emissions 16th out of 17 challenges. The top four were: controlling HIV/AIDS, micronutrients for fighting malnutrition, free trade to attenuate poverty, and battling malaria. A 2006 Copenhagen Consensus of U.N. ambassadors constructed a similar list, with communicable diseases, clean drinking water, and malnutrition at the top, and climate change at the bottom. A late 2008 meeting that included five Nobel Laureates recommended that President-elect Barack Obama allocate his promised $150 billion in subsidies for new technologies and $50 billion in foreign aid be allocated for research on malnutrition, immunization, and agricultural technologies. For a cool Kyoto $180 billion you can buy a lot of condoms, vitamin tablets, and mosquito nets and rescue hundreds of millions of people from disease, starvation, and impoverishment.

Cool It is an uplifting film, filled with solutions that any green technophile would love: solar, wind, wave, and geoengineering technologies take up a lion’s share of the film. (And true climate skeptics will denounce Lomborg on this front as they do not believe that these alternatives can come close to replacing coal and oil as sources of energy.) To his credit, the unflappable Lomborg, with his boyish good looks and curiosity, includes in his own film harsh disparaging commentary by his long-time critic Stephen Schneider, the Stanford University climate scientist who passed away this past July. In a very classy touch, Cool It is dedicated to Schneider.

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Note: If you are skeptical of Lomborg and his branch of environmental skepticism, read the Yale University economist William Nordhaus’ technical book A Question of Balance (Yale University Press, 2008). Nordhaus computes the costs-benefits of various recommendations for changing the climate by either 2105 or 2205, primarily focused on the cost of curbing carbon emissions. Economists like to compute future profits and losses based on investments made today, adjusting for the value of a future dollar at an average interest rate of four percent. If we spent a trillion dollars today (the equivalent of the recent bailout or the Iraq war), how much climate change would it buy us in a century at four percent interest? Nordhaus’s calculations are compared to doing nothing, where a plus value is better and a minus value worse than doing nothing. Kyoto with the U.S. is plus one and without the U.S. zero, for example, and a gradually increasing global carbon tax is a plus three. That is, a $1 trillion cost today buys us $3 trillion of benefits in a century. Al Gore’s proposals, by contrast, score a minus 21, where $1 trillion invested today in Gore’s plans would net us a loss of $21 trillion in 2105. Add to these calculations the numerous other crises we face, such as the housing calamity, the financial meltdown, the coming pressures of funding Social Security and Medicare, not to mention financing two wars, a failing public education system, and so forth, and suddenly global climate change is put into perspective.

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What Do You Believe In?

As a skeptic and atheist I am often asked, “What do you believe in?” The ending preposition implies something more than what factual claims are to be believed, such as evolution, quantum physics, or the big bang. What is suggested by the question is what values does one believe in or hold to, especially without belief in God and religion. Here is my answer.

I believe in the Principle of Freedom: All people are free to think, believe, and act as they choose, so long as they do not infringe on the equal freedom of others.

I believe in civil liberties, civil rights, and the freedoms guaranteed in the United States Constitution, including and especially freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom to assemble peacefully, freedom to petition grievances, freedom to worship (or not), freedom of the press, freedom of reproductive choice, freedom to bear arms, etc.

I believe in the sanctity of private property, the rule of law, and equal treatment under the law.

I believe in free will, free choice, moral culpability, and personal responsibility.

I believe in truth seeking and truth telling.

I believe in trust and trustworthiness.

I believe in fairness and reciprocity.

I believe in love, marriage, and fidelity.

I believe in family, friendship, and community.

I believe in honor, loyalty, and commitment to family, friends, and community members.

I believe in forgiveness when it is genuinely asked for or offered.

I believe in kindness, generosity, and charity, especially voluntary aid to others in need.

I believe in science as the best method ever devised for understanding how the world works.

I believe in reason and logic and rationality as cognitive tools for answering questions, solving problems, and devising solutions to life’s many problems and quandaries.

I believe in technological growth, cultural advancement, and moral progress.

I believe in the almost illimitable capacity of human creativity and inventiveness for our species to flourish into the far future on this planet and others.

Ad astra per aspera!

So, if you are ever asked by a believer what you believe in, offer your own list along these lines of values that you honor, and then ask, “Why, what do you believe in? Do you not honor these values?”

The impetus for essay, which I penned on a plane to Los Angeles on October 15, 2010, was that I was asked this very question the night before during the Q&A after a talk I delivered before a sizable audience at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, sponsored by CASH (Campus Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists), supported by several other Minnesota atheist and humanist groups, and attended as well by many believers. The woman who made the inquiry explained that as an atheist she is often asked this question in a tone implying that atheists cannot or do not believe in anything.

Nothing could be further from the truth, of course, but such is the delimiting effect of religious belief and the myth that without God anything goes. Quite the contrary. Without God, values matter more here and now than they ever could in any projected afterlife proscenium where the moral play is finally enacted.

P.S. The final line above translates as: To the stars with difficulty. The phrase originated with the Roman poet Seneca the Younger and was made famous on a plaque honoring the Apollo 1 astronauts who perished in a fire on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral.

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