The doctor’s analogy again: the climate is like a child with a diagnosed cancer

The doctor’s analogy is frequently used in climate change communication. In most cases, it goes like this: “Wouldn’t you go with the advises of your doctor when he tells you …?” or “When you have cancer would you go to a cardiologist?”. Last Sunday I saw that doctor enter the analogy in a different way in the interview of Nic Balthazar in the current events program “De 7de dag” (see previous post) (translated from Dutch):

Screenshot of “de 7de dag” of December 16, 2018. Nic Balthazar: making the doctor’s analogy

You should really have to compare to, an unpleasant comparison, the doctors come and they say, madam and sir, your child has cancer. At the moment, it could still be contained, we can operate, do chemo therapy, everything. It is going to cost, it will be difficult, hard and all, but we can get that child to recover. And when you now talk about our economy, we can really come out of this better. We can, with renewable energy, cleaner air, end up in a much safer life in geopolitics. But it will be difficult. Would that father and mother then say, yes but, pfff, it’s a bit too expensive? No, they will not do that. We [sic] are going to say: whatever it takes. Just look at Music for Life, everything is possible at that moment. And yet we do not do it, and an annoying comparison, one single child that have cancer, but we are talking about all the children of the world.

and also later this emotional appeal (translated from Dutch):

Once again, how can you then, sit next to that child and say: sorry child, I don’t think it will work. Yes, but all doctors say it is still possible. The IPCC now says: this is purely chemical, geophysical [sic] still possible to achieve.

In reality, parents will indeed will do whatever it takes to get their child better, especially when “all doctors say it is still possible”, unlike what seemingly is done now in climate policies. The suggestion is that this refusal from policy makers has to do with them acting like bad parents.

It is very unlikely that policy makers are intrinsically bad and willfully refuse acting in the face of clear evidence, so there is something else in play.

For example, something that was already clear in previous post is that Nic Balthazar overstated his case. He explained the latest IPCC report in term of absolute certainty, while the report only mentions the risk of changes when the warming increases (not the certainty of a tipping point at 1.5 °C warming as he seems to have understood it). So, chances are that this analogy is not a correct one.

So, how well could they both be compared? Climate science and medical science certainly have things in common. For example:

  • They both study a complex system: the Earth with its climate system (climate science) and the human body (medical science)
  • They are both observational sciences: can only observe nature taking its course with limited or no controlled experiments
    Medical science has some advantages over climate science though: it has experience with many millions, maybe even billions, patients (that is why most people trust their doctor). In climate science, there is only one (1) subject of research: the Earth
  • Medical doctors and climate scientists are specialists in their field of expertise

In that sense these are comparable and the analogy could fly.

However, there are also significant differences between the two:

  • Modern Medical science has one millennium of experience and data gathering. Climate science is a relatively new science and only has gathered a limited amount of reliable data since a few decades. Before that, there is only sparse, uneven spatial coverage. Before that there is only proxy data, no measurements of current measured parameters.
  • We have never been in this situation of more than 400 ppm CO2 before, so we don’t have any previous experience. There are however theories and model runs
  • Climate science started to have reliable data AFTER the perceived problem started: there is no base measurement of a healthy Earth, so we don’t exactly know whether that 1 patient is sick or whether it is natural variation or both (in that case, how much is human caused?).
  • Because there is no second Earth, no controlled experiments are possible, that is where mathematical models come in. This allows scientists to make some controlled model runs. But the climate system is a complex, coupled, chaotic system and, from its very definition, it is not possible to reliably model such systems. Although mathematical models certainly can be useful, I very much doubt they are useful for policy purposes.
  • It is not clear who is the expert. Many are given the title of “climate scientist” or claim to be one. So are the real experts mathematicians, ecologists, statisticians, engineers, economists,…?

It is clear that, under these conditions, climate science can never be reliably compared with medical science. There are significant quantitatively as well as qualitatively differences between the two. It is also rather weird to assume the IPCC in the role of “doctor”, it is a political body that appoints (aligned) scientists to write their reports.

It is now possible to create a new analogy that is much more aligned with reality. Here goes:

A statistician investigated the health of the child by entered some data in his mathematical model. The control knob of this model is the intake of fast food that will project how high the risk is that child will suffer from cancer in its later years. However, not much detailed data of fast food intake could be gathered and the more back in the past, the less reliable the data gets. The researcher didn’t have any data from the early years of the child, so the researcher has to rely on toddler drawings to gather the necessary data of fast food intake from that time frame. Where no data was available, the researcher filled in data from other children.

From his investigation, the researcher now concludes that there is a risk that the child will suffer from cancer at a later age…

Luckily, there is a remedy! There are however some catches. First, it has to start now. Second, the child is the very first patient of the statistician and the investigator didn’t study healthy individuals, so has no experience of how healthy people grow older. Third, the cure has never been tested before, so there is no guarantee that it will work. Last but not least, the cost will be incredibly high. It is so high that the parents need to make choices what to spend their money on.

Now, with an analogy like this: how likely is it that those parents will agree to pay for the cure under these conditions?


9 thoughts on “The doctor’s analogy again: the climate is like a child with a diagnosed cancer

  1. dpy6629

    Yes, I like your statement about the cancer fast food link.

    Another thing medicine and climate science have in common is that they both study very small effect sizes and there are a lot of wrong or dodgy papers out there. Patients are wise to be skeptical about what doctors tell them and to check the publications themselves.

    At least in medicine people usually get a professional statistician involved early in study design. In climate science that never happens. Why would that be?


    1. trustyetverify Post author

      There are indeed more things in common, but I wanted to keep the comparison as concise as possible (I think it is still too long).
      I also heard some rather high numbers of biased/beautified/false results in medical research (in Flanders this has to do with the publish-or-perish pressure and company funding). I would not go as far as saying that patients has to check medical papers themselves. This is highly specialized literature and not always related to patients (it is a long way from fundamental research to actual patients) and there are other checks and balances. I indeed also see an increasing importance of statistics in training as well as at level of project application, which is a good evolution.


  2. Scott

    Not to bash medicine, but:

    According to a John’s Hopkins study, in the US there are estimated to be 250,000 deaths per year caused by medical error.

    12 million Americans are misdiagnosed each year:

    The medical experts, with their hundreds of years of “science”, get it wrong 12 million times a year.

    Seems crazy to put so much faith in the diagnosis by climate scientists.


    Re: nutritional science. See this:


    1. trustyetverify Post author

      It was certainly not my intention to bash medical science either, also not climate science. The only point that I wanted to make is that both sciences are inherently different and that therefor the doctor’s analogy doesn’t fly. The authority of one science can not be transferred to another when they can not be compared qualitatively nor quantitatively.

      The interviewee also made the analogy in such a way that it wasn’t clear for me whether he made an appeal to the emotions, the appeal to authority and/and false comparison.


  3. Denzil

    The first analogy was better as it was clearer and easier to understand. The second one might be more accurate but I found it difficult to grasp in a way that I could explain it to someone


    1. trustyetverify Post author

      I assume you mean the lists of things incommon/difference (“first analogy”) and the example distilled from that (“second analogy”)? In that case, I can certainly agree. I am not totally happy with that second example yet, I will probably refine it in the future, so it would be much clearer.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Week in review – science edition | Climate Etc.

  5. Brad Keyes

    This diseased argument again? It keeps popping up like a micropopulation of cells with their natural apoptotic failsafes disabled as a result of a series ofdysplastic derangements.

    It certainly is a tedious trope, isn’t it, and to all appearances it’s refractory to every treatment modality known to [the thinking] man.

    We took a sledgehammer to the onco-analogy here…

    …but your somewhat more scalpel-based approach is also valid.


    1. trustyetverify Post author

      Your sledgehammer style is surely more powerful and more direct than my approach. I just tried to bring both sciences to the same level and then see what happens. I could as well do the opposite and describe climate science as how medical research is currently being done (I already see it before me, a boldly-go-where-no-man-has-gone-before script in the far future with breeding programs of earth-like planets to be used in climate experiments, galaxy labs with the most cutting-edge equipment,…).

      Liked by 1 person


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