Fred Singer's latest whopper

S. Fred Singer isn't pleased with Merchants of Doubt, so tries to play gotcha!:

Oreskes' and Conway's science is as poor as their historical expertise. To cite just one example, their book blames lung cancer from cigarette smoking on the radioactive oxygen-15 isotope. They cannot explain, of course, how O-15 gets into cigarettes, or how it is created. They seem to be unaware that its half-life is only 122 seconds. In other words, they have no clue about the science, and apparently, they assume that the burning of tobacco creates isotopes -- a remarkable discovery worthy of alchemists.

Compare that with what Oreskes and Conway actually wrote:

After all, the natural environment was hardly carcinogen-free [Seitz] noted, and even "the oxygen in the air we breathe ... plays a role in radiation-induced cancer".98 (Oxygen, like most elements, has a radioactive version -- oxygen 15 -- although it is not naturally occurring.)99

It is impressive how many things Singer wrong in just one paragraph. Oreskes and Conway do not blame lung cancer on oxygen 15. They do not say that cigarettes contain oxygen 15, in fact stating that it is not naturally occurring. They do not say that burning tobacco creates oxygen 15. It's likely that they are aware of the half-life of oxygen 15, since its given in the reference they give to show that oxygen 15 does not occur naturally.

I am a nonsmoker, find SHS to be an irritant and unpleasant, have certainly not been paid by Philip Morris and the tobacco lobby, and have never joined any of their front organizations.

This document suggests otherwise.

Singer goes on to recite his discredited arguments against the EPA, including the claim that epidemiologists ignre results unless the risk ratio exceeds 2.0 -- something that's not true.

I just have to highlight this:

It is worth noting also that the World Health Organization, in a just-completed study reported in the British medical journal Lancet, gives a lung-cancer death rate (for US, Canada, and Cuba) of barely six hundred per year, only a fraction of the EPA number of U.S. deaths.

That's the study that attributed 600,000 deaths to second-hand smoke in 2004. And Singer uses to try to argue against the evidence that second-hand smoke is harmful.

The US Surgeon General's report is quite thorough and shows how Singer is cherry picking the evidence. You simply cannot trust anything Singer says.

More like this

I have followed the history of this gentleman for a long time. In short, Fred Singer is a cancer on science. It is certainly correct to close the above article with 'you simply cannot trust anything Singer says.'

He's definitely an ass, but he does seem to have a point about the oxygen-15 nonsense. It isn't mentioned in the source document at footnote 98, and I don't see anything in that source document to indicate that it is relevant. Absent something to the contrary, I would have assumed that Seitz was talking about a role for oxygen radicals in carcinogenesis, and not about a radioactive isotope of oxygen.

Why are Oreskes and Conway bringing up oxygen-15 at all? I can't imagine how it would be relevant. The juxtaposition would suggest to an uninformed reader that somehow smoking creates oxygen-15 and that oxygen-15 is carcinogenic. I don't have their book handy, so if there is a defense in a quote with more context I will certainly revise my opinion.

By Douglas McClean (not verified) on 19 Dec 2010 #permalink

It's really difficult to understand what Seitz meant. In the document cited as footnote 98 Seitz mentions that oxygen in the air we breathe plays a role in radiation-induced cancer. This can be understood as oxygen being responsible for radiation-induced cancer, hence oxygen being the radiation source; this, in turn, only leaves oxygen-15 as an option. This is the Conway & Oreskes interpretation.
However, it can also be understood that oxygen is a required(?) additional stress factor for the induction of cancer by radiation.
Heck, it may even be that Seitz attempts to describe the potential inducation of cancer by oxygen radicals, with the latter formed by radiation.

Either way, Seitz makes a very poorly worded argument here.

Thank you very much for this post. After reading Merchants of Doubt, I was sure that Singer was, well, blowing smoke again, simply because his name was on that op-ed. But I didn't have the time to dig into the details, and even if I did I wouldn't have done nearly as good a job you did, Tim.

The only link to radiation and smoking that I know of has to do with Po210, which is a natural radioisotope that accumulates to unusually high degrees in tobacco. As it is an emitter of relatively high energy alpha particles, it has high ionization potential when in contacting susceptible soft tissues. However, it has to be ingested or inhaled to have an effect as alpha particles are rapidly absorbed by air, skin, paper.

The only why I see O15 being involved would through indirect production after alpha particles produced by Po210 collide with something- though Im not sure that works out. Maybe he's refering to exposures during PET scans. I beleive they use O15 doped glucose for those..

By Stephen Baines (not verified) on 19 Dec 2010 #permalink

Who knows why Seitz said "the oxygen in the air we breathe ... plays a role in radiation-induced cancer". Oreskes and Conway, in their parenthetic comment are making clear that what he said makes no sense. This is clear to any scientist, but not clear to Singer, who ascribes the error to O&C rather than to Seitz. This says more about Singer's (lack of) reading comprehension or analytic ability than about anything else.

Good point, rab @ 7.

By Douglas McClean (not verified) on 19 Dec 2010 #permalink

My favorite passage from the Singer article:

Science journalist Michael Fumento presented, in 1993, a well-researched and eminently readable account in Investors Business Daily.

Ye shall know them by their citations.

It's hard to see Singer's intentions as anything but deceptive. And the audience at that link fits the hypothesis too: environmentalists are watermelons for this crowd.

By mbryson.brown (not verified) on 19 Dec 2010 #permalink

Jeez, it's simple: All Seitz was saying is that if there were no oxygen in the air there wouldn't be any cases of lung cancer. Case closed!

Or, perhaps more likely: Seitz was engaging in a standard tobacco industry Gish Gallop of running down a laundry list of potential environmental co-factors, plausible or not, to distract from tobacco.

Anyway, by now Singer is so old this stuff is probably being ghost-written for him, just as he once did for Seitz.

By Steve Bloom (not verified) on 19 Dec 2010 #permalink

Steve Bloom -- "Anyway, by now Singer is so old this stuff is probably being ghost-written for him, just as he once did for Seitz."

Hate to disappoint, Steve. This is only last year:

He's like an American Nigel Lawson; getting on but still crafty. In fact "crafty propagandists" sums these fossils up nicely.

He (Singer) is an old man.
Poor old fella.

Old scientists who have seemingly let current thinking slip past them decades ago are a sad but all too common sight. The last thing they need in their desperate attempts to sound relevant as they head towards a bitter retirement is people encouraging them.

But while I would generously put crackpots like Linzen and Spencer in that category, I believe Singer to be a bona fide BS artist. The poison he comes out with is beyond misguided or fanciful.

Jakerman, the comment thread is gold. Al Gore is attacked in the first comment and that's one of the high points.

>I may be over-simplifying this debate, but I see it as a no-brainer for reasons set forth by God. Plants, trees and other botanical life take in CO2 and expel oxygen; people and animals take in oxygen and expel CO2. A win-win situation, good for all of us, a planned dependency.

>What you have NOT done, Dr. Orssengo, is analyze the validity of the TEMPERATURE RECORD ITSELF.
You, like everyone else, simply ASSUME that it is accurate, reliable, and true.
Sorry, but your entire article -- not to mention whatever toil you've poured into this "analysis" -- is based on a LIE.

>Not only that - our President will be signing away our sovereignty based on this made up 'sky is falling' nonsense. Google "Obama Poised to Cede US Sovereigny, Claims British Lord [Christopher Monckon]. Then google the draft of the Copenhagen Climate Change Treaty. It states that there will be wealth redistribution from developing countries to developing countries. Like China??? Or Mexico whose farmers burn their fields all day every day of the year, adding untold ... (350 word limit)

^ Yes this is a real comment somebody actually posted. I assume they really believe it.

@2, Douglas MacLean

In fact, as you seem to suspect, in context it's quite obvious what Oreskes/Conway are trying to do: to try to find any sense whatsoever in Seitz's statement. The para in question runs from p27 to p28, should you spot a copy of Merchants and want to check.

The context makes their intention obvious enough that, as soon as I read the Singer quote in Tim's posting, I burst out laughing: I'm currently reading Merchants and it was just yesterday that I read the passage in question.

@J Bowers

I can't get your BBC link to work, even by copying/pasting the full URL. Any chances of checking it, pretty please?

jakerman, thanks for the link to the AT article. A couple things in the comments struck me. First, how was Marco allowed to stay on so long? I got banned after 3 posts. Second, notice that someone brings up some questions from Bernard J, but I didn't see any actual comment from Bernard J. Perhaps he disappeared?

Comments from Singer's article:

Posted by: montegoblack
Dec 19, 01:41 PM
How much did we spend to ban R13 refrigerant from air conditioners and replace with R34 to fix the ozone hole ? We now know ozone comes from the Sun and when the Earth is tipped in the winter the ozone can not reach the northern hemisphere. No ozone from the Sun, ergo ozone hole.

Posted by: Wes M.
Dec 19, 11:53 PM
You know, it is actually interesting that one comment mentioned the ozone hole that we were all warned about having catastrophic consequences by the Greenies: I'm not an Ivy league educated scientist, which apparently means nothing anymore after seeing how people reacted to the AGW theory, but if the greenhouse gases that are supposedly so hazardous are gathering in the atmosphere and warming the planet, why wouldn't they exit through that giant hole they swore up and down existed? You can't have both. Either there is a hole, or the gases are trapped. Time for them to make up their mind.

Poe or no-Poe?

@Dave R

Many thanks, both!

I must admit my reading is slightly different. Seitz was surely referring to the widely held belief that radiation damage to DNA is mediated by the creation of free radicals from oxygen. It was my impression reading the book that O&C did not understand his meaning, and as a result introduced the 15O stuff, which is not what Seitz would have been talking about, and is not relevant. A small lapse in an otherwise pretty compelling book.

Singer [writes](…) "The ultimate aim of these attacks, at least in my case, has been to discredit my work and publications on global warming." Seems to have worked, since he's publishing his response in a totally marginal, thard-right, online-only forum ( rather than a real publication or a least a somewhat more prominent online site.


That AT article overlapped with the [most epic thread ever](…), in which the esteemed GO studiously ignored Bernard's repeated attempts to pin him down, instead choosing to cut + paste blocks of text from Ayn Rand.

If you haven't read it before, pack some warm clothes and plenty of provisions, its a long one. Reading GO's hilarious interpretation of how tides work is sheer comedy gold.

2 years on, and he's been recycling all this material in comments at Judith Curry's.

Oliver, as I pointed out in my comment (#3) he *may* have meant that, but then he describes it rather poorly. He mentions oxygen and he mentions radiation-induced cancer, but not radicals.

Singer: "No matter what the environmental issue -- ozone depletion, acid rain, pesticides, etc. -- any and all scientific opposition based on objective facts is blamed on an imagined involvement with tobacco companies. "
This is simply not true.

By Lars Karlsson (not verified) on 20 Dec 2010 #permalink

I mean: Singer's statement about the book is not true.

By Lars Karlsson (not verified) on 20 Dec 2010 #permalink

Deech56, that WesM is quite a nutter.

Probably not surprising since he/she claims half their family died of lung cancer.

>"Nicotine is deadly, and addictive, but nobody is forcing people to smoke. If somebody wants to smoke it is their choice, their life."

...It's addictive.....nobody is forcing people to smoke

You couldn't make it up.


...It's is their choice


"the oxygen in the air we breathe ... plays a role in radiation-induced cancer"

This is, as Wolfgang Pauli said, not even wrong. It is true the oxygen atoms in transcriptase enzymes were at one time atmospheric molecules, but the oxygenation of cells through hemoglobin transfer has little to do with the oxidizing radicals produced by radiation breaking of enzyme chains.

It's like saying sea water plays a role in shark attacks.

By luminous beauty (not verified) on 20 Dec 2010 #permalink

so smoking doesn't cause cancer, because the climate has changed naturally before? good to know that's cleared up.

Seitz's paragraph is a great exercise in hand-waving; unfortunately, the Oreskes/Conway parenthetical phrase is a bit of a non-sequitur, so maybe Seitz did achieve his goal of sowing confusion.

Dave H, how did I miss that awesome thread? I'll be packing the refrigerator with a bunch of cold ones so I can slog through it. Paul UK, WesM has got to be a Poe - nobody could actually be serious with that bit about letting the greenhouse gases escape through the hole in the ozone layer.

Old scientists who have seemingly let current thinking slip past them decades ago are a sad but all too common sight. The last thing they need in their desperate attempts to sound relevant as they head towards a bitter retirement is people encouraging them.
But while I would generously put crackpots like Linzen and Spencer in that category,

I don't think Spencer is that old and doesn't need to retire for a long time. Going by the date of his first degree, Spencer is about 53, although he might have delayed his education.

By Chris O'Neill (not verified) on 20 Dec 2010 #permalink


That American Thinkless article is a year or two old. I haven't revisited it since it originally came out, but the age might explain [Deech56's observation](…) that I am not present on the thread - I certainly posted a number of times during its progression, but someone seems to have seen fit to remove them since I was last there.

Unfortunately Wayback and G00gle cache have no records of the early days, so my pressure there on Wormtongue has been conveniently removed from the archive.

AT might pretend to serious thought, but their practice is neither serious nor thoughtful. It's certainly not scientific.

And meanwhile, Wormtongue still has not addressed some of the issues upon which his naïve and ill-educated fingercountings were based. How he ever got a PhD is beyond me.

By Bernard J. (not verified) on 20 Dec 2010 #permalink

That thread might be entertaining - but after a sobering foray there during the Obama election, I've vowed never to go back to American Stinker.

Bernard J, did you get an e-mail saying that you were banned? I did, and was told that AT was "a community for thoughtful discussion." I think it was my linking to the video in which Monckton calls young climate activists "Hitler Youth" that did it.

Besides the obvious comic value, the commentariat there gives us a slice for what passes for right-wing political thought. It's almost impossible to convey to them what science is really about, about the intense curiosity that drives one to get into science, to persevere through all the years and the all challenges.


I may have been sent an email, but I haven't checked for years the email address that I use for denialist sites. I'd rather not subject myself to the inanities that they deliver!

I was also moderated several times during the exchange with Wormtongue, and it was that, along with removal of posts elsewhere, that led me to []( I now have nicely tucked away for future posterity a growing list of sites that tend toward censorship... ;-)

By Bernard J. (not verified) on 21 Dec 2010 #permalink

Bernard, you might get a kick out of my one thread "appearance" here (search for "Deech"). It's as if I disappeared but left a shadow.

The thing is that on AT you don't even have to be inflammatory to be moderated or banned - you just have to challenge the delusion under which they labor. What is interesting about the AT thread that is the subject of this article is that even the zaniest science spewed forth in the comments gets no rebuttal.



American Non-Thinker is simultaneously a disbelief-inspiring and a disconcerting online version of a right-wing vanity publication. It doesn't surprise me that they cover any dissentting challenge to their ideology, just as countless conservatives have in the past placed [strategic fig-leaves over offensive (to themselves) realities](…).

I actually did managed to have stick a post on the Wormtongue thread, but I had to engage in a distasteful bit of sock-puppetry, and some slightly-veiled irony, in order to do it. They obviously missed that one when expunging the more overt postings of mine..

By Bernard J. (not verified) on 21 Dec 2010 #permalink

@luminous beauty

"the oxygen in the air we breathe ... plays a role in radiation-induced cancer"

Ionizing radiation produces reactive oxygen species, which react with biomolecules, producing cellular damage. This is the reason that radiation is used to treat cancer cells, and also why it is problematic with solid tumors, which are hypoxic.

Nothing to do with 15O, but a true statement nonetheless.

My guess is that Pauli would say you are wrong.

> "the oxygen in the air we breathe ... plays a role in radiation-induced cancer"

> ... Nothing to do with 15O, but a true statement nonetheless.

Well, being alive plays a role in radiation-induced cancer.
Cell division plays a role in radiation-induced cancer.
*Radiation* plays a role in radiation-induced cancer.

All true statements. Nonetheless, they are wrong in that they're an attempt to mislead.

Chris O'Neill
>I don't think Spencer is that old and doesn't need to retire for a long time. Going by the date of his first degree, Spencer is about 53, although he might have delayed his education.

Born in 1924
Not that old???
What planet do you live on??

Sorry I was referring to Singer in my last post, not Spencer.

I, like Jim Groom #1, have followed the history of Singer for a long time --over half a century -- and I agree with his assessment. I have never seen why he had any credibility in scientific circles at all.

I read the EPA paper on deaths from lung cancer due to passive smoking. This paper was reviewed by scientists from 16 major universities, including Berkeley and Princeton.

I also read Singer's put-down of it. He put down a bunch of statements and then unrelated conclusions. Typical methodology.

I don't think he's any different now from what he ever was. Except he's attracted a crew of patrons who laud and disseminate his productions. He has enviable energy for a man his age. Nor do I think he's any crazier than he ever was. Although his idea of doing science is very strange to me, I think he has achieved his objectives or goals all out of proportion to his ability. Not crazy.

No, his statements cannot be trusted. Unfortunately he's expert at acquiring media attention for little or no work, or for wild ideas (touting a mission to Phoebus because it might have been built by aliens). Finally he's so widely discredited that only the right wing media pays any attention to him.

I read Merchants of Doubt, with fascination, although I think they overestimate Singer's seriousness.

14 Paul, 15 James,

Singer knows exactly what he's doing, and I think he keeps up with stuff too. Don't excuse him on the grounds of senility/whatever. He wasn't senile during the 'Tobacco Wars' and he's not senile now.

How about what he did to Roger Revelle?

By TrueSceptic (not verified) on 29 Dec 2010 #permalink

26 Dave,

An epic indeed. To think that GO refined his analysis at Deltoid with our help!

By TrueSceptic (not verified) on 29 Dec 2010 #permalink

To think that GO refined his analysis at Deltoid with our help!

Refined, yes, but never to the extent of coming within a bull's roar of doing so even at a first-year undergraduate level of statistical/analytical understanding.

All he did was mix and paste a few disparate statistical operations together without acknowledging - or even understanding, apparently - that he was completely skirting any valid and coherently justifiable process. I seriously suspect that not even Einstein could have explained to Wormtongue in how many ways he was wrong!

It makes my toes curl that we at Deltoid knocked a few (but not many!) corners off his block of ignorancestone, and that he then went running to the world hawking his claim of having sculpted a Michelangelo-esque statue of David. It makes me weep that more than one public forum proclaimed the monkey an "artiste", when in fact the creature couldn't even hold a hammer the correct way.

In my opinion it is truly a disgrace that he was ever awarded a PhD.

By Bernard J. (not verified) on 29 Dec 2010 #permalink

48 Bernard,

I'm sorry. I should have used quotation marks. We know what he did; we saw it happen before our very eyes.

It's weird that someone can achieve a PhD yet appears to be at the secondary (high) school, not even undergraduate, level.

He does serve a useful function though: he has shown us just how low the bar is for "sceptics", and tells us all we need to know about those who praise and promote his "work".

By TrueSceptic (not verified) on 30 Dec 2010 #permalink

For those who don't have a copy of _Merchants of Doubt_, a useful trick is to look it up on [Amazon](…) and use the Look Inside feature to search on the words quoted by Tim. You will see clearly that they are trying to make sense of Seitz's bizarre claim that even oxygen can be a factor in radiation-induced cancer. Singer is either an idiot or totally dishonest.

> It makes my toes curl that we at Deltoid knocked a few (but not many!) corners off his block of ignorancestone

He also changed his paper post-hoc from a problem I pointed out to him and proclaimed that he was never wrong.

Then STILL insisted that the warming RATE was the warming TOTAL.

Go figure.

Sorry, that was a different idiot. I was thinking that GO was Nahle.