Sunday, December 13, 2009

What does cigar smoking have to do with global warming?

(Cover of Cigar Magazine.)

Recently I experienced a convergence of two of my interests that was totally unexpected. I was catching up on past issues of Cigar Magazine when I came across an article in the summer 2008 issue titled “Secondhand smoke and global warming: More connected than you think?” by James M. Taylor. I could not even imagine how smoking and global climate change could be interrelated, so I read on. Realize that CM is a first rate glossy magazine and, in my opinion, is the best rag on the market about all things cigar.

Although CM is a fine resource for finding ratings on various cigars, the history of the industry, new products on the market, etc., there is always a theme running through its pages critical of anti-smoking legislation and the general problem a cigar smoker has in finding a suitable place to indulge in their most cherished hobby. There is plenty of anti-government, anti-Big Brother, and even anti-medical science between the covers of CM. Anytime a writer for CM finds an ounce of reason to believe that medical science got it wrong—that smoking is not as harmful as claimed or that the harmful effects of secondhand smoke is unfounded—they will articulate their argument as forcefully as they can.

So in Taylor’s piece in CM, he uses the “debate” about climate warming as an analogy for the medical science/anti-smoking issue. Taylor claims that there are more scientists who believe that global warming either does not exist or that it is not caused by humans, and he cites the “Global Climate Change Project” and refers us to the website that hosts this project at Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine. The site claims to have 31,000 signatures from scientists and other highly-educated people who do not believe in the scientific conclusion that global warming is real and is caused by human activity. Taylor’s argument is that the media often ignores, exaggerates, or misconstrues the “scientific community” in its reporting to the public. Fair enough. But in this argument, he is claiming that the REAL scientific community with respect to global warming is that group who signed the Petition (rather than the climate scientists who authored and signed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report), and that the media is ignoring the Petition Project group. If the media is ignoring these “real” scientists and telling us that climate change is imminent, the media may also be hyping and exaggerating the claims of medical scientists who tell us that smoking is not healthy. His fear is that such propaganda might result in special restrictions and higher taxes for cigar smokers. But this logic all seems to be a sort of anti-intellectual attitude borne out of fear that we may not like the messenger’s message.

There are many criticisms of the Petition Project and these are well-articulated in an essay blogged by Gary J. Whittenberger on eSkeptic in November 2008. I will not attempt to reiterate the points made by Whittenberger regarding what is wrong with the results of the petition, because that is not the point of this essay. My point is that it is usually difficult for the public to know who the real experts are on some topic, to know who is summarizing the experts’ views accurately to the public, and to distinguish what is truth from what we want the truth to be. Taylor does not want the medical profession to be correct about the harmful effects of smoking or its impact on cigar smokers; if all true and the public takes it seriously, cigar smokers might have to change their smoking behavior even more than they have already. Similarly, many people I talk with in the general public do not want climate scientists to be correct that global warming is caused by human activity because, if true, we might have to change our behavior regarding our energy consumption.

Humans have a proclivity to believe what they want to believe, or to continue to believe what they have always believed. I hypothesize that this tendency is usually adaptive, and that what worked in the past is likely to work in the future. But those days may be over. The earth is strained to capacity and changes occur rapidly now. The future may not look like the recent past at all.