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Scurvy Story: Why You Should Believe 97% Of Climate Scientists, Not Long-Wrong John Christy

By Joe Romm on February 21, 2014 at 11:30 am

"Scurvy Story: Why You Should Believe 97% Of Climate Scientists, Not Long-Wrong John Christy"


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imagesAnother week, another error-riddled piece of climate nonsense in Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal. This time it’s by one of the world’s most debunked disinformers John Christy, in a piece headlined “Why Kerry Is Flat Wrong on Climate Change.”

Christy is upset that Kerry characterized people like him — who reject the scientific consensus on human-caused warming accepted by 97% of climate scientists — as part of the “Flat Earth Society.” Christy thinks you should believe him, despite the fact that he has been consistently wrong.

Why? Because, Christy claims, the scientific consensus has turned out to be wrong throughout history. Ironically, neither of Christy’s examples — the realization the earth is round and the cure of scurvy — stand up to scrutiny.

Note: If you want to know why Christy’s claims about climate science are wrong, several scientists debunk his WSJ claims at Climate Science Watch, and the UK Guardian has a great piece.


It surprises no one that Christy is wrong here. Christy, and University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) colleague Roy Spencer, famously screwed up the satellite temperature measurements of the troposphere.

Here’s why Christy is someone you can program your mental DVR to fast forward through. First off, he (and Spencer) were wrong — dead wrong — for a very long time, which created one of the most enduring denier myths, that the satellite data didn’t show the global warming that the surface temperature data did. As RealClimate explained a few years ago:

We now know, of course, that the satellite data set confirms that the climate is warming, and indeed at very nearly the same rate as indicated by the surface temperature records. Now, there’s nothing wrong with making mistakes when pursuing an innovative observational method, but Spencer and Christy sat by for most of a decade allowing — indeed encouraging — the use of their data set as an icon for global warming skeptics. They committed serial errors in the data analysis, but insisted they were right and models and thermometers were wrong. They did little or nothing to root out possible sources of errors, and left it to others to clean up the mess, as has now been done.

Amazingly (or not), the “serial errors in the data analysis” all pushed the (mis)analysis in the same, wrong direction. Coincidence? You decide.

But what would you expect from a guy who contributed the chapter “The Global Warming Fiasco” to a 2002 book called Global Warming and Other Eco-Myths, published by Competitive Enterprise Institute, a leading provider of disinformation on global warming that was funded by ExxonMobil?

Interestingly, Christy doesn’t co-author this new piece with Spencer but rather with his UAH colleague Richard McNider. Spencer has just done a full Charlie Sheen, explaining on his website Thursday why from now on he will refer to politicians and scientists who use the term “deniers” as “global warming Nazis”:

They invoke “consensus”, which results from only like-minded scientists who band together to support a common cause.

This authoritarianism tends to happen with an over-educated elite class…I have read that Nazi Germany had more PhDs per capita than any other country….

So, as long as they continue to call people like me “deniers”, I will call them “global warming Nazis”.


When challenged about his use of “Nazis” to describe some climate scientists and others, Spencer explains that he thinks “it is very appropriate” since “these people are supporting policies that will kill far more people than the Nazis ever did.”


Christy is almost as disturbed as Spencer when scientists commit the cardinal sin of agreeing with each other. He writes:

But who are the Flat Earthers, and who is ignoring the scientific facts? In ancient times, the notion of a flat Earth was the scientific consensus, and it was only a minority who dared question this belief. We are among today’s scientists who are skeptical about the so-called consensus on climate change. Does that make us modern-day Flat Earthers, as Mr. Kerry suggests, or are we among those who defy the prevailing wisdom to declare that the world is round?

Uhh, no. Completely backwards, in fact.

The flat Earth was, as Wikipedia notes, a myth “common in pre-scientific societies.” On the other hand, “The paradigm of a spherical Earth was developed in Greek astronomy, beginning with Pythagoras.” Yes, it was science that debunked the flat earth myth. The spherical earth then became fairly widely held. Christy seems to be relying on “The modern misconception that educated Europeans at the time of Columbus believed in a flat Earth, and that his voyages refuted that belief.”

Christy is a master of misconceptions. He writes:

We are reminded of the dangers of consensus science in the past. For example, in the 18th century, more British sailors died of scurvy than died in battle. In this disease, brought on by a lack of vitamin C, the body loses its ability to manufacture collagen, and gums and other tissues bleed and disintegrate. These deaths were especially tragic because many sea captains and some ships’ doctors knew, based on observations early in the century, that fresh vegetables and citrus cured scurvy.

Nonetheless, the British Admiralty’s onshore Sick and Health Board (sic) of scientists and physicians (somewhat akin to the current Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) dismissed this evidence for more than 50 years because it did not fit their consensus theory that putrefaction (or internal decay) caused scurvy, which they felt could be cured by fresh air, exercise and laxatives….

The recent Obama administration announcement that it would not provide aid for fossil-fuel energy in developing countries, thereby consigning millions of people to energy poverty, is all too reminiscent of the Sick and Health Board (sic) denying fresh fruit to dying British sailors.

Yes, investing only in clean energy for poor countries is exactly like denying fruits to dying British sailors. Christy and Spencer do have a flair for fallacious metaphors.

Generally, you should Google anything that Christy writes or that the Wall Street Journal prints — because you can be sure neither of them will. If you Google >>”Sick and Health Board” scurvy<< you find ... nothing but Christy's op-ed! Why? Because it was the "Sick and Hurt Board“!!

But hey just because there is a consensus that it had a different name, don’t be fooled. The consensus is never right.

As an aside it is downright bizarre that Christy compares the IPCC to this Board he maligns — when he includes this bio line at the end (twice!!), “Mr. Christy was a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore.” I digress.


I now know considerably more about scurvy than I ever imagined. Soon you will, too. But I think it is worth going through briefly in part because it shows just how little regard for the truth Christy has and in part because it is kind of interesting, involving one of the earliest clinical experiments in medical history.

The old story of the conquest of scurvy in the British Navy has been a long time dying. The story runs as follows. In 1753, James Lind published his Treatise of the scurvy. At the heart of his book is the record of his clinical trial of a number of potential cures for the disease. Oranges and lemons came out as the conclusive winners. However, the Admiralty procrastinated for over forty years before accepting Lind’s findings. Not until 1795 was lemon juice issued to sailors. At once, scurvy was banished from the fleet.

A number of historians of naval medicine, notably Coulter, Keevil, Lloyd and Carpenter, have shown up deficiencies in this story….

That’s from a 2002 article for the “Journal for Maritime Research.”

The article concludes as follows:

Lind’s Treatise of the scurvy did not inaugurate an epoch in the understanding of scurvy. Contemporary readers of any of his editions could have found passages to support almost any view of the disorder. Only with twentieth century hindsight can the brief passage recording the Salisbury experiments be made to stand out as being of especial significance. Lind’s own practice at Haslar Hospital was not governed by the result of the experiments, so it is hardly surprising that there was no swift emergence, during the second half of the eighteenth century, of a universal conviction concerning the sovereign curative properties of oranges and lemons, and of the uselessness of most other treatments. Rather, the debate about scurvy, as a number of historians have shown, was wide open. In this paper I hope to have shown that the succeeding editions of Lind’s Treatise, and Lind’s own clinical practice, tended to keep the debate wide open. The Treatise did not narrow the debate and channel it inexorably towards the Admiralty’s eventual decision to issue seamen with lemon juice.

In short, Christy’s version of the scurvy story is a nice-sounding myth that was debunked a long time ago, much like pretty much every single claim about climate science that he has ever made. Leaves a sour taste in your mouth, no?

But what of the Board’s so-called consensus science, the “consensus theory that putrefaction (or internal decay) caused scurvy”? As the Wikipedia entry for James Lind notes:

Lind thought that scurvy was due to putrefaction of the body which could be helped by acids, and thus included a dietary supplement of an acidic quality in the experiment.

D’oh! Lind shared the consensus — though it would be a stretch to call it a “scientific consensus” because organized medical science, including systematic clinical trials, didn’t exist back then.

Ironically, it was because Lind shared the unscientific putrefaction consensus that he gave one of the six test groups (of two sailors each) on board the Salisbury “two oranges and one lemon.” Given that the two sailors eating citrus fruit got much better, you may wonder why Lind’s cure didn’t take off. In part, it’s because Lind “never advocated citrus juice as a single solution. He believed that scurvy had multiple causes which therefore required multiple remedies.”

Also, as the James Lind Library notes:

… aware of the storage problems for adequate amounts of fresh fruit or fruit-juice during long cruises, Lind recommended that a condensate (called “rob”) should be prepared by evaporating a dilution of fresh fruit juice in nearly boiling water over several hours. Unfortunately, as we now know, heat destroys much of the ascorbic acid in fresh juice, and it is unsurprising that subsequent observers were unable to detect any beneficial effect of the condensate.

He hadn’t tested his proposed remedy, and it didn’t work. The Library concluded that:

… the Navy Sick and Hurt Board did not, during the first thirty years, act unreasonably when one considers that Lind’s was only one of a great number of treatises on the subject (see Lind’s own Bibliotheca Scorbutica, an appendix to the first edition of his work); the Board was inundated with suggestions concerning scurvy; lemon juice was by no means a new cure (a fact of which Lind was perfectly aware); and not least because, together with his ‘rob’, he also recommended a list of vegetables for preventing scurvy which, on the basis of modern analyses, were unlikely to have been effective. Lind’s recommendations thus sometimes ignored his declared rejection of unwarranted speculation and his professed reliance on carefully observed facts.

So while Lind deserves much credit for having run “one of the first clinical experiments in the history of medicine” it was precisely because he wasn’t rigorously scientific that he didn’t change the prevailing unscientific consensus.

So all of Christy’s story is bunk. Just as the “science” in his op-ed is bunk — much as all of his attacks on the overwhelming scientific understanding of human-caused global warming are.

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