Minus forty

Jacob Schor ND, FABNO

June 8, 2016




Sixteen years ago I went for a walk by Lake Louise in Banff National Park, Canada, on an evening when the temperature had dropped below minus forty.  At forty below, one need not specify Celsius or Fahrenheit, as minus 40 is where the two scales cross over:  minus 40 Celsius equals minus 40 Fahrenheit.  Be assured that minus forty on either scale feels more than chilly.


Add to the sensation of the absence of all warmth, the visual impact of the aurora borealis stretching across the night time ski illuminating the surrounding peaks and glaciers, and all this reflecting off the snow covered lake as one stumbles along  to the sheer terror of it being that cold, and the experience , at least in memory, turns to near magic. Nagging thoughts as to whether the rental car will start again, counter the thought that one might at any moment slip through into a parallel universe whilst witnessing this juncture of cold and light and mountain majesty.


That memory stands as my first experience of the Canadian Rockies in winter. 


I’ve been lucky enough to return to the same area every year since.  I go to ski tour.    The following winter, I skied the Wapta Traverse that year, skiing hut to hut across an icefield of interconnected glacier. The coldest night that year was minus 26 Fahrenheit.  Most trips since have been less arduous; I typically spend a week at Battle Abbey, a small mountain hut located south from Rogers Pass in the midst of peaks whose names were taken from the book Moby Dick.  I’m at an age that I do not crave the adventure of new places. I find pleasure now in repeating the same experiences year after year, climbing to the same high points, skiing the same runs, admiring the same views.


The most striking change over the past dozen winters is how much warmer Canadian winters seem.  This year, the day we climbed to the summit of Foremast, the temperature on top was a balmy 8 degrees Celsius.   This contrasts past years when the temperature was far colder.  Of course a single day’s temperature reveals little about yearly average temperatures. 

 Geoff Stephens: a warm day on the summit of Foremast:  March 2016


The real evidence of a warming trend has been how fast and how far the glaciers have retreated.  The Taipei glacier once extended to the valley base at the bottom of a ski run named Steepness.  Now the glacier ends several hundred feet above the valley.  Such dramatic changes in geology are disconcerting.  One assumes geologic shifts occur on a time scale that we humans will not notice.  Yet the differences in the ice have been obvious over the past few years.   There is no debate about global warming and climate change among Canadian skiers.  It’s only here at home, south of the border, that climate change is questioned.

Dr. Schor navigates Kitchen Envy. (this picture taken by the cook at Battle Abbey, from the kitchen window, 2016



The evidence does seem rather straightforward.  NASA tracks global temperatures with great precision: http://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/global-temperature/

2015 was the hottest year on record, with global average surface temperatures sitting 0.76C above the 1961-90 average. [1]


NASA’s data tell us that February 2016 “was the most unseasonably hot month on record by a massive margin” [2] . So does a comprehensive report released in March by the World Meteorological Association (WMO).  [March also set a record for the warmest on record]




Ocean heat down to both 700m and 2,000m broke all previous records in 2015.  When the Arctic sea ice was at its maximum last year, it was the smallest it has been since consistent records began in the 1970s.


The latest WMO figures on CO2 levels (from 2014) reached a record level, teetering on the edge of the symbolic 400ppm, at 397.7.  That is 43% more CO2 than estimates of pre-industrial levels obtained from ice core samples.

Sea level, measured by both traditional tide gauges and satellites, was the highest on record.[3]  


The headline on April 10, 2016 told us that more than a third of the earth’s coral reefs are bleaching and dying.[4]   


Thus there seems to be an odd disconnect in the United States about global warming.  Only about half of U.S. adults believe that human activity is the predominant cause, which is the lowest percentage among 20 nations polled in 2014. [5]  


While 95% of climate scientists agree that climate change is driven by human action, school teachers in America’s middle schools and high schools appear to have missed the memo. The majority of American schoolteachers are still unaware of this scientific consensus on climate change and teach the subject as if there was still an ongoing debate among scientists. [6,7]   


This doesn’t seem like a topic that intelligent and rational people would or should be debating.  Yet here we still are.  Something rather odd is going on.


It seems we have passed out of the scientific age.  The general public appears to no longer have faith in science. The gap between what scientists understand and what the public believes is widening.  For example 98% of scientists interviewed believe that humans have evolved over time; only 65% of the American public believe this is true.[8]



“In this bewildering world we have to decide what to believe and how to act on that. In principle that’s what science is for. “Science is not a body of facts,” says geophysicist Marcia McNutt, who once headed the U.S. Geological Survey and is now editor of Science, the prestigious journal. “Science is a method for deciding whether what we choose to believe has a basis in the laws of nature or not.” But that method doesn’t come naturally to most of us. And so we run into trouble, again and again.” [9]



I am trying to understand this modern trend to reduce science to just another opinion. The same mindset that discounts the scientific data about climate change can at times approach modern medicine, particularly the practice of oncology, employing the same disbelief in science, quoting conspiratorial theories  about Big Pharma, providing a rationale that allows rejection of what is called the ‘standard of care.’


Yale Law School professor Dan Kahan offers an interesting insight into what is going on.   Kahan teaches both law and a psychology and has investigated public disagreements over climate change and the public reaction to emerging technologies.[10]   This ‘science communication problem’, why people decide to believe what they do and why they no longer accept scientific consensus, is itself the subject of scientific research.


Kahan believes that Americans fall into two basic camps. “Those with a more “egalitarian” and “communitarian” mind-set are generally suspicious of industry and apt to think it’s up to something dangerous that calls for government regulation; they are more likely to see the risks of climate change. In contrast, people with a “hierarchical” and “individualistic” mind-set respect leaders of industry and don’t like government interfering in their affairs; ……”


In the U.S., climate change has become a litmus test that identifies you as belonging to one or the other of these two antagonistic tribes. When we argue about it, Kahan says, “what we’re actually arguing about is who we are, what our crowd is, who our tribe is.” [11]


It may go deeper than this. Our new digital age, our world of data overload may be shifting our perception of truth.  Just consider the political debates these past few months. The candidates seem to have developed a new definition of truth and lying that has little relation to how the terms were used in the past.


Writing in the March 21, 2016 issue of the New Yorker, Jill Lepore points out that our reliance on facts has a historical origin.  She dates our concept of truth to the Magna Carta, in 1215, and the abolition of trial by ordeal.    The adoption of trial by jury created a culture of facts, founded on the premise that observation of and the witness of things is the basis of truth and that only these sorts of evidence could be admissible in a court of law.  This shift to a culture of fact spread from law to science, and to history and journalism.[12]


That is until the Internet and Google washed all this away with tidal waves of data and unsubstantiated ‘facts’.  We have become a nation of skeptics who no longer listen to reason.   In his 2012 book, “In Praise of Reason,” Michael Lynch identified three sources of skepticism about reason: the suspicion that all reasoning is rationalization, the idea that science is just another faith, and the notion that objectivity is an illusion. These ideas have a specific intellectual history, and none of them are on the wane.”


In Lynch’s words, “Without a common background of standards against which we measure what counts as a reliable source of information, or a reliable method of inquiry, and what doesn’t, we won’t be able to agree on the facts, let alone values.” [13]


It isn’t climate change or the political races that have me contemplating these ideas.  Rather it is a conversation I had on the Panorama chairlift at the top of Mary Jane ski area earlier this Spring with a chance ski companion, a fellow from San Diego, who it turned out to be a professor of medical oncology at the University of California.   Discovering that I was a naturopathic physician brought a temporary chill to our conversation.  He assumed I shared a worldview with those practitioners at the alternative cancer clinics across the border from San Diego in Tijuana.  These clinics draw desperate cancer patients from all over North America and then return these patients by taxi to my ski companion’s hospital emergency room when they near the end of their lives. 


Granted, a good many patients die of cancer.  Yet some days it feels like more die than have to, that we are seeing a growing increase in number of those who choose only alternative treatments when they should not have. They have abandoned standard of care therapies that may well have saved their lives for unproven miracle cures.  Our preference is that their choices be made on evidence, and we are realizing that the very definition of evidence and truth has shifted.


Patients often make choices against therapies that science tells us will significantly prolong their lives.  These patients profess faith in things they have read or watched online.   They share a number of beliefs in common, chief among these is that pharmaceutical companies are actively conspiring to withhold or suppress effective cancer therapies in order to maximize their own profits.   They tell me that scientists are prevented from researching the natural therapy that the patient has decided to pursue because it might hurt big pharma’s profits. Whoops.  That last term is capitalized in these patients’ words, Big Pharma, as if it is a proper noun. The list of beliefs that are professed to me sounds more like a declaration of faith. While there is a hint of truth to some of these statements, the end result is a worldview that leads to bad choices; untreated disease, progression or recurrence, suffering and death.









1. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/2015-is-officially-the-hottest-year-on-record/

2.   https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/mar/14/february-breaks-global-temperature-records-by-shocking-amount

3.   http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/mar/21/global-warming-taking-place-at-an-alarming-rate-un-climate-body-warns

4.  http://www.coralcoe.org.au/media-releases/coral-bleaching-taskforce-documents-most-severe-bleaching-on-record

 5.  http://science.sciencemag.org/content/351/6274/664

Science. Vol 351, Issue 6274.12 February 2016

6.  http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/climate-change-confusion-in-the-classroom/

7. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/351/6274/664

8.  http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/06/150129-public-opinion-aaas-health-education-science/

 9. Achenbach J. “Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?” March 2015. National Geographic. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2015/03/science-doubters/achenbach-text

 10. http://www.culturalcognition.net/kahan/

 11. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2015/03/science-doubters/achenbach-text

 12. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/03/21/the-internet-of-us-and-the-end-of-facts

13.  In Praise of Reason: Why Rationality Matters for Democracy. Michael P. Lynch.  MIT Press. 2012.