The Science of Cow Farts: My Letter to Debra Saunders

Cow_fart_1Debra J. Saunders — a conservative commentator for the SF Chronicle, who occasionally used to be smart and snarky and worth paying attention to but is now mostly stupid and snarky — just wrote this column about global warming that I had to respond to. The gist of it is that (a) a few scientists don’t agree with the human-caused global warming theory, therefore there is no scientific consensus about it; and (b) cow flatulence creates more greenhouse gases than auto emissions, therefore we don’t have to worry about reducing auto emissions.

Cow_fart_5I wrote a letter to the editor in response, but they didn’t run it. I’m not annoyed — I know they get a zillion letters, and in fact the response they did run (third from the top on the Letters page) was a good one. But my letter was good too, dammit, and I thought y’all would like to see it. So here it is. Enjoy!



Debra Saunders’ column about global warming (12/12/06) makes it clear that she has no idea what science is, or how it works. The fact that a handful of scientists don’t believe in human-caused global warming doesn’t undercut the theory — any more than the handful of AIDS denialists undercuts the theory that HIV causes AIDS. Serious disagreement within the scientific community is not the same as an overwhelming scientific consensus disputed by a handful of cranks.

Cow_fart_4And her argument about cows is just silly. The meat industry is as much a product of human civilization as the auto industry. If cow flatulence creates more greenhouse gases than auto emissions, it’s hardly an argument against reducing auto emissions. If anything, it’s an argument for reducing the consumption of beef.

-Greta Christina


Cow_fart_2One final note: I would just like to point out that a Google image search for “cow fart” yielded 87 results. An additional 20 for “cow flatulence.” Impressive. Not as startling as the 453 results I got from “sexy fishing” (see The Aging Slut), but not bad.


  1. says

    What I don’t understand is why the question is always “has it been proven beyond a doubt that humans are causing global warming?” instead of “is it good idea to conduct uncontrolled experiments on the earth’s atmosphere when the evidence we have says that it will be highly destructive?”.

  2. Jane Shaffer says

    I completely agree with you that Ms. Saunders’ specific argument is ridiculous. Also, Tim points out, quite accurately, that we need to stop blame-storming and start fixing what we have left of this planet…before, say, the Ganges dries up, which it is threatening to do. For God’s sake people, the Ganges is drying up – do you really need to drive that freaking Hummer?
    However, I feel the need to play devil’s advocate with regard to your point that a small, disenting, group of scientists is not a valid reason to question a point of science. Dr. Barry Marshall was mocked and ridiculed by his peers before proving that he was right about the cause of stomach ulcers and he was alone in his convictions.
    I do think we have figured out a good, solid, correct scientific method, but the tests and studies are based only on current, possibly incomplete or faulty, information. Also, there are scientific egos to consider. Therefore, I’m almost as hesitant to take scientific hypotheses as gospel as I am…well, the gospels.

  3. says

    “However, I feel the need to play devil’s advocate with regard to your point that a small, disenting, group of scientists is not a valid reason to question a point of science. Dr. Barry Marshall was mocked and ridiculed by his peers before proving that he was right about the cause of stomach ulcers and he was alone in his convictions.”
    Actually, that’s something of an urban legend. There was an excellent article a while ago about the shift in understanding about stomach ulcers in the Skeptical Inquirer. It’s on their website at:
    Here’s a quick quote from the article that summarizes its thrust:
    “It is not the case, however, that the medical mainstream dogmatically rejected the proposal for an undue period of time. A brief history shows that the hypothesis was accepted right on schedule, but only after “appropriate initial skepticism” — the premise of my challenge — was satisfactorily answered.”
    All of which is a bit of a tangent to my main point — namely, that the presence of a handful of disbelievers doesn’t negate scientific consensus.
    Now, that’s not to say scientific consensus is always right. Scientific consensus may be wrong, and a small group of dissenting scientists may indeed be worth paying attention to. That’s often how science changes, and changing to reflect new data is the name of the game. Scientists themselves are generally the first to acknowledge that no given theory should be taken as gospel — any theory is only as good as the data supporting it.
    But Saunders’ argument was “there are a handful of disbelieving scientists, therefore there is no consensus.” And that’s just flat-out not the case. When it comes to global warming, there is consensus. The overwhelming majority of scientists in all relevant fields agree that (a) global warming is happening, and (b) humans are a large part of the cause, if not the entire cause.
    And yes to what both Tim and Jane said. Let’s say there’s a 5% chance that we’re wrong, and human activity has nothing to do with global warming. Do we really want to roll those dice? Especially since the things we need to do to reduce global warming (reducing pollution, cutting beef consumption, reducing population growth, etc.) are largely things we should be doing for other reasons as well.

  4. Jane Shaffer says

    Oh, I absolutely agree with your points about the article. Saunders argument about cow farts is like saying there was no holocaust. The truth is obvious to any reasonably intelligent, conscious human being.
    I was saying that a handful of scientists with dissenting views of the general consensus should be given due consideration. I’m for more thorough skepticism. If the view is one of a crank, what harm to test it?
    Like you said, okay, we need to consume less beef, but I’m not saying that we should ditch efforts based on current scientific consensus. I guess it hasn’t occurred to Ms. Saunders that it just makes sense to find alternatives to a fuel source that’s going to run out anyway.
    Thank you for the link about H.Pylori – it was interesting. I think it’s less of an urban legend, though, and more the perception of Drs. Marshall and Warren. This is an interview with them:

  5. Donna Gore says

    I think a lot of people agree with science up until it starts to conflict with their political and/or religious brainwashing. (Such as the “young earth” creationists who insist the earth is only 6,000 years old because the bible says so.) Just as they are selective about which bible verses they choose to believe, they are selective which scientific studies to believe. You can find “a study” that “proves” just about anything. An educated person must read ALL the research from ALL sides of the issue, and then form an opinion. But some people already have their minds made up what they believe, and then backtrack looking for evidence to support that belief. They start with the conclusion, instead of gathering evidence first and then reaching a conclusion AFTER examining the evidence. This process that they use is the opposite of science. It’s back-assward. What this country needs in our schools is a class on critical thinking and deductive reasoning.

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