Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Problem With Non-climate Scientists Denying Climate Science

This excerpt from Andrew Revkin's blog is a year and a half old, but I just found it and it's so good I have to repost it.

Revkin was posting responses from climate science to physicist Robert Laughlin's essay in The American Scholar, "What the Earth Knows." Laughlin is a Nobel Laureaute in Physics (1998) for his work in condensed matter physics.

You don't have to be a climate scientist to see how irrelevant Laughlin's "geologic time" idea is to today's problem of climate change. But some of the scientists in Revkin's post really nailed exactly the problem with physicists like Laughlin, Freeman Dyson, Will Happer, and others opining about climate science -- they don't really know the science and seem unaware of the immense amount of work that has gone into radiative transfer in the atmosphere and other areas of climate science.

This response from David Keith of the University of Calgary is particularly revealing:
A few comments on physicists as climate skeptics.

I had an interesting experience talking to Dyson and Will Happer at a meeting last year. I was thrilled to talk with Dyson. I have loved his writing since my first mentor in physics handed me Dyson’s Disturbing The Universe along with the Feynman lectures when I started working in a big laser lab during high school. Later I enjoyed his papers when I got to field theory.

Dyson’s comments on climate were disappointingly shallow. I said, “Are you concerned about the exaggeration of climate impacts or do you have serious concerns about the science?”

“Both”, he replied. But when I pressed him on the science the only thing he said was that CO2 radiative forcing was logarithmic and complained that nobody knows this or talks about it. It was disappointing to hear such a shallow commentary from such a great man. Everyone who needs to knows that CO2 forcing is (roughly) logarithmic. This science is more than half a century old; it is in any textbook; the I.P.C.C. even as an “official” log forcing function that is widely used in simple policy analysis models. This science of building good high-resolution radiative transfer codes was nailed by Gilbert Plass and others at the air force geophysics lab in the 1950’s.

If one is going to attack the climate science this is a very odd place to start.

I also talked to Will Happer who testified in Congress, slamming climate science is nonsense. The conversation was much the same. When asked for some specific critique of the science his only answer concerned the saturation of the CO2 spectral lines, yet he seemed to have little or no familiarity with the content of modern (i.e. the last 30+ years) radiative transfer models which treat such line broadening with high accuracy; and, unlike some other components of climate models, this stuff can be well validated from both first principles and experiment (N.B., I built a high accuracy radiometer that flies on the U-2/ER-2 that does this). This critique is closely tied with Dyson’s comment about logarithmic response to CO2. It is likewise trivially without foundation. From Happer, a very smart and creative experimentalist in the same atomic and molecular physics world that I came from, this is embarrassing and disappointing.

My hunch is that Dyson, Happer and others like them are reacting to the apocalyptic overstatements by some in the climate advocacy world such as Gore.

Folks like Dyson who have thought a lot about nuclear weapons have a much higher threshold for things they call “catastrophic.” If a big nuclear war is you benchmark for catastrophe then climate change looks tame. Moreover, Dyson seems unconcerned about wholesale human manipulation of the natural world, and is convinced the economic impacts of climate change will be slight. These are statements about values and economics. I think they are perfectly reasonable views, even though I don’t wholly share them. If Dyson kept his critiques to this ground I would have no trouble with them, indeed they might sharpen the debate since there is lots of facile exaggeration in the enviro camp.

However, I think it is a misuse of their reputations as physicists to have folks like Dyson, Happer and Laughlin and publicly dismiss the underlying science without offering a technically substantive critique.

If their concern is overhype about the risk of climate change they should critique that overhype directly.
Of course, what goes for Laughlin goes 100 times (at least) for nearly all bloggers, 1000 times for blog commenters, and 1,000,000 times for anonymous blog commenters.

Physicists always think they know everything, but they don't. And if physicists don't, nobody does :-)

20 comments:

gallopingcamel said...

Those physicists you malign (some with Nobel prizes) may understand hard science rather better than you seem to think.

If CO2 exerts a major influence on global temperature one would expect to see some correlation between CO2 concentration and temperature. Other than the 30 years starting in 1976 there is none.

whether you look at decades, millennia or mega-years the correlation does not support the hypothesis regardless of what people like Shakun may say.

TLITB said...

Arbitrarily claimed shallowness begets actual active shallowness in the world of projection. I don't trust the described shallowness of Dyson presented here. The points Dyson makes are valid when discussing general climate science knowledge I think certain aspects of the underlying science such as the simple fact that CO2 forcing starts from the knowledge of a logarithmic relation and is not a simple one-for-one linear realation, may be one of the key factors that keeps general low level acceptance of the status quo in the debate about science. Dyson correctly says "nobody knows this or talks about it" but the respnse is to wilfully ignore the implication in preference for a straw man riff on how long the I.P.C.C has mentioned it in the detail small print of its work. This kind of argument reminds me of the "hide the decline" defences that constantly hark back to the "discussion" of the problem in the scientific literature whilst happily showing the distortion in punblic policy documents that actually get seen and disseminated.

The fact that climate scientists bemoan public understanding whilst indulging the constant simplistic presentations given by populists such as Gore (even if by not making overt criticisms) and yet they also make straw man arguments against people who point this out ,strongly imply to me they are quite happy with this distorted view presented to the public. I think climate science will remain in limbo as not really being respected by mainstream physics as long as its scientists play this game.

Glenn Tamblyn said...

GC

"If CO2 exerts a major influence on global temperature one would expect to see some correlation between CO2 concentration and temperature. Other than the 30 years starting in 1976 there is none."

The problem with this statement GC is the expectation is faulty. I presume the 'temperature' you are referring to is Surface Air Temperatures.

The more accurate statement would be something like:
"If CO2 exerts a major influence on the glonal energy balance one would expect to see some correlation between CO2 concentration and changes in Total Heat Content for the climate system"

So the expectation is that heat accumulation in the climate system, primarily the oceans, will have a correlation with CO2 levels.

And it does.

Glenn Tamblyn said...

GC

Looking at mega-years, in fact the last 600 million years, CO2 concentrations combined with reduced solar heat output in the past correlate very well with past temperatures.

Glenn Tamblyn said...

TLITB
'Dyson correctly says "nobody knows this or talks about it"'

Say What!

That CO2's forcing is logarithmic is well known and well discussed and recognised. Dyson is saying something bizarre here.

A well known and well understood thing isn't well known and well understood???

TLITB said...

Glenn Tamblyn

"A well known and well understood thing isn't well known and well understood???"

Undertsood by whom? I admit I may not have been too clear, but I think it was not too obscure - I would modify this statement to help make my point clearer:

"I don't trust the described shallowness of Dyson presented here. The points Dyson makes are valid when discussing *public* climate science knowledge"

To reiterate I don't trust the reporting of Dyson's shallowness here because as I said I am well aware of the habit of climate scientists playing the "having your cake and eating it" game, bemoaning general/public knowledge and yet obfuscating any underlying caveats whenever they can. This kind of behaviour seems specific to Climate scientists when you compare it to the likes of Feynman, Dyson, Dawkins who in their fields are willing to lay out all the possible flaws and treat their readers with utter respect. If Keith could show actual better evidence that Dyson was dissing climate scientist for not knowing CO2 radiative forcing is logarithmic then I am all ears otherwise this piece just strikes me as another attempt at creating a handy reference point for the lazy minded in putting a black mark against the well known denier. No doubt this will get amplified by the faithful as evidence of Dyson's shallowness when there is no such evidence.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Neal J. King said...

I've met and spoken with Dyson before, and there's no doubt that he's contributed a lot to the advancement of physics.

But the arguments that he's actually put forward about the relative insignificance of AGW, the inaccuracy of models, etc., simply lack depth. He's never backed them up by reference to actual studies; they're just toss-aways, that can be found on any webpage in the internet.

This is very disappointing. Science cannot operate on the basis that "reputation bestows authority": a mind capable of integrating the Schwinger and Feynman approaches to quantum electrodynamics should be able to master and present a fuller and fairer picture of the current state of the scientific understanding of global climate change with a few weeks of dedicated study. It is evident that Pf. Dyson has not taken the time for such study, preferring instead to coast on his reputation.

This is sad, both for the world and for his reputation.

Piltdown said...

"I don’t claim to be an expert. I never did. I simply find that a lot of these claims that experts are making are absurd. Not that I know better, but I know a few things. My objections to the global warming propaganda are not so much over the technical facts, about which I do not know much, but it’s rather against the way those people behave and the kind of intolerance to criticism that a lot of them have. I think that’s what upsets me."

http://e360.yale.edu/feature/freeman_dyson_takes_on_the_climate_establishment/2151/

Joel said...

Yeah...That is a very relevant comment from David Keith. I find it disappointing that some of my breathren physicists have such contempt for other fields of science that they just assume that things that occur to them haven't already been well-understood in the field.

Laughlin is a very bombastic guy. I have a couple funny stories involving him. One is that when I was going to give my first talk at an American Physical Society meeting, I was very nervous that the session chair was Bob Laughlin. I had seen him at a smaller meeting where he had been so disruptive that the chair of the meeting brought in a pie the next day, laid it on the table, and said something to the effect of , "Anybody who at any time wants to take this pie and throw it in Laughlin's face is welcome to do so." I kept telling people that I imagined that in the middle of my talk, Laughlin would say, "That's wrong." Well, the time came and I gave the talk and nothing happened; I answered the first question after the talk and nothing happened. Then, I answered the 2nd question and Laughlin wheels around and says, "That's not right!" (I quickly modified my statement slightly to be more technically correct.) Upon telling this story to others afterwards, another physicist had a nice way of looking at it. She said: "You imagined the worst thing that could happen. It happened. And, you survived just fine."

My second story is just to relate Laughlin's talk in honor of his Nobel Prize at the APS's big Centennial Meeting in 1999 in Atlanta. Apparently, one of the big particle physics guys (Steven Wienberg?) had given a talk earlier in the week in which he tried to say something nice about the rest of physics outside of particle physics but it ended up still being pretty insulting. So, Laughlin, never one to shy away from a fight, put up as one of his first slides a viewgraph that was titled, "Things that will not be explained by the final 'Theory of Everything'". I can't remember the whole list but the first four were "Earth, air, fire, water" and somewhere down the list were things like "chocolate" and "hippos". His point, which actually dovetailed very well with his topic of the fractional quantum hall effect, is that collective phenomena involving large numbers of particles give rise to effects that cannot be predicted by reducing it to the individual elements. In fact, he ended his talk with the statment "So, as we come to the end the 20th century, reductionism is finally dead!" It was classic!!

The point about such guys (if there is one in all this) is that they are very smart (and very entertaining!), but they are also very opinionated and are likely to have very strong opinions even about things that they really don't know much about.

JMurphy said...

Dyson also added his name to the rogues gallery of the usual suspects who sent a letter to the UN Secretary General before the Bali Climate Conference in 2007 which contained a textbook Gish Gallop of assertions :

Don't Fight, Adapt; We Should Give Up Futile Attempts to Combat Climate Change

Piltdown said...

"However, I think it is a misuse of their reputations as physicists to have folks like Dyson, Happer and Laughlin and publicly dismiss the underlying science without offering a technically substantive critique."

Do you also think it is a misuse of their reputations as scientists for them to publicly affirm the underlying science without understanding it themselves?

Tom Wigley once said "No scientist who wishes to maintain respect in the community should ever endorse any statement unless they have examined the issue fully themselves." And yet people with towering scientific reputations evidently do so on both sides of the debate.

But scientists also have the same right as non-scientists to express an unscientific opinion. Perhaps the problem is that we take reputations too seriously?

NnN said...

"The points Dyson makes are valid when discussing *public* climate science knowledge"

No they aren't.

It betrays gross ignorance of the subject on his part that he thinks CO2 radiative forcing being logarithmic is an argument against man-made global warming.

TLITB said...

NnN
“It betrays gross ignorance of the subject on his part that he thinks CO2 radiative forcing being logarithmic is an argument against man-made global warming.”

I won’t accuse you of betraying ignorance yourself there ;) I will speculate however that you have let your emotions get the better of you because you are clearly *asserting* something about Dyson that isn't true, and cannot be backed up.

NnN said...

"because you are clearly *asserting* something about Dyson that isn't true, and cannot be backed up."

That he thinks CO2 radiative forcing being logarithmic is an argument against man-made global warming pretty much follows from this:

"when I pressed him on the science the only thing he said was that CO2 radiative forcing was logarithmic and complained that nobody knows this or talks about it"

If it wasn't an argument against man-made global warming why would he complain that no-one talks about it? Why else would it matter?

TLITB said...

NnN
"If it wasn't an argument against man-made global warming why would he complain that no-one talks about it? Why else would it matter?"

I dunno, something to ponder isn't it? Though I am not persuaded by your powerful feelings of incredulity that there can only be one interpretation of Keith’s story. Keith reported the “pressing” of Dyson and he paraphrases Dyson’s response under this “pressing” interrogation. It isn’t detailed in anything more than a hearsay way. Since Dyson has never been credited with saying anything remotely like your "argument against man-made global warming" interpretation in any other place I’ve seen, why assume the most inflammatory interpretation of Dyson’s opinion here on such weak evidence? Unless it fulfils an emotional need of yours? Read my post again to understand my interpretation and lack of trust in the “shallowness” projected on Dyson in this story.

Although thanks for providng a little insight into how these legends gain legs. I guess now you can go citing Keith as “evidence” that Dyson said he thinks all climate scientists don’t know about CO2 log effect?

Or something roughly like that at the next telling ;)

Willis Eschenbach said...

Joel said...
Yeah...That is a very relevant comment from David Keith. I find it disappointing that some of my breathren physicists have such contempt for other fields of science that they just assume that things that occur to them haven't already been well-understood in the field.

Laughlin is a very bombastic guy. I have a couple funny stories involving him. One is that when I was going to give my first talk at an American Physical Society meeting, I was very nervous that the session chair was Bob Laughlin. I had seen him at a smaller meeting where he had been so disruptive that the chair of the meeting brought in a pie the next day, laid it on the table, and said something to the effect of , "Anybody who at any time wants to take this pie and throw it in Laughlin's face is welcome to do so." I kept telling people that I imagined that in the middle of my talk, Laughlin would say, "That's wrong." Well, the time came and I gave the talk and nothing happened; I answered the first question after the talk and nothing happened. Then, I answered the 2nd question and Laughlin wheels around and says, "That's not right!" (I quickly modified my statement slightly to be more technically correct.) Upon telling this story to others afterwards, another physicist had a nice way of looking at it. She said: "You imagined the worst thing that could happen. It happened. And, you survived just fine."


So ... Laughlin caught you in an error, and you corrected your error?

That's your funny story? Yeah, that's hilarious, all right.

w.

Anonymous said...

If I recall correctly, you can find pretty sophomoric statements from Dyson and Happer in print. Eg, Dyson bemoaning the lack of x, y, and z being included in climate models (I think in the NY Times article on him), when most of the examples he gave are in fact included in modern models, or Happer in his congressional testimony saying "it was warmer in the time of the dinosaurs, therefore, climate change is harmless, QED". Now, if you want to be really generous, standing on your head you could try and read their statements to not be totally ignorant, but that takes effort...

-MMM

charlesH said...

This post and comments are really too funny.

I agree, non-climate scientists don't make good climate scientists.

Real scientists believe in:

Theories backed up with reproducible experiments.

They think "climate" science is weak at best and frequently junk.

Dano said...

They think "climate" science is weak at best and frequently junk.

No they don't.

I would ask you to show your evidence, but of course you are just making it up.

Best,

D