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