Denial among physicists, part 1

This past Friday and Saturday I attended the annual meeting of the New York State Section of the American Physical Society, at the State University of New York in Plattsburgh. This meeting is held once per year, with a different specialized topic every year. I had never been before; the topic usually has little  to do with my field. This time, though, the topic was “Physics of the Atmosphere and Climate”. The organizers invited me, and I went. I thought it would be interesting to meet some of my colleagues from physics departments in my home state. Also, I love the Adirondacks, the mountains near Plattsburgh.

It was a very small conference, maybe 30 people in the room. There were a total of ten talks. Of the speakers, only four, by my count – including me – were active researchers in atmospheric or climate science, by which I mean people with a recent record of publishing research articles in this field. The others appeared either not to be active researchers at all (they were college or university faculty whom I assume hold pure teaching positions), or researchers in other areas of physics.

I bring up the expertise and research activity of the participants because it was also unusual in my experience. Most scientific conferences I attend are held for the sole purpose of sharing research results within a specific field (or sometimes, a set of closely related fields). The participants, consequently, tend to be researchers in that field. They expect to be held to a high standard of evidence and argument, because they know the room will be full of other researchers with expertise in their field.

The defining feature of this conference for me turned out to be climate denial. I had not encountered this before, to this degree and of this kind, in my professional life. (Richard Lindzen was one of my teachers in graduate school, and I came to know him quite well; that was different, in several ways, and is a topic for another time.) There really is a consensus among climate scientists; while one can hear much debate about many issues at any scientific conference in our field, I have never heard wholesale rejection of that consensus at one. I had not expected it here either, at a conference of physicists. Perhaps, in hindsight, I should have. In any case, I was genuinely stunned at first.

At least three of the participants at the meeting – all three of them speakers, so their talks formed a significant fraction of the program – were deniers[1]. I heard two of their talks; I missed the third because I had made a prior commitment that required leaving a little early. The third speaker, however, made his views clear in questions and comments to other presenters throughout the meeting, and I also spoke with him in the hallway outside the auditorium during one of the breaks.

Today I will describe the first of the two talks that I heard by these speakers.

This speaker was a physics faculty member who, judging from his web page, does not seem to be active in research of any kind. His career appears to consist entirely of public communications of various sorts decrying “global warming alarmism”.

The talk was almost entirely without relevant facts. I don’t mean that that I disagreed with his interpretations of such facts as he presented (though that is certainly true) but that for almost the entire talk, he didn’t present any facts that were relevant to a critique of mainstream climate science, as practiced by scientists and published in the scientific literature.

Much of the talk consisted of general statements about the scientific method. (“If a theory doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s false.”) The innuendo seemed to be that mainstream climate scientists don’t follow that method. Almost no evidence was presented to back up this claim. This speaker did critique statements about climate science, but these statements were taken mostly from non-scientific sources.

The speaker pointed out an error in a children’s book about climate change. He pointed out what he claimed was an error in a Greenpeace protest sign. The statement on the sign was “CO2 kills”. The speaker argued that this was wrong, because humans are not harmed by breathing the small concentrations of carbon dioxide that exist in the present atmosphere. (This is true, but a totally irrelevant canard, though one often brought up by the crudest deniers. Nobody serious – including Greenpeace, I suspect – argues anything different. The problem with human-induced increases in CO2 is that they warm the climate, and also that they acidify the ocean, but not that the higher levels of CO2 are harmful to humans directly.) He showed a page of links that came up in a google search he had done on climate (I can’t remember the exact search term) and critiqued that.

At a couple of points, this speaker did present actual data on issues which have been subjects of legitimate debate in climate science. In both cases – I counted two slides of this type, in a talk over thirty minutes long containing about that many slides – the substance was grossly mischaracterized. By this I mean that the speaker raised a criticism of the mainstream view of anthropogenic global warming which is old, and which has been addressed and answered exhaustively in the literature, without mentioning those answers. In neither case was a peer-reviewed source cited. To critique the IPCC report, the author did not show a figure from it and explain what was wrong with it. Instead he showed the aforementioned figure from a children’s book – whose caption, the author claimed (and I will grant without checking, for the sake of argument), contained an error – and one figure obtained from another well-known denier. I assume the latter figure was unpublished, as no published source was cited, only the name of the person who had provided it, in the form “from (person’s name)”.

This speaker spoke admiringly of several well-known deniers, including Fred Singer. Fred Singer is a physicist with a long career as a denier on every environmental and public health issue of the last half century for which government regulation threatened to become (and eventually was) a solution[2]. Singer argued in the 1960s that cigarette smoking did not cause cancer, authoring pseudoscientific reports for the tobacco industry to cast doubt on all the reports written by the panels of scientists which concluded that cigarettes did cause cancer. Now he is an author of the “NIPCC Report”, the parallel pseudoscientific report on climate. (I have a copy on my desk at the office; the sponsors seem to have sent a copy to every climate scientist whose mailing address they could obtain.) The speaker urged the audience to read the NIPCC report.

When the talk was over and it was time for questions, a couple of the other scientists in the room challenged the speaker with questions and comments that clearly indicated disagreement, but were stated fairly calmly. I raised my hand after them, and stated my objections in an angry tone of voice. I told the speaker that if he believed there was something wrong with the entire peer-reviewed climate science literature (including the IPCC) – as he clearly did – then, this being a meeting of the American Physical Society, he should directly critique that scientific literature, instead of spending the majority of his time on children’s books, non sequiturs from Greenpeace signs, the results of google searches, and platitudes about the scientific method. I said that he should pick on someone his own size.

In the next post I will describe the second denialist talk that I heard, my response to it, and the conversation I had with the third denier in the hallway outside. Today I will just say that I showed visible anger in all three exchanges. While that anger was genuine, it was not so overpowering that I couldn’t have stayed quiet. I could have, and seriously considered doing so. My ultimate decision to respond in the way I did was conscious. I am still thinking about whether it was the right response. So far, I still think it was.

In the next post (or maybe the one after) I will try to articulate why I think this, but for now I recommend this article. The title is about “funders and foundations”, and I am neither, but the arguments apply more broadly.

[1] I no longer use the term “skeptics” to describe those who do not accept the basic conclusion of the overwhelming majority of climate scientists that humans are causing significant global warming. A skeptic is someone who needs to see all the evidence and consider it carefully before being convinced. I do not see how an intellectually honest person can deny the reality of anthropogenic global warming after carefully considering all the evidence. The only way I can see arriving at such a position is either to be unaware of the full body of evidence (intentionally or otherwise; but if someone with a public profile on the issue is ignorant of the evidence, it has to be at least partly intentional), to deny the validity of that evidence (“climate scientists’ jobs, funding etc. depend on scaring the public about global warming, so I don’t believe what they say”), or to be unable or unwilling to use logic to draw conclusions. Taking a public position on the basis of any of these is not skepticism, it’s denial.


[2] Merchants of Doubt, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, 2010, Bloomsbury.


8 thoughts on “Denial among physicists, part 1

  1. Some physicists may suffer from a certain amount of chauvinism concerning the more empirical sciences comprising most of the research in climate science, however, that is not the problem here. Here the deniers are simply disreputable bought off shills.

    Bret Cahill

  2. Bret, I don’t know or assume that these particular individuals were bought off in any literal sense. I did get some physics chauvinism from them, and I will write more about that soon. But just briefly here –

    Actually climate science is not much more empirical than many other branches of applied physics. The main difference is that we don’t have controlled experiments (other than in computer models); but neither does astrophysics, for example. And to the extent it is more empirical, it’s because of the nature of the problems we are trying to solve with what information we have.

    But yes, the attitude (explicit or implicit) among some physicists – I believe a minority, but an outspoken one – seems to be that if they were to think about our problems for just a little while, they could solve them quickly, because they are smarter than we are, having worked in “real” physics. We climate scientists – a large fraction of whom (including me) were trained in physics departments for some or all of our education – find this incredibly arrogant, and to be evidence mainly that those holding this view have not bothered to learn much if anything about the nature of the problems in climate science.

    Those physicists who become interested enough to work in climate science seriously, on the other hand, generally either lack this arrogance or lose it quickly, and simply become climate scientists like the rest of us.

  3. I’ve noticed a lot of similar pseudo-skepticism (my choice of phrase, defined in various philosophical works such as here ) among physicists and engineers. One of the disappointing aspects of all of this is the repetition of sound-bytes, all of which are logically or scientifically bankrupt upon just casual inspection. These arguments do not emanate from the minds of brilliance who have spent careful time thinking about a subject.

    ” Being a smart physicist can just give you more elaborate ways to delude yourself and others, along with the arrogance to think you can do so without taking the time to really understand the subject you are discussing. “- Ray Pierrehumbert

  4. Perhaps you’re just seeing that the consensus is not so much of a consensus after all? After all these are highly trained scientists themselves, they know as much about the scientific method as any other scientists. Do you think Darwin had a consensus amongst scientists of his generation about the theory of evolution? No, he had to argue his case, over and over again, and convince them one by one, until most people just understood the logic of it. I don’t think that sort of debate has even taken place inside climate science. If it has, then point out any famous early debates that took place between scientists about this?

  5. Joseph, your comment is a good example of denialist argument – claim of lack of consensus, citation of “highly trained scientists” (who however do not work in climate science and do not confront the evidence in any genuine way), spurious claim that there has not been debate, disingenuous request for information that is already exhaustively publicly available. From this point on, I will not allow comments of this sort through moderation. They will not appear on my blog. In a near future post, I will use your comment as an example to explain why not.

    • Adam, you demonstrate exactly the reason why people are unwilling to believe in your own brand of climate alarmism. People can sense when they’re being railroaded towards an opinion. When you impugn the reputation of scientists that don’t happen to agree with your point of view, as somehow being less qualified than the scientists that you agree with, people sense that this has more to do with problems in social sciences (peer pressure, bullying, gossiping, etc.) than physical sciences. And notice that you’re already ready to cut off debate with your moderation tool.

      • Physicists are not automatically expert in every other physical science and their criticisms of climate science have no weight. Would you let allergist remove a tumor from your brain? Furthermore, because the allergist has an MD, does that put him in the position to advise the surgeon on operating technique? Scientist (including physicists of all varieties) outside of climate are not less qualified, they are NOT qualified.

  6. Pingback: Semantics – Climate Skeptic vs. Denier | Walter Hannah

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