Denial among physicists, part 2

Today I continue my account of my experience with climate denial among physicists at a conference I attended a few weeks ago. The first installment of this account is here. There were three outspoken deniers at the conference, two of whose talks I heard. This post is about the interaction I had with the third one. This interaction began at the end of the first talk of the conference.

The speaker, a relatively young climate scientist, presented a piece of research using numerical models to assess how various human influences (including but not limited to greenhouse gases) affected a particular aspect of the 20th century climate record in the United States. The questioner, the physicist about whom I’m writing today – let’s call him Denier 3 – raised his hand at the end and asked if the speaker had considered the criticisms of climate models made by a scientist not present at this conference, a climate scientist famous for his denialist position (let’s call him “Famous Denier”). This telegraphed the views of Denier 3, not least because the substance of the question was only tangentially related to the substance of the talk, and thus came across as a broadside against the field of climate science as a whole.

In the course of his question, Denier 3 also volunteered information about himself. Climate science was not his field; he had spent his career (he was clearly quite senior) in another area of physics.

There was another talk, and then a coffee break. During the break, Denier 3 was talking with the first speaker, to whom he had asked his question. The speaker was the only person I knew at this conference, and they were standing straight ahead of me as I walked out the door of the auditorium, so I joined their conversation. They were again discussing the views of Famous Denier. I volunteered that in the 90s (when the evidence was a little less overwhelming than today, and Famous Denier could still be characterized as a skeptic posing criticisms of the mainstream view that had some legitimate substance) Famous Denier’s position on climate had some honor, but that it didn’t any more.

Denier 3 said “Your field is very prone to ad hominem attacks.”[1] I answered, not trying to disguise my irritation, “Oh, please. Give me a break.”

We talked a little more. It was quite clear that we disagreed about a lot, but neither of us was speaking in heated tones. Denier 3 said that in his career he had done research on topics in physics that were related to developing climate adaptation measures. He was of the view that climate change was happening, but he was not convinced it was human-induced. In the organization he worked for, he said, they had decided that since the human role in climate change was controversial, they had decided to focus instead on what we could do to adapt to it, rather than worrying about reducing greenhouse gas emissions. I answered that adaptation measures are fine, but that the notion that the influence of human greenhouse gas emissions is significant – to the point of having been responsible for the majority of the observed warming in the 20th century – is not controversial within the community of actual climate scientists. It’s controversial only in the view of some people outside the field who refuse to accept the results of climate science.

I went on to say that it frustrated me that some physicists, in particular, believed that because they had some expertise in other areas of physics, they could understand climate science better than practicing climate scientists, even without having studied the evidence or methodologies of climate science carefully. I characterized this as an arrogant attitude. I was careful at that point to say that I was not necessarily attributing this arrogant view to Denier 3, to whom I was speaking (although by this point it was clear that he did in fact hold this view). Denier 3 said “And your view is not arrogant?” I said “My view is that those who spend all their time studying a given problem have a better claim to knowledge about it than those who don’t. If that strikes you as arrogant, then you can consider me arrogant.”

Denier 3 told me that he was involved in a study group on climate within the American Physical Society. He asked me if I would be willing to attend his study group and discuss the science there, possibly with people whose views were contrary to my own[2]. I answered that there were already many study groups on climate – that in fact, we have a whole field of people who do nothing but study climate, and they already gather in many groups, and have been doing so for many years, not least of which is the IPCC. I asked what was different or better about his group than all of the others.

Denier 3 said that he wanted to “figure out the Hamiltonian of the climate.” The original speaker (the young climate scientist) and I at first thought Denier 3 meant this literally. The Hamiltonian is a concept from physics that applies to many problems, and in fact some have tried to apply it to aspects of atmosphere and ocean physics; we mentioned these attempts and said that while one could pursue this avenue, we didn’t think it would be useful for the problem of global warming, for reasons we stated very briefly.

Denier 3 said that he had meant his statement about the Hamiltonian as a “pun”[3]. He said “Let’s figure out the Hamiltonian before doing vertex corrections.” After this clarification that he didn’t mean it literally, we understood this as physicist language for solving the more basic and fundamental problem before moving on to details. Though neither of us interrupted right then to say it, the implication that climate scientists don’t already think this way – that we somehow are focused on details without seeing the big picture – is both false and insulting, implying again that we are somehow inferior to those in other areas of physics. Denier 3 continued that what he really meant was “Let’s study the climate.” I said “We do study the climate. A whole field of us, many many people, has been doing this for many decades. You think you are the first to think of this? You think it has not been done?” He said “I don’t know what has been done.” I said “Well perhaps you should find out!”

I think this captures the essence of it. Physicist admits that he doesn’t know much about climate science, and yet feels justified in dismissing the consensus view that has come out of that field. Physicist believes that what is needed is for a real physicist like himself to just sit down and study the climate. When told that many people – a large fraction of them trained in physics – have been doing this for many years, physicist does not find this relevant information. (Denier 3 gave no indication that my statements to him would influence his views, even though he offered no counter argument other than to again accuse me, when I objected strongly to another one of his statements, of “ad hominem attacks”.) What is this if not denial?

I do not believe that most physicists, and certainly not a majority of the best ones, think as this person does. I do not think most of the physicists at this conference think this way – none of those I spoke with, other than the three already mentioned, did. I believe that most physicists respect the work of their colleagues in climate science, as they would respect the work of their colleagues in any field of physical science. Whatever questions they may have, whatever skepticism or uncertainty, they don’t believe it is appropriate to publicly challenge the hard-earned consensus view of an entire field without first doing their homework.

(The public position of the APS is one of agreement with the mainstream view of climate science, as of its last public statement on the matter . A new statement is in the works now; I will be very surprised if the essence of it changes, even though the APS has bent over backwards to accommodate denialist views in the process leading up to that new statement.)

But when it comes to those physicists who do hold denialist views on climate without having either done any research in the field or read the existing research, it’s that lack of respect that angers me. I try to imagine what the reaction would be if physicists in another (non-climate) area – say, quantum computing – were to hold a conference, and physicists from yet another area – let’s say, high-energy nuclear physics – were to show up at their conferences and tell them, without having read up carefully on quantum computing, and lacking the knowledge to make substantive criticisms of the mainstream views in that field (beyond, perhaps, superficial ones that had already been exhaustively addressed and refuted in the quantum computing literature), that they had it all wrong. I don’t think it would go over too well. Why is it ok to do it with climate scientists – who are, after all, nothing other than applied physicists who focus their research on the atmosphere and ocean?

[1] I don’t know much Latin, and I couldn’t have cited at that time the exact meaning of “ad hominem”. I knew that it meant a personal attack of some kind, and that that was an inappropriate description of my statement – or at least, a cheap way to avoid having to defend the actual content of Famous Denier’s views. It struck me as a form of the appeal to “civility”, a well-worn tactic for derailing debates about important things into arguments about tone rather than substance. I looked it up later, though and indeed ad hominem describes a statement about someone’s views which derives its negativity from association of those views with the negative attributes of the person holding them. It is the opposite of the appeal to authority, in which one claims something must be right because someone who should know said it. My statement was not ad hominem at all. I did imply something negative about the character of Famous Denier, but only because of his public views, not vice versa.

[2] The invitation to debate is another standard denialist tactic. It carries the implication that climate science is otherwise free of debate, and that denialist views, rather than having lost the argument by the standard processes of science, have instead been suppressed by some form of political correctness.

[3] A pun means a play on words; I don’t see one here.


One thought on “Denial among physicists, part 2

  1. Surprisingly, I find this arrogant attitude is prevailing among some physicists I spoke with in multiple occasions, especially those who do theoretical high-energy physics. And I can recall that feeling of anger that occupied me when I got engaged in a discussion about human-induced climate change with them. Puns were always their “cheap” maneuver to exit the debate. They always think they are smarter than others, and they lack respect to other fields (if not to each other, too!).
    The fact of the matter is, they are lagging behind what I call “modern and important science”. Not only that but they are also lagging behind all modern aspects of life.

    I would attribute this to the fact that theoretical physics, particle physics in particular, is not BIG science anymore as it was in the 60s, and does not have big societal impacts as do climate change and cancer research, for example. In turn, less funding and less job opportunities have led to this attitude to defend their field.

    They, some how, remind me of Russia after the crumbling of the Soviet Union and losing the cold war to the US (or the west), which caused the global political-economical dynamics to shift from communism and socialism to democracy and capitalism. A new world order!

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