Happy New Year: We are Now Part of Nature

My intention was for this to be a very positive blog, focusing on what I have learned during 2012 from my students and all the commentators that posted their comments on this blog, emailed me directly their comments or expressed them in any other form. There has been a lot for which to be thankful. I started this blog in April— I was reluctant to engage and totally inexperienced. The staff of LCG Communications  has encouraged me and held my hand along the way. Some of my students have added their comments here on issues that that were discussed in class, while another class, which was focused on adaptation to Climate Change in New York City, presents their findings on a web page.

A few days ago, my focus changed. I got an unsolicited email from an organization called Science and Environmental Policy Project (SEPP).

This organization was founded by Fred Singer in 1990 and is privately financed. It can be “safely” categorized as a denier site, even with all the reservations for the term that I wrote about in earlier blogs. The email was basically a solicitation for a contribution. I would have ignored it, however it started with a “quote of the week,” given below:

Quote of the Week:

Is this what science has become? I hope not. But it is what it will become, unless there is a concerted effort by leading scientists to aggressively separate science from policy. The late Philip Handler, former president of the National Academy of Sciences, said that “Scientists best serve public policy by living within the ethics of science, not those of politics. If the scientific community will not unfrock the charlatans, the public will not discern the difference-science and the nation will suffer.” Personally, I don’t worry about the nation. But I do worry about science.

Michael Crichton [H/t Gordon Fulks]

The quote, from Michael Crichton, refers to a quote from Gordon Fulks. Michael Crichton was a productive and great writer. He is a writer of bestsellers such as The Andromeda Strain (1969), Jurassic Park (1990), Rising Sun (1992), Timeline (1999) and Prey. I have read most of his books and greatly enjoyed them. He was a Medical Doctor that graduated from Harvard and did his postdoctoral training at the Salk Institute.  He died on November 2008. In 2004 he wrote The State of Fear, in which he accused scientists of being alarmists about Climate Change in order to increase their research grants. I have recommended that my Climate Change students read this book as an enjoyable entry to the deniers’ world. Crichton taught Anthropology and Writing, but he was not a practicing scientist.

Gordon Fulks was a physicist who served as an academic adviser to the Cascade Policy Institute. The following sentence, which caught my attention, is attributed to him: “Scientists best serve public policy by living within the ethics of science, not those of politics. If the scientific community will not unfrock the charlatans, the public will not discern the difference – science and the nation will suffer.” I don’t want to interpret the statement as a declaration that the ethics of scientists are “naturally” superior to those of politicians so I will interpret it as a call for the two to be separated. This presents a serious problem – if the call is to separate the two – why should the politicians fund the scientists?

One might argue that Michael Crichton  and/or Gordon Fulks have questionable qualifications to speak for science.

Well – I am member of a professional society whose members claim to be the ultimate culmination of science – the American Physical Society. A few weeks ago, I posted a blog (December 10) which described some of the reactions that I got from Physics faculty members during a seminar that I gave on Climate Change. A comment to this post suggested declaring that I would not consider a thoughtful response from anybody that hadn’t published at least two articles on Climate Change in peer reviewed publications. Such a “policy” would create a serious problem. I have argued before (May 7) that the last thing we need is to appoint climate scientists to be our epistemological lawyers. Physicists, regardless of their publication record, should have opinions on such issues and, like everybody else; they have a full right to be listened to.

I will climb higher: The American Physical Society (APS) is the professional home to about 50,000 physicists, me included. On November 18, 2007 they issued a statement about Climate Change, shown below.

Emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities are changing the atmosphere in ways that affect the Earth’s climate. Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide as well as methane, nitrous oxide and other gases. They are emitted from fossil fuel combustion and a range of industrial and agricultural processes. The evidence is incontrovertible: Global warming is occurring.

If no mitigating actions are taken, significant disruptions in the Earth’s physical and ecological systems, social systems, security and human health are likely to occur. We must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases beginning now. Because the complexity of the climate makes accurate prediction difficult, the APS urges an enhanced effort to understand the effects of human activity on the Earth’s climate, and to provide the technological options for meeting the climate challenge in the near and longer terms. The APS also urges governments, universities, national laboratories and its membership to support policies and actions that will reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.

Similar statements came from other scientific professional societies to constitute the evidence that “most” scientists do agree with the spirit of the statement.

Most is not all. Some very prominent physicists did not agree. Among them are such towering (but retired) physicists as Freeman Dyson and the Nobel winner Ivar Giaever, who left the Society as a result of the statement. This led to a petition to either retract the statement or to seriously modify it. The petition was overwhelmingly rejected by the membership (One blogger gave it 0.45% acceptance by the membership). However, as a direct result of this interest, a new division of the Society was formed that is dedicated to Climate Change. The new division is the “Topical Group on the Physics of Climate” (GPC). The following paragraph is a centerpiece of the guidelines to this new group:

The objective of the GPC shall be to promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge concerning the physics, measurement, and modeling of climate processes, within the domain of natural science and outside the domains of societal impact and policy, legislation and broader societal issues. The objective includes the integration of scientific knowledge and analysis methods across disciplines to address the dynamical complexities and uncertainties of climate physics. Broad areas of initial scientific inquiry are described in the Areas of Interest below. These are expected to evolve with scientific progress, while remaining entirely within the domain of natural science.

The first sentence in this paragraph is for me the key to the thinking:  “The objective of the GPC shall be to promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge concerning the physics, measurement, and modeling of climate processes, within the domain of natural science and outside the domains of societal impact and policy, legislation and broader societal issues” – in other words, ignore the human impact – concentrate on the science. This emphasis is being enforced in the guideline for submission of talks in a conference – “Contributed talks should focus on climate physics, without reference to issues of policy, legislation, or society. The Focus Session may include one or more invited presentations (from email distributed to members).”

This still, in my vocabulary, puts them in the deniers category (September 3 blog).

The high point in this saga can probably be found in the December issue of the journal “Physics Today,” the membership journal of the American Institute of Physics. To summarize 2012, the editors have tried to answer the question, “Which items on Physics Today’s website were the most popular in 2012?”.

Here is the direct quote from the email that I received as a member before delivery of the journal:

“The most popular item on Physics Today’s website in 2012 was not our coverage of the discovery of the Higgs boson or the announcement of the year’s Nobel Prize in Physics. The top spot went instead to David Kramer’s short news story, “NASA announces a new Mars mission,” which appeared on 22 August in the Politics and Policy department. Apparently, the story owes its popularity to being picked up by Reddit, a social news site. Of course, the story is also a concise and informative summary of a future mission!

Science controversies past and present

Besides the capriciousness of what gets picked by social media or online aggregators, online popularity lists also reveal what people care most about. The second most-viewed item in 2012 was a feature article from October 2011. In “Science controversies past and present,” Steven Sherwood placed anthropogenic climate change in the same category as Nicolaus Copernicus’s Sun-centric solar system and Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity—that is, as a once-controversial idea that would later become widely accepted. The possibility that anthropogenic climate change might be empirically vindicated riled some online readers enough to comment extensively on the article and to share it with their skeptical friends, acquaintances, and colleagues. The article continued to attract (mostly hostile) comments for months after it had originally appeared.

Richard Somerville and Susan Hassol’s feature article, “Communicating the science of climate change,” appeared in the same issue as Sherwood’s and was the third most viewed article of 2012. The most recent comment was posted last month! In fifth place came Steven Corneliussen’s Science and the Media column about a news story in the 27 April issue of Science magazine. The story’s topic was a claim, published in Physical Review Letters, that the classic formula for the Lorentz force is inconsistent with Einstein’s special theory of relativity. Corneliussen is not a physicist, but evidently his journalistic nose for provocative science proved acute.

More climate change

“You should resign, and if you don’t, I’ll work to see that you are fired” is one example of the threats that climate scientists have received for claiming, on the basis of their experiments, simulations, and theories, that humanity’s emission of greenhouse gases is warming Earth’s troposphere. Physics Today’s Toni Feder reported on those threats and the impact they’re having on climate scientists’ lives for February’s Issues and Events department.

Her story was the sixth most-viewed item in 2012. Like the magazine’s other coverage of climate change, it attracted vitriolic comments, including this one, which, while seeking to downplay the story, inadvertently exemplified the hostility that climate scientists face:

“Oh, puleeeeze…”

I think that being put into the same category as “Nicolaus Copernicus’ Sun-centric solar system and Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity” is a great place to start 2013.

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About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.

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One Response to Happy New Year: We are Now Part of Nature

  1. ntariqul says:

    Hi, I want to cordially thanks Mr. Climatechagnefork for his great achievement about physics & science. But I am very glad to read your this great article. I hope which people will read your article he achieve some great things from you. All the best.

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