The unbearably low standards in "basics of science" at MIT
The Boston Globe recently published an exchange between legendary physicist Freeman Dyson and eight of his opponents who are employed by MIT, including a quark expert and a string theorist:
Misunderstandings, questionable beliefs mar Paris climate talksThe second, anti-Dyson text was written by the hurricane opportunist Kerry Emanuel and by Robert Jaffe, a veteran of quark theory, and it was signed by 6 more MIT employees. In total, 3 of the people are physicists; the list includes string theorist Wati Taylor.
So much more is understood about climate change than skeptic admits
It is very obvious that to pretend that they have debunked Dyson, they felt that they have needed to collect a larger number of "authorities". The logic based on the "ad hominem fallacy" makes the anti-Dyson reply totally analogous to the 1931 pseudoscientific rant against relativity that was named A Hundred Authors Against Einstein. These 2nd class authors wanted to return physics to the 16th or 17th century and Einstein replied in a simple way: "If relativity were wrong, one author would have been enough to show it."
Richard Lindzen (who happens to be one man) wrote an insightful and amusing third-person analysis of the exchange between Dyson and 8 MIT employees at Anthony Watts' well-known website:
Lindzen: A recent exchange in the Boston Globe clearly illustrated the sophistic nature of the defense of global warming alarmDyson and Lindzen are climate skeptics which doesn't mean that they uncritically repeat the words of each other.
On the contrary, most climate skeptics typically avoid the group think and that's true even "inside" the climate skeptic community. Lindzen's report shows an example of that characteristic independence. When Dyson and Lindzen disagree with each other, I mostly agree with Dick although I am not as pure a Lindzen as he is. ;-)
The most obvious point of a disagreement between Dyson and Lindzen is that Dyson says that the IPCC says that the science (of climate change) is settled; and it's the IPCC that is the Urquell of the efforts to reduce CO2 emissions. Lindzen says that the IPCC says that the science is work in progress (because the IPCC members' salaries are derived from the assumption that they keep on doing research so it can't be settled yet); and the IPCC avoids policy recommendations and dramatic interpretations which are only later added by activists and politicians. The IPCC only cooperates passively by not objecting.
I think that Lindzen's description is the more accurate one. The actual IPCC reports are written by people hired as scientists so they simply can't pretend that the science is over because that would make their daily job redundant. And yes, I do think that the actual IPCC reports are mostly filled with regular science, sometimes boring science and often legitimate science, and the dramatic oversimplified alarmist interpretations are added as a bonus by "leaders" and especially "outsiders".
Well, it's more complicated than that. The bulk of the IPCC reports are "conventional, often boring science" but that bulk isn't too important. The summaries are way more important and they're way more policy-oriented, hysterical, and oversimplified. And even the summaries are considered too long and complicated by too many people, including most of the alarmist politicians, so these effectively work with even more concise (and oversimplified, distorted, and dramatic) summaries of the summaries. And with summaries of summaries of summaries – which are equivalent to idiotic hysterical slogans that have almost nothing to do with the science.
Moreover, one shouldn't forget that the IPCC has three working groups – and only the first one (focusing on the physical mechanisms of the "problem") fully agrees with Dick's description. The other two IPCC working groups are increasingly social and political in character. For these other two working groups, Dyson's description is increasingly close to the truth.
There's one additional point where I totally agree with Dick. The main problem with the alarmist interpretation of the climate science isn't the magnitude of the climate sensitivity (although I find Lindzen's own below-1-Celsius-degree values to be more likely than those above 2 degrees); the main problem is that many people love to deduce far-reaching, sensational consequences out of the effect of CO2 even though the effect is almost certainly very minor even according to the IPCC reports themselves.
The "refined" statement about the important role of the humans in global warming is formulated by the IPCC Working Group 1 as:
The IPCC report presents strong evidence that more than half of the climate change seen in recent decades is human-driven.And many people tend to use the agreement or disagreement with the statement above as a criterion to distinguish alarmists from skeptics. Well, like Lindzen, I consider myself a full-fledged denier but I am totally open-minded about the quote above. In my opinion, people just don't think carefully and rationally about the sentence above.
Imagine that the sentence speaks about the recent 60 years or so. In those 60 years, the global mean temperature could have increased by something like 0.6 °C – that's the end-minus-beginning difference of a linear function interpolating the noisy temperature graphs via linear regression. With these values, the IPCC WG1 "iconic" statement says
The IPCC believes that the mankind has contributed at least 0.3 °C of warming of the globe in the recent 60 years.Is it true? I honestly don't know. My estimate is that the right figure is probably below 0.3 °C but the degree of my "certainty" about that claim is very limited, not strongly exceeding 50 percent. In other words, as far as I can say, the sentence may be either true or false. But if the sentence is true, does it mean that there is a reason for panic or reductions of CO2 emissions justified by the fear of climate change? The sentence just says that since 1955 when most of the TRF readers weren't born yet, the temperatures have increased by three tenths of a Celsius degree because of CO2 (only the partial CO2 contribution is counted in the temperature figure). This is such a small temperature change that you just can't feel it on your skin even when it occurs abruptly. It's much harder to "feel it" if you have to wait for 60 years; and if you need to deduce the value from careful measurements and statistical analyses (averaging over the places, days+nights, and seasons) of the temperatures on the whole globe.
Many people, including those who consider themselves skeptics, just become totally irrational when they're expected to think about these matters. The point is that this change of the temperature by 0.3 °C – and IPCC doesn't really claim to be too convinced about any "faster" warming trend – is indistinguishable from zero for all practical purposes. It's a temperature change smaller than the effect of one large volcano eruption; one El Niño episode.
Or take our very mild winter. We Central Europeans had a nice spring day today; the temperature has reached 11 °C in the afternoon. People living in the Eastern part of the U.S. can say something similar; the western portions of the U.S. enjoy a rather old-fashioned winter, however.
But now, it's natural for many people to think about the mild winter in the context of the man-made climate change. By the constant repetition, people's intuitive thinking – including mine – has been contaminated and we just can't avoid thinking about "global warming" whenever the weather is mild or hot. The problem with that knee-jerk reaction is that the iconic IPCC statement is just "somewhat convinced" that in the last 60 years, the CO2 emissions have contributed at least 0.3 °C. It means that if there had been no CO2 emissions, the today's high temperature in Pilsen would be – according to the IPCC statement – not 11 °C but at most 10.7 °C. Look at these two numbers carefully.
The qualitative point is that according to the scientifically justifiable evidence, the CO2 emissions have had such a small effect on the temperature that if there had been no emissions since the World War II at all, it would make virtually no impact on the fact that the 2015 Christmas had no chance to be a white Christmas in Pilsen! Even if the CO2 sensitivity were 3 times higher than that, we would have over 8 °C in the afternoon and the snow (if any) would have no chance to survive.
Dick's point, one that I totally agree with, is that even according to the IPCC Working Group 1, the CO2 effect is so incredibly weak that it just wouldn't make any detectable difference for the qualitative things that matter – like a sunny Czech Christmas in 2015. We have had winds mostly from the South for a week or two and that makes a difference, especially during a very strong El Niño episode.
But I have spent too much time with the "flavors of skeptics". In various contexts, I feel closest to Richard Lindzen or Bob Carter or other great men. Needless to say, most of the actual confrontation and disagreement isn't in between pairs of skeptics; it's between skeptics and the alarmists.
Lindzen says that the reply by the 8 MIT physicists is "sophistic". I think that the shallow reply by Wati Taylor and his 7 comrades could be written on an MIT placemat – what you, an MIT freshman, should tell your family and uncle about the climate change during the Christmas conversations. I am really baffled that e.g. Wati Taylor isn't ashamed of adding his signature under similarly incredibly misleading and sometimes downright false slogans. This is just so pathetic, Wati. And something is extremely sick about the MIT physics department when you fail to become an instant anti-science pariah with this kind of junk.
For example, take the simple and absolutely uncontroversial statement at the end of Dyson's article that "the main effect of CO2 is to make the planet greener". Taylor and 7 comrades obviously find this statement to be an inconvenient truth so they try to hide it in a bizarre demagogic fog such as
The proposal that the “main effect of carbon dioxide is to make the planet greener” overlooks the constraints imposed by the availability of other nutrients and the disruption of the biosphere caused by the direct effects of climate change.Wati, can't you see how incredibly demagogic, dumb, and misleading such a comment about "overlooked constraints" is? Dyson has said just something that every fifth grader should or must know before she becomes a sixth grader. Plants eat CO2. In the process of photosynthesis, with the help of the solar energy coming to the leaves, the oxygen and carbon atoms are separated while CO2 is removed from the atmosphere, the chemical energy of the atoms increases by the separation (it's just like when you are recharging a battery; the carbon and oxygen atoms are ready to be usefully "burned" by animals or power plants), the carbon atoms are incorporated to the plants' biomass, and the oxygen is returned to the air.
It's obvious that because CO2 is the main material from which the "solid" part of the plants is ultimately built (no, the big tree hasn't removed the same amount of "solid" material from the soil, it took the "solid" material mostly from the air!), a higher concentration of CO2 makes the life of the plants easier. Some plant species are very sensitive about the shortage of CO2; other species are less sensitive. An "average" plant's growth increases by 0.5% whenever you increase the concentration of CO2 in the air by 1%.
Microscopically, the plants like a higher CO2 concentration because their pores may be smaller or less numerous and it's still enough to get the required amount of CO2 from the air (when and because the CO2 levels are higher). And when the pores are smaller or less numerous, the leaves lose less water vapor – which evaporates through the pores. In this way, the plants become more water-efficient and less sensitive to shortage of water and that's the ultimate reason why they flourish in high-CO2 environments.
Hundreds of experiments have been performed and hundreds of papers have been written about these most direct effects of CO2. There exist greenhouses where the higher CO2 is actively exploited. And I think that there may exist schoolkids who actually know much more than the basic wisdom I have sketched above. Now, Wati, are you smarter than a fifth grader? Do you want to avoid the discussion of all the details by denying the very basic point by Dyson that the increased plant growth is the most direct effect of higher CO2 concentrations? Can you appreciate how incredibly stupid this denial is? Are there any people left at MIT who are smarter than a fifth grader and who will point out to you that you may be a string theorist but when it comes to basics of biology, you are just a complete, 100% imbecile?
And it's not just your straight denial of photosynthesis as the main life process that depends on CO2 levels in the air. There are tons of other, incredibly stupid slogans in your rant – some of them are written down explicitly and some of them are written down implicitly. In the sentence in which you denied photosynthesis (and claimed that Dyson has "overlooked" something – be sure that he hasn't overlooked anything when his point was just to make the spectacularly obviously correct claim about photosynthesis), you also wrote about "the disruption of biosphere caused by the direct effects of the climate change".
What? Have you lost your mind?
There is absolutely nothing "direct" about the hypothetical effects of CO2 on the plant's life through meteorological phenomena. According to the IPCC, the elevated CO2 levels only increase the global mean temperature by more than 0.3 °C in 60 years with a probability just barely exceeding 50%, according to their estimate. It is spectacularly clear that a change of the temperature by 0.3 °C in either direction has a negligible effect on a plant relatively to the change of the amount of the available "food" by 40%.
Just think about it from a human perspective. Imagine that you solve similar problems as a plant. You ate something last week. Next week, you may either have the same amount of food and the temperatures higher or lower than 0.3 °C; or you may enjoy the same temperature but the amount of available food (I mean sugars, fats, and proteins) you may eat will drop by 30 or 40 percent. Which change is more important or more directly consequential for your well-being, (a) a temperature change by 0.3 °C or (b) the decrease of food supply by 30 or 40 percent? Do you realize that by your unhinged anti-Dyson rant, you have picked the answer (a)? Are you serious?
Now, there are other nutrients beyond sugars, fats, and proteins that humans need. Does it change anything about the fact that the change of the amount of sugars, fats, and proteins available to you by 30-40 percent is the most consequential change among those we have considered? If you realize that the answer is a resounding "no, it changes nothing", why the hell do you mention other nutrients at all? You're just trying to make people look at some distractions instead of the key thing and you must know that, mustn't you? Or are you really a complete idiot?
And be sure about it, the greenhouse effect of CO2 causes a pretty much uniform warming across the Earth's surface. It's because by the diffusion, the CO2 concentration gets quickly homogeneous; and the greenhouse effect controls the absorption of Earth's thermal radiation which is always comparable at relatively nearby places of the Earth – because the thermal radiation is proportional to the fourth power of the absolute temperature.
The greenhouse effect doesn't change much about pressure and temperature differences, vortices, storms, precipitation etc. If there is any influence of the mostly uniform change on the more visible weather phenomena, it's a spectacularly small 2nd or 3rd order effect. Even the 1st order effect, a change of the temperature by "at least 0.3 °C", was almost certainly negligible. Now try to calculate the non-uniformities of the greenhouse effect and its impact on pressure differences or the ability to increase torrential rains or hurricanes that can influence a plant. Can these effects be stronger than a 40% increase of the main "food"? Is your brain enough to see that those influences of CO2 through the weather patterns are absolutely negligible relatively to the change of the food by 40%? If you're not, I won't really believe that it is you who wrote the papers about string theory. In that case, you are dumb as a doorknob and you must have someone else who was writing them and you are declared as the author because author lists with unhinged climate alarmists in them look more politically correct.
And the problems with the rant that you signed go on and on and on. The rant is very short but literally every sentence contains several explosive stupidities and easy-to-spot demagogy. You are basically working hard to deny all basic facts about Earth and life sciences, along with tons of basics of physics – the importance of photosynthesis, the importance of the Sun for the climate, the fact that ice ages bring a much more substantial cooling than the warming caused by CO2, the fact that some known episodes of climate change in the past have occurred within decades so it's simply not true that it always takes thousands of years. You also try to deny the self-evident point that every individual human and animal is capable of instantaneous adaptation to the temperature change by a degree or two. Your pretty much explicit claim that one needs thousands of years to adapt to 1 °C of warming is absolutely idiotic so that the intelligent third graders will see it, too.
Moreover, your vague suggestion that the humans and other species are significantly evolving in the timeframe of thousands of years (during the glaciation cycles) – when the temperature changes by several degrees – is mostly rubbish, too. Real revolution occurs much more slowly than the glaciation cycles. Glaciation cycles take tens or at most hundreds of years; evolution normally needs millions of years. No significant biological evolution has been taking place in between the phases of the glaciation cycles; at most, one race of subspecies etc. became more widespread than others.
Even though the anti-Dyson rant is so short, this essay could continue for hours.
It just drives me up the wall how incredibly lousy intellectual standards are routinely tolerated e.g. in the MIT physics department when some politically correct "causes" are being defended. You know, communism has been crippling our society and the nation's morality in many ways but I honestly don't remember a single example of Czechoslovak communists' distorting influence of the natural sciences that could be at least remotely compared to the climate alarmists' distortions of photosynthesis, ice ages, solar output, sensitivity of plants on the temperature, CO2, nutrients, water, whatever. The only good enough analogy I can think of is the ban of genetics in the Soviet Union. I am sure that you love to suggest that you're better than the Lysenkoists but you are not.
The authors of the anti-Dyson rant in the Boston Globe should be deeply ashamed and I encourage their students to spit into the authors' faces and to demand a significant discount if they pay a tuition.