Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Breaking! Physicist Discovers 1990s Climate Science!

I'm not going to say much about Richard Muller's enlightenment on climate science. If you want links and some rather conventional commentary, you can find them here.

The problem I see with what Muller has done is the message it sends to the climate "skeptic" community: yes, you really should figure it all out yourself.

In terms of science, Muller and his team have contributed a very tiny bit to the evaluation of the temperature record. That's fine; another confirmation is always good, but far from worthy of an op-ed in the New York Times. Although apparently they are having some trouble getting their papers through review.

Many physicists are convinced that they can evaluate all other parts of science. Their reasoning is that, since physics looks at basic issues of science, all other science is derived from it. This is true in that quantum mechanics, a part of physics, underlies chemistry, and chemistry underlies biology, and so on. Much of engineering can be thought of as applied physics. Climate science deals in heat and mass transfer, chemistry, and some biology around the edges. So it's all just detail once you know physics, right?

Well, not quite. It seems that the physicists can't calculate much about chemical reactions, let along how DNA reproduces. But scientists in those other disciplines have developed ways of understanding chemical reactions, the relationships within species, and heat and mass transfer that bypass the calculations physicists can't do. It's necessary to learn a few other things - facts and techniques - in order to get to that understanding. Physicists frequently don't see the use of that part of the process, since, after all, their methods could calculate all that, if they had infinitely large computers.

And they love to discover things! I recall a physicist who had just received the enlightenment that metals form hydrogen when they react with acids. First few weeks of freshman chemistry, but whatever. He filled a beaker too full of concentrated acid, placed it on my optical bench (a delicate piece of equipment with a metal top), and dropped (from some distance so it would splash) a bolt into it. Bubbles! Wow!

I am worried about Muller's message, though. In good physicist fashion, he makes clear in his op-ed that there are some parts of climate science that await his discovery. That paragraph will be used by the climate deniers to justify their "skepticism." See, I'm being scientific; you have to prove it to me. These same people don't doubt that the plasma tv they buy at Costco will work. They don't doubt that their stove will light. They don't doubt that cigarettes cause cancer, or that organic produce is better. [Extra credit: which of that series doesn't fit?] But they doubt climate change and act as though they're going to prove it to themselves.

They won't, of course. They have no idea how to go about that. They feel justified now that a real scientist has taken an equally ignorant position and will loudly proclaim that they're skeptics, just like the real scientists.

Cross-posted to The Agonist.

1 comment:

Enon said...

If this were a polymath physics genius like Feynman, I'd pay attention. Otherwise, not.

By the way, your captcha seems excessively complex. I understand the need to block bots, but it's too much.