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Climate change, scientific misbehavior, and the APS public policy statement.

(This is from an email that I sent out to a group of colleagues, in response to an email sent to me from members of the American Physical Society.)

The whole climate change stuff has really split the physics community. Behold the following letter I just received.

(I add my own commentary at the bottom.)

-------- Original Message --------
Dear fellow member of the American Physical Society:

This is a matter of great importance to the integrity of the Society. It is being sent to a random fraction of the membership, so we hope you will pass it on.

By now everyone has heard of what has come to be known as ClimateGate, which was and is an international scientific fraud, the worst any of us have seen in our cumulative 223 years of APS membership. For those who have missed the news we recommend the excellent summary article by Richard Lindzen in the November 30 edition of the Wall Street journal, entitled "The Climate Science isn't Settled," for a balanced account of the situation. It was written by a scientist of unquestioned authority and integrity. A copy can be found among the items at http://tinyurl.com/lg266u, and a visit to http://www.ClimateDepot.com can fill in the details of the scandal, while adding spice.

What has this to do with APS? In 2007 the APS Council adopted a Statement on global warming (also reproduced at the tinyurl site mentioned above) that was based largely on the scientific work that is now revealed to have been corrupted. (The principals in this escapade have not denied what they did, but have sought to dismiss it by saying that it is normal practice among scientists. You know and we know that that is simply untrue. Physicists are not expected to cheat.)

We have asked the APS management to put the 2007 Statement on ice until the extent to which it is tainted can be determined, but that has not been done. We have also asked that the membership be consulted on this point, but that too has not been done.

None of us would use corrupted science in our own work, nor would we sign off on a thesis by a student who did so. This is not only a matter of science, it is a matter of integrity, and the integrity of the APS is now at stake. That is why we are taking the unusual step of communicating directly with at least a fraction of the membership.

If you believe that the APS should withdraw a Policy Statement that is based on admittedly corrupted science, and should then undertake to clarify the real state of the art in the best tradition of a learned society, please send a note to the incoming President of the APS ccallan@princeton.edu, with the single word YES in the subject line. That will make it easier for him to count.

Bob Austin, Professor of Physics, Princeton
Hal Lewis, emeritus Professor of Physics, University of California, Santa Barbara
Will Happer, Professor of Physics, Princeton
Larry Gould, Professor of Physics, Hartford
Roger Cohen, former Manager, Strategic Planning, ExxonMobil

By the way, the folks signing this, they're not nobodies--they're major players in the world of physics, and widely respected.

The whole climate change problem is FAR from over, the major scientific societies are at each others' throats over this whole mess.

This whole tempest is over what constitutes legitimate "massaging" of data, and whether or not the climate scientists whose email was released did so. (There are many things one does with the raw data to normalize it in order to make sure you are comparing apples to apples, etc.) I have not spent enough time looking into what exactly these scientists did to their data, but none of them (as has been mentioned) is denying what they did.

One of the major tenets of scientific research is to be skeptical about all theories and data, requiring falsifiability for theories and independent repeatability for experiments. Unfortunately, climatology does not readily admit to either one--we can't well set up a controlled environment comparable to Earth, nor can we repeat long-term measurements. (Make no bones about it, too: there is much hemming and hawing about the validity and accuracy of the raw data, which contributes in large part to the statistical massaging that MUST be done in order for the data to be sensibly used in any climate model!) There are clear indications that something is going on--recent data on polar ice sheets are indisputable, but like everything else in science, without a model, one cannot know why the ice sheets are melting.

Unlike the other instances of scientific misconduct coming out recently (think the Bell Labs debacle of a few years back), this particular instance *begs* one to ask: cui bono? If there's something wrong going on, why is it going on? Who stands to benefit from all this?

Practically speaking, all this doesn't mean we shouldn't personally still reduce consumption and output of hydrocarbons, nor should we renege on our commitment to find alternative energy sources (without energy growth, our economy will come crashing to a halt, and the whole "Peak <X>" problem [for <X> in "natural gas","oil","water"] is a statement of mathematics, as indisputable as any other part of math--and the diminishing ability to produce more energy is certainly an issue) However, whether one should support, for example, "cap&trade" for emissions, or other new public policies that are based on science that is now cast into doubt, and come with extremely wide-ranging consequences, is something that you should very much reconsider. If anthropogenic climate change really is occurring, we do need to take active steps; if not, or if the effects are of equivalent order of magnitude to other naturally occurring events, one can still engage in them, but certainly you should not justify these policies with cries about impending climate doom--especially when sooner than climate doom we are facing major energy growth problems.


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