Tuesday, May 18, 2010

More arrogant physicists

(Notice to the uninterested, the lede is significantly buried here, but this is a blog, not a newspaper)

Eli and the seven bunnies are quite into arrogant physicists, one of them, Arthur Smith, even spent some time laying the species out.

In general though, physicists have good reason to be arrogant. Each of us in the intellectual world is like an armed policeman. A certain swagger is justified, we feel confident we have the tools to handle any situation. A problem asserts itself, and we walk in with the self-assurance of those who have tackled thousands of similar cases in the past. For a really challenging problem we know how to put out a call for reinforcements. One all-purpose tool is reductionism - breaking a problem into smaller more comprehensible pieces, and then tackling those one by one. . . .

But sometimes that arrogance and self-assurance and collection of intuitions lead us, or at least a few of us, astray. We forget that there are other smart people in the world, who have been thinking about their limited problem for a lot longer and perhaps have a deeper understanding than we give them credit for. We jump in with our simplified models and ideas and then wonder why they don't find them helpful. Or we too deeply trust the intuition of a colleague who has been often right before or who we trust for other reasons, but in a particular instance has not put in the effort to properly understand the problem, and ends up only embarrassing themselves, and us by association.

Eli, of course, having been demoted to mere chemist by the real physicists Gerhard Gerlich, Ralf D. Tscheuschner is not qualified to comment on these matters, other than to note that their recent diatribe in IJMPB
One should keep in mind that we are theoretical physicists with experimental experience and, additionally, a lot of experience in numerical computing. Eli Rabett and Joerg Zimmermann, for example, are chemists. We are not willing to discuss whether they can be considered as laymen in physics, in particular laymen in thermodynamics.
Is a strong contender for the Boojum's Golden Horseshoe Award

In Dashiell Hammett’s story The Golden Horseshoe, much of the action takes place in a bar of that name in Tijuana. At one point the narrator, an operative for the Continental Detective Agency, kills a few strategic seconds by studying the decorations:

I was reading a sign high on the wall behind the bar:


I was trying to count how many lies could be found in those nine words, and had reached four, with promise of more …

Sometimes I come across an article, web posting, advertisement or other statement that makes me feel when I read it just as I imagine the Continental Op did in that Tijuana bar.

How can they possibly pack so much misinformation into such a small space?

Which kind of brings us to the almost end, with the appearance of the obfustication aka the commentary appended now to the American Physical Society's Statement on Climate Change. John Mashey spent a great deal of time tracing the attack on the the APS Climate Change Statement back to a few nests of "motivated" (Judith Curry instructs Eli not to use the words denialist, or reactionary) physicists at a few places including Princeton. Which, finally, brings Eli to the point. Jonathan Katz, Professor of Physics at Washington University, was one of those who petitioned to change the APS policy statement. Katz had previously been a member of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, and was evidently recruited for JASON at that point, something he shared with other petitioners.

JASON is a small advisory group of arrogant scientists which grew out of the Manhattan project to advise the Departments of Defense, Energy and Spooks about scientific matters. To cut to the chase, Steve Chu turned to JASON in order to get an evaluation of how to deal with the oil well blowout in the Gulf and the impending disaster. They sent a few members, including the aforementioned Dr. Katz, and as it happens, people started looking at the members' web sites.

Dr. Katz has the habit of posting essays (sub - blogging as it were) on his web site, and one of them turned out to be, well, homophobic. Dr. Katz was landed upon, and disinvited

Jonathan I. Katz, a professor of astrophysics at Washington University in St. Louis, ''will no longer be involved in the [Energy] Department's efforts'' at addressing the oil spill continuing to spread in the Gulf of Mexico, a Department spokeswoman relayed on Monday night, May 17.

The news came after what the spokesperson, Stephanie Mueller, termed ''controversial writings'' – which included a ''defense of homophobia'' – spread out over the web on Monday, writings of which she said the Department was unaware when it sought his assistance.

On May 12, Energy Secretary Steven Chu ''assembled a group of top scientific experts from inside and outside of government to join in today's discussions in Houston about possible solutions,'' according to a Department news release. Katz was one of five outside scientists noted in the release. Bloomberg News reported about the group of scientists on May 14, reporting Chu ''signaled his lack of confidence in the industry experts trying to control BP Plc's leaking oil well by hand-picking a team of scientists with reputations for creative problem solving.''

His comments about climate change incorporate the equally charming mixture of naivety, agression and arrogance that characterize physicists of a certain training, and the dénouement was about as predictable.

Perhaps we might now start a discussion of Prof. Katz's take on climate change? Eli's take on that is that the cheerful assumption that no one else was paying attention to the various ups and downs in radiative forcing over the last 150 years, is, as usual with such characters, charming.

Stumbling across campus to talk to people with a clue might have helped. Pierrehumber's Law.


bigcitylib said...

Oh My!

Arthur said...

Eli, you left off G&T's footnote!!!

"(f) However, we must think so."

They were obviously trying to plagiarize your "some say, but not Eli" trademark, but as with so much else they just didn't get it. Ah well.

Speaking of JASON's, I ran into one briefly when I visited PNNL in central Washington state many years back. I'm sure it wasn't Katz, but I don't remember the name. The fellow was rather boastful, trying to impress us young whipper-snappers, on the various national security topics he'd been consulted on... Definitely fits the pattern.

Anonymous said...

Wow, the plot thickens. Does anyone on the contrarian side have even a modicum of integrity and ethics?


Lionel A Smith said...

That last paragraph of the Katz blurb sums it up well, JASON and the Arrogants indeed it is.

Lionel A

Hank Roberts said...

> homophobic
Worse than that; he's defending discrimination targeting men he _imagines_might_be gay.

The irony is delicious, and the law is clear on that point:
“Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services.” Wikipedia article.

Anonymous said...

So G&T say:

"One should keep in mind that we are theoretical physicists…"

I was tempted to ponder when they might go beyond the mere postulating about being physicists, but grammatical pedantry stayed those thoughts. Thus, I moved on to ponder:

"One should keep in mind that we are theoretical physicists with experimental experience..."

and I did wonder if this was a Schrödinger condition, however such thoughts were rapidly replaced by musings about the fact that they have "additionally, a lot of experience in numerical computing". Numerical computing, huh? What, as opposed to the non-numerical computing to which lesser forms of scientific life are restricted?

However, that's by-the-by. Apparently, "Eli Rabett and Joerg Zimmermann, for example, are chemists. We are not willing to discuss whether they can be considered as laymen in physics, in particular laymen in thermodynamics." Well, fine, don't discuss whether they can be considered laymen... instead, consider whether they can be considered competent professionals in physics, and even in thermodynamics – I know that many of my old physical chemistry professors would be most aggrieved to discover that they were only lay participants in the thermodynamic work that they spent decades pursuing.

Ultimately though G&T should cease and desist from trawling in schools of herrings red, and discuss whether or not Halpern et al make substantive points. If they do, then reply; if they don't, rebut. Halpern et al have published, and have therefore passed a certain degree of scrutiny – in the discourse of scientific publication and peer review, challenged authors are usually not permitted the luxury of deciding what serious professional criticism they will deign to acknowledge, and what they may choose to ignore.

In fact, the lack of robust and comprehensive reply to a challenge is usually taken as a tacit sign of defeat.

On a side matter, I am beginning to wonder at what point Dame Judy should be cut loose and discarded to the stewing pot of emeritoids who have lost their faculties – or who have sold said faculties for the real estate value...

And to finish with a wry observation - when I was a preteen boy, it was common parlance amongst the slightly older youth of the time to refer to homosexuals as 'cats'.

Isn't irony ironic?

Bernard J. Hyphen-Anonymous XVII

Anonymous said...

Yes, I'm trained in physics. HOWEVER, if it ever comes down to the old "engineers vs. physicists" fight - almost as popular as pirates vs. ninjas - I know which group I find more denialists among, and which group has a higher percentage of science denialists.

So far, in fact, the top denialist professions seem to be engineers, meteorologists-who-are-really-tv-weathermen, and mining geologists.

For every Kramm and Gin and Tonic you find a hundred wannabe Heinlein heroes who dismiss most science as ivory-tower nonsense.

Monty Fieldmouse

Hank Roberts said...

Broken link in the main post; chop out the "www.blogger.com/" to get this working link:
the American Physical Society's Statement on Climate Change

Blogger, like Microsoft's Clippy, intrudes itself.

CapitalClimate said...

The link to motl is similarly broken, as if anybody should care.

(Word verification: "bilecre")

Lumo said...

I don't know why you're phrasing these things in terms of "arrogance". It's not really "arrogance" when the superiority of the people - in this case physicists - is self-evident.

Climate alarmists love to present themselves as more educated than the ordinary people and not-so-ordinary people, and intimidate them with this would-be edge. But when they face someone who is 40 IQ points brighter or whose education is by the equivalent of 10 years more extensive, they start to whine about arrogance.

Of course, the real problem is not arrogance but the fact that we're way smarter than average chemists like you. This is what really drives you up the wall.

The attacks on Prof Katz are childish. What does it mean that he is "homophobic"? Does it mean that his stomach doesn't like when the person is shown images of homosexual men during coitus? Well, let me tell you that every person who is in the mainstream and whose reactions work properly reacts in the same way.

You know, one doesn't have to be a homosexual who loves to have sex with rabbits to understand atmospheric physics or anything else of this kind. The truth is much closer to the opposite correlation, even though insane far-left deviants like you may be missing this simple point.

At any rate, these issues can never be used as arguments about any particular questions of the climate, and it's sad that you can't see this simple fact.

The debate is over. You lost, you won, and you should finally splash yourself and your dumb alarmist blogs into the toilet because it's nothing else than a piece of remaining shit that annoys everyone but that is already harmless because pretty much everyone has understood that you're just a gang of irrelevant crooks.


Anonymous said...

Its "Yogi" Berra, not "Yoga", and it was Bohr not Dirac who is usually cited as the originator of the quote. I like the abstract of this paper:


"Yogi Berra once observed, apparently paraphrasing Niels Bohr, “Prediction is difficult, especially about the future.” Berra's and Bohr's backgrounds, respectively, in baseball and quantum mechanics, probably prejudiced them, since recent studies show that, at least in geophysics, not everything is as difficult to predict as the path of a knuckle ball or an electron through a double slit."

Dirac, as far as I can tell, doesn't even make the running:


guthrie said...

The essay on climate change that you link to would be pretty poor stuff if written by an undergraduate. For example:

" For example, about half of the emitted carbon is re-absorbed. No one knows where it goes, although probably into some combination of the ocean and biosphere."

Is rather simplistic. We know most of it goes into the ocean, it doesn't dissappear off into space or anything.
Then we have the usual idiocy about the computer models being wrong.
"But no one knows how to calculate this value that is measured to be 30%. Without understanding, better computers don't help."
Funnily enough i thought earths albedo had been measured for quite a few years now, certainly before 2009.

"Global warming does not make the tropics, or warm seasons in temperate zones, any hotter. For good physical reasons, greenhouse gas warming occurs almost entirely in arctic and sub-arctic regions and in temperate zones during winter; in other words, when the weather is cold."
Is so wrong in every way yet exactly the sort of spruiously correct appearing rubbish that an amateur like Katz would come up with.

Basically it looks like he read Michael Crichton and liked him.

Anonymous said...

Another good Katz quote from his website: "I have been a faculty member in Astronomy and Physics departments since 1976, and have never seen any discrimination against women."

(the one essay I've seen there which seems to have some merit is the one on excessive time for PhD holding patterns before getting faculty positions)


ps. With regards to LM: it is actually his _inferiority_ which is self-evident, which makes his arrogance all the more confusing.

Anonymous said...

pps. I like Lindzen's presentation at http://wattsupwiththat.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/lindzen_heartland_2010.pdf - especially pages 9 and 10, where he shows temperature records from CRU through 1984. I guess the 26 years of record temperatures since then aren't really relevant...


chris said...

I’m going to write a long post.

I’m a chemist turned molecular biologist. I gave a manuscript to a physicist collaborator a few years ago whose comment after fingering it a bit and saying it was quite nice was “…but where’s the physics?”. We published it (JACS) but it got me thinking about the difference between science as I know it and “physics” (or ***physics***)…..

….and your article crystallizes for me something I’ve been pondering for some time in relation to the selection of astonishingly dreadful papers that dribble into the climate science literature from (some) physicists. Several cringeworthy papers simply wouldn’t be published in the fields I inhabit. Setting aside the astonishingly inept Gerlich and Tscheuschner, these include papers by Shaviv on climate sensitivity, Scafetta on solar contributions, Chylek on climate sensitivity, Schwartz on climate sensitivity, Lindzen on climate sensitivity and etc. – some of these are less cringeworthy than others). I’ve come to the possibly obvious conclusion that the distinguishing feature of these papers (that tips them into physics-based publishableness) is their internal consistency. However they share the almost demented flaw of having an internal consistency built on false premises.

I think this is the key that allows these chaps to produce such “oh-so-obvious” contrary conclusions that flow so deliciously from the beginnings (“set-up”) of their naughty papers. The physics is just fine – it has the relentless perfection of pea-shelling, and simply can’t be countered by referees (‘specially if the ‘refs are physicists and prone to swoon in the face of perfect logic).

So once you decide that all pre-20th century temperature variability is solely due to changes in solar output (false premise) then it’s impossible not to construct wonderful phenomenological “arguments” that solar variability accounts for most of contemporary warming (Scafetta); the logic flows perfectly! Once you carefully select delicious data points (false premise) how can you possibly come to any other conclusion than that the climate sensitivity calculated from analysing glacial-interglacial dust/temperature relationships (Chylek) or sea surface temperature and associated TOA radiation data (Lindzen), is teeny? It’s just so obvious; the physics is watertight.

That’s my startling insight. The reason these dodgy papers drip into the scientific literature is that physicists are seduced by the internal logic of models and fail (or maybe don’t care, since the physics is soooo lovely) that the models are constructed on false premises….

physicists really are different (and can be dangerous!).

Ethan said...

I am going to take exception to the comparison you've made here. Astrophysics is a messy field, which calls upon a broad range of intellectual skills. It's like climatology both in its intellectual flavor and in the physics required to work in the field. Jonathan Katz may have his flaws, but he's a decent astrophysical theorist. Comparing him to everyone's favorite string theorist is unfair.

Anonymous said...

Lubos, please:

"It's not really "arrogance" when the superiority of the people - in this case physicists - is self-evident"

Don't be such a physicist, please.


Anonymous said...

But when they face someone who is 40 IQ points brighter or whose education is by the equivalent of 10 years more extensive...

It's not really about posturing, not at all.

Russell said...

It's not really "arrogance" when the superiority of the people - in this case physicists - is self-evident.

They sure pontificate better than bunnies dumb enough to elide string theory and physics.

Given Jonathan’s considerable proficiency in dimensional analysis and oceanographic expertise , I’d rather see him on a deep sea disaster management B-Team than a bunny dumb enough to brag of the achievements of string theory.

Those who reckon sexual-orientation based discrimination a Bad Thing should protest the dismissal of its latest victim.

carrot eater said...

Well, Eli, if you were fishing for an amusing set of comments, I think you've been rewarded.

The last two topics have summoned all manner of chaos.

Horatio Algeranon said...

It's actually a bit puzzling why Chu asked an astrophysicist (and a theoretical one at that) to work on a fix for a leaky pipe.

What is really needed in this case is a good plumber -- or more precisely, a good engineer who is expert in dealing with the sort of plumbing involved.

a_ray_in_dilbert_space said...

Although I think Arthur is spot on in his assessment, I would hasten to add that any reasonably decent physicist ought to know better than to go charging into an unfamiliar field telling the experts they are wrong. Any decent physicist must also realize that the reductionism they employ is merely a tool for gaining insight into the system they are studying, not a recipe for distilling truth.

I suspect that the sort of idiot savant who asserts his IQ is 40 points higher than that of the experts has probably never mastered anything anyone else ever cared about sufficiently to be considered an expert themselves.

Arthur said...

To correct yet another misimpression shared between LM and G&T, as Lubos put it:

"we're way smarter than average chemists like you."

Eli's non-rabett self actually has a PhD in physics. Which proves that at least a few physicists are slightly on the humble side.

Russell said...

Under its previous management, even the Wall Street Journal essayed to assay the physics envy pecking order -

To avoid the $$ firewall, here it as transcribed at at a random facebook site :


Anonymous said...

Lubos has got to the stage where it is hard to tell if it is really him or a parody speaking.


EliRabett said...

Arthur,it's an act

OTOH, the bunny has noticed that people who keep on taking IQ tests after the age of 12 tend to misfire on personal relationships. After a point its what you put out there that makes your reputation, not your test scores.

Horatio, Eli thinks that Chu was buying into the JASON mechanism, and got what he got without individual vetting. A first and a last time for everything.

At least for DOE, it will be interesting to see if there is a JASON clearout at Mitre. What you are buying from JASON is advice and while the science is primary, advice that exposes you to attack is useless.

Brighton Early said...

While ALL engineers I know in the Calgary oilpatch deny, the dumbest statements come from geophysicists, like this one:


Horatio Algeranon said...

Chu's obviously an extremely bright guy (not simply one who thinks he is) and has a lot of experience actually getting things accomplished in the real world (which requires far more than a high IQ).

So, it is really surprising that he would not recognize that the solution to this problem -- stopping the oil flow -- relies far more on knowledge of the subject at hand (pipes) and standard expertise (capping pressurized pipes at depth) than it does on "analyzing" an unexplored scientific issue or coming up with "novel approaches" -- something the JASON Club (is Mocktman an honorary member?) may be good at.

If you want a pipe fixed in your house (or your pool), you hire a plumber, not an astrophysicist (or nookyalur physicist, like Garwin).

Or at least Horatio does (Wouldn't let a string theorist anywhere near my plumbing --or , God forbid, wiring!)

That's just common sense.

..which some physicists obviously lack.

J Bowers said...

LM says: "But when they face someone who is 40 IQ points brighter or whose education is by the equivalent of 10 years more extensive, they start to whine about arrogance..."

That's no way to talk about Dr. Steven Chu.

Oh, sorry, doesn't he have a Nobel and takes a completely different view from yours on climate change?

Mark said...

"Of course, the real problem is not arrogance but the fact that we're way smarter than average chemists like you. This is what really drives you up the wall."

"You know, one doesn't have to be a homosexual who loves to have sex with rabbits to understand atmospheric physics or anything else of this kind."

Eli, thank you for allowing Motl to post here. It shows us the height of his arrogance and the depth of his inhumanity. In short, it shows us the essence of his character.

EliRabett said...

As the T shirt goes chemists: physicists with social skills, biologists with brains. YMMV

John said...

I just got my copy of APS news in my mailbox today. It featured the article "Council Passes Addendum to Climate Change Statement", which directed me to the on-line statement on the APS website. www.aps.org/policy

The new statement is a total defeat for the faction that wanted to repudiate the 2007 APS statement. The original 157-word statement has been supplemented by a 800-word appendage. The vote to doped the addendum was 31 in favor, 2 opposed, and 1 abstention.

You can read the story yourself at


-John W. Farley
humble physicist

David B. Benson said...

Lobos Motl is only a string theorist: string theory is not really physics according to Lee Smolin.

It shows.

Steve Bloom said...

Hey, Eli, get a load of this from RP Sr. It's worth a post, I'd say.

Phila said...

Well, let me tell you that every person who is in the mainstream and whose reactions work properly reacts in the same way.

It must be nice to be a genius, and have such profound insights into the nature of the universe.

EliRabett said...

Pielke is moaning, but the strong consensus of the reviews is (quoting)

"I do not see evidence of any new, creative, or original concepts. The research is simply an exploratory expedition using a particular model."

And the broader impacts on human resources are pretty pedestrian

The proposal got higher ratings than it would in a competitive panel. Unless he gets some preliminary data that strongly supports their thesis this ain't ever gonna fly at NSF.

That being said, he might not be happy with open reviews. They can be pretty cruel esp fro panels, and resubmissions are crap shoots.


Anonymous said...

A traveling salesman gets a flat tire on his way to a sales appointment. He pulls off to the side of the road right in front of an insane asylum. He gets out of the car (cursing under his breath at his misfortune), looks at the flat tire, opens the trunk and pulls out the jack. He jacks up the car, removes the hubcap from the flat tire, removes the lug-nuts and places them in the hubcap (so as not to lose them). He then walks back around to the trunk to the fetch the spare tire, steps on the hubcap and sends the lug-nuts skittering down the gutter into the storm-drain.

Realizing what he what he had just done, he launches into a cursing-fit, “What the f&@!# will I do now? Holy f*@^ sh*t! I’ll never make it to my f*&@ing appointment in time!!!

An inmate (former physics researcher, perhaps?) in the asylum who was watching the whole event calls out to the salesman, “Why don’t you just remove one lug-nut from each of the other three wheels and use them to install the spare? Then you can swing by a service station, buy three more lug-nuts and you’ll be on your way in no time.”

The salesman replied, “That’s a terrific idea!” I never would have thought of that in a million years in my current state of mind….”

The salesman then followed up, “Say, what’s a really smart guy like you doing locked up in a place like that?”

The inmate replied, “I’m not here because I’m stupid; I’m here because I’m crazy.”

So yes... physicists are generally very smart, but that doesn't mean that they are all sane.

Anonymous said...

Of course, that should be **four** more lug-nuts.

Russell said...


Where , oh where was Raypierre , when Mcintyre delivered this stemwinder unopposed in Chicago the day before yeaterday?


Lazar said...

Love the idea that chemists don't know thermo.

Lubos is a member of the "Prague elite". Or as a relative of Lazar described them, "assholes".

EliRabett said...

Russell, you ask where RayP was. Does Eli have to draw a map for you?

For some reason bags of wind like McIntyre think that others have a duty to abuse them on demand. That is a false convection. We get to pick our punches.

Horatio Algeranon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Horatio Algeranon said...

Chemists might not know about strings,
But at least they know about actual things.

Anonymous said...

APS Addendum: Not bad for the most part, though I'd quibble with several things that could use clarification... in fact, if I'd been in charge, I would have stuck with the original statement because the addendum probably introduced about as much confusion as it resolved.

The one sentence that really surprised me: "The uncertainty in the estimates from various climate models for doubling CO2-equivalent concentration is in the range of 1°C to 3°C with the probability distributions having long tails out to much larger temperature changes."

Shouldn't that be 2 to 4.5 degrees?


Steve Bloom said...

M, the reference is to the uncertainty of the range, not the range itself. They needed an English major on the committee.

Eli, I'm sure RP Sr.'s idea is more to attack the other proposals and the NSF itself rather than defend his own stuff directly, the idea being that they would pay him off in grants in order to shut him up.

Anonymous said...

I've been watchin all the fireworks, and have learned a bunch as well...& I mean that. About changing tires... from what I know; it is better to loosen the lug nuts, before you jack up the car. On a soft shoulder, you could roll off the jackstand if you try to loosen them, with the car in the air.
Now; Back into the branches...

Anonymous said...

XKCD's Purity
remember to check the float-over comment.

Rattus Norvegicus said...

The problem with the salesman is that he never would have got the lug nuts off it he jacked up the car first.

As anyone who has actually tried to change a tire on the road knows, the wheel just spins if you try and loosen the lug nuts after jacking the car up...

Horatio Algeranon said...

The problem with the salesman is that he never would have got the lug nuts off it he jacked up the car first...the wheel just spins

Perhaps a string theorist came up with the joke.

Or maybe someone at BP.

Sounds a lot like the approach they've taken to stopping the oil flow: covering it with a box and sipping it up with a tiny little straw.

And, of course, yet to come is the "Junk Shot", which actually involves tires and goof balls (or is it golf balls?)

dhogaza said...

"And, of course, yet to come is the "Junk Shot", which actually involves tires and goof balls..."

Goof balls? I nominate Rand Paul ...

Lionel A Smith said...

After seeing his anti New Scientist Denier issue rant on his site Lubos Motl deserves a nomination for describing WUWT as a 'sensible source' and using juvenile language against Richard Littlemore of desmogblog.

Lumo got one thing right when he alluded to his side as being ideology driven.


Anonymous said...

Hello all,
I have been following your work shooting down G&T since a devout denialist tried to quote the original paper to me a while ago, and was interested to see what they would offer second time round. Their current offering seems to manage what I considered previously impossible: be more verbose and irrelevant than the original work. I did however enjoy their self description of the original as an "exceptional chance to formulate a scientifically well-founded antithesis" :)

Do any of you have further plans for communication in IJMP on that, or is it considered not worth the effort?

Also on that topic, who puts a "prologue" on a comment letter?