Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The American Physical Society Stays Real

We are coming to the end of an era. Starting in the 1990s, Fred Singer and friends, with the backing of the tobacco industry, developed stealth petitions as a weapon of denial, first for the tobacco and chemical industries, but rapidly as a weapon to delay action on climate change. Eli refers to such beauties as the Heidelberg Appeal, and the Leipzig Declaration, grandparents to the baby Hughie of the business, the OISM Petition with various lists of nieces and nephews.

UPDATE: John Mashey has analyzed this latest list and provides the driving reason for it. The next time your neighbor talks about all the physicists who oppose the IPCC, shove John's
paper (found at the link) into his mailbox

This might seem a grassroots groundswell of informed expert argument with the existing position, but it is not. Rather, it seems to have originated within a small network of people, not field experts, but with a long history of manufacturing such things, plausibly at the Heartland Institute‘s NYC climate conference March 8-10, 2009. APS physicists can, do, and will contribute strongly to solving the 21st century‟s conjoined climate+energy problem, but this petition was a silly distraction, and rightly rejected. However, its existence was widely touted to the public."
Well, if it worked once, confused everyone twice, why not go back to the well, and the answer is people learn to lift the rock to see what is underneath. Folk have also learned to listen for the rustling of petition pushers and push back.

Just newly, a list of various characters petitioned the American Physical Society to alter its policy statement on climate change. The result is an amazing reaffirmation and a kick in the teeth to the petitioners, including Robert Austin, who is a member of the APS council
The Council of the American Physical Society has overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to replace the Society’s 2007 Statement on Climate Change with a version that raised doubts about global warming. The Council’s vote came after it received a report from a committee of eminent scientists who reviewed the existing statement in response to a petition submitted by a group of APS members.
Overwhelmingly rejected is strong language as these things go, but more significantly
The committee also recommended that the current APS statement be allowed to stand, but it requested that the Society’s Panel on Public Affairs (POPA) examine the statement for possible improvements in clarity and tone.
A stronger, more direct statement is clearly needed as the evidence for climate change is even stronger today then it was two years ago
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.
UPDATE: Image from Life by John, Mad Slav from Reference Frame. Comments?


Barton Paul Levenson said...

I love it! Glad to see my fellow physicists taking a strong stand! YEE HA! IN YOUR FACE, DENIERS!

John Mashey said...

But, but ...
they went all out last week, and got 43 new names, including two grad students in Mechanical Engineering @ BYU, which must mean *something*.

Arthur said...

Maybe it's small potatoes in the big scheme of things, but I don't get what benefit the denial side derived from this. Names on a petition - but aside from its stupidity as a replacement for the current strong statement, the replacement doesn't actually say very much substantive - the signers didn't even claim that CO2 doesn't cause warming or anything. And they must have known the APS council wasn't going to adopt it; anybody serious who studies the science has to agree with the solidity of the consensus. Are the signers just deluded to the point that they really think the science is on their side?

I guess John's been gathering many different possible motivations, but I just don't see how they could have thought this would be of benefit to them. Fred Singer tried to play it for all it was worth over the summer, but that just makes the council vote now all the more damning to their cause. Are they really just not all there?

EliRabett said...

An awful lot of publicity, a platform to beat on the Congress from, and more.

Steve Bloom said...

It's anything to keep the ball in the air, Arthur. Now they'll use the petition along with the "clarity and tone" comment to keep claiming momentum. The important thing is that the APS has agreed to change irts policy statement as a consequence of the petition. Of course APS members will see that for the absurdity it is, but they're not the audience.

Ian said...

As Steve said, APS is probably not the audience - the usual editorial page/blog/tv outlets can report it as news without fear that their audience will spend time to verify the story.

John Mashey said...

I am almost certain it was not for APS, it was to get a list of impressive signature with lots of PhDs, to use in talks like the Minnesota Free Enterprise Institute, as fodder for Morano readers, to use in open letters to Senate, etc.
See the examples in Appendix 4, page 59-60. Hey, it let Lubos post...

Arthur said...

I'm wondering if the underlying motivation for what seems like a really short-term-thinking move here might be a bit of competition between the various denial groups. With Exxon supposedly waffling and the Chamber of Commerce under attack, with Copenhagen coming up and the vast majority even of energy companies resigned to or actually encouraging carbon pricing of some sort, it's possible funding for their shenanigans is starting to dry up. Meanwhile the supply of denialists seems to have been expanding.

I mean, for years Fred Singer, SEPP and the George Marshall guys had this sort of anti-science stuff mostly to themselves (if you ignore the creationists). The various think tanks like CEI and Heartland sprang up, but they were more echoes than competition. But now you've got the Marc Morano's, the Steve McIntyre's, Watts, and countless stringers. Not to mention all the middle-of-the-road news media types who somehow continue to foster confusion while reaping fossil-fuel advertising dollars. Singer and co. must be starting to feel their irrelevance. Was this just a desperation move to capture the attention, not of the APS nor the general public or scientists, but of their sponsors? To prove that they still have what it takes to stir things up? That with just a little more funding from their sponsors, they could actually be successful at something like this?

I wish we had some real investigative journalists out there who knew how to "follow the money" on these guys... John's article lays out the personal connections - but we need some data on who's paying how much to who to make sense of it all...

Arthur said...

I forgot to mention folks like Monckton and Plimer, and Gerlich and Tscheuschner, Mizkolczi, etc. And then there are the Pielke's and the Breakthrough institute guys (more R&D, not cap and trade!) and so on. The denial/delay camp has become rather crowded - remember Fred Singer's plaintive call at that Heartland conference to stick to scientifically justified claims? Everybody else seems to be doing rather well completely ignoring that advice. Doesn't this APS gambit feel more like a "hey, look at me, take me seriously again" stunt now?

Ian Forrester said...

The old saying used to be, "A penny for your thoughts". Now the deniers don't even have to think since it has become "A penny for your signature".

Anonymous said...

I am a member of the American Physical Society, and I wrote to a couple of members of the APS Executive Council, urging them to reject the petition.

I don't that my letter was exactly a crushing blow, but every letter helps.

-John Farley
Professor of Physics
Univ. Nevada, Las Vegas

Ian said...

My guess would be that this petition was one of many "projects" that they've had in the works for a while, and the particular timing is related to denialist buzz about Copenhagen. As I said, just a guess...

Interesting notion about an expansion in the denialist pool (I assume you mean in the US). If true, I wonder how much of the increase is due to (1) the relatively cool weather here over the past year, and (2) greater willingness to embrace conspiracies involving govt (e.g., death panels, socialist takeover, etc.)?

Tangentially related: at Stoat, Steve Bloom suggested that Joe Romm's funding is in jeopardy because a different tone is now effective in advocacy (Steve, I hope I'm paraphrasing correctly).

from Stoat

Ian said...

Are the petitioners playing to a different audience, or are they completely out of step? Happer could be either: from PhysicsWorld:

"Although the APS council turned down the request, it has, however, agreed to one proposal from Kleppner's committee: that the society's Panel on Public Affairs (POPA) should "examine the statement for improvements in clarity and tone". Princeton University atomic physicist Will Happer, who was one of those leading the proposal for change, sees that fact as a form of vindication. "They basically sent both statements back to their committee on public affairs and asked them to reconsider," says Happer. "I think it's a big victory for us. Many of [the people who signed the petition] took quite a bit of risk in signing this statement." "

If he really believes this was a victory, and he's not just serving a pr function by claiming victory when he knows it wasn't, then a follow-the-money investigation would fall short (not that it wouldn't be useful too).

Brian Schmidt said...

Ian, I think Steve was speculating that the Breakthrough Institute was at risk, not Romm.

John Mashey said...

Ian, as for "many project"
see Fig 1.1 on page 5 of my tome on this. It shows many of the petitions, anti-science publications over last 20 years ... and my goodness, it looks like a hockey-stick! They're everywhere!

As for Happer, see quote on page 25, and watch the 7-minute video mentioned there.

Ian said...

"the Breakthrough Institute was at risk, not Romm"

Ah yes, now I see - I misread that. Thanks Brian.

Arthur said...

John Farley - thanks for writing your letter; I wrote my own to a couple of the councilors, and John Mashey's an APS member too. From what I hear every councillor received *many* letters from members, so I think they had an effect. Unfortunately there were letters arguing both sides of the issue - somebody on the denial side had sent a list with every councilors email address so there was some astroturfing going on.

Ian said...

Thanks for the pointers - I had no idea there were so many "projects" going on. As hockey sticks go, that's a very impressive one. Another year or so, and the blade and shaft will switch places...

The video is also interesting, and Happer seems like a true believer. (Is it just me, or does his voice resemble Stephen Hawking's a bit?)

The next video in YouTube's lineup was Barbara Boxer's questioning of Happer. At one point she asks him to clarify his human evolution statement, he says there were higher CO2 levels 80 million years ago, and she leans forward and says "A lot has happened since then." All quite funny.

EliRabett said...

Eli's Happer number is 2 FWIW

Steve Bloom said...

Yes, I was referring to BTI, not Romm. Joe's position couldn't be more secure. BTI has been dependent from the outset on a single foundation, Nathan Cummings, and I'm starting to suspect that the major factor in the former's continued existence is the embarrassment the latter would feel at implicitly admitting they made a mistake. OTOH now is probably the most suitable time for considering the future of an outfit that was founded to entice Republicans to do something (anything) on climate, so I remain hopeful that BTI will be winding down its affairs in the near future.

Re the denialosphere, I think what we're seeing is evidence of greater organization in the face of ongoing shrinkage. Morano's list, which was a lot of work to put together, serves as an ongoing tool for easy recruitment.

I would point to the declining success of the Heartland conferences as direct evidence for the shrinkage.

In somewhat related news, and I haven't seen this discussed much, apparently NPR news recently sent out a memo to its various branches saying that they're offically putting an end to their former practice of seeking "balance" from denialist "experts."

Mark said...

I think they made a half-hearted effort to make this a ploy for changing the statement itself. I got an email a few weeks ago from a "hal linden" urging me to add my name to the petition. I looked at it and emailed him a reply that he was full of it and told him to take his anti-science elsewhere. Predictably, I didn't get a response.

The funniest thing on the list of names on the petition is this:
Farrel W. Lytle
CEO, The EXAFS Company
First Recipient of the Farrel W. Lytle Award (SSRL) 1998
Fellow APS, AAAS; Member ACS, Society for American Archaeology

Woohoo! Look at me, I won an award named for me! That is just beyond belief.

John Mashey said...

re:Farrel Lytle

Well actually... this is why one has to a *lot* of careful looking, because some of these people are actually *quite* distinguished in their own subdisciplines.

1) Here is the history of that award.

SSRL/LCLS are serious organizations, and FW Lytle has a very strong history of heavily-cited publications in this turf, as can be found at Google Scholar.

It is quite plausible that they would establish an award in his name, and give the first one to him.

However, expertise in synchrotron radiation issues does not automagically confer expertise elsewhere.

2) If you want to look for more interesting cases on the list, take look at Appendix 6 (the big alphabetical list) some sample of:

(see especially his talk for the EPA, an recall how often his work gets referenced by some people. Learn about Rhodes Fairbridge.

Also, consider looking at several who wrote books: Alexander, Hayden, and Rapp. See how beloved Ernst-George Beck is.

Unfortunately, I am not as skilled with snark as some might be... or put another way, my paper had to go a bunch of places where snark might not have been helpful, like Nature blog.

Anonymous said...

Wow guys - science as democracy run by committee.

It's a shame that even the Royal Society has forgotten its own motto "nullus in verbia".

Love - Ad Homi-mouse

P.S. Before you flame me read the first few pages (99-101) of Steve Shapin's "how to be antiscientific".

then flame away

EliRabett said...

Arthur, Eli is very concerned about the thinness and age of the documents they relied on. Both rely only on research that had been published by 2005, which means that the actual research was done in 2004 or earlier. There was no reference even to later summary reports such as from the US Climate Change Science Program. This is to Eli, a sign of a committee packaged up and ready for hijacking.

Eli is not so happy that Austin agreed to the recommendation. What the process has done is move the issue to another committee PSOP (?) where we know the denialists have strong representation with a suggestion that guts the policy statement down to the petroleum engineers level.

Think of this as a chess match. Reality is in trouble.

Anonymous said...

"Reality is in trouble" - OMFG if this is your real view then I suggest an early night

Is the reality you refer to an independent one or just yours.

It's very PKDickian but it seems that my reality and yours are different. How do you square that circle? Now you advovate a committee but only if it concurs with your PoV.

Ad Homi-mouse

Arthur said...

Eli - I'm assuming your comment here is more a response to my thoughts on the newer thread... anyway, yes, I agree, the Kleppner report was disappointingly shallow, but I don't think it should be so much cause for worry.

The current APS statement was actually based on a previous POPA recommendation (with some editing by the APS Council), so I'm not sure why you're so worried about POPA itself. I've talked with Krauss, he should be fine. Was there somebody else you were worrying about on there?

And yes, this is a form of chess, so we should be looking several moves forward if possible. Any concrete suggestions on how to influence those future steps?

Ed Darrell said...

they went all out last week, and got 43 new names, including two grad students in Mechanical Engineering @ BYU, which must mean *something*.

It means the science end at BYU has suffered considerably since Harvey Fletcher died.

(I'm a Utah man myself; we always thought mechanical engineering at the Y was "advanced heating and plumbing.")

Ed Darrell said...

I wish we had some real investigative journalists out there who knew how to "follow the money" on these guys... John's article lays out the personal connections - but we need some data on who's paying how much to who to make sense of it all...

Where's George Lardner these days? (Former WaPo guy.)

Gee, I'd be happy if Robert Pear took a month to look at the issue.