2011-05-22 07:26:27Even Princeton makes mistakes
Chris Colose


In general, belonging to a respected department at a top institution (such as MIT, Princeton, Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, etc) gives your word strong authority in the public eye.  Richard Lindzen, for example, is known for his work in dynamics and what he has contributed to the referred literature amongst colleagues, but to a general audience he is "Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology at MIT."  This, of course, is not an intrinsically bad thing-- we accept authority all the time on subjects we know little about.  Just last night, I watched a movie called "Double Jeopardy" with Tommy Lee Jones, a film built somewhat around a constitutional law that forbids someone from being tried for the same crime twice. Afterward, I was curious enough to check the internet to see how well the film did at legal interpretation, and I found through wikipedia that a "Harvard law professor" said it was not entirely accurate (though I do recommend the movie, it was quite good).  I'm sure he is right, his reasoning made sense to me, and I didn't have a particular interest in researching the matter further.

These respected institutions, in turn, must hire only the best to be the best, and in general to have a position of authority at these places means you have earned it.  Nonetheless, they do make mistakes sometimes.  Lubos Motl at Harvard comes to mind.  Another example is William Happer, a Professor of Physics at Princeton.  To me, the credibility of a scientist doesn't just come from what he publishes in the literature, but also what he publishes throughout the internet as well.  In the case of many of the more prominent global warming skeptics who have actual publishing experience, much of what they say on the internet is done precisely because it would never get accepted into a journal document.  Nonetheless, by placing themselves in a position of authority on the subject, they also position themselves to be criticized for what they say.  The same is true of me, or many other climate bloggers who now try to "teach the science."

Just who is William Happer to someone who doesn't really care much? Well, he is "the Cyrus Fogg Brackett Professor of Physics at Princeton University", which probably makes him correct concerning a lot of physical phenomena he chooses to talk about.  But then you come across an article such as this (which was then reproduced at Watts Up With That, presumably for the sole reason that it is a disinformation piece).

The outline of the article is to lay to rest the "contemporary moral epidemic" surrounding "the notion that increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, notably carbon dioxide, will have disastrous consequences for mankind and for the planet."  As one would expect from such an opening, there are also the usual references to a climate crusade, money-hungry govermnemts, greedy scientists, etc.  For the next 10 paragraphs or so, Happer uses a lot of words to say absolutely nothing, except that life needs carbon and it shouldn't be regulated as a "pollutant."

Personally, I have little interest in the legality of making CO2 a "pollutant" or not.  I'm quite sure different people here have their own perspective on this, but to me whether we call it a "pollutant" or a "banana" doesn't change its physical properties: CO2 is a strong greenhouse gas, and it is important in impeding how efficiently our planet loses radiative heat to space.  We don't often think of CO2 as a "pollutant" on Venus, yet it still allows the planet to support temperatures well above the melting point of lead or tin.

Happer then throws in a few classical straw man attacks such as, "CO2 levels have increased from about 280 ppm to 390 ppm over the past 150 years or so, and the earth has warmed by about 0.8 degree Celsius during that time. Therefore the warming is due to CO2. But correlation is not causation. Roosters crow every morning at sunrise, but that does not mean the rooster caused the sun to rise. The sun will still rise on Monday if you decide to have the rooster for Sunday dinner."

This would, of course, be a perfectly valid counter-argument to would-be fallacious reasoning, yet it isn't the reasoning any real scientist uses, and is therefore a smokescreen.  Naturally, the WUWT crowd has eaten it up without thinking twice.  The causative mechanism is the underlying radiative physics of how a CO2 molecule interacts with infrared light, and also a wide variety of indirect signatures of climate change induced by agents acting on the longwave part of the spectrum, such as stratospheric cooling or the radiative imbalance at the top of the atmosphere.   

Happer can't resist throwing in a few outdated one-liners about the Vikings in a "green" Greenland, how CO2 lags temperatures in ice cores, and other boring punchlines that most skeptics don't even bother with anymore.  He implies that Earth cooled by about 10 C during the Younger Dryas, but actually the YD was a time of relatively little global temperature change, even though a large area of the planet was actually being affected (see here).  There's a whole list of other quick talking points about climategate, the hockey stick, etc that readers here will be well familiar with.  What is most surprising to me is that a distinguished physicist apparently has no original thoughts on the matter.

Happer's reasoning is well out of line throughout his entire article, yet that doesn't stop a Princeton physicist from declaring with such confidence that this CO2-induced global warming thing is all a sham.  Throughout the article he shows his unambiguous mission to confuse the reader, and his own ignorance concerning the physics of climate. He makes a number of serious accusations against a very large community, something which if unfounded (as it is surely is) should ruin the reputation of any serious scientist.  Indeed, for me at least, it has.  It is possible his own area of research is so far removed from climate that none of his colleagues will bother to care.

In short, even Princeton can make mistakes in who they decide should represent their department.

2011-05-22 08:13:17
Rob Painting

Typo 4th paragraph - t"he 

I'm always amazed how incompetent (or perhaps in Happer's case, deluded) people manage to snare such high-ranking positions. Nice, and I understood every word you wrote for a change! (imagine grinning smiley here)  

2011-05-22 08:54:08


Well, I think the problem is that people who are competent in one area sometimes get so used to being right in that area, that they forget that they can't expect to be automatically right in an unrelated area.

The confidence transfers, but unfortunately not the knowledge or intellectual honesty.

2011-05-22 09:24:09
Dana Nuccitelli

Agreed with neal.

Good post.  You're missing a period at the end of the third paragraph, and the quotation mark in the wrong spot that Rob mentioned.  I'd also suggest adding a few links, such as:

Lindzen Illusion #7 for Lindzen

Motl-ey Cruel for Motl

CO2 is not a pollutant

"it's not us" for the signatures

Greenland was green

CO2 lags temperature

Climategate CRU emails suggest conspiracy

Hockey stick is broken

2011-05-22 09:48:57


Just for general info, Happer is Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Marshall Institute.

very clear and well written.
"something which if unfounded (as it is surely is) should ruin the reputation of any serious scientist.  Indeed, for me at least, it has". For me too.

what you say is expecially true of physicists. We physicists are thaught that we know the very foundations of the laws of nature and hence we can pontificate on almost anything. This makes us a double edged sword, we may make the difference (if we're humble enough to learn from people specialised in other fields) or we may mess everything up. Happer has a bias and did the latter.

2011-05-22 12:22:56
Chris Colose


Recommendations and corrections done.  Thanks

2011-05-22 12:33:15
Rob Painting

Neal, I understand that such misplaced confidence, starts the ball rolling, but how does it evolve from that, to global warming is a sham? 

2011-05-22 13:03:46
Dana Nuccitelli

Oh and coincidentally, I watched a bit of Double Jeopardy last night too.  Probably on the same station :-)

I just read the article.  It may have been even dumber than Monckton, and just as Gish Gallopy.  Actually probably even moreso.  I'm adding it to the database, and lost track of the number of myths.  Probably over 20.

2011-05-22 18:34:23


Very nice, it is written in an unformal tone, I felt like you were just discussing with me while reading the post. Cool reading :)

Riccardo's point is spot on: I think it should be mentioned that he sits at the Marshall Institute. Cos' then it appears clearly why he's writing such BS - ideologically incompatible with the concept of AGW.



2011-05-22 19:42:51



It starts with someone having a basically conservative attitude and having technical competence:

Step 1: Become an accepted expert in a focused technical area

Step 2: Develop confidence in being right in your area

Step 3: Forget that your area is not = "the universe at large"

Step 4: Run into the AGW issue: Because of your conservative attitude, you don't like the solutions; because climate change is not immediately perceptible, you easily come to the conclusion that you don't believe the analysis.

Step 5: Apply very demanding standards appropriate to your own field to the less precise and detailed data & models available to climate science, and find it wanting. Conclude that the whole theory is built on sand. (It helps here that you don't feel invested enough in the situation to try to create your own complete self-consistent picture of what is going on.)

Of course, not every physicist falls into this trap:

- I have never heard Richard Feynman's views on AGW, but I suspect that he would not have fallen foul: For one thing, I don't think he would have been satisfied to just poke holes in other peoples' views without proposing a 360-degree view of his own: He would have wanted to put everything into perspective. Unfortunately, climate phenomena have so many factors that this kind of problem would not have interested him.

- Richard Muller falls into it partially: He doesn't really deny climate science or global warming as a whole, but he's taken a scornful attitude about the scientific standards of the field.

- Freeman Dyson (a great physicist) is a special case: Here I think the issue is not conservatism, but his reflexive desire to always be a maverick. Probably the best way to neutralize him would be to challenge him to come up with a 360-degree picture of the climate: That would force him off his "I can just be a critic" perch. Unfortunately, he's also unlikely to enjoy this kind of problem; and he has a good excuse: He's too old.

It may be that we need a "Manhattan Project" approach to defining a technical framework: A strong push to hammer out a consensus viewpoint, that gives the skeptics their chance to present their cases and have them shot down clearly and publicly in full view of the entire scientific community. Right now, the traditional medium of scientific discourse is not working properly: a viewpoint can live on, in guerrilla warfare, on the internet; even after it's been demolished in the scientific literature.

But this may take an urgent goal and target: A deadline of 50 years doesn't quite push the button hard enough.

2011-05-22 21:04:56
Rob Painting

Neal, thanks for the insight. Guess you get to see this kind of pattern first hand. I have a glimmer of understanding now.

2011-05-22 22:08:09


I remember having a blob discussion with a mining engineer who claimed that his work on modeling mineral deposits was no less delicate and difficult than modeling climate, and that he was therefore highly qualified to judge the output of climate models.

I pointed out to him that:

- the measurements he depended upon were functions only of spatial extent, not of time, so if there were any problems with data, his measurements could be repeated, but climate measurements cannot;

- the spatial locations of gathered mineral data cover whatever is interesting, but for climate data, this is unfortunately not true;

As someone who has never been involved with simulations or measurements for either mineralogy or climate science, these differences were nonetheless obvious to me.

But they had not occured to him; this is an example of the blindspot of over-confidence in one's own expertise.