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Climategate and the American Physical Society

On October 8, Harold "Hal" Lewis, emeritus professor of physics and ex-chair of the physics department at the University of California in Santa Barbara, resigned his membership in the American Physical Society (APS) after 67 years of membership. In his letter of resignation, Professor Lewis said:

[M]y former pride at being an APS Fellow all these years has been turned into shame, and I am forced, with no pleasure at all, to offer you my resignation from the Society.

The reason: the APS treatment of Climategate and the global warming debate. If you listen carefully, you can hear the climate "consensus" starting to crack.

As usual with this kind of thing, what precipitated Lewis's resignation was a succession of events. In November of 2007, the APS released its "National Policy 07.1: CLIMATE CHANGE" document, which said in part:

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.

At the time, Professor Lewis and others objected to this statement, noting among other things that there is nothing in science that is "incontrovertible": real science is always open to new evidence and better hypotheses. In an open letter to the APS, they proposed instead:

Studies of a variety of natural processes, including ocean cycles and solar variability, indicate that they can account for variations in the Earth’s climate on the time scale of decades and centuries. Current climate models appear insufficiently reliable to properly account for natural and anthropogenic contributions to past climate change, much less project future climate.

The APS supports an objective scientific effort to understand the effects of all processes -- natural and human -- on the Earth’s climate and the biosphere’s response to climate change, and promotes technological options for meeting challenges of future climate changes, regardless of cause.

The APS rejected this firmly and summarily, with final action on November 10, 2009.

Unfortunately for the APS, this was followed inconveniently on the night of November 18, 2009, with the release of the Climategate files. First mentioned here in Pajamas Media just hours after the files were discovered, the purloined files exposed the science, and more importantly the scientists, behind the political movement to restrict carbon dioxide emissions to new scrutiny. Up to that time, people in favor of major restrictions, like Al Gore, Dr James Hansen of NASA, and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), had been quite effective at convincing the major media and the man on the street that the Earth was at risk because of anthropogenic ("human caused") global warming, and that dissenters were fringe figures, probably with ulterior motives or in the pay of oil companies.

The Climategate files were a major blow. The Climategate emails showed clearly that there had been some people in the climate community who had been working hard, behind the scenes and outside of the usual "scientific" channels, to discount or suppress any counter-arguments or contradictory studies that might call the notion of anthropogenic climate change into question.

In fact, the emails confirmed what had been discounted up to then as silly conspiracy theories: that "mainstream" climate researchers were conspiring to prevent their data from being examined by independent researchers; that the most respected and senior scientists in the field were using their influence to prevent counter-evidence from being published; that the AGW community was actually using their influence to damage the careers of people who weren't considered "reliable." It was a confirmation of the conspiracy theories as shocking as any "birther" or "truther" could imagine in their wildest wish-fulfillment dreams.

As there was more time to examine the evidence, it became clear that the real revelations were in the other files released at the same time. The HARRY_READ_ME file showed that even the scientists directly involved were having trouble replicating their own results -- which made their distaste for outside examination both more understandable and more scientifically unacceptable.

The Climategate revelations then opened the corral door, and the mustangs inside bolted. Examination of IPCC reports led to confirmation that the process had been politically influenced from the start, with major errors -- like the discovery that the prediction that glaciers in the Himalayans were imminently to disappear was based on an off-the-cuff estimate in a telephone interview, further corrupted by a typographical error.

The report on which the U.S. government was basing their efforts at developing a new climate change treaty, as well as being the basis for Al Gore's Oscar-winning polemic An Inconvenient Truth, was rapidly losing credibility, and the Copenhagen talks on a new climate treaty dissolved into a wave of meaningless platitudes and vast recriminations.

In 1962, Thomas Kuhn wrote his influential -- and often misunderstood -- The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In it, he made an observation about science: what is called "mainstream" science tends to develop a consensus pattern, or paradigm, to which all "proper" science is expected to conform.  Kuhn called that "normal" science, which he contrasted with "revolutionary" science that challenges the accepted consensus.

Revolutionary science is never accepted easily; in general, what must happen is that the weight of counter-evidence, or of observations that don't easily fit into the "normal" paradigm, must become overwhelming. Even then, the "normal" paradigm has many social defenses: revolutionary science can be difficult to publish and difficult to fund, and pursuing revolutionary science can be damaging to a young scientist's career. So the breakdown of an old paradigm never comes easily; usually, as Max Planck joked, revolutionary science eventually succeeds when its opponents grow old and die.

In fact, the acceptance of "revolutionary" science and the breakdown of the existing "normal" paradigm isn't usually quite that dramatic. In general, new evidence eventually becomes sufficiently convincing that "old" scientists, respected in the normal paradigm, begin to come around.

This is what is happening with Professor Lewis's resignation. As a critic, he can be ignored; as a critic willing to take the major step of resignation, he becomes much harder to ignore.

This doesn't mean resistance instantly ends. It's no surprise to anyone who has actually worked in science, but first of all, science is done by human beings. And unlike what we are sometimes led to believe, scientists are not selfless, disinterested, secular monks. Instead, like other human beings, scientists are sometimes motivated by self-interest, ambition, and pride. The breakdown of a dominating paradigm means that work of many years may be questioned, and a reputation built up over a lifetime may be damaged by the recognition that you were, well, wrong.

The APS certainly shows how this resistance can work. As Professor Lewis notes in his resignation letter, the APS refused to act as required by its own constitution and by-laws to appoint a formal committee to examine the science involved. Instead, the APS has promised to form a poorly formulated and poorly defined group of its own, with little apparent input from scientists skeptical about the original conclusions.

Professor Lewis's action -- resignation from a scientific organization that had counted him among its most respected members, based on the perception that they no longer support "good science" over political expediency -- is earth-shaking, even if so far in only a small way. But earthquakes are funny -- a few small earthquakes can weaken an edifice, through repeated cracks, as thoroughly as one big earthquake.

Professor Lewis's resignation is another sign that the foundation of certainty about anthropogenic, carbon-dioxide forced, global warming is showing cracks that suggest the weakness of the whole structure.