My View

Professor Bystroff responds to global warming skeptic

I can understand why many of my colleagues are reluctant to speak out against RPI’s one and only Nobel Laureate. After all, he did make a significant and fundamental contribution to physics. I don’t understand the phenomenon of tunneling myself, but many great physicists agree that it is a real phenomenon. Its existence may even be considered “incontrovertible” by experts. But does that make physics a “religion”? I don’t think so.

That is the essence of Ivar Giaever’s argument against anthropogenic global warming. On February 8, in a lecture delivered to around 300 faculty and students in DCC 324, Institute professor and 1973 Nobel Laureate Giaever declared that he had resigned from the American Physical Society over the statement that global warming was “incontrovertible.” Nothing is incontrovertible, he said, and to claim such a thing places one’s science on the par with religion. “Is global warming a religion?” he asked the audience. His answer: “absolutely.”

My hypocrisy sensor was buzzing. Science can’t be “incontrovertible” but global warming is “absolutely” a religion?

There was more hypocrisy. At the beginning of the talk, Professor Giaever defined the term “pseudo-science” as the type of science where one considers only the facts that agree with one’s hypothesis and ignores the facts that contradict it. What followed was a series of slides containing only the facts that contradict the hypothesis that the Earth is warming and that the cause is human activity. Ice on Greenland and Antarctica is thickening not thinning. Global temperatures lead global carbon dioxide concentrations in ice core data rather than trailing, as you would expect if carbon dioxide were the causative factor. Global temperatures have been falling since 1998. Each of these observations have explanations. But the explanations were left unspoken. Instead, the cherry-picked facts were served up raw and unchallenged.

Carefully omitted from his talk were well established observations that cannot be adequately explained without invoking global warming as the cause. Examples are the receding sea ice in the arctic and the loss of glaciers, some hundreds of thousands of years old, all over the planet, from the Himalayas to Mount Kilimanjaro to Glacier National Park.

More disturbing than cherry picking was Professor Giaever’s use of ridicule as a tool against other scientists and against an entire field of science. This form of ridicule consists of a statement of incredulity, followed by an expression of distrust. Giaever expressed incredulity that anyone could measure changes in the global average temperature that amounted to 0.003 percent of a degree Kelvin. How could anyone be so precise? This statement was left hanging in the air, unchallenged. Who could challenge it? And left without a challenge, we are forced to accept, on authority, his statement of doubt. And his authority is huge! If someone dismissed my science in a similar way, you would be left with a deep distrust in molecular biophysics. How could anyone measure the location of a single atom within 0.0000000001 meters? Indeed, but we do!

It is hugely irresponsible for a scientist of high stature to play fast and loose with the facts, especially in an arena of such importance. The repercussions are about to begin. We can expect high school science teachers to think twice now, before teaching a segment on global warming, lest they be accused of teaching religion in schools. We can expect Giaever to be cited in the halls of Congress, arming the partisans of anti-science and putting the brakes on green technology. We can expect presidential candidates to make him their champion. We can expect the stunned silence of citizen science advocates and activists, whose policy positions depend on the words of the world’s authority figures. There will be a lot of cleaning up to do.

Yet for all his flaws, Professor Giaever showed us a side of science we rarely see. Scientists have to be willing to stand up and resist the establishment of a faith-based belief system. He saw the signs of blind acceptance growing within the field of climate change, where science becomes politics and what should be scientific discussions become like team sports. He was unabashed in going against the grain of the overwhelming consensus. He even challenged us to look at human overpopulation as the cause of our environmental decay, a subject glaring in its absence from scientific discussions and university curricula. He stirred the pot, however clumsily, letting the settled ingredients rise for a time to the surface for reconsideration. Let it lead to a better formula for science and scientific discourse.

Chris Bystroff

Associate Professor of Biology