Hal Lewis: Incontrovertibly Emeritus

Hal Lewis, emeritus physics professor at UCSB, has just published an open letter to the American Physical Society announcing his resignation, presumably as both a member and Fellow of the society. Lewis' complaint regards the way the society has treated the issue of climate change; he was the second signatory on this open letter published in Nature last year, so has certainly been known to have strong opinions on the matter.

Of course, I've written a bit here before on the genesis of the 2009 APS Council discussion and my thoughts on the "commentary" that was proposed as a way to satisfy some of the complaints.

[For disclosure to those new here: I am employed by the APS but that position has no interaction with any of the council, committee, or upper management decision-making on policy issues of this sort: my work is on computer software for the journals. I also have been a member of the APS for about 25 years, with my previous research career involving numerous scientific presentations at APS (and other) meetings and publications in APS (and other) journals, serving as a referee, etc. Nothing I write on this blog or on climate in general has any sanction or approval from APS management - all I have heard is disapproval or disavowal to this point. Opinions here are completely my own.]

In any case, one outcome of the discussion last year was a plan to develop a new topical group on "the Physics of Climate", something I heartily endorse. Lewis seems to dispute the account given in the APS News article just linked, in particular referring to the organizing committee formed by the APS as "secret and stacked" to form "your own" topical group. If Lewis wasn't planning for the new topical group to be an APS topical group, what did he think he was doing? Lewis wasn't even the person who sent out the petition he talks about in his letter, it was Roger Cohen (not mentioned once in Lewis' letter - why?). Lewis's claims also seem a little odd given that the person selected by APS to head up the organizing committee, Nobel laureate Jerome Friedman of MIT, was one of the signatories on Cohen's petition for the new group. Did Lewis want to try to form a "climate skeptics only, nobody else invited" group somehow with APS sanction?

Lewis' letter is unfortunately steeped in conspiracy-theory-talk. He states:

the American Physical Society sixty-seven years ago ... [was] ... as yet uncorrupted by the money flood

the money flood has become the raison d'être of much physics research, the vital sustenance of much more, and it provides the support for untold numbers of professional jobs

the global warming scam, with the (literally) trillions of dollars driving it, that has corrupted so many scientists, and has carried APS before it like a rogue wave. It is the greatest and most successful pseudoscientific fraud I have seen in my long life as a physicist.

[APS] has accepted the corruption as the norm, and gone along with it.

APS appointed a secret committee that never met, never troubled to speak to any skeptics, yet endorsed the Statement in its entirety.

the ClimateGate scandal broke into the news, and the machinations of the principal alarmists were revealed to the world. It was a fraud on a scale I have never seen, and I lack the words to describe its enormity.

APS management has gamed the problem from the beginning, to suppress serious conversation about the merits of the climate change claims

This scheming at APS HQ is so bizarre that there cannot be a simple explanation for it. Some have held that the physicists of today are not as smart as they used to be, but I don't think that is an issue. I think it is the money, exactly what Eisenhower warned about a half-century ago. There are indeed trillions of dollars involved, to say nothing of the fame and glory (and frequent trips to exotic islands) that go with being a member of the club. Your own Physics Department (of which you are chairman) would lose millions a year if the global warming bubble burst. When Penn State absolved Mike Mann of wrongdoing, and the University of East Anglia did the same for Phil Jones, they cannot have been unaware of the financial penalty for doing otherwise.

Those are some pretty bold accusations. Unfortunately he seems to base much of it on Montford's book about the "hockey stick" and peripherally "ClimateGate" - perhaps unaware of the deep defects in that work. In fact, Lewis' conspiracy claims seem almost identical to Montford's as paraphrased at RealClimate: "all of modern climate science is a fraud perpetrated by a massive conspiracy of climate scientists and politicians, in order to guarantee an unending supply of research funding and political power."

Lewis talks about "trillions of dollars". Going to scientists? That seems rather unlikely. The vast majority of the (billions) spent on climate research go to two places: satellite manufacture, launch and operations, and supercomputer centers for doing climate model calculations. The average climate scientist is paid no more than the average American, about $50,000/year, and many work for hardly more than minimum wage, some spending long hours and even putting their lives at risk for their work. This money is the source of corruption? Lewis has absolutely no basis for his claim.

Money is (or was until recently) certainly an attraction to young physicists: Wall Street money. If there is anything that has made the present generation of physicists perhaps slightly less brilliant than their predecessors, it's the siren song from global finance. Several of the brightest graduate students in my class went off to "quant" positions and made roughly ten times more money than the "average scientist" over the past couple of decades. Large quantities of money can certainly be corrupting - but the money doesn't come to the scientists doing science. Some scientists leave science to go where the money is, but they don't send any back.

But somehow, Lewis claims this "money flood" is corrupting universities and non-profit professional societies like APS. I wouldn't be surprised if there are some research areas affected by large sums of money flowing in - medical and pharmaceutical research, perhaps, or defense industry research. I myself have long found Eisenhower's speech on the military-industrial complex a compelling call to action. But Lewis thinks this has something to do with climate research, to the extent that it corrupts a professional society that doesn't even include very many actual climate researchers? That seems a real stretch... Where are his numbers? He has none, no proof of his speculations at all.

Furthermore, his letter, and the previous petitions he's been involved with, have little or no real scientific content. The one plausibly scientific complaint in his letter is this:

[APS] kept the poison word incontrovertible to describe the evidence

Was that really what all the fuss was about? One word, in the APS statement on climate change? Here's the word, in context (second paragraph of the statement):

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.

Is global warming occurring? All the evidence points to a "yes" answer. The APS statement seems to me no more emphatic than that of the IPCC (AR4 WG1, 2007 summary for Policy Makers, p. 5):

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level (see Figure SPM.3). {3.2, 4.2, 5.5}

Is "incontrovertible" stronger than "unequivocal"? Definitions from various sources:

incontrovertible: Not capable of being denied, challenged, or disputed; closed to questioning
unequivocal: Unambiguous; without equivocation or ambiguity; singularly clear, unmistakable, or unquestionable

- well, sounds the same to me. There really is no question that recent years have been warming. If somebody thinks it's been cooling, they're welcome to show me their predictions of future temperatures for the past few years, and we can compare results.

Anybody who's done anything for 67 years is clearly no longer a spring chicken. Despite his touted credentials, I'd personally never heard of Dr. Lewis before his recent petitioning on climate issues. Of course we worked in different fields - neither of which were climate-related. With his resignation, perhaps Dr. Lewis can relax a bit and meditate on the glorious past, and leave us younger folk to worry about the future. I do wonder how many will follow Dr. Lewis' lead...


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I analyzed the money going to

I analyzed the money going to climate science in general and PSU (which Lewis mentions in his letter) in particular and found that climate science funding is about 1/3000th of the revenues of fossil-fuel related industries. Similarly, PSU got about 0.06% of its research dollars from Mann's work.

Those who claim that climate scientists are just in it for the research dollars don't have much of a grasp on the economics involved.

His description of the amount

His description of the amount of money involved ('literally trillions') is just daft. As a comparison, the GDP of the whole USA was just over 14 trillion dollars last year - that is 14 million million dollars (twelve zeros ?). Where have all those trillions gone to in this 'global warming scam' ?

Among your other points, I'm

Among your other points, I'm glad you highlighted Lewis' strange objection to the use of "incontrovertible". I had similar thoughts here: http://tinyurl.com/2wo7dha

"Now, I am in no position to counter Lewis' other complaints on back room machinations at the APS - no doubt others within the organisation will have their say - but I do find his stringent objection to the use of "incontrovertible" rather strange given the [APS statement] above. That global temperatures have been rising over many years is a very non-controversial position. Even if you are unwilling to accept the evidence provided via proxy construction (pre-1880), then a study of the instrumental temperature record will more than suffice in this instance. Certainly, the most plausible "sceptics" are not trying to debate the fact that the planet is hotter now than at any time following the industrial revolution; instead they are trying to offer alternative causes (besides anthropogenic CO2) for the observed warming."

One thing I noticed in his

One thing I noticed in his letter:

This scheming at APS HQ is so bizarre that there cannot be a simple explanation for it.

The explanation is that it is the petition's content that is actually bizarre, and that it is hard for a scientific academy to respond in a rational way to a petition from a group of members that is so unscientific and full of conspiracy theories. Most of the hardcore critics of AGW and the IPCC who have real scientific credentials make an effort to use scientifically-plausible criticisms. See Lindzen. But this petition doesn't meet that threshhold.

Apparently Lewis has written

Apparently Lewis has written back the APS, according to WTFWT...

He's sticking with his conspiracy theory.

Of course the WTFWT idiocracy are eating it up...