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American Physical Society Statement on Climate Change: No Longer ‘Incontrovertible,’ But Still Unacceptable

A new letter to the American Physical Society (APS) from physicists Roger Cohen, Laurence I. Gould, and William Happer makes it clear that the 2015 revision of the Society’s 2007 statement on climate change still hasn’t been revised enough.

One major point of contention, the unacceptable use of the heavily loaded term “incontrovertible,” has been addressed, but the process by which that word slithered into the statement has not been dissected thoroughly enough, and dissenting scientists say promises to consult them on the new statement have not been honored.

The American Physical Society is a non-profit organization boasting over 51,000 members, making it one of the largest such groups in the world. Climate science is a branch of physics, and climate change is the biggest and hottest debate in science (at least, it has the most money, cultural influence, and political power riding on it) so an APS statement on the matter was inevitable.

Many members strongly believed that, as a society of physicists, the APS statement should focus solely upon the current state of climate science, and not the vast penumbra of policy surrounding it. That is certainly a fine ideal to uphold. Anyone who has closely followed the mutation of this most politicized of disciplines should be able to guess what actually happened in 2007.

As Cohen, Gould, and Happer recall in their new letter, written on behalf of “the nearly 300 other members who signed our 2009 and 2010 petitions to the APS taking strong exception to the 2007 Statement on Climate Change”:

APS email records show that the original 2007 Statement was rewritten “on the fly, over lunch” by a small group of firebrands who arbitrarily inserted themselves in the process, thereby overruling the prerogatives of POPA [the Panel on Public Affairs] and the APS Council. Thus, in “reaffirming” the 2007 Statement, the current Draft is referring to one that was produced by a bogus process and led to much ridicule of the APS, especially for its use of the infamous “incontrovertible.”

In essence, the 2007 statement was modified at the last moment by the “firebrands” in question, to declare that the science of man-made climate change is “incontrovertible.” This is an entirely unacceptable term for serious scientists, especially physicists. It implies conclusions that cannot be challenged, questions that cannot be asked – the very antithesis of the scientific method. (Also, for those keeping score, the following years were not at all kind to some of 2007’s supposedly “incontrovertible” conclusions.)

Cohen and his co-signatories charge the APS Panel on Public Affairs with ignoring or subverting bylaws established both before and after the 2007 statement was drafted.

“In the process of developing a Draft 2015 Statement, APS failed to consult any of at least 300 members, including Nobel Laureates, NAS members, and many Fellows, who were deeply dissatisfied with the 2007 Statement,” they write. “Thus POPA deliberately failed to seek and incorporate interested and appropriate member input, as required in the Bylaws.”

One particularly egregious omission was POPA’s failure to “take into account the findings of the broad-based workshop, chaired by Steve Koonin, which faithfully and expertly executed its charge to assess the state of the science in global warming.”

The Koonin committee did the APS proud, conducting the only serious review of global warming science by a major American scientific society that we know of, while simultaneously realizing the objectives of our 2009 and 2010 petitions. Having thus advanced the interests of physics and the Society, POPA subsequently ignored the Koonin workshop and its product. POPA once again returned to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as its sole source of authority on the science, thereby abrogating its responsibility to the membership to properly conduct independent scientific assessments.

Koonin wrote about his work in a September 2014 Wall Street Journal op-ed, emphasizing that human impact on the climate must be considered in relation to the enormous scale of natural systems.

“Even though human influences could have serious consequences for the climate, they are physically small in relation to the climate system as a whole,” he wrote, pointing out that among those hefty natural variables are the Earth’s oceans, whose inner workings even the most enthusiastic climate change alarmist must admit remain beyond our understanding. Conversely, he also noted that significant meteorological phenomenon occur on a scale smaller that current computer systems can model.

The letter from Cohen et al raises a point made often by scientists skeptical of climate change, who are perpetually accused of somehow perverting their work (in ways that never seem to register on thorough peer review) due to conflicts of interest, while advocates are absurdly presumed free of such conflicts:

The Chair of the POPA committee has failed to identify serious conflicts of interests by its members. For example, a few years ago, one member of POPA, representing himself as an agent of a politically active nongovernmental organization, demanded that a Cleveland-area television station fire its meteorologist for expressing some doubt about IPCC statements on global warming. On every scientific point, the meteorologist was right, and we are glad to say that he retained his job.

For all of these reasons, the signatories think the 2007 statement on climate change is fundamentally flawed, and should be retired, rather than attempting to repair its language and add material to reflect the concerns of dissenting scientists:

These process exceptions by POPA cloud the legitimacy, objectivity, and content of the current Draft. In considering this, along with the strong basis for continuing investigations of unresolved key scientific questions in the global warming issue, it is clear that the best course of APS action is simply to archive the 2007 Statement without further attempts to replace it. We ask that you take this step in the interests of the Society and its membership.

The importance of respecting process is reflected in both the scientific and political aspects of the climate change debate. For scientists, there is concern for the method by which hypotheses are advanced, tested, refined and sometimes discarded. In the political realm, we debate the importance of the rule of law.

The most fervent advocates of various policy positions say that we must bend or ignore the rules to address the righteousness or urgency of their cause. Climate change alarmists make that point explicitly, in both the scientific and political realms. In this example of a great society of scientists concerned that their bylaws have been subverted to send a message on a highly controversial field of study, we have a perfect convergence of scientific method and legal process.

“The APS issue goes deeper than what is right or wrong in climate science,” Cohen, a distinguished fellow of the Society, told me. “It goes to the integrity of the science process and the trust invested in our scientific institutions.  The question at hand is whether science is worthy of the trust the public once conferred upon it, or whether it is just another special interest.”

“Science is not the handmaiden of politics,” added Gould, a professor of physics at the University of Hartford and past chair of the New England section of the APS.

“Administrators of the American Physical Society should now act to recapture its noble mission,” he urged. “This includes the recognition that, ‘Science is best advanced when there is mutual trust, based upon honest behavior, throughout the community. … It is important that the tradition of ethical behavior be carefully maintained [my stress] and transmitted with enthusiasm to future generations.’”

Here he quotes the APS Guidelines for Professional Conduct, with a personal emphasis on both the importance and difficulty of maintaining those traditions. Another important and difficult principle is proper respect for uncertainty. As Dr. Koonin said in his Wall Street Journal piece, “Any serious discussion of the changing climate must begin by acknowledging not only the scientific certainties but also the uncertainties, especially in projecting the future.”

Too many climate-change activists mistake the forcible creation, and vigorous policing, of a “consensus” with the decisive defeat of uncertainty.

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