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Even Princeton Makes Mistakes

Posted on 26 May 2011 by 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.

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Comments 101 to 116 out of 116:

  1. Dr Jay Cadbury, PhD, as you are so determined to defend Happer's pontifications, perhaps you could consider the following claim:
    "There have been many warmings and coolings in the past when the CO2 levels did not change. A well-known example is the medieval warming, about the year 1000, when the Vikings settled Greenland (when it was green) and wine was exported from England."
    (My emphasis) Given the authority you obviously attribute to Happer, perhaps you could point out whether you agree with him that: 1) That Greenland was green in the MWP (or at any time in human history); and 2) England exported wines in the MWP. As you are also Happer's friend, perhaps you can elicit from him his sources of this information. For my part, I believe that Greenland has been covered by an icecap for the entirety of human history, and that describing the MWP as the period when Greenland "was green" because at that time, as todady, a few square kilometers on the southern coast are green on a seasonal basis is misleading (to say the least). I also believe that while England had 42 vinyards at the time of the Domesday Book, that was partly because wine preservation was rudimentary so that the superior wines of France and Spain all to easily turned to vinegar when transported to England, and that consequently, there would be no export market for the inferior English wines transported the other way. Absent evidence to the contrary, it appears to me that Happer has simply embellished the well known reports of MWP English wines because, as is well known, there are over 300 commercial Engish vinyards today, not to mention Sweden, Scotland, and soon to be, Norway. Given knowledge of modern viniculture in England, 42 vineyards really isn't that impressive, but if they were exported, well, that's something you can base some spin on. So exported they were, for need trumps truth every time in spin. (Or so it seems to me.) Now, you appear to have been defending the right of Happer to make up his own facts because he has a PhD, and lectures at Princeton. If that is not your claim, then we can expect clear citations proving MWP wine exports from England.
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  2. I feel compelled to comment on the vikings in Greenland (maybe its a name thing). I seriously doubt anyone would believe that Greenland was "green" during the Viking colonization, except for small tracts of land along the southern coasts, and as Tom points out, are still green today. The ice cap has been there for perhaps a hundred thousand years (maybe more), and likely to remain so for a similar era (maybe less). In short, the entirety of human history, as Tom stated. Records during the viking era are sketchy at best, but most indicate increases in sea ice extent as the major reason for the demise of the viking settlements. The vikings in Greenland required constant supplies which waned (and eventually ceased) with the increasing sea ice. Anecdotal evidence, along with studies like the following all point in this direction: I know nothing about English wines, avoiding them like the plague.
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  3. Dr Jay Cadbury, Phd, consider Happer's claim that:
    "The supposed reason for limiting it is to stop global warming—or, since the predicted warming has failed to be nearly as large as computer models forecast, to stop climate change."
    Again, do you agree with Happer that measured warming has failed to be nearly as large as that predicted by computer models? And do you know, or can you obtain the citation for this claim? For myself, I take a fairly simplistic approach to claims like this. Specifically, I took a magnified plot of the temperature predictions for the A2 scenario from the IPCC AR4. (Actual image taken from the PDF version for higher resolution.) I then took a plot of the Gisstemp global temperature index from Tamino. Noting that the predictions were relative to the 1980-1999 mean, I plotted that onto Tamino's graph (redline) and also added some additional lines (yellow) to aid alignment. Having aligned the to graphs to ensure correct scale, I then merged them, producing the following result: Having done so I noticed several things: a) The trend line of actual measurements is greater than the trend line of the 17 model mean predictions; b) Just two measured values (2000 and 2008) lie below the 17 model mean; c) No measured value lies on or below the lowest predicted value for that year by any model; and d) 4 out of 11 years lie on or above the highest model prediction for that year by any of the 17 models. I find it difficult to reconcile these facts with a claim that measured warming has failed to be nearly as large as the predicted warming. In fact, on the contrary, I find it impossible to interpret this as being anything other than measured temperatures exceeding the model predictions both as to values and with regard to the trend. The Earth is warming faster than the models predicted, not slower. In other words, Happer has stated the complete reverse of the truth. Considering your spirited defence of Happer's inexactitudes, can you please explain just when it is that you are entitled to not just your own opinions, but your own facts - once you have a PhD? Or only after being appointed to a chair at Princeton? PS: I apologise for the difficulty reading measured values in the area in which the graphs overlap, and unfortunate by product of the graphical method used. I'm sure one of the clever programming literate people around here would find it handy to reproduce the graphs from scratch for greater clarity.)
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  4. Happer is the first I have come across to claim wine was exported from England in the Medieval period. Is there really going to be any reliable documentary evidence of English wine exports 1000 years ago? Smacks of exaggeration and hyperbole to me.
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  5. Apologies to Dr Cadbury and all. I made a significant error in my graphic manipulations which I have now corrected below: In light of this I have to amend my claims as follows: a) The measured trend is slightly less than the trend of the 17 model mean; b) Just three of eleven measured values lie on the 17 year mean with the rest lying below it; c) Two measured values (2000 and 2008) lie below the lowest prediction by any model for that year; and d) No measured value lies on or above the highest predicted value for any year. Clearly I jumped the gun (and should probably have known better. The Earth is in fact warming slower than model projections. It is just marginally slower, slow enough that I needed to lay the full 35 year trend of measured valued along the mean to ascertain the trend was slower. Consequently I still consider Happer's claim unwarrented. But having gone in so hard rhetorically on a mistake, I hardly expect to convince anyone of that. Oh well ...
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  6. Tom Curtis@105 It is worth pointing out that the model projections estimate only the forced component of any trend (i.e. the trend due to changes in forcings), whereas the trend we actually observe is composed of both the forced component and the unforced component (i.e. "natural variability"). As a result, we shouldn't expect the model trends to be a precise match for the observed trend. The spread of individual model runs gives an indication of the plausible magnitude of the unforced component, so if the observations lie within the spread of the model runs, then the models are as accurate as they claim to be. Very clearly from the diagram, they are. The claim that "since the predicted warming has failed to be nearly as large as computer models forecast" is indicative of a rather poor understanding of climate physics, how climate models work and how they are used. The claim clearly is not factually correct as the model forecast says that trends that are smaller than the observed trends are plausible, but trends a little larger are more probable.
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  7. Dikran Marsupial @106, your point about natural variability is well illustrated by one particular model run (shown in lime green). Measured temperatures have, it turns out, been tracking it quite closely except for 2005 (which was above it). After 2010 the lime green model shows another decline in temperature, and continues to lie below the 17 model mean until around 2035, but by 2100 it lies well above the mean. Clearly very short periods are not sufficient to validate long term trends. Given that, and given that the measured values lie within the confidence intervals, and given that the measured trend is very close to the predicted trend, I think that Happer's claim that "...since the predicted warming has failed to be nearly as large as computer models forecast..." is simply false. They are very nearly as large as predicted by any reasonable measure. I suspect that is too subtle a point for Dr Cadbury to admit error on, however (if any point is not too subtle for that).
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  8. Apologies for being a little O/T but some context for Happer's Greenland misinformation: It's an egregiously false statement of Happer's to suggest Greenland in the Holocene has been anything other than a mostly ice-covered continent with small zones of climatically marginal, but viable, land mostly in two regions of the southwest. We know from isotope data that Norse Greenlanders' diet evolved from mostly terrestrial to mostly marine over the lifetime of the settlement (e.g. Arneborg et al. 1999, Radiocarbon), indicating a move from a pastoral terrestrial farming lifestyle, like Iceland or Norway, to one dominated (up to 80%) by a marine diet. But we also know they survived the transition, and were not reliant on outside aid for their basic subsistence. Trade, e.g. export of walrus ivory, and a large reason for the colony, is another matter. A leading modern hypothesis for the demise of the colony is that the walrus ivory trade to Europe dried up, because of African ivory and/or political change in Scandinavia. There are other hypotheses (e.g. Inuit encroachment from the north), but the hypotheses are not often dominated by the coincident climatic deterioration (e.g. a couple of accessible refs: Dugmore et al 2008; Ogilvie et al 2009). The climatic deterioration reduced but didn't eliminate the growing season (and they adapted anyway), and the glaciers advanced a small distance (~1-2km), certainly not down into the area of settlements. Popular perceptions of glaciers bulldozing the settlements, or the Norse dying of cold just don't hold up to scrutiny of the evidence. And as ever, local temperature changes in Greenland (or English wines, see Tom's post #101) on the order of 1-2C don't disprove anything in regard to global climate sensitivity except that they do support higher climate sensitivity values, and say nothing in regard to modern global temperature forcing drivers. Coincidentally, Greenland's modern temperature is pretty close to that during the MWP, so areas of green that you see in summer Google Earth or Modis imagery are comparable to those present 1000 years ago. But don't be fooled into thinking that the green areas all turned white in the LIA - they turned just a little less green!
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  9. Mike @ 100... "Really, you might as well give up on this, unless you like banging your head against a wall." I believe the point to an article like this from Chris Colose and anyone else who publishes a response to Happer's article (or posts comments like these to articles) is to not give up. I would never assume that anything we say here, Chris says, or even the other faculty at Princeton say will have any impact whatsoever on Happer's choices. As I stated before, this is ideological for him... he doesn't care what we think about the science. But I will continue to bang my head against these kinds of walls. I encourage people like Chris to continue to do so as well. And hopefully others will also continue to point out when people like Happer attempt to confuse the public. To say nothing is to be complicit with Happer's statements.
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  10. Happer's speciality is spin-polarized physics. From his Princeton website: "In most of our work we use circularly polarized laser photons to pump angular momentum into electron spins, and we use hyperfine interactions to transfer angular momentum from the polarized electrons to the nuclei." In reading this article, and the comments, I had a feeling this was the same person I'd run across before (i.e. that guy also worked in spin-polarized physics). I think my earlier comment to a skeptic who quoted Happer was: 'you're the sort of person who would hire a plumber to fix his car.' Happer has every right to publish his opinion on this important topic. And we have every right to treat his opinion as uninformed as might be expected of a spin-polarization physicist. A lot of these guys work 80 hr work-weeks trying to be the best in their field. That, sadly, makes them LESS informed than the general public about topics of a more general nature, that don't intersect with their speciality. Many of the comments here express amazement that a Princeton professor could hold such easily refuted falsehoods about AGW. I'm not amazed at all. Subatomic physicists are held in a little too much acclaim by the general public. These are not supermen and most of them know their limits.
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  11. Eric the Red "I seriously doubt anyone would believe that Greenland was "green" during the Viking colonization". I think you will find that is exactly what they do believe - Greenland was called Greenland because it was green I think is the phrase. That is they literally believe that three was no ice cap and all the ice has "reformed" during the last 500 years or so. And when they say "England was exporting wine from grapes" (can't find the quote) they literally believe that England had turned into a sort of northern Italy perhaps, where vineyards blossomed on every hill and happy peasants in light summer clothing, brows sweaty, toiled to get the grapes in and begin stamping on them in vats. Because most of the contributors to SkS are rational human beings we tend to underestimate the extent to which Happer and his friend (among a number of others here and elsewhere) are not. They do hold ideas which bear no relation to reality and base their response to global warming on them.
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  12. I got my PhD from Princeton ... and in fact it was while I was there that Happer returned from Washington. (Aside: Lucky for the younger prof also in atomic spin-polarized physics, he'd pressed for early tenure review and got it shortly before Happer's return - but that's not part of this story.) Anyway, back then I didn't know much about climate or AGW (I was naturally focused on my area of research). But I distinctly recall Happer grousing about his dismissal, and I asked him what the issue had been. He didn't say anything about climate or AGW, and instead implied it was a disagreement over whether high voltage power lines cause illnesses. In retrospect, that's fascinating, because if the true issue was AGW, then this dissembling was because speaking to another physicist (even if only a grad student) he felt safer using another controversy where the "alarmist" viewpoint probably was alarmist so he could sound reasonable and principled.
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  13. Dr. Jay Cadbury, phd. at 06:47 AM on 27 May, 2011 I think Happer is pretty qualified to speak on climate science considering he has studied the greenhouse effect intimately and the radiative chemistry of the physics aspect. --------- The phrasing of this tells me that Dr J does not have a physical sciences background. A bit of extrapolation says he does not have a PHD or is a friend of Happers.
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  14. Ubrew12 says --------- Happer has every right to publish his opinion on this important topic. And we have every right to treat his opinion as uninformed as might be expected of a spin-polarization physicist. --------- Thats quite true. But we have every right to point out that there is an inconsitency between Happer representing his views as those developed by an esteemed scientist and the views themselves which breach the standards expected of an esteemed scientist. Namely: 1. Lack of objectivity 2. Partisan support of poorly supported debating points while ignoring well known counter arguments. 3. Not considering the evidence 4. Misrepresenting other peoples views 5. Repeating lies made up to discredit climate scientists so that he can justify ignoring the evidence collected by others. 6. Logically fallacious arguments. E.g. Stawman
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  15. Rob@109: I wasn't entirely clear, I think. I totally agree with the policy of refuting Happer's ridiculous claims, thoroughly and often. The "banging your head against the wall" comment refers to the idea that Princeton can do anything about him.
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  16. Chris, only Hugh Falconer and Chuck Norris don't make mistakes. And Mike, don't forget what academic freedom is all about.
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