The old codgers

16 03 2007

I found this interesting post at Andrew Dessler’s place about the prevalence of retired scientists among climate change sceptics linked from a more recent Gristmill piece. He evaluates the ability of all these professors emeritus to usefully contribute to the GW debate, and narrows it down to two options: either (a) they are better able to usefully contribute since they no longer depend on any form of university patronage, or (b) they haven’t kept up with the reading and therefore misunderstand current research.

He pins a wonderful anecdote about Bill Gray:

I was at a meeting a few weeks ago where I ran into Bill Gray, a famous emeritus skeptic. He gave his standard stump speech in which he claims that the water vapor feedback is negative. I followed up on this with him and it became quite clear to me that he is unfamiliar with all of the peer-reviewed literature on this subject that has been published in the last five years. This makes sense. Reading the literature is a difficult and full-time job, and emeritus faculty simply don’t need to do that. Especially (in the case of Gray) when your time is occupied being interviewed and screaming at people. As a result, my sense is that the views of emeritus skeptics are often substantially out of date.

But the story goes on. After arguing with him for a few minutes, it became clear that Bill Gray has no scientific theory of his own *why* the water vapor feedback is negative, and no data to support his non-theory. He has no manuscript describing his non-theory and no plans to attempt to publish it. After I pointed out all of the evidence supporting a positive feedback, he looked confused and finally said, “OK, maybe the feedback isn’t negative, maybe it’s neutral. I’ll give you that.” I quickly concluded that he has no idea what he’s talking about. I wish everyone that considers him credible could have witnessed this exchange.

This glimpse inside the scientific community is exactly what non-scientist onlookers like myself absolutely relish.

Eli Rabett takes Dessler’s original post and widens it to a theory about why aged professors tend to be resistant to new paradigms in general. He points to the way atomic theory was resisted by the contemporary scientific fraternity.

These sort of things always repeat themselves. It is difficult for us to conceive, but the existence of atoms was not settled at the turn of the 20th century, and what evidence existed was indirect. Many scientists whose intuition was trained in the time when theories based on continua dominated physics found it impossible to accept atomicity. They preferred their intuition to their lying eyes.


For example, when I took general chemistry we were still using the old Mendeleev form of the periodic table which is based on the stoichiometry of the oxides and hydrides. Today. of course, we use the table based on the quantum solution of the Schroedinger Eq.

Now, I went straight from high school to university, where I studied chemistry, and I always thought it odd that I learned three different models of atomic theory: the old Mendeleevian theory, and then two orbital models.

At the time, I put this down to a sort of academic need to know model of learning. From the student’s point of view, there is still much in the field that seems more like alchemy than modern science, and having to learn serial models of the atom is not so much different from having to pass through several layers of initiation to enter the fold.

That this could be a motivating factor for a number of global warming sceptics makes a lot of sense to me. But it also shows that the global warming culture—the nature of the sociological relations between the two camps—is in fact the opposite of the way that critics like to portray themselves.

The critics are fond of comparing themselves favourably to Galileo and Copernicus. They are changing the paradigm, or so the script goes, and that is why they’re locked out of the big university funding. That’s why their enemies belittle them. They’re the underdogs.

But if you judge them by their allies (the retired professors), you begin to see a different picture emerging. It’s the cranky geezers who haven’t kept up with their reading and are railing at the way their field has passed them by. They’re fighting for a scientific cause on the basis of their reputation alone.

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