There has been a series of posts at Hot-topic and other sites looking at the actions and background of climate change skeptical scientists. As someone who has trained in earth sciences I find it hard to see why anyone would give them much credibility in the face of the mounting evidence of quite fundamental changes in the atmospheric heat balance. However it appears many people prefer comforting noises rather than facing the consequences of not changing polluting behaviors. But what is fascinating generally is that many are retired professors far from the cut and thrust of the peer reviewing of their work that is a major and critical part of the scientific process. Many people seem to imbue a larger mantle of authority over a title than its meaningless value deserves.
Bryan Walker has been reviewing a book called “Merchants of Doubt” about four scientists who have been ranging far out of their areas of expertise to offer opinions over many decades.
The issues in which the men, jointly or severally, played a part cover a wide range. A surprising range at first sight. What have tobacco smoking, the strategic defence initiative, acid rain, ozone depletion, second-hand smoking and climate change got in common? They were not areas of professional expertise for the four scientists. Oreskes and Conway point to the fact that they all involved the possibility of government regulation of market activities in the interests of the environment. Regulation was the road to socialism. All four men were stout defenders of free market capitalism and strident anti-communists. Nierenberg and Seitz hated environmentalists, viewing them as Luddites.
In other words, bugger the evidence or the science. In the opinion of these people the politics is more ‘important’. It evidentially works from the way that the media report their opinions. But there are always the simple and credulous without an understanding of the processes of science prefer to believe in titles rather than reviewing the available science. It makes for a good story for the journos who generally don’t have much background in science, but can spot a human interest story from miles away. Especially when it is being promoted by spinsters pushing for the interests of their major corporates clients.
Part of the interest of the book is its reflections on the nature of science. Science doesn’t provide certainty or proof. What it does provide is the consensus of experts, based on the organised accumulation and scrutiny of evidence. Thus the geological theory of plate tectonics, for example, has emerged as accepted scientific knowledge. Modern science is a collective enterprise. What counts as knowledge are the ideas that come to be accepted by the fellowship of experts, the jury of one’s scientific peers. If a claim is rejected the honest scientist moves on to other things. When Robert Jastrow and his colleagues first took their claims to the halls of public opinion rather than to the halls of science, they were stepping outside the institutional protocols that for four hundred years have tested the veracity of scientific claims. Many of the claims of the climate science contrarians had already been vetted in the halls of science and had failed to pass the test of peer review. Many were never even submitted for vetting.
This has been particularly evident in some of the comments written in this site. The name and title of Fred Singer in particular keeps being used like a talisman by the climate change deniers and skeptics here. They appear to think that the the phrase of “Professor Emeritus” means something more than it is. My definition of it is roughly:-
Professor Emeritus : Old specialist who is no longer doing much real work in their field, and will frequently comment on areas outside of their areas of expertise. Often entertaining, but frequently fossilized in their thinking.
Emeritus status is a bit of a mixed sword in most areas in its recipients.
It is sometimes useful because many of its recipients do develop a habit of thinking outside of their previous specialized box. They can help in cross-fertilize across areas of specialization. They often have a strong role in mentoring younger talent by providing the required support, especially in refining ideas. They frequently lecture in other universities worldwide cross-fertilizing the academic community, which is usually where I’ve observed them.
However often the real reason is that the status is awarded as a near-bribe to get old farts with tenure out of a department so people with new ideas and approaches can start doing some real work. Work that isn’t being constrained by the dead weight of someone locked into ideological positions developed many decades earlier.
Fred Singer appears to be one of the latter. His work in the 50’s and 60’s on using earth looking satellites is exemplary. However in his later years, he appears to have become increasingly associated with defending corporations in declining industries, and a lot less interested in current science.
Another good example of the scientific fossilization has been recently offered in a presentation offered at the Heartland Institute – which appears to largely be a spinster creation for the hydrocarbon industry. Don Easterbrook, Emeritus Professor of Geology, has for a long time been looking at the well known long-term cyclic effects that would indicate that the world would be tending to go into a cooling phase at present. At least they would if humans weren’t around screwing up the heat retention of the atmosphere and hydrosphere.
However in his presentation to the faithful at the Heartland conference, he appears to have clipped the last hundred years of contrary temperature data from his charts so he could show a 1905 ‘baseline’ temperature. Of course, this rather ignores the geologically rapid increases in temperature that have been happening both regionally (especially in the polar regions) and globally during the last century. These are not been explainable during the last century using the effects he was commenting on. They get in the way of an otherwise good theory. The temperature rises have been all the more remarkable because they are on top of the probable overall cooling effect he was examining.
There are a series of posts at Hot-topic looking at the detail of Don Easterbrook’s presentation where both the posts and comments have been enlightening (and entertaining) – 1, 2, 3, and 4. If he was arguing that the world would (without human interventions) have been naturally dipping towards another glacial period over the long-term, then his data and conclusions would have been valid. His presentation may have won him applause from an audience already invested in that conclusion. But is unlikely to carry much weight with anyone who has looked at the worrying temperature trends over the last century that were removed from his presentation.
Why am I pointing out these two (out of many) examples of Emeritus Professor? Well it is because examples like these and the constant use of retired lecturers as being authorities are steadily making me think that the status is past its use-by-date.
I’ve been moderating comments on this site for a number of years now. I’m tired of reading eulogies by people commenting with hushed tones of awe about the statements of some awesome Emeritus Professors – it is merely a title indicating their largely retired role in the academic community. It is as ridiculous to throw a false mantle of authority over them as the clowns who seem to have the same awe of the rather spurious hereditary authority of Chris Monckton. They never seem to consider exactly what titles mean – which is sweet bugger all.
In the case of any person of science, your current reputation and the authority of your opinions depends on your recent contributions to science. Those contributions are not made by prancing around on a stage at the pleasure of spinsters or offering consultancies to corporations with declining markets and telling them what they want to hear. Those are the roles that we assign to motivational speakers to harangue sales staff, or to people paid to boost the egos and confidence of tired managers. That roles doesn’t sit well on people of science.