Comments On The Physics Today Article “Science Controversies Past and Present” By Steve Sherwood

Professor Steven Sherwood

In the  October 2011 issue of Physics Today, there is a 6 page  article that presents an inappropriately narrow perspective on climate science, as well as ridiculing those who disagree with the author [this is one of two such articles with this viewpoint -I will post on the second article this coming week].

The paper is

Steven Sherwood, 2011: Science controversies past and present. Physics Today. October 2011. ISSN: 0031-9228

The author, Steve Sherwood is a codirector of the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.

The abstract for this article is

Reactions to the science of global warming have followed a similar course to those of other inconvenient truths from physics.
 
Excerpts from the article are [highlight added]
 
“Science—especially the science behind climate change—is under fire. The climate issue has sparked a vigorous, and at times surreal, public debate that seems to pit experts against one another on even the most basic facts, such as whether human greenhouse gas emissions dominate natural ones, whether added carbon dioxide alters the planetary emission of thermal radiation to space, and whether global temperatures are rising……… The climate debate has spread far beyond the confines of any of those scientific circles and into the media and public sphere, where politicization and vitriol are legion.”
My Comment:  Steve Sherwood is careless with his facts (and the referees failed to identify such errors),  where he wrote  “human greenhouse gas emissions dominate natural ones“. The human input of CO2 is dwarfed by the natural input and extraction annually; e.g. see the figure below from NOAA’s ESRL. What Sherwood should have said (and the referees should have insisted on) was that “the annual averaged human greenhouse gas emissions dominate annual averaged changes in  natural  emissions and extraction“.
 
CO2 Trend for Mauna Loa
Sherwood continues with
Although nearly all experts accept that the greenhouse gases emitted by humans have caused significant warming to the planet and will likely cause much more, only about half the US public agrees, even after years of heavy media coverage. How did we get into such a mess? What are the implications for science, for how it should be communicated, and for how debates should be interpreted? Some insights may be gained by noting that global warming is not the first “inconvenient truth” in physics….
My Comment:  I agree nearly all experts accept that the added greenhouse gases are a positive radiative forcing.  However, Sherwood trivializes the climate issue by focusing on just this one human climate forcing. He perpetuates the myth that the addition of CO2 and a few other greenhouse gases dominates changes in climate; i.e. hypothesis #2b in
 
Pielke Sr., R., K. Beven, G. Brasseur, J. Calvert, M. Chahine, R. Dickerson, D. Entekhabi, E. Foufoula-Georgiou, H. Gupta, V. Gupta, W. Krajewski, E. Philip Krider, W. K.M. Lau, J. McDonnell,  W. Rossow,  J. Schaake, J. Smith, S. Sorooshian,  and E. Wood, 2009: Climate change: The need to consider human forcings besides greenhouse gases. Eos, Vol. 90, No. 45, 10 November 2009, 413. Copyright (2009) American Geophysical Union. 
 
We refuted Steve Sherwood’s claim in that paper as well as in
 
National Research Council, 2005: Radiative forcing of climate change: Expanding the concept and addressing uncertainties. Committee on Radiative Forcing Effects on Climate Change, Climate Research Committee, Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate, Division on Earth and Life Studies, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 208 pp.
 
 
 Steve continues
 
Greenhouse warming today faces an even greater array of bogus counterarguments based on the uninformed interpretation of data from ice cores, erroneous views about natural carbon sources, alleged but unobserved alternative drivers of climate change, naive expectations of the time scales over which models and observations should match, and various forms of statistical chicanery and logical fallacy. Many of the arguments sound reasonable to an inexpert but intelligent layperson. Critics use the alleged flaws to attempt to discredit the entire field.
My Comment:  “Many of the arguments sound reasonable to an inexpert but intelligent layperson” because they better fit with reality!  For example, he writes about “alleged but unobserved alternative drivers of climate”  but fails to identify what these are. This is another clear failure in the article.  There are a multitude of other human and natural climate forcings, as summarized, for instance, in the book The Climate Fix and in Pielke Sr 2008.
 
Steve then insults those who disagree with him.
Debates between mainstream scientists and silver-tongued opponents cannot be won by the side of truth no matter how obvious the fallacies may be to an expert. Incredibly, as recently as the mid-19th century, a highly charismatic figure calling himself “Parallax” devoted two decades of his life to crisscrossing England arguing that Earth was flat. He debated legitimate astronomers—sometimes teams of them—in town-hall-type settings and wowed audiences.10 For similar reasons, Einstein himself gave up debating his critics early in the 1920s.
 
The hubris in the article is amazing
 
As another example from the article, the adoption of the Copernicus view of the solar system is equated in importance with his scientific view of  global warming.  Sherwood writes
 
It took both Copernicanism and greenhouse warming roughly a century to go from initial proposal to broad acceptance by the relevant scientific communities.
 In the caption to Figure 3, Steve writes
 
Greenhouse warming and its perceived policy implications challenge widely held libertarian ideals and provoke economic fears, as evidenced by the negative correlation between acceptance of anthropogenic climate change and coal production, especially among the wealthiest nations.
 
The article ends with the text
 
Sadly, some new textbooks in climate and atmospheric physics are being written with long prefaces explaining why students should believe what the textbook says, despite contrary information from their parents, radio talk show hosts, or the internet. Normally a textbook does not have to defend itself. Since modern science, and physics especially, is done primarily at the pleasure of the taxpaying public, such developments should concern all scientists.
 
At the same time, history tells us that in the end, science will probably come out fine. Whether the planet will is another matter.
 
Is is disappointing that this article appeared as a “feature article” rather than an opinion piece in Physics Today or elsewhere. It is yet another example of using a scientific journal to advocate a particular perspective on the climate change issue and to disparage those with whom they disagree.
 

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