"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Friday, September 17, 2010

Revkin on Laughlin

Revkin gets it very badly wrong. (Update: and walks it back a tad, thanks to yours truly... but not far enough to not continue to be hopelessly wrong in exactly the same way as before! See the asterisk.)


Here’s Will’s column from Newsweek extolling the virtues of an essay in the current issue of The American Scholar by Robert Laughlin, a physics Nobelist who contends that the climate system is far beyond man’s capacity to influence, inadvertently or otherwise.

I replied:

It is an incorrect summary of Laughlin's position that the climate system is beyond man's capacity to alter inadvertently. He claims that all the fossil fuels WILL be combusted and that a climate crisis WILL ensue. He treats it as given that we do not have the capacity to restrain ourselves from doing so.

"On the scales of time relevant to itself, the earth doesn’t care about any of these governments or their legislation. It doesn’t care whether you turn off your air conditioner, refrigerator, and television set. It doesn’t notice when you turn down your thermostat and drive a hybrid car. These actions simply spread the pain over a few centuries, the bat of an eyelash as far as the earth is concerned, and leave the end result exactly the same: all the fossil fuel that used to be in the ground is now in the air, and none is left to burn. The earth plans to dissolve the bulk of this carbon dioxide into its oceans in about a millennium, leaving the concentration in the atmosphere slightly higher than today’s. Over tens of millennia after that, or perhaps hundreds, it will then slowly transfer the excess carbon dioxide into its rocks, eventually returning levels in the sea and air to what they were before humans arrived on the scene. The process will take an eternity from the human perspective, but it will be only a brief instant of geologic time."

Except for the presumption that effective policy is impossible, this is in fact, perfectly consistent with the consensus IPCC view of the world. In fact, it is an excellent summary of that view.(*) It says that man will create a very large perturbation, and that in the very long run, far beyond normal human time scales, things may return to normal if there's no further disruption.

Laughlin simply asserts (without bothering to defend it) that we lack the willpower to stop this crisis, so we shouldn't bother. This may make him a political ally of those who say we shouldn't bother, but he is scientifically making a very different case.

You state that the confusion abounding in the public's mind is independent of the performance of the press. This, in an article whose structure is based on a fallacious reading of one of the positions it addresses, is more than a little bit ironic. I would like you to try getting it right for a while before coming to such a judgment.

(*) I should have said "parts of that view"

Image: xkcd

My latest:

I appreciate being mentioned in your correction, and I hate to be churlish, but in my opinion your correction is still incorrect!

You originally said "Here’s Will’s column from Newsweek extolling the virtues of an essay in the current issue of The American Scholar by Robert Laughlin, a physics Nobelist who contends that the climate system is far beyond man’s capacity to influence, inadvertently or otherwise."

In the correction, you removed the last three words. But the last three words are tautological, and can be replaced by "if you please or if you don't please", or "if pigs have wings or if they don't", or by nothing at all, without changing the logical (as opposed to rhetorical) meaning of the sentence at all. You chose replacing them with nothing, which is one of the cases which does not change the logical meaning of the claim. Since it was wrong before, and its meaning has not changed, it is still wrong.

I realize that actually fixing your claim will do some damage to the structure of the rest of your article, but a mistake is a mistake. I am glad you admitted your mistake. Now why not go ahead and fix it?

Update 9/18: I just submitted:

To be fair to Andy, the final paragraph of Laughlin's essay does support the reading in Andy's article. To be fair to me, the rest of it doesn't. My eyes had thoroughly glazed over by the time I got to the end; the whole idea of looking at policy issues on geological time scales was something I found utterly pointless, so the fact that he actually reversed himself at the end escaped me. Andy may have read the concluding paragraph and glossed over the bulk of it. Both of us assumed that a physics nobelist could at least manage to be broadly coherent about his key points, but it appears in the final analysis that he has not.


Steve Scolnik said...

Revkin gets it very badly wrong.
Dog bites man.

Steve Bloom said...

Laughlin says it's going to get "hot" as a consequence of burning all those fossil fuels, Will neglects to quote that bit, and Revkin fails to notice. Both Will and Revkin employ the standard right-wing think tank approach of not letting facts get in the way of the perceived larger truth.

BTW, Michael, continuing our discussion of Revkin from a previous thread, I think this paragraph demonstrates that he has swallowed the Breakthrough kool-aid entirely:

'That, of course, is the situation only as long as the debate revolves around views of global warming. On energy, there is an entirely different span of views, and far more agreement that humanity doesn’t have the choices it needs for a smooth ride in this century. Ever more reason to pursue an “energy quest” instead of seeking to “solve the climate crisis.”'

Also, the Ropeik quote about the complete mutability of the meaning of facts is frightenly off-base. Who knows, some of the dinosaurs may have had rudimentary interpretations of the asteroid shower that ended their existence, but afterwards it was only the fact of their extinction that remained.

Michael Tobis said...

Oh, yeah, there is a kool-ade flood a-comin' folks, sure as I'm a old hand roun' these parts. Surer, in fact.

Batten down them hatches.

Andrew Revkin said...

Here's Michael's comment on Dot Earth and my response there:


As for Bloom's thesis, he should ask Tony "Six Americas" Leiserowitz at Yale whether he'd go with an energy agenda or climate agenda if he wanted traction.

Steve Bloom said...

Apparently Revkin *must* get this wrong. Repeating, Laughlin notes as a fact that we are in for a "thousand-year hot spell." Will ignores it, Revkin still ignores it.

That said, in Laughlin's very next sentence we have this blooper:

"The amount of carbon dioxide left in the atmosphere after equilibration varies from tolerable to alarming depending on how much industrial burning the model assumes."

Does Revkin know what's wrong with that statement?
So anyway, non-expert Laughlin gets the basic point but has a lot of the details wrong. Probably that's no surprise, but maybe it should be taken as a reason to not promote his views in the way Revkin has.

Steve Bloom said...

So it's going to be "anthropophilia." Crikey.

Anonymous said...

A drunkard jacks a car and drives over someone.
Since he is unable to control the car, he drives over someone.
Well, that was inevitable and clearly not his fault.

Arthur said...

Apropos of Laughlin and xkcd, of course, I wrote about just this sort of attitude last year...:


Arthur said...

By the way, kudos for getting Revkin to at least slightly modify his post! That sort of admission of fault doesn't seem to happen very often...

Steve Scolnik said...

Wow, he dropped a portion of the asterisked sentence! That, of course, changes everything.

Word verification: dilled

Steve Bloom said...

Arthur Smith, self-hating physicist. :)

Thanks for the prompt to re-read your great article, Arthur. Here's a hot link for others. The comments are also illuminating in various regards, and in particular Eli links to a paper discussing the history and motivations of the physicist founders of the George Marshall Institute (abstract):

"This paper identifies cultural and historical dimensions that structure US climate science politics. It explores why a key subset of scientists — the physicist founders and leaders of the influential George C. Marshall Institute — chose to lend their scientific authority to this movement which continues to powerfully shape US climate policy. The paper suggests that these physicists joined the environmental backlash to stem changing tides in science and society, and to defend their preferred understandings of science, modernity, and of themselves as a physicist elite - understandings challenged by on-going transformations encapsulated by the widespread concern about human-induced climate change."

See also this recent Stoat post describing the GMI trio's opening salvo ~1990, which perhaps can be marked as the start of organized GW denialism.

Familiarizing himself with all of this might even cure Revkin of the "oh-look-at-that-cute-old-contrarian-physicist" syndrome.

Steve Bloom said...

"changes everything"

Very droll, Steve.

David B. Benson said...

I fear I must agree with the cartoon, with a few famous and notable exceptions (Richard Feynman).

Rattus Norvegicus said...

And he walks it back a little more with some comments from the sane.

Andrew Revkin said...

Been suckered into responding one more time... Tobis's defense of Laughlin's explanation of the carbon cycle as IPCC-ish and accurate is fine, but that says nothing about Laughlin's view of the climatic consequences.

The throwaway line about a "1000-year hot spell" clashes fundamentally with Laughlin's concluding section, in which he states that "[t]he geologic record as we know it thus suggests that climate is a profoundly grander thing than energy" (in essence, challenging the idea that amplifying factors make CO2 and its kin particularly influential climate players).

Are you guys seriously implying that those closing lines reflect IPCC conclusions about emissions trajectories and their potential consequences?

Steve Bloom said...

Andy, I do interpret that second phrase as noting that the Earth will eventually absorb the excess GHGs and return to the prior equilibrium state, which is quite consistent with the hot spell comment. I don't see how this view minimizes the role of CO2.

Laughlin gets various things wrong and ignores important nuances, and the fact that the article is poorly written to boot makes it easy to misinterpret.

Aaron said...

We have known that man can affect the climate since the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s, when poor farming practice in the US and USSR resulted in desertification.

The desertification affected atmospheric convection patterns, the jet stream, and the rest is history.

Proof is that after we changed land use practices, the conditions did not reappear. In the case of the dust bowl, we did damage, and we promptly mitigated. I thought every son of an old farmer that went to Ag school knew this.

However, this time around, we do not seem to be as smart as our grandfathers. We are doing damage that is much, much, harder to mitigate.

paulina said...


I don't know what Laughlin's position on the "influence" thing is. Has he weighed in yet?

But I don't think Laughlin's final sentence supports what Revkin attributes to him.

Laughlin claims we can't *control* climate.

This is an ambiguous claim.

Certainly some of us worry that, for instance, if temps rise too much, and we release too much CO2, then we will not be able to get temps down again any time soon.

I'd call that a case of our not being able to "control climate."

'Control' suggests you can do with it as you wish; you govern it; you steer it, you can get it to twist and spin, etc.

I don't think we can control climate.

I think our influence on it can affect it, may dominate changes to it, given certain conditions, such as the current ones.

That is, I think it's obvious we can *influence* climate under certain conditions. We are influencing climate, currently. If someone wants to claim we aren't, they need to argue for this.

("The earth doesn't love you back--ha-ha!" does not qualify as an argument.)

Andy attributes to Laughlin the claim that (1) we cannot influence climate. Laughlin claims (2) we will burn ALL the fossil fuels (or at least put them all "in the air"), no matter what.

Together, (1) & (2) have Laughlin believing that liberating all that buried sunshine cannot influence climate.

This is an extraordinary claim.

I do not think the AS piece, no matter how in need of editing it may be, supports attributing this view to Laughlin.

For Andy's point, though, he doesn't need the piece to support that attribution. He just needs Laughlin to support it. Or he could just find some other prize-winner. I'm not arguing against that general idea (that you may be able to find real prize-winners to meet your fancy no matter what your fancy is).

I think the notion that burning all the fossil fuels could not influence climate is a stunningly controversial notion. For that reason, if the NYT's DE is going to attribute that notion to a specific person, then, to be fair to that person, I just want to be sure that this attribution is in order.

Maybe Laughlin doesn't care, in which case we're back to just looking at the text. Then I'd have to disagree with both you and Andy, unless you come to see what I'm on about.

Seriously, just to drive this home: the idea that burning all the fossil fuels (conventional... unconventional... all the coal...) can't influence climate is an extraordinary idea.

It's the kind of claim that requires an unambiguous argument. And, more to the immediate point, *attributing* it to someone requires, or so I'm arguing, unambiguous quotes.

Michael Tobis said...

I agree, in that I do not believe that Laughlin believes anything of the sort.

But it is very easy to read the last paragraph that way and actually takes some cognitive effort to insert the distinction between "influence" and "control".

My reading is that Laughlin has made a big mess, and Revkin has stepped in it. But I don't choose to argue the point further because it comes down to what would look like hairsplitting. Laughlin should say something.

David B. Benson said...

Richard Feynman also said something to the effect of I don't care who you are; if you're wrong, you're wrong!

David B. Benson said...

paulina --- Humanity could control the climate; it is but a control engineering problem writ large.

I interpret Lauglin's position as claiming that bit of control engineeering won't happen. That's his personal view with regard to which he has no professional expertise, or so it appears. I would look for expert guidance elsewhere.

paulina said...


Yes, the part about what portion of the stored carbon we'll end up liberating is not argued for in the AS piece.

If the BuryCoal emails are genuine, Laughlin's "guess" (his word) that we will exhaust fossil fuels is based on his views on history, economics, and human nature.

To claim we will burn all(!) of the fossil fuel is indeed in and of itself an extraordinary claim.

But that, of course, doesn't mean that it's ok to attribute to Laughlin any old extraordinary claim, if all you have is ambiguous support. (I'm not suggesting that's *your* point; I just want to make mine.)

And I think this point (about how we need unambiguous support when we attribute extraordinary claims to people) can be made without engaging in hairsplitting.

However, I agree with mt that my attempts to make this point will *look* like hairsplitting to a lot of people. We all need editors.

Steve Bloom said...

I'll repeat my point that Laughlin's comment about the thousand-year hot spell by itself should have told Andy to not represent the article in the way he did. Probably Andy was too willing to be led by Will, but that's no excuse. Letting him off the hook based on the ambiguous-in-isolation final paragraph is, I think, giving insufficient credit to someone so widely touted as being at the top of his profession.

So less Laughlin, all Andy is left with is the uneducated view of the self-categorized High Priest of the Proton. :)

But the larger lesson here is that Andy is constantly on the look-out for examples to stuff into the false balance paradigm that he feels he cannot abandon without also abandoniung his claim to journalistic objectivity. Being too quick to do so will lead to this sort of error.

Far too many journalists seem unable to see the problem with that POV. If only the herd could be culled (non-fatally) via some real-world version of the duck/not-duck test, we'd all be better off.

paulina said...


I agree with you that the AS piece does not support the "can't influence" line.

Apparently, Laughlin agrees with you, too.

Florifulgurator said...

Laughlin isn't the only big theoretical physicist writing embarrassing incoherent stuff on global issues. Another example is Freeman Dyson's 2007 edge essay. Perhaps it's because they work at the micro end of the scale of things and are not proficient in pondering macro stuff. Dunning–Kruger effect?

Padraig Tomas said...

"Laughlin isn't the only big theoretical physicist writing embarrassing incoherent stuff on global issues."

Does the periodical in question have an editor? An essay that prompts the question, "what the FUNK is the point of all that?", seems to be an essay where an editor could have asked the same question, and kept asking until Mr. Laughlin was able to explain himself.

In chemistry lab last thursday my lab partner asked that I explain why the result of a calculation was correct. It wasn't till the second try at doing so that I was able to justify what I was doing.

Richard Feynman once made the comment (I am not giving you an exact quote, but you can find it in the introduction to his lectures) that if he could not explain an idea to one of his physics 101 students then he didn't understand what it was that he was talking about.

Michael Tobis said...

There was a Brit physicist who did a TED talk that started off very nicely and then blundered off into a very weird position on sustainability, too. I'll try to find it; I recall tweeting about it.

Hank Roberts said...

Oh, Andy -- look at the next to last paragraph:

"Ninety million years ago alligators and turtles cavorted in the Arctic. One hundred fifty million years ago the oceans flooded the middle of North America and preserved dinosaur bones. Three hundred million years ago, northern Europe burned to a desert and coal formed in Antarctica. The great ice episodes themselves were preceded by approximately 30 smaller ones between one and two million years ago, and perhaps twice that many before that.

Nobody knows why these dramatic climate changes occurred in the ancient past. Ideas that commonly surface include ..., continental drift .... No scientifically solid support has been found for any of these suggestions.

The geologic record as we know it thus suggests that climate is a profoundly grander thing than energy.

You've got a Nobel laureate there who believes there is no scientifically solid support for continental drift, so no explanation for how land masses currently at the poles could have been much warmer previously, and calls that "climate" --??

Andy, Andy, Andy ....

did you ask the guy about continental drift?

Please, please do.

David B. Benson said...

Hank Roberts --- Laughlin even has his dating wrong.

Hank Roberts said...

I wonder about the mentions of Moses and the Genesis flood. Where is this guy coming from?

Seems to me Andy's missed something deeper than the physics of climate underlying this piece.

The business writer's take on the Laughlin piece ends up rather grim:

"So if climate change is "beyond our control," why not accept it and enjoy life? Yes, forget about recycling, hybrids, solar cells, wind power, clean coal, desalination and living green. They're ineffective, can't stop the "sixth species extinction" ... as long as population continues growing out of control from six billion to nine billion.

In the end, however, no matter what Laughlin says, we are still masters of our fate, captains of our souls. Yes, we did light the fuse on the next "Big Bang," the population time bomb. Yes, we set in motion the "sixth species extinction." Yes, the "geologic time bomb" is ticking away. But we made the decision. Not Earth. Admit it. Take responsibility. Go enjoy life, live for today. And stop wasting time, money and energy on ineffective solutions to reverse the inevitable ending that we already set in motion."

Wow. Talk about bleak.

Cheer up, things could be worse:


Hank Roberts said...


Lookit this interview:

"... Laughlin revealed that he’s just finishing a new book on a very different topic to his last – what we will do when coal runs out.

Tentatively called When Coal is Gone, it presents Laughlin’s view that mankind faces two big hurdles. The first is what we will do when there is no more oil, which could be in 60 years’ time. (Answer: start turning coal into fuel for cars or planes, even though this will consume more energy than it generates.) The second is what we will do when there is no more coal. (Answer: start extracting carbon from the air or oceans.)

Apologies if that’s a grotesque and gross simplification of what are probably much more clearly thought-out and nuanced arguments but that, I think, is the gist of his book.

As far as Laughlin is concerned, nothing can really beat the energy density of carbon-based fuels and that, because we have all got so used to them, there’s no way anyone would choose to do without them in future. After all, plot national GDP against energy consumption and you have pretty much a straight line, albeit with a few outliers. (Energy, in other words, is essential to economic growth and unless we all start eating carrots from our garden and stop travelling anywhere and give up buying big new televisions, the global demand for energy will just keep on rising.)

There’s a lot more he had to say which I’ll have to turn into a more coherent article at some point. We need, for example, to separate out our thinking on energy and climate change. Nuclear power will still play a role in the future, while the need for energy will dictate the future of the global geopolitical system.

... here’s one question he posed that got me thinking: if the Earth’s core is so hot, why are the oceans so cold?..."

Well: what's the rate of heat production from radioactive decay, rate of convection through slow movement outward in mantle, conduction through colder rock, conduction and convection in the lower atmosphere, radiative heat loss from the upper atmosphere ....

Anyone done the multiple-slab model for heat loss from the planet, working from the core of the planet outward through to space?

dhogaza said...

Continental drift? The continents don't drift, they are carried around by the earth's tectonic plates. That's a strange, old-fashioned phrase he uses that seems odd.

Andy says:

"The throwaway line about a "1000-year hot spell" clashes fundamentally with Laughlin's concluding section, in which he states that "[t]he geologic record as we know it thus suggests that climate is a profoundly grander thing than energy" (in essence, challenging the idea that amplifying factors make CO2 and its kin particularly influential climate players). "

He's talking about this on the geological time scale, Andy, so it doesn't clash fundamentally with his "1000-year hot spell" at all.

Climate science doesn't disprove Peak Oil (or a future Peak Coal), and no one claims it does. We know we can't sustain the burning of fossil fuels after fossil fuels are (economically) gone. We know our perturbation of the atmosphere's concentration of CO2 is an ephemeral change OVER GEOLOGICAL TIME SCALES.

That gives no comfort for those who will live through that 1000-year heat spell he mentions.

Your spin is abysmally ignorant.

dhogaza said...

In fact, Andy, the mainstream scientific point of view is that there will be no runaway global warming on Earth due to our insertion of CO2 into the atmosphere.

If this is true, and nearly everyone believes it to be true, then Laughlin's view over geological timescales follows automatically. What we're doing represents a perturbation.

But ... everything mankind has done on earth during our history represents a perturbation over geological timescales. A 1000-year hot spell within billions of years of past and future earth history is a mere curiousity except for those who will live through it.

Hank Roberts said...

Oh, wait -- Laughlin doesn't believe there's evidence for continental drift (tropical fossils at the current poles).

And PhysicsWorld said Laughlin asked 'if the Earth’s core is so hot, why are the oceans so cold?'

Is there a connection between thinking continental drift is not good science, and being puzled about how heat transfer from the core to the surface works?

Andy, there's work to be done here.

I suspect this fellow's doing what he describes doing with his entry level students -- posing questions intended to make people think hard, rather than proclaiming actual ignorance. But it might be he just hasn't done the numbers on heat transfer.

Wanta check?

Hank Roberts said...

aiee ... ok, last from me on this. Another physicist:

"The various models that had been put forward to explain continental drift were wrong, as our geologists knew. But that didn’t mean that the whole idea of continental drift was wrong. When sea floor spreading and plate tectonics came along, American geologists had to change their minds ...."

M Gell-Mann - International Journal of Modern Physics A, 2010 - worldscinet.com

paulina said...

FWIW, it might help to divide up the issues.

One problem is that Laughlin needs to further edit his text. I could see him abandoning some of the rhetorical framework in conjunction with additional editing.

Another problem is that he needs to (better) back up some of the claims (or at least acknowledge the need to back up those claims and point to somewhere, something).

A third problem is that Andy and mt both see Laughlin's text as supporting the extraordinary claim Andy attributed to Laughlin. I think this is simply unfair.

Yes, there's stuff that's off and unclear, etc., in the thing. There are extraordinary claims in there offered w/o support. But the thing Andy attributes to Laughlin is not in the text.

We have agreed to avoid dangerous *interference* with the climate system. If we can't *influence* the system, the avoid-interference task is trivial or moot. This is an extraordinary claim.

Since Laughlin believes we will burn ALL the fossil fuel (whatever that means), the claim that we can't influence the system would be even beyond extraordinary. Burning all the fossil fuel will not influence climate? (What is there to be said?)

Stating instead, as Laughlin did, that we can't *control* climate does not have the same implications, at all.

I think Andy was on about this difference with his inadvertent/advertent stuff. But expressing Laughlin's belief needs to start out with some other verb, not 'influence.' This other verb can then be flavored to taste.

FWIW, Laughlin believes we CAN influence climate and that burning all the fossil fuel WILL influence climate. He doesn't know by how much and directs us to the IPCC for the answer to that question.

Attributing to him the view that climate is beyond our capacity to influence is unfair and is the kind of attribution that erodes the purpose of communication.

Brian said...

Laughlin's assumption that we'll burn everything is a politico-economic assumption. He has no more expertise on that field than your average Free Republic reader. So why listen to him?

Also, IIRC, Hansen concluded that burning all the fossil fuels in a very short time (decades or so, I guess) could really create a Venus-style runaway greenhouse. So Laughlin can't say it really doesn't matter how quickly we use it up.

He should've said that the heat death of the universe makes this all meaningless, billions of years in the future. That would've place him on much more solid ground, while being slightly less silly.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading Revkin's follow-up to this piece, where he asks scientists to react.

David Keith of the University of Calgary nails it best IMO:

If their concern [ie Dyson's, Happer's and Laughlin's] is overhype about the risk of climate change they should critique that overhype directly.

I wanted to post the whole thing, but Blogger wouldn't let me.

Hank Roberts said...

All right. Andy has found well known scientists who have pointed out the same problems with the first piece that we ordinary readers here did, and printed their replies as a new column.

In the "this famous guy says X and this famous guy says Y" method, I think Andy discounts even his own factual knowledge, let alone that of people like us.

The business model is to put the experts up and let them argue.

I'm sure Andy knew the problems with Laughlin's ignorance-based assessment. I'm disappointed he didn't do one "balanced" column.

Instead we got "Here's the story from a Nobelist" followed by "here's complaints the people who didn't get Nobels who say he's wrong."

This is science news:
if it drools, it rules, eh?