Wall Street Journal: neutrinos show climate change isn't real

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Oct. 6 2011 2:43 PM

Wall Street Journal: neutrinos show climate change isn't real

OpEds -- editorials expressing opinions in newspapers -- are sometimes a source of wry amusement. Especially when they tackle subjects where politics impact science, like evolution, or the Big Bang.

Or climate change.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  


Enter the OpEd page of the Wall Street Journal, with one of the most head-asplodey antiscience climate change denial pieces I have seen in a while -- and I've seen a few. The article, written by Robert Bryce of the far-right think tank Manhattan Institute, is almost a textbook case in logical fallacy. He outlays five "truths" about climate change in an attempt to smear the reality of it.

I won't even bother going into the first four points, where he doesn't actually deal with science and makes points that aren't all that salient to the issue, because it's his last point that really needs to be seen to believe anyone could possibly make it:

The science is not settled, not by a long shot. Last month, scientists at CERN, the prestigious high-energy physics lab in Switzerland, reported that neutrinos might—repeat, might—travel faster than the speed of light. If serious scientists can question Einstein's theory of relativity, then there must be room for debate about the workings and complexities of the Earth's atmosphere.

Seriously? I mean, seriously?

It's hard to know where to even start with a statement so ridiculous as this. For one, there is always room for questioning science. But that questioning must be done by science, using a scientific basis, and above all else be done above board and honestly. But that's not how much of the climate science denial has been done. From witch hunts to the climategate manufactrovery, much of the attack on climate science has not been on the science itself, but on the people trying to study it. And when many of those attacks have at least a veneer of science, it's found they are not showing us all the data, or are inconclusive but still getting spun as conclusive by climate change deniers. And if you point that out, the political attacks begin again (read the comments in that last link).

Second, the neutrino story has nothing to do with climate change at all. It's a total 100% non sequitur, a don't-look-behind-the-curtain tactic. Just because one aspect of science can be questioned -- and I'm not even saying that, which I'll get to in a sec -- doesn't mean anything about another field of science. Bryce might as well question the idea that gravity is holding us to the Earth's surface.

And he's wrong anyway: even if the neutrino story turns out to be true, it doesn't prove Einstein was wrong. At worst, Einstein's formulation of relativity would turn out to be incomplete, just as Newton's was before him. Not wrong, just needs a bit of tweaking to cover circumstances unknown when the idea was first thought of. Relativity was a pretty big tweak to Newtonian mechanics, but it didn't prove Newton wrong. Claims like that show a profound lack of understanding of how science works.

And finally, of course there is lots of room for arguing over how the Earth's environment works. It's a complex system with a host of factors affecting how it works. But that's beside the point: we know the average global temperatures are increasing. The hockey stick diagram has been vindicated again and again, after being attacked many times by real science and otherwise. It's always held up. Yes, the Earth is a difficult-to-understand system, but we've gotten pretty good at hearing what it's telling us:

But hearing is one thing. Listening is another.

Someone like Bryce can try to sow confusion -- and reading the comments on that OpEd, that tactic appears to work with lots of people -- but the bottom line is that global warming is real, the climate is changing, and human influence is almost certainly the cause.

The only thing faster than neutrinos, I think, is the speed at which deniers will jump on any idea, no matter how tenuous, to increase doubt.

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