Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Sceptical chemists

Here’s my latest Crucible column for the November issue of Chemistry World. It’s something that’s always puzzled me. I suppose I could lazily claim that the Comments section below the piece proves my point, but obviously the voices there are self-selecting. (All the same, enlisting Boyle to the cause of climate skepticism is laughable. And Boyle was, among other things, determined to keep politics out of his science.)


“While global warming is recognised, I am not sure that all the reasons have been fully explored. Carbon dioxide is a contributor, but what about cyclic changes caused by the Earth’s relationship in distance to the Sun?”

“While climate change is occurring, the drivers of change are less clear.”

It’s those pesky climate sceptics again, right? Well yes – but ones who read Chemistry and Industry, and who are therefore likely to be chemists of some description. When the magazine ran a survey in 2007 on its readers’ attitudes to climate change, it felt compelled to admit that “there are still some readers who remain deeply sceptical of the role of carbon dioxide in global warming, or of the need to take action.”

“Our survey revealed there remain those who question whether the problem exists or if reducing carbon dioxide emissions will have any effect at all,” wrote C&I’s Cath O’Driscoll. The respondents who felt that “the industry should be doing more to help tackle climate change” were in a clear majority of 72% - but that left 28% who didn’t. This is even more than the one in five members of the general population who, as the IPCC releases its 5th Report on Climate Change, now seem to doubt that global warming is real.

This squares with my subjective impression, on seeing the Letters pages of Chemistry World (and its predecessor) over the years, that the proportion of this magazine’s readers who are climate sceptics is rather higher than the 3% of the world’s climate scientists apparently still undecided about the causes (or reality) of global warming. A letter from 2007 complaining about “the enormous resources being put into the campaign to bring down carbon emissions on the debatable belief that atmospheric carbon dioxide level is the main driver of climate change rather than the result of it” seemed fairly representative of this subset.

Could it be that chemists are somehow more prone to climate scepticism than other scientists? I believe there is reason to think so, although I’m of course aware that this means some of you might already be sharpening your quills.

One of the most prominent sceptics has been Jack Barrett, formerly a well-respected chemical spectroscopist at Imperial College whose tutorial texts were published by the RSC. Barrett now runs the campaigning group Barrett Bellamy Climate with another famous sceptic, naturalist David Bellamy. Several other high-profile merchants of doubt, such as Nicholas Drapela (fired by Oregon State University last year) and Andrew Montford, trained as chemists. It’s not clear if there is strong chemical expertise in the Australian climate-sceptic Lavoisier Group, but they choose to identify themselves with Lavoisier’s challenge to the mistaken “orthodoxy” of phlogiston.

If, as I suspect, a chemical training seems to confer no real insulation against the misapprehensions evident in the non-scientific public, why should that be? One possible reason is that anyone who has spent a lifetime in the chemical industry (especially in petrochemicals), assailed by the antipathy of some eco-campaigners to anything that smacks of chemistry, will be likely to develop an instinctive aversion to, and distrust of, scare stories about environmental issues. That would be understandable, even if it were motivated more by heart than mind.

But I wonder if there’s another factor too. (Given that I’ve already dug a hole with some readers, I might as well jump in it.) If I were asked to make gross generalizations about the character of different fields of science, I would suggest that physicists are idealistic, biologists are conservative, and chemists are best described by that useful rustic Americanism, “ornery”. None of these are negative judgements – they all have pros as well as cons. But there does seem to be a contrarian streak that runs through the chemically trained, from William Crookes and Henry Armstrong to James Lovelock, Kary Mullis, Martin Fleischmann and of course the king of them all, Linus Pauling (who I’d have put money on being some kind of climate sceptic). This is part of what makes chemistry fun, but it is not without its complications.

In any event, it could be important for chemists to consider whether (and if so, why) there is an unusually high proportion of climate-change doubters in their ranks. Of course, it’s equally true that chemists have made major contributions to the understanding of climate, beginning with Svante Arrhenius’s intuition of the greenhouse effect in 1896 and continuing through to the work of atmospheric chemists such as Paul Crutzen. Spectroscopists, indeed, have played a vital role in understanding the issues in the planet’s radiative balance, and chemists have been foremost in identifying and tackling other environmental problems such as ozone depletion and acid rain. Chemistry has a huge part to play in finding solutions to the daunting problems that the IPCC report documents. A vocal contingent of contrarians won’t alter that.


Sajib OO said...

Every society is assembled pretty much by a fare share of Liberals and Conservatives ironically in a somewhat balanced configuration. Not sure generalizing a small group of specialists as being totally idealistic or skeptic is practical. It might be a genetic configuration, as some always questions logically and some accepts without justifying the logic.

Alain Coetmeur said...

I cannot again let Fleischmann and Cold Fusion be bashed agains as example ob bad science.
It is example of real science. Cold fusion is currently being industrialized.
It is supported in public by National instruments (see Truchard at NIWeek2012, Concezzi in Rome&EU parliaments, ICCF18), by Toyota (read latest Toyota p/r paper in JJAP, replicationf P/R paper of Iwamura in JJAP).

The very serious research consortium of research of swedish electric industrialists, Elforsk, it selff tested a cold fusion reactor among the 3 leaders, and confirmed it was working (not chemical, but don't know how, and sure much energy). They even wrote it in their corporate magazine "Elforsk Perspektiv 2013 nr2"

You raise a big question, and Fleischmann is indeed a very good choice.

Among chemist, you can find Linus pauling who opposed Shechtman until he died. Despite all evidence.

Guess why Geophysicist who have been educated in school with ideas like "if you takk of wegener you get a null", feel more contrarian than average.

as the famous article "RIDICULED DISCOVERERS,VINDICATED MAVERICKS" show well (too shortly) teh history of science is full of consensus that revealed absolute error, with huge frauds, huge terror against dissenters...

this says nothing about your subject, just that consensus is not an argument.

moreover real breakthrough came not from specialist but from people out of the domain, like Pasteur, Semmelweis, Wegener, Fleischmann, Rossi...