Sir Isaac Newton is one of the towering geniuses in all human history. Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer? Not so much.
Krauthammer has written a classic anti-science screed, “Carbon Chastity: The First Commandment of the Church of the Environment,” that recasts many favorite anti-scientific denier memes in odd terms. You still hear and see all of these today, so let me touch on a few of them. And as I will discuss in Part 2, the article is most useful because it is a very clear statement of the real reason conservatives don’t believe in climate science: They hate the solution.
As a physicist, my favorite denier talking point is his strange version of the old claim that “scientists are flip floppers, constantly changing their theories.” He writes:
If Newton’s laws of motion could, after 200 years of unfailing experimental and experiential confirmation, be overthrown, it requires religious fervor to believe that global warming — infinitely more untested, complex and speculative — is a closed issue.
Now that is a strange claim. Newton’s Laws of Motion are still taught in every high school, in every introductory physics class in college, and even in graduate physics classes. Indeed, they are widely used everywhere to explain and estimate wide varieties of motion. Heck, even NASA still uses them: “The motion of an aircraft through the air can be explained and described by physical principals discovered over 300 years ago by Sir Isaac Newton.”
But Krauthammer says they were overthrown and that 200 years of experiments and observations were wrong. What gives? Why aren’t all our planes falling out of the sky?
Newton’s laws are “excellent approximations at the scales and speeds of everyday life” that, along with his law of gravitation and calculus techniques, “provided for the first time a unified quantitative explanation for a wide range of physical phenomena.”
They fail in very special cases — speeds close to the speed of light (where you need Einstein’s special theory of relativity), near large gravitational fields (where you need Einstein’s general theory of relativity) or at a very, very small scales (where you need quantum mechanics). Interestingly, many of the laws of those three theories are written in the same form as Newton’s and they revert to Newton’s equations for everyday life (see an example at the end of this post).
So Krauthammer’s statement is absurdly misleading, since he is implying that “200 years of unfailing experimental and experiential confirmation” were “overthrown” — when they weren’t. So his implication that all the unfailing experimental and experiential confirmation of climate science will be overthrown is equally absurd. Indeed, anybody seeking to replace climate science will have to come up with a more comprehensive theory that still explains everything we know from existing climate science and observations.
This may seem like a small point, but in fact it is a large point, one that former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, John Holdren, has repeatedly made. Let me discuss this in the context of another anti-scientific talking point of Krauthammer’s:
So what does the global warming agnostic propose as an alternative? First, more research — untainted and reliable – to determine (a) whether the carbon footprint of man is or is not lost among the massive natural forces (from sunspot activity to ocean currents) that affect climate and (b) if the human effect is indeed significant, whether the planetary climate system has the homeostatic mechanisms (like the feedback loops in the human body, for example) with which to compensate.
Let’s ignore the sweeping implication that somehow all previous climate science research was tainted and unreliable. Notice the bias in his point (b). Why does he propose to only do research to see if there are negative feedback loops? Shouldn’t we be doing research to study all feedbacks in the carbon cycle, including those that are positive or amplifying? Indeed, such research has already been done, and the best science says that the positive feedbacks outweigh the negative ones, probably by a large amount — see, for instance
- my series on the permafrost
- Nature on stunning new climate feedback: Beetle tree kill releases more carbon than fires
- Decelerating growth in tropical forest trees — thanks to accelerating carbon dioxide
- Big news: The ocean carbon sink is saturating
- my discussion of the data suggesting we are missing amplifying feedbacks
- The desertification-global warming feedback
Sorry, Charlie: On feedbacks, climate scientists have been there and done that. You can demand more research to uncover a mystery deus ex machina negative feedback — but it would have to be big enough to overwhelm all of the large amplifying feedbacks.
But point (a) is perhaps more relevant here. As Holdren likes to say, the issue is not whether some new study might find that solar activity is a dominant contributor to recent warming — although that notion has been about as utterly debunked as anything is science. This hypothetical study that identified some new dominant cause of warming would, at the same time, have to identify mechanisms that were blocking the well understood warming caused by human-caused greenhouse-gas emissions. That science and those results and observations don’t suddenly disappear just because somebody writes one new paper or puts forward a new theory. Debunking climate science is thus a double challenge, not a single one.
Krauthammer is no Einstein
If Einstein’s special theory of relativity did not revert to Newton’s laws for everyday situations, and thus validate 200 years of observations and experiments, nobody would have paid even one minute of attention to it.
Newton’s Second Law of Motion is the “Rate of change of momentum is proportional to the resultant force producing it and takes place in the direction of that force.” Momentum is mass (m) times velocity (v). The rate of change is momentum in Newton’s classical mechanics is mass times the change in velocity per unit time (dv/dt), which is also known as acceleration (a). It is written in a vector notation, since the net Force (F) is applied in a certain direction, and velocity is in a certain direction. And so the well-known equation — F = ma — is written as a vector differential equation:
What Newton didn’t know of course was that an object’s mass also changes with speed, at least at very high speeds. So in Einstein’s special theory of relativity, this formula becomes this:
where the speed of light c0 is a mere 186,000 miles per second, and yes, it is, famously, squared. So let’s say Charles Krauthammer is in a car traveling 60 miles per hour (88 feet per second). The correction to Newton’s equation is of the order of the velocity squared divided by the speed of light squared or one part in 100 trillion.
But let’s say Charles Krauthammer is moving really, really fast — fast enough to achieve escape velocity and be launched into space (a guy can dream, can’t he?) or about 7 miles a second. The correction to Newton’s equation is of the order of a little more than one part in a billion. And that is about the same fraction of knowledge of climate science that Krauthammer seems to possess.
Hate climate science but love evolution
Now, the very strange thing is that while Krauthammer refuses to accept climate science, he loves evolution. Three years ago, in a piece titled, “Phony Theory, False Conflict,” he wrote,
I feel obliged to point out what would otherwise be superfluous: that the two greatest scientists in the history of our species were Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, and they were both religious.
I kid you not. Newton, whose laws were overthrown, is one of the two greatest scientists of all time. But I digress — the really amazing part of the article is when he writes:
Let’s be clear. Intelligent design may be interesting as theology, but as science it is a fraud. It is a self-enclosed, tautological “theory” whose only holding is that when there are gaps in some area of scientific knowledge — in this case, evolution — they are to be filled by God. It is a “theory” that admits that evolution and natural selection explain such things as the development of drug resistance in bacteria and other such evolutionary changes within species but also says that every once in a while God steps into this world of constant and accumulating change and says, “I think I’ll make me a lemur today.” A “theory” that violates the most basic requirement of anything pretending to be science — that it be empirically disprovable. How does one empirically disprove the proposition that God was behind the lemur, or evolution — or behind the motion of the tides or the “strong force” that holds the atom together?
In order to justify the farce that intelligent design is science, Kansas had to corrupt the very definition of science, dropping the phrase “natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us,” thus unmistakably implying — by fiat of definition, no less — that the supernatural is an integral part of science. This is an insult both to religion and science.
You could almost say the same exact thing about global warming denial. But why doesn’t he?
Why break faith with so many conservatives and worship at the altar of evolution science, but stick with them on climate denial? That’s easy. Believing in evolution doesn’t require endorsing government action. Believing in climate science does. That is the subject of Part 2.