Copenhagen conference: An open letter to Rex Murphy

This letter is a response to a programme on Cross Country Canada, a radio programme hosted by Canada’s famous curmudgeon Rex Murphy.  The topic of the programme was the Copenhagen climate conference, and it originally aired in December 2010.  The message of my letter was this:  sometimes one does not have the right to an opinion. Rex never replied.Dear Rex,

I listened with interested to your “Cross Country Canada” broadcast of Sunday December 20, 2010.  Cross Country Canada is an opinion program, and it was interesting to listen to the opinions of Canadians on the political fallout from the Copenhagen conference.

There are some topics, however, which are not a matter of opinion.  Climate science is one of them.  I am a scientist, but I’m not a climate scientist.  My field is chemical physics, with a specialty in scanned probe microscopy.  Your callers would never call in their opinions on my field; they would find the very idea laughable.

Why, then, is climate science considered an everyman’s game?

Climate science is an exceedingly difficult field.  Most scientists proceed as follows:  they conduct a tightly controlled experiment, record the outcome, then draw conclusions.  Climate science is one of the few fields where this is physically impossible.  We don’t have a spare Earth, ripe for experimenation.  We only have one, and making mathematical models of it is a staggering task.

Is there “debate” about climate change in the scientific community?  Of course there is.  Scientists are constantly engaged in debate. However – that climate change exists, and that the cause of it is anthropomorphic, is hardly up for debate.  It is the consensus of the scientific community.  The precise consequences of climate change are very, very difficult to predict.  So is the weather.  We all watch weather forecasts; we all know that their accuracy can be questionable, and that there can be differences of opinion – one might even call it a lack of consensus – amongst weathermen.  Only a fool would conclude that the lack of consensus means that weather doesn’t exist.  Or even better – that Al Gore invented weather for his own sinister convenience.

Incidentally, on the topic of Gore – Gore is one of the few non-scientists who has actually – gasp! – consulted the scientific literature – not the Globe and Mail – before forming an opinion on the topic!  That is why he is considered a man of some respect in the scientific community.  I am reminded of the caller on your program yesterday who called for a climate conference of scientists, rather than of politicians.  This is a marvellous idea.  In fact, it is such an incredibly good idea that it’s been done already – hundreds of times – but nobody pays very much attention.  A quick consultation with my bosom companion Google, for instance, revealed that there is a conference called Earth System Science: Climate, Global Change and People and it will take place in Edinbugh in May 2010.

Rex – lend me your ear for one moment longer, if you haven’t lopped it off already in boredom.  Each year at the American Physical Society conference (which an open – perhaps one might even say excessively open – forum) , there is almost always a healthy agglomeration of “fringe” scientists.  I believe at the 2007 APS (which I attended), the star of this particular exhibition was a man who claimed that gravity didn’t exist – apparently he had a better idea.  The Globe and Mail could easily design a credible-sounding headline around such a man:  “APS SHOCKER:  ROGUE SCIENTIST FINDS GRAVITY MAY NOT EXIST.”  Technically speaking, this headline is accurate.  It is also idiotic, and about as pertinent to the news as “MY DOG THINKS SO TOO.  WOOF!”


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