Jen-Luc Piquant is tres, tres fache at the moment because a group of unprincipled global warming denialists is spreading lies about our beloved American Physical Society (APS). Readers familiar with my backstory might recall that I took a job with the APS many years ago when I was struggling to make it as a freelance writer in NYC. What started out as a short-term office job to pay the bills turned into a fabulous shiny new career and ignited a love for science in general, and physics in particular, that I would not have thought possible otherwise. I'm still a contributor to APS News (membership newsletter) and to Physics Central's blog, Physics Buzz, part of the Society's outreach efforts. So yeah, I have a bit of a soft spot for APS, and hate to see its good name unfairly tarnished.
Now, every organization is going to have its unsightly warts and such, but the APS is a solid citizen by any standard -- and it puts good science above all else, especially in the case of policy decisions. So imagine my surprise to read this paragraph at Daily Tech:
The American Physical Society, an organization representing nearly 50,000 physicists, has reversed its stance on climate change and is now proclaiming that many of its members disbelieve in human-induced global warming. The APS is also sponsoring public debate on the validity of global warming science. The leadership of the society had previously called the evidence for global warming “incontrovertible.”
Say what?!? Did I accidentally stumble into Bizarro World? There is no way in hell the APS would ever officially sponsor or support any kind of global warming denialism. For starters it would directly contradict the Society's own November 2007 policy statement:
Emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities are changing the atmosphere in ways that affect the Earth's climate. Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide as well as methane, nitrous oxide and other gases. They are emitted from fossil fuel combustion and a range of industrial and agricultural processes.
The evidence is incontrovertible: Global warming is occurring. If no mitigating actions are taken, significant disruptions in the Earth’s physical and ecological systems, social systems, security and human health are likely to occur. We must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases beginning now.
Because the complexity of the climate makes accurate prediction difficult, the APS urges an enhanced effort to understand the effects of human activity on the Earth’s climate, and to provide the technological options for meeting the climate challenge in the near and longer terms. The APS also urges governments, universities, national laboratories and its membership to support policies and actions that will reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.
Believe me, it takes ages to get the APS Council to agree on a statement, bless their independent-minded hearts: they quibble over every word, including "and" and "the." I found it hard to believe they could have had such a total change of heart so quickly, i.e., in less than a year. So I did what any clear-thinking person would do when faced with a suspicious bit of information: I went straight to the source material, which turned out to be the latest issue of Physics and Society, the humble (relatively speaking) in-house newsletter of the APS Forum on Physics and Society.
I'm not knocking the publication, mind you: it has some very interesting, thought-provoking articles, and traditionally the editor seeks to foster debate and discussion on issues of science policy. But it clearly states in each and every issue that the newsletter is a place for members to express opinions, and that the APS does not officially endorse anything that appears within its pages. It is neither a peer-reviewed scientific journal, nor a mouthpiece for the APS Executive Board and Council. Nor does it pretend to be.
Anyway, the current editor, Jeff Marque, apparently decided to run opinion pieces focusing on both sides of climate change -- one by well-known (and handily debunked) denialist Lord Monckton. Marque indicated in his editorial comment introducing the issue that there were "a significant number" of physicists who disagreed with the IPCC conclusions about global warming due to CO2 emissions from human activities. (Note: "overwhelming consensus" still handily trumps "significant number," for those unfamiliar with physics-speak.)
This was the phrase that the Daily Tech blogger jumped on, and proceeded to willfully mis-represent with malice aforethought. (Incidentally, the last couple of times I tried to access the post in question, I got a blank page, but all the other posts on Daily Tech load just fine, so I suspect the post may have been pulled in the aftermath of the kerfuffle.) Soon, the sewer-brain that is Matt
Sludge Drudge jumped on the story and it proliferated throughout the blogosphere. (We have never stooped to linking to the Drudge Cesspool Report here, and I'm not going to do so now.) And then it spread like a fungus to a bunch of other denialist sites and blogs. Most couldn't even get the Society's name right, which doesn't say much for their attention to detail.
Fortunately, Climate Progress was paying attention and sounded the alarm, urging readers to write to the APS objecting to such an article appearing in an APS publication. Joseph Romm, who heads Climate Progress, is a former APS Congressional Fellow, so he felt pretty strongly about this, even calling for the firing of Marque. I think that last part is a bit of an over-reaction. For one thing, Marque, like most of the APS leadership, is a volunteer. For another, he's mostly just guilty of a lapse in judgment. Marque is not the one who mis-represented the Society. The Daily Tech blogger did that. Direct your anger at the appropriate target, people.
But otherwise, kudos to Romm and Climate Progress for keeping a sharp eye out, and moving quickly to counter the smear. Once it became aware of what had happened, the APS Council posted a notice on its Website clearly stating that it has not changed its official position on climate change. And it added a disclaimer to the offending article in Physics and Society:
The following article has not undergone any scientific peer review. Its conclusions are in disagreement with the overwhelming opinion of the world scientific community. The Council of the American Physical Society disagrees with this article's conclusions.
Got that? Really, it couldn't be more clear. This episode is just a minor kerfuffle, of course, but it demonstrates a useful principle: always, always go to the source material before putting your faith in what some blogger or news reporter tells you. That goes for me, too, by the way...