RealClimate logo


Technical Note: Sorry for any recent performance issues. We are working on it.

Greenspan, Einstein and Reich

Filed under: — eric @ 29 October 2008 - (Italian) (Français)

shrekI often receive letters that range from amusing claims that we are overlooking changes in the magnetic field, to tales about how the “weight” of carbon dioxide keeps it “near the ground”. If the writer sounds serious, then I treat them seriously, and do my best to provide a helpful reply. Often, though, I find myself in a pointless debate of the most basic, well-established physical principles. I generally cut off the discussion at this point, because I simply don’t have the time. This can result in a hostile response accusing me of “having an agenda”. Most would call me naïve for bothering to respond in the first place.

But it is possible, after all, that somewhere in that barrage of letters lies a brilliant idea that ought to be heard, and could change the course of scientific history. How to tell the difference? Well, there is a story that we tell in our family that might provide some perspective on this.

The story is about Wilhelm Reich, the controversial Freudian psychoanalyist (1897-1957). Reich was a personal acquaintance of my great uncle, William Steig, creator of Shrek, and illustrator of ones of Reich’s books. Reich thought he had made a major discovery in physics that proved the existence of a previously unrecognized form of energy, which he called “orgone energy”. He had built an “orgone energy accumulator” (basically a box whose walls were comprised of alternating layers of organic material and metal). He had done some careful experiments that demonstrated that the temperature inside the box increased above the ambient outside temperature. He made calculations that (he thought) demonstrated that the increase was greater than could be explained by thermodynamics, thereby proving the existence of an extra source of heat, which he attributed to the mysterious “orgone energy”. He sent these calculations to Albert Einstein, who graciously wrote back to him, showing where his calculations were wrong. Reich then wrote again, allegedly showing where Einstein had made an error. Einstein never wrote back. Some in my family took this as evidence that Einstein was stumped. But most people would conclude that Einstein decided he had better things to do than continue an argument that wasn’t going anywhere. This story has all the more poignancy to my family because my grandfather Henry, William’s brother, died of cancer while trying to cure himself by sitting in an orgone accumulator. I don’t of course, believe that Wilhelm Reich is responsible for my grandfather’s death. But clearly, Reich was wrong, and Einstein was right.

“But wait a minute,” you might say. “You guys at RealClimate are no Albert Einstein.” True enough. But like Einstein, we’re constantly subject to criticism from our fellow scientists. That’s what the process of peer review is all about. It’s not a perfect process, but it does provide an efficient means to separate ideas that have traction from ideas that are going nowhere. Greenspan’s pronouncements about the economy, on the other hand, were not subject to any such process. There might be a lesson in that.


237 Responses to “Greenspan, Einstein and Reich”

  1. 1
    Lance Olsen says:

    After the tech bubble burst back in 2000, Greenspan also claimed that central bankers can’t foresee the bursting of bubbles. But if The Economist is any guide, he did get some peer review, and it wasn’t supportive. In a rare move for the Bank of International Settlements — the central bank for central bankers — BIS openly stated during a high-profile meeting at Jackson Hole that yes, central bankers can indeed see burstings coming, which was apparently a diplomatic way of saying that Greenspan should have.

    My take is that he’s done it twice now, and I’m willing to suppose that a little searching might turn up a psychoanalyst willing to diagnosis it as a repetition compulsion :)

    [Response: Of course, this is my fault by bringing up Greenspan, but I actually don't want to encourage discussion of Alan Greenspan here at RealClimate. The real point of my post had to do with clarifying what 'theory' really means, in response to those strange letters I get. My point in bringing him up is that Greenspan used the word "theory" in reference to his own views on the ways markets work. But this is very different than scientific theory (since the former doesn't rest on anything truly fundamental, like F=ma). A good scientific theory is, consequently, much more resilient to individual events that appear (at face value) to conflict with it.--eric]

  2. 2
    Marc Hudson says:

    Nice post.
    Reminds me of the well-worn quote (Sagan, I thought, but wikipedia, font of all reliable information tells me that it is Richard Feynman “Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool. * From lecture “What is and What Should be the Role of Scientific Culture in Modern Society”, given at the Galileo Symposium in Italy, 1964

    On Reich, I recently read an excellent essay by Martin Gardner, in his collection “The Night is Large” (St Martin’s Press, 1996) on Reich and his battles with the FBI.

    [Response: Thanks for that quote from Feynman. Very appropriate. Regarding Reich, unfortunately for him, he not only was disliked by the pychoanalysis establishment, he was also caught up in the web of McCarthy-ism.-eric]

  3. 3
    Neuroskeptic says:

    Speaking of Sagan, he did say this, which is rather appropriate :

    “The fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”

    Wilhelm Reich was an excellent example of someone who was ignored, suppressed and banned by the establishment – and was in fact completely wrong. Something to bear in mind whenever climate change skeptics try to compare themselves to Galileo or other suppressed geniuses.

    I blog about this here for what it’s worth…

    [Response: I like what you wrote, so I thought I'd give it a boost by linking to it again: here.--eric]

  4. 4
    David Wilson says:

    Zephaniah, not often read … chapter 3, verse 9: For then will I turn to the people a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the Lord, to serve him with one consent.

    don’t take this the wrong way – the key phrase is “pure language,” which obviously is something beyond simply gramatically correct :-) and maybe has something to do with your line of thought

    I do appreciate it when you stray from between the lines a bit, thanks.

  5. 5
    David Wilson says:

    by the way – your site interacts badly with IE – crashes twice and on the third refresh displays properly – that is IE version 7.0.5730

    [Response: I would beg to differ. I think IE interacts badly with our site. Come on Microsoft, get with the program!--eric]

  6. 6

    I found this a useful and timely post and have used it today to respond to a man writing to me with the argument that CO2 is not a pollutant but a fertilizer. As a classic indicator of the modern climate skeptic, he cited the IPCC’s conclusions as authority for the points that he believed supported his arguments, but dismissed the IPCC’s conclusions for points that did not support his arguments.

    It is hard to hold a rational discussion with people who:

    (a) do not listen to what you say; and

    (b) only consider evidence credible if it supports the conclusion they have already reached.

  7. 7
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Chris McGrath, the fertilizer is to be found in your correspondent’s argument, not in any particular gas. One should never mistake fetid for fertile–a mistake anyone who has hacked their way through tropical rainforest would not make.

    It seems that whenever I’m at a party, if someone finds out that I am a physicist, I wind up explaining that, no, Einstein was not wrong about relativity. People don’t like being told that they can’t go faster than the speed of light it seems, just as they don’t like to be told that they can’t spew greenhouse gasses indefinitely without consequences.

  8. 8
    Lawrence Brown says:

    In part of Eric’s leading post there’s a statement “You guys at RealClimate are no Albert Einstein.”

    Even Albert Einstein was no Einstein when it came to quantum mechanics. Neils Bohr turned back Einstein’s skepticism several times on certain aspects. Which ought to give all of us pause. If Einstein can be wrong what can anyone expect from the rest of us?!

    However if you’re going to challenge an Einstein you’d better have the goods. Reich didn’t, Bohr did. The same holds true of climate science. If you want to challenge someone with the stature of say a James Hansen, you’d do well to have an excellent grounding on all aspects of this discipline.

    [Response: Very nicely put. -eric]

  9. 9
    Tim Curtin says:

    Re 6. Chris McGrath

    Well, that really takes the biscuit. I am the one referred to as arguing that “CO2 is not a pollutant but a fertilizer”.

    Readers should know that McGrath refused to respond to any of my detailed notes on his paper “Will we leave the Great Barrier Reef for our children?” or to my accompanying Seminar paper delivered on Tuesday at the Australian National University (covered by WIN TV News), but then pillories me here.

    1. I can cite hundreds of papers demonstrating the CO2 fertilizer effect, including most recently Lloyd & Farquhar (Royal Society, 2008)*. All McGrath does is display his ignorance. It is not necessary for him or me to agree with everything the IPCC says, or disagree. I cited the IPCC favourably when it showed evidence, not when it made false assumptions. Is that a crime against humanity?
    2. I had read his paper very carefully and made very specific comments. He simply rejects out of hand the well-established CO2 fertilizer effect without evidence. He certainly exemplified his own final comment, but offered no evidence to reject mine, that CO2 uptakes are important and should be recognized.
    3. Ironically, Australia’s Garnaut Report does accept there is a CO2 biospheric Uptake and that reforestation etc would absorb CO2, but in his modelling abstracts from this effect, which last year accounted for 5.78 GtC of the 10 GtC of global emissions. The Report admits upfront that CO2 emissions need only be reduced to the level of these natural uptakes of CO2, but in practice the Wigley MAGICC model that the Report (and IPCC AR4, WG1, Chapter 8 ) rely on, ignores them, and thereby produces much more stringent emission reduction targets than are needed. That exaggeration materially reduces the likelihood of acceptance of any targets at Copenhagen next year. McGrath should be grateful for my work which is actually intended to be constructive, by showing that natural uptakes are important and should be allowed to continue, not curtailed, as would result from the 80% reduction of emissions from the 2000 level enacted by the UK Parliament yesterday, to about 2GTC, instead of the 5.78 GtC observed in 2007. My Seminar paper (ppt slides) is at my website (www.timcurtin.com).

    Finally it is questionable ethically that McGrath’s paper did not once mention that the 1998 bleaching of corals was due to an El Nino, not CO2 event – but that was not of course to his purpose. In my comments to him I had noted merely that AR4 WG1 admits there is no evidence that atmospheric CO2 levels are directly responsible for the frequency and intensity of the ENSO.

    *Lloyd, J. and G.D Farquhar 2008. Effects of rising temperatures and [CO2] on the physiology of forest trees. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B.

    [Response: With all due respect, having taken a look at your website, it is really easy for me to see why someone might not bother responding to you! The first couple of lines on your web page read "Carbon dioxide is NOT a Pollutant" and "The increase in atmospheric concentration from 280 ppm in 1750 to 384 ppm at end 2007 is trivial". Both of these are incredibly misleading statements. It is really hard for me to see how you can characterize this as "constructive". By the way, no one has said that CO2 is *not* a fertilizer. It is well known that there a modest fertilization effect. But the idea that it is significant enough to meaningful counteract anthropogenic emissions is not well accepted, because the evidence isn't there. --eric]

  10. 10
    Mark A. York says:

    Wow! Interesting family story Eric. I’m from Maine and my friends lived in Rangely, Maine where Reich lived and died. The estate is a museum, I think is called the Orgone Institute. The plot thickens. A girl friend ca. 1978-81 was what she called, a Reichian. She believed in this stuff, but I just sloughed it off at the time as the BS it obviously is and was. Like many purveyors of failed theories followers of Reich went straight for persecution. He died because he was right and no one would listen. This is age old, but ideas have to be vetted. Einstein knew.

    [Response: For the record, Reich didn't die for his crazy theories, but rather for his link to communism during the McCarthy era. It's an especially black mark on the madness of that era, when one considers that Reich was actually very early to quit the communist party when he saw what was happening in the Soviet Union under Stalin. Indeed, I believe it was Reich that coined the term "red fascist."--eric]

  11. 11
    Thomas says:

    I wonder if a second defensive line, i.e. smart motivated, former, climate researchers or even laymen like myself could be useful here. At least for those members of the public who are sincere about their belief that they found a hole -as opposed to those that will never see past their own version of ideology. Then rather than totally ignoring the second/third email, they could still get a couple of more iterations of patient explaining from someone who more-or-less knows the issues.

    I don’t know how many times, I’ve carefully explained why CO2 can be a feedback on geologic time, but a driver on anthropomorphic change time scales. It is tiring (usually it is a new person, rather than an old one who will never give up).

    In any case, if you are game to set up some sort of clearing house of second rate explainers, perhaps some of us might volunteer to participate.

  12. 12
    Paul Middents says:

    I have been experiencing the same problem David #5 reports, with periodic crashes on IE. No other site does this. I thought it was my labtop which uses IE. I’m using Firefox on my desktop with no problems.

  13. 13
    SCM says:

    Sorry to veer off topic slightly but this is a request that the good folk of realclimate consider offering their perspective on the news about increasing methane levels. The AGU teaser is here:
    http://www.agu.org/sci_soc/prrl/2008-35.html and the paper is out on halloween!

  14. 14
    Jim Redden says:

    Unique post for Real Climate….

    While his concepts of orgone energy accumulation prove to be personal fantasy and fallacy, Reich is onto something with his systematic concepts of memory linked to emotionally mediated body states. The idea of the transduction of memory into the physical of the body is often observed by practitioners of body work such as yoga. I have experienced vivid memory recall during practice myself that seems to be triggered by physical states of the body.

    In kind, while Ivan Pavlov is well known for classical conditioning, his lesser known field theory of psychic function–in the abstract and different geospatial scales–resembles to the geophysical dynamic processes of weather and chaos theory.

    It should come at no surprise that physics and system thinking has revealing consideration to economics, climate, and mind.

  15. 15
    SCM says:

    Whoops! I sent a comment encouraging Real Climate to blog on the increasing methane levels papet that seems to be getting a bit of press but I supplied the wrong link. here is the correct one:
    http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-10/miot-mgl102908.php
    The paper is by Rigby & Prinn in GRL this week.

  16. 16
    Tim Curtin says:

    Eric: please explain (1) why uptakes of CO2 emissions by the biosphere amounting to 5.7 GtC in 2007, or over 57% of emissions of 10 GtC is not “meaningful”, (2) how much food production would there be with no atmospheric CO2? and (3) why is there such strong correlation between enhanced atmospheric CO2 and food production?

    [Response: I'm sure Eric won't mind me stepping in with some questions for you instead - 1) why do you keep insinuating that terrestrial and ocean uptake of anthropogenic CO2 is somehow not accepted by mainstream scientists? Indeed it was obvious to Keeling and Revelle 40 years ago. 2) why throw in obvious absurdities? and 3) why do you only selectively apply the phrase 'correlation is not causation'? and 4) why do you continue to ignore the fact that CO2 is in fact a greenhouse gas, and that if it wasn't none of this fuss would have ever arisen? - gavin]

  17. 17
    Sam Vilain says:

    Hi, interesting piece. I’ve recently been challenged to argue against the proposition that CO2 is heavier than air and therefore “falls down” into the oceans. I see you mention that. I’d guess that this is already a pretty well known phenomenon, the extent to which it happens, anyway – and already built into the models. Either that, or there already exist measurements of the relative level of CO2 up into the atmosphere (and CFCs, a much larger molecule which presumably would see more of an effect). Can you point me towards some clue?

    Thanks,
    Sam.

    [Response: There are of course plenty of measurements showing that CO2 is well mixed throughout the atmosphere. Google is a wonderful thing. I found an example in Nature after about 2 minutes of searching (click here for the abstract). There is actually some interesting structure to it -- CO2 goes UP as you go up in the troposphere, and then down again in the stratosphere. But the variations are small compared with the mean change through time. Why? Well, you're forgetting about convection! Air goes up precisely as much as it goes down, and it takes whatever it is made of (N2, O2, and yes, CO2) along with it. The only place you can see CO2 "fall" relative to the rest of the molecules is in a perfectly still column in a laboratory. My old advisor used to set things up to get CO2 to diffuse downwards to enrich the 14C content in a sample used for radiocarbon measurements. It took about 6 months to wind up with anything measureably greater at the bottom than at the top. Homework question: so why is the CO2 concentration lower near the ground than it is aloft?--eric]

  18. 18
    Aaron says:

    The Feynman quote is excellent.

    Greenspan knew about “irrational exuberance”; and, he knew that the executives that he trusted to protect shareholders had succumbed to irrational exuberance in the past. He failed to compare his model with available observations. He had years to make that comparison, and yet he never went back and validated his model. He fooled himself.

    Climate models make assumptions that we know to be false, and yet we continue to use them. Consider the assumptions about the Greenland Ice Sheet in the climate models used as a basis for the IPCC reports. For example, Is the GIS sitting in a bowl or a colander? How much heat is the onshore wind delivering to the lower flanks of the ice sheet? What are the mechanical loads and stress on the foundation ice? And, What heat fluxes over what time span are required to weaken the ice enough for it to move significantly? The models’ assumptions about these factors are not realistic. We are fooling ourselves with climate models and the GIS.

  19. 19
    Wynand Dednam says:

    While we’re also on the topic of corresponce with Real Climate,

    I’m decidedly a believer in anthropogenic climate change, because even my meager experience of first and second year Physics, as a student of Chemistry and Physics, leads me to that logical conclusion after having read a bit about the subject from experts, like here at RC.

    So, I was rather disappointed when I wrote a letter to RC a couple of months ago and nobody got back to me. I was asking whether someone could comment on climate change in terms of Entropy, and if that were not possible, if they could at least suggest any other sources I could consult.

    I have to admit, I feel even a little more disappointed now that I have seen you guys at RC take time to respond to letters by skeptics who do not even wish to engage you in serious debate.

    I know that you are very busy and my question may seem trivial, but I’m considering a career in Thermodynamics and in particular, its role for Renewable energy technologies and possibly even Economics. I would be very grateful if you could at least point me in the right direction.

    Thank you very much,

    Wynand Dednam.

    [Response: Wynand. Our apologies. We'll try to take a stab at this. However, I recall your original query, and I didn't really understand the question. Can you rephrase it?--eric]

  20. 20
  21. 21
    Barton Paul Levenson says:

    On the CO2-fertilizer effect: This works only when CO2 is the nutrient present in least amount (Liebig’s Law of the Minimum). The lab experiments showing a big CO2-fertilizer effect provided the plants with all the sunlight, water, fixed nitrogen, etc. that they needed. The natural world won’t do that. For most plants, the nutrient available in least supply is water, and with global warming causing more droughts in continental interiors, we can expect biosphere growth to be severely slowed down.

  22. 22
    Tim Curtin says:

    Thanks, Gavin, for your comment at #16 However I hope you will allow me to say your comments are of the strawman variety.

    [Response: Kettle, meet pot. - gavin]

    1. I am well aware that Keeling & co knew about Uptakes. But the IPCC consistently fails either to report them or to model them accurately. AR4 WG1 at Table 7.1 admits they exist, but as they have NEVER been measured, of necessity reports them as a residual (from Emissions minus change in atmospheric CO2 concentration). But in reality the atmospheric concentration is the residual (or dump, what is left up there after Uptakes). Regrettably ALL IPCC modelling,and in particular its MAGICC model, project Uptakes as the residual between its usually fanciful projections of Emissions and the Atmospheric Concentration. But Uptakes are in reality an Independent Variable, even if NEVER modelled as such. That is why ALL IPCC projections are devoid of value.

    [Response: I'm flabbergasted that you can be so insistent and yet so wrong. Not one of your claims here is correct. Look up the C4MIP experiments for dozens of models that explicitly calculate all these terms. - gavin]

    In particular the IPCC relies on unfounded claims by most of its authors of its AR4 WG1 Chap. 7 (Canadell et al. PNAS 2007) that the “terrestrial sink” is or soon will be “saturated”. They have never explained what would stop the ongoing increasing uptakes of CO2 by agriculture and growing livestock numbers. Each new variety of crops or improved pasture increases the uptake of atmospheric CO2 (and dare I say it, as does switching from moribund old growth timber to dynamic new oil palm). Why did this stop in 2007 as claimed by Canadell?

    I do not deny as you allege that CO2 could be a greenhouse gas, but I do assert that CO2 is demonstrably a fertilizer, as hundreds of papers reporting both actual greenhouse and open field (FACE) experiments with elevated CO2 have shown. The outcome is that every year since the Keeling measurements began in 1958, it is evident that 57% of emissions have on average been UPtaken by the terrestrial and oceanic biospheres (Canadell et al. 2007, Table 1).

    [Response: You keep stating this as if any one was arguing with the fact that the airbourne fraction is about 40%. No one is. You claim (incredibly - in its original sense) that no-one takes this into account and by implication there can be no carbon cycle feedbacks to temperature. Yet the paleo record clearly demonstrates there is. If your participation in blog comment threads is simply to provoke people into calling you names so that you can claim you're being persecuted, it will work fine. - gavin]

    BTW, McGrath who began this is clearly unaware that without carbonic acid there never would have been any coral reefs.

    [Response: And if there was no carbon, there'd be no-one around to argue about. This is simply juvenile. - gavin]

  23. 23
    Tim Curtin says:

    #21 Barton Paul L. As ever you are wrong. Check the literature on FACE etc. starting with the latest, Ainsworth et al. Plant, Cell and Environment 2008.

  24. 24

    Re 22:

    The abstract of the Ainsworth et al seems to provide some support for both TC and BPL: “Rising atmospheric [CO2] is altering global temperature and precipitation patterns, which challenges agricultural productivity,” yet “rising [CO2] provides a unique opportunity to increase the productivity of C3 crops. . .”

    What I am not clear on is the point of the debate. Is TC saying that increased fertilization due to CO2 is going to act as a negative feedback of sufficient magnitude that the problem of anthropogenic emissions is smaller than generally believed? Or just that there is a potential to increase food production, which would be helpful in managing all the other challenges that we are going to face?

    The abstract seems to support the second position, but not the first–that is, the point of the paper seems to be that significant yield increases are *possible*, but require serious agricultural management, including breeding programs, to be realized. By definition, this won’t be relevant to the overall biosphere.

  25. 25
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Tim Curtin:
    Poison ivy LOVES higher CO2 levels:
    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/05/060530-warming.html

    Don’t confuse fetid with fertile. Plants that take up CO2 do not sequester it for very long unless they are hardwood trees, and what matters for us is our ability to grow CROPS more efficiently than weeds. I guess you don’t garden much.

  26. 26
    Richard C says:

    The Tim Curtin argument is strangely ironic given the nature of the original story.

    [Response:*Sigh*. Yes indeed. To quote myself from the post above, "Often, though, I find myself in a pointless debate of the most basic, well-established physical principles." I think we've arrived there.--eric]]

  27. 27

    #21 and #23

    Barton Paul Levenson is not wrong, though he only mentions only one of the many factors that limit the fertiliser effect.

    Others include the fact that many plants have evolved a trick for concentrating CO2, called C4 photosynthesis, so higher levels make little difference to them, and that in the tropics very high temperatures can impede growth.

    The paper you mention ( http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-3040.2008.01841.x ) does not contradict BPL’s point: yes, we can create/breed some crops that will grow better under higher CO2, but only with sufficient irrigation.

    You can read my brief summary of the issues here: http://environment.newscientist.com/channel/earth/climate-change/dn11655

  28. 28
    Wynand Dednam says:

    Thank you Eric.

    I’ve had arguments with many a climate skeptic, with and without scientific backgrounds alike (arguing with those from the Engineering community can be especially difficult)

    Since my knowledge of Physics and how you guys model climate change is limited for the same reasons you mention in your post (science today is just too complex for a single person to work with all by him-/herself), I’ve not been very successful at convincing people that CC is real. Instead I’ve been “agnostic” about it, usually saying that I accept the consensus (based on my limited knowledge), and also refer people to your website. Many laypeople then dismiss what I’m saying because I can’t “explain” it properly and also dismiss looking it up on the internet.

    We both know that people like that probably fear science because of bad experiences at school or because they were just never interested and prefer to believe what they want to.

    That was one hell of a preamble, sorry… I’ll get to the point:

    I’m looking for a simpler explanation and thought that if I framed CC in terms of Entropy I could at least get some of the engineers to accept its reality. I “think” I explain it better this way:

    Carbon dioxide has been deposited in the Earth’s crust in a very concentrated form via fossilisation over hundreds of millions of years in essentially one direction (correct me if I’m wrong please) unlike the ocean where an equilibrium was more or less established, with the exception of the deep ocean CO2? So isn’t rapidly extracting and burning all that concentrated form of carbon and turning it into dispersed carbon dioxide increasing the planet’s entropy very quickly, thus taking us very quickly closer to thermodynamic equilibrium and ultimately the planet’s death?

    From my limited experience it makes “sense”, but I would prefer the experts to weigh in on it.:)

    Thank you very much,

    Wynand.

    [Response: Hmm. I must admit that I don't understand that article you link to. They are using entropy as a metaphor, not as anything quantitatively useful, as far as I can tell. This is a bit like "chaos" -- people in economics talk about it, but they don't mean what scientists mean by it. And I don't think the concept of "entropy" is useful in the global warming context at all. For starters, the earth isn't a closed system, as the commenter below notes, so it isn't subject to the well known constraint that the entropy of a [closed] system is always >0. But more important than that, thinking of entropy as the “tendency to disorder” doesn’t apply very well to anything except the chemical thermodynamics theory from which it arises. Entropy is really just a theoretical construct (albiet a powerful and important one) that says how these things relate to one another: for example dQ=TdS for a reversible process (say, a piston pushing on a compressible gas). (Here dS = change in entropy, T = temperature, dQ is the change in heat context). None of this is to say you shouldn’t study thermodynamics (or better yet, modern statistical mechanics, which relates classical thermodynamics with quantum mechanics).–eric]

  29. 29
    Richard C says:

    Wynand #28

    My limited take on planetary entropy.

    I don’t think you can use this argument, because the Earth is not a closed system. Entropic “death” cannot happen whilst the planet receives and emits radiation.

  30. 30
    Joseph O'Sullivan says:

    This was an interesting post and so are some of the threads in the comments because they demonstrate what science is and how it works. Both Greenspan and Reich had ideas that they believed in, but where not based in science. They didn’t apply the rigorous tests that makes science reliable.

    On the CO2 as pollutant vs fertilizer discussion, roughly half of the photosynthesis on earth occurs in the oceans where CO2 is not a limiting factor. Increasing CO2 emissions are causing acidification of the oceans which in turn is causing serious ecological ramifications.

    This is a bigger issue than some people disagreeing with the scientific community. There are ongoing actions to get CO2 listed as a pollutant in the US regulatory system because of the acidification of marine waters.

  31. 31

    Sorry for beeing off-topic. But regarding the Tim Curtin’s cited paper –
    .
    Lloyd, J. and G.D Farquhar 2008. Effects of rising temperatures and [CO2] on the physiology of forest trees. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B.
    .
    It is quite strange that this paper seems to review future of tropical rainforest in the face of rising CO2 and rising temperature – unfortunately, it completely lacks to mention change in precipitation, which is just-another-very-important (climate change) metric – and it completely fails to mention modelling work of Peter Cox group – that predicts decline in rain forest productivity and growth due to decline in precipitation.
    .
    Put it differently – why should plant physiologists think of positive effect of rising temperature and elevated CO2, without regarding change in preciupitation (which is going to be more and more disrupted)? At least they should mention, that in their review they did not take into account (guite possible) decline in precipitation. But then they would have to admit, that their conclusions are ittelevant.

  32. 32
    Christopher Hogan says:

    To comment #16, your confusion is that the estimated 5.7GT carbon uptake is not out of this year’s emissions, it’s out of the entire (roughly) 200GT of excess carbon that has built up in the atmosphere since the start of the industrial revolution. So the “57% of emissions” phrase is just misleading. The uptake is about 2.5% of the total amount of “excess” or “disequilibrium” atmospheric carbon. And, totally by chance, this equals 57% of a year’s emissions, this year. If emissions went to zero tomorrow, or doubled tomorrow, you’d still see that 5.7GT uptake, more or less.

  33. 33
    Christopher Hogan says:

    Economics is a social science, and as such, you can be fairly precisely say why it is different from the physical sciences. First, there are no conservation laws in economics. Second, there are no true experiments, at least in macroeconomics. Third, there are no unchanging underlying relationships between economic quantities. Economic relationships evolve in (largely) unpredictable ways.

    Given that — no conservation laws, no experiments, and a constantly moving target — the real wonder is that economists can sometimes say something useful, not that some political hack like Greenspan claims to have been shocked by the collapse of the credit bubble.

    [Response: Yes, of course a stronger point than "Greenspan wasn't peer reviewed" might be that "economics isn't science". But of course, then one gets into a debate about exactly what science is. For a good take on that, see Gavin's earlier post on climate modeling.--eric]

  34. 34
    Rod B says:

    Ray, a quick non sequitur. You said that hardwood trees are the only flora that [significantly, I assume you meant] sequesters CO2/carbon. Is this a timing thing? Corn sequestering carbon in its leaf, stalk and root mass is the thing that makes ethanol less CO2 emitting than gasoline.

  35. 35
    Rod B says:

    Christopher (32), I can’t follow your math. If in a year 10Gt is emitted and 5.7Gt is uptaken, on an equivalency basis that’s 57% of one years emission going into uptake that same year and it does not matter if precisely one or more of those CO2 molecules was actually emitted from a smokestack 5 years earlier. True?

  36. 36
    Jim Galasyn says:

    No discussion of Wilhelm Reich is complete without linking to Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting”:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IRHA9W-zExQ

    (1985, Starring Donald Sutherland!)

  37. 37
    Wynand D says:

    Richard C. #29

    Thanks for humouring me.:)

    I obviously did not come up with this argument all on my own, but found my inspiration in an article at Encyclopedia of the Earth, http://www.eoearth.org, a while ago that discusses entropy and its ramifications for Economics and in particular, indefinite economic growth.

    The article, Energy and economic myths, was written by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and can be found here.

    It could make the discussion here even more interesting, since we’re on the topics of economics and science. That is, if people are interested.

  38. 38
    Richard says:

    Has there already been a good explanation of why the temperature in recent years has not increased in the way predicted in the IPCC GCM simulations while the CO2 has continued to increase?

    Figure 3.2, page 46:
    http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/syr/ar4_syr.pdf

    http://www.woodfortrees.org/graph/hadcrut3vgl/from:1960/normalise/plot/gistemp/from:1960/normalise/plot/esrl-co2/from:1960/normalise

    I expect this has already been explained thoroughly elsewhere so maybe someone can just point me to the explanation.

    [Response: Your interpretation of what IPCC projected is incorrect. Interannual and interdecadal variability does not disappear because there is a long term trend. The envelope of model projections for the recent years (discussed here) is easily wide enough to encompass what has actually happened - it has very little relevance to longer term trends. - gavin]

  39. 39
    Mike G says:

    “I do not deny as you allege that CO2 could be a greenhouse gas, but I do assert that CO2 is demonstrably a fertilizer, as hundreds of papers reporting both actual greenhouse and open field (FACE) experiments with elevated CO2 have shown.” – Tim Curtin – note 22.

    H2O is a “fertilizer” in the same way as is CO2 – both are essential components in plant growth, so if you increase the input of either, you may get an increase in yields. Too much hydrogen monoxide – as in inundation, or simple soil leaching or saturation, however, will result in declining yields. Hydrogen monoxide itself is of course a greenhouse gas. That it, like carbon dioxide, is essential for plant growth is surely utterly irrelevant to the issue of anthropogenic global warming.

  40. 40
    forrest curo says:

    Reich had made some real discoveries in pyschology, and suffered a great deal because they were utterly unacceptable to his contemporaries. This probably had him functioning in a mode close to delusional.

    As a result (I think) he was interpreting his findings metaphorically without fully understanding that his explanations were metaphorical. Since “science”–mathematical descrptions of physical reality–were what was respected in that time, he had a strong attraction to such metaphors, and believed in them strongly himself. (In this, he was more typical than he could have imagined!)

    If he could have seen the phenomena he witnessed, not as some ‘undiscovered form of energy’–but as effects of his belief in them, he might have made a lot more sense, and needed fewer arguments about fields other people knew better! (Aside from the Power of Denial, do you suppose that some of your opponents here might be motivated by similar confusions?)

  41. 41
    Sven Türpe says:

    I think you are slightly overstating the role and capabilities of peer review. By no means peer review is supposed to “separate ideas that have traction from ideas that are going nowhere”. Only science as a whole, in the long run, can do so.

    The limitations of peer review as a means of verifying ideas become obvious when we consider contemporary scientific experiements such as those to be conducted with the Large Hadron Collider. Any sufficiently large project will do as an example. There is no way for a small group of reviewers to verify results that are submitted for publication out of such projects. They would need resources in the same order of magnitude.

    What peer review really does is filter spam, which is much more feasible. Reviewers can and should evaluate for each publication how suitable it is as a contribution to the overall scientific process. Is the subject relevant? Are there original and novel aspects? Is the contents presented in a clear and understandable manner? Is there a sound rationale for the choice of methods? Does it make interesting points?

    It is perfectly legitimate for peer review to let pass a paper that contains nothing but wild speculation, which later turns out to be all wrong, if it is properly presented and interesting. It is also perfectly legitimate for peer review to reject hard data that have been produced with all due care, if the data seems utterly irrelevant to the progress of science.

    The implication is twofold: a) what has been published may still be wrong, but not in any obvious way; and b) if done right, peer review does not act as an evil conspiracy to keep unorthodox ideas from being published. Ideally, peer review should catch (simple) calculation errors but let pass a description of a hypothetical orgone accumulator if the description is sufficiently clear and complete for such a device to be built and tested.

  42. 42
    Scott Robertson says:

    Eric,

    Great post, and subsequent demonstration in comments. I wonder if Tim was brought in by invitation? Surely not. I have stopped having these type of discussions with my rabidly conservative brother-in-law. It was simply fruitless and as someone mentioned earlier he is an engineer.

  43. 43
    Steve says:

    Wow – I never knew the Kate Bush song was about Reich – Thanks.

    But just as importantly, no discussion is complete without the song “Orgone Accumulator” by Hawkwind (from the brilliant album Space Ritual)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hVNIQigvEeE
    (you have to turn it up loud, and it helps if you smoke something first. Or at least that’s how I remember it. They were amazing live)

  44. 44
    Hank Roberts says:

    Eric, a nitpick — very small scale local CO2 variations do occur. Just one cite, plenty more:
    http://www.springerlink.com/content/m4176u2142310l13/

    I asked a related question here:
    http://www.blogger.com/profile/07521410755553979665
    “… would higher and lower CO2 measurements in a forest, compared to a polar icecap, suggest an actual flow of CO2 going on, out of or into the soil in which the trees are growing?” (re the oak leaf stomatal measurements; authors are participating in that thread, worth a visit).

    Re Tim Curtin, perspective helps

    http://www.google.com/search?q=“Tim+Curtin”+”Letter+to+Nature”

    and

    Tim Curtin | June 24, 2006 9:00 AM. #48. … what do you understand by “parts per million”? Lesser earthlings like me think it means that …

    http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/2006/06/the_gods_are_laughing_at_tom_h.php

  45. 45

    Re 35, I think that the main points are:

    1) Everybody agrees that biological factors are indeed significant to the carbon cycle (every diagram or summary I’ve seen certainly includes them);

    2) The 5.7 GT taken up by the biosphere is better compared to the total carbon cycled annually, not to human emissions which are independent of this uptake. It is not demonstrated that increasing the CO2 will result in anything like a proportionate increase in the uptake when the biosphere as a whole is considered.

    3) Something can be both a pollutant and a fertilizer–dung, for instance. (How far you want to extend this metaphorically, I don’t know. :-) )

  46. 46
    Hank Roberts says:

    Specific pointer; see this and following comments.
    http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/2006/06/the_gods_are_laughing_at_tom_h.php#comment-114141
    I hope Tim Curtin has retracted this somewhere, if so I’ll quit asking if it’s still what Tim believes.

  47. 47
    SecularAnimist says:

    Lawrence Brown wrote: “Even Albert Einstein was no Einstein when it came to quantum mechanics. Neils Bohr turned back Einstein’s skepticism several times on certain aspects. Which ought to give all of us pause. If Einstein can be wrong what can anyone expect from the rest of us?!”

    It is worth noting how and why Einstein was wrong about quantum mechanics: it was not because quantum theory failed any empirical test or lacked explanatory value. It was because quantum theory contradicted Einstein’s deeply felt sense of how the world must be (e.g. “God does not play dice with the universe”). Einstein simply could not accept that the world could possibly be the way quantum theory described it.

    This is an attitude that some sincere climate change “skeptics” (as opposed to ExxonMobil-funded deliberate frauds) exhibit: their so-called “skepticism” arises from an a priori sense that human activities cannot possibly affect the Earth system in the way that the theory of anthropogenic global warming describes.

    It is also illuminating to read Charles Fort’s writings on the attitude of some scientists who, as late as the 19th century, refused to believe that meteorites came from outer space, and came up with all sorts of bizarre “rational explanations” for them (including fraud). Their world-view simply precluded the idea that solid objects from space could fall upon the Earth.

    Jim Galasyn wrote: “No discussion of Wilhelm Reich is complete without linking to Kate Bush’s ‘Cloudbusting’”

    Ha! I was going to say that myself. I can’t encounter a mention of Reich without thinking of that beautiful and moving song. I am grateful for this article on RealClimate just for giving me a reason to listen to it again today.

  48. 48
    pete best says:

    The jury is ultimately out on the nature of quantum mechanics. The Cophenhagen interpretation has been found to be wanting in recent years although the philosophy does not contradict the evidence. It is as Richard Feynman once said, no one understand quantum mechanics/theory.

    As for being plagued by people sending you endless correspondence on perpetual motion machines and pseudo science just ask them if they have their work published in any relevant journal. It works for George Monbiot apparently.

  49. 49
    Richard C says:

    Wynand #37

    Sorry mate. I tried reading that article by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, but had to give up when I realised I didn’t have a bloody clue what he was saying.

  50. 50
    Ray Ladbury says:

    It is also worth pointing out that while Einstein was wrong about quantum theory, he was at least wrong in an interesting way that advanced the state of understanding of the microworld. Einstein sharpened Bohr’s thinking, and was instrumental in his ideas on complementarity. Bohr once told Heisenberg that when he was trying to sharpen his thinking, he would engage in an imaginary dialogue with Einstein.

    On the other hand, we have the denialists, who have contributed nothing to the understanding of climate. To paraphrase Pauli, their arguments are so bad they’re not even wrong.


Switch to our mobile site