Interview with “And then there’s physics” blogger, excellent #climate #science #policy site

Late last year someone left a comment on the Manchester Climate Monthly website. That’s rare, but not rare enough to be news-worthy. After an embarrassing-to-MCFly-accusation-of-denialism (since retracted!), it emerged that the commenter is the chap behind a very useful website called “And then there’s physics”. He kindly agreed to an interview with MCFly (the reference to slagging off in question 6 is aimed at me, not him!).

attpscreenshot19feb1. Within the limits of your anonymity – “Who are you and what gives you the right to give the world your opinions (sic!) on climate change?”

Maybe I should start by saying something about my anonymity. I have no formal climate science credentials and (apart from the very few who now know who I am) am not known to anyone in the mainstream climate science community. I don’t really have a good reason for being anonymous, I just didn’t give it much thought when I started and am not sure of why – or how – I should change it. I didn’t really expect anyone to take what I wrote all that seriously, so it didn’t seem like an issue when I started.

As for my actual credentials. I have a PhD in physics, I work in academia, I have a reasonable publication record, I’ve taught physics, I’ve reviewed papers, reviewed grant applications. I think I have a reasonable understanding of how academia works and, would like to think, a good understanding of physics and hence of the fundamentals of global warming. I think I have the same rights as anyone else when it comes to expressing an opinion (scientific or otherwise) about global warming/climate change. Others then have the right to judge me on the basis of what I say and to choose to ignore it or not. Typically they’re also welcome to correct me through the comments on my blog, and many do. I do, however, typically expect them to actually construct an argument and not simply say “don’t be an idiot, you’re wrong”.

2. What did you hope for when you set out to enter the on-line debate on climate change?
I don’t actually know what I was hoping for. I had made what I thought were fairly benign comments on a well-known skeptic blog and was quite surprised (to say the least) by the response. I then started to get frustrated by what I was reading on some of the blogs and since I didn’t seem to be able to have constructive discussions there, I decided that I would write my own blog and aim to correct (as best I could) the incorrect science/physics being presented on other blogs. I didn’t really give it much thought, possibly to my eternal regret. It was more for my own benefit than for anything else. I am sometimes a bit worried that it is being taken more seriously than I would like. I am still simply an anonymous blogger who is simply expressing views about climate science.

3. What has actually ended up happening (mission-drift etc etc).
That’s quite a difficult one to answer. I’ve certainly learned a lot, both about myself, about climate science, and about others. Any optimism I felt about the possibility of constructive discussions with those who’s opinions about climate science differed significantly from mine, is now largely gone. I would like that to not be the case, but it seems as though it’s virtually impossible. Given that I didn’t really have a mission, I’m not sure what’s drifted. I do think I still simply write what I happen to be considering at that time and try to be as honest and as careful as I can be. I may not always succeed. What I do understand better is the likely impact of what I write and so I do sometimes decide that I can’t quite face the likely vitriol and so just don’t write something that I may have considered starting. I think the blog has managed to remain reasonably civil, but given the strong feelings that some have, it is sometimes something that’s difficult to maintain.

4. What advice would you give your younger (pre-blogging) self about the blogging?
Don’t start blogging about climate science.

5. What do you expect the “skeptics”/”denialists” to do as the evidence of climate change keeps mounting? Will their numbers shrink or expand? What grounds do you have for your expectation?
I think I’ve already seen a small change. It seems even in the last year there has been a bit of a shift from, “it’s probably not happening” or “it won’t have much impact”, to “we must adapt, but attempting to mitigate is futile and therefore shouldn’t be considered or discussed”. I have no sense of what will happen with regards to numbers, but I can see the rhetoric changing. In particular I could see it shifting in such a way that even once the impacts become obvious there will still be attempts to blame climate scientists for not behaving impeccably, or for not making a sufficiently strong argument. It would be nice if the discussions could become more constructive, but I’m not convinced that that is likely.

6. Other than “checking out who you are slagging off”, what advice would you give to individuals/groups who are trying to communicate about climate science and climate policy?
I’d like to think I’m not actually “slagging people off” on my blog [The question was a dig at MCFly's intemperateness. See above]. I’m simply expressing a view about whether or not what someone else has said is credible, although I may not always avoid a bit of snark. I don’t actually have any good advice. It seems incredibly difficult. It seems that trying to change entrenched views isn’t possible or worth trying. It seems that genuinely constructive discussions aren’t possible. To be honest, I really don’t have a good idea of what’s best. For example, I don’t really have any agenda when it comes to my blogging. I’m not even sure that what I’m doing is worthwhile or not. At times I think I should just stop, especially as it does feel more and more that I’m simply preaching to the converted. There may be those who read and don’t comment and maybe learn something valuable, but it’s very hard to know.

7. Anything else you’d like to say?

No, I think that’s all I have to say. Thanks for the interest and for the chance to express some thoughts about a complex and interesting topic.

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27 Responses to Interview with “And then there’s physics” blogger, excellent #climate #science #policy site

  1. Jonathan Atkinson says:

    Interesting interview. Simon Lewis’ article on Nature’s website has led to an interesting discussion on whether scientists should publicly debate with climate denialists:

  2. It seems even in the last year there has been a bit of a shift from, “it’s probably not happening” or “it won’t have much impact”, to “we must adapt, but attempting to mitigate is futile and therefore shouldn’t be considered or discussed”.

    The poor chap is utterly clueless on this, as on most other topics.
    The latest Yale survey, in Nov 2013, said “There has been an increase in the proportion of Americans who believe global warming is not happening (23%, up 7 percentage points since April 2013).”

    Here in the UK the number saying it is not happening is also increasing, as shown by recent surveys by social scientists at Cardiff. This was reported by the Times as “Number of climate change sceptics soars” (which of course is newspaper exaggeration).

    • Actually, Paul, the question – and the answer – was about “active” denialists/skeptics/contrarians whatever word you want to use. People who take it upon themselves to try to undermine our understanding of the climate system. The kind of people he set up the blog in a (largely futile, it seems) attempt to debate and educate.

      Personally, I fully expect denial to go UP. Not because the evidence of anthropogenic climate change is lacking, but because it is overwhelming. When confronted with our mortality – as individuals or as a species – one “coping mechanism” is to stick our fingers in our ears and shout “la la la.” If you want, you can use the ‘fact’ that more people are doing this as evidence that basic 19th century physics is wrong. But it would be kind of embarrassing.

    • Paul, I find it interesting that you feel the need to continually point out that I’m clueless. If true, wouldn’t it just be patently obvious?

  3. Hi ATTP,

    I’m interested to how you can say

    “I think I’ve already seen a small change…from, “it’s probably not happening” “we must adapt, but attempting to mitigate is futile and therefore shouldn’t be considered or discussed”…. I can see the rhetoric changing.”

    but also:

    “It seems that trying to change entrenched views isn’t possible or worth trying.”

    Do you think the increasing number of “lukewarmer” / policy-only sceptics is a result of the increasing body of scientific evidence that is becoming harder to argue with? If so, wouldn’t it make sense that online conversations are part of the process of making that evidence available (given journal subscriptions) and accessible (translated into plain English) to more people?

    • Hey, Tamsin,
      any chance of that interview? Just askin’… :)

      Marc Hudson

    • Tamsin, that’s a valid point. I guess it is possible that more communication and easier access to journals and publications have lead people to recognise the strength of the evidence.

      On the other hand, there is still a sense – I have – that it is still associated with an attempt to control the narrative. It’s typically associated with arguments that mitigation is too expensive/too risky or that the “pause” means that we should be considering adaptation only until the evidence is stronger. The problem with this is that the “pause” is not, for example, evidence for a lower climate sensitivity. Almost all estimates (energy budget, paleo, climate models) suggest that the ECS is at least 2 degrees and that the most likely value is probably close to 3. This means that a BAU emissions scenario means that there is a good chance that we could see more than 2 degrees of warming (from today) by 2100, potentially taking us into a climate regime that the human species has never before experienced.

      So, even though the rhetoric may have changed, there still seem to be many who are arguing against serious discussions about the implications of future warming, and although it may be an improvement, it still doesn’t seem particularly good. Having said that, if it has indeed changed as it seems and if that can be associated with improved communication, then I would see that as a good thing and maybe it does suggest that we could see further improvements in the future as communication improves. So maybe there are some positives and I should stop being so cynical :-) .

  4. Barry Woods says:

    the alternative, is those people have always been there, just ignored..

    • My, what interesting punctuation you have. The point of longitudinal surveys, surely, is that they show changes over time. So, the numbers of “those people” shifts over time. Because of personal experience, elite cues, whatever. And still this; the denialists don’t “win” – in the sense of not living on a planet that is warming, that will become very inhospitable indeed for what we like to call ‘civilisation’ – if and when more people decide to stick their fingers in their own ears and yell “la la la.” It seems to me that this is not so much an appeal to authority, but an appeal to public opinion polls. That seems like a pretty weird kind of argument to me.

      UPDATE: Epic Fail again. I. Seem. Incapable. Of. Learning. To. Thoroughly. Read. The. Site. People. Are. Commenting. From.
      This, for example –
      is well worth the time to read.

      Sigh. There is no hope (for me).

      UPDATE THE SECOND: Nope, I was probably right the first time. #hallofmirrors.

      • Barry Woods says:

        Perhaps you should read Tamsin’s email to Peter Glieick, in the article you just linked..

        “I would personally be infuriated if I was dismissed on account of the behaviour of a group of people I talk with. Every single person I talk with has a different viewpoint, and I learn a lot about how better to communicate climate science by listening to them. If we dismiss swathes of people by association then our attempts at communication become futile: we end up only ‘preaching to the converted from an ‘ivory tower’, as it were”.

        Of course, if communication of climate science is not your aim, then it is your choice if you prefer to communicate with nobody! – Tamsin Edwards

        I don’t think you can fault her spelling or grammar, but you may not like her content…
        Maybe you should try to understand why Tamsin wrote that.

  5. Well I was about to leave a comment, but if being rude about punctuation is in vogue here I won’t bother. Along with, presumably, anyone with dyslexia…

  6. In fact there are a few interesting points here, under 3. And 6.
    It’s clear that he has learnt something, though it is still really puzzling, if he is the experienced scientist he claims to be, that he started off with such a simplistic naive view.
    But there is an endless supply of enthusiastic young activists, convinced that they know best and can change the world by starting a new blog and telling people “the facts”.

    • Congratulations, Paul and Barry. You are the first people I’ve ever put in the moderation settings thingie on wordpress (on this site, at least).
      IF you have anything useful to say, that isn’t ad hominem, then do hit send. I don’t mind concern-trolling and ad hominems on me that much (but there are limits). It’s when you (Paul) slag off my interviewees without anything substantive to say that I begin to be a bit bored.
      Remember, primarily this site is for Manchester, (UK) readers. But of course, given that I have recently interviewed ATTP and Prof Corinne Le Quere, I can’t hide behind that entirely.

  7. Barry Woods says:

    could you point out what you take issue with (by me) and why?
    as I’ve made no comment about the interviewee, and I responded politely to you, when you were less than polite to me.

    • Barry, there is a difference between “in moderation” and “blocked”, no? You are not blocked.
      You are welcome to do the aggrieved tone all you like,that doesn’t bother me particularly.
      Basically, I am keen that the conversation, such as it is, doesn’t degenerate into a time-wasting and pixel-exhausting traditional interwebz spat. If I have the time and inclination, I may reply to your very kind and even more polite invitation to define the various types of denialism. But you could always google it, if you’re that keen, no?
      You probably didn’t know this site before yesterday – why should you? But the clue is in the name – MANCHESTER Climate Monthly. There are dozens (hundreds) of sites where people can have their little angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin discussions about the albedo this, the climate sensitivity that. There is, sadly, only one site devoted to the (lack of) mitigation and adaptation activity here in Manchester (there are other sites that SHOULD be doing that, or would say they are while merely peddling pure PR waffle at the EU’s expense, but that’s another story).

  8. Barry Woods says:

    Fair enough, Manchester is your focus.
    Though I would be interested in your thoughts on ‘denilaism’.
    ‘Denialism’ seems to have as many definitions as people, which makes it not very useful. But I was interested in your definition, not other peoples. (ie google will not give me your thoughts)

    • Will do – a short film on
      what is denialism
      what are its tactics
      what are the types of climate denialism (science, impacts, policy etc)
      what are the motivations
      how to respond to it
      will appear in due course (couple of weeks, I suspect)

      It will be a mix of mythoughts (paultry and second-hand and the un-peer-reviewed literature.

  9. Sam Gunsch says:

    re: “4. What advice would you give your younger (pre-blogging) self about the blogging?
    Don’t start blogging about climate science.”

    Advice/perspective in a similar vein below:


    excerpt: “To the heart of your question, why don’t more climate scientists enter into the public debate? Because the debate is over. It’s the moral and scientific equivalent of debating gravity.

    The experts have spoken, and because a very small minority of stakeholders and shareholders don’t care for the implications there is vociferous push-back from certain special interests.

    I worked in television news for 35 years. Mainstream media likes a good on-air food-fight, a protagonist and antagonist, shouting at each other about their world views. It attracts curiosity and eyeballs — it’s ultimately good for ratings.

    But it’s a false equivalent, and it’s a terrible way to conduct science.

    We put a handful of (paid) climate skeptics and industry lobbyists on a stage with thousands of the world’s leading climate PhD’s, and think this is somehow serving the public interest? It’s not.

    It’s creating more confusion, more delay and more denial, as viewers and readers pick and choose their reality as easily as changing channels on their TV or grazing over their morning horoscope. I can absolutely understand why more professionals don’t want to subject themselves to inane banter with science-deniers.”

    excerpt: “I’m a meteorologist, but I haven’t renounced my citizenship. As such I speak out about issues, trying to highlight the signal amidst the noise. And there’s an awful lot of noise, confusion, obfuscation and (deliberate, well-funded and orchestrated) denial out there today, because of policy implications, and the sheer amount of money in the energy sector that’s in play. Trillions of dollars of carbon potentially at risk.

    As an entrepreneur if I don’t respect the data and see the business world as it really is, not as I’d like it to be, I become road kill. My venture quickly goes out of business and I have to lay off good people. So it is with science, which, like nature, never moves in a straight line. But I tell people the truth as I perceive it to be. The data is the data. If we don’t react to facts on the ground and listen to professional scientists, including climate scientists, and base policy decisions on a careful and deliberate attempt to document observed changes/causes using the scientific method, we’re setting ourselves up for failure on a planetary scale.”

  10. Sam Gunsch says:

    Dan Kahan excerpt:

    excerpt: Third, the major impediment, I’m convinced, to constructive public engagement with climate science is not how much either side knows or understands scientific evidence [26] of it.

    It’s their shared apprehension that opposing positions on climate change are, in effect, badges of membership in and loyalty to competing cultural groups [27]; that is the cue or signal that motivates members of the public to process information about climate change risks in a manner that is more reliably geared to affirming the position that predominates in their group than to converging on the best available evidence [28].

    FWIW, this cultural cognition theory explanation fits closely with my experience here in Alberta of climate debate/politics. Sam Gunsch

  11. Pingback: Climate denialism | And Then There's Physics

  12. I have had some recent exchanges with this supposed anonymous physicist, and, as a Ph.D. physicist myself (Stanford, 1983) who is not anonymous, I smell a rat. Frankly, he does not seem scientifically well-informed, most especially not in physics. I myself am neither a “catastrophist” nor a “denialist”: I try not to issue pronouncements ex cathedra on an area not directly in my area of personal expertise. He does, which is one of the reasons I seriously doubt his claimed credentials.

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

    • Hmmm.
      I am in *NO* position to tell people how to react to this blogger (as the links in the interview make clear). But the fact that he talks about things not “directly” in his area of personal expertise is hardly evidence on which to doubt claimed credentials. And although I’ve not kept up with reading his posts (it’s not a quality issue, it’s a time thing), I always got the impression that he talked about arguments, not credentials/qualifications.

      Marc Hudson, card-carrying catastrophist. We have been ignoring/minimising/prevaricating on this problem for 25 years. There’s only so long you can do that before the chickens come home to roost.

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