Physics Society Restates Position After Blog-Driven ‘Kerfuffle’ Erupts

A recent “kerfuffle,” as a headline writer for FOXNews.com termed it, once again underscored the influence of the blogosphere’s echo chamber – and just how quickly it can spread bad information.

The American Physical Society, APS, last month saw fit to “reaffirm” its official position on climate change after a flurry of online reports and comments erroneously stated that the group had reversed its 2007 stance that humans are causing global warming and that greenhouse emissions should be lowered.

APS is the leading U.S. organization of physicists, with more than 46,000 members.

The incorrect web reports started when an article by a non-scientist, British Viscount Christopher Monckton, was published in the July issue of the online newsletter of the APS Physics and Society Forum. The forum is one of 39 units of APS. Its newsletter is not a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

Monckton’s article argued that climate projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change “may be excessive and unsafe” and concluded that “currently-fashionable efforts by governments to reduce anthropogenic CO2 emissions are pointless, may be ill-conceived, and could even be harmful.” Monckton, according to the FOXNews.com article about the incident, is “a Cambridge-educated classicist, journalist, hereditary peer and former adviser to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.”

An article supporting the IPCC’s conclusions was published along with Monckton’s piece. It was written by David Hafemeister and Peter Schwartz, members of the Physics Department at Cal Poly University.

The newsletter’s editors – Alvin Saperstein of Wayne State University and Jeffrey Marque, for whom the APS website lists no affiliation, introduced the articles as a “debate.” They explained: “There is a considerable presence within the scientific community of people who do not agree with the IPCC conclusion that anthropogenic CO2 emissions are very probably likely to be primarily responsible for the global warming that has occurred since the Industrial Revolution.”

On July 16, DailyTech, which describes itself as “a leading online magazine for a well-educated, tech audience,” published an item on its science blog about Monckton’s article.

Headlined “Myth of Consensus Explodes: APS Opens Global Warming Debate,” the blog post by Michael Asher had this lead paragraph:

“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.’”

The closely followed Drudge Report linked to the DailyTech post with a small headline declaring, “Group Repping 50,000 Physicists Opens Global Warming Debate.”

The DailyTech item also was soon being cited and linked on a number of websites as evidence that scientific agreement about climate change was eroding.

“What global warming consensus?,” conservative commentator Michelle Malkin demanded on her website.

“You’ve got to love it,” another conservative scribe, Jonah Goldberg, chimed in on a National Review Online blog. “The same day that Al Gore does his man-to-the-moon spiel on global warming, the American Physical Society – the second largest professional association of physicists – rescinds its total support for the global warming [sic.].”

Commenting on a blog post about Bush administration opposition to greenhouse gas restrictions by New York Times reporter Andrew C. Revkin, a reader approvingly offered a link to the DailyTech report as evidence suggesting “the White House has a better grasp on science” than EPA scientists favoring such regulation.

The APS took steps to set the record straight, including the placement of this disclaimer atop Monckton’s article:

“The following article has not undergone any scientific peer review, since that is not normal procedure for American Physical Society newsletters. The American Physical Society reaffirms the following position on climate change, adopted by its governing body, the APS Council, on November 18, 2007: ‘Emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities are changing the atmosphere in ways that affect the Earth’s climate.’”

The organization also issued a press release on July 22, “APS Reaffirms Position on Climate Change.” It stated its position: “Emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities are changing the atmosphere in ways that affect the Earth’s climate. The evidence is incontrovertible: Global warming is occurring.”

The APS release said its reaffirmation was prompted by Monckton’s article and the coverage it received:

“Online reports erroneously implied an APS policy change. These reports did not include the disclaimer, ‘Opinions expressed are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the APS or of the Forum,’ which was attached to the newsletter article.”

The APS response to the furor had an effect.

Malkin, for example, posted an “update” to her original blog item, quoting the APS reaffirmation of its climate change position.

For his part, Goldberg was explicitly contrite. Labeling his own blog update (which also quoted the APS) as a “correction,” he admitted, “Nevermind. I’ve led you astray.”

The original DailyTech blog item itself was updated on July 17, the day after its initial posting. Above the original text, this sentence was added in red letters:

“After publication of this story, the APS responded with a statement that its Physics and Society Forum is merely one unit within the APS, and its views do not reflect those of the Society at large.”

DailyTech retained the headline saying “Myth of Consensus Explodes: APS Opens Global Warming Debate” on the updated version of its piece, however. That decision prompted one reader to post this exasperated comment five days later:

“Hey, lose the sensational headline. Even a quick read would reveal that this is a FORUM, not the entire APS; that the article is a single opinion, not the opinion of the Forum as a whole; that the purpose of the Forum is to invite debate, thus actively attracting a minority or discredited opinion to give it fair play.”

Bill Dawson

Bill Dawson is an independent journalist who edits Texas Climate News, an online magazine published by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Houston Advanced Research Center. He was previously environment writer for the Houston Chronicle.
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