Monday, May 9, 2011

Nature Physics Takes a Swipe at Joe Romm

As I perused this month's edition of Nature Physics, I came across an interesting article on the application of non-equilibrium thermodynamics in the context of the earth system.

Well, actually the article is about the response of specific factions of the climate science community and their cronies to a piece featured in New Scientist by the same author. In his Nature Physics piece, Mark Buchanan writes,

'I stumbled blindly into this gallery of indiscriminate bludgeoning last month when I had the idea to cover some recent research on Earth system dynamics for New Scientist magazine. The topic was non-equilibrium thermodynamics and its potential implications for future energy use. It seemed innocuous enough to me. Not so.

Within days, a popular climate blog had likened my article to one of the rants of American actor Charlie Sheen. After all, I had reported on some analyses — completely insane, apparently — that take the second law of thermodynamics seriously for the Earth system, and consider how much energy we might feasibly extract from various sources, including the winds. Some people, it seems, just can't stand this kind of research.

The climate blog in question? None other than Joe Romm's Climate Progress Blog.

It seems that the idea of the earth's wind being part of a heat engine obeying the 2nd law of thermodynamics is too much for Joe and his sycophants to swallow. In his post on the topic of the New Scientist piece, Joe at first really just takes issue with the title of the article, which makes a claim that wind energy is not renewable. I can maybe buy the logic he uses, invoking the fact that if we are getting to the point where we are using that much wind energy, it's more renewable than current sources.

But things quickly derail from there. Joe begins what he thinks is a full frontal assault on the science at the heart of Buchanan's piece, from the research lab of Axel Kleidon in Germany. And how does Joe start this attack? With the most reasonable and sound method possible, the fallacy of appealing to (what he considers) an authority.

He invokes the opinion of Stanford Civil Engineering Professor Mark Jacobson, of whom Romm says he 'trusts'. Jacobson and a co-author wrote a comment to the journal that published Kleidon's work, Earth System Dynamics, some of which Romm features in the post. Luckily for us, this journal is an open-access publication with public comments. So we can see the whole exchange between Jacobson, Kleidon other researchers as they assess each others' arguments.

Doing so, we find that Jacobson's main point, that atmospheric energy is not dissipated in any meaningful way by wind energy, is shown to be highly flawed for basically violating the 2nd law of thermodynamics. (check out the Comment from J.C. Bergmann, it's a doosey)

But does Joe Romm show all the comments? Nope. Just the comment from Jacobson, whom he trusts, that Romm then presumes closes the case in this matter. Well done.

Now, back to Nature Physics.

Buchanan doesn't really hold back on his interpretation of Romm's response. He describe specific claims of Kleidon as framed by Romm as 'patently ridiculous to those who know the right things'. With that kind of language, the piece acts more as op-ed on the insistence of specific groups to cling to specific interpretations of what is and is not feasible physical, independent of critical thinking. Nature Physics seems like an odd place for such a piece, but there it is.

After going through what we can now see is a one-sided take on his work based on unsubstantiated claims of 'debunking', Buchanan ends his piece in Nature Physics trying to motivate physicists to give involved in this debate.

'Is everything he (Kleidon) says right? I certainly don't know, and probably not. These are complex issues. But Kleidon's appeal to fundamental principles is refreshing and the potential importance of his points is surely worth considering.'

What's interesting to me is that Nature, as a publication house, has been pushing research that establishes the 'right-ness' of a specific interpretation of climate influences and behavior. This piece seems to be a break with such a perspective. By taking these ideas right to the researchers who will be most able to grasp and explain their importance, Buchanan is making a statement, perhaps even political, about the process of understanding how to respond to a changing climate and changing energy portfolio.

A process of understanding that scares the hell out of Joe Romm.