William Happer is a distinguished emeritus professor of physics. His specialty is optics and spectroscopy, but he’s got Physicist Syndrome bad — he thinks he’s an expert in everything to the point that he can disagree with distinguished professors in other fields, on their specialty. Yes, he’s that kind of idiot.
And he’s being considered for the position of Science Advisor to Donald Trump. Are you surprised? Trump’s chief skill seems to be in ferreting out the worst people and elevating them to positions where they can do the most damage. If you’re wondering why Trump is at all interested in this crank professor, it’s because he’s already been bought and paid for by the fossil fuel industry.
William Happer has accepted funding from the fossil fuel industry in the past. In a Minnesota state hearing on the impacts of carbon dioxide, Peabody Energy paid him $8,000 which was routed through the CO2 Coalition.
In 2015 undercover investigation by Greenpeace, Happer told Greenpeace reporters that he would be willing to produce research promoting the benefits of carbon dioxide for $250 per hour, while the funding sources could be similarly concealed by routing them through the CO2 Coalition.
But make up your own mind. Here’s an interview with the sublimely confident Dr Happer. Let’s start with something I can agree with.
Well, I guess where I see the big problem in our country is science illiteracy in the general population. If I were King, I would figure out some way to get better science teaching into the schools, you know, K through 12, and especially middle school and high school. It’s a disgrace that people get out with high school degrees knowing as little as they do. And I think it’s getting worse. I think it was much better in the ‘30s than it is today. And teaching makes a difference.
I often tell the people this anecdote — I once asked Edward Teller [a key architect of the hydrogen bomb] how it was possible that there were all these Hungarians, you know, there was him and Eugene Wigner and Szilard, von Neumann — a real constellation. They were all about the same age, and made enormous contributions to science. It was easy, he said. We all had the same high school teacher in the Fasori Gimnázium in Budapest. So there’s an example. Whoever this teacher was deserves a medal, you know. Nobody pays any attention to him. But at least in Hungarian society, teaching was an honorable profession, so that this really good guy — probably better than most university professors — produced this galaxy of stars. So I think we should seriously think about improving general education.
Oh man, yes. There was one teacher I’d name as extremely influential in getting me to pursue a career in science — thanks, Mr Thompson, and that chemistry class my junior year in high school. I think we all know of strong teachers who confirmed our commitment to do this thing…we here at the college level are mainly dealing with young men and women who’ve already made up their minds. We should pay public school teachers more, don’t you think?
But then he mounts his high horse.
I don’t know. First of all, just the term denier to someone like me is extremely offensive because it’s carefully chosen to make me look like a Nazi sympathizer. And you know, I dodged Nazi submarines when I was a kid [on a ship carrying immigrants to the United States] and my father fought against them and my mother worked on the Manhattan Project, and I found it profoundly offensive, you know, and many other people feel the same.
I think toning down the rhetoric would help a lot. And it has been very uneven — for example under the previous eight years the President and secretary of state kept talking about the deniers, you know, about the baskets of deplorables, the knuckle draggers, the Neanderthals. That was me they’re talking about.
I don’t think it was the anti-Nazi science kook they are talking about. It’s the, you know, Nazis. Literal Nazis. The people who do Nazi salutes, talk about white supremacy, and voted for Trump — the guy considering you for science advisor. I’m more than a little tired of indignant people who profess their contempt for Nazis while embracing the political party that counts on Nazi/racist support to get elected.
But also it’s impossible to take his concerns about toning down the rhetoric seriously when he just said this:
“There’s a whole area of climate so-called science that is really more like a cult,” Happer told the Guardian. “It’s like Hare Krishna or something like that. They’re glassy-eyed and they chant. It will potentially harm the image of all science.”
But even worse is the simplistic crackpot science he is peddling.
I see the CO2 as good, you know. Let me be clear. I don’t think it’s a problem at all, I think it’s a good thing. It’s just incredible when people keep talking about carbon pollution when you and I are sitting here breathing out, you know, 40,000 parts per million of CO2 with every exhalation. So I mean it’s shameful to do all of this propaganda on what’s a beneficial natural part of the atmosphere that has never been stable but most of the time much higher than now.
You know what else I’m pumping out as I sit here? Water. It’s just oozing out of my pores, evaporating out of my breath. Water is good, right? So more of it would be better. Let’s dump Happer in a big vat of water and let him paddle there, bathing in the life-giving fluid.
Another natural product of my metabolism is urea. I’m going to be even more generous and suggest that he be immersed in a vat of urine. More is better, always, right? So water plus urine has to be an improvement. Also, plants love water, and they love nitrogen. Therefore, it’s even more beneficial and natural.
OK, I forgot. He also likes gasses. We’ll top off the vat with pure, natural, healthful CO2. It’s a win:win!
I would like to remind Dr Happer of an old familiar (and true) phrase: the dose makes the poison. No one is going to deny that CO2 (and water, and nitrogen) are necessary components of a healthy atmosphere for life as it exists on earth. But we need balance in all things: just the right amount of carbon and nitrogen and water, balanced dynamically in cycles of renewal and reuse. That’s how we maximize growth in a sustainable way. Happer thinks throwing the balance out of wack is just as good as a balanced cycle. That ain’t gonna work.
Furthermore, he denies all the chaos and disruption as we roll our atmosphere back to the state it was in during the Carboniferous — which was admittedly a very nice environment for the plants and animals adapted to the Carboniferous, but probably isn’t as favorable to a species that evolved out of the ice ages.
He also ignores the possibility that we have no check on a runaway greenhouse effect — there is no guarantee climate change will stop at a swampy, hot, carbon-rich Carboniferous. I don’t think we’re predicting a roll-back to the Hadean, but it doesn’t take much change to make human life uncomfortable and possibly untenable.
Ultimately, though, his problem is that he’s not as bright as he thinks he is, and that he has a limited, one-dimensional view of geophysics, ecology, biology, and climate…yet, as a victim of Physicist Syndrome, he still thinks his narrow perspective trumps that of geophysicists, ecologists, biologists, and climatologists. That makes him a perfect Trump advisor, although it may chafe when he discovers that Trump thinks he’s even smarter than physicists.