Winning a Nobel prize does not mean you are a smart guy. It means you have a lot of in-depth knowledge about a very specific, narrow scientific domain, and it’s bad news when people treat you as a universal oracle.
I remind people that Jim Watson and William Shockley were horrible racist bigots — they just knew a bit about the structure of DNA or how transistors work. Kary Mullis was a super flaky space cadet who had an insight into DNA replication. Don’t bother asking them how any other aspect of the universe works.
Now I’ve got another example of bad Nobelists: John Clauser. He won a Nobel in 2022 for his work on quantum mechanics, and I’ll trust that he knew his stuff. Unfortunately, now he’s decided that he’s an expert in climate change.
Great news! There is no climate crisis! he says.
During a fiery news conference at the Four Seasons hotel here Tuesday, speakers denounced climate change as a hoax perpetrated by a “global cabal” including the United Nations, the World Economic Forum and many leaders of the Catholic Church.
It might have seemed like a fringe event, except for one speaker’s credentials. John F. Clauser had shared the Nobel Prize in physics last year before declaring Tuesday that “there is no climate crisis” — a claim that contradicts the overwhelming scientific consensus.
The event showcased the remarkable shift that Clauser, 80, has undergone since winning one of the world’s most prestigious awards for his groundbreaking experiments with light particles in the 1970s. His recent denial of global warming has alarmed top climate scientists, who warn that he is using his stature to mislead the public about a planetary emergency.
Clauser, who has a booming voice and white hair he often leaves uncombed, has brushed off these concerns. He contends that skepticism is a key part of the scientific process.
I like my skepticism informed and based on evidence, thank you very much. You don’t just run around denying things — you have to actually do the work of showing that those things are wrong. This is a case where someone is making “skeptical” claims on the basis of a false authority and ego. So what is Clauser’s argument?
Clauser, who has never published a peer-reviewed paper on climate change, has homed in on one message in particular: The Earth’s temperature is primarily determined by cloud cover, not carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels. He has concluded that clouds have a net cooling effect on the planet, so there is no climate crisis.
I had to go looking for the scientific basis for this claim, and I found it. It’s NASA. On a site called Climate Kids, it’s for children who want to know more about climate science, so it’s a good match for Clauser’s level of understanding.
Clouds within a mile or so of Earth’s surface tend to cool more than they warm. These low, thicker clouds mostly reflect the Sun’s heat. This cools Earth’s surface.
Clouds high up in the atmosphere have the opposite effect: They tend to warm Earth more than they cool. High, thin clouds trap some of the Sun’s heat. This warms Earth’s surface.
What about when you look at the effect of all clouds together? Cooling wins. Right now, Earth’s surface is cooler with clouds than it would be without the clouds.
Uh-oh…he’s right? Not really. The site goes on to say,
Climate scientists predict that as Earth’s climate warms, there will also be fewer clouds to cool it down. So, unfortunately, we can’t count on clouds alone to slow down the warming.
I’d also point out that clouds are only one factor in climate, and I’d need a quantitative understanding of the relative contributions of clouds vs., for instance, greenhouse gasses. I’d want to get the opinion of a genuine expert in the field, a real climatologist. Like Michael Mann.
Michael Mann, a professor of earth science at the University of Pennsylvania, said this argument is “pure garbage” and “pseudoscience.”
The “best available evidence” shows that clouds actually have a net warming effect, Mann said in an email. “In physics, we call that a ‘sign error’ — it’s the sort of error a freshman is embarrassed to be caught having made,” he said.
Of course, does Michael Mann have a Nobel prize in quantum mechanics? He does not. All he has is relevant expertise in the actual field in question, but no shiny gold medal.
In other embarrassing revelations, we also learn something else about Clauser.
Tuesday’s event was organized by the Deposit of Faith Coalition, a group of more than a dozen Catholic organizations that argues “those pushing the anti-God and anti-family climate agenda need to be called out and exposed,” according to its website. Clauser, who is an atheist, needed some convincing to be the keynote speaker, a coalition spokesman acknowledged.
Have I ever mentioned that it’s not just Nobelists, but also sometimes atheists can be big fucking idiots?