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Climate-Science Smackdown, Part 2: Prof. John Abraham wishes more scientists would take a stand

What on earth possessed Prof. John Abraham to publicly challenge the claims of one of the planet’s most-vocal global-warming skeptics and then see his academic reputation attacked on the air and in cyberspace?

Quite simply, the scientific community’s inability to explain the risks of climate change on Earth to the public propelled Abraham into action.

“What has really bothered me is that the scientific community has not been effectively conveying science to the public,” said Abraham, a tenured associate professor of thermal sciences at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. “I think it’s our obligation to make sure that the public has the right information so that we can make the right decisions that are going to have to be made and [to explain] that the science still has some questions within it.

“It’s our obligation to make sure the questions are well-understood, and that the risks of acting, or not acting, are well-understood,” he said.

A presentation last fall by Christopher Monckton, a frequently sought-after speaker by hard-core skeptics of climate change, inspired Abraham to look into Monckton and his claims. Monckton is a viscount from Scotland and reportedly an adviser to former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He has testified by invitation from Congress and picked apart Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Abraham produced, in his own time and on his own dime, a 126-slide audio presentation that dissected via the scientific method every claim Monckton made in a speech last fall to the Minnesota Free Market Institute. He contacted authors of the research Monckton cited to see if their work had been accurately represented. His slides include snapshots of Monckton’s slides as well as excerpts from the research and from the researchers saying their work has been misquoted and misinterpreted.

Based on what I’ve read, seen and heard in the last 24 hours, I think it’s safe to say that Monckton went ballistic, even going so far as to say Abraham looks like “an overcooked prawn” in one piece, telling Alex Jones on his show that St. Thomas is a “half-assed Catholic Bible college” and claiming he has contacted university funders and the bishop, who he says hasn’t replied because he’s “so busy sorting out problems with little boys.”

“Just about every one of the 115 slides presented by Abraham in his shoddy little piece of lavishly funded venom contains serious, serial, material errors, exaggerations, or downright lies,” Monckton wrote in a piece titled “Monckton: At last, the climate extremists try to debate us!” on Pajamas Media.

Observers and scientists around the world have hailed Abraham’s “A Scientist Replies to Christopher Monckton” as one of the best attempts yet to take on Monckton and they’ve started two petitions in support of Abraham and St. Thomas, one of which has 960 signatures and comments at last check.

I wrote about the royal smackdown on Monday. My post included excerpts from a letter that the law firm representing St. Thomas sent to Monckton, which told him the university will not investigate Abraham as he demanded and that it will pursue legal action if the viscount persists with what Moore, Costello & Hart describe as “disparaging and defamatory” remarks similar to the ones made on that June 24 Alex Jones broadcast.

I can’t claim to have watched the entire speech by Monckton or the audio slideshow by Abraham. But I can see why Monckton, who cuts an impressive figure and whose rapid-fire eloquence reminds me of the late William F. Buckley, has gotten under the skin of environmentalists and climate scientists. I also can see why Abraham’s methodical point-by-point approach has needled Monckton to sic his followers on Abraham and St. Thomas and to rant at every opportunity.

Abraham tells me that while the vitriol has been hard to take at times for a mild-mannered academic, the outpouring from the scientific community as well as St. Thomas’ defense have heartened him. He wishes there could be more of a civil debate.

“I think in academia we encourage free discussion of topics, especially topics that are contentious, and it’s through free discussion that we can help ourselves arrive at actions that can make the world a better place,” he said.

He also has replied to Monckton’s various charges on the Skeptical Science website.

“My intention as a professional scientist is to help provide a public disclosure of your scientific methods,” Abraham writes. “I continue to believe that your work seriously misrepresents the science upon which you rely.”

While Abraham risked the backlash by taking on a prominent public figure, he’d like to see more scientists follow suit.

“I would like to see a greater activism in conveying some of the risks related to climate change to the public,” he said. “Now there’s a motivation in being not active because it’s unfunded; we don’t get promotions based on our activism. It takes a lot of time and, I think, what is evident from my situation, there are some severe risks. So, when you’re a scientist sitting on the sidelines it’s an obvious question: ‘Why would I want to engage in this activity.’ I’d like to see more scientists see that the ethical obligation to engage outweighs the potential downsides.”

Would he have produced his web presentation before he wasn’t tenured?

“Certainly, being tenured had an impact on my decision, but I still may have done it prior to tenure,” said Abraham, who’s quick to add that he thinks St. Thomas would have stood by him pre-tenure. “Fortunately, Mr. Monckton made his speech after tenure.”

More of the comments on the men’s opposing pieces are found here, here and here.

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by James Hamilton on 07/20/2010 - 11:25 am.

    This link is dead:

  2. Submitted by James Hamilton on 07/20/2010 - 11:36 am.

    I watched Abraham’s presentation yesterday, in toto, then tried to work my way through Monckton’s “500 questions”. I’m reminded of nothing more than the arguments of those who attempt to dismantle the theory of evolution without the necessary equipment.

    Thanks for the follow-up piece. As an attorney, I understand the importance of citing one’s sources and accurately quoting or summarizing what those sources have to say. Abraham has done a good job both of making that point and demonstrating Monckton’s failures in that regard. In the process, he makes a good argument for anthropogenic warming of the earth and its likely consequences, an issue I’ve been derelict in researching in any way for myself.

  3. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 07/20/2010 - 02:03 pm.

    I realize getting into a PR fight with spinmasters isn’t what scientists are trained to do, but climate scientists have to realize they’re in a brawl with bullies, not an academic debate with people who honestly come to different conclusions on the same evidence.

  4. Submitted by Casey Selix on 07/20/2010 - 02:08 pm.

    Thanks to James Hamilton for the heads-up about the link and for his comments. I wonder if there was a momentary glitch in the click-through. When I clicked on the embedded link, it worked fine.

  5. Submitted by Lance Groth on 07/20/2010 - 03:36 pm.

    It is so discouraging that there is still any “debate” – in the public’s mind – regarding anthropogenic global warming. Discouraging, but unsurprising, given that the Deniers appear not to understand the scientific method, the peer review process, or the physical properties of greenhouse gases. Some, of course, honestly do not understand these things, while others flat out lie in service to an agenda they prefer to keep hidden. I prefer the former, since presumably they can be educated. The latter are immune to rational argument or objective fact, which makes it rather difficult for scientists to counter them, since they simply don’t care how clear the science is.

    We often hear the AGW Deniers say, for example, “I thought scientists were supposed to consider all competing theories equally, but they won’t even listen to us”; something we also hear from the Evolution Deniers. Clearly, they do not understand, or do not care, that competing scientific theories (leaving aside mere fantasy with no scientific underpinning, which no, will not be considered on an equal footing) have already been evaluated through the scientific method and peer review processes, and those found wanting have been winnowed out. Unfortunately, the media have a fixation on presenting both sides of every issue, no matter how silly or discredited one side may be, and so those on the losing side of the science keep getting aired out.

    *sigh*, I do miss Walter Cronkite. He had respect for science and the truth, and, once an idea had been shown to be invalid, would not have kept presenting it as a viable alternative. It is not only Deniers who show a lack of understanding of basic science, but most in the media these days as well.

    It’s long past time for the media to quit reporting Denialist nonsense as just another point of view, and to start following the money, and the political agendas too. Any number of times, I have simply googled talk show guests or the authors of articles championing the Denialist message, and in many cases it took less than five minutes to uncover ties to the oil industry or conservative political organizations. Some had been on the payroll of these organizations, and a few had even carried water for the tobacco companies back in the day (disturbingly, it appears that one can make a living as a professional Denialist). If it’s that easy to trace the backgrounds of these people, why aren’t the media doing it? Many of these media companies (leaving aside Fox, which is a blatantly political organization) seem to have abandoned any semblance of investigative journalism in favor of simply parroting what any yahoo has to say.

    For that matter, why doesn’t the media do a simple gut-check on some of the basic science? As a commenter to the first article pointed out, were it not for the heat-retention property of greenhouse gases – including CO2 – the Earth would be an ice-ball. The environment is only warm enough to allow liquid water because of the greenhouse gases. If the presence of historical levels of CO2 and other greenhouse gases is responsible for our generally salubrious climate, how can it not follow that adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere will warm it up even more? This is not a difficult concept, yet I can’t recall a single article discussing AGW in any of the mainstream media that mentioned this simple fact.

    Of course, the climate will do what conditions dictate – outputs follow inputs – and it will soon become obvious how sorely mistaken are the Denialists (it is already so, given the worldwide heatwaves in 2010 – 100 degrees in Moscow during a month long record setting heatwave!) But by the time the Denialists are chased off the stage by the sweating masses, it will be far too late to head off the crisis. It is already, I suppose. Witness the damage that they do.

    I must note that MinnPost is exempt from my harangue about the media. MinnPost has an actual science section, for goodness’ sake. How refreshing.

  6. Submitted by Scott Mandia on 07/22/2010 - 07:50 am.

    Christopher Monckton and other deniers get far more press coverage than they deserve. Journalistic false balance has caused the public to be confused on climate change – the greatest threat to humanity this century. Worse, these deniers have used mainstream media to attack climate science and the scientists who pursue the truth. Let us now turn the tables.

    Monckton has been exposed by Dr. John Abraham and instead of hiding his tail and whimpering away, Monckton has gone on the offensive by attacking Dr. Abraham and asking his followers to essentially “email bomb” Dr. Abraham’s university president. We need to alert the media to this story.

    I have assembled a list of 57 media contacts in the hopes that my readers will follow my lead and send letters asking for an investigation of Monckton and his attack on Abraham. I have placed mailto links that will make it easy to send letters to several contacts at once with a single click.

    In the thread comments, please suggest other contacts in the US and from abroad. This blog thread can then be used in the future to alert the media to denialist activity.

  7. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 07/24/2010 - 09:06 am.

    Never wrestle with a pig, the pig will enjoy it and you’ll get dirty… (attributed variously, including Mark Twain)

    I salute professor Abraham for his gallant examination of the diatribes of one “Lord” Moncton. I would only fault the press for not giving a little more background about the “Lord.” The “Lord” wants to be in the news. I am sure he is not trooping all over hell and creation gratis.

    Unfortunately, recent events have made it clear that people will believe their own prejudices and the science be damned. These have become political questions rather than scientific.

    For an even simpler demonstration of this fact look at the current situation with respect to homeopathy. It is clear from first principles that – other than a placebo effect – there is no therapeutic agent in the dose. And the academic community seems to agree that the prescription of placebos is unethical.

    Homeopathic doses have essentially been infinitely diluted and so the overwhelming probability is that there is not a single molecule of the supposed drug substance in the dose.

    And yet –

    We have homeopathy being espoused on the web-site of an Academic Health Center at our own University of Minnesota that purports to be practicing evidence-based medicine, even though the British Medical Society had declared homeopathy to be witchcraft. See:

    So is it any surprise, given the much more complex factors that have to be weighed in the matter of global warming, that scientific arguments do not seem to be leading to a resolution of the controversy?

    Fortunately, there are younger folks, like Professor Abraham with the energy and optimism to take on the Monctons of the world.

    William B. Gleason, U of M faculty and alum

    Nach Moncton” Dennis Dease is “a creep.” Abraham, “a wretched little man.” One would think that a Cambridge classics scholar would both have a better vocabulary and know better than to use ad hominem arguments.

    Capping all this irony, is the fact – from everything I can find – that Moncton, himself, is a Catholic. Which makes his dismissal of St. Thomas as a “half-assed Catholic Bible college” even more peculiar.

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