Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Climate facepalm: the Italian Society of Physics declares that climate science is not science

So, Mr. Darwin, what is the equation of evolution?

With the climate negotiations in full swing in Paris, 14 Italian scientific societies got together to release a document in which they expressed their support for the COP21 negotiations and for the need of taking action against anthropogenic climate change. However, one scientific society was conspicuously missing:  the Italian Society of Physics (SIF).

Later on, the president of SIF, Prof. Luisa Cifarelli, diffused a statement on this issue as a comment to the blog of the Italian Society of Chemistry. This comment has not been officially confirmed, but neither it has been denied, so it appears to be real. Let me report its initial statement here, translated from Italian.

The SIF is an association of physicists used to consider physical laws determined by equations of varying degrees of complexity and results expressed with appropriate confidence or likelihood levels. This is, after all, the scientific method. 

Then, Professor Cifarelli goes on, stating that the Italian Society of Physics refuses to sign a document in which some statements are given as certainties and not as possibilities, and that science cannot be based on consensus and on "mixing science and politics". She concludes that it is important that the earth is protected from pollution, but that the study of climate should be "based on physics."

And so, here we stand. What Prof. Cifarelli is saying is that science is science only if it is based on equations. Therefore, since an "equation of climate" doesn't seem to exist, climate science is not a science. In a single stroke, Prof. Cifarelli has removed from the category of legitimate sciences everything from earth sciences (what is the equation of dinosaurs?) to the study of complex systems (what's the equation of Bak's sandpile?). 

This is something that deserves a facepalm for the whole Italian physics community. Even though several Italian physicists have strongly criticized the behavior of SIF in this occasion, it remains a hard blow for the prestige of the Italian research community. Even more so considering earlier blows such as the initial support given to the "E-Cat" by the Department of Physics of the University of Bologna. 

But it is worse than that.  In a moment in which we all badly need to support the work of climate scientists to promote an indispensable change in our policies, it seems that some scientists tend to cling to obsolete paradigms, for instance about the human influence on climate. True, obsolete paradigms tend to be removed from science by the progress of knowledge; but it takes some time, as this story shows even too well.


Note: after writing this text, I noted a comment signed by Luisa Cifarelli to the blog of the Italian Society of Chemistry. It says, in Italian "Eppure Lei sa bene che la Groenlandia era verde in tempi non sospetti." Translated, it is, "and yet you know well that Greenland was green in times above suspicion". I cannot be sure that this sentence was written by the president of the Italian Society of Physics but, if it is the case, it is worth another facepalm.


  1. May be physic is a very costly science today. And governmental founding is decreasing. So scientists need more and more sponsors in order to improve their researches. Please, have a look to the US situation.

    1. I doubt this statement will bring some funding, public or private, to physics. This is just a manifestation of an old attitude, common among too many people. That of considering everything outside your competence sphere as "postage collection", something barely relevant and so simple that you are allowed to dismiss even if you are absolutely incompetent.

      It is worth mentioning that, differently from other national scientific societies, SIF is a sort of feud for a small group of Italian physicists. Most of my collegues have basically no relations with SIF, and they barely know about its existence.

    2. SIF is irrelevant: not bother discussing about it. Go on..

    3. Unfortunately it is not so. SIF is the only association of academic physicists, and a very authoritative one, at least up to a couple of decades ago. In the view of the public it is representative, and surely more relevant that most of the other associations that signed the document.
      The damage is double:
      - gives the (false) impression that "true scientists" have a strong disagreement with the global climate consensus. So there must be something wrong with this consensus
      - gives an image of the aforementioned scientists (all of them, not only a few) as someone closed in their ivory tower, disregarding the legitimate concerns of other scientists. So something is wrong with science.

    4. Jacopo, everyone defends their turf, in all fields, it is normal. But this is not the case. I agree with Gianni, it is just the manifestation of an old attitude - no special financial overtones involved.

  2. I am sorry, Andy765, but I cannot accept comments containing personal accusations against anyone.

  3. The College of Augurs reported today that there is no prospect of a barbarian conquest and pillage of Rome, as the entrails do not -in fact cannot - indicate any such event.

    If the entrails do not know of it, it simply cannot be, and they urge all citizens to go about their business as usual. And, don't forget, pay your taxes to maintain this great and ancient city of ours!

  4. I'm betting in the case of Climate Change obsolete paradigms are being removed much quicker by the harsh reality of the change rather than the progress of knowledge. I wish I could believe differently but Human Nature has taught me well what to prioritize therefore per Anonymous above I shall don my barbarian costume and commence pillaging, in a kind and gentle manner of course, using the most politically correct Attila the Hun as a role model. Thank you Ugo.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)