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.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)