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Tulane professor channels Richard Feynman to challenge climate change!

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A fantasy photoshopped image of the late Richard Feynman contemplating the mind of the living Tulane physics professor Frank Tipler, who's obsessed with the Omega Point Theory of time.

Len Bahr, PhD*

On May 11 a portion of NPR’s Talk of the Nation Science Friday (TOTNSF) was devoted to the theme of the appalling American ignorance about science and what should be done about it…especially during the run up to the presidential election. Host Ira Flatow interviewed three impressive guests:

1) Shawn Lawrence Otto CEO and co-founder, ScienceDebate.org; author, Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America (Rodale, 2011) Saint Paul, Minnesota;

2) John Allen Paulos  professor of mathematics, Temple University; author, Innumeracy and A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and

3) Vernon Ehlers former U.S. Representative (R- Mich.); physicist, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Otto’s essay, Has science outgrown democracy? is posted on the TOTNSF website.

Dr. Ehlers described how lonely it was to be one of only two scientists among the entire 435 members of the House of Representatives. There are currently no scientists in congress, perhaps because people who think rationally are loathe to run for public office.

By sheer coincidence on May 12 I read an essay in Huffpost on the growing gap between the practitioners of science and the taxpayers who fund what they do. Stuart Firestein, chair of the biological sciences department at Columbia University and author of Ignorance: how it drives science described the urgent need in America for a crash course in citizen science.

Any progress made in the coming decade to offset the steady sinking and shrinking of coastal Louisiana will depend absolutely on the application of modern physics, geology and ecology, as well as significant help from social scientists, resource economists and legal professionals. Woe be to us if we continue to deny the implications of mainstream scientific thinking, especially about anthropogenic climate change, or dismiss and denigrate the warnings of those who understand and interpret the data.

Richard P. Feynman was a Nobel prize winning physicist, a brilliant, charming, irreverant, witty, passionate…and often misunderstood theoretician, professor and philosopher. In other words, someone I’d have loved to drink a beer with.

Here’s a quote from Wikipedia:

During his lifetime, Feynman became one of the best-known scientists in the world. In a 1999 poll of 130 leading physicists worldwide by the British journal Physics World he was ranked as one of the ten greatest physicists of all time.

Feynman’s interests spanned practical as well as theoretical issues. For example, two years before his early death in 1988** he discovered that the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger was the disastrous consequence of the failure of humble rubber O rings that had become brittle during the exceptionally cold weather at Cape Kennedy the night before lift off.

He was known as a gifted teacher who tried to make the esoteric language of physics ‘scrutible’ to ordinary mortals and he’s remembered for numerous quips about science and life, such as the following:

“Physics is like sex: sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it.”  

Feynman was an inveterate mythbuster and iconoclastic defender of political incorrectness. His sardonic quips are reminiscent of the aphorisms of Benjamin Franklin. Speaking of wise old Ben, Poor Richard (Feynman) must be rolling in his grave about the shameless misinterpretation of at least one of his best-known sayings…for purely political purposes. Here’s the quip, which speaks to the basic responsibility of scientists to constantly challenge current orthodoxy, in a never-ending process to advance human knowledge:

“Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”

This deceptively simple nine-word aphorism is now being turned on its head in an effective campaign to cast doubt on anthropogenic climate change and other politically inconvenient truths. According to this line of reasoning there are no real experts.

This egalitarian-sounding argument implies that technical opinions, like votes, are all equally valid. I take strong exception to this view, especially as someone who will soon go under the knife of a urologist. I fervently hope that this guy has extraordinary expertise!

I just discovered a right-wing web site called Never yet melted on which I found an anti-climate change screed by a New Orleans homey…a Tulane Physics Professor named Frank J. Tipler. He wrote that:

“…even if a consensus of climate scientists on alleged anthropogenic climate change actually did exist, it would prove nothing.”

Tipler implies that a cadre of climate ‘experts’ is arbitrarily dismissing valid but politically incorrect arguments against global warming. This paranoid professor apparently interprets Richard Feynman’s quote as an endorsement of scientific anarchy, a blanket rejection of elite technical credentials.

Had Richard Feynman the opportunity to review the massive evidence for anthropogenic climate change amassed since he died and the consensus position of the National Academy of Sciences I very much doubt that he’d have dismissed global warming as a conspiracy of left wing dunces. Claiming the endorsement of an anti-science position by a highly respected scientist who cannot respond from the grave is the height of arrogance, reminiscent of baptizing the dead into the Mormon faith.

Wikipedia notes that Dr. Tipler, who received degrees at both MIT and my alma mater, the University of Maryland, has been accused of practicing pseudoscience, including Intelligent Design and (speaking of the deceased) a belief in the possibility of resurrecting the dead. Tipler teaches a course called PHYS 1190 – Omega Point Theory (OPT) at Tulane. To learn more about OPT check out this laughable 8 minute ‘description‘ on YouTube by a mystic physicist named Inayat.

Tipler is the proud author of The Physics of Immortality and The Physics of Christianity. I didn’t Google these two books because I didn’t want to get emails from Amazon suggesting that I would be interested in similarly bogus tracts.

I conclude this post with my rejoinder to Professor Tipler, et al., who are misusing Feynman’s nine word admonition for scientists to always push the bounds of knowledge.

“Ignorance is the disbelief in the importance of science.”

*Founding Editor leonardbahr@gmx.com

**Coincidentally, Feynman died the same year that James E. Hansen, who is arguably the father of anthropogenic climate change, reported to a congressional committee that human emissions of greenhouse gases were causing global warming.


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  1. “Claiming the endorsement of an anti-science position by a highly respected scientist who cannot respond from the grave is the height of arrogance, reminiscent of baptizing the dead into the Mormon faith.”

    Yet, you just pretty much claimed Feynman would endorse your position the same in the preceding sentence.

    Hypocrite.

  2. As a recently retired physicist, I saw many situations where a politician (or funding source) was willing to “contribute” money to work on a problem of their “pet” interest, but containing very little science. There are always some charlatan ready to “take the money” and run with it, and then publish “old data” or previously published data reformatted, or develop a “new” model with different answers to old problems. As an experimentalist, if your experimental results do not match a computer model….then your experiment must be wrong! Obviously, it could be either.

  3. Gerald Rasmon says:

    I am a physicist. I adored Feynman’s ‘Lecture on Physics’ as an undergraduate, I think he is the greatest scientist since Einstein, and I’m 99.99% sure he know he would NOT be on your side in this. Here are two clues. Just watch the first few minutes of each:

    Feynman on “experts” and the self-appointed elites and the “but look at how many awards and honors we have” crowd:
    http://youtu.be/Bgaw9qe7DEE?t=24m15s

    Feynman on pseudosciences (like your “Ecology” Ph.D.):
    http://youtu.be/Bgaw9qe7DEE?t=42m51s

  4. Hi, Dr. Len Bahr.

    Prof. Frank J. Tipler’s Omega Point cosmology has been peer-reviewed and published in a number of the world’s leading physics and science journals. Even NASA itself has peer-reviewed his Omega Point Theorem and found it correct according to the known laws of physics. No refutation of it exists within the peer-reviewed scientific literature, or anywhere else for that matter.

    For more on physicist and mathematician Prof. Tipler’s Omega Point cosmology, which is a proof of God’s existence according to the known laws of physics (i.e., the Second Law of Thermodynamics, General Relativity, and Quantum Mechanics), and the Feynman-DeWitt-Weinberg quantum gravity/Standard Model Theory of Everything (TOE), see my following article:

    James Redford, “The Physics of God and the Quantum Gravity Theory of Everything”, Social Science Research Network (SSRN), Apr. 9, 2012 (orig. pub. Dec. 19, 2011), doi:10.2139/ssrn.1974708.

  5. maurice fox says:

    Omega point theory, huh? I wasted eight minutes listening to that 8 minute babble on youtube, thanks to you. Hard to believe that stuff would be the subject of a physics course. Also very hard to believe that anyone who preaches such nonsense would be taken as any kind of authority on any science. BtW, Newtonian mechanics has not been replaced by relativity or quantum mechanics. Itd works just fine for modeling cars and airplanes and most astronomical matters, too. When velocities get really big, close to the speed of light, relativistic computations come into play. When the viewpoint gets real small, atomic scale, quantum phenomena take over. Both are refinements, not replacements.

    Omega point? Sounds like BS to me. What unexplained phenomena does it resolve?

    Maurice

    (As you may know, Len’s brother-in-law)

  6. Walt Sikora says:

    Well I guess things really don’t ever change in Louisiana. After having spent 16 years at LSU’s Center for Wetland Resources’so-called Coastal Ecology Laboratory where if your politics wasn’t correct, i.e. saluting in lock-step with H. T. Odum’s and John Day’s ecosystem modelling twaddle, you were promptly relegated to persona non grata status, and cut off.

    The question could be asked: Where did all that ecosystem modelling get us? To be precise, nowhere! With the substitution of a few words, your warning would be just as apropos in 1980, 32 years ago: –”Woe be to us if we continue to deny the implications of mainstream scientific thinking, especially about [coastal estuarine science], or dismiss and denigrate the warnings of those who understand and interpret the data.”–

    The fact is, that at the Center for Wetland Resources, mainstream scientific thinking in ecology, and field-data collection was for many years denigrated, and those who practiced it were run out of town on a rail. Fantasy ecosystem models prevailed. It would seem that Professor Frank Tipler would fit right in. Nothing much has changed indeed!

  7. Great post Len.

  8. Len,

    A couple of years ago I visited a colleague who was nearly banging his head against a wall as he tried to reason with some unreasonable non-scientist. Feeling a need to offer some encouragement, I stated the following: “Ignorance is curable. In fact, that is the ultimate caling of science – rid the world of ignorance. Stupidity is bone deep and terminal. It is the responsibility of science to hang warning flags on stupidity so that the wnwary are not unwittingly trapped!” Today, challenging ignorance is an even more uphill battle. There is ideaology to be justified and money to be made by ignoring science.

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