Richard Lindzen: Skepticism and Unprofessional-ism

This post is part of a series by guest bloggers Anthony Tomaine and Leah Block, senior chemistry students attending the COP16 conference in Cancun under the sponsorship of the ACS Committee on Environmental Improvement. Small debates, frustrations, and sophisticated arguments, from both sides, are all expected when discussing the topic of climate change.  But did you think you would ever hear a speaker use the word “stupid” to criticize his audience? Richard Lindzen, the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology at MIT and a climate change skeptic, presented a seminar at York College of Pennsylvania and did just that.  Lindzen was asked about certain facts that were missing from his presentation and why they were not present.  As a questioner from the audience was giving background on his question, so that the speaker would fully understand, Lindzen proceeded to use the power of the microphone and talk over the audience member.  As an intense argument broke between the two individuals, the audience started to show frustration. One member shouted out, “Let him finish the question!”  At that point, both stopped shouting and the questioner was able to continue asking his question.  As the tension was rising in the room between Lindzen and the questioner, it was clear that the question being asked was not about to receive an answer.  The shouting match broke out again and in the end, it was answered by Lindzen saying, “This is a stupid question.”


Lindzen’s presentation criticized scientists around the world.  Global warming models, data, and scientific phrasing were the main criticisms. He stated in the beginning of the seminar that the global warming debate is about three questions: How much warming is present? How dangerous is the warming? What is dangerous about the warming? In the end, Lindzen only addressed “How dangerous is the warming?” The present “alarm,” he said,  is due to the scientific phrasing, not the data; the justification for this argument was hypocritical.  Lindzen stated that scientists specifically phrase statements so that society believes what the scientists want them to believe.  But in turn, Lindzen did the same thing by re-arranging the words to make the statement seem less of a concern, and prove his point. This argument was the basis of Lindzen’s presentation.  The climate change debate is more about scientific phrasing than it is about data.  In the one instance when it was about the data, Lindzen described how climate models are wrong because they are all based on positive feedback.  His argument was that we need to create negative feedback models to show the truth behind the argument.  When describing why such a model has not been created, he said that no one could create the model for him and then moved on to the next topic. Lindzen's presentation frustrated the audience, and in the end, it seemed as though audience opinions were not changed on the issue.  Upon leaving, comments of disgust, moans, and groans filled the atmosphere and a sign was held up stating, “So let’s just be energy pigs.”  Needless to say, this presentation was condemned more than it was admired. Think about these things; Chemistry happens.

Author: anthonytomaine

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  1. So, what was the question? Could it have been stupid? I know, I know there are no “dumb” questions – but we all know there are…

    Giving this one-sided account of what went on – aren’t you a bit guilty of unprofessional-ism as well?

  2. @ CL: You weren’t there. The guy was completely unwilling to answer a legitimate question. When a guest speaker gets into a screaming match with an inquisitive individual, that is unprofessional. Anthony is one of the most dedicated and professional chemistry majors here. There may be a degree of frustration expressed in the article, but that’s understandable considering the events. If any other chemistry major here had written this article, myself included, it would have been much harsher.

  3. @ CL: Considering the man was hosting a seminar in a collegiate setting, all questions should have been listened to with respect. If you were not present to hear the discussion itself, your statement about possible “dumb” questions from the audience is unsupported and irrelevant. Also, since the purpose here is to summarize the event in question, it clearly reflects the unprofessional-ism of the speaker, not the observer.

  4. @Luke/SW:

    You miss the point entirely. This is not a “summary” of events. This is an editorial (by the way, an editorial is much different than a summary) by someone that has a differing opinion than the speaker. It doesn’t matter whether the guest “editor” (term used loosely) is ‘one of the most dedicated chemistry majors’; they are offering an opinion of what happened and based on this “editorial” being in C&EN – it’s obviously taking an opposing stance from the speaker. It would be nice to hear the question to understand why the speaker reacted in the manner with which he did. Therefore, maybe it was, in fact, a “dumb” question. Not fully elaborating the events, to me, is unprofessional and slanted to make the speaker appear in a certain way.

  5. It seems as though you would need to hear the full contents of the seminar to be satisfied. This article (sure, not a summary) evidently portrays the feelings of more than one person. It is also apparent that the audience member was cut off before he was even able to pose the question, so the reaction seems to have been premature.

  6. No, don’t need to hear the full contents…maybe just a better reporting of the events. It may portray the feelings of more than one person, but in this particular area, I’m sure there are more than one person that would see the events differently. And for the record, I do not agree with Dr. Lindzen, but would like to see this topic covered in a much better manner than this particular “editorial” did – and for that matter, C&EN in general.

  7. I caught it several days ago on the Pennsylvania Cable Network (PCN)—a local version of C-Span. Wandered into it while flipping channels, so I didn’t see the whole thing.

    There were some heated exchanges in Q&A, where I remember thinking Lindzen could have handled himself better, but perhaps he was “frustrated” too.

    In any event, perhaps the ACS could use its influence to ask either York College or PCN to post the video on their web sites or on You Tube?

  8. Video and pdf of slides now available through Dec 10

    The companion editorial seemed to be agitated that Lindzen ignored CO2. His slides are peppered with references to CO2, but his point was that he was not in disagreement with the radiative forcing of CO2, but with the modeled feedbacks. Given that was his argument, what would the Keeling curve add?

    One would have to watch the videos themselves (in 3 parts) to judge on “unprofessionalism”.

  9. OK, so I took the time to watch the whole presentation again, paying better attention this time.

    The fireworks are at about 20 minutes of part 3. The rest of the talk and Q&A is pretty sedate. The “background” that the “stupid” questioner was presenting was an attempt to tie Lindzen to the NIPCC, a skeptic organization, and to bait Lindzen into criticizing their position. To get a true understanding for how “honest” the question is, you will have to view it yourself, since your perception will be necessarily shaded by your own biases.

    Will just add that the questioner was shouted at by other audience members at least twice to actually ask his question.

    Also worth pointing out that the fireworks happened a couple of minutes after another member of the audience tried to tie Lindzen to “big tobacco”.

    Finally, one should also watch the portion about introducing negative feedback into the models. I can’t remember exactly where that was, but I believe it was during the Q&A in part 3 as well. The sense I got was that he was trying to get modelers to look at negative feedbacks for the benefit of their own models and for their own good. Before he “moved on”, he mentioned that maybe he’ll have to do it himself.

    Definitely worth watching for yourself to judge how accurate this and the accompanying editorial are.


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