Goodbye ASME

Earth held in a child's hands

I have to do the right thing.

I disagree with those who think that there is a “debate” about climate change.  I disagree so strongly that I’ve decided to dissociate myself from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), of which I have been a member since 1992.  For a mechanical engineer in North America, dropping one’s membership in the ASME is a big deal, but I’ve had enough of some of their actions in regard to climate change, and I am compelled to take decisive action.

Let’s start with the letter to the editor that I recently submitted to the editors of the ASME’s magazine, Mechanical Engineering, which is available to the public as well to the Society’s members.  Here it is, in its entirety.

To the editor:

In the October 2010 issue of Mechanical Engineering, two letters were published. In the first, C.F. Kutscher, P.E., expressed his embarrassment with “ill-informed” letters by others who question the existence of climate change. The second, by P. Staats, was exactly such a letter; it ended by pronouncing that there is a “lack of credible evidence that carbon dioxide is, in fact, a cause of global warming.”

I agree with Kutscher. Indeed, I find it quite insulting that the editors would give equal importance to Kutscher’s measured and accurate letter on the one hand and Staats’s tripe on the other. Conventional media may seek to exploit tricks like this to cause unhelpful controversy and increase readership, but professional organizations must be held to a higher standard.  I therefore maintain it is unacceptable for the editors to publish letters like that by Staats.

The fact is that there is a huge body of quite robust evidence connecting CO2 and climate change. Of course there are open issues and unresolved details; nothing is ever utterly certain in science.  However, the odds that the current science is completely wrong are very, very low. Anyone who thinks that back of the envelope calculations, pronouncements by individuals who accept funding from Big Petro companies, or anecdotal and statistically insignificant evidence is sufficient to disprove climate change, is simply irrational.

I infer from the editors’ continued practice of printing denialist letters, that they are themselves either unconvinced by the evidence, or are seeking to increase readership through artificial controversy. Either way, I cannot expect them to change their editorial policy based on a few letters by people like me and Kutscher.

I cannot be part of an organization that acts as the ASME has in permitting its magazine to adopt such improper editorial policy on such a fundamental issue.  I will therefore let my ASME membership lapse, and I urge similarly-minded members to do the same.

You can read the letters by Kutscher and Staats that I referred to for yourself, here.

This isn’t the first time that denialist letters have appeared in Mechanical Engineering.  Other particularly wretched examples include the first letter in the Nov 2002 issue, a letter near the end of the March 1998 issue, and the first letter in the June 2001 issue.

One of my favourites, that I unfortunately cannot find online, was by a licensed engineer who insisted that high school physics was sufficient to show that water vapour (i.e. clouds) contributed far more substantially to greenhouse gases than does CO2.  What he failed to realize is that the Earth’s atmosphere is neither a closed system, nor is it the kind of stable, textbook-perfect setting that one studies in high school.  In fact, as reported in terradaily.com, NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies has found that the most accurate climate models to date clearly show that CO2 acts as a thermostat for the Earth’s temperature.  These new models are hugely complex, because they are modelling a hugely complex system.  It’s ludicrous to think that high school physics would be up to this task, and it’s ludicrous to think that a licensed engineer could be so simple-minded as to think that that could be the case.

(The GISS study also neatly destroys the argument raised by Staats.)

I am exceedingly embarrassed not only by the ignorance and intellectual laziness of my denialist colleagues, but even more by the cheap and classless behaviour of the Editors of Mechanical Engineering and, by extension, the leadership of the ASME.

Unlike many of my colleagues, however, I’m unwilling to tolerate this kind of reprehensible behaviour, especially on a subject of such importance.  As the old saying goes, all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

(I don’t like this particular phrasing, because it assumes that one can self-identify as a “good man.”  I prefer a corollary: To be a good person, one must always resist evil.  But the point is the same.)

I don’t know if I’m that “good,” but I do have aspirations to goodness, so I will do my part however I can.  I’m just not going to sit around out of respect for the profession or for some other entirely artificial social construct, and know that my inaction is at the expense of the very real natural environment.  Hence my leaving the ASME.

At the beginning of this post, I implied that the climate change “debate” is a false one.  Why is the climate change debate unreal?  Because climate change isn’t a matter for “debate” – it’s a matter for science and of fact.  The facts are what they are, and the quality of their explanation is defined by their predictive ability. That’s all there is to it.

Both WordNet and Wikipedia give consistent definitions of “debate.”  Their key feature involves an uncertainty of the truth of the proposition being debated.  That the climate is changing is not debatable because the evidence is clear and overwhelming, if one has the chops to understand it.  Not everyone falls into this category because the evidence is complex and requires a very deep understanding of complex systems and science.  Once cannot reduce the Earth’s climate to the kind of science-fair experiment that can be understood by the lay public without losing very significant details.  And the devil, as they say, is in the details.

Now, whether or not the climate change we are experiencing is anthropogenic, is somewhat debatable.  I say “somewhat” because this is where the really heavy analysis comes in.  In a nutshell, the current evidence is that there is a very strong correlation between the facts (actual observations of the Earth’s climate) and our explanations of the facts (anthropogenic climate change).  This doesn’t mean that the anthropogenic explanation is correct, but there is no better scientific explanation available.  Most scientists would be open to other explanations, but why should they change the explanation when none of the counterarguments address the fundamental science of the facts?

And let’s be clear: none of the counterarguments to anthropogenic climate change undermine the basic science.  The counterarguments that do exist are either vacuous (like the fatuous blurbs in some of the letters to the editor in Mechanical Engineering), or address non-scientific matters – like trying to cast dispersions on the scientists themselves.  One can never confuse science and scientists.  And every time someone comes up with an actual legitimate counterargument to anthropogenic climate change, climate scientists adjust their models to account for the argument.  (For instance, denialists used to complain that global sea levels were not changing in accordance with then-current models.  Legitimate scientists figured out they’d forgotten to account for the gravitational force of ice sitting on land in both polar regions.  Te adjusted models turned out to predict sea level rise very well and remained consistent with the overall climate change explanation.) That’s how science works.

If you want to argue about science, you must argue scientifically.  If you dispute the facts, then you must show how the data is flawed.  If you dispute the conclusions, or the explanations, then you must point out the specific logical flaws in the conclusions, the methodological flaws in the explanations, and do so in a way that is conducive to developing another, better set of conclusions or explanations.

Everything else is irrelevant.

You’d figure a bunch of engineers could get that right, at least.

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8 thoughts on “Goodbye ASME

  1. I’m surprised such a debate exist (does global warming exist?)… especially ASME…

    Did they replied to your letter and/or published it?

    • You’d be surprised how many idiots there are in the world, some of them with university degrees.

      I’ve heard nothing yet. I suspect I’ll never hear anything.

      But if I ever do, I’ll make sure I blog about it.

  2. I have always been stunned by your brilliance. And since you are so clear in your definitions, here is my definition of brilliance:

    Brilliance: from the word “too much to take in all at once.”

    You are an incredibly good person and you prove that by questioning yourself. As well, your breadth of knowledge and passion are brilliant!

    As to the topic of climate change, any individual need only look outside to notice that things are changing.

    • [blush]

      Still, there’s just one little problem. Just looking outside is exactly the wrong thing. This will only tell you the local conditions, which may or may not appear odd. Climate change is a global phenomenon, and we have to look farther than outside our windows to recognize it and appreciate its severity. In other words, we have to look at the science.

  3. I agree with Flutter.

    “your breadth of knowledge and passion are brilliant!”

    not to mention, the only professor I know that can incorporate things like Call of Duty (CoD) into a lecture.

    Keep The Blogs coming!

    ttyl FSER!

    *clicks on “Facebook Thumbs Up” feature (Coming from a person who does not use facebook and/or use the thumbs up feature on Facebook)

    p.s. “ttyl FSER!” is a non-existant acronym i typed in hope of making you make the “Durrhhh face” in trying to figure out what it stood for.
    =D

  4. Pingback: ASME Journal of Mechanical Design Special Issue: Biologically-inspired design (Jan 2014) | Design Journal & Conference Calls
  5. Well done! I’ve also been a contributor to ME Magazine and I agree with you position on climate change – although I’m not ready to end my membership yet.

    • Thanks. Everyone has their own limits beyond which they just can’t accept what they see around them. I guess I’m just a little more sensitive to these things than others; no value judgement there – just sayin’.

      I would add that my departure from ASME was not only the result of this particular situation, though it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. As a design guy, I’m more inclined to a more European perspective on engineering, where design is at once acknowledge as a full discipline and as an essential element of engineering. In North Am., I find myself more aligned with Industrial Engineering than Mechanical, my formal education notwithstanding.

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