Did a physicist become a climate truth teller?

Steven Koonin, a theoretical physicist, has been profiled in a recent Wall Street Journal article that suggests he’s become a climate truth teller. If you’re aware of Betteridge’s Law of Headlines you’ll already have worked out that I think this is very unlikely to be the case.

credit : xkcd

I’ve written some previous posts about Steven Koonin’s views on climate science and also highlighted a fantastic comment made by Andy Lacis when Steven Koonin had a guest post on Judith Curry’s blog. We also introduced the term Kooninism to indicate a situation when someone suggests that because a number is small the impact is also small. Realclimate also has a recent post about Steve Koonin’s suggestion that we should have a review of climate science.

I do think it’s unfortunate when physicists live up to the stereotype. I’m not a fan of suggesting that researchers should stay in their own lane, but I do think the lone genius who overturns a well-accepted paradigm is a rarity. There’s, of course, nothing wrong with challenging our current understanding, but continually repeating well-debunked talking points is not the ideal way to do so. I also think that if you have the kind of profile that allows you to be promoted in the mainstream media, you should be cautious about the views that you promote.

I was thinking that I would rebut some of what Koonin says in the Wall Street Journal article, but realised that I’d mostly done so in this post, and that Gavin has been even more thorough in this Realclimate post. I’m not really sure what else to say, other than be cautious of accepting the views of (retired) physicists who think they’ve uncovered some truths that have been missed by a large number of experts in another field.


It turns out that Ray Pierrehumbert wrote an article in 2014 that rebutted many of the arguments that Koonin continues to make today.


How a Physicist Became a Climate Truth Teller – Wall Street Journal article about Steven Koonin.
Steve Koonin and the small percentage fallacy – one of my previous posts.
Kooninisms – another of my posts.
Andy Lacis responds to Steve Koonin – post highlighting Andy Lacis’ response to Steven Koonin.
Koonin’s case for yet another review of climate science – Gavin Schmidt’s Realclimate post reviewing a Steven Koonin video.
Climate Science is Settled Enough – The Wall Street Journal’s fresh face of climate inaction
– 2014 article by Ray Pierrehumbert.

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25 Responses to Did a physicist become a climate truth teller?

  1. I should say something. Something. There I said something. Oh and what else would you expect from the WSJ wrt climate science anyways.

  2. Jim Hunt says:

    In answer to your headline question, no.

    A minor Type O though? Shurely “steorotype” is shome mishtake?

    For my own (mis?)interpretation of the sudden surge in denialospheric activity please see:

    “The 2021 G7 Summit in Cornwall” over on the Arctic Sea Ice Forum:


  3. Willard says:

    A relevant list of advices:

    Principle 1: When moving into a new field, don’t assume you know everything about it because you read a review and none of the primary literature.

    Principle 2: Talk to people who are doing what you are concerned about.

    Principle 3: Be humble. If something initially doesn’t make sense, it is more likely that you’ve mis-understood than the entire field is wrong.

    Principle 4: Do not ally yourself with rejectionist rumps with clear political agendas if you want to be taken seriously by the rest of the field.

    Principle 5: Submit your paper to a reputable journal whose editors and peer reviewers will help improve your text and point out some of these subtle misconceptions.

    Principle 6: You can ignore all the above principles if you are only interested in gaining publicity for a book.


  4. Is it possible that physicists often have a little trouble absorbing the complexity of climate?

  5. Joshua says:

    Did they change the headline?

    BTW, happy birthday.

  6. Joshua says:

    Oh. Sorry – you meant YOUR headline.

    To celebrate your birthday, I read carelessly.

  7. Bob Loblaw says:

    Even before I read the first sentence, I was thinking “This is another example of where headlines that ask questions can be answered with ‘No’.”

    Firefox tells me that I’ve followed the path to that Betteridge’s Law link before, although I did not remember the name. Why are these fake skeptics so predictable?

  8. Willard,

    I was just there, crank #1 shots down crank #2, cranks #1/#2 are both wrong, of course. Omit, change or add a single detail (or multiple details) to the conventional explanation and you end up with infinite cranks.

    You could say that they do so on purpose but they don’t think that they are doing so on purpose.

  9. Jim,

    A minor Type O though? Shurely “steorotype” is shome mishtake?

    Thanks, fixed.

    Yes, my headline. Should have maybe made that clearer.

  10. Jim Hunt says:

    Everett – I popped in to WTFUWT earlier today also. On Charles’s GWPF cut’n’paste as it happens.

    For some strange reason my words of wisdom are still on Tony’s cutting room floor.

  11. bjchip says:

    The Wall Street Urinal is owned by Rupert Murdoch.
    That’s all that needs to be said.

  12. bjchip says:

    Nicely done @willard 🙂

  13. Russell says:

    Nice Willardism: “When moving into a new field, don’t assume you know everything about it because you read a review and none of the primary literature.”

    Applies to problematic and playbook science journalism across a lot of the Climate Desk spectrum, but paradoxically less to the WSJ , where many Editors have, literally, never laid eyes on a science journal.

    It will be interesting to see what Steve Koonin says as BP’s position evolves– they play a long game.

  14. Willard says:

    > Nice Willardism

    In this case they’re Gavinisms.

  15. Susan Anderson says:

    The public’s reverential attitude towards experts who say what they want to hear is a real problem. I’m troubled by home health aides who are refusing the vaccine, and realized they never really learned large numbers or statistics in school. One J&J death and 6 cases, versus millions, doesn’t penetrate, because they have no in-built sense of scale. I think this is a broader problem than we overeducated types realize.

    When a rogue physicist joins the melee (we (I actually) have a “friend” who gave a nice listen to Will Happer but won’t read any basic book because reasons) it is a serious problem. Scare quotes because I’m pretty mad at her for going there.

  16. Susan,
    I recall giving a talk at work and one my colleagues saying “isn’t there an MIT professor who thinks there’s big problems with climate models”. So, they seemed impressed by the credentials, but didn’t seem to have put any effort into checking anything.

  17. izen says:

    @-Susan Anderson
    “One J&J death and 6 cases, versus millions, doesn’t penetrate, because they have no in-built sense of scale.”

    It is also a version of the trolley problem. Catching Covid is a chance event over which you have scant influence. Getting vaccinated is an overt choice and therefore a dangerous act.
    This ignores of course that failing to get vaccinated is also a choice…

  18. Susan Anderson says:

    I’ll have more to say about my “thesis” (hardly that) re understanding scale and proportion when there is time (might be a while), but thought I’d best mention that MIT’s famous climate denier is Richard Lindzen and Will Happer (and the lesser Bob Austin) is Princeton. Fact is, my family friends who know Happer claim he’s a lot nicer than he is portrayed (he kept bees at Princeton’s physics department, if I remember correctly); his biases are complex. That does not make him OK on climate (or racial bias, or dislike of Yankee “elites”), but I’ve been forced to examine my own prejudices about him, which is always a useful exercise, if uncomfortable.

  19. Jim Hunt says:

    Long time no see Susan!

    Were you previously aware that BoJo’s once United Kingdom is rapidly starting to resemble Putin’s Russia?


    Or Trump’s once United States for that matter?

  20. Russell says:

    Koonin’s position has become self-explantory: authors on book tours are not very particular as to the podcasts their agents book:

    his host, Alex Epstein is the self appointed, if not funded , evangelist of tar sand as a medium of human progress.

  21. Jim Hunt says:

    Afternoon Russell (UTC),

    FYI here’s the latest update on my Arctic alter ego’s ongoing anti Koonin campaign:


    “Below all the advertisements for the book, we’re now up to page 5!

    What is more Google’s ranking engine even puts us ahead of Skeptical Science!”

  22. Russell says:

    Watts Up With That has established the Kooninism Gold Standard with a review of Steve’s book that gets the one word title wrong:


  23. Jim Hunt says:

    Evenin’ Russell (UTC),

    Sadly Watts “outed” me as myself and then banned me once again after I commented on the original WUWT “Unsettling” review. Hence I am unable to point out Rud’s no doubt inadvertent error to the powers that be over there. Perhaps you could oblige?

    However I do have a serious challenger for the Kooninism Gold Standard to present to you:


    Steve was interviewed about his new book by the one and only Tucker Carlson. Fox decided to accompany their cosy chat with moving pictures of melting sea ice. For some strange reason neither Steve nor Tucker dared to mention sea ice during the interview. Steve did have this to say though:

    We need to have an accurate portrayal of what we know and what we don’t know, and then we can have the debate about what to do about it, without using science as a weapon.

    He left out the bit about “Not at WUWT you can’t!”

  24. Pingback: The is-ought distinction | …and Then There's Physics

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