FFS: Fox Fails Physics

Fox News flaunts fool fumbling facts

Image taken from http://bit.ly/nom6YR

These days, I tend to avoid discussing politics in blogging.  Twitter is a much more enjoyable outlet for political topics and it is much easier to ignore idiot trolls there.  However, sometimes I see something that is scientifically relevant and so idiotic that it is important to comment.

In this case, the culprit is — surprise, surprise — FOX News, the propaganda arm of the Republican Party.  FOX has put in a lot of effort to discredit the idea of man-made global warming, despite a solid, indeed overwhelming, scientific consensus that it is in fact happening and a very real threat.  As reported by Media Matters, on August 6th the show Fox & Friends presented an “expert” and an argument so moronic that it should permanently destroy the reputation of the news network among any sensible people, and be genuinely offensive to anyone with a basic knowledge of physics.

The crux of the problem is the following graphic displayed during the show (via Media Matters):

In short — and we’ll describe it in more detail below — their “expert” argues that the 1st law of thermodynamics and Le Chatelier’s Principle explain why carbon dioxide can’t cause global warming.  This is not only wrong, this is high school physics-level wrong.  Either the FOX folks are incredibly stupid, or stunningly sociopathic.  I’m guessing both.

So let’s dissect the awfulness.  For the most part, I want to focus on the misuse of the two physical principles mentioned above; Media Matters has covered some of the finer points, and Davide Castelvecchi has covered others on his blog Degrees of Freedom.  Let’s start with “expert” Joe Bastardi’s argument involving the first law of thermodynamics; the complete video can be watched here.

I mean it’s almost incomprehensible that this [view of carbon dioxide as factor in global warming] has taken off the way it has, the whole argument.  It contradicts what we call the first law of thermodynamics: energy can neither be created or destroyed.  So to look for input of energy into the atmosphere, you have to come from a foreign source: it’s already out there, carbon dioxide be a part of it.  Maybe the Sun.

This argument is incredibly stupid; good ol’ Joe tries to hide this by making it nearly incomprehensible.

So what is the first law of thermodynamics?  In broad strokes, Joe got it right: it is a statement that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only converted into another form.  For example, when you step on the brakes while driving your car, the energy of motion of the car (kinetic energy) gets converted into heat energy in the brakes.  (And, if you have a hybrid car, some of that energy instead gets converted into electrical energy.)

If I try and be charitable, Bastardi seems to believe that the theory of global warming is this: carbon dioxide leaks into the atmosphere, where each molecule apparently creates energy from nothing, heating up the planet.  Here is my attempt at illustrating the picture Bastardi is trying to paint:

Do I really even need to point out that this is not how global warming works?  Moroni… ahem… Bastardi doesn’t seem to have a clue as to what global warming is really about.

A more realistic picture of global warming, albeit an oversimplified one, is shown below.

The top figure is the simple “before” picture of the atmosphere.  Sunlight shines on Earth; some of it is directly reflected back into space, but some of it is absorbed.  The absorbed energy is eventually reradiated as infrared “heat radiation”, and the equilibrium situation is such that the amount of energy radiated balances the amount that was absorbed.

An excess of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases change this.  They act as a barrier to the departing infrared radiation, absorbing and reradiating much of it back to Earth.  The net result is that more heat remains trapped on the Earth, and the average temperature climbs.  (Not as much as I indicate on the picture, though — at least yet.)

Now was that so hard to understand?  The fact that Bastardi doesn’t seem to get it suggests he is incredibly stupid and/or stunningly dishonest.  If that description wasn’t simple enough, think about going to bed on a cold night — if you want to be warmer in bed, you wrap yourself in a blanket.  The blanket traps the heat radiated by your body, raising the temperature within, much like carbon dioxide traps heat in the Earth’s climate system.

Does conservation of energy play any role here?  Yes, but it works against Bastardi’s argument.  Because energy isn’t destroyed, if carbon dioxide blocks energy from escaping the Earth, it has to go somewhere; unfortunately for us, it gets pumped into the climate system.

So Bastardi was spouting gibberish about the 1st law of thermodynamics; what about Le Chatelier’s Principle?  Responding to a question from one of the hosts, he explains it as follows:

It simply says that any system in distress — physical or chemical, or in the atmosphere — tries to return towards normalcy.  And that is why you’re seeing temperatures level off.  We have warmed up overall, over the last twenty to thirty years, over the last two hundred years, because of sunspots cycles, you can trace it to the sunspot cycles, and you can trace it to the movement of the oceans.  The big thing is this — look, in the next twenty to thirty years, global temperatures should return to where they were in the seventies.

This is a little more difficult to explain, but Bastardi is still wrong — insidiously wrong, I would say.  A good technical definition of Le Chatelier’s Principle can be summarized as (source):

A change in one of the variables that describe a system at equilibrium produces a shift in the position of the equilibrium that counteracts the effect of this change.

This sounds very technical and scary, but is really not a difficult idea to understand at all. I’ll jump right in and use an example from chemistry; since chemistry isn’t really my strong suit, I’ll borrow an example and stats from a Purdue chemistry page.  We imagine an equilibrium gas mixture at 500°C that contains diatomic nitrogen (N2), diatomic hydrogen (H2), and ammonia (NH3).  The following chemical reaction is in equilibrium:

N2+3H2 <—-> 2NH3.

That is, a nitrogen molecule can combine with three hydrogen molecules to make two ammonia molecules, and vice versa.  At equilibrium, the concentrations of these three molecules don’t change, because the rate at which nitrogen and hydrogen convert to ammonia is equal to the rate of the opposite reaction.

But what happens if we dump a crapload of extra nitrogen into the system, and increase the total amount by a factor of 10?  Because there’s more nitrogen present, we expect that it becomes more likely for nitrogen to smack into hydrogen and form ammonia, and so the system comes into a new equilibrium in which there is more ammonia and less nitrogen and hydrogen.

The decrease of nitrogen is an example of Le Chatelier’s Principle: we added a lot of nitrogen, and the system shifts to a new equilibrium position in which there is less nitrogen.  But the important thing to realize is this: even though there is less nitrogen in the system once it settles back into equilibrium, there is still a crapload of nitrogen, far more than when we started!

Le Chatelier’s Principle does presumably apply to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, too; if we dump a huge amount of carbon dioxide in the air, some part of it will get consumed in another chemical reaction.  However, it won’t all get consumed, or even most of it; we’ll still have a HUGE amount of extra carbon dioxide — and that will warm us up.

Le Chatelier’s Principle also applies to temperature changes in a system: if a system is heated up, the system will absorb some of that excess heat.  This is presumably what Bastardi is trying to argue when he says: “It simply says that any system in distress — physical or chemical, or in the atmosphere — tries to return towards normalcy.”

Note the insidious use of the word “normalcy”, which doesn’t appear in the technical definition of the principle.  Built in there is an implication that somehow the temperature levels, or carbon dioxide levels, will eventually — or are already — returning to pre-industrial levels.  This is flat-out untrue.  We know, from atmospheric measurements, that the CO2 levels have been increasing consistently.  Consider the following chart (source Wikipedia) of CO2 levels directly measured at Mauna Loa, Hawaii over the past fifty years.

Returning to the blanket analogy, Idioti/Bastardi is arguing that, when you put on a blanket, you might get warmer for a few minutes, but eventually you’ll be just as cold as you were without the blanket on!  Does anyone think that such a view has any connection to reality?

So Bastardi butchered and misused both the First Law of Thermodynamics and Le Chatelier’s Principle.  One might hope that he was just speaking “off the cuff”, and that he was misunderstood, or making an innocent mistake.  But, no, as the picture at the beginning of this post demonstrates, FOX had a graphic prepared with this nonsense.  That means that their fact-checkers and “expert” Bastardi are complete morons, or they don’t care about the truth.  Or, again, both.

When I was in junior high, I knew a kid who was a pathological liar.  What was so infuriating is that he would lie to your face about things that you knew weren’t true.  FOX News is a media version of that pathological liar.  The fact that they would push such a dishonest argument to pursue their own ideological goals demonstrates that they are not to be trusted about anything.


Physics professor
Blogger, Skull in the Stars



Editorial Material & MethodsmThis post was inspired by irritation, and fueled by indignation and copious amounts of Dr. Pepper.


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