James Trefil

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George Mason University physics professor and author James Trefil "is known for his writing and his interest in teaching science to nonscientists. He accepted an offer of a George Mason University [teaching-focused] Robinson Professorship in order to develop a new kind of science curriculum for general education, one based on developing scientific literacy among college graduates."[1]

While Trefil shows a firm grasp of the import of science literacy, the projects he's involved with downplay climate change or omit it entirely, and his views on climate are at odds with those of working climate scientists.


"After receiving a BS in physics from the University of Illinois, he received BA and MA degrees from Oxford University on a Marshall scholarship. He finished his studies as a National Science Foundation Fellow at Stanford University, where he received an MS and PhD in theoretical physics. Trefil taught at the University of Illinois and at the University of Virginia before joining George Mason in 1988." [2].

Public outreach

General public

"Widely known for his "Ask Mr. Science" column, which ran in USA Today Weekend, [Trefil] has been a regular contributor to Smithsonian and Astronomy and is the author or editor of more than thirty books."[3]

Trefil was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science's now-defunct Committee on the Public Understanding of Science and Technology[4], [5]

K-12 education

Trefil was the chief science consultant for a publisher of middle and high school textbooks, McDougal-Littell[4], but no longer held this position in December 2010.[6]

"Trefil...lectures all over the country at conventions for K-12 science teachers. Trefil and [Robert M.] Hazen both served for several years on the National Academy of Sciences – Science Education Standards content review board. George Mason is the only university that has had two faculty members serving together on the board, Trefil notes."[7]

Science literacy

Trefil shows a firm grasp of the import of science literacy, though it is unclear what he thinks science literacy consists of.


“Many basic scientific principles such as global warming come into our lives every day. People who are educated about subjects that affect the quality of their lives make more informed decisions.” Trefil likens scientific literacy to a course in music appreciation. ... “I’m not trying to convince anyone to become a scientist,” he continues, “just to build a foundation from which they can make their own moral calculations.”[7]

"a fundamental mismatch exists between the kinds of knowledge educational institutions are equipped to impart and the kind of knowledge the citizen needs. So scientists must define what parts of our craft are essential for the scientifically literate citizen and then put that knowledge together in a coherent package. For those still in school, that package can be delivered in new courses of study. For the great majority of Americans - those whom the educational system has already failed - this information has to be made available in other forms."[8]

If you can understand the news of the day as it relates to science, if you can take articles with headlines about stem cell research and the greenhouse effect and put them in a meaningful context ...then as far as we are concerned you are scientifically literate. ... Those who insist that everyone must understand science at a deep level are confusing two important but separate aspects of scientific knowledge.... Doing science is clearly distinct from using science; scientific literacy concerns only the latter."[8]

Climate change

Trefil believes that in the case of climate science, any normal rules of thumb for science literacy (including the wisdom for laymen of relying on expertise) break down, since this field "is kind of an anomaly because it's become very politicized"; by which he means, climate scientists "get seduced by being close to power. And once they feel that their careers are on the line...they have to defend the point of view whether they think it's right or not"; while in private, they continue to express doubts they're afraid to share publicly.[9]

But it's difficult to see how this interpretation would fit with the censorship that the fossil fuels industry[10] and the George W. Bush administration[11] inflicted on their climate scientists would fit with this interpretation; Trefil has not yet responded to email asking how he reconciles these.[12]

When asked what climate change education sources he considers most credible and suitable for the intelligent - but time-crunched - layman, he replied "I'm not sure there is a reliable source per se for that field."[9]

Deviation from consensus

Trefil's views on climate change deviate from those of climate scientists themselves. In 2010 he said[13]:

"The test of any scientific theory is the ability to make accurate predictions. Ten years ago, no AGW theory predicted that there would be a ten year hiatus in the warming. This is a failure of the theory. I used to wonder why this was never addressed by the IPCC guys, but after the Climategate business, the answer was pretty obvious."

But this "ten year hiatus in the warming" assertion is spurious[14]; plus during this period, the oceans - where over 90% of the heat goes - have continued to warm.[1].

And multiple inquiries into the "Climategate business" found misleading quotes out of context and no evidence of wrongdoing.[15]

Past statements/writings

In his 2004 book Human Nature: A Blueprint for Managing the Earth--by People, for People, Trefil said:

"The IPCC...result...is that temperatures by 2100 will be between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees Celsius warmer...This spread...is simply an indication of how much the models differ in their predictions. The difference between 1 and 6 degrees Celsius is a big one..."

(Here Trefil failed to note that "The wide range in [the IPCC] predictions is based upon several different scenarios that assume different levels of future CO2 emissions...The most optimistic outcome assumes an aggressive campaign to reduce CO2 emissions, while the most pessimistic is a "business as usual" scenario.")

and (also from the 2004 book)

"my own guess (and I have to stress that this is a guess) is that we will find that at least some, and perhaps even most, of the observed warming is due to the use of fossil fuels by human beings...

How much are we willing to sacrifice today to avert the global warming predicted by the models?...I don't yet have enough faith in the Global Climate Models to give up [my standard of living]...

You face the same situation every time you drive your car...insurance...a policy option that makes sense to me...[is] the "no regrets" option... alternative energy technologies...Some judicious support of research efforts, along with tax incentives and some regulatory changes, are probably all it would take right now to get us to where we want to go...

Many of my colleagues ...think I should be more worried than I am. Maybe so, but right now the uncertainties in the Global Climate Model predictions are too big, and the level of political invective in what should be a purely scientific debate too high...for me to come to any other conclusion.

...each of us needs to respect the fact that others may disagree with us [on what/whether actions need to be taken] and that disagreement is not a sign of moral failure."

In 2000 for PBS he said:

"In order to make an incontrovertible case for global warming, you'd have to have a long-term temperature record, centuries, that was over a large part of the globe. And so you have to look over a long term and say "What's the average been for several hundred years, and is this a significant departure from that?" And that's what's very difficult to do."[16]

Science Cheerleaders' Science Literacy - short shrift to climate change

Trefil is involved with Darlene Cavalier's "Science Cheerleaders" project; its Brain Makeover section [17] puts forth 18 key concepts for science literacy ("What Everyone Needs to Know to Be A Science Literate"), drawn from Trefil's 1997 book Why Science.
Of the 18, two impinge - barely - on climate change:

"13. The surface of the Earth is constantly changing."
"14. The Earth operates in many cycles.".

Articles and resources


  1. Author unknown (Undated). James Trefil - The Robinson Professors. George Mason University. Retrieved on 2010-12-07. “[bio]”
  2. James Trefil (1988-05-29). WETENSCHAP IS WAT WETENSCHAPPERS DOEN. NYTimes.com. Retrieved on 2010-12-07. “James Trefil, the Clarence Robinson Professor of Physics at George Mason University in Virginia, is the author of Meditations at Sunset. (Published: May 29, 1988)”
  3. Author blurb for Trefil's 2004 book "Human Nature: A Blueprint for Managing the Earth--by People, for People"
  4. 4.0 4.1 No byline (Undated). Science Consultants. McDougal Littell Science Cells and Heredity. Retrieved on 2010-12-08. “...member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Committee on the Public Understanding of Science and Technology. He is also a fellow of the World Economic Forum and a frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine.”
  5. (He is not a member of COPUS&T's successor.)
  6. (Trefil 2010-12-10, pers. comm.)
  7. 7.0 7.1 Rey C. Banks (2006-08-21). Robinson Professor of Physics Makes ‘Scientific Literacy’ Available to All Students. The Mason Gazette - George Mason University. Retrieved on 2010-12-07.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy, by Robert M. Hazen & James Trefil
  9. 9.0 9.1 Anna Haynes (2011-03-14). Q&A with JamesTrefil, for SourceWatch - plus followup Qs. Warming101 blog. Retrieved on 2011-03-14.
  10. Andrew C. Revkin (2009-04-23). Industry Ignored Its Scientists on Climate. NYTimes.com. Retrieved on 2011-03-15. ““The role of greenhouse gases in climate change is not well understood,” the [Global Climate Coalition] said in a scientific “backgrounder” provided to lawmakers and journalists through the early 1990s, adding that “scientists differ” on the issue. But a document filed in a federal lawsuit demonstrates that even as the coalition worked to sway opinion, its own scientific and technical experts were advising that the science backing the role of greenhouse gases in global warming could not be refuted.”
  11. Rick Piltz (2007-04-21). Bush administration is #1 on 2007 annual list of Jefferson Muzzle “winners”. Climate Science Watch. Retrieved on 2011-03-17. “Bush administration is #1 on 2007 annual list of Jefferson Muzzle “winners” The “unprecedented degree of political interference in communicating government-funded scientific research to the public” has earned the Bush Administration a 2007 Jefferson Muzzle from the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.”
  12. Ahaynes, 2011-03
  13. (Trefil 2010, pers. comm.)
  14. John Russell (2010-08-17). Did global warming stop in 1998?. Skeptical Science. Retrieved on 2011-03-15. “overall, 2005 was hotter than 1998. What's more, globally, the hottest 12-month period ever recorded was from June 2009 to May 2010.”
  15. John Cook (2010-07-09). What do the 'Climategate' hacked CRU emails tell us?. Skeptical Science. Retrieved on 2011-03-15. “A number of independent investigations from different countries, universities and government bodies have investigated the stolen emails and found no evidence of wrong doing”
  16. PBS (2000-04-18). NOVA - Transcripts - What's Up with the Weather?. PBS. Retrieved on 2010-12-07. “NARRATOR: But what do we really know about the greenhouse effect? JAMES TREFIL, George Mason University: You're dealing with something where there is legitimate uncertainty in the science. ... NARRATOR: James Trefil is a physicist and science writer who has followed the global warming issue closely. JAMES TREFIL: In order to say it is actually getting warmer now, you have to know what it's been in the past and you have to know that what you're seeing is not just a fluctuation. I mean, I remember when I was a kid, in the 50's, hearing stuff about the coming ice age because there was- we were in a kind of a little cold snap then. And people- I remember pictures on the covers of magazines showing glaciers moving down across American cities. ... In order to make an incontrovertible case for global warming, you'd have to have a long-term temperature record, centuries, that was over a large part of the globe. And so you have to look over a long term and say "What's the average been for several hundred years, and is this a significant departure from that?" And that's what's very difficult to do. ... NARRATOR: The computer models tell of possible futures, some scary, some less so. Which is true? Currently, there's no way to know. JAMES TREFIL, George Mason University: Computer models of climate are the most complicated, ingenious computer systems I've ever seen. I mean, they really are good. But in the end, you have to just face the fact that they are not going to be able to give you precise, certain answers. They're going to give you, "We think this is what's going to happen, and here's the limits of error." And that's the uncertainty, and you have to choose.”
  17. Author unknown (undated). Brain Makeover. Science Cheerleader. Retrieved on 2010-12-07.

Related SourceWatch articles

External resources

External articles

Wikipedia also has an article on James Trefil. This article may use content from the Wikipedia article under the terms of the GFDL.