The Pope and Chemistry Errors at ClimateProgress

Guest essay by C. R. Dickson

If the Pope really knows his chemistry, then the people at ClimateProgress better hope he doesn’t read their June 18 article entitled “What Did Actual Scientists Think of the Pope’s Climate Encyclical?” which discusses the scientific accuracy of the Pope’s passages relevant to climate. The article’s picture of a chalkboard used as a background to a bible contains a very incorrect structural formula for an organic molecule. Obviously, scientific accuracy is not very important in their article about scientific accuracy.

Students taking basic high school and college chemistry courses always learn how to draw Lewis structures for molecules. Each “stick” in a molecule represents two shared valence electrons forming a covalent bond. Every element in a molecule (except hydrogen) strives to obtain the stable noble gas configuration of eight electrons or four sticks. Although they are an outdated way of representing molecules, Lewis structures remain in use today because they are so simple.

The organic molecule in question is re-drawn to the right of the stock picture with some colored arrows to highlight some of the problems.


There are ten unwritten carbon atoms in this molecule, one at each vertex of the two hexagons. The red arrow points to a carbon atom that has five sticks or ten electrons on the carbon atom, which is incorrect. The green arrows point to ambiguities that may or may not be incorrect depending upon whether there are additional unwritten hydrogen atoms present. The yellow arrow shows the stick unattached to the hexagon and several ambiguities result. Finally, the OH group should be attached to the molecule with a stick or it should have a minus sign or a dot to indicate whether it is either a negative ion or a free radical.

Climate news articles often have pictures of chalkboards displaying equations, and almost invariably they contain major errors. Next time a chalkboard appears, check it out for the accuracy of the formulas and equations. Most legitimate scientists immediately question the accuracy of an article when they see pictures with incorrect equations. That’s how good scientists work. Wouldn’t it be nice if journalists did the same?

C. R. Dickson is a retired chemist and physicist with a PhD from Columbia University. He has worked for Polaroid, Allied Chemical, RCA, and the Solarex Thin Film Division, a solar cell company formed as an RCA technology spinoff. He also served as a scientific advisor to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization in Vienna, Austria. Go to Google Scholar to view some of his scientific publications and patents on solar cells, lasers, and molecular spectroscopy.

86 thoughts on “The Pope and Chemistry Errors at ClimateProgress

  1. chalkboard/blackboards, backlit plumes of water vapour, drowning polar bears, flooded coastal townships, and now overdressed old men waving from balconies, All images designed to stir the emotions in feeble-minded folk who never ask the basic questions enshrined in verse by Rudyard Kipling;
    “I keep Six Honest Serving Men, They taught me all I knew …..”

    • “overdressed old men waving from balconies”
      Hey, he’s an old man. He’s probably really, really cold, so it’s as unfair to criticize him for his archaic fashion sense as it is for his archaic religion.
      On the other hand, his misunderstanding of science and attempts to impose his wacko beliefs that come from it – that is unforgivable.

  2. I can usually tell whether or not a picture of a chalkboard used for effect was made-up or carefully thought through. The made-up chalkboards usually contain a plethora of unrelated scientific diagrams, figures, formulas, arrows, etc.

    • It’s similar for musicians watching actors pretending to play instruments or singers with dubbed voices. Easy to spot so you have to “suspend belief” and enjoy the artistry. (In the 50’s some Japanese movies had serious audio sync problems – remember?) In some cases it’s just pure legerdemain or maybe snake oil salesmanship?

    • Agreed.
      Originally, I saw the lonely floating OH and then the organic molecule above, stopped looking at the picture and read the article.
      Obvious photograph for PR purpose only. Disregard.

    • Occasionally I used to look at “Big Bang Theory” with my kids, and I found it mildly amusing. However, at one point the “genius” Sheldon Cooper walks up to a blackboard covered with scientific equations and makes a few additions. His science-y looking additions were pure, random gibberish, a fact that did not seem to concern the actor or the show-runners.
      My “suspension of disbelief” having been effectively punctured, I haven’t been able to look at the program since.

      • Anything covered by the popular media, or print media or even the evening TV news that you know something about is plain wrong. Wrong at all scales.
        That’s why my dad always said “don’t believe everything you read in the newspaper”. I don’t believe anything I read in the newspaper.

  3. O=C=O is our friend. Period.
    The biosphere has been starving for lack of our friend for millions of years. Things will be better. The Earth can heal itself with more available carbon and sunlight to make oxygen from water.

    • water = H – Ö – H . Nature loves those 2 little O electrons just waiting to be used for reduction. Life on Earth would not be what is is without them.

      • Nor would earth’s air.
        Thanks to photosynthetic microbes, our planet has abundant molecular oxygen in its atmosphere, an unusual condition.
        However, those microbes evolved into green plants, which drew down the formerly more abundant CO2, endangering themselves. Humans can help to restore the sequestered carbon dioxide to the air, where it belongs.

      • O=C=O & H – Ö – H
        These two simple Lewis Diagrams actually say a lot about the global warming debate. One is not a true dipole molecule and subsequently reacts very weakly to infrared radiation whereas the other has a strong dipole and reacts more to infrared radiation than any other molecule in the atmosphere.

  4. According to Mann, a few things were understated. For example, the document stated warming was due to carbon emissions “released mainly as a result of human activity.”
    “All of the increase in the carbon dioxide is due to fossil fuel burning and other human activities,” he said.

    So according to Mann CO2 levels have never changed in the past. He also seems unaware that interannual variability strongly correlates this SST.
    But I suppose if you want to know whether the Pope is correct about the science you’d best avoid taking an opinion from someone gets his proxies upside down and crops off sections of data that are inconvenient.
    Maybe he should seek some guidance from the pontiff on the morality of deliberately deceiving the world to advance his own political worldview, while pretending to act as an objective scientist.

    • Or Mann could just purchase an indulgence while he’s in Rome. The Vend-a-Penance machine is in the hallway outside the Sistine Chapel. It only takes lira; carbon credits result in an alarm–very embarrassing. Change is given in 100 lira coins.
      Note: this is a joke. I know indulgences don’t work this way, if they work at all.

      • I knew it was a joke because Michael Mann, or any other climate preacher, would not give up their money for a vend-a-penance machine because they would have their own vend-a-penance machine.

      • I still have a can of Lira coins somewhere in my closet. Some drachma too. They may be needed again soon.

      • I still have a can of Lira coins somewhere in my closet. Some drachma too. They may be needed again soon.

  5. “If the Pope really knows his chemistry…”
    Well, he doesn’t know as much as I do, let alone as much as Dr. Dixon.
    Does Pope Francis have a master’s degree in chemistry?
    Thomas Reese, in NCR Today (National Catholic Reporter), , Jun. 3, 2015:
    “Numerous press reports are saying that Pope Francis has a master’s degree in chemistry, including one that incorrectly cites me as a source. Sorry, it is not true.
    “It is true that Pope Francis studied chemistry and worked as a chemist prior to entering the seminary. But Jorge Bergoglio never graduated from university prior to entering the seminary.”
    The Pope’s “degree” is more like a lab technician’s certificate or, at most, a 2-year degree from a community college. Once again, Warmunist claims are not congruent with the truth.

    • Wouldn’t matter to them in the least. Whether he is a Ph.D. with a dozen papers in the Journal of Physical Chemistry, or an ignoramus that thinks soda water is made by throwing a lump of sodium into water – he’s been convinced to agree with them.
      Just look at the reaction when a “denier” chemist dares to question their “science”…

      • The Pope got a certificate in chemistry from a technical high school back in his teens and worked as an apprentice chemist for a very short time also in his teens (might have made it to early 20’s) then pursued other endeavors leading to seminary.
        I have no idea how that translates to today’s education systems, but have a feeling it was probably of a similar quality to a technical college today. If he had kept working in chemistry, I would give him credit for enduring knowledge of the subject, but as he gave it up so soon after starting, I have doubts as to his working familiarity with science. Also a technical diploma would have concentrated on the “how-to” aspects of chemistry and not deep theoretical understanding. Or as Phaedo quips, “…eminently suited to being a climate scientist.”

      • “…worked as an apprentice chemist for a very short time…”

        A title that enables newbies in a lab to sweep up, clean glassware and maybe put away tools and components. No chemical knowledge needed, even for gifted chemistry students, since none of the older or more experienced chemists will ever ask or accept their advice. Especially back in the ‘day’.
        Yes, I spent time cleaning up the lab and after I proved myself, was allowed to fetch ingredients or reports; in between my main duties that is.

    • It’s called common in Argentina to take a year or two of technical school after graduating from high school and before moving on to university. The idea is to give kids a trade where they can at least make a living. That’s what the Pope did before getting serious about his religious studies.

      • From Wikipedia: “Secondary education in Argentina comprises two levels. Years 1st to 3rd are common to all schools (Ciclo básico). Years 4th to 6th are organized in orientations (Ciclo orientado) such as Social Sciences, Natural Sciences, Arts, Sport, Design, etc. An additional year is offered in certain schools (Technical-Professional schools), which grants a professional title, also with orientations (agriculture, electricity, mechanics, construction).”

  6. The whole thing is gibberish.
    I bet they were laughing about how the sheeple would believe it (including some who post on here).

  7. Again from the ClimateProgress artilce “Everything he’s stated [above] accurately reflects what the science has to say,” Mann said in an email.
    Note the editorial modification to what Mann REALLY said. So they know he gets it wrong and Mann’s statement is incorrect. No surprise there except that they use a failed and deliberately misleading climate scientist as a reference for whether someone is right about science.
    So it may be safe to say the pope’s explanation of the greenhouse effect was not as robust as some scientists may have liked.
    Well not knowing that CO2 affects thermally emitted IR and NOT reflected solar is plain wrong. In science does not count. Neither does “not robust” include the case of flat out wrong.
    In fact “robust” is usually a pretty good indication that we are talking politics and not science and the thing being refered to is anything but robust but someone is trying to talk it up.

    • Yeah, “robust” is a sure sign that the science is paper thin. It’s synonymous with balderdash.
      How come there are so many more wanks than wonks in climate science?

  8. What the left seem to miss completely in applauding his Holiness is that this is nothing but a very successful attempt to divert attention away from decades of child sexual abuse and cover-ups of child abuse in the Roman Cathoic church
    A pope is above all not a theologian or a science lab-tech but the political head of a body ( legally a state ) with global reach.
    What Pope Francis has done here is a PR coup for the Vatican, it has nothing to do with science or climate but is all about covering up the church’s continued failure to address serious and widespread child abuse in its ranks.
    Tomorrow’s headline: ” New study shows rising levels of CO2 causing widespread amnesia in a warming world”.

    • 5 bonds(10 electrons) to a carbon, no alternating double bonds, nothing showing closure of the left ring and a bisected stick that might mean methyl groups in a competently drawn structure is probably a little beyond “not ideal.” Normally, a carbon with 2 double bonds is linear, not 120°. If you want to show delocalized, draw a circle instead of double bonds. Also, is the OH a free radical, anion or attached to the structure?

    • Looks like they tried to draw one of the classical Kekule structures for 2,3,5-trihydroxynapthalene, but left out a number of bonds, as C.R. Dickson pointed out.
      Another immediately obvious error: ΔE does not equal hν. E = hν; ΔE = hΔν.
      Even worse is the molecule laying on the Bible. Typical usage is carbon = black, hydrogen = white, oxygen = red, chlorine = green. That particular molecule, with chlorine and oxygen attached to the same carbon, is immediately unstable to reaction with water.
      Even in humid air, it will rapidly convert into a molecule of phosgene (war gas), two of formaldehyde (very poisonous) and two molecules of hydrochloric acid (very acrid and corrosive).
      Seems to me they ought to have run their illustration past the pope before posting. He’d have set them straight, no doubt.

    • There is little doubt that they meant to draw a naphthalene-like molecule. They just botched it. The proper location of lines for de-localized double bonds is flatly incorrect on the left-hand ring. So, no dice.

  9. Although I agree with most of the criticism, it should be noted that very often one does not write down the Cs and Hs in organic molecules. It is a common practice that even the very conservative IUPAC (International Union for Pure and Applied Chemistry) considers valid.

    • Cho, you are correct. The hydrogens are often left off and are implied to keep the representation from being too unwieldy.

  10. These stick molecules are analogy to help visualise what goes on. We accept that they are not what the actual molecule looks like. If only the religious fanatics could accept that large parts of the holy books of all cultures were written in the same manner. When they talk about the world being created in seven days, that is likewise an analogy. It was written like that for a readership who wouldn’t have been able to grasp the concept of millions of years, let alone billions. Most of the problems arising out of religion, especially oppression of women and terrorism, stem from taking the analogies in holy books literally.

    • When they were written, those were NOT analogies. They were the “truth” – the best “truth” they could come up with that gave the elite more control over the peasantry.
      Sad thing is that we have apparently left the age of science and are entering once again into an age of “truth.”

      • And how does the Bible grant the elite more control over the peasants? Kings and tribal leaders are quite often shown to have lost favor with the Man Upstairs and/or acted stupidly. The Old Testament faith clearly places God in a separate position, not as part of the state.
        If you want to use religion to boss people around, make the king God, like the Pharaohs or the Japanese Emperor.

    • Michael, suggest view Wikipaedia article on “alpha-Propiolactone”.
      This has 2 carbon and one oxygen attached as a triangle. At one of the carbon apices there is a second oxygen atom. So far so good. At the other carbon atom (already with two single links to the first carbon and the oxygen atom there is a single or double link to the carbon in a CH3 radical. So either the carbon atom in the CH3 radical is pentavalent, or it includes a divalent Hydrogen atom.
      Go figure – or try drawing it!
      But what molecule does the ball and stick figure next to the Bible represent? Formula appears to be C3H4O4(?)2. Cannot make sense of this – not surprising as I did not study organic chemistry.
      The blackboard seems to have quantum theory (Delta E = hV), algebra, sound, electrical circuit, chemistry – (above mentioned alleged diagram), algebra, differential calculus, trigonometrey, chemistry again – a formula indicating that combination of water and hydrogen is a reversible reaction – well , I suppose it is if you add sufficient electrical energy, plus a scattering of p = mu, and delta p = pgh (WTF?).

      • Thanks Dudley, but I already have a PhD in Organic Chemistry.
        alpha-Propiolactone has all bonds in accordance with standard organic chemistry textbooks. The carbon in the methyl group is attached to three hydrogens and the adjacent carbon by single bonds. That adjacent carbon in the three-membered ring is attached to the methyl group, the carbonyl group, the oxygen of the three-membered ring, and one further hydrogen, all by single bonds. The last hydrogen, by convention, is frequently not drawn in. The existence of such a convention is an indication of chemist’s confidence that you won’t see a pentavalent carbon.

  11. If the Pope believes in science, then can he explain scientifically how to feed ‘the multitudes’ with two fishes and a few loaves of bread ? Because if that can be done, why not share it with the with the starving people of the world?
    Oh yes, while he is at it, it would be very useful to know how to turn water into wine by waving your hand over it – very useful.

    • I once knew a man who could turn water into wine. Well, technical he called it ‘hooch’. And it took about 2 weeks. But his friends definitely thought it was a miracle. ^¿^

    • First, assume a omniscient and omnipotent being in the form of an Israelite Carpenter…
      Here’s the thing: Both of those miracles are physically possible given a sufficient source of energy. If I described them being done in a science fiction novel using 3D Printers and a small wormhole, people would believe them.
      *Imagine Captain Picard beaming down replicated baguettes and Earl Grey tea*

  12. I’m really puzzled by that model resting on the bench and the bible (some symbolism there?). What can it be? Four chlorines, three carbons and two oxygens and four hydrogens?

    • Ask Nick. He’ll tell you what they were trying to do there – chloromethyldichlorochloromethyldiether ??
      Looks like a monster of a greenhouse gas, with massive ozone-destroying potential. The Bible’s gonna get it though – show us the next few frames so the children can sleep at night.

      • My take, exactly. I did not even try to name that monster, I think you got it right though. Any bets on how stable it might be.
        (channeling my inner grad student, here)
        Any guesses on how the department chairman, and your research adviser would respond if you suggested actually making a beaker full of that stuff?
        (that’s a nice research proposal, TonyL, but NO, you can not actually try it. Do you know how much it cost us to put up this new Chemistry Building?)

      • Heh heh heh
        One of my neighbors has a really bright two-year old kid and I think somewhere I have and could dust off some ball and stick model stuff.
        Watch this space.

      • This molecule actually reminds me of several inhalational anestetics, but it would likely be toxic and possibly an alkylating agent and carcinogen.

    • Menicholas, I believe that is a molecule of bolognium which was once identified by Col. John Boyd as being the primary element present in the majority of aircraft proposals submitted to the USAF. Based on my research it is closely related to the element you identified, unobtainium.

  13. The Big Bang Theory TV show has an scientist on staff who scribbles actual formulas on the white boards that are in most scenes. Maybe the Vatican should find a scientist to help with their homework next time.

  14. Whenever you see someone playing chess in a movie or whatever the board is more often that not set incorrectly as well. They usually have a white square in while’s left corner…

  15. You do know this is nothing but a “sciency blackboard with equations” stock photo, right?
    Although I admit, it’s perfectly at home in the world of climate “science”.

    • You mean to say that this PhD, Dickson, snagged a shutterstock image of sciencey chalkboard equations, photoshopped a bible in there, to make some point? He actually did that? The chemistry business really took a hit when digital cameras crushed and obsoleted the photographic film business. So now the relic Dickson is taking up a new career in snarky photo-shopping. Nice.

    • This reminds me of an C&EN article I read a few years ago. (C&EN stands for Chemical and Engineering News, the weekly journal published by the American Chemical Society. It is free provided you pay your ACS membership)
      The article was about pheromones, and it had a picture at the top depicting a very large organic molecule, which reminded me of brevetoxin B, so I started looking at the molecule and found an error, and another, and another. I stopped looking at the sixth error and I moved on.
      The following week, in the letters to the editor section, a note was published saying that they had received a large number of letters stating that the structure published on the pheromone article was full of errors, They explained that said structure was not a real one, but an artistic conception and the artist only tried to write the word “LOVE” by using Lewis structures. And, indeed, if you looked at the whole structure you could read the word love. I was amazed mostly because a lot of people did just what I did.
      Moral of the story: Maybe we are reading too much into this.
      I’ll try to find the picture in question later and post it here.

  16. “Warming has effects on the carbon cycle. It creates a vicious circle which aggravates the situation even more, affecting the availability of essential resources like drinking water, energy and agricultural production in warmer regions, and leading to the extinction of part of the planet’s biodiversity. The melting in the polar ice caps and in high altitude plains can lead to the dangerous release of methane gas, while the decomposition of frozen organic material can further increase the emission of carbon dioxide. Things are made worse by the loss of tropical forests which would otherwise help to mitigate climate change. Carbon dioxide pollution increases the acidification of the oceans and compromises the marine food chain.” A Portion of passage 24 in the encyclical.
    “Everything he’s stated [above] accurately reflects what the science has to say,” Mann said in an email.
    Oh Dear! Warming is most unlikely to affect agricultural production in warmer regions adversely. I may lead to changes in the type of production. Reduction of water would indeed affect production adversely, but that is not what the encyclical says here.
    Difficult to see how warming would affect the availability of “energy”.
    What biodiversity is being extinguished (extincted?). I would suspect that any populations which may become extinct in the next 100 years would already be so small that they would disappear, warming or not.
    Are the polar ice caps a source of methane? Really??
    Methane gas if released is quickly oxidized – 8 to 12 years in comparison to CO2 = 30 to 95 years and NO2 = 114 years. Why “high altitude plains” – should this not be permafrost areas?
    “Frozen organic material” – if this releases CO2, the CO2 is being return to the atmosphere from which it came to make the organic material. Returning it to its natural state.
    Loss of tropical forests? Yes, some are being cut down. But the increased CO2 levels are ‘greening the planet. Where is the balance? Do we have definite figures for this?
    “acidification of the oceans” A change of pH from 8.2 to 8.1 still leaves the oceans very basic. Fish, including shell fish, apparently are known to live in waters far less basic, perhaps even acidic (pH < 7.0).
    And Mann says "Everything he’s stated accurately reflects what the science has to say." Is he stupid, ignorant or both?

  17. It’s the perfect metaphor for climate “science”; sciency-looking to the untrained eye, but fake nonetheless.

  18. The yellow and red show problems with valencies. The green arrows are correct its routine in organic chemistry to not show hydrogen atoms unless pertinent to some point eg a mechanism. The author needs to brush up their chemistry. Yes I am a chemist (PhD)

  19. When I was at school we dashed a circle inside a benzene ring because teacher thought it was probably more accurate and we thought it put us one up on out decrepit old text books. I don’t think this is worth worrying about, are we not dipping in to the realm of petty? 🙂

  20. CR Dickson,
    You said: “If the Pope really knows his chemistry”
    Well HE never made that claim.
    The only people who make the claim that he “knows” chemistry are those, who in one sentence say he has a masters degree, implying that the pope has made that assertion, then follow with a condemning assertion that his knowledge is mere technical. You see. Pope Francis never made that claim. You kind of did. So why? So you can say that he doesn’t know chemistry?
    CR Dickson… try this…
    If CR Dickson, really knows his American literature, then he the people at the New Republic better hope he didn’t read their review of “For Whom the Bell Tolled” by Ernest Hemmingway.
    CR Dickson may say:
    1) I don’t know anything about American Literature
    2) I never said that I knew anything about American Literature
    3) If I did know and say something about American Literature, why would I care what The New Republic says about Hemmingway?
    CR Dickson,
    This essay is nonsense because it is built on a false premise, stated in the first phrase you wrote.

    • As a person who hasn’t used chemistry in decades, you can surmise that the Pope would remember very little of the chemistry basics he learned in his youth. I taught a class in chemistry after being out of school for 15 years. I found I had to re-learn much of the material, even though I used some of it in my work. So I think we would be remiss to expect the Pope to add much value to or even understand the science part of his encyclical.

      • oeman 50,
        I think you are correct. I think Pope Francis was relying on the advice of the Nobel Laureates in the Pontifical Academy for Science. I read the entire encyclical and never once did Pope Francis make the claim that his opinion on poverty, economics, pollution, carbon, etc was based on his own limited knowledge of any of the subjects.
        I take issue with the bad science advice that he got from so-called experts. Experts with axes to grind. Funny thing about PhDs with axes to grind. They are very quick to tell you how great they are at doing [subject A] while getting their axe ground with [subject B].

  21. The molecule stands correct as is.
    If you look just to the left, there is the equation v=f(lambda) with an arrow pointing right to that broken bond. So obviously, that misplaced bond represents a (pi) -> (pi)* transition, due to the absorption of a high energy photon. That lone OH radicle nearby shows that it’s bonding electrons have been promoted to an anti-bonding orbital in the process. Given the Lewis diagram, that molecule is about to undergo photolytic cleavage in a nanosecond or so, it just hasn’t happened yet.
    Or something like that.
    You just have to look carefully, or something.
    in ClimateScience!, you need to be able to see things that others miss.
    Or something.

  22. My chemistry teacher used to say: “How many fingers does an organic chemist have on each hand? – FOUR!” — And when he said it, you knew you did something dumb…

  23. C-O-C
    o o o
    ^ ^ ^

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