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Freeman Dyson, Climate Confusionist

By Joe Romm  

"Freeman Dyson, Climate Confusionist"


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dysonf.jpgAs a physicist, I have never been a big fan of Freeman Dyson. He was, after all, one of the “geniuses” pushing Project Orion — the absurdly impractical idea of creating a rocket ship powered by detonating nuclear bombs — I kid you not!

Dyson has written a new book, A Many Colored Glass, that you shouldn’t waste your time and money on, as this extract on global warming makes clear. Dyson has basically joined the famous-confusionist camp with Michael Crichton and Bill Gray. You can read a good debunking of Dyson here. I’ll add my two cents.

Dyson says many things that are just plain wrong: “There is no doubt that parts of the world are getting warmer, but the warming is not global.” Uhh, no. The warming is global — as every set of data makes clear — that’s why it’s called global warming.

He says the “fuss about global warming is grossly exaggerated” because he is certain the climate models do not reflect reality. I agree they don’t reflect reality– but that leads me to the opposite conclusion. Dyson fails to ask whether the simplifications and omissions in climate models lead them to overestimate or underestimate climate impacts. So far, they have underestimated things like Arctic ice loss, mass loss of the great ice sheets, and sea-level rise. They don’t model many feedbacks very well, and we know today that most feedbacks are amplifying.

No nonsense essay would be complete without a nonsense solution. He believes “the problem of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a problem of land management” and that the entire climate problem can be solved by increasing topsoil:

We do not know whether intelligent land-management could increase the growth of the topsoil reservoir by four billion tons of carbon per year, the amount needed to stop the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Actually we kinda do know. The best data suggest we are losing billions of tons of topsoil each year. A major effort will be required just to stop that loss rate from increasing sharply. Indeed, global warming itself is projected to cause both increased flooding, which washes away topsoil, and increased droughts, which destroy topsoil.

The entire essay is riddled with the kind of mistakes and dubious assertions we saw in Crichton’s novel. One final point. Dyson asserts:

They [climate models] do not begin to describe the real world that we live in. The real world is muddy and messy and full of things that we do not yet understand. It is much easier for a scientist to sit in an air-conditioned building and run computer models, than to put on winter clothes and measure what is really happening outside in the swamps and the clouds. That is why the climate model experts end up believing their own models.

Uhh, no. Climate modelers are skeptical like all scientists, but contrary to what Dyson says, they do base their models on real-world data, and their models are passable at modeling what has actually happened to the climate so far. As noted, where they have been inadequate is in underestimating the impacts we have felt so far.

But what really irritates me about this statement — which implies climate modelers are ivory tower theoreticians with no connection to the real world –is that it comes from someone who is an ivory tower theoretician with no connection to the real world, without the most basic understanding of climate science or climate scientists (has he gone to the trouble of talking to any?), a man who actually believed it was a good idea to pursue powering a spacecraft with nuclear detonations. People who live in glass greenhouses shouldn’t throw stones.

This post has been updated.

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14 Responses to Freeman Dyson, Climate Confusionist

  1. Jim Prall says:

    I’ve met some real climatologists here at Univ. of Toronto, and I can attest that our atmospheric physics prof, Kim Strong, has indeed “put on winter clothes” and traveled to the Canadian arctic many times to set up and maintain instruments and releasing balloon sondes, taking direct measurements of the atmosphere, solar radiation, IR, etc.
    On her home page there are nice photos of her and her group in winter clothes working in the arctic, as well as in blue bunny suits and hair nets in the clean room assembling satellites to “measure what is really happening outside.” I don’t know if they’ve been through any swamps per se. And of course once satellites are orbiting, the analysis of their output does tend to take place on large computers in air-conditioned offices. Should we get laptops and connect remotely from the swamp to improve the analysis?

  2. Jim Prall says:

    Oops, forgot to include the link to Prof. Strong’s page, with the photos in winter clothes:


  3. greg says:

    I’ve got a nitpick that just happens to coincide with reading this post. It is becoming increasingly common for discussions of climate change to include the risks of “feedbacks.” This trend is a good thing, but is incompletely phrased. The risk, of course, is from POSITIVE feedback. The term feedback could (as it often does in biological systems) refer to negative feedback, in which some trend triggers a reaction that tends to reduce the original trend. There may in fact be significant negative feedback mechanisms in climate, and we ought to more specifically communicate about the risky type of climate feedbacks by always referring to them as “positive feedbacks.”

  4. Joe says:

    I am using “amplifying feedback” instead of “positive feedback” because I have been told that the phrase “positive feedback” with its positive connotations is generally confusing to many. But I agree that one should always strive to be clear on this point.

    I do believe, however, that the jury is pretty much back in on whether the positive feedbacks dominate the negative ones — they do. Indeed negative feedbacks seem to be quite scarce, whereas the positive feedbacks — especially the albedo and the tundra — are quite scary.

  5. greg says:

    Is the recent research about boreal sphagnum uptaking more CO2 in a warming world any cause for “comfort” as a possible negative feedback?

    I agree that negative feedbacks will prove insignificant by comparison to positive feedbacks, and should not be cited as excuses for inaction.

  6. Joe says:

    You sure about that? My google search turned up
    which is no cause for comfort.
    Do you have a link?

  7. Chris says:

    Freeman Dyson wrote one of the best memoirs about being a scientist: _Disturbing the Universe_. Calling him a crackpot does him a disservice. Though I do think he is most likely wrong about global warming.

    Reading about his work for the RAF during World War II is just heartbreaking. He told about his valiant but futile attempts to enlarge the escape hatches on the British Lancaster bombers just another inch or two to allow easier egress if shot down. Had the authorities listened they could have saved thousands of British airman lives. He also tried to get them to ditch the turret guns on the Lancasters which would have made them faster and more maneuverable which would have also saved lives.

    His book also introduced me to the great physicist Richard Feynman. I have not read Dyson’s essay but when I read he was on the global warming skeptic side of the fence (not a denier like Crichton) I was disappointed. I thought, well, he’s outside the area of his expertise. Dyson has an impressive body of work. But like any scientist he can be wrong. That is the defining characteristic of any scientist is knowing that you could be wrong. His writing taught me the value of uncertainty, though Feynman’s taught me how hard it is not to fool yourself. He is the kind of global warming skeptic/critic you want to deal with not people like Michael Crichton. Yes, the deniers will welcome Dyson with open arms as a useful tool until they are ready to discard him.

    I would agree that Freeman Dyson is most likely wrong, but I have not read the essay yet. So I cannot dismiss him outright. He may have some valid points. I know as a layman I am satisfied with the evidence that the current global warming is anthropogenic and that we must do what we can to mitigate it.

    One final note. Project Orion is technically feasible (it was demonstrated with conventional explosives on a test rocket). It may be impractical but it is not absurd. It’s value is that it gets us to think about other ways of propelling spacecraft.

  8. shane says:

    I’ve read Dyson’s article that, once you get past the cynical tone, raises some unanswered questions about climate change. He does not dispute the fact that temperatures are increasing. Where he does disagree with the near-hysteria of the “though shalt not disagree” global warming mafia is on *causality*. I recommend you check out Prof. Dyson’s critique of the infrared transport characteristics of alleged “greenhouse gases” — a fundamental premise in attributing climate change to mankind. Or, if you prefer to take the “blue pill” and go on believing whatever you want to believe, keep listening to the former-politician-cum-businessman (whose preponderance of data in “An Inconvenient Truth” only accounts for the past 80 years).

  9. Daniel says:

    I agree with you on the climate aspects, but as a small nitpick, the Orion nuclear powered rocket is not impractical at all. On the contrary, it has the highest performance of any propulsion system currently feasible with today’s technology. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Orion_(nuclear_propulsion)

  10. mack says:

    I have to wonder if Dyson is just a paid shill nowadays. I don’t know of course, but the reasons I suspect this is because of statements like “These scientists just sit in their air-conditioned buildings with their theories and models…” I mean come on, does this sound at all like what an objective researcher says when giving his honest critique of a scientific theory? Simplistic assurances that “they” are just airheads who don’t really know anything in the real world? Even if he’s trying to explain something to a nontechnical audience, it’s of course just BS.

    Statements like that (which Chrichton, Inhofe, etc. pretty much all use) are really just pre-packaged propaganda-type slogans developed by PR people. They’re supposed to cause people to doubt climate change by making them think the people working on it are not “normal people” like them but more like Dr. Strangelove, isolated from the real world with bizarre theories and models, or else just scumbags trying to con people out of money (i.e. scaring people “to get funding”). I wouldn’t be surprised if he was paid by some think tank to say that.

    Personally I don’t care what Dyson did in the past, he’s now just a scumbag and a liar like Crichton. Most likely since it’s well past the space race and NASA’s golden age, with little chance for glory or fame for an engineer who wants to design trillion-dollar shuttles that blast off using nuclear weaponry, he wanted a little attention and chance to feel like he’s relevant.

  11. Johan Simu says:

    The attacks on Freeman Dysons character is quite tasteless. Dyson was one of the most prominent physicists of the 20th century and he deserved the nobel prize as much as Feynman, Schwinger and Tomonaga. He is without a doubt a great genius and has made countless contributions to science.

    Orion was not a ridicilous project. Dyson was not alone in thinking orion was a feasible idea, you cant claim that Ted Taylor, the leading man of the project, was a theoretician with his head in the clouds. Orion was the brainchild of some of the greatest minds of the day and there is no doubt that it would have worked and would have been far superior to the current chemical rockets.

    Whether or not Dysons critique against AGW is correct it still does not give anyone the right to badmouth him, show the man the respect he deserves and critique his arguments and not the man.

  12. Bob Murphy says:

    I have to wonder if Dyson is just a paid shill nowadays. I don’t know of course, but the reasons I suspect this is because of statements like “These scientists just sit in their air-conditioned buildings with their theories and models…” I mean come on, does this sound at all like what an objective researcher says when giving his honest critique of a scientific theory?

    I wish Dyson hadn’t said that too. Just like I wish this article didn’t repeatedly refer to Freeman Dyson as a crackpot, and simply repeat his idea for propulsion as self-evidently absurd.

  13. Neal J. King says:

    The great particle physicist Murray Gell-Mann once cracked that there is a breed of British physicists that would rather be clever than right.

    Dyson, a famous (and great) dilettante, may well fall into that category: Rather be interestingly contrarian than boringly correct.

  14. pat flaherty says:

    For the most part, people here don’t seem to know who Freeman Dyson is. And you needed go no further than wikipedia.

    Reminds me of that joke about
    coach: “are you ignorant or just apathetic?”
    player” “I don’t know and I don’t care.”

    Two of Dyson’s mostly highly-regarded theoretical results are a) (1949) proving the equivalence of Feynman’s path integral formulation (Feynman graphs or diagrams) for quantum electrodynamics and the operator method as developed by Schwinger and Tomonaga. The other is b) (1966) his work with A. Leonard proving rigorously that the stability of matter depends upon the ‘exclusion principle’ (see: Wolfgang Pauli). This proof was derived at the same time but independently as that by Lieb and Thirring.

    These were theoretical and highly mathematical results (the likes of which not many people understand).

    More practically, he led the design team for the TRIGA nuclear reactor. A small and inherently safe nuclear reaction used throughout the world in hospitals and universities. Inherently safe? Isn’t that another of Dyson’s preposterous and groundless claims? No, ‘inherently safe’ is true and a great many of these small reactors are very usefully employed in the real world. Look it up.

    Moreover Dyson first formally studied climate science in 1979. I think he knows a thing or two about climate models. Climate models figure very importantly into the argument that he makes and that’s objected to here.

    I generally listen when Dyson has something to say.

    Finally Dyson almost always says of these ideas “I think this is an idea worth considering”.