Climate

NYT magazine profiles climate confusionist, Freeman Dyson, and lets him slander James Hansen — while Revkin gives Dyson’s nuttiness a free pass

Shame on the New York Times Magazine for publishing an extended, largely favorable profile of Freeman Dyson, a true climate confusionist.

Shame on them for printing his scientifically unjustifiable slanders of the country’s leading climate scientist, James Hansen, even while conceding Hansen “could turn out to be right” — which is the same thing as Dyson admitting that if anybody actually listens to him, we might end up destroying a livable climate for a thousand years.

UPDATE: And shame on the NYT‘s top climate science reporter, Andy Revkin, for promoting this piece on his blog (here) with not a single criticism of Dyson’s numerous anti-scientific statements and smears (see below). I call on Revkin to retract his absurdly indefensible assertion that “On climate, Mr. Dyson may be right….” (see full quote at end).

Freeman Dyson is a theoretical physicist who has always been kind of loopy. 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!

More recently he joined the famous confusionist camp with Bill Gray (and, formerly, Michael Crichton). He started asserting stuff directly at odds with the actual scientific evidence, like “There is no doubt that parts of the world are getting warmer, but the warming is not global.”

And Dyson started proposing outlandish “solutions” (see Freeman Dyson and his amazing, incredible ‘genetically engineered carbon-eating trees’):

I consider it likely that we shall have “genetically engineered carbon-eating trees” within twenty years, and almost certainly within fifty years.

Carbon-eating trees could convert most of the carbon that they absorb from the atmosphere into some chemically stable form and bury it underground. Or they could convert the carbon into liquid fuels and other useful chemicals. Biotechnology is enormously powerful, capable of burying or transforming any molecule of carbon dioxide that comes into its grasp…. If one quarter of the world’s forests were replanted with carbon-eating varieties of the same species, the forests would be preserved as ecological resources and as habitats for wildlife, and the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would be reduced by half in about fifty years.

Oh, well, replacing 25% of existing trees with imaginary genetically-engineered carbon-eating trees will solve the problem. Why didn’t anyone point this out before? It certainly would’ve saved me a lot of time.

Wait, I can improve his idea. It’s obviously too risky to take the carbon and “bury it underground.” What if it leaked? Let’s put the carbon on rocket ships powered by nuclear bombs. That way we can be sure the carbon won’t ever return to our atmosphere.

And still the NYT gives this guy star status, while conceding in the first paragraph:

There is the suspicion that, at age 85, a great scientist of the 20th century is no longer just far out, he is far gone — out of his beautiful mind.

Well, many people never thought he was a great scientist [Update — “outside of his very narrow realm of theoretical physics,”] but it is increasingly hard to argue with this basic sentiment.

But then the NYT lets him a rant and rave on anything he wants to:

“The person who is really responsible for this overestimate of global warming is Jim Hansen. He consistently exaggerates all the dangers.”

I guess if you’re 85 you can just say whatever you want without any evidence, and the NYT will publish it because, hey, you might be out of your beautiful mind. The fact that Dyson is unaware of the extensive scientific literature by climate scientists other than Hansen on the extreme danger posed to human civilization by global warming (see here) is just another example of Dyson’s Hansen-obsessed loopiness.

But how could a serious journalist or his editor slap the headline “The Civil Heretic” on this slander-fest? There is nothing civil about Dyson at all.

Hansen has turned his science into ideology. He’s a very persuasive fellow and has the air of knowing everything. He has all the credentials. I have none. I don’t have a Ph.D. He’s published hundreds of papers on climate. I haven’t. By the public standard he’s qualified to talk and I’m not. But I do because I think I’m right. I think I have a broad view of the subject, which Hansen does not. I think it’s true my career doesn’t depend on it, whereas his does. I never claim to be an expert on climate. I think it’s more a matter of judgement than knowledge.”

These are the most uncivil, unjustified ravings.

[Note to NYT, Dyson: If you look up “air of knowing everything” in the dictionary, it has a picture of Dyson, not Hansen. Hansen is an uber-modest guy, as anyone who has met him will attest.]

Let’s remember that just this year the American Meteorological Society awarded the country’s top climate scientist its highest honor, the 2009 Carl-Gustaf Rossby Research Medal: “For outstanding contributions to climate modeling, understanding climate change forcings and sensitivity, and for clear communication of climate science in the public arena.”

But the NYT lets Dyson actually accuse Hansen of exaggerating the science and turning it into ideology because his “career” depends on it. The smearing of the motives of real scientific experts by phony ones makes Dyson a clear victim of anti-science syndrome (ASS).

And it just goes on and on:

… “the climate is actually improving rather than getting worse,” because carbon acts as an ideal fertilizer promoting forest growth and crop yields.

Except that ain’t happening. Quite the reverse (see “Science: Global warming is killing U.S. trees, a dangerous carbon-cycle feedback” and “Climate-Driven Pest Devours N. American Forests” and “Nature on stunning new climate feedback: Beetle tree kill releases more carbon than fires“).

But that’s the beauty of being an 85-year-old theoretical physicist with no training or publications in climate science — you don’t have to concern yourself with the facts.

“Most of the evolution of life occurred on a planet substantially warmer than it is now,” he contends, “and substantially richer in carbon dioxide.”

Well, yes. Of course, sea levels were 250 feet higher back then. But Dyson says not to worry:

Sea levels, he says, are rising steadily, but why this is and what dangers it might portend “cannot be predicted until we know much more about its causes.”

Seriously. Yes, some people actually once thought this guy was smart.

Note to Dyson: Sea levels are rising because the planet is getting hotter, causing the water to expand and the land-locked ice to melt and/or flow rapidly into the oceans. Those are the “causes.” Duh. Either read the scientific literature or shut up. Start here: Startling new sea level rise research: “Most likely” 0.8 to 2.0 meters by 2100.

You can read more debunking of Dyson here.

But I can’t stomach wasting any more time on this.

Shame on the NYT, shame on the reporter, Nicholas Dawidoff, for publishing this crap for millions to read and possibly think is credible.

Double shame for this — Media stunner: When asked “Does it matter, from a journalistic point of view, whether [Freeman Dyson is] right or whether he’s wrong?” his NYT profiler replies “Oh, absolutely not.”

Let me give the last word to our nation’s top climate scientist (see James Hansen: “Coal is the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet”).

How can [the public] distinguish top-notch science and pseudoscience — the words sound the same? Leaders have no excuse….

Precisely. I would just change one word here — “leaders” could just as easily be “journalists.”

If journalists abandon the role of distinguishing science from pseudoscience, world-renowned and widely published experts from crackpots, how can the public ever become informed?

UPDATE: The NYT‘s Andy Revkin has blogged on Dyson with the too-clever-by-half headline “Some Inconvenient Thinkers.” Presumably he means to imply that Dyson — who pretty much makes up stuff that has no basis whatsoever in actual science — is just another side of the same coin as Nobelist Al Gore, who, of course, works very hard to understand what the science says and communicate it accurately (see Unstaining Al Gore’s good name 2: He is not “guilty of inaccuracies and overstatements” and is owed a correction and apology by the New York Times).

Stunningly, Revkin actually writes:

On climate, Mr. Dyson may be right or wrong, and pretty much admits that.

It is one thing for the puff-piece profilers at the NYT magazine to give the eccentric Dr. Dyson a forum and a free pass to say whatever anti-scientific nonsense comes into his head at the moment — but if the top climate science reporter for the entire New York Times thinks “Dyson may be right,” then may be the newspaper should simply dump their entire climate-reporting staff and start from scratch.

Note to Andy: You have simply gone too on this one. I call on you to retract that statement.

This post has been updated.

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74 Responses to NYT magazine profiles climate confusionist, Freeman Dyson, and lets him slander James Hansen — while Revkin gives Dyson’s nuttiness a free pass

  1. John Mashey says:

    This is a sad case, givejn that Dyson is certainly brilliant. If he had clearly done his homework and were participating in real science discussions (rather than OpEd-equivalent), he might actually contriibute, as *informed* gadflies can be valuable.

    But it is strange that in dissing simulations, he doesn’t go spend more time with GFDL, which is just a few miles away.

    FInally, note that he is on Heartland’s “experts” list, which is really sad, i.e., assuming he approved this. If so, let us not forget that Heartland does its best to help tobacco companies, has long been funded by such, and that their business plans utterly depend on addicting teenagers while their brains are developing, sicne that’s waht it usually takes to craete permanent customers. Sigh.

  2. Rick C says:

    Perhaps it explains why the NYT is in such financial trouble. When they foist faux journalists like Jayson Blair who fabricated stories and Judith Miller who helped fabricate weapons of mass destruction (wmds) in Iraq and participated in revealing the identity of a CIA operative who finds real wmds and not fictional ones because her husband called the Bush administration on their foundation of lies.

    Oh well, guess another shame compaign is in order. Shall we proceed then.

  3. lgcarey says:

    Joe
    “The fact that Hansen is unaware of the extensive scientific literature by climate scientists other than Hansen” I think there’s a typo there and you intended to say that “Dyson is unaware”.
    Regards.

    [JR: Thanks!]

  4. Gail says:

    I have had more than one discussion on this topic with my significant other who happens to be a free-market true-believer; don’t ask, it’s weird, but we are in love.

    I subscribe to the NYRB, he reads it in the bathroom and comes out saying things like, Freeman Dyson says it’s not so bad – so there!

    And I say, he’s an old man who wants to die in peace.

    Dying knowing your children and their children are going to live in hell is not fun.

  5. Harrier says:

    Wait, this isn’t the Dyson Sphere fellow, is it?

  6. Aaron d says:

    I particularly enjoy this quote in the article,

    “The warming, he says, is not global but local, “making cold places warmer rather than making hot places hotter.”

    Does this make any sense to anyone? What amazing scientific experiences was he tapping when he thought this up?

  7. Aaron d says:

    Sorry, I had to post another quote, I can’t get over how poor the judgement was by the journalist. He writes, “Science is not a matter of opinion; it is a question of data. Climate change is an issue for which Dyson is asking for more evidence, and leading climate scientists are replying by saying if we wait for sufficient proof to satisfy you, it may be too late.”

    Yet this whole article stakes claims vastly contradicting the science and offers nothing but the word of a well known scientist (who doesn’t do any work on climate science) to substantiate those claims. I can’t help but think how many people will be reading this and thinking, that Freeman is just like Galileo, going against the scientific consensus.

  8. lgcarey says:

    Harrier, yes, it is the Dyson spheres guy. It was a whole lot more fun reading his outlandish speculations when they related to physics and cosmology — rather than speculating wildly on an issue with actual real-life risks on a planetary scale (wherein our subject opines at length on a highly technical field, whilst apparently unencumbered by either facts or expertise).

  9. I would echo John Mashey’s comments – it’s kind of sad that a brilliant physicist has chosen to go off the rails in the twilight of his life.

    That said, you might want to read his son’s book on Project Orion before launching into a tirade about it. From an engineering point of view, powering a rocket with nuclear bombs is a whole lot less silly than you make it out to be.

  10. nepacific says:

    The problem isn’t that the article was written as a magazine human interest piece, but that there was no real discussion of his case or of the case against him. That’s how he got that ridiculous free ride. One comes away thinking that he wishes global warming weren’t so because doing anything about it would punish the Third World more than the First. Not a very scientific attitude.

  11. Joe B says:

    Climate Change is a SLOW MOTION NUCLEAR BOMB

  12. Who is the author?

    From Wikepedia:
    Baseball, a life long passion of Dawidoff’s (he played until a knee injury sophomore year at Harvard), is a main theme and common subject of much of his writing.

    Perfect credentials for a science writer. The MSM has never had a clue with respect to science.

  13. Lou Grinzo says:

    This is beyond sad.

    How much harder will it be to take serious action on climate chaos with this kind of nonsense being pushed on people by “the paper of record”, no less? The Times should be deeply ashamed of itself. In fact, it should be the lead candidate for this year’s George Will-ful Deceit Award. (The Washington Post and the original Will columns aren’t eligible.)

    If you really want to depress yourself, set a Google alert for “global warming”, and see how many op-eds turn up every week in American newspapers saying that “global warming is a hoax” and making a list of mind-blowing and obviously false assertions.

    There are days I want to give up the fight and sit in a corner and weep.

  14. mitchell porter says:

    “it’s kind of sad that a brilliant physicist has chosen to go off the rails in the twilight of his life.”

    It’s the traditional thing to do.

  15. risa b says:

    Another possible typo: for “you have gone too” read “you have gone too far”?

    I have said this here before and a year later I still think: Revkin, or his editor, or someone there, is a concern troll. The Miller business was well thought of in this context.

    We may have to carry on without the NYT …

  16. Andrew says:

    Very sad to hear that Dyson has turned his back on science. And very frustrating that the media is so often unable/unwilling to distinguish between intelligent scientific disagreement and blatant disinformation.

    However, I do feel the swipe at the Dyson & the ‘Orion project’ is undeserved. A workable design to build an interstellar spacecraft capable of travelling at 10% of light-speed with 1950s/60s technology was a brilliant accomplishment. And of course, it wasn’t that crazy of an idea in the 50s when we were doing atmoshperic nuclear tests anyways. Besides, in principle it could be built in orbit, sparing earth from any fallout.

  17. A workable design

    You’re kidding, right? Get this, America now intends to conquer space with an inline SRB, I kid you not. It doesn’t get any more crackpot than the Ares I.

  18. onymous says:

    “Many people never thought he was a great scientist” and “always been kind of loopy” is a bit harsh; in the late 40s/early 50s he was one of the major contributors to the development of QED, a cornerstone of modern physics. (Feynman, Schwinger, and Tomonaga deserve more credit than Dyson, and arguably Bethe does as well, but Dyson’s role was significant.) Since then he’s done a few other things with wide applications, like random matrix theory.

    I think of him in a similar way to how I think of Roger Penrose: indisputably ranked as a great scientist on the basis of work they did when young, but always a bit more mathematically-minded than interested in the real world, and going progressively more off the rails as they get older.

    With Dyson there’s also the problem that he’s tiny, wizened, and frail-looking, which can make one a bit reluctant to forcefully tell him that he’s saying stupid things….

  19. onymous says:

    “interested in the real world” was the wrong phrasing; they’re both interested in it, but come up with things that resemble science fiction more than real science. Both made their biggest contributions in more mathematical/formal things that were better applied to reality by other people building on their work.

  20. Diplodocus says:

    Saying something like “many people never thought he was a great scientist” is akin to saying “many people think global warming isn’t real.” Even when technically true, using defensive hyperbole to attack Dyson’s claims only reinforces his issue with climate change defenders that they are often dogmatic zealots. If you read the whole article and know a bit more about Dyson’s misgivings, he is not one of the loonies or conservative ideologues who try to undermine environmentalism with some ulterior motive and no scruples. He believes global warming is real, he thinks only that the dimensions of climate change as a “crisis” are overblown, and limiting attention on more immediate global issues that Dyson cares about.

    Considering his opinions as some kind of betrayal of science is also a bit disingenuous. It’s much more reasonable to assume that his concerns are legitimate, but at least as likely to be trivial as it is for climate change to be exaggerated. That is, it’s more an epistemological matter than one of true subversion or ignorance. He’s not playing the role of Intelligent Design theorist, saying that global warming is wrong because science is wrong. He’s only suggesting that we don’t know enough to conclude the things we do resolutely, and therefore, even though the risks of doing so are tremendous, we shouldn’t treat it as an indisputable crisis. In the long run, if the climate change experts are right, Dyson’s efforts will only have helped strengthen their resolve and encouraged further, more thorough analysis. His suggestion that it’s POSSIBLY not as bad as we think isn’t the kind of heresy anyone here should be up in arms about.

    Science isn’t a game of irreconcilable ideologies where the proponents of one side of an issue need to ruthlessly discredit the other side in order to survive. If people disagree, keep working until one side’s view is rendered impossible by data (not just improbable) or both are reconciled inclusively. Please believe that Dyson isn’t incompetently opposed to climate progress, irrespective of the moral and ecological consequences. If he thought that there was a high likelihood of the worst-case scenarios offered by the likes of An Inconvenient Truth, he would be all over the world in favor. So, rather than trash talking a respectable guy whose views differ than yours (even in the face of mountains of data), try instead to convince him. He has led by example in the practice of admitting mistakes and coming around when the evidence is sufficiently convincing, and doing so would be the kind of victory that puts a nail in the coffin for other dissenters.

  21. Bob Wallace says:

    I read the Times piece before this blog entry. It’s a very interesting writeup about a very interesting person. Worth a few minutes of people’s time, I suspect.

    I came away with the impression that Dyson is more interested in playing the role of Devil’s advocate than that of a true denier.

    And that the author/editorial staff chose to push the denier aspect to increase readership. Understandable in these days of dying newspapers.

    Now that the majority of Americans believe that global warming is occurring, could cause us significant problems in the not too distant future, and we should be spending money on preventing the worst possible outcome would it not be better to spend more time on solutions?

    I want to read about where we are in making the grid smart, how we’re doing with installation of renewables, the latest development of dry rock geothermal and wave/tidal generation, etc.

  22. Alex says:

    If material like this results in more destructive delay, I hope it will all be available in an archive for future citizens (at least those clinging to a reasonable quality of life) to read. So they can see how utterly stupid many people of the early 21st century were to be fooled by convenient nonsense and climatic snake oil.

  23. Dan B says:

    Dear Bob Wallace;

    I’d like to read about the smart grid as well.

    How are we going to get there when America’s largest businesses are torpedoing Cap and Trade, Cap and Invest, and Cap and Dividend legislation.

    How will human civilization survive?

    Dear Gail;

    I agree. It’s a challenge being married to a free-market-true believer, or someone who thinks we don’t dare disturb anyone.

    Is the world we leave children full of promise or terrifyingly difficult challenges? I feel more certain that it’s more dire and terrifying with every day’s news, at least the news from scientists.

    Keep asking great questions!

  24. The real journalistic milestone will be when the NYTimes reports on the extensive media manipulation by the carbon fuel industry. Wait, you did this about a year ago.

    Newsprint is no longer the record that it once was.

  25. Bob Wallace says:

    Gail, wondering if your believer really believes in absolutely free markets.

    For example, does he believe that we should allow monopolies?

    Comfortable with every business in the US owned by one single person or one corporation?

    How about taking all the controls off the security and banking industries and leaving all his investments/savings at risk?

    Doing away with FDA controls on the meds he takes and let the market sort out the problems of ineffective/harmful products?

  26. Evan says:

    Wow…hysterical personal attacks on 85 year olds who have done significantly more in their lives than you have are not a good way to endear yourself to readers who are on the fence.

    [JR: Uhh, what has he done? And where is the hysteria? And, uhh, I don’t think you are on the “fence.”]

  27. jorleh says:

    This Revkin is a dangerous chap for our species. Millions of readers? You are right: NYT must take back his words. It would be fine for our survival if he would leave his “writing” altogether.

  28. Gail says:

    Evan, Joe isn’t hysterical. Indignant perhaps, and rightly so. It’s terribly unfortunate that Dyson has the credibility to command attention in publications like the NYT and the NYRB, because when it comes to climate change, he is utterly fatuous. And Revkin, who doesn’t have the excuse of being feeble, is despicably complicit in the dangerous propagation of Dyson’s ramblings.

    Bob, I can’t explain my believer’s free-market devotion, because it doesn’t make any sense to me!

  29. red says:

    “It doesn’t get any more crackpot than the Ares I.”

    Amusingly enough, the Ares I is being designed to launch a spacecraft named …. you guessed it, Orion.

    I’m not an engineer, so I don’t know how feasible the design of Ares I or Orion are. I do know that they’re controversial. I also know they’re expected to cost up to $50B dollars … which gets us a government capsule to get astronauts to the ISS about 6-8 years (assuming no big delays) after the Shuttle is retired to compete with U.S. commercial rockets/capsules being built to do the same thing (eg: by Tesla Motors’ leader, who is already working on ISS cargo and estimates he needs $300M to do the job for crew) or that could be used to do the same thing (eg: a new capsule on existing rockets with launch escape added for crew safety). Then there’s the cost to fly them, to build the bigger-than-Saturn-5 Ares 5, and so on. That’s planned to be over $100B, just for the transportation system.

    What does this have to do with Climate Progress, other than adding to TLE’s post, and discussing an area of interest of Freeman Dyson (and certainly his daughter Esther Dyson, NYT columnist and Huffington Post writer, commercial space investor, and backup for MS Word’s Charles Simonyi on the next “tourist” flight to the International Space Station)?

    Well, if NASA spends over $100B on rockets, capsule, and lunar lander over the next decade or so, that means $100B that won’t be spent on Earth observation/climate monitoring satellites, Sun monitoring satellites (imortant information for climate study and protection of distributed power grids), planetary science probes that study atmospheres and climate of other planets, aviation fuel efficiency, efficient closed-loop life support systems for astronauts (i.e. recycling), efficient power-use systems for spacecraft and satellites, satellite investigation of Earth features related to energy (wind patterns, solar flux and cloud coverage, geothermal potential, tide patterns, hydrological data), satellite monitoring of disasters like oil spills, GISS style analysis of such satellite data, etc.

    On top of all of that, the rockets are so expensive that they’re almost no money left to do anything with the Moon (their destination) besides the rockets … so we’ll likely be left with an Apollo do-over or slight augmentation rather than an industrial-scale use of the Moon’s resources that’s on a scale that can deliver useful economic, environmental, energy, and science benefits to us.

    The question is … will Obama support Bush’s and former NASA Administrator Griffin’s expensive Ares rockets that take funding from so many useful NASA space efforts?

  30. lgcarey says:

    Ecostew has put up an important link. Whilst Andy Revkin is busy rounding up discussion of climate-change denying eccentrics, Fred Pearce in the New Scientist is actually doing reporting – in this case on the cutting edge of a really pressing issue, permafrost melting in the Arctic and the related release of CO2 and methane.

  31. Josh Kaplowitz says:

    To Bob Wallace: I think you are trying to say that spending time and effort debunking the deniers is a waste of time and effort that we should be spending arriving at a solution. My response would be that we will have a hard time passing the legislation and regulations that will be required to enable a solution (think WWII-style mobilization) when at least 40% of this country thinks that global warming is exaggerated/a myth/no big deal/too far into the future/etc. Like it or not, the mainstream media still has a huge influence on public opinion. Keeping them honest is a critical part of turning the tide, putting the dangers of global warming on EVERYONE’s radar, and electing representatives who are climate realists.

  32. lgcarey says:

    Shoshin,
    Can’t speak for others, but I would really appreciate it if someone would come up with credible peer-reviewed scientific research indicating that AGW is not as big a deal as it appears to be – I have a lot of other stuff I’d rather spend time on, if I don’t need to worry about AGW. But, as far as I can tell nobody has been able to produce credible evidence to that effect. While science benefits greatly from well executed replicable research that suggests the need for rethinking widely held beliefs — that’s NOT what Dyson is doing. Dyson isn’t engaging in the scientific process on this issue in the least. He is just a formerly famous old guy opining willy-nilly on a field entirely outside his expertise, throwing up a bunch of random and sometimes inconsistent speculations, who could care less about anything as mundane as doing research or reading other people’s research or even facts.

  33. Michael Morrison says:

    The fundamental argument made by Freeman Dyson is that while he thinks Jim Hansen may wind up being right, Dyson does not think we have enough evidence to be certain. He further says that we should not act now with any urgency because he thinks the cost of doing so is extremely high.

    While I do not share his view that we are uncertain, if we accept this premise for the sake of further analysis, we are evaluating the relative costs and risks of two courses of action: rapid action; and not-so-rapid action.

    Dyson asserts that action will be costly. Considered strictly on a conventional economic basis, this is demonstrably false. The economic and security benefits of energy performance and renewable supply have been observed and documented over and over by a diverse range of evaluators from the American Physical Society to the Rocky Mountain Institute to the McKinsey Group, and demonstrated on a grand scale by the oil shocks of the 1970s and the price spike of 2008. All show that investment in energy performance is profitable, costing two to five times less than the energy it saves. Further, the investment is largely spent locally and thus remains in our economy rather than draining our wealth.

    The bet that Dyson is asking us to make is to risk the potential for catastrophic losses from climate disruption in order to avoid rapidly making a profit through a vigorous effort to increase energy performance and renewable supply. If we act with the urgency that many of us think is needed and we are wrong about climate disruption, we will have run a sprint towards a more profitable and cleaner world, and there will be a large group of us that will be publicly roasting our hats for dinner. If we are right, we will have salvaged civilization from disaster and pass on to our children the love and dreams that our predecessors passed on to us. I choose the chance at a fedorra entree.

  34. MarkO says:

    A tip of my hat to Dyson. Way to ignore the facts and ‘go with your gut.’

  35. Ashutosh says:

    While I agree with you about Dyson on climate change, his speculative work has not been as absurd as it appears. Many quite reasonable scientists were on Project Orion. Stanislaw Ulam and Ted Taylor both were serious about the concept. Also, the NYT does not just mention Dyson’s climate change work while that seems to be the primary focus. Dyson has done outstanding work in many field of science; there is not a scientific soul who would deny his contributions to quantum electrodynamics, to origin of life theories or to adaptive optics.

    Also as someone mentioned above, Dyson is not another Inhofe or right-wing ideologue. You may vehemently disagree with him but he thinks about his opinions before enunciating them (something that they sloppy journalist failed to emphasize). For instance see his detailed review and related thoughts about three books on mitigating global warming; they are nothing if well-thought out, even if you may think they miss the point:

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/21494

    I think you are being unnecessarily flippant in calling Dyson a “crackpot”. Now Inhofe, he is definitely one.

    The point is to have people around who come up with lots of bold ideas. Even if many of them turn out to be unreasonable, damning the expression of such ideas does not do science a service. For instance Dyson’s friend Thomas Gold was also known for “crackpot” ideas (including the steady state theory). Yet many of his ideas including the heretical theory that fossil fuels have an abiogenic origin are now being taken seriously.

  36. Ashutosh says:

    “Well, many people never thought he was a great scientist”

    Absolutely untrue. Hans Bethe himself said that Dyson was his most outstanding student, Steven Weinberg says the Nobel committee really shot themselves in the foot by denying him a prize. It’s sad to see that your loathing of Dyson’s views on climate change has clouded your general perception of his achievements.

    [JR: Let me clarify, many people never thought he was a great scientist outside of his very narrow realm of theoretical physics. I don’t “loathe” his views — I merely have successfully demonstrated that they are anti-scientific and have driven him to slander our top climate scientist. But, for the record again, many scientists and others have thought that much of his work outside of the realm of theoretical physics has been useless and increasingly counterproductive.]

  37. Lars says:

    Joe, I think all this ‘shame on’ this and that is becoming shrill and boring, and reflects more on you than on NYT. Newspapers should be forums of debate and differing views, a place the readers can meet interesting, different and controversiel people, even crackpots, as you put it.

    As a newspaper reporter I take offence to you shaming the times for writing a pretty thoughtful and interesting portrait of a man, and shaming Andy for directing other people to the piece.

    Different criteria applies to portraits than to hard hitting news, as any journalist knows.

    The notion that newspapers should only allow room to people they agree with is just wrong.

    Best, Lars

  38. Dano says:

    lgcarey:

    Desdemona Despair is a good compiler for such stories.

    Best,

    D

  39. Evan says:

    JR: Did you seriously just ask what Freeman Dyson has done? Enough to earn a Lorentz medal and a Max Planck medal, and enough for Steven Weinberg to think he deserved a Nobel prize for his work. I called the tone “hysterical” because you allowed your vehement disagreement with him regarding climate change to color your assessment of Dyson’s many accomplishments. Perhaps it wasn’t the right word. And I never said I was on the fence.

    [I have a Ph.D. in physics, so I am quite well aware of his contribution to theoretical physics. Everything else he has done outside of the realm of theoretical physics has been, I argue, either pie in the sky or, increasingly, unscientific. I await someone to dispute that. I can’t imagine why anybody would think that someone who was a theoretical physicist would be qualified to opine on areas far, far from their expertise — especially when they haven’t bothered to review even the basic literature.]

  40. Gail says:

    I am so tempted to say, Evan, shut up. We have tried to be polite to you, to little avail!

  41. Gail says:

    Dave, you do not know Hansen. He is driven by a couple of thiings. One, is a love of science. Two, is he would really, really, like his grandchildren to have a decent life in a benevolent world.

    At the rate we (those of us land-owners in the US) are going to (COULD you possibly bother to read the science on it?) his grandchildren, and mine, and yours, will be soon faced with HORRIBLE things, like, billions of climate refugees from extreme weather and rising seas, pounding at their doors. Do you think that the fabric of society will withstand that?

    History is full of desperation that leads to things like the guillotine, and cannibalism. These aren’t figments of the imagination. They are what happens when people are frantic for food and water.

    Your family as well as mine is going to face this prospect.

    Get with it.

  42. Gardenplot says:

    A recent paper by Frank Ackerman, “The Economics of Collapsing Markets,” (http://www.paecon.net/PAEReview/issue48/whole48.pdf) outlines a risk-mitigation model that applies to financial markets as well as to climate challenges. Citing recent work by the economist Martin Weitzman, Ackerman asserts that “[i]n a situation with unlimited worst-case risks but limited information about their likelihood,…the expected value of reducing the worst-case risks is, technically speaking, infinite. In other words, nothing else matters except risk reduction, focused on the credible worst case.”
    According to Ackerman, the prospect that global warming will entail a seven-metre rise in sea-level is a risk “far too ominous to take any chances with trial and error.”
    Accordingly, it is the height or irresponsibility for Freeman Dyson to go on public record with his diversionary speculations, at a time when the entire world has to somehow mobilize in accordance with the precautionary principle to avert the worst-case scenario.

  43. Danny Bloom says:

    Wait a minute, Joe. It’s still a free country over there, right? And newspapers print all kinds of stories, some we like and some we dislike. Just ignore this silly Dyson profile and get on with your work. Calling for retractions is not the right way to go about this. Joe?

    Imagine if the Times Sunday mag had done a 12 page profile of James Lovelock, the strikingly eccentric and right-on visionary of Gaiai? Most readers would have called foul and written in to protest the Times giving space to “that idiot from Cornwall”. Even though, Lovelock is spot on correct and Dyson is silly man.

    Relax, Joe. Don’t call for retractions. Call for “polar cities”. In two years of trying to email you and reach you, you have never once bothered to email me back and even say boo. What’s up with that, Joe? You only talk with VIPs?

    You still got a lot to learn, Mr Romm!

    Cheers,

    Danny BLoom
    “James Lovelock’s Accidental Student” (google it)

  44. Bob Wallace says:

    “To Bob Wallace: I think you are trying to say that spending time and effort debunking the deniers is a waste of time and effort that we should be spending arriving at a solution.”

    Josh, I think we’ve won the war of making the public understand that global warming is a major problem and things must be done and done now.

    We should continue to do cleanup work when crackpots put nonsense into the discourse, but I’m suggesting that it’s now time to put more information about solutions into people’s hands.

    What people need is a road map on how to get from where we are to where we need to be.

    People need some hope that we can get there.

  45. Woodweird says:

    “Enough to earn a Lorentz medal and a Max Planck medal”

    Let’s also not forget the prestigious Enrico Fermi medal. I also remember meeting an astronomer who thought Dyson’s work on adaptive optics in telescopes was quite impressive. In any case, he is definitely a great scientist and writer but climate science is not his field.

  46. Roy says:

    Joe, Thanks for covering this disgusting episode.

    1. Yes crackpot is exactly the right term. Though “dangerous crackpot” is
    even better.

    2. re “Different criteria applies to portraits than to hard hitting news” A one meter of sea level is hard hitting I’m sure. What if this soft and interesting portrait applied to a Holocaust denier? An advocate against condoms? All still cute?

    3. The lives of billions of people hang in the balance. Joe knows that. But seems many casual readers just can’t be bothered to think it through.

  47. Jeffrey S says:

    The crazy old coot meant to say algae not trees,

    ScienceDaily (Mar. 25, 2009) — Chemists reported development of what they termed the first economical, eco-friendly process to convert algae oil into biodiesel fuel — a discovery they predict could one day lead to U.S. independence from petroleum as a fuel

    And until the eco-warriors realize that the hysterics are counter-productive they are doing more damage the all the skeptics combined. For all the talk a machinations you can’t even slow the rate of increase let alone reverse it. The ONLY way to REDUCE co2 is technology + economics, whether “franken trees”, ocean fertilizing or algea-to-fuel. Treaty’s and “caps” are a joke, unless your idea of “carbon sequestration” is burying a hundred million dollars in Al Gore’s bank account? If so job well done…

    .

  48. Orson says:

    “He started asserting stuff directly at odds with the actual scientific evidence, like ‘There is no doubt that parts of the world are getting warmer, but the warming is not global’…..”

    THE IMPUDENCE of Dyson! Hang him!

    But speaking as an environmental scientist myself, perhaps there is is scientific evidence that catastrophic global warming is neither global, nor catastrophic, nor even – for certain time-spans – “warming.”

    I mean there could actually be evidence out there that contradicts the Church of Gloom and Dooms….

    Well, then again…NAH!

  49. Aaron d says:

    OT:
    Danny,
    The Gaia hypothesis is a questioned theory in itself. Look up Peter Ward and the “media hypothesis.” Personally I find this theory much plausible.

  50. Tom Yulsman says:

    Let’s string together the strong words from Romm’s post, one after the other as they appear:

    shame; slanders; shame; shame; smears; absurdly indefensible; loopy; famous crackpot camp; outlandish; crackpot; rant and rave; loopiness; slander-fest; uncivil, unjustified ravings; crackpots. (Joe: Did I catch them all?)

    As others have pointed out, this childish behavior is not the most effective way to influence people, let alone make friends. And it undercuts the sensible things Romm may have to say.

  51. mandolin wind says:

    Thanks to the (too rare) voices of reason in these posts. For others, you might want to read Dyson’s article in the New York Review of Books
    ( http://www.nybooks.com/articles/21494 ), especially his point about “the ancient motto of the Royal Society, Nullius in Verba, which means, ‘Nobody’s word is final.’ ”

    This aphorism is variously attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt or Hyman Rickover:

    “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.”

    Pick one.

  52. bjacobson says:

    Joe, I rather enjoyed the Dyson profile and found his criticism of Hansen mild compared to the invective in this post. By all means refute Dyson’s ideas, and stay on top of the Times, but this is too shrill.

    [JR: I rest my case. The fact that you enjoyed the Dyson profile shows how poisonous it is. I doubt you would have liked it so much if Dyson were pushing intelligent design or eugenics. But the fact that you found his criticism mild is rather surprising. I guess you aren’t a scientist who has been accused by another scientist of exaggerating your work because your career depends on it. That I would say is probably among the harshest criticisms any scientist can be accused of. Scientists are wrong all the time, of course, although Hansen has been right for three decades, longer than anyone else, whereas Dyson has arguably never been right about anything since he stopped doing advanced theoretical physics. But it is one thing to be accused of having made mistakes. It is another in science to be accused of twisting your science because you lack personal ethics.]

  53. Joe Lamb says:

    I am a fan of Dyson, but think that he has gone off the deep end on science fiction cures to global warming. Trees, and other plants, do ‘eat’ carbon. Some ecosystems, like tropical peat forests, have stored mega tons of carbon over thousand year time frames. How long would it take to genetically engineer an ecosystem as efficient as the ones that we are destroying?
    http://www.theburningseasonmovie.com/indonesian-deforestation/peat-lands/p/110

    Nuclear fusion could give us all the energy we need, but, in spite of billions of dollars and many brilliant people working night and day for decades, that promise has yet to cross over from science fiction into the real world. Unfortunately, global warming is taking place at a rate that doesn’t allow for too much wishful thinking. I’m not against dreaming and research on technological fixes, but they should include realistic time scales, and they should not be presented as pie in the sky reasons for massive conservation and restoration efforts.

  54. Joe Lamb says:

    My apologies: I wrote the previous post in haste and the last sentence should read
    “…and they should not be presented as pie in the sky reasons for not undertaking massive conservation and restoration efforts.” Sorry about the hasty post.

  55. Al says:

    And why would I not trust Freeman Dyson more than yourself, a blogger?

    [JR: Science ain’t about trust.]

  56. Tom says:

    While there are many climate “crackpots” out there, who are out trying to push an ideology with little regard to reality, Freeman Dyson is not one of those people. I feel that he has been unfairly lumped in with this crowd because he simply raised the possibility that climate change will not lead to armageddon. Is that such a wrong thought to have? This uproar over people raising the possibility that we actually don’t know everything strongly reeks of a religion- a religion of science. Science is not designed to be the solution, it is merely designed to help explain the mysteries of the world around us. The world around each of us is strongly influenced by that individual within us and how we view the world. Climate change will not be the end of humankind, it will have profoundly different effects on different people and different creatures- depending on where they are and how they interact with the world. Freeman Dyson has spent his life thinking about interactions among creatures and the world, leading to some incredible discoveries and ideas. Just because some of these ideas may seem ludicrous to you or us, does not mean he is wrong to have these ideas nor does it mean he is wrong to suggest that maybe there is more (or less) to this whole climate thing than we think. As humans, we have a remarkable ability to think and manipulate things, as evidenced by the incredible array of technology and philosophies around us today. Every time impending doom has been forecast, we have figured out ways to adapt, otherwise we would not be here today. What we need more of today is more ideas, and more thinking about our world instead of this driven focus on progress and results. “Results” are merely a byproduct of ideas and experimentation, and trying to squash an idea merely reflects a tunnel-driven agenda trying to promote a singular idea and goal- what many might refer to as religion. So what if there are still other opinions about climate change that differ from yours, whoever is right does not actually matter. What matters is that as a collective society, we are able to persist- which will (and only has ever) come from creative thinking and increased awareness of interactions among us all.

  57. Wilson says:

    I think that it really would be for the better if we only allowed the publishing of articles that reinforce that global warming is happening. Think about how awful it would be if people debated it!

    Seriously, you guys lost a lot of your credibility by primarily refuting his credentials and opinions with ad homonym attacks. Crackpot!?!?! Seriously guys… I am a firm believer that global warming is happening, I have to get that out there, but Dyson is remarkably accurate with his description of Global warming as a religion. Anyone who refutes it in anyway the global warming people pounce on them and do things like… call them crackpots.

    Take a second to imagine a way that you could be convinced that global warming doesn’t exist. If you can’t do that then it is actually you who is suffering from “anti-science syndrome (ASS)” because it means that you have stopped thinking.

    I was interested to see that you didn’t even note one of Dyson’s most poignant arguments, that for the third world to rise above where it is now, coal and other fossil fuels may, and probably are necessary. How thoroughly did you actually read about Dyson. Did you simply skim it for things like project Orion (which by the way had the support of dozens of brilliant scientists) in order to defame him?

    Let’s try to do our own thinking, take the data that is available to you and make your own decisions. Any time that someone tells you how you are “supposed” to think you should give them the finger, and take the time to see if they may be right.

    [JR: Dyson doesn’t debate the facts. He asserts his judgment outweighs scientific knowledge. That is what we call religion. He is entitled to his opinions, but it is absurd for the New York Times to give him a platform for his anti-scientific views.]

  58. Does anyone know how I can get in touch with Mr. Dawidoff to ask him some questions about the genesis of this piece?

    I’ve tried asking others to forward my email, which they’ve done, but I haven’t (yet?) gotten a response from him.

    Thanks –
    Anna

  59. Also – any idea why Andy Revkin doesn’t host an “ask the author” session, after a piece like this? Or could someone else (with readership) do this, perhaps?

    If he’s not willing to respond, that’s … odd.

  60. Jerry says:

    I think most of you are missing a key point. One of Dyson’s key criticisms is that he doesn’t think that Hansen is a good scientist. Hansen might be right, he might be wrong, but he’s taken his thinking from the scientific to the religious realm.

    “But Hansen has turned his science into ideology. … I think I have a broad view of the subject, which Hansen does not. I think it’s true my career doesn’t depend on it, whereas his does.”

    This last line is important. When a scientist’s career depends on others buying into a belief, their ability to do good science is diminished.

  61. John Mashey says:

    jerry:
    I’ve met Hansen and talked to him. Have you?

    Among other things, he’s a low-key mid-westerner who grew up in farm country, and as Gail says, cares about his grandchildren, whose pictures he often shows. He’s about as far from “taking science into a religious realm” as I can imagine. His talks are terrifying because he is low-key.

    Being a long-time science fiction fan, I’ve read plenty of stories with Dyson spheres, and of course always thought he was a brilliant theoretical physicist and original thinker.

    However, he seems to revel in being a “heretic”, and of course, such are sometimes right, but the “gone emeritus” syndrome does happen. Fortunately, most of the older scientists I know remain productive for a long time, and don’t go off into other areas and start opining without studying them. See anti-science reasons, from which I conjecture PSYCH-2 and possibly PSYCH-5. He of course cannot really be a heretic since he isn’t a climate scientist.

    Anyway, this is all very sad, as Dyson could actually contribute if he applied his brain to this, but instead seems to snipe from the sidelines, interviews, not in peer-reviewed work. Regarding modeling, GFDL is just a few miles away. [Years ago, I helped design and sell supercomptuers to them.]

    But, Dyson appears to have signed up as a climate expert for Heartland. Sigh.

    1) It is possible they added him to their list without telling him, in which case some friend might let him know.

    2) It is possible that he just doesn’t know what they do.

    3) or, I suppose it is possible that he does, and is happy to lend his considerable prestige to their efforts.

    In either 2) or 3), I observe that he could perfectly well get press coverage without being associated with Heartland (unlike many of the other “global warming experts” listed there.)

    See Heartland tobacco page and Sourcewatch on Heartland.

    I have no problem with adults doing dumb things, but it is far easier to addict people to tobacco if you get them while their brains are developing, i.e., teenage years, because otherwise they have a much better chance of quitting. Tobacco companies have known this for a long time, hence just jolly products as Twista Lime. It’s been ~45 years since “The Surgeon General has determined” and the science was plenty clear. (See Allam M. Brandt’s fine book, “The Cigarette Century”.

    The long-term business of tobacco companies depends on getting teenagers to ignore science and get hooked on a product that will kill many of them painfully.

    Heartland does what it can to help [under the usual guises.]

    It is very sad to see someone like Dyson fall in with folks like this.

  62. barry says:

    As a person who thinks it is reasonable to accept the scientific consensus on climate change, I am also a little disapointed by this article. Freeman Dyson has helped advance science. He has also looked far into the future imagintively, coming up with ideas that seem impossible or outlandish. If he had not wieghed in on the climate change issue, he might be seen as a bright scientist, a brilliant maverick and a whimsical visionary. The above article is a hatchet job of invective and rhetoric. The links to science-based stuff do not resurrect it.

    His ‘crime’ is not to hold these opinons on climate change. His crime is that he is a venerated public fgure and holds these opinons. He’s not a fellow that plays politics so why should he fall into line? I think it is agreed he is not being mendacious, so his main ‘sin’ is ignorance. Which he admits in a way. That’s an open door to a neutral rebuttal.

    He thinks Hansen is an ideologue? Big deal. This line will play well to the uncritical ‘skeptics’. There will be no shift in public consciousness because of Dyson – regardless of which august publication prints his views.

    Dyson’s comments will not diminish political momentum or retard progress on mitigating climate change. Calm rebuttals to his comments would be more effective than this explosion of contempt, not that it would make a great deal of difference.

    Loosen your grip Mr Romm. There’s no need to trash people hither and yon to make your points. As a supporter of action to prevent global warming, I put it to you that you are providing ammunition for denialists while winning no converts with your character assassination.

    1 billion people worldwide just voiced ther concern by switching off their lights. We must remember to be heartened as well as active in pushing the political ball along and doing our own little bit at home. This article doesn’t really help, I think. Rather, it indicates (for the less initiated) that there are some froth-mouthed people on the side of the consensus.

    I wouldn’t have said anything, but that Dyson should be valued for what he is and has done, even if his views don’t concur with ours (necessarily). You go too far, sir. Play the ball, not the man.

  63. John Mashey says:

    barry:
    Without agreeing/disagreeing with your post, I ask a question or two to understand your position:

    of JR’s post and Dyson’s comments, which do you think provide more ammunition for denialists? Specifically, if you were Heartland, which would be more useful?

    And, speaking of Heartland, see the post just previous to yours. I don’t know whether Dyson has actually allowed his named to be used, but if so, what would your opinion be of that? [I.e., Heartland has a long history of anti-science, easily discovered from their website]:

    – tobacco is not that bad; don’t raise taxes, that won’t do any good in stopping kids from smoking anyway.
    – asbestos, mercury, dioxin, lead, etc are not that bad
    – CFC regulation is bad
    – acid rain wasn’t much
    – global warming is alarmism, and has little to do with CO2

    Now, are there/were there exaggerations of the bad effects of some of these? For sure, and they irritate real scientists more than most.

    But Heartland’s emphasis (and its funders, as best as anyone can tell) are those who often privatize the profits, and socialize the costs/risks to others who don’t realize that. I.e., family foundations whose wealth was built on such businesses, tobacco companies, fossil fuel companies, etc. That’s a fairly narrow fraction of the businesses in the US.

    Again, Dyson would get a hearing without Heartland. I just wish he would apply his brains to actually doing something *useful* on this topic:

    a) That models aren’t perfect is no news to anyone who does them or knows anything about modeling. IAS is located a few miles from GFDL, and within 2 hours of NASA GISS in NYC. The famous George E. P. Box is often quoted:

    “Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.”

    b) Dyson isn’t a working plant biologist, many of whom struggle to achieve results far less exotic than carbon-eating plants that lay diamonds (or whatever they are supposed to do to permanently sequester carbon).

    One might read Nina Federoff & Nancy Marie Brown, “Mendel in the Kitchen – A Scientist’s View of Genetically-Modified Foods”, to get an idea of things that are possible, and things that are really hard. Federoff is a senior geneticists & molecular biologist.

    c) I really don’t understand Dyson’s attacks on Hansen, unless there’s some behind-the-scenes interactions not apparent. Attacking somebody out of the blue in a NYTimes interview is *not* how most serious scientists (or other senior people) act when dealing with an area outside their particular expertise.

    Members of the US National Academy of Sciences (like Dyson) can usually manage to get senior scientists to talk to them. Hansen works a few hours away, lives 40 miles from Princeton, so it’s not like he’s that far away.
    Even serious nonscientists go study, talk to scientists, etc: see for example The Education of PG&E’s Peter Darbee.

    Had Dyson said, “I’ve had discussions with Hansen and I disagree with him”, that would be one thing. But he didn’t say that…

  64. Eric says:

    “The indispensable blog” — Tom Friedman, New York Times

    I wonder what Mr. Friedman would have to say about this entry and all of its intimation of ideology based censorship by the press.

    [JR: I can’t speak for him, but he reads the blog and would no doubt complain if he strongly disagreed. You, of course, have the issue completely backwards. The media has lots of discrimination on whom it lavishes cover profiles it major magazines. This piece is an embrace of anti-science.]

  65. Hank Roberts says:

    Hansen himself is worth reading.

    Let’s not all fall at once for an invitation to play the game “Let’s You and Him Fight” — Hansen’s corrected the NYT article and is quite accepting of Dyson’s point of view.

    He sets an example worth emulating. He gave the reporter a quick reply and a chance to set up a needless opportunity for bad feeling:

    Mar. 29, 2009: An Unfortunate Quote, About a too quick reply to a New York Time question about Freeman Dyson.
    http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/mailings/2009/20090329_NYTMagazine.pdf

  66. S.C. says:

    Gee, based on reading the comments, I can’t imagine why anyone would think supporters of AGW are a bunch of cultists who approach the subject with enough fanatic zeal to shame a fundamentalist.

  67. Deep Climate says:

    Posted this on CEJournal, but it got stuck in moderation. Seems to fit here, though (with slight editing).

    Of course, Dyson is perfectly entitled to express his opinions on climate science, no matter how ill-informed. But naysaying unsupported by any knowledge or logic is not “skepticism”, it’s ignorance.

    By itself, that still doesn’t mean he is “anti-science”, it just means no one should take him seriously.

    However, Dyson has crossed the line by his apparently willing partcipation in PR campaigns designed to sow doubt about the scientific consensus on climate change.

    He was a signatory to both the Manhattan Declaration of last year (released at the first Heartland climate conference) and the infamous Bali declaration in late 2007 (where he was absurdly referred to as a “climate expert”).

    http://www.climatescienceinternational.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=66
    http://www.canada.com/business/fp/story.html?id=164002
    http://www.nationalpost.com/news/story.html?id=164004

    Both efforts were secretly organized by long time PR operative Tom Harris (now head of the International Climate Science Coalition) and paid for by … well, that would be interesting to know, wouldn’t it?

    For a complete explanation of the role of the Natural Resources Stewardship Project (then led by Tom Harris) and the Canadian newspaper National Post in the “Bali” open letter see:

    http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Natural_Resources_Stewardship_Project#Bali_open_letter_to_U.N.

  68. Marion Delgado says:

    Joe:

    Dyson really was a great scientist, and he may still be a great ponderer. His areas of expertise were much more far-ranging than is typical for a modern theoretical physicist (like Feynman, his expertise and innovation spilled over into practical analysis quite often). Also, he is from the era where physics was the undisputed king of the science world – where new and important discoveries, some of them made by him, were flying out of the labs and classrooms many times a year. That made that generation very cocky about there being any limits to the effectiveness of their approach to problems. By comparison, a modern theoretical physicist is VERY narrow. Since many theoretical physicists are working out specific sections of the monumental task of making sense of string/brane/M-theory, they often spend years working on one element of one set of problems in one entirely theoretical sub-universe springing from a handful of papers published in 1980 or so. This may also explain his disdain for modeling.

    I would respectfully hope you’d not take your eye off the ball: In science you have to juggle getting outside perspectives and criticism even of your fundamentals with respecting other areas’ actual accomplishments. Particle physics has been entirely stagnant for 20 years, biology has flourished, but the generation that put an American on the Moon and built the first a-bombs and h-bombs is still with us, and so is their mentality.

    Our biggest grievance against Dyson is simply that he brought up all this years ago, and people wrote about where he was wrong and why he was wrong, and he’s responded by calling them dogmatic.

    Also, every science makes models, every science collects data, every science comes to a consensus about what the data mean, and every science operates through peer review, replication, and parallel research.

    To attack any of these, as Dyson does with the fetish about modeling, is to attack science. If I were at a presentation where Dyson said that crap about modeling, I’d ask him if he thought the climate models he disparages were more or less accurate than, say, the Bohr model of the atom, and what was the predictive value of that model, and why didn’t physicists dispense with models altogether and simply whip up a-bombs and h-bombs using hard-nosed data and ingenuity?

    I was lucky enough to be able to talk to Feynman a few times before he died (he lectured to 2 of my physics classes and gave presentations I went to, and I stayed after to ask him questions every time). I now appreciate that he had a decent amount of humility.

    It strikes me that Dyson’s unwittingly (and I think it’s completely so) absorbing the absurd paradox of capitalism being infinitely strong yet infinitely fragile – so strong it can dispose of global warming in 10 seconds if it feels like bothering, so weak that the mildest counter-measures to carbon dioxide production, knocking it 3% off-balance, will wipe it out completely.

    So my other question would be, why aren’t we innovative enough to actually limit C02 production, if we’re so damned innovative about sequestration?

  69. To launch a personal and quite hysterical attack on Freeman Dyson and lump him with assorted “crackpots’ and deniers is counterproductive to this bloggers’ cause.

    Dyson is not in denial of climate change. He just makes the sensible observation that cries of “do something, anything” to politicians are likely to do more harm than good.

    Dyson also was the one who came up with the idea of pushing atmospheric turbulence (by way of anchoring giant kites) further inward to the perpetually dry Antarctic interior to compensate with snowfall for the water that Arctic melting was adding to the ocean levels.

    There are more such out-of-the-box ideas about dealing with specific negatives of global warming.
    Dyson’s original and inventive mind is worth listening too.
    As opposed to all the carbon-taxers, he has no personal agenda.
    Just bear in mind that economic slowdown is the biggest threat to implementing working but costly engineering solutions to climate problems.

  70. Anna Haynes says:

    > “Dyson has crossed the line by his apparently willing partcipation in PR campaigns designed to sow doubt about the scientific consensus on climate change.”

    It’s also conceivable that he’s not a volunteer.

  71. Anna Haynes says:

    for the record – the above sure looks like a silly comment.

  72. Steve Plowman says:

    It’s kind of ironic that the blogger accuses Dyson of ranting before embarking on an über rant. And was there really the suggestion that Freeman Dyson is not a smart man, with mocking of the Orion project (taken very seriously by most informed observers)? The author should perhaps study the standard model for a while and then determine Dyson’s intelligence levels.