What else is Newsweek wrong about? Pushing Freeman Dyson’s pseudoscience

Posted on  

"What else is Newsweek wrong about? Pushing Freeman Dyson’s pseudoscience"

[Please email Weisberg (at jacob.weisberg@slate.com) who was suckered by Freeman Dyson into writing one of the most uninformed pieces ever to appear in Newsweek.]

Suppose Freeman Dyson had said:

“Our nobly intended welfare programs may be encouraging dysgenics-retrogressive evolution through disproportionate reproduction of the genetically disadvantage”¦ We fear that ‘fatuous beliefs’ in the power of welfare money, unaided by eugenic foresight, may contribute to a decline of human quality for all segments of society.”

Would he be the darling of the contrarian media crowd — feted with cover stories and credulous coverage (see NYT magazine profiles climate crackpot, Freeman Dyson, and lets him slander James Hansen “” while Revkin gives Dyson’s nuttiness a free pass and below)?  Or would he be vilified, the way William Shockley, the physicist who wrote those words, was — a reporter once called him “Hitlerite.”  Yet Shockley was a “brilliant scientist” like Dyson, and perhaps more so, since, unlike Dyson, a purely theoretical physicist fond of wildly impractical ideas like a rocket ship powered by detonating nuclear bombs or Reagan’s Star Wars plan, Shockley was an experimental physicist who won the Nobel Prize for helping to invent the transistor.

Suppose Dyson had said:

There is no doubt that the Nazis killed some Jews, but the killing was local, not systematic.

I’m guessing that Jacob Weisberg wouldn’t have added a paragraph to his new Newsweek article, “What Else Are We Wrong About?” labeling as myth the statement “The Holocaust was catastrophic.”  Yet Dyson’s blatant global warming denial — “There is no doubt that parts of the world are getting warmer, but the warming is not global” is as false, as scientifically disapprovable, as claims the Holocaust never happened or was wildly exaggerated.  The whole damn planet is getting warmer — that’s why it is called global warming.  It is increasingly hard to find any large region — including the tropics and subtropics — that are not warming [click to enlarge]:

But the conservative disinformation campaign has made global warming denial acceptable to embrace for crackpot contrarians who want media coverage in a way that eugenics and Holocaust denial are not.  Yet such denial, when credulously repeated by a reporter acting as nothing more than a stenographer, poses a far graver risk to humanity since it encourages inaction, encourages us not to take the relatively low-cost steps — one tenth of a penny on the dollar — we must take immediately in order to prevent catastrophe.  And delaying action is exactly what Dyson is all about, as this absurd piece of journalistic malpractice in Newsweek by Weisberg makes clear:

A lot of premises have turned out to be wrong lately….  So at a moment when everything we once assumed is suddenly up for discussion, it’s worth asking: what other big stuff could we be wrong about? I’m looking for issues where the received wisdom may be entirely correct””but merits a stronger dose of skepticism than it usually gets….

Climate change will be catastrophic.
We all know civilization is doomed if we don’t reduce carbon emissions, right? The physicist Freeman Dyson disagrees. Dyson doesn’t dispute that human activity is causing warming. But he challenges the consensus that warming will be catastrophic. In a New York Review of Books essay, Dyson wrote that warming “is mostly making cold places warmer rather than making hot places hotter.” Carbon emissions could make the earth more fertile and prevent harm from global cooling, which isn’t caused by humans. And if it really turns out that there is a serious problem, genetically engineered carbon-eating trees might fix it. (Might.)

The entire premise of this piece is absurd.  First, global warming already gets a large dose of skepticism thanks to a massive conservative disinformation machine and a largely uninformed media (see “How the press bungles its coverage of climate economics “” “The media’s decision to play the stenographer role helped opponents of climate action stifle progress” and, of course, Dyson’s NYT magazine cover story).

Second, “We all know civilization is doomed if we don’t reduce carbon emissions, right?”  Huh?  The fact that statement is not close to true can be found in any opinion poll, any set of conservative talking points, or the continuing inaction of Congress to take even modest steps forward.  This is an utterly fake contrarian claim.

Third, yes one guy who did brilliant physics 50 years ago but who has acknowledged he has no expertise in climate science says a bunch of stuff that a quick check of the scientific literature shows is nonsense.  Let’s stake the future of humanity on his unscientific ramblings printed in a book review publication!

Seriously, is this what Newsweek, is this what the media, has come to?

“Carbon emissions could make the earth more fertile.”  Uhh, not the 5°C to 7°C warming we face on our current emissions path.  In fact, we haven’t even warmed 1°C yet, and “more fertile” 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“).  Even another 2°C warming is now believed to be utterly catastrophic to agriculture (see “Half of world’s population could face climate-driven food crisis by 2100“).

Dyson and Weisberg assert warming “is mostly making cold places warmer rather than making hot places hotter.”  Not!  Look at the world map.  Virtually all of hot places are getting hotter, whereas one of the coldest places on Earth, East Antarctica, is warming the least.

And what is Weisberg’s big plan B, his fallback position for humanity in case Dyson’s anti-scientific ramblings turn out to be …. well, anti-scientific ramblings:  “And if it really turns out that there is a serious problem, genetically engineered carbon-eating trees might fix it. (Might.)”

Yeah, Weisberg, and monkeys might fly out of my butt. (Might.)  But catastrophic global warming is almost certainly going to ruin the health and well-being of billions of humans for hundreds of years if we listen to people like Dyson and Weisberg. (Almost certainly — see “An introduction to global warming impacts: Hell and High Water “.)

Yes, and if every doctor Weisberg sees diagnoses him with diabetes, he should ignore all of their recommended diets and treatments if some astrologer says it could increase his fertility and, if not, genetically engineered cures will be certainly be available in 20 years.

This piece is worse journalism than the NYT magazine profile, since it doesn’t even present a single challenge to Dyson’s astrology.

It is malpractice for a serious journalist — and a national magazine — to assert global warming isn’t global, might be good for us, and has an imaginary techno-fix based on nothing more than pseudoscientific speculation.

Jacob Weisberg, chairman and editor-in-chief of the Slate Group, a unit of the Washington Post Co. (!), should know better.  So should Newsweek.

Shame on them both.

« »

27 Responses to What else is Newsweek wrong about? Pushing Freeman Dyson’s pseudoscience

  1. Gail says:

    Oh this is so extremely aggravating.

    Freeman, poopsy, darling, could you stagger out of your ivy tower and look around your campus?

    I have a child who is a junior at Princeton, and a charming ex-spouse who holds an endowed chair. I am very familiar with the campus.

    Go and look at the venerable trees, the hallowed ivy, and the lushly planted landscaping.

    They are all being adversely affected by climate change RIGHT UNDER YOUR WINDOW.

    In your desperate quest to exonerate yourself and your generation, you are a danger to the students at your university, never mind their children.

    It’s simply revolting to me that you are using your pathetic desire to feel better about the monstrous damage of climate change by pretending that we will develop CO2-gobbling trees to save us.

    I just wish you would stop giving ideologically and financially motivated deniers more excuses to delay the policies our governments must put in place if we are to survive and avert runaway greenhouse warming.

    grrrrr…..

  2. ecostew says:

    So, you don’t debate the deniers when the moderator is clueless, but how does one get at this nonsense?

    [JR: If the media won’t act responsibly and opinion-makers won’t speak out, it is very tough.]

  3. Deep Climate says:

    I wonder where this push behind Dyson is coming from. A series of major interviews with leading outlets doesn’t just happen by chance. There’s some very savvy PR going on here, and that’s probably the real story.

    There’s no evidence that Dyson is corrupt or has received financial support for his climate change activities.

    But … he has no qualifications or expertise in climate science, and a lot of what he says is nonsensical on its face.

    More disturbing than that is his willingness to lend the weight of his signature to misleading PR campaigns, like the Oregon Petition, the “Bali” open letter to the U.N. and the Manhattan Declaration. The latter two were co-ordinated by longtime climate disinformation PR specialist Tom Harris (ex-APCO, founder of the Natural Resources Stewardship Project and now head of the International Climate Science Coalition). [Check SourceWatch.org for info]

    I’m still waiting for journalists to ask him the right questions about:
    a) His support for the highly misleading assertions in those documents (e.g. global warming “stopped” in 1998). If he signed, he is presumably in full agreement with them.
    b) The details surrounding his agreement to sign (especially the latter two). Who contacted him? When and how? Does he know or care that these campaigns were supported at least indirectly by fossil fuel companies?

    I’m currently preparing a blog post on this, entitled Freeman Dyson: the Canadian Connection. But it would be great to have others asking these questions too.

  4. Harrier says:

    This post does raise a question in my mind: are there any places on Earth that will trend toward receiving greater precipitation as a result of climate change?

  5. ecostew says:

    Joe,

    I agree, and in fact, it comes down to individuals – the citizens of Earth – how do “we”get the media and policy makers aligned (when deniers do, you ignore peer-reviewed science as one’s agenda has another end)? Unfortunately, deniers are living for “today” and not “the seventh generation” and it is essentially impossible to reverse the tide before the tsunami unfortunately the tsunami is permanent.

  6. Sasparilla says:

    Its very tough to keep seeing this, as it consistently appears science is loosing (to the ex tobacco PR machine) the war to get the story out with the apparent assistance of much of our press.

    Deep Climate brings up a valid point about where this push with Dyson is coming from. The PR campaign behind the deniers, extremely well funded by the fossil fuel interests, has been in need of someone with some name recognition to replace Crichton and, sadly, it looks like this is the dude for the moment.

    Harrier asking about places that will get more precipitation, there will be alot of places that do (I believe a good chunk of the existing tropical areas will receive more precipitation), however it will often be in the form of more intense storms/rainfall and unfortunately these aren’t the world’s breadbaskets.

  7. Spiralman says:

    Quit the Neurotic Worrying and villainizing!

    The Solar Revolution is inevitable; prices have now reached parity with grid retail electricity, ie 10c/kWh, or $1/W of new power generation capacity.
    Since 1970 the price of solar has fallen at least 3X every single decade.
    And will continue to do so.
    By 2020 new Solar power capacity will be 1/3 the price of all other power generation options, and will reach parity with whole grid electricity prices.
    Solar will replace all of the existing energy infrastructure over the next 20 years.

    So the paranoia, climate change neurosis and villainizing of decent humanitarians like Dyson is completely uncalled for and demonstrates your own lack of knowledge of what is really happening and lack of confidence in humanity’s creative genius as exemplified by the heroic solar and wind engineers and investors.

    Dyson is absolutely right that the principal concern of socially minded progressives should be about the energy poverty in the global south, and that the principal ecological concerns should be deforestation and wild fishing, and i would add the necessity of transforming the rapacious usage of water by outdoor agriculture into drip irrigation and indoor agriculture using hydroponics.

    The Solar Revolution is inevitable and imminent, and all the pontificating accomplishes nothing except portraying the industry as if it were in a weak position, when it is insurgent and its power grows exponentially as the cost of solar continues its juggernaut of cost reductions of 3X every decade.

  8. jharp says:

    The main reason Holocaust denial is so disgusting is the fact that the Holocaust ACTUALLY HAPPENED. You know, outside of computer models.

    Now, as for energy, I’m all about solar as the prices come down, with nuclear for when the sun isn’t shining. Is there a cleaner, saner way? And I’m not talking about paving the desert with photovoltaics, either. A few panels on every home to cut into the peak usage hours should do the trick when efficiency is better.

  9. Spiralman says:

    Dyson was a Solar Evangelist before probably any of you knew anything about Climate Change.
    Have any of you self-righteous numbskulls ever heard of a Dyson Sphere, which he envisioned back in 1959?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dyson_sphere

  10. Harrier says:

    Spiralman, I would say that climate change eclipses the threat of poverty for the ‘global South’ because, unlike poverty, climate change stands a fair chance of turning huge chunks of the Southern Hemisphere into unlivable desert.

    If you care about those people who live in the Southern Hemisphere, focus on combatting climate change. The Southern Hemisphere will really get pounded, and the people there will likely be migrating north when they can no longer survive in the south. No amount of poverty relief can stave off the rising heat.

  11. Dean says:

    Harrier – the rule of thumb is that wetter places may get wetter and dry places drier. The rain in the wetter places will be rarer and more intense, more floods. There are exceptions, but this is the general projection from the models, as recently described on realclimate.org.

    Some regions expected to get wetter include Canada, the northeastern US and Scandinavia. The current concentration of desert zones, which center around 30 degrees north and south will shift higher an get wider. The Mediterranean basin will get much drier.

    But even places that are wetter could face short and serious droughts.

  12. Spiralman says:

    jharp,
    Quick solar land area algebra:
    10B people (est 2050) consuming @ US levels of total energy consumption (electricity, heating/aircon, transportation – personal and industrial), ~10,000kWh/year = 100TW
    At 10% efficiency of thin film solar panels -> land area of Zimbabwe or Paraguay
    At 25% efficiency of commercial silicon panels -> Montana or Bangladesh
    At 40% efficiency of R&D silicon panels and/or concentrators -> Utah or Portugal or Jordan or South Korea
    At 65% theoretical efficiency of quantum dots -> Florida or Sri Lanka

    The Earth receives 10,000X today’s total global energy consumption of all types.

    The Sun’s Carrying Capacity is infinite on scales that matter to us and our descendants tens of millennia into the future.

  13. Spiralman says:

    Harrier,
    Life already is miserable for folks in the Global South; Climate Change’s intensification of that is marginal at most.
    if you look at maps of temperature change it is obvious that the bulk of the impact is at the Northernmost Latitudes
    http://www.cru.uea.ac.uk/cru/data/temperature/

    Solar power provides the tools for adapting to anything that any type of climate can throw our way.
    Solar Electricity is Freedom.

    Solar power provides light, irrigation, sanitation, telecommunication, education, transportation, factory employment; when combined with LEDs and hydroponics it can completely transform all of agriculture.

    The only progressive slogan is Global Energy Equality.
    Combat Climate Change is something for fear-driven folks to advocate who are masquerading as progressives yet have no real understanding of what is actually going on in real people’s lives today around the world.

    Climate Change is not the driver of desertification, but deforestation is.
    People in rural Africa and South Asia burn down their trees to boil water and cook for their families; they spend 30% of their monthly income on charcoal and kerosene.

    Solar Power’s triumph will represent the largest single change in the history of the Global South since Columbus and Da Gama leveraged mastery of the wind to conquer the seas and begin the European exploitation of the people’s of Latin America, Africa and Asia.

  14. John Hollenberg says:

    Joe,

    There sure is a lot of crap appearing in the comments section lately. Looks like the deniers have discovered your blog. Hope you keep a close eye on this so it doesn’t degenerate into the sort of idiotic stuff I see posted in the comments section of articles on other web sites.

    Keep up the good work! Still the first site I go to every day.

  15. Harrier says:

    Dean, thanks for the info.

    There’s no good news on the climate front, is there? It’s all a matter of what’s the least bad. I tell myself that, with the knowledge I get here at Climate Progress, I’ll be well-poised to navigate the future of the planet, and ready to quickly adapt to potentially catastrophic climate change, and in large part I believe that to be the case. But it’s very hard to absorb it all and remain any kind of optimist.

    Yet humans can endure whatever the future holds. I know we can. I have tremendous faith in the human race. I believe we will survive any difficulty that climate change presents us with, and I believe that our capacity to do good to this world has not been diminished. We will absorb this crisis as we have absorbed the other crises of our species’ history, and we will emerge from it better and wiser. That, in part at least, is my faith, and it is what sustains me.

  16. jorleh says:

    To be logical the denier mob must go to meet charlatans to cure themselves of every illness because the right medical treatment has it´s base in science, and the denier mob does not believe in science.

  17. jorleh says:

    John Hollenberg: you are just right. Let´s have a look of The Guardian and Monbiot: there you have comments in hundreds, 90% of them from the lowest denier mob.

  18. Spiralman says:

    Harrier,
    If reduced CO2 emissions will make you happy, then you will have your wish come true as a result of the collapse of Peak Credit.
    In January, a key advisor to the Saudi oil minister forecasted that global oil demand could fall by 45%
    http://www.arabianbusiness.com/543062-saudi-reveals-oil-demand-could-fall-by-45-

    Industrial output worldwide has already fallen by 13%, and according to the analysis by Eichengreen and O’Rourke referred to today by Krugman, our economic deflationary crisis is already on a far steeper descent than the Great Depression
    A Tale of Two Depressions
    http://www.voxeu.org/index.php?q=node/3421

    Pile on a very likely 30% gain of energy efficiency per unit of GDP over the next 5 years as a result of collapsing profit rates forcing cost reductions on enterprise and social wide levels across most of the G20, and emissions are likely to be cut by ~50% over the next five years.

    With best of breed, thin film solar already having achieved retail grid parity this year with both Nanosolar and First Solar, combined with the ending of the processed silicon bottleneck which will allow silicon panels to collapse in price this year and next, also towards $1/W, it is guaranteed that any economic recovery after a decade of the Great Depression V2.0 will inevitably be based upon new solar capacity, which will cost 1/3 of Coal, Oil, Nukes or Gas (CONG) by 2020.

    As if that was not enough, China this week simultaneously announced that their solar plants were producing at 10c/kWh, that the Chinese government would subsidize solar to the tune of 20RMB/W ($2.96/W), that China would establish itself as the leading producer of electric vehicles in the world.

    Climb down from the ledges everyone.

    Between the economic collapse radically slashing the demand for CONG, profit collapse forcing enhancements of energy efficiency similar to what was achieved in the late 70’s/early 80’s, and the Peak Credit exaggeration of energy demand in the old paradigm putting solar power over the top, making it cost competitive, and soon cost-superior, the Spike/Crash/Streamline/Replacement dynamic is well underway, just as it was when Wood was replaced by Coal for making Cast Iron in the 18th Century, and when Whale Oil was replaced with Kerosene in the 19th Century.

    This transition will be 80% or more complete by 2030, making the IPCC projections of Little Solar implementation and the resulting despairing conclusions drawn about CO2 emissions and resulting impacts, seem completely ridiculous.

    In many ways the IPCC projections of endless rising of CO2 emissions and the Peak Oilist’s projections of running out of oil, are as unrealistic as were those of the Finance, Real Estate and Stock scammers who told us that house prices will only go up, and that stock prices will only go up.

    All of these dynamics contained assumptions of a continual linear increase which were the result of driving towards Peak Credit.

    Peak Credit has been reached, and all of these pre-crash dynamics have been radically transformed.

    So, Harrier your faith in humanity is very well placed.
    Humanity’s inventiveness and adaptativity are Nature’s most powerful non-linear response.

  19. Greg N says:

    Disappointed by Weisberg. He’s a good writer but this casually-written article is a bit embarrassing.

    I guess everyone get jaded. The daily grind of journalism maybe got to him?

    Here’s hoping he gets his mojo back and returns to form!

  20. Ronald says:

    Asking Dyson for his opinion on something he is not an expert in is like asking Isaac Newton about his religion. Newton was great in physics, but spent much of his time with religion. I think his whole deal was, if using numbers could explain the physical universe, then using Math he should be able to explain the spiritual world and the Christian Bible. Not very useful. Newton actually spent more time on Religion than his Physics.

    So lets keep Newton’s Physics in Physics classes and Dyson’s speculations, well, with Dyson.

  21. MarkB says:

    Note the dichotomy of this piece. Dyson is going on about how little scientists know about the climate and we should be humble, yet he is making extremely presumptuous statements about the climate. This is standard contrarian rhetoric. Claim scientists are arrogant for claiming to have any confidence, then proceed to confidently say global warming isn’t a problem.

  22. Aaron says:

    Spiralman,

    While I would like to believe the world will respond to solar and it will be the end all problem for AGW, I think you’re being a little too optimistic here.

    Although we are in a recession, this does not mean once stock markets recover we’re not going to be right back where we started with a ‘normal’ demand for oil. You simplify our energy problems into, “don’t worry, everything will be alright, solar will be implemented to supply all our needs.”

    The IPCC projections for CO2 emissions are indeed conservative compared to the actual admissions. This recession, however long it’ll last, will be but a blip on the radar when it comes to our growing CO2 emissions.

  23. SecularAnimist says:

    Spiralman, I am at least as enthusiastic a proponent of solar energy as you are.

    I agree that the technology is more advanced than most people realize (and I would include concentrating solar thermal, which the host of this site has strongly advocated as a key source of centralized baseload electricity generation, along with distributed photovoltaics).

    I agree that the growth of solar is much faster than most people realize. The “free market” loves wind and solar. Both are growing at record-breaking, double-digit rates every year. Nanosolar was the largest recipient of venture capital investment in the USA in 2008.

    I agree that the potential for solar electricity generation is much larger than most people realize, and more than enough to provide all the electricity needed to sustain a comfortable, advanced technological civilization.

    And I agree that distributed solar electricity is the best solution for providing electricity where it is most needed, in the developing world where too many people don’t have enough, or any, access to electricity.

    Having said that, I do NOT agree that the growth of solar, or wind, power will “INEVITABLY” be fast enough to result in the carbon emission reductions needed to avoid the most catastrophic effects of anthropogenic global warming. I believe that government policies that both (1) put a price on carbon through taxes or cap-and-trade, to force the market to capture the full costs of carbon pollution, and (2) encourage the rapid deployment of solar, wind, geothermal etc. through utility portfolio standards, feed-in tariffs, tax credits, etc. are vital to ensuring that these energy sources realize their full potential.

    The solar and wind powered New Industrial Revolution of the 21st Century can happen, and I believe that it can happen fast enough to spare the Earth from the worst ravages of unmitigated global warming. But there is no guarantee that it will, especially given the entrenched power and huge wealth of the fossil fuel corporations who are determined that it won’t. We all need to keep pushing hard if it is going to become a reality.

  24. Bob Wallace says:

    SecularAnimist –

    Well said.

    Very well said….

  25. Ben Lieberman says:

    Has Weisberg replied to anyone who wrote to him?

  26. Gail says:

    SecularAnimist, I must chime in and concur with Bob Wallace. Superb! Compelling, and concise.