Contrarian Chic: Why can’t the media tell the difference between an attack on dubious ‘conventional’ wisdom and an attack on genuine scientific wisdom?

The Atlantic Monthly named Freeman Dyson a “Brave Thinker” for the “contrarian view” he’s taken on climate change. They tout his quote, “I like to express heretical opinions. They might even happen to be true.”

Like the authors of the error-riddled Superfreakonomics, Dyson is contrarian for the sake of contrarianism — the truth is secondary. Coincidentally, the same is true of the reporter who profiled him for the NY Times magazine — see 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.”

In fact, the media’s adoration of contrarians means it is a lot less brave to be a contrarian these days than it used to be in, say, Galileo’s day. Dave Roberts at Grist makes that point in a terrific piece (reposted below):

Willing to risk a fawning NYT profile … freeeeeedooooom!Is Freeman Dyson really “brave”?What leads people to think that entire areas of climate science and policy, the subject of close study by thousands of very smart people all over the globe every day, can be overturned with facile points of logic and Silver Bullets Nobody’s Thought Of?

Well, it ain’t bravery….

On the other hand, simply repeat the broad global consensus”” climate change is an urgent problem that warrants coordinated action to reduce GHG emissions””and you get nowhere. Boooring.

(I can’t tell you how many back-and-forths I’ve had with media outlets where I try to explain that the thing most people think is right actually is right, and they say, maybe so, but that’s not going to titillate our readers.)

Ditto! Scientific wisdom was, like, so last year.

Krugman had it right in his first take on the Superfreaks: “If you’re going to get into issues that are both important and the subject of serious study, like the fate of the planet, you’d better be very careful not to stray over the line between being counterintuitive and being just plain, unforgivably wrong.” Last week, in “Contrarianism without consequences,” the Nobel laureate added:

The refusal of the Superfreakonomists to take responsibility for their failed attempt to be cleverly contrarian on climate change is a sad spectacle to watch….

What it is, instead, is a failure of courage “” having paraded their daring contrarianism, the freakonomists are trying to wiggle out of the consequences when it turns out that they were wrong.

Krugman links to a terrific post by contrarian Daniel Davies on the Superfreaks, “Rules for Contrarians: 1. Don’t whine. That is all,” which I’ll repost at the very end

Contrarian Dyson was one of the “geniuses” pushing Project Orion “” the absurdly impractical idea of creating a rocket ship powered by detonating nuclear bombs. Hard to beat that for being contrary to good old-fashioned common sense. You want real bravery? How about Dyson test piloting the thing?

More recently he started saying stuff like, “There is no doubt that parts of the world are getting warmer, but the warming is not global” (see “Freeman Dyson, Climate Crackpot”). Contrarian? Yes. But it doesn’t happen to be true. The warming is global and occurring in virtually every region of the planet, as made clear in this figure from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies comparing the temps during the 2000s with those from 1951–1980 (you can make your own map here):

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

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 the IPCC 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.

Dyson and his fawning, fact-check-free NYT interview 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.”


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.

Dave Roberts full response to Dyson and the Superfreaks is well worth reading:

Freeman Dyson is a noted physicist who’s argued””utterly implausibly””that carbon eating trees will save us and we shouldn’t worry about the whole climate change thing. For this, he’s been profiled in The New York Times and now dubbed a Brave Thinker by the Atlantic. But is he really that brave?

Said friend Oliver Sacks of Dyson, “He feels it’s important not only to be not orthodox, but to be subversive, and he’s done that all his life.” For whatever reason, Dyson decided enviros were the latest orthodoxy to need a thumb in the eye.

It’s a pretty common sentiment. Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner are the latest to do it, in their new book Superfreakonomics. Their chapter on climate change sits awkwardly with the rest of their work; the original Freakonomics was based on Levitt’s academic work, real data and models the authors used to make ostentatiously counterintuitive points about perverse economic incentives. But Levitt did no original work on climate. The chapter’s not about economic incentives. There’s no evidence of deep or sustained engagement with the literature or previous research on the subject. The authors just high-stepped in, cast a cursory glance around, and started condescending to the people involved in it (and stepping on rakes).

Why? What leads people to think that entire areas of climate science and policy, the subject of close study by thousands of very smart people all over the globe every day, can be overturned with facile points of logic and Silver Bullets Nobody’s Thought Of?

Well, it ain’t bravery.

The fact is, anybody who takes a poke at the Dirty F*ckin’ Hippies””anybody, for any reason””can get attention and access to media. There’s an enormous infrastructure on the right to elevate any anti-DFH voice, including random economists, physicists, meteorologists, talk show hosts, computer programmers, whatever. You don’t need any particular credentials. You don’t even have to believe what the right does; as long as you confuse the issue, they’ll amplify your voice. (Indeed, they’re embracing Superfreakonomics.)

Add to that the fact that mainstream media outlets seek one thing above all else, and that’s the unexpected, the contrarian. When it comes to climate change, that generally means taking a poke at greens (or better yet, at Al Gore). It’s even better if you’re a purported green bashing other greens. That’s the kind of media crack Nordhaus & Shellenberger dealt on their way to fame and funding. Bash the greens, no matter your qualifications or the merits of your arguments, and you will find yourself on television and in opinion sections from the New York Times to Washington Post to Wired.

Helpfully, when you offer facile dismissals of science and policy to which people have devoted their lives”””We could end this debate and be done with it,” sighs Dubner, “and move on to problems that are harder to solve.”””they get angry, and they express that anger. Then you get to be the Brave, Persecuted Freethinker battling the Quasi-Religious Orthodoxy, and the press loves you all the more. Why else would anyone know Roger Pielke Jr.’s name? Lomborg rode that train, along with Shellenberger/Nordhaus and Dyson. In a smaller, grubbier way, even a flack like Patrick Moore (“co-founder of Greenpeace”!) has made it work for him. It’s no wonder Levitt/Dubner thought they could do the same thing, and you can sense their hesitation now that it’s not working so well. Though it did work like a charm on the normally sharp Jon Stewart, who offered Levitt this pathetically fawning interview:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon — Thurs 11p / 10cSteven Levittwww.thedailyshow.comDaily ShowFull EpisodesPolitical HumorHealth Care Crisis

On the other hand, simply repeat the broad global consensus”” climate change is an urgent problem that warrants coordinated action to reduce GHG emissions””and you get nowhere. Boooring. (I can’t tell you how many back-and-forths I’ve had with media outlets where I try to explain that the thing most people think is right actually is right, and they say, maybe so, but that’s not going to titillate our readers.)

I could start doing this crap tomorrow: Have a revelation that greens are emotional, irrational, in the grips of a cultish faith (a “secular religion”!). Realize that they’re doing everything wrong, from their message to their recommended policies. Discover that the real solution is … I don’t know, thorium reactors, and everything else is needless hype and meddling. I could be denounced by greens and wear their opprobrium as a badge to gain entry into cable news and op-ed pages.

I would get the egoistic thrill of subversion. I’d get a hearty band of supporters on the right and thrillingly dastardly enemies on the left. I could parlay the conflict into national attention and infamy. If I was a retired physicist in my twilight years, it might even be a real kick in the pants to be back in the fray again.

Yeah, I could do all that. It would be many things, but “brave” isn’t among them.

Jon Stewart’s “interview” of Levitt was indeed one of his worst in recent memory, but people should realize that Stewart has not taken the time to educate himself on climate science, preferring to take the contrarian role himself in his May interview with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson — see Treehugger post here:The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon — Thurs 11p / 10cLisa P. Jacksonwww.thedailyshow.comDaily ShowFull EpisodesPolitical HumorHealth Care CrisisBrad Johnson of Wonk Room spares me the trouble of critiquing Stewart and yet another debunking of the Superfreaks:

On last night’s Daily Show, host Jon Stewart heaped praise on the contrarian approach to global warming taken by SuperFreakonomics author Steve Levitt, a University of Chicago economist. Stewart was baffled by the widespread criticism of Levitt and co-author Stephen Dubner, asking, “Have you stepped on a secular religion?” Stewart, often a tough interviewer, coddled Levitt, saying, “I’m sorry you’ve taken so much s**t for it.” He blamed the uproar over SuperFreakonomics on people who “feel you are betraying environmentalism”:

I’ve been somewhat surprised at how angry people are. The global warming chapter, you don’t deny global warming. You don’t say that CO2 isn’t a factor, but they feel you are betraying environmentalism or our world. Why are people so mad?

SuperFreakonomics mischaracterizes the field in order to argue that “moralism and angst” has blinded scientists and policymakers from pursuing the “cheap and simple solution” of geoengineering. Although the book condemns scientists for fearmongering and promotes a radical alternative to existing policy, Levitt tells Stewart, “I don’t try to pretend I know the science.”

In reality, the critics of Levitt’s treatment of climate science and policy are not “dogmatic” believers of a “secular religion” “” they are highly respected climate scientists, energy experts, and economists, including climate scientist Ken Caldeira, who has said Levitt and Dubner misrepresented his views. The widespread criticism isn’t based on the book’s personal attacks on Al Gore or its mocking of global warming as a “religion,” but on the multitude of factual errors, misrepresentations, and false conclusions that the authors use to promote their mindless contrarianism. As science journalist Eric Pooley writes, “The book claims the opposite of what Caldeira believes.”

Levitt recommends untested, planetary scale geo-engineering to block the sun as a “band-aid” that “buys us time” if “we might need to do something,” because carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for a long time. However, scientists concerned that global warming needs to be reduced rapidly have already found a well-proven approach that’s cheaper and safer than pumping unlimited amounts of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere: stopping black carbon emissions of soot from diesel and biomass burning.

Stewart hit the nail on the head when he concluded, “I really don’t know what I’m talking about, do I?” However, he failed to understand his mistake when he concluded that he had “apparently frightened our audience by suggesting that conservation isn’t the only way out of any of our problems.”

Stewart has excoriated other media darlings for their laissez-faire approach to serious issues, from Tucker Carlson to Jim Cramer, and just last week skewered CNN for its failure to do even basic fact-checking of its guests. Unfortunately, this time Stewart ended up being just like those he usually mocks “” neither funny nor accurate.

UPDATE 1: Stephan Faris writes:

In short, Stewart misses the point completely. There’s no doubt the environmentalist movement is full of people who are ideologically opposed to consumption. But there are also plenty of people (like myself) who are no fan of hairshirts, but still worry about the potential catastrophic impacts of climate change. The problem with Levitt’s book isn’t that it attacked a holy cow (it may have done that, but that isn’t the problem). Where Levitt went wrong is that the solution he and his co-author Stephen Dubner propose isn’t actually a solution.

UPDATE 2: Geenfyre’s Mike Kaulbars writes:

That’s right, Levitt doesn’t even have to BS the interview because Stewart does it for him. From mocking green living to calling climate science “a religion” Stewart sounds like he is reading Levitt’s talking points. Instead of challenging Levitt, Stewart does all of the disinformation and obfuscating for him. Journalism schools could use this as a case study of really appalling interview technique; it’s that bad.

Finally, here’s Daniel Davies of Crooked Timber:

I like to think that I know a little bit about contrarianism. So I’m disturbed to see that people who are making roughly infinity more money than me out of the practice aren’t sticking to the unwritten rules of the game.

Viz Nathan Mhyrvold:

“Once people with a strong political or ideological bent latch onto an issue, it becomes hard to have a reasonable discussion; once you’re in a political mode, the focus in the discussion changes. Everything becomes an attempt to protect territory. Evidence and logic becomes secondary, used when advantageous and discarded when expedient. What should be a rational debate becomes a personal and venal brawl.”

Okay, point one. The whole idea of contrarianism is that you’re “attacking the conventional wisdom”, you’re “telling people that their most cherished beliefs are wrong”, you’re “turning the world upside down”. In other words, you’re setting out to annoy people. Now opinions may differ on whether this is a laudable thing to do — I think it’s fantastic — but if annoying people is what you’re trying to do, then you can hardly complain when annoying people is what you actually do. If you start a fight, you can hardly be surprised that you’re in a fight. It’s the definition of passive-aggression and really quite unseemly, to set out to provoke people, and then when they react passionately and defensively, to criticise them for not holding to your standards of a calm and rational debate. If Superfreakonomics wanted a calm and rational debate, this chapter would have been called something like: “Geoengineering: Issues in Relative Cost Estimation of SO2 Shielding”, and the book would have sold about five copies.

Viz also, Stephen Dubner:

“They have given the impression that we are global-warming deniers of the worst sort, and that our analysis of the issue is ideological and unscientific. Most gravely, we stand accused of misrepresenting the views of one of the most respected climate scientists on the scene, whom we interviewed extensively. If everything they said was actually true, it would indeed be a damning indictment. But it’s not.”

Okay, point two. The other point of contrarianism is that, if it’s well done, you assemble a whole load of points which are individually uncontroversial (or at least, solidly substantiated) and put them together to support a conclusion which is surprising and counterintuitive. In other words, the aim of the thing is the overall impression you give. Because of this, if you’re writing a contrarian piece properly, you ought to be well aware of what point it looks like you’re making, because the entire point is to make a defensible argument which strongly resembles a controversial one.

So having done this intentionally, you don’t get to complain that people have “misinterpreted” your piece by taking you to be saying exactly what you carefully constructed the argument to look like you were saying. Fair enough, you might not care to defend the controversial point it looked like you were making, but a degree of diffidence is appropriate here, because the confusion is entirely and intentionally your fault:

“(That is the “global cooling” in our subtitle. If someone interprets our brief mention of the global-cooling scare of the 1970’s as an assertion of “a scientific consensus that the planet was cooling,” that feels like a willful misreading.)”

No it doesn’t; it feels like someone read the first two pages for the plain meaning of the words and didn’t spot that you were actually playing a little crossword-puzzle game where the answer was “consensus”. In general, whatever “global cooling” meant, it was put on the cover in full knowledge of the impression it would give to a normal reader so once more, it is not legitimate to complain that this phrase was interpreted in the way in which it was intended to be interpreted.

In general, contrarians ought to have thick skins, because their entire raison d’etre is the giving of intellectual offence to others. So don’t whine, for heaven’s sake. Own your bullshit, like this guy.

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