Nicholas Dawidoff, the author of the NYT magazine cover profile on Freeman Dyson, was interviewed by Bob Garfield of NPR’s “On the media” (transcript, audio here). As was I, based on my post, “NYT magazine profiles climate crackpot, Freeman Dyson.”
Dawidoff made one of the most amazing statements ever uttered by a professional journalist writing on the very serious subject of whether human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases will have catastrophic impacts and what we should do about it:
NICHOLAS DAWIDOFF: When people feel strongly about something and when it’s a matter of great urgency and when it’s a matter, for many people, of a looming apocalypse, of course, it should be taken very seriously.
But just because many people are scared and worried and feel that this is a time of impending doom, if we don’t do something, doesn’t mean that you don’t listen to somebody who disagrees with them….
… you definitely always want to hear from people who are going to push back against consensus. It only makes the people who are the majority or the people who are going forward and making public policy sharpen their arguments.
… the fact is, is that, you know, I think it’s healthy in a democracy, when you’re going forward with monumental legislation, that you listen to everybody’s point of view.
BOB GARFIELD: Does it matter, from a journalistic point of view, whether he’s right or whether he’s wrong?NICHOLAS DAWIDOFF: Oh, absolutely not. I don’t care what he thinks. I have no investment in what he thinks. I’m just interested in how he thinks and the depth and the singularity of his point of view.
That’s all you need to know about Dawidoff. This is all just entertainment, personality, and drama for him — not fact-based journalism.
He doesn’t care whether Dyson is dead wrong, whether Dyson is in fact completely misinforming the public, the media, and policymakers. He doesn’t care that if people actually listen to Dyson — and they clearly do when he gets this kind of high-profile focus — that we would be dooming many billions of people to completely preventable suffering. He just wants a sexy subject for a profile.
He says the “subject should be taken very seriously,” but his followup words — and the profile itself — give the lie to that platitude. If the subject should be taken very seriously, then the only thing that matters is whether Dyson is right or wrong. And since Dyson’s bizarre statements — “There is no doubt that parts of the world are getting warmer, but the warming is not global” — are utterly invalidated by direct scientific observations, it’s clear that Dyson does not deserve any attention by serious journalists.
The NPR interviewer, Bob Garfield, seemed to think that the profile was so cleverly done that it gave Dyson the rope to hang himself and obviously discredited him:
JOE ROMM: The public is not scientifically expert, and the public’s ability to distinguish science and pseudoscience, which sound pretty much the same, is very small. So it is up to the filters, the media, to use its own judgment based on talking to many different sources and itself weighing the credibility of sources.
What The New York Times Magazine has done is elevate Dyson to a very high degree of credibility as a highly credible source on global warming, which he isn’t.
BOB GARFIELD: Wow, I so can’t believe we’ve read the same story. The story I read didn’t promote his opinions in any fashion, such as you’re describing.
But Garfield’s view was utterly given the lie by the stunning Newsweek acceptance of Dyson’s disinformation (see “What else is Newsweek wrong about? Pushing Freeman Dyson’s pseudoscience”). Apparently Jacob Weisberg, chairman and editor-in-chief of the Slate Group, a unit of the Washington Post Co. (!) read the same story that I did — but not the one that Garfield seems to have read.
The fact is many people read that article as a validation of Dyson. Most readers don’t pay a lot of attention to the subtleties of the technical arguments.
JOE ROMM: I disagree. Let me make two points. It states many of his positions at length and doesn’t rebut each one of them. That, I think, is very important.
Second, it is well known that most people, when they read things, they don’t recall many months later rebuttals or how things were couched. There are a lot of people who read this who don’t have an informed opinion, and they are going to read this and they’re going to think, oh geez, there’s a very smart guy out there who thinks global warming might well be good for us, and we don’t need to do anything about it because we’re going to invent genetically engineered carbon-eating trees.
And I just think that it is this, you know, height of journalistic elitism to think that we’re going to write a piece so clever that people will read between the lines to realize that we’re secretly mocking him.BOB GARFIELD: I don’t suggest that he was mocking him either, but I think you’re also ignoring the preponderance of The New York Times’ reporting over the years, the extensive coverage that, for example, Andrew Revkin has given to this subject, you know, that I would say in no way sugarcoats the issue of climate change.
Ahh, so now it is the tremendous media coverage of global warming by the New York Times that justifies this dreadful piece.
Not! (see “NYT’s Revkin embraces false balance, equates Will’s active disinformation with Gore’s effort to understand and communicate climate realism” and 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 — and don’t get me started on “In a stunning journalistic lapse, the NY Times gives credulous coverage to Swift Boat smearer Marc Morano, the Jayson Blair of global warming” or their “science” columnist “John Tierney makes up stuff, just like George Will “” does the New York Times also employ several know/do-nothing fact checkers?”).
Let me end with my best answer I gave:
BOB GARFIELD: You know, I’ve got to say, back in the ’70s a guy named William Shockley, who had won the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on developing the transistor, started coming out with some generally crackpot theories on race and was ridiculed and attacked, but the outrageousness of his theories did not make me less want to know what led to his using his Nobel Laureate status as a bully pulpit for racist, pseudoscientific views. I wanted to know more about him, not less.
When people say controversial things, shouldn’t we want to know more about them, not less?JOE ROMM: Because of the way it covers global warming and similar issues as he-said/she-said, the media guarantee that a certain fraction of the community is going to go out there and say outrageous things to be covered. I think that if there’s a fire in a theater and you are screaming, there’s no fire, don’t move, then you don’t deserve a cover profile in The New York Times Magazine.