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.