New York Times Magazine on Freeman Dyson, Climate Change "Skeptic"

By Chris Mooney | March 26, 2009 2:34 pm

What is up with baseball and climate change denial?

First we had George Will: Baseball lover, climate change denier.

And now we’ve got a writer named Nicholas Dawidoff, whose Wiki bio suggests writing about baseball to be his chief area of expertise, but who has just waded into a minefield with a sympathetic profile of climate change skeptic Freeman Dyson in the New York Times Magazine. (Joe Romm detonates the ground beneath Dawidoff here.)

Now obviously, there’s no real correlation between liking baseball and denying global warming…but postulating one is about as scientifically defensible as many forms of climate skepticism today.

In Dawidoff’s piece, Dyson comes off as a classic contrarian, sounding off late in life. A journalist with a scientific background would know how important it is to take such people with a grain of salt–no matter how distinguished their scientific work may be in other areas. Dawidoff, though, just goes for it–for 8,000 words of it. He writes foolish things like this: “[Dyson’s] dissension from the orthodoxy of global warming is significant because of his stature and his devotion to the integrity of science.” Um, no, it isn’t. It isn’t significant at all. Dyson’s fame and authority don’t buy him any special deference in this area; science does not work that way. Does Dyson publish top work in this field? That is a far more relevant question.

Dawidoff’s climate science illiteracy emerges again in this terrible passage, in which he pits Dyson’s views against those of an environmental scientist:

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. That is the position of a more moderate expert on climate change, William Chameides, dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences at Duke University, who says, “I don’t think it’s time to panic,” but contends that, because of global warming, “more sea-level rise is inevitable and will displace millions; melting high-altitude glaciers will threaten the food supplies for perhaps a billion or more; and ocean acidification could undermine the food supply of another billion or so.” Dyson strongly disagrees with each of these points, and there follows, as you move back and forth between the two positions, claims and counterclaims, a dense thicket of mitigating scientific indicators that all have the timbre of truth and the ring of potential plausibility. One of Dyson’s more significant surmises is that a warming climate could be forestalling a new ice age. Is he wrong? No one can say for sure.

There are many dumb things here, but which sentence most betrays that the reporter is out of his depth? To me it’s this one: Dyson strongly disagrees with each of these points, and there follows, as you move back and forth between the two positions, claims and counterclaims, a dense thicket of mitigating scientific indicators that all have the timbre of truth and the ring of potential plausibility. Yup, that’s right: If you don’t know anything about a given area, claims and counterclaims have the tendency to sound equally true. This is why misinformation is effective–especially on some journalists. This is why it’s dangerous to profile, to the length of 8,000 words, a climate change skeptic who is far outside of the mainstream when you don’t have much grounding in the climate change debate.

As I’ve lamented repeatedly, science journalism specialists are vanishing from the media right now. If you want to see what the media will look like without them, you need do little more than read Dawidoff’s article.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Global Warming, Media and Science

Comments (35)

  1. vel

    It’s rather amazing that those who wouldn’t take their car to a pediatrician or their child to a mechanic can’t see that asking a physicist/mathematician about climatology is just as stupid.

  2. The problem is really with Dawidoff, not with Dyson. The 8000 words don’t just profile Dyson’s article on climate change but also other aspects of his personality. Nobody could fail to be fascinated by the depth and breadth of the work Dyson has done (not his work on climate change obviously).

    I don’t agree with Dyson myself but lest you think his opinions are not thoughtful, I will point you to a review and concomitant analysis of three books on mitigation of climate change that he reviewed for the New York Review of Books; I would be interested in knowing what you think of this. Dyson is no slouch; what I find saddening in this case is that he is not doing a thorough analysis of work people have done, for instance dismissing their analysis as “computer modeling”.

    Dyson, like his illustrious Cornell predecessor Thomas Gold, likes to be a rebel as exemplified by the title of one of his recent books. I would rather him be wrong than not stick his neck out. I completely disagree with what he says about climate change (except for the part about genetically engineered CO2 imbibing plants) but his contrarian stance does not of course tarnish my respect for his tremendous intellect. I am sad Dawidoff chose to sloppily profile this aspect of the great man’s personality.

  3. Jon Winsor

    Maybe baseball is supposed to give an intellectual like George Will the sheen of a public-spirited Renaissance man, like A. Bartlett Giamatti or something… Elizabethan Lit dissertations, politics, baseball scores, climate science–same thing to the tweedy, bow tie-wearing Rennaisance man. (Not quite a man of the people, but goes to baseball games and eats hot dogs like the rest of us…)

    So how about actually doing some homework for us, George?

  4. Dave

    While I agree that the article was a poor one and overly sympathetic to Dyson and his ideas, I think you are off point in the following:

    “He writes foolish things like this: “[Dyson’s] dissension from the orthodoxy of global warming is significant because of his stature and his devotion to the integrity of science.” Um, no, it isn’t. It isn’t significant at all. Dyson’s fame and authority don’t buy him any special deference in this area”

    As you correctly point out, science doesnt work that way. But politics and public opinion do. And global warming is not just a scientific issue, it is also a political issue; Dyson’s dissension from the orthodoxy of global warming is politically significant because of his stature and his devotion to the integrity of science, even if it is not scientifically significant.

    Regards,
    Dave

  5. Sadly, Joe Romm is completely off base in his general assessment of the scientist. “Many people never thought he was a great scientist”?? Give me a break! Hans Bethe and Geoffrey Taylor both said that he was their best student, many including Steven Weinberg thinks he should have a Nobel prize, and there’s probably a good reason why the government is still including him on their JASON panel to judge the integrity of plutonium pits in the RRW program, even at the age of 85.

    I am sad to see that Romm’s opinions about Dyson’s climate change views have clouded his sense of reality.

    We need people who come up with a lot of bold ideas. It does not matter that some of them may seem like nonsense, as long as there is some stated logic behind them. The late Thomas Gold was also known for such heretical ideas. He supported the steady state theory and was rightly called misguided for that. But one of his more ridiculed theories, that “fossil” fuels don’t come from fossils and could at least partially have an abiological origin, is now being taken seriously.

  6. I’d disagree that abiogenic fossi fuel origins is being taken all that seriously, although maybe more so than the idea that greenhouse gases aren’t warming the climate.

    Gold and Dyson demonstrate the dangers of contrarian thinking as applied to science policy, because both men were innovative, inventive, and often wrong, even in their fields of expertise. Contrarian science is fine – it’s one of a thousand ideas that get explored simultaneously and entails little opportunity cost if proven wrong. Contrarian science policy is another kettle of fish because your choice is either to enact the policy or not. We don’t have a thousand hypothetical Earths to run experiments on.

    So do you follow Dyson, often wrong even in his own field, or do you follow the mainstream consensus in picking your policy?

  7. I have a copy of Dyson’s From Eros to Gaia on my shelf which has a couple of essays on the problem of excessive CO2. It’s provided a lot of ammunition through the years when arguing with folks who toss around claims that an increase in the stuff will lead to an era of ecological plenty.

    Which makes Dyson’s current stance all the more puzzling. To judge from the article he’s just parroting the cranky claims of industry standard greenhouse skeptics.

  8. I do not mean there is a consensus, nor do I imply that policy-makers should follow Dyson. I mean that at least some of these ideas are provocative enough and supported by enough thinking to be mulled over. I found Dyson’s reviews of the books on climate change backed by thinking. Whether it was sound or not is a different matter, but those who are equating him to right-wing political idealogues are spouting nonsense, and they should know better.

    Gold’s “Deep Hot Biosphere” is an extremely readable book filled with many logical arguments. I read the book twice, knowing that Gold is in a minority, and could not easily find holes to punch in the fundamental thesis. However I am not a geologist and of course Gold still might be wrong, but to my knowledge he has not been soundly refuted. In fact there seem to be some papers (one in PNAS published a few years back which I can’t seem to dig up) that offer partial support for his thoughts. Another Science paper seems to have demonstrated abiogenic hydrocarbon formation at least in a special case:

    http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/short/319/5863/604

    In any case, the real fault here was of Dawidoff in my opinion. He obviously knows very little about climate change to attempt a serious portrait of Dyson or anyone else for that matter. The article should have been written by a more science minded journalist who deals with Dyson’s views for what they are.

    I must now go back to From Eros to Gaia…

  9. Dark Tent

    I think Freeman Dyson exemplifies the danger in assuming that expertise and knowledge in one area means expertise and knowledge in another.

    By almost any measure (and i think most scientists would probably agree), Dyson is a great physicist/mathematician. His contributions (eg, in showing the equivalence of the Feynman, Schwinger and Tomonaga approaches to quantum electrodynamics) speak for themselves.

    But Dyson is NOT an expert in climate science and from what I have read of his writing on the subject, it seems that he has some rather naive views on how climate scientists have actually reached the conclusions they have. Computer modeling has not played the dominant role, Dyson’s belief notwithstanding.

    There is a real irony here: Dyson’s own field (theoretical physics, particularly applied to subatomic particle theory) relies far more heavily on mathematical and computer modeling than climate science, much of which is based on direct observation in the field (eg, of melting/receding glaciers, monitoring of temperatures throughout the world, on land, at sea and within the atmosphere, monitoring melting/collapsing ice sheets, measuring past Co2 levels in ice cores, tree ring analysis, etc)

    In some sense, i think dyson makes the same mistake that a lot of armchair climatologists make: he focuses on just one aspect of the discipline to the exclusion of others.

    What has really convinced me that global warming is real and a potentially a very significant problem is the preponderance of evidence (particularly the multi-decade trends) in many different areas: melting glaciers, warming temperatures, especially in the arctic, melting sea ice, change in the height of the tropopause, cooling stratosphere, rising sea levels, etc. The predictions of the computer simulations are not what convinced me.

  10. Thanks for the comments, all. Some good points have emerged on this thread, namely…

    It’s great for scientists to go against the grain, to challenge orthodoxies. And it’s even okay if they leave their respective fields in order to do so. So long as they’re operating as scientists, publishing, doing research, etc.

    But as Brian Schmidt pointed out, contrarian science policy is another matter entirely, much more problematic–and Dyson is clearly operating in the public policy and opinion realm on this matter, not within the science literature per se. That’s the problem.

    Meanwhile, I think we all agree that he drew a journalist who didn’t know how to handle all of this.

  11. The thing I will always remember most about Dyson would be his truly wonderful memoir Disturbing the Universe. His memories of how bureaucracy stifled common sense at the RAF during WW2 and how it unnecessarily cost the lives of pilots is heartbreaking. His accounts of working with Oppenheimer, Bethe and Feynman evoke a unique time which will probably not come around again. And his tales of working on safe nuclear reactors (Trigas) and spaceships are truly engaging.

    Dyson has always been known to move across disciplines and make useful, not necessarily groundbreaking contributions. His origin of life theories are taken seriously in the field, his contributions to adaptive optics is widely acknowledged. And the idea about growing genetically engineered CO2-absorbing plants is not as outrageous as it sound, although it certainly won’t cure the ills of climate change. He has sat on government panels and provided valuable advice about nuclear weapons, missile defense and sensors across the Mexican border. His books are some of the best books written by a scientist in terms of language; his knowledge of poetry and literature is almost as vast as his knowledge of science. He has always been a great generator of ideas that have varying merit. By any account he is one of the great scientists, thinkers and writers of the last fifty yeats. And by all accounts he is a wonderful man to know.

    That’s why I feel even more sad that given his talents, he is not making a better contribution to the climate change field than he could. But as for policy, I would suggest again reading his review of Nordhaus’s book. You will probably not agree with what he says and he is probably wrong but it’s hard to argue there that he has not thought through what he says.

  12. Chris, I guess that leaves the NYT editors in the hot seat — why did they let someone who was apparently well out of their area of specialty have 8000 words? What review process did they go through for what is likely to be taken as a significant comfort to climate deniers? I suspect, however, that as a human interest story the piece is unassailable, and the prospect of a little controversy was probably music to the editors. Indeed, it looks to me as if the piece hedges in just the right way to be quite easily defended as an editorial choice, while clearly firing a few bees at the noses of environmental activists.

    Anyway, I agree with Dave that it’s a political process. Dissing Freeman Dyson too directly is a mistake, even if you do it relatively indirectly by blaming the interviewer. Asking whether Dyson publishes top work in his field is no argument at all, sadly an argument that is overused by those who believe that climate change is happening (as I do, quite strongly, but I guess I’m trying to put a contrarian view here). Work that is published becomes top work or not because people find the presentation of the data and of the consequent argument convincing. Work has to be published to have a chance to become top work. Good work that steps on toes should never be published. The barrier to publishing in the NYT is rightly of a different nature to the barrier to publishing in an environmental journal, though of course the barrier is still high.

    I think there are plenty of pertinent criticisms of Dyson’s approach. We don’t have to focus on his personality and his interviewer. I particularly would like him to say what extra data should be collected to justify his prediction (which seems to be essentially) that everything will be alright if we leave everything more-or-less as it is, with a few tweaks. He says that computer models are error-prone (who knew?), and we should disregard them (perhaps only those that contradict our intuition?), but I didn’t catch where he presents a constructive alternative to computer models that goes much beyond his intuition (the complexity of perturbative QFT is very great, but it seems to me to be of a different nature to the complexity of the environment).
    I’m going only from the NYT article, which I read yesterday and I’ve instantly forgotten all the details. I’m out of field, as well, which is why I mostly just lurk at The Intersection. You’re perfectly free to engage in “Dyson’s fame and authority don’t buy him any special deference in this area; science does not work that way. Does Dyson publish top work in this field?”, but I cannot imagine this has no negative repercussions on the way that non-scientist policy-makers will respond to you. You, of course, are the science-public-policy specialist, it’s what you do, but expertise and group-think go hand in hand (which is why the publishing jibe rings hollow). I’m very curious how being (apparently, to me) obviously in the science group-think group affects your ability to be effective with the politics group-think group, although it’s clear that you have a continuous negotiation to avoid that particular pratfall in progress. To wit, Kudos for getting the Washington Post to publish your rebuttal, or correction, to George Will.

  13. Orson

    Chris wants to throw cold water on Dawidoff’s portrait of Dyson, based on the fact that his expertise is irrelevant to climate science. This is a nice way of moving the goal posts when one cannot win an argument.

    Because the US public is not yet behind AGW, the larger Truth above remains important: have years of loud cries of “consensus” moved non-climate scientists to join their ranks? Based on Lawrence Solomon’s book “The Deniers,” the answer appears to be ‘no.’ Not only is Italy itself in thrall of a denier, but here in river city (ie, Boulder, CO), climate scientists appear to be preaching to the choir – not converting other scientists.

    For instance, in the summer of 2007, I attended a cafe scientifique at the brewpub Red Fish in downtown Boulder. I shared my table with “Tom,” (PhD, physics, University of Rochester). He works in the electromagnetic division of NIST. So we watched NCAR climatologist Greg Holland wax worried about AGW and the imperative about taking action.

    We were under-whelmed, and a little saddened by Dr. Holland’s performance. Neither of us were changed in our jaundiced view of the matter. The best Holland could do is worry about sudden methane release from arctic warming. Something that appears worth study but seems improbable, given the thousands of warmer years in the arctic during the Holocene Optimum.

    Perhaps it is all too complicated to present over one hour. Or perhaps we are weird skeptics on such matters. But more likely, given this and Solomon’s observations, Dyson reflects non-specialist scientist’s doubts over anthropogenic global warming. Show me the evidence. And to dismiss him by moving goal posts is like to dismiss many many others, too.

    Top quote Sandra Bullock, playing an environmentalist-lawyer in the film “Two Weeks Notice,” “I just don’t see it….!”

  14. Dark Tent

    “Dyson reflects non-specialist scientist’s doubts over anthropogenic global warming. Show me the evidence. “

    The evidence is there in abundance. The latest IPCC report lays it out in terms that most scientists and engineers should be able to understand. And the scientific literature is replete with evidence for those who care to look deeper.

    But, for whatever reason, some simply refuse to look at the evidence and continue to make strawman arguments: “Computer models are error prone and do not necessarily model reality” (both true, but not critical to deciding whether global warming is likely to present a significant problem.)

    True “skepticism” (eg, as Bertrand Russell defined it) in science is valuable. Despite claims to the contrary, contrarianism is not.

    Claiming that ocean acidification is a “genuine but probably exaggerated problem” without detailing why is not science. It is opinion — and in Dyson’s case, uninformed opinion, at that.

    The scientists who study ocean acidification are truly alarmed by what they see.

    “Carbon emissions creating acidic oceans not seen since dinosaurs

    Chemical change placing ‘unprecedented’ pressure on marine life and could cause widespread extinctions, warn scientists”

    Given Dyson’s influence in the science policy arena, for Dyson simply to say the issue is “exaggerated” without detailing why in the scientific journals (including addressing in detail claims to the contrary made by scientists who have made it their career to study the issue) is highly irresponsible.

    Like the rest of us, Dyson is entitled to his opinion. But unlike the vast majority of us, he still commands a great deal of respect among scientists and the general public, he has New York Times articles written about him that repeat his (largely unsupported) opinions and he still has access to and commands respect in high level government circles.

  15. Dark Tent

    one last comment on

    Chris wants to throw cold water on Dawidoff’s portrait of Dyson, based on the fact that his expertise is irrelevant to climate science. This is a nice way of moving the goal posts when one cannot win an argument.

    It’s not that his expertise is irrelevant to climate science. It is that Dyson is simply not up to speed on the current state of climate science. or if he is, he has not shown as much by publishing in the scientific journals (NYTimes does not count)

    I’ll give you an example from Dyson’s (and my own) field of study: physics.

    Being conversant (even an expert) with Newtonian mechanics is not the same as being conversant with quantum mechanics. And most problems involving atoms simply can not be solved with classical Newtonian physics.

    And even knowing the details of advanced theoretical physics (eg QED or General relativity) does not really help much with climate science. I’ve yet to see the GCM that made use of either QED or general relativity. ( I wonder what a “virtual ocean current” would look like…Then again, I have seen black holes in glaciers…so maybe GR is applicable after all)

  16. Chris, your closing comment is the crux of why you don’t understand Larry Moran and the less curmudgeonly scientists. Such articles have been appearing for over 30 years. There is nothing new about them.

    Nor is it a matter that True Scotsmen, er, Real Science Journalists, don’t make the same sorts of errors. You note a false equivalence and division to opposing camps in the article at hand — people on one side say one thing and quote some sources, Dyson, on the other side saying other things. Recently, Andy Revkin was doing the same thing with George Will’s hideous column.

    The worse problem for science and society than the mere fact that there is bad science reporting out there, by science journalists and by others pressed into the position, is that it is much harder to unteach or unlearn something than to teach someone who is merely ignorant, or learn it yourself if you merely are ignorant. The erroneous articles do active harm and are worse than no reporting at all.

    I’m also a baseball fan. So as far as the science goes, that balances some of your observation.

  17. MadScientist

    I think a bit more on Freeman Dyson’s background would be appropriate. He’s a fairly well-known physicist and mathematician with a few big-deal awards such as the Max Planck and the Lorentz medals. He also has the dubious distinction of being awarded a Templeton Prize (a prize awarded essentially for promoting religion). At any rate, Dyson would have a very good understanding on how theories and models are tested; after all he has been involved with such work for most of his working life.

    However, people need to look carefully at what he writes, not go all ga-ga over what a journalist may write in an article. For one, I don’t even see evidence that Dyson denies global warming (which is happening) or even denies an anthropogenic contribution (the magnitude of which is not well established, but is definitely happening). Dyson has no time for the various climate model outputs though, and with that I agree with him. There are methods for establishing the validity of scientific models, and climate models simply are not up to the task. Such an assessment can be made by any competent scientist, not only ones dabbling with models. The models do not clarify anything, they merely confuse issues. We have to admit that we simply don’t know what will happen in the future. This in turn leads to another big question: how can we measure the efficacy of our proposed solutions? Unless that question can be answered, at least tentatively, then the remediation industry can be overwhelmed with garbage science.

    As an example of garbage science, many people believe that planting trees is a viable means of reducing CO2 in the atmosphere. This is absolutely wrong. The resources, logistics, economics, and plain old Nature all work against the proposition of planting trees. For example, taking Australia’s 2005 estimate of CO2 emissions, a 50% reduction would entail planting a high-density forest of about 6500 square kilometers (650K hectares) every year with 100% survival rates and no CO2 expended for that planting operation. Such forests must essentially be maintained in perpetuity. The recent forest fires in Australia have already emitted perhaps 3 times more than the 2005 emission estimate. Planting trees to ameliorate CO2 emissions? Not really a good idea. Go ahead and plant trees – I love trees – but don’t think you’re making any difference to global CO2.

    It is important to remain objective and not act like a pack of rabid dogs every time someone comes up with a dissenting view – even if they’re wrong. It would be far more disastrous to make a religion of global warming, especially if people start taking the output of climate models as gospel truth and attacking anyone who does not agree.

  18. Dark Tent

    Madscientist says a lot but at the same time says very little:

    I don’t even see evidence that Dyson denies global warming (which is happening) or even denies an anthropogenic contribution (the magnitude of which is not well established, but is definitely happening).

    Strawman.

    Dyson has no time for the various climate model outputs though, and with that I agree with him. There are methods for establishing the validity of scientific models, and climate models simply are not up to the task.

    Another strawman.

    Such an assessment can be made by any competent scientist, not only ones dabbling with models.

    Such an assessment (of the validity of the greenhouse effect, reality of current global warming and likely climate sensitivity[likely amount of additional warming if CO2 continues to increase]) can and has been made by competent climate scientists without using computer models.

    The models do not clarify anything, they merely confuse issues.

    Perhaps for those like madscientist.

    We have to admit that we simply don’t know what will happen in the future.

    Of course, one can not “predict” the future the way a palm reader with a crystal ball does, but one can say what things are more likely to happen than not.

    For example, it is unlikely that there will be a new ice age in the “near” future (near in human terms). It is also unlikely that the earth’s mean temperature will change by 5 deg C or more in response to a doubling of CO2.

    But we can also say (according to knowledgeable climate scientists who have studied the issue) that it is likely that the temperature will go up between 2C and 4.5C in response to said doubling, with a most likely value of about 3C. We can also say with some degree of confidence what is likely to happen (to ice sheets, sea level, ocean acidity, etc) in response to such a change (again, from study of the issues).

    Despite implications to the contrary, climate scientists have not claimed to “know the future”. No climate scientist is claiming that he knows what the future will bring but there is a huge chasm between “knowing with certainty” and “not knowing at all”.

    This in turn leads to another big question: how can we measure the efficacy of our proposed solutions? Unless that question can be answered, at least tentatively, then the remediation industry can be overwhelmed with garbage science.

    The insurance industry does this all the time with risk analysis ( based on “mathematical expectation”). They estimate the “cost” of various potential futures (eg, the likely cost of a hurricane of particular magnitude) and multiply by the probability that each future (hurricane of particular magnitude) will come to pass. Adding all these up gives an overall “expected cost”. One can then estimate how various mitigation plans (hurricane ties on the roof) will affect that expected cost (or in the case of the insurance industry, figure out how insurance rates to charge customers).

    people need to look carefully at what he [Dyson] writes, not go all ga-ga over what a journalist may write in an article. … As an example of garbage science, many people believe that planting trees is a viable means of reducing CO2 in the atmosphere. This is absolutely wrong.

    More than a little ironic, given Dyson’s own thoughts on the subject of dealing with CO2 increases:

    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.

    Perhaps madscientist should take his/her own advice and “look carefullywhat he [Dyson] writes, not go all ga-ga…”

    It is important to remain objective and not act like a pack of rabid dogs every time someone comes up with a dissenting view

    Another straw man.

  19. MadScientist

    @Dark Trent: Brilliant ad hominem attack, now go read and learn and don’t get so upset whenever anyone says the models are no damned good – it is apparent that when you hear that you’re hearing “global warming is not real”. Acolyte.

  20. Dark Tent

    Madscientist:

    Perhaps you might want to look up “ad hominem” in the dictionary (because you have no clue what it means).

    After that, as I suggested above, you will probably want to take your own advice and “look carefully at what he [Dyson] writes [especially the Dyson quote above about planting trees to remove carbon], not go all ga-ga…”

    Cheers!

  21. MadScientist

    @Dark Trent:

    You really are clueless thinking that I don’t know what ‘ad hominem’ means. Let me make a few points here. First of all, you go and label statements in my post as “strawman” but you don’t explain why and you don’t state what thesis you imagine I am supporting with the alleged ‘strawman’ statements. The main point is that Dyson is being vilified as a “global warming denier”, “climate change denier”, or the latest phrase: ‘climate change “skeptic”‘ with those pejorative and suggestive quotation marks. You outright dismiss valid claims as a ‘strawman’ – why do you claim that it is not relevant that Dyson in actual fact does *not* deny the climate is getting warmer? People are getting too religious about this thing and immediately brand people as ‘deniers’ without looking at facts and it really is pathetic that Dyson would be branded that way.

    So what is Dyson’s position? That’s fairly clear as well; he doesn’t believe the climate model results, nor do I believe any sensible person should. Dyson also isn’t convinced that a warmer climate will be disastrous; I don’t agree with him on that, but that doesn’t make him a ‘denier’. Dyson also commits a fairly obnoxious economists’ fallacy which is to say that if there is a problem then technology will leap to the rescue – in this case it is his idea of the genetically engineered trees. I wouldn’t be so bold as to say that such trees would never be created but they certainly don’t exist at the moment and I don’t know anything about tree genetics so I can’t make any claims about the viability of such a thing.

    So, on looking at the facts rather than screaming “climate denier”, you have a brilliant scientist making some statements without any supporting evidence. Why don’t you write to Dyson and ask him why he believes that an increase in temperatures will not be harmful? You could also ask more about his other statements. You seem to have the impression that I am defending Dyson and absolutely everything he says – and I have no idea where you get such a ridiculous notion; you imagine too many things which are not there.

    Going back to remedial actions, I state that there should be a method to gauge the efficacy of any action, while you deny that the efficacy should be measured – why? If efficacy cannot be measured then you are merely deluding yourself in saying you are doing something useful. This avoidance of metrics is a popular tactic with managers but it has no place in science.

    If you want to communicate effectively you have to know your audience. There are people who deny the globe is getting warmer, some even claim it’s getting cooler, people who say “ok, it’s getting warmer, but humans have nothing to do with it”, others say “so what it’s getting warmer, but that can be a good thing” and yet others who say “so what, there’s nothing we can do about it”. You cannot lump them all together and simply vilify them as witches and heretics. Calling Dyson or even well-know actual global warming deniers names is an absolute waste of time. You need to look at what they say; not everything they say is necessarily wrong, and address those issues on which they are mistaken. If you speak to Dyson for example, who knows- maybe he’ll just say “I don’t know” and shut up if you ask him about why he thinks warming would not be disastrous, but it is very important to understand why he makes that claim because that would give some insight into the various faults that people are prone to and the issue can be addressed appropriately.

    On another point you state that modelers do not claim to predict the future, and on that I disagree with you. I see tarot-like predictions come up all the time; one of the favorites is “global warming will lead to more frequent and more severe hurricanes”. How much more frequent? How much more severe? How can we tell that this is actually happening rather than just generalized mumbo-jumbo of the sort you get from fortune cookies? Such claims are worse than worthless in science if they cannot be tested; how are other scientists meant to trust people who make such unsubstantiated claims? I see that a few organizations are making money by doing ‘climate impact’ analyses for various groups – how can you claim that such action is not laying claim to predicting the future?

  22. Dark Tent

    Madscientist;

    Claiming or implying that the warnings of climate scientists are exaggerated and can not be relied upon because their computer models are unreliable is a strawman.

    That “Computer models are error prone and do not necessarily model reality” are both true, but not critical to deciding whether global warming is likely to present a significant problem.

    As I stated above in my first reply to you

    Such an assessment (of the validity of the greenhouse effect, reality of current global warming and likely climate sensitivity[likely amount of additional warming if CO2 continues to increase]) can and has been made by competent climate scientists without using computer models. </blockquote.

    The primary conclusions drawn by climate scientists about global warming — including the most probable magnitude of the temperature increase for a CO2 doubling and the likely effects thereof — do not depend in any critical way upon the outputs from computer models.

    Apart from the primary strawman issue, I would simply comment that I really think you need to do some reading on the subject of global warming and climate science in general because it is clear that you have a lot of misconceptions.

    Spencer Wearts The Discovery Of Global warming is a good place to start (and, by the way, there is a section on GCM’s)

    PS for future reference, you may want to refrain from attributing statements to people (in this case myself) that they never made or even implied.

    For example, nowhere (on this blog, or elsewhere for that matter) have I vilified Dyson as a

    “global warming denier”, “climate change denier”, or the latest phrase: ‘climate change “skeptic”‘ with those pejorative and suggestive quotation marks. ”

    nor is it clear why you addressed the following statement to me

    “You cannot lump them all together and simply vilify them as witches and heretics. Calling Dyson or even well-know actual global warming deniers names is an absolute waste of time.”

    or this one, for example

    So, on looking at the facts rather than screaming “climate denier”,

    If you are indeed attributing these statements to me (as appears to be the case), then you either have a very vivid imagination or need reading glasses.

    It should be perfectly clear to anyone reading my above posts that I never claimed or even implied that Dyson was a “climate change denier”. I commented on Dyson’s lack of expertise in climate science and his misguided focus on the “unreliable computer models”.

  23. Dark Tent

    resubmit; part of my above post was truncated

    Madscientist;

    Claiming or implying that the warnings of climate scientists are exaggerated and can not be relied upon because their computer models are unreliable is a strawman.

    That “Computer models are error prone and do not necessarily model reality” are both true, but not critical to deciding whether global warming is likely to present a significant problem.

    As I stated above in my first reply to you

    Such an assessment (of the validity of the greenhouse effect, reality of current global warming and likely climate sensitivity[likely amount of additional warming if CO2 continues to increase]) can and has been made by competent climate scientists without using computer models.

    The primary conclusions drawn by climate scientists about global warming — including the most probable magnitude of the temperature increase for a CO2 doubling and the likely effects thereof — do not depend in any critical way upon the outputs from computer models.

    Apart from the primary strawman issue, I would simply comment that I really think you need to do some reading on the subject of global warming and climate science in general because it is clear that you have a lot of misconceptions.

    Spencer Wearts The Discovery Of Global warming is a good place to start (and, by the way, there is a section on GCM’s)

    PS for future reference, you may want to refrain from attributing statements to people (in this case myself) that they never made or even implied.

    For example, nowhere (on this blog, or elsewhere for that matter) have I vilified Dyson as a

    “global warming denier”, “climate change denier”, or the latest phrase: ‘climate change “skeptic”‘ with those pejorative and suggestive quotation marks. ”

    nor is it clear why you addressed the following statement to me

    “You cannot lump them all together and simply vilify them as witches and heretics. Calling Dyson or even well-know actual global warming deniers names is an absolute waste of time.”

    or this one, for example

    So, on looking at the facts rather than screaming “climate denier”,

    If you are indeed attributing these statements to me (as appears to be the case), then you either have a very vivid imagination or need reading glasses.

    It should be perfectly clear to anyone reading my above posts that I never claimed or even implied that Dyson was a “climate change denier”. I commented on Dyson’s lack of expertise in climate science and his misguided focus on the “unreliable computer models”.

  24. MadScientist

    @Dark Trent:

    I still don’t see why you bring up the strawman. Did I ever say global warming does not exist because the models are wrong, or that there would not be catastrophic warming because the models are wrong? As I said, you are imagining too much which is simply not there. Maybe that goes for both of us.

    Dyson’s focus on the “unreliable computer models” is precisely why I say the models often confuse issues – it’s easy to attack the models and their output in part because they are so complex and in part because no one has demonstrated or formally proven that they are correct, nor even gone through formal procedures to prove the error of the estimates. What we need to focus on is what Dyson says and why, and address those issues. So models – well, forget the models – as you pointed out the GCMs are not necessary to show a (human induced) warming. Now the task is to make that clear to the public, because the honest truth is that the public hears nothing on the news but references/allusions to models and predicted catastrophes – all the scary stuff that sells news. The next step is to publicly question people like Dyson and ask him why he claims, for example, that the warming might overall be good for the planet; in asking such questions in public then people begin to see that many claims are made without support. I think it would be great sport to have such a person interviewed on TV and to have the interviewer ask such questions later on.

    Of course things are never that simple; I always hear the tired recourse to “but in the 1960’s people were predicting a new ice age” – thanks to old articles which have since been shown to be erroneous. That sort of behavior does lead us to one very important issue of how people perceive science – they see it as unchanging and wrongly assume that something published and accepted in the past must somehow be true. No scientist I know sees things that way – many if not all scientists are familiar with things ranging from small oversights to huge plain wrong assertions so it may be a shock to some scientists that the public perception is like that. These are simply issues which we must address as they become known to us.

    I apologise then for saying you were labelling Dyson as a climate change denier; I certainly misunderstood your post or read too much into it.

    The question remains: how do we address people like Dyson, whom I don’t see to be an obviously fanatic denier, and help people actually understand issues. There is no formula to use really, some of the people who are involved and have studied the problems in detail need to think a lot about how to present information to the public and that process of thinking and refining ideas must simply go on indefinitely. If others are inspired and join in, so much the better. The realclimate website has had a “how to address a climate skeptic” list for a number of years; I do not advocate parroting from that list (which unfortunately many of my colleagues do), I see it as a suggestion on what might be expected and where some more learning may be desirable to address issues. Personally I never tire from hearing what others say; even the well known deniers out there provide a lot of insight not only into how they craft their stories and attempt to gain an audience (although I do roll my eyes a lot at the “new ice age” arguments), but they may also give some insight into their own flawed thinking and why they cling to their beliefs. If you can understand how and why people just don’t give up on something regardless of evidence there may be some hope yet of even winning them over; and even if it seems there is no hope, you still have valuable information.

  25. Trivial Pursuit

    CO2 doesn’t cause global warming. This blog is.

  26. Marion Delgado

    Ashutoth:

    I completely agree. Joe Romm may be confusing Dyson’s relative lack of academic credentials with a lack of peer recognition. In addition to his early contribution to Feynman diagrams, he actually came up with many original formulations that advanced the Standard Model of particle physics, after all.

    Actually, the parts of the profile not about climate change aren’t bad.

    But who is taking abiogenesis of, say, oil seriously, again? That wasn’t doing so, say, 10 years ago? I honestly don’t know of anyone.

  27. Skeptic

    Global warming has become a religion indeed if opinions by someone who is not even a bona fide warming denier evoke such strong and intolerant responses. The idea of growing genetically engineered trees to soak up CO2 is now taken seriously. Plus, Dyson has a very reasoned discussion of William Nordhaus’s much appreciated book on economic solutions to global warming. Plus, he is not even saying he is right and says he is putting out ideas which can be tested and falisfied. That you neglect all this only shows how intolerant the warmists have become. Shame on all of you who call yourself reasonable scientific thinkers.

  28. John Bladen

    I find the tremendous emotion involved in ‘defense’ of one’s point of view in this matter troubling, particularly when viewed in hindsight. Science should never involve the defense of a previously held position to the exclusion of all else. Should we learn tomorrow, for example, that Einstein’s greatest work can be disproved – instantly consigned to the dustbin of history – then consign it we must.

    For the record, Dr. Dyson’s central theme is that we must keep an open mind in reviewing any data, be it supportive of our views or otherwise. He is, in an almost grandfatherly way, speaking to the new generation of highly energized scientists (and students), urging them not to close their minds to contrary evidence, no matter how attached to that position they may be. Even distinguished and accomplished researchers are not above “falling in love with a toy”.

    The media does not make maintaining an open mind easy for laypeople, certainly. How many of us heard the somewhat erroneous “distillation” of the IPCC’s last report summary (apparently the media couldn’t bring themselves to read the entire report before spinning it publicly) broadcast to the nation? I wonder how many still believe the conclusive & definitive MSNBC edition of the report, yet have not bothered even to read the freely available summary themselves?

    All parties, whether decorated & distinguished scientist, award winning student, or industrial labourer, must be willing to consider new information. Science is about questions far more than it is about answers. Errors advance the process every bit as much as definitive proofs do. Any party that adopts a ‘final’ position before all the necessary questions are answered is on dangerous professional & moral ground. Any scientist who answers a request for additional data in support of their position with a preemptive “there isn’t time for further study” is no scientist at all.

    I applaud Dr. Dyson for speaking out. He may be right, or he may be spectacularly wrong. In either case, he will have advanced the cause of science – simply by insisting that there is insufficient data to derive a proper answer. The recent flap regarding the potential massaging of data by certain members of the IPCC only speaks to that need.

    Science is about developing theories and then trying to destroy them. It is NOT about adopting evidence supportive of one’s position and then ridiculing anyone who dares question that position. Distinguished alumnus and student alike would do well to remember that.

  29. Arno Arrak

    Freeman Dyson happen to be an exceptionally well qualified scientist to evaluate global warming claims. This B.S. that you have to be trained as a “climate scientist” to have any say about it is just that – B.S. Neither Hansen nor Mann nor Jones nor Trenbeth was trained as a climate scientist – it is simply an honorific they appropriate to themselves for P.R. purposes. Everyone can read what they write and from what I have seen almost all of their writing is also B.S. The global warming they see is bogus and temperature curves from NASA, NOAA, and Hadley Centre that show it are cooked. This has been so since the beginning of that “late twentieth century warming” in the eighties and nineties – see the book “What Warming?” for details. You will learn that satellite temperature measurements simply cannot see this so-called “warming” but right in the middle of it, in 1988, Hansen gets up in front of a Senate committee and testifies that the warming has started and that its cause is carbon dioxide in the air. His testimony was part of a huge media circus, with more than ten TV cameras trained on him, and led to the establishment of IPCC that same year. NOAA temperature charts show that the warming he speaks of started about 1977. Previous to this there had been no sign of warming since 1950 and scientists were speculating about a coming ice age. But based on only ten years of bogus warming he extrapolates the global warming curve to year 2020 and shows a huge temperature rise tied to carbon dioxide production. Carbon dioxide theory climate predictions have proven very wrong for we have not had any warming, and considerable cooling, for the last ten years. That is as many years of cooling as the number of years of warming that Hansen had available to start his global warming craze. Apologists now claim that the cooling is only temporary because “natural conditions” have interfered with it and that warming will resume. If natural conditions are controlling the weather your theory sure is not doing it. The theory of carbon dioxide greenhouse warming has simply failed as a scientific theory and should be abandoned. And with it all institutions and projects based on it, including the IPCC, Kyoto and all other devices for carbon dioxide control. Carbon dioxide is not a pollutant, it does not warm the world, and it promotes plant growth that increases our food supply.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »