by Judith Curry
“For views opposing EPA’s, see, e.g., Dawidoff, The Civil Heretic, N. Y. Times Magazine 32 (March 29, 2009). The Court, we caution, endorses no particular view of the complicated issues related to carbon dioxide emissions and climate change.”
A comment by a blog post at globalwarming.org on this reference to the New York Times Magazine article on Dyson:
Now bear in mind that the N.Y.Times article appeared before the Alan Carlin-EPA whistleblower scandal, before ClimateGate, and before the subsequent series of embarrassments regarding the IPCC report (which itself was repeatedly cited by the 5-4 majority in Massachusetts v. EPA). One can speculate on why, of all the articles available to it, the Court chose to single out this one. But regardless—I’m glad that all those angered by the Times story two years ago now have reason to get angry all over again.
I hadn’t previously read The Civil Heretic article. The title caught my interest, so I took a look. The entire article is well worth reading (even worth reading again, if you read it previously). Some excerpts:
Lately, however, since coming “out of the closet as far as global warming is concerned,” as Dyson sometimes puts it, there has been noise all around him. Chat rooms, Web threads, editors’ letter boxes and Dyson’s own e-mail queue resonate with a thermal current of invective in which Dyson has discovered himself variously described as “a pompous twit,” “a blowhard,” “a cesspool of misinformation,” “an old coot riding into the sunset” and, perhaps inevitably, “a mad scientist.” Dyson had proposed that whatever inflammations the climate was experiencing might be a good thing because carbon dioxide helps plants of all kinds grow. . . Dyson’s son, George, a technology historian, says his father’s views have cooled friendships, while many others have concluded that time has cost Dyson something else. There is the suspicion that, at age 85, a great scientist of the 20th century is no longer just far out, he is far gone — out of his beautiful mind.
Among Dyson’s gifts is interpretive clarity, a penetrating ability to grasp the method and significance of what many kinds of scientists do. His thoughts about how science works appear in a series of lucid, elegant books for nonspecialists that have made him a trusted arbiter of ideas ranging far beyond physics. Dyson has written more than a dozen books, including “Origins of Life” (1999), which synthesizes recent discoveries by biologists and geologists into an evaluation of the double-origin hypothesis, the possibility that life began twice; “Disturbing the Universe” (1979) tries among other things to reconcile science and humanity. “Weapons and Hope” (1984) is his meditation on the meaning and danger of nuclear weapons that won a National Book Critics Circle Award. Dyson’s books display such masterly control of complex matters that smart young people read him and want to be scientists; older citizens finish his books and feel smart.
And according to the physicist and former Caltech president Marvin Goldberger, Dyson is himself the living embodiment of that kind of ingenuity. “You point Freeman at a problem and he’ll solve it,” Goldberger says. “He’s extraordinarily powerful.” Dyson seems to see the world as an interdisciplinary set of problems out there for him to evaluate. Climate change is the big scientific issue of our time, so naturally he finds it irresistible. But to Dyson this is really only one more charged conundrum attracting his interest just as nuclear weapons and rural poverty have. That is to say, he is a great problem-solver who is not convinced that climate change is a great problem.
Dyson may be an Obama-loving, Bush-loathing liberal who has spent his life opposing American wars and fighting for the protection of natural resources, but he brooks no ideology and has a withering aversion to scientific consensus. The Nobel physics laureate Steven Weinberg admires Dyson’s physics — he says he thinks the Nobel committee fleeced him by not awarding his work on quantum electrodynamics with the prize — but Weinberg parts ways with his sensibility: “I have the sense that when consensus is forming like ice hardening on a lake, Dyson will do his best to chip at the ice.”
Dyson says he doesn’t want his legacy to be defined by climate change, but his dissension from the orthodoxy of global warming is significant because of his stature and his devotion to the integrity of science. . . In the words of Avishai Margalit, a philosopher at the Institute for Advanced Study, “He’s a consistent reminder of another possibility.” When Dyson joins the public conversation about climate change by expressing concern about the “enormous gaps in our knowledge, the sparseness of our observations and the superficiality of our theories,” these reservations come from a place of experience. Whatever else he is, Dyson is the good scientist; he asks the hard questions. He could also be a lonely prophet. Or, as he acknowledges, he could be dead wrong.
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. . . Beyond the specific points of factual dispute, Dyson has said that it all boils down to “a deeper disagreement about values” between those who think “nature knows best” and that “any gross human disruption of the natural environment is evil,” and “humanists,” like himself, who contend that protecting the existing biosphere is not as important as fighting more repugnant evils like war, poverty and unemployment.
When I asked Sacks what he thought about all this, he said that “a favorite word of Freeman’s about doing science and being creative is the word ‘subversive.’ He feels it’s rather important not only to be not orthodox, but to be subversive, and he’s done that all his life.”
Dyson says it’s only principle that leads him to question global warming: “According to the global-warming people, I say what I say because I’m paid by the oil industry. Of course I’m not, but that’s part of their rhetoric. If you doubt it, you’re a bad person, a tool of the oil or coal industry.” Global warming, he added, “has become a party line.”
What may trouble Dyson most about climate change are the experts. Experts are, he thinks, too often crippled by the conventional wisdom they create, leading to the belief that “they know it all.” The men he most admires tend to be what he calls “amateurs,” inventive spirits of uncredentialed brilliance like Bernhard Schmidt, an eccentric one-armed alcoholic telescope-lens designer; Milton Humason, a janitor at Mount Wilson Observatory in California whose native scientific aptitude was such that he was promoted to staff astronomer; and especially Darwin, who, Dyson says, “was really an amateur and beat the professionals at their own game.”
Climate-change specialists often speak of global warming as a matter of moral conscience. Dyson says he thinks they sound presumptuous.
Reached by telephone, Hansen sounds annoyed as he says, “There are bigger fish to fry than Freeman Dyson,” who “doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” In an e-mail message, he adds that his own concern about global warming is not based only on models, and that while he respects the “open-mindedness” of Dyson, “if he is going to wander into something with major consequences for humanity and other life on the planet, then he should first do his homework — which he obviously has not done on global warming.”
These days, most of what consumes Dyson is his writing. In a recent article, he addressed the issue of reductionist thinking obliquely, as a question of perspective. Birds, he wrote, “fly high in the air and survey broad vistas.” Frogs like him “live in the mud below and see only the flowers that grow nearby.” Whether the topic is government work, string theory or climate change, Dyson seems opposed to science making enormous gestures.
Dyson’s reaction to the article
A subsequent interview by Yale360 remarks on the New York Magazine piece. Some quotes from Dyson:
It was reasonably accurate on details, because they did send a fact-checker. So I was able to correct the worst mistakes. But what I could not correct was the general emphasis of the thing. He had his agenda. Obviously he wanted to write a piece about global warming and I was just the instrument for that, and I am not so much interested in global warming. He portrayed me as sort of obsessed with the subject, which I am definitely not. To me it is a very small part of my life. I don’t claim to be an expert. I never did. I simply find that a lot of these claims that experts are making are absurd. Not that I know better, but I know a few things. My objections to the global warming propaganda are not so much over the technical facts, about which I do not know much, but it’s rather against the way those people behave and the kind of intolerance to criticism that a lot of them have. I think that’s what upsets me.
I think the difference between me and most of the experts is that I think I have a much wider view of the whole subject. I was involved in climate studies seriously about 30 years ago. That’s how I got interested. There was an outfit called the Institute for Energy Analysis at Oak Ridge. I visited Oak Ridge many times, and worked with those people, and I thought they were excellent. And the beauty of it was that it was multi-disciplinary. There were experts not just on hydrodynamics of the atmosphere, which of course is important, but also experts on vegetation, on soil, on trees, and so it was sort of half biological and half physics. And I felt that was a very good balance.
And there you got a very strong feeling for how uncertain the whole business is, that the five reservoirs of carbon all are in close contact — the atmosphere, the upper level of the ocean, the land vegetation, the topsoil, and the fossil fuels. They are all about equal in size. They all interact with each other strongly. So you can’t understand any of them unless you understand all of them. Essentially that was the conclusion. It’s a problem of very complicated ecology, and to isolate the atmosphere and the ocean just as a hydrodynamics problem makes no sense.
Well, both. I mean it’s a fact that they don’t know how to model it. And the question is, how does it happen that they end up believing their models? But I have seen that happen in many fields. You sit in front of a computer screen for 10 years and you start to think of your model as being real. It is also true that the whole livelihood of all these people depends on people being scared. Really, just psychologically, it would be very difficult for them to come out and say, “Don’t worry, there isn’t a problem.” It’s sort of natural, since their whole life depends on it being a problem. I don’t say that they’re dishonest. But I think it’s just a normal human reaction. It’s true of the military also. They always magnify the threat. Not because they are dishonest; they really believe that there is a threat and it is their job to take care of it. I think it’s the same as the climate community, that they do in a way have a tremendous vested interest in the problem being taken more seriously than it is.
JC comments: Well it doesn’t sound to me like Freeman Dyson is “out of his beautiful mind.” If the climate establishment cannot convince people like Freeman Dyson of their arguments and assessment, well they shouldn’t be surprised if there is skepticism and backlash about their assessments.
The Civil Heretic raises in my mind the issue of “which experts” should be listened to. The PNAS article “Expert credibility in climate change” explicitly sought to dismiss the expertise of anyone that had not published at least 20 peer reviewed journal articles of relevance to climate change. Which was the rationale for dismissing Dyson from the list of credible skeptics on the subject of climate change.
So here is a fundamental question: Who should evaluate and assess climate science? Dyson makes a cogent point: Experts are too often crippled by the conventional wisdom they create, leading to the belief that “they know it all.” A scientist that passes the PNAS climate scientist litmus test of publishing 20 or more papers relevant to climate science may be merely dotting i’s and crossing t’s of an established narrative: a frog, rather than a bird.
Dyson was a member of the JASONs, he made this comment in the heretic article: Often on his mind were proposals submitted by the government to Jason. “Mainly we kill stupid projects,” he says. The concept of the JASONs is an interesting one. From the Wikipedia article on the JASONs:
JASON is an independent group of scientists which advises the United States government on matters of science and technology. JASON members all have security clearances, and they include physicists, biologists, chemists, oceanographers, mathematicians, and computer scientists. They are selected for their scientific brilliance, and, over the years, have included eleven Nobel Prize laureates and several dozen members of the United States National Academy of Sciences.
Hence the JASONs provide independent assessments of an area of science, particularly large projects, i.e. the assessment is made by a diverse group of brilliant scientists with no personal interest in the outcome of the assessment.
Something like the JASONs would be very valuable for assessing climate science. I think Dyson makes a strong case for independent assessment of “big science.” What goes on in the technical climate blogosphere is also working towards this.
In summary, I find it pretty difficult to dismiss what Dyson has said in this article, and it is not to the credit of people like Jim Hansen that have tried to marginalize him.
And finally, I just spotted this quote on Dyson’s Wikipedia profile page:
Even in the noisiest system, errors can be reliably corrected and accurate information transmitted, provided that the transmission is sufficiently redundant. That is, in a nutshell, how Wikipedia works. … Science is the sum total of a great multitude of mysteries. It is an unending argument between a great multitude of voices. It resembles Wikipedia much more than it resembles the Encyclopaedia Britannica.