Skip

Freeman Dyson's Global Warming Heresy
January 19, 2011 2:19 PM   Subscribe

The Danger of Cosmic Genius. Why is Freeman Dyson now considered "perhaps our most prominent global-warming skeptic?" Previously
posted by zarq (50 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
Dilemma: I want to know if this is any good before I start reading it. There's so much narrative. . . .
posted by grobstein at 2:40 PM on January 19, 2011


This is a textbook example of why "Appeal to authority" is such a dangerous fallacy. Here is arguably one of the smartest, most accomplished men of science on the planet holding forth on a subject with demonstrably false facts.

If you've got blood in your veins, you're subject to the same emotional bases for your thought patterns as everyone else - you will make mistakes. It's too bad there wasn't a little more humility or self-auditing in the man.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 2:43 PM on January 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


The Atlantic article that fronts it is really bad (sorry!). It's just a half-assed attempt at a psycho-analysis through the medium of meander through biographical anecdotes.
posted by Philosopher's Beard at 2:43 PM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


grobstein: The narrative is from a friend who wrote a book on Dyson and his son, and has known them for decades. While there is a lot of background on the family it doesn't tie up the whole article. Lots of other info on Freeman's career(s) and earlier history. A good read.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 2:45 PM on January 19, 2011


But the (short) SciAm article as a nice analogy between climate models and economic ones that I wish more people understood
posted by Philosopher's Beard at 2:46 PM on January 19, 2011


grobstein: "Dilemma: I want to know if this is any good before I start reading it. There's so much narrative. . . ."

Heh. I'm obviously biased, but I thought all of them taken together presented a rather fascinating picture.
posted by zarq at 2:50 PM on January 19, 2011


Ultimately, "every model has to be compared to the real world and, if you can't do that, then don't believe the model."

So true, so very true. My model friend told me he was living off of praise of fashion critics and champagne, but I'm sure I've seen him sequester cookies around his house, like some radiant squirrel.

Silly jokes aside, it's an interesting series of articles, and an interesting concern. But it also sounds like he is set in the belief that (as he said in the first article) "everyone else [is] so stupid." At some point, an amazing brain can only be brilliant in a certain number of fields, even if that number is far greater than other current scientists.

Tangent: even SciAm is plucking article images from Flickr? Is that a normal thing now? Still strikes me as odd.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:50 PM on January 19, 2011


Mentioned in (at least) two of the links: the 2008 New York Review of Books review by Dyson: The Question of Global Warming.
posted by zarq at 2:58 PM on January 19, 2011


A quite remarkable man. Sadly deluded on this one thing however. Here's the key passage on what he believes:
Dyson did not deny that the world was getting warmer. What he doubted was the models of the climatologists, and the grave consequences they predicted, and the supposition that global warming is bad. “I went to Greenland myself, where the warming is most extreme,” he said. “And it’s quite spectacular, of course, what you see in Greenland. But what is also true is, the people there love it. The people there hope it continues. It makes their lives a lot more pleasant.”

Dyson argued that melting ice and the resulting sea-level rise is no cause for alarm. He said that the release of increasing volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is a very good thing, as it makes plants grow better. The important thing to remember, he said, is that the planet is warming mainly in places that are cold, and at night rather than during the day, so that the phenomenon is essentially making the climate more even, rather than just making everything hotter.
Pretty much everything there is demonstrably false, but we knew that. I'm not going to attempt some pop psychology analysis of how he got there (unlike the authors of those pieces), jsut shake my head.

One thing that Dyson makes clear, this is no great cause for him, it's just what he believes, he's certainly not trying to make a career out of the matter.
posted by wilful at 3:00 PM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


criticism of climate models, whether in the context of Freeman Dyson, or that other thread that I started, or anything climate change related, is often quite tediously wrong.

it's true (and I find it amusing) that there's a good saying "all models are wrong, some models are useful". Nobody claims infallibility from modelled results, but the degree of sophistication and of independent cross-verification of a large number of independently derived models shows a remarkably high degree of confidence in the general predictions they all provide. They can and do backcast them, and find that they really do tend to work.

And what, pray, is the alternative for looking at the future climate? Do nothing and wait and see? Build a second earth to test? I mean really, any model critics should either make specific claims about wrong information or they should propose and alternative methodology, or they should S.T.F.U.
posted by wilful at 3:06 PM on January 19, 2011 [12 favorites]


"Dyson has great affection for coal and for one big reason: It is so inexpensive that most of the world can afford it. 'There’s a lot of truth to the statement Greens are people who never had to worry about their grocery bills,' he says. ('Many of these people are my friends,' he will also tell you.) To Dyson, 'the move of the populations of China and India from poverty to middle-class prosperity should be the great historic achievement of the century. Without coal it cannot happen.'"

Look I believe in global warming, and Dyson is probably wrong here, but Dyson is also a genius at holistic thinking and people should listen to his concerns. That's my stance. Its too bad the skeptics latch on to one thing he says and republish it endlessly, but the idea of a united front (against anti-science global warming skeptic zealots) is never going to happen and squelching opinions for the sake of trying do it is only slightly less dangerous than global warming itself in the long run.
posted by tmthyrss at 3:08 PM on January 19, 2011 [6 favorites]


I'm with Dyson in that I think global warming (just like all change) is going to be bad for some of people, good for other people and I have strong doubts about the most catastrophic predictions. I just ignore pretty much everyone on both sides of the issue because so many people are pushing their own agenda that has absolutely nothing to do with the science, because they don't understand the science and don't care to.

But, I'm a small-c (not politically, temperamentally) conservative in most cases, and I think the cautious thing to do is to enact policies that slow climate change as much as possible so people and institutions have time to react, which means that I'm in favor of things like a carbon tax, cap and trade, alternative energy, etc.
posted by empath at 3:19 PM on January 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


tmthryss: Dyson also believes we're entering a "post-Darwinian" age where all other species disappear, and the Open Source model is extended to people sharing their genes as well as information. Before you climb too firmly on board his wagon.
posted by msalt at 3:23 PM on January 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


Whether or not people agree on climate warming, it makes me sad that it seems our core environmental problem seems to be overpopulation, and neither liberals nor conservatives have any desire to have fewer children.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 3:34 PM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


The core problem with Dyson's purportedly holistic point of view on this is that it's not at all holistic; it's actually extraordinarily narrow and dated. You can tell - not just with him but with most self-proclaimed skeptics - by their literal interpretation of the (increasingly outmoded) phrase "global warming" as referring exclusively to a change in global temperatures and not to the broader and much more complex and intractable problem of anthropogenic climate change.

It's not worth the effort to fully address all that's missed from this myopic perspective. But to cite just one enormous case in point: ocean acidification. Nothing in Dyson's critique begins to take into account the catastrophic impact of ocean acidification, the reduction of the ocean's pH (via absorption of excess carbon dioxide) which is already wreaking enormous havoc with aquatic ecosystems and which is pretty much guaranteed to trigger a mass extinction event destroying virtually all the world's coral reefs this century on our current emissions trajectory.

If I had any sense that a guy like Dyson had even heard of ocean acidification - let alone read Charlie Veron's A Reef in Time or any of the other serious scholarship on this stuff - I'd maybe want to hear more about where his skepticism comes from. As it stands, though, it's not much more sophisticated in its thinking than those but-it's-cold-this-winter arguments bleated out by hardcore right-wing denialists.
posted by gompa at 3:45 PM on January 19, 2011 [13 favorites]


our core environmental problem seems to be overpopulation, and neither liberals nor conservatives have any desire to have fewer children.

The problem is not overpopulation but overconsumption.
posted by docgonzo at 4:04 PM on January 19, 2011


neither liberals nor conservatives have any desire to have fewer children.

The only countries in the world where people are reducing above replacement rate are in the developing world. Both "liberals" and "conservatives", however you define those terms, everywhere in the industrialized world are reproducing below replacement rate.

The problem is not reducing reproduction among people who have the resources (including medical care and legal rights) to make conscious decisions about that--the problem is providing people who don't currently have the resources with the resources they need to make conscious decisions about that.

In other words, improving the quality of life and social justice in the developing world. Rates of population growth and women's rights to educational, economic, and legal parity are in an inverse relationship. And the added benefit of taking that approach is that you are bringing lots of new ideas into the system, not to mention someone who might be the next Marie Curie or Rita Levi-Montalcini.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:15 PM on January 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


Its too bad the skeptics latch on to one thing he says and republish it endlessly

One thing? It's not like this is some isolated place where Dyson discards the scientific method entirely (what the hell is up with the "People in Greenland are happy, therefore global warming isn't a problem" as an argument? Does he think the rest of us don't know how few people in live in Greenland compared to how many people live in, say, Indonesia?)--Dyson is one of those people like Linus Pauling who is a visionary leader in his actual discipline and prey to every ridiculous idea that comes down the pike in every other discipline.

There's also the weird genomic-singularity nonsense that msalt discusses. And his out-there sloppiness in The Origin of Life and basically everything he's ever written about biology.

Dyson is a distinguished physicist. But he is ill-informed about how climate scientists do their work, and what data they have on hand, and how they have analyzed it. Being a distinguished physicist does not make you a Genius of Everything.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:24 PM on January 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


Hubris is the term we're looking for here. Certainly was true of Pauling...
posted by bluefrog at 4:34 PM on January 19, 2011


The problem is not overpopulation but overconsumption.

Nobody seems very enthused about telling their children that they're just going to have to suck it up, either.
posted by Kadin2048 at 4:38 PM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Dyson is a distinguished physicist.

Awww nuts, it's the real Dyson, the Dyson sphere guy? I was hoping that it was the vacuum cleaner guy.
posted by XMLicious at 4:44 PM on January 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Both "liberals" and "conservatives", however you define those terms, everywhere in the industrialized world are reproducing below replacement rate.

This is not true. The birthrate in the U.S. last year was 2.6 percent.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 4:47 PM on January 19, 2011


The thing is, acting on the most dire warnings at worst cost the first world some money, time, and comfort, and not even all that much of each. It might prevent a global catastrophe, and arguably (unless you're Dick Cheney or his peers) makes the world a better place anyway. From a man-on-the-street point of view, there is barely any hardship, especially if money spent on war toys was redirected to work on the problem.

Ignoring climate change brings hardly any benefit to the man on the street, while potentially starving his descendants, literally. But the fat cats profit like crazy, so it must be the right decision.

Hm.
posted by maxwelton at 4:59 PM on January 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Wow, that Atlantic article sucked. Why didn't the author call up Dyson for his opinion, since he had previously interviewed him at length for a book about him and his son?

This is his explanation?
(I chose not to interview Dyson afresh for this essay, not from any impatience with his mental walkabouts, but because what I wanted to address here were his public statements on climate change, the environment, and technology.)
First of all, I don't understand the value of that proposition, at all. Second of all, why the parenthetical explanation inserted randomly at the end of a completely unrelated paragraph? Third, what a disrespectful thing to do to someone who has given the author interviews in the past? After genuflecting upon Dyson's genius, he calls him "dumb" and doesn't bother to get his opinion.

What the author quoted sure sounded real dumb, I'd agree with that. I haven't read the other articles yet, so I'm not even commenting on Dyson's opinion, which may very well be dumb. But I just found that Atlantic article to be completely insufferable, insincere and disrespectful.
posted by Edgewise at 5:11 PM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]




empath: "I think the cautious thing to do is to enact policies that slow climate change as much as possible"


Which is exactly what the denial industry is trying to prevent. That's why they hold up Dyson at every opportunity, claiming that his authority justifies the rest of their junk science. I was going to say that it'll die down when he's dead, but look what they're doing to poor old Edward Teller.
posted by sneebler at 5:45 PM on January 19, 2011


The birthrate in the U.S. last year was 2.6 percent.

Where did you see this number? The NVSS is still aggregating final statistics for 2009, and the preliminary analysis of 2010 data through June suggests a significant fall in US birthrate.

I'm not saying it's necessarily wrong--though it would be surprising and off-trend--I am just wondering what the source is. In any case, if accurate, it would represent an unusual blip in fifteen-plus years of below-replacement birthrates, so my larger point stands.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:54 PM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Awww nuts, it's the real Dyson, the Dyson sphere guy? I was hoping that it was the vacuum cleaner guy.

Dyson sphere, Dyson ball; what's the difference? They're both round.
posted by scalefree at 7:00 PM on January 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


Ah, Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese, perhaps that's a typo for 2.06, which is the UN estimate for 2005-2010? That's still below replacement rate; the TFR replacement benchmark is 2.33.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:02 PM on January 19, 2011


Is there really anything that remarkable about a genius being wrong about scientific fields that he doesn't directly deal in? Linus Pauling with medicine, William Shockley with eugenics, Kary Mullis with both global warming denial and HIV-as-cause-of-AIDS denial; nothing new under the sun there.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:11 PM on January 19, 2011


I like how the conservative thing to do about someone potentially killing hundreds of people is to spend trillions of dollars, while the conservative thing to do about potentially killing 90% of humanity is to do nothing.
posted by breath at 12:35 AM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


(Big C conservative that is. When does the "Conservatives are actually totally liberal" meme get to take off?)
posted by breath at 12:37 AM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


This part struck me:
I tried to drive us to a restaurant that Dyson knew from his spaceship days. We overshot it by a mile going east, because Dyson got lost in some long chain of cogitation, and then we overshot it going west, and then overshot it going east again. Each time, Dyson would apologize, but remorse did not save him from falling again, just a few yards down the road, into some black pothole of cerebration.
The author interprets this absentmindedness as evidence of Dyson's genius (he's so smart he's always thinking!), but if this were happening with say, your plumber instead of a famous physicist, wouldn't you worry that the guy was starting to lose it? I can imagine the smarter you were to begin with, the longer you could function with increasing levels of dementia without anyone noticing, just because you have enough cognitive backup (so to speak) to cover for whatever faculties you were slowly losing.
posted by aiglet at 1:27 AM on January 20, 2011


Awww nuts, it's the real Dyson, the Dyson sphere guy? I was hoping that it was the vacuum cleaner guy.

Dyson sphere, Dyson ball; what's the difference? They're both round.


I read "Freeman Dyson" I always (always) think of 'Dr. Gordon Freeman.' Most ridiculous thing in the world but I can't get away from it.
posted by From Bklyn at 1:31 AM on January 20, 2011


"Dyson has great affection for coal and for one big reason: It is so inexpensive that most of the world can afford it. 'There’s a lot of truth to the statement Greens are people who never had to worry about their grocery bills,' he says. ('Many of these people are my friends,' he will also tell you.) To Dyson, 'the move of the populations of China and India from poverty to middle-class prosperity should be the great historic achievement of the century. Without coal it cannot happen.'"

I hear this argument a lot, always from people who don't seem to understand the necessary implication that the proper value to ascribe to the wellbeing of future generations is close to zero. Yes, it's a wonderful thing that all of those people are being raised from poverty, but if it's done with non-renewable resources that will reduce the carrying capacity of the biosphere for centuries to come (e.g. coal) the misery is just being delayed until a point in the future where it will be paid back with large amount of interest (e.g. when we start to run out of oil, natural gas and phosphorus all at the same time and food production collapses). The correct answer is for everyone to move towards the level of resource consumption which if enjoyed by everyone will not degrade the lives of our descendants, but of course that's not going to happen and the "sceptics" are probably not even capable of understanding what it means.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 2:38 AM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Edgewise: Great analysis of the Atlantic article

As others have noted, Dyson does not look at the world from the same perspective as most of us. Specifically, most environmentalists are extremely conservative. Yes they propose radical policies, but their aim is to keep the world the way they it is for us now, or turn things back. (Their opponents are also conservative, but focus on keeping our familiar ways of life)

Dyson is shall we say less limited in the perspectives he is intellectually able to take up. He can think way beyond the familiar. That makes what he says seem quite alien at times since he isn't anchored in our way of thinking - basically 20th-century-human-centrism. But I think it is a valuable perspective to have available, if only to give our assumptions a good shaking up.
posted by Philosopher's Beard at 3:21 AM on January 20, 2011


Otherwise brilliant scientist blinded by ideological concerns expressing ill-informed opinions and making spurious arguments, hailed as a sceptical icon by right-wing denialists.

I increasingly believe that the major divide isn't between individualism and collectivism, but between acknowledging natural limits and the "almost religious faith in the power of man and science to bring nature to heel", as stated in the main article.
posted by Bangaioh at 4:07 AM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


The correct answer is for everyone to move towards the level of resource consumption which if enjoyed by everyone will not degrade the lives of our descendants, but of course that's not going to happen and the "sceptics" are probably not even capable of understanding what it means.

What if I don't have any descendants and don't care to? I mean I'm not going to receive any potential benefit from their well being under any scenario.
posted by empath at 5:42 AM on January 20, 2011


wilful: criticism of climate models, whether in the context of Freeman Dyson, or that other thread that I started, or anything climate change related, is often quite tediously wrong ... And what, pray, is the alternative for looking at the future climate? Do nothing and wait and see? Build a second earth to test? I mean really, any model critics should either make specific claims about wrong information or they should propose and alternative methodology, or they should S.T.F.U.

By that last bit, do you mean: People raising concerns about the accuracy of climate models should either propose an alternative model or STFU? That doesn't seem very fair.

Its great that we're trying to model the horrendously complicated planet sized chaos system that is our climate, but I think the IPCC do need to be a bit clearer about the limitations. For example: Clouds are really important to climate, but our modelling of them is fairly limited.

My understanding is that there are a lot of uncertainties in the models - some processes are replaced by parameters that are then tuned to fit experimental results. I may be wrong, but it seems in some parts of the IPCC reports, they create several very complex models that produce different results and then average the results together, which seems like an odd and simplistic thing to do with the output of complex models. The official statements are that our models are good, but when you look through the IPCC there's an awful lot of discussion about the uncertainties and various steps taken to counter them.

So, my position is that modelling the climate is very hard and we should be honest about the uncertainties and simplifications. I cant put forward a better climate model though. Should I STFU?

(my position, btw: environmentalist, but also fan of science who is concerned that climate science is being pressed into doing things it can't really do)
posted by memebake at 5:53 AM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


What if I don't have any descendants and don't care to? I mean I'm not going to receive any potential benefit from their well being under any scenario

Are you saying screw them, we've got ours? Because that position seems morally reprehensible to me.
posted by zarq at 6:06 AM on January 20, 2011


empath: " The correct answer is for everyone to move towards the level of resource consumption which if enjoyed by everyone will not degrade the lives of our descendants, but of course that's not going to happen and the "sceptics" are probably not even capable of understanding what it means.

What if I don't have any descendants and don't care to? I mean I'm not going to receive any potential benefit from their well being under any scenario
"

Are you seriously suggesting that you should only be concerned for the well being of people you're personally related to? Because that sounds sociopathic. You should care for future generations for the same reason you should care about anyone, they don't stop being people just because you're not around. Otherwise why not be a suicide bomber? I mean all the damage comes after you're dead so why care?
posted by Proofs and Refutations at 6:08 AM on January 20, 2011


empath was probably making a rhetorical question. Yet even taking his statement at face value, I find it a lot less dangerous than blind optimism. As zarq said, it's a morally reprehensible viewpoint but in a democratic society it's probably in extreme minority and as such condemned to irrelevance.
On the other hand, people who do care about the long-term continued prosperity of humanity but are unaware of the various interrelated issues threatening it, or are betting on miracle solutions in the future and not willing to act according to present best knowledge, pose a much more frustrating conundrum.
posted by Bangaioh at 6:40 AM on January 20, 2011


it's a morally reprehensible viewpoint but in a democratic society it's probably in extreme minority

You're being sarcastic, right?

It seems to be the dominant philosophy in, if not a majority, than at least a very large minority of the US electorate.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:10 AM on January 20, 2011


I actually wasn't - I'm also prone to the blind optimism I was so quick to condemn.
posted by Bangaioh at 7:30 AM on January 20, 2011


memebake, my STFU is directed at those who reject modelling, yet can offer no alternative. I cannot identify any other satisfactory way of forecasting the future than modelling it - can you? You seem to accept that models have a place in cliamte science, so I'm not asking you to STFU/provide a better alternative.

As to your concerns, if you're even glancingly familiar with the primary literature, or the IPCC reports, which you seem to be, you'll find that they're more than adequately qualified, in both senses of the word. indeed you've linked directly to statements by the IPCC where they express doubts and concerns. Are the models perfect, infallible, and in perfect agreement with each other? Unequivocally no, and no one ever makes that claim. Are the models good enough for there to be no question that climate change is a very real and present danger, at least as a risk management matter? Unequivocally yes. On more than one occasion, the data and the models appear to have conflicted. A closer look at the data has shown that the models are in fact better than the first cut data.
posted by wilful at 4:34 PM on January 20, 2011


Because that sounds sociopathic. You should care for future generations for the same reason you should care about anyone, they don't stop being people just because you're not around.

You're talking about people which don't actually exist yet. That sounds really close to 'protecting the unborn'
posted by empath at 4:55 PM on January 20, 2011


Keep in mind that whatever solution you are proposing to combat climate change is going to reduce the standard of living of people right now. It's hard enough to get people to take reasonable precautions for their own future well being (like, eating right and saving money). How do you expect people to sacrifice today for something that they couldn't possibly ever personally benefit from.
posted by empath at 4:58 PM on January 20, 2011


empath: Because that sounds sociopathic. You should care for future generations for the same reason you should care about anyone, they don't stop being people just because you're not around.

You're talking about people which don't actually exist yet. That sounds really close to 'protecting the unborn'



Your argument for ignoring the well-being of future generations is that it reminds you of abortion opponents?
posted by grobstein at 5:44 PM on January 20, 2011


Keep in mind that whatever solution you are proposing to combat climate change is going to reduce the standard of living of people right now.

Right. And social security taxes reduce the standard of living of everyone right now, as do all kinds of insurance. And demanding that pregnant women stop smoking and drinking heavily reduces their pleasure right now, too. And even aid for currently starving children will take a few weeks or months to help them after the standard of living is reduced for everyone via taxes.

What kind of insane existential nihilism are you advocating? It's like putting a 3 year old in charge of the economy. Would you rather save a million lives, or get a piece of candy right now. Candy! Candy!!
posted by msalt at 6:05 PM on January 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Oops, the 2.6 percent birthrate for the U.S. I quoted above is completely wrong. Sorry about that.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 7:59 PM on January 20, 2011


« Older Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation   |   Mash-up Squared Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post