The Civil Heretic
Nicholas Dawidoff, March 30, 2009 (NY Times Magazine)The Civil Heretic
is a New York Times Sunday Magazine profile of the prominent physicist Freeman Dyson of the Institute for Advanced Study.
As described in the piece, Dyson has become a prominent climate change denier.
“Most consider me wrong about global warming,” Dyson told the Times reporter.
According to the report, Dyson's denial begins with a reflexive aversion to consensus.
Nobel physics laureate Steven Weinberg: “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 was recognized as a denier 4 years ago when he publicly announced, “…all the fuss about global warming is grossly exaggerated.” Dyson (click to enlarge)
The Times piece: “…Dyson has been particularly dismissive of Al Gore, whom Dyson calls climate change’s 'chief propagandist,' and James Hansen, the head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York and an adviser to Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth.” Dyson accuses them of relying too heavily on computer-generated climate models that foresee a Grand Guignol of imminent world devastation as icecaps melt, oceans rise and storms and plagues sweep the earth, and he blames the pair’s 'lousy science' for 'distracting public attention' from 'more serious and more immediate dangers to the planet.'"
The Times piece goes on: “For Hansen, the dark agent of the looming environmental apocalypse is carbon dioxide contained in coal smoke. Coal, he has written, 'is the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet.' Hansen has referred to railroad cars transporting coal as 'death trains.' Dyson, on the other hand, told me in conversations and e-mail messages that 'Jim Hansen’s crusade against coal overstates the harm carbon dioxide can do.' Dyson well remembers the lethal black London coal fog of his youth when, after a day of visiting the city, he would return to his hometown of Winchester with his white shirt collar turned black. Coal, Dyson says, contains 'real pollutants' like soot, sulphur and nitrogen oxides, 'really nasty stuff that makes people sick and looks ugly.' These are 'rightly considered a moral evil,' he says, but they 'can be reduced to low levels by scrubbers at an affordable cost.' He says Hansen 'exploits' the toxic elements of burning coal as a way of condemning the carbon dioxide it releases, 'which cannot be reduced at an affordable cost, but does not do any substantial harm.'"
More: “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…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."
And from the Times again: "Climate-change specialists often speak of global warming as a matter of moral conscience. Dyson says he thinks they sound presumptuous. As he warned that day four years ago at Boston University, the history of science is filled with those 'who make confident predictions about the future and end up believing their predictions,' and he cites examples of things people anticipated to the point of terrified certainty that never actually occurred, ranging from hellfire, to Hitler’s atomic bomb, to the Y2K millennium bug. 'It’s always possible Hansen could turn out to be right,' he says of the climate scientist. 'If what he says were obviously wrong, he wouldn’t have achieved what he has. But Hansen has turned his science into ideology. He’s a very persuasive fellow and has the air of knowing everything. He has all the credentials. I have none. I don’t have a Ph.D. He’s published hundreds of papers on climate. I haven’t. By the public standard he’s qualified to talk and I’m not. But I do because I think I’m right. I think I have a broad view of the subject, which Hansen does not. I think it’s true my career doesn’t depend on it, whereas his does. I never claim to be an expert on climate. I think it’s more a matter of judgement than knowledge.'" Hansen (click to enlarge)
The Times account of Hansen’s position: “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.'"
The Times concludes: “When Dyson hears about this, he looks, if possible, like a person taking the longer view.”
Here is Hansen’s complete unedited reply to the Times, as communicated by email: “The reporter left the impression that my conclusions are based mainly on climate models. I always try to make clear that our conclusions are based on #1 Earth’s history, how it responded to forcings in the past, #2 observations of what is happening now, #3 models. Here is the actual note that I sent to the reporter after hanging up on him:
'I looked up Freeman Dyson on Wikipedia, which describes his views on "global warming" as below. If that is an accurate description of what he is saying now, it is actually quite reasonable (I had heard that he is just another contrarian). However, this also indicates that he is under the mistaken impression that concern about global warming is based on climate models, which in reality play little role in our understanding -- our understanding is based mainly on how the Earth responded to changes of boundary conditions in the past and on how it is responding to on-going changes.
'If this Wikipedia information is an accurate description of his position, then the only thing that I would like to say about him is that he should be careful not to offer public opinions about global warming unless he is willing to first take a serious look at the science. His philosophy of science is spot-on, the open-mindedness, consistent with that of Feynman and the other greats, but 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. My concern is that the public may assume that he has -- and, because of his other accomplishments, give his opinion more weight than it deserves.'"