The Island of Doubt

Freeman Dyson is on the cover of yesterday’s New York Times Magazine. Inside a baseball writer (a very good baseball writer, but still) gives the man an opportunity to explain why he doesn’t believe climate change is something to worry about.

Others have lamented the attention devoted by the nation’s leading newspaper to the thoughts of someone who has no expertise in the field. I share Chris Mooney’s reservations about the writer’s understanding of the way scientific skepticism is supposed to work. But Dyson cannot be easily dismissed if for no other reason than he has proven himself to be a brilliant mind, one that enjoys widespread respect in the community of science. Fortunately, I’m going to have the chance to see him talk about the subject this week.

Furman University in Greenville, S.C. is giving him the stage Tuesday night as part of the schools’ Charles H. Townes Lecture Series in Faith and Reason. Say what you want about attempts to meld faith with reason, this should be provocative. Say also what you will about the title of his talk — “The Environment: Is It Science, Or Is It Religion?” — I know that upsets me a bit — but I consider the opportunity to sit in worth the carbon emissions that will be generated by the 80-mile round trip.

I’ll be keeping in mind this snippet from a piece Dyson wrote for The Edge:

The humanist ethic accepts an increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as a small price to pay, if world-wide industrial development can alleviate the miseries of the poorer half of humanity. The humanist ethic accepts our responsibility to guide the evolution of the planet.

Those seem like decidely unscientific statements, more apropos of a religious perspective, than a humanist one. I consider myself a humanist, too, but my take on the consequences of the expected increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels is it’s becoming clear the price to be paid by the poorer half of humanity will be anything but small. And that’s why climate change activism isn’t religion; how we evaluate the choices we’re facing changes according to the data, not some immutable predisposition.

But again, I look forward to what Mr. Dyson has to say. And I will report back.


  1. #1 Dunc
    March 31, 2009

    The humanist ethic accepts an increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as a small price to pay, if world-wide industrial development can alleviate the miseries of the poorer half of humanity.

    That’s a pretty big “if”. And of course, it assumes that “world-wide industrial development” is completely immune to the effects of climate change…

  2. #2 John P
    March 31, 2009

    I have a different ethic, a simple principle that says we should not be experimenting with all of humankind and all life on the surface of the earth. That is, in effect, what we are doing. Adding gigatons of CO2 to the atmosphere each year is the largest-scale experiment ever undertaken, and we’re all living in the test tube. Dyson’s glib assurances do not give me comfort.

  3. #4 WhySharksMatter
    March 31, 2009

    Dyson’s comments are quite unscientific… but so is the notion that we shouldn’t mess with anything in the environment ever. Science doesn’t tell us what we should do. Science tells us what the consequences of certain actions are and makes no moral judgement on those consequences or on those actions.

  4. #5 QrazyQat
    March 31, 2009

    It’s not just that Dyson has no expertise in the field; it’s that he’s a crackpot in that field. He spouts crackpot nonsense. That’s the problem, not his credentials. Here’s a short post I recently wrote on a forum when this came up:

    I’m afraid Freeman Dyson is a crackpot on climate science, although it’s rightly pointed out that he doesn’t exactly disagree with global warming (he just doesn’t understand it). Here’s a short bit on some of his problems. href=””>Another short bit. And another.

    One short example of something really incredibly stupidly ignorant he’s said on the subject (one so similar to other crackpots, whether creationist or other):

    It is much easier for a scientist to sit in an air-conditioned building and run computer models, than to put on winter clothes and measure what is really happening outside in the swamps and the clouds. That is why the climate model experts end up believing their own models.

    Climate scientists of course do go out and get data. Where on earth does Dyson imagine the data comes from? He thinks it’s just made up? I point this one out because it reminds me so much of various wackos who castigate scientists for “not thinking of alternatives” to their ideas, like creationists imagining scientists don’t work on counterexamples to ideas about evolution, when that’s what science is built on. Dyson apparently thinks scientists just sit around making up data out of the blus and making models with madeup BS. That’s stupid.

    BTW, another Dyson embarassment is his favorable response regarding intelligent design:

    My opinion is that most people believe in intelligent design as a reasonable explanation of the universe, and this belief is entirely compatible with science. So it is unwise for scientists to make a big fight against the idea of intelligent design.

    It’s always sad to see a smart guy turn into a blowhard crackpot in his old age. “Going emeritus” they call it.

  5. #6 QrazyQat
    March 31, 2009

    but so is the notion that we shouldn’t mess with anything in the environment ever.

    Could you point me to someone who says “we shouldn’t mess with anything in the environment ever”? That’s a huge strawman; literally nobody says it, since whatever we do, whether leveling the place and paving it or living in grass huts or anything in between requires messing with the environment. Not “messing with the environment” is impossible and no one says we should; they just disagree in fairly extreme ways about how we should mess with it and what the consequences will be.

  6. #7 Jim
    April 1, 2009

    Forgive this basic question, but where exactly do scientists get their data on global temperature from the 1700’s and earlier?

  7. #8 Mark P
    April 1, 2009

    The idea that industrialization and the resulting carbon load will help people in undeveloped countries live better lives is part of the rational John Christy uses to justify his AGW skepticism. Unfortunately, this kind of fuzzy “humanism” (like wanting everything to be really, truly nice, like if everyone could just get along, and if bunnies were made out of cotton candy) doesn’t help anyone, including scientists, think clearly about anything.

  8. #9 James Hrynyshyn
    April 2, 2009

    Jim. There are all sort of “proxy” data for actual thermometer readings. Coral, tree rings, the list of quite lengthy. Read more at:

  9. #10 Andrew Dodds
    April 3, 2009

    Mark P –

    I prefer a different take; by no measure is there sufficient oil and gas to give the whole world European energy consumption levels. Even coal would only last a couple of decades. Therefore the whole concept of raising the standard of living of the third world by conventional industrialisation is not feasable, even before we consider the impacts of AGW.

    This is one reason why I’m a strong nuclear advocate, I don’t see any other way of giving the world 1st world living standards (and you can’t just dump nuclear waste; you cannot ignore the externialities).

    QrazyQat –

    You have to admit that there is often a strong tinge of ‘back-to-the-land’ relocalisation/primitivism inherent in the solutions offered by the more green greens. And personally I think that the consequences of the policies derived from this could be catastrophic.

  10. #11 Marion Delgado
    April 3, 2009

    Obviously, because of Feynman diagrams becoming Feynman-Dyson diagrams, and for other reasons, I had to study Dyson’s work in college (at least peripherally). I don’t want to take anything away from him, especially since he didn’t go through normal academic channels.

    But I think he’s WORSE than the string theorists, including the landscape people. They at least work hard trying to create plausible connections from their work to reality.

    Dyson’s dined out for decades on rank speculation – the kind of thing that John W. Campbell’s Arcot Wade and Morey stories was full of.

    I have less than zero respect for his current line, frankly.

  11. #12 Rich ailes
    April 14, 2009

    An interesting assumption that climate change folks make when looking so “clearly” into the future is that emerging economies will use the same solutions for their energy needs as we have done for our developed economies. Or that our economies will continue to use those same solutions. As has happened for the past few hundred years, the market will adjust to the changing needs of humanity. As the demand grows for greener solutions to our energy needs the business interests (including those wonderfully greedy entrepreneurs) will respond to those needs with greener solutions. The market will reward those who come up with the best solutions. I just heard the other day that China wants to become the leader in the manufacturer of battery based vehicles. More power to them. I hope we can compete with them for that prize.

    I read the NYT article on Dyson and found his views compelling, not because he claims to have any expertise in the area, but because he is a seminal thinker who is applying a different perspective to the climate change debate. I’m not that concerned about his credentials in this debate as I am interested in his logic. His suggestion that we will develop trees that will be designed to gulp down more CO2 then they can now, though seemingly extraordinary, follows the economic logic of what I stated in the paragraph above. He is hopeful that we will work our way out of this crisis as am I.

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