The Island of Doubt

Assigning any group to one of just two categories is usually little more than an exercise in stereotyping. What do you do with someone like Francis Collins, for example? On the one hand, he’s a brilliant genome sequencer, on the other he confuses (as Bob Park aptly writes) a “hormone rush” with “an encounter with God.” But every now and then, plotting attitudes on an x-y grid and dividing the Bell curve into left and right halves can be a useful way of looking at a problem. NASA climatologist Gavin Schmidt essentially does this in an interview with Salon‘s Peter Dizikes, and in doing so helps make clear why geniuses the likes of Freeman Dyson get climate science so very wrong.


Dizikes: Which one of those days is it when you hear comments from a scientist like physicist Freeman Dyson, who dismisses climate change as a non-problem?

Schmidt: It surprises me. The guy’s obviously smart, and he’s made a career of thinking against the grain and has come up with good solutions to problems in physics. But he’s had a strong preference for problems that could be solved just by thinking about them. If you look at the kind of things he didn’t go into as a physicist, they required the understanding of complex systems, where there are a bunch of different things going on and it’s not amenable to sitting there with a pencil and paper coming up with a new formula.

You see this a lot. Scientists have preferences for certain kinds of problems. Some people want something straightforward, and others are attracted to the complexity of the real world or the human body and enjoy wrestling out information from something that’s more complex than we can grasp. And he seems to be very much the former.

Dizikes: Dyson told the New York Times, “The climate studies people who work with models always tend to overestimate their models. They tend to believe models are real and forget they are only models.” Well, you’re a climate modeler, so how do you respond to that?

Schmidt:That’s the kind of thing somebody says when they’ve never met a climate modeler. We’re the people who know how the sausage is made. I’m a climate modeler in one of the 20 or so groups whose work goes into the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report. We spend our all our time working out how we can make these things better. We can see the uncertainties and compromises one has to make in order to build a model. We’re traveling the world to find interesting pieces of data, we’re traveling back in time, as it were, back to the last ice age, to find samples to help us see if the models are any good. The idea that climate modelers go around saying, “Our ideas are perfect,” is just nonsense.

That explanation goes a long way toward explaining why 1) how Dyson could be some right about some subjects and so wrong about others,2) why Dyson could fail to understand why he’s wrong about global warming, and 3) why his pronouncements on global warming get far more attention than they deserve.

In an ironic example of that third fact, Dyson was interviewed in Yale’s Environment 360 recently. And if your read Schmidt’s diagnosis of Dyson’s shortcomings first, then it’s much easier to appreciate the limit of Dyson’s ostensibly humble, but ultimately dangerous approach:

I guess one thing I don’t want to do is to spend all my time arguing this business. I mean, I am not the person to do that. I have two great disadvantages. First of all, I am 85 years old. Obviously, I’m an old fuddy-duddy. So, I have no credibility.

And, secondly, I am not an expert, and that’s not going to change. I am not going to make myself an expert. What I do think I have is a better judgment, maybe because I have lived a bit longer, and maybe because I’ve done other things. So I am fairly confident about my judgment, and I doubt whether that will change. But I am certainly willing to change my mind about details. And if they find any real evidence that global warming is doing harm, I would be impressed.
That’s the crucial point: I don’t see the evidence…

I say dangerous, because Dyson’s line of thinking takes him to some truly foolish places:

e360: Are there people who are knowledgeable about this topic who could do the job of pointing out what you see as the flaws?

Dyson: I am sure there are. But I don’t know who they are.

I have a lot of friends who think the same way I do. But I am sorry to say that most of them are old, and most of them are not experts. My views are very widely shared.

Anyway, the ideal protagonist I am still looking for. So the answer to your question question is, I will do the job if nobody else shows up, but I regard it as a duty rather than as a pleasure.

e360: Because it is important for you that people not take drastic actions about a problem that you are not convinced exists?

Dyson: Yes. And I feel very strongly that China and India getting rich is the most important thing that’s going on in the world at present. That’s a real revolution, that the center of gravity of the whole population of the world would be middle class, and that’s a wonderful thing to happen. It would be a shame if we persuade them to stop that just for the sake of a problem that’s not that serious.

And I’m happy every time I see that the Chinese and Indians make a strong statement about going ahead with burning coal. Because that’s what it really depends on, is coal. They can’t do without coal. We could, but they certainly can’t.

I am sure the venerable Michael Lemonick, who carried out the interview with Dyson, thought he was doing the right thing, and am I sure e360 thought publishing it was the right thing to do. Lemonick clearly is troubled by a lot of what Dyon says, and the piece was assembled in response to an even less critical New York Times Sunday Magazine feature by a sports journalist who offered no scientific context whatsoever.

But even Lemonick lets Dyson off lightly. No challenge to Dyson’s assertions about the primacy of modeling when so much of the science is based on paleoclimatic data. Worse, why let Dyson encourage the combustion of coal without noting that coal’s contribution is so large that climatologists such James Hansen and George Woodwell have called for a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants and rapid phase-out of the existing ones?

Comments

  1. #1 Epistemic Humility
    June 8, 2009

    Mr. Dyson is 47 times the scientist you are. He understands the difference between science and speculation, reality and models, epistemic humility and myopic surety and rightly worries that folks like you, the carriers of the hockey stick meme, do not.

    Were you at Oak Ridge running the calculations, talking to the experts, putting your Nobel-quality mind to work? Can you even imagine the level of Mr. Dyson’s quality of mind? What do you know about economics, about the suffering of the Indian and Chinese people? Do you understand how easily statistics can be misunderstood and manipulated? Do you appreciate how real progress is made in societies? No doubt Mr. Dyson would rather the next technology were in place, so that coal would not be required. But it isn’t, and that’s all there is to it.

    Thankfully the prognostications of screen-starers won’t prevent a global rise in the middle class, which will mean a lot more engineers and scientists… some of whom, no doubt, will be involved in the creation of the next wave of clean technology that actually does something to solve our pollution challenges. The punitive pieties of your ilk are window dressing designed to impress each other. Little medals of self-righteousness you pin on each other’s chests.

    Now based on what you have just read, go run a model on me. You’ll find out all there is to know, I’m sure.

  2. #2 Pierce R. Butler
    June 8, 2009

    Freeman Dyson’s thoughts on climatology are just as valuable as those of William Shockley on genetics and Isaac Newton’s on eschatology.

  3. #3 mikespov
    June 8, 2009

    Epistemic Humility

    Other than venting your personal outrage I don’t see any thread of a legitimate argument.

    “Thankfully the prognostications of screen-starers won’t prevent a global rise in the middle class, which will mean a lot more engineers and scientists… some of whom, no doubt, will be involved in the creation of the next wave of clean technology that actually does something to solve our pollution challenges. The punitive pieties of your ilk are window dressing designed to impress each other.”

    I thought the authors assertion climate modelers “required the understanding of complex systems, where there are a bunch of different things going on and it’s not amenable to sitting there with a pencil and paper coming up with a new formula” seemed reasonable. You haven’t refuted that with your tirade.

    If climate-change deniers could present peer-reviewed studies they might attract more respect for their opinions.

  4. #4 John
    June 8, 2009

    Coal is a pretty harmful fuel even apart from its climate implications.

  5. #5 SLC
    June 8, 2009

    The fact that Prof. Dyson is a distinguished scientist does not make him an expert on everything. Prof. Dyson is only the latest in a stream of distinguished scientists who have gone off the rails.

    1. Linus Pauling who went to his grave convinced, despite the non-existence of a shred of evidence, that vitamin C could cure cancer.

    2. William Shockley who was convinced that blacks were genetically inferior to Caucasians, despite the dearth of evidence.

    3. J. Allen Hynek who went to his grave convinced that extraterrestrials had visited the earth and that alien abductions had actually occurred.

    4. Brian Josephson who is convinced that cold fusion, PK and ESP are real phenomena.

    5. Peter Duesberg who is convinced, despite the mountain of evidence indicating otherwise, that HIV is not the cause of AIDS.

  6. #6 Lobster
    June 8, 2009

    @1, I see where you’re coming from but your argument seems to amount to, “did you do the research yourself? No? Then you don’t know and have no right to criticize.”

    I do understand that the rise of China and India is important but it’s also highly anthropogenic. It would improve the living conditions of humans, at the cost of the living conditions of the rest of the world; even if carbon and global warming is not a problem, all those people with those raised standards of living will consume more resources and demand more space. Furthermore, and this is the real point, whether or not China and India need coal is completely unrelated to the truth of the matter. Saying, “this isn’t a problem because we can’t afford the consequences if it is” is not a logical argument. Whenever I listen to climate skeptics and deniers, their opening argument is usually along the lines of, “do you have any idea how much this would cost to fix?” That is not relevant to the truth of the matter, only to how we proceed once we have ascertained the truth. The skeptics and deniers do not wish us to get to that point. I don’t know why; perhaps it’s because if there is no problem then there is no need to spend money on it, but if there is a problem and we don’t spend money on it we must live with the guilt of that choice.

    Back to the article at hand, what I see here is a man who is brilliant and an expert on one thing, being taken as an authority on something else even though he makes it clear that he is not. His opinion is not that of an expert, it’s that of a brilliant man. His opinion is clearly worth considering, but it is still not the opinion of an expert, especially when his argument amounts to, “I don’t have the data but my gut tells me this and my friends all agree.”

  7. #7 Lobster
    June 8, 2009

    Pardon me, anthropocentric, not anthropogenic.

  8. #8 RF
    June 8, 2009

    6. Kary Mullis, who is convinced that the scientific community is lying about AIDS AND Global warming, is still not in the grave :) but although he has a Nobel Prize, he isn’t exactly that important.

    7. There is entirely unremarkable biologist whose’ name I can’t even remember who’s taken up the Randi Million Dollar Challenge with the claim that he can shoot electromagnetic blasts with his eyes.

    8. As much as we want it to be false, scientists are humans and can be batshit stupid as well. The remarkable thing that makes it all go smooth is the scientific method reinforced by peer-review. That’s all…

  9. #9 David Marjanović
    June 8, 2009

    Please close the runaway <b> tag!!! In Safari at least, the bold goes all the way to the bottom of the page.

    Mr. Dyson is 47 times the scientist you are.

    This is an argument from authority.

    You commit a blatant logical fallacy right in front of our eyes and call yourself “Epistemic Humility”? What have you smoked, and can I get it legally in the Netherlands?!?

    1. Linus Pauling who went to his grave convinced, despite the non-existence of a shred of evidence, that vitamin C could cure cancer.

    He’s also the only person so far to have won two Nobel prizes (chemistry and physics). But despite his biochemistry work, he evidently didn’t bother to find out what vitamin C really is and what it can do…

  10. #10 Pierce R. Butler
    June 8, 2009

    David Marjanović @ # 9: He’s also the only person so far to have won two Nobel prizes (chemistry and physics).

    Uh, no. He’s the only man to have won two Nobels: Marie Curie had two for physics when Linus Pauling was ten years old.

    Uh, no, again: Pauling’s pair were for chemistry and peace.

  11. #11 steve from virginia
    June 8, 2009

    Dyson doesn’t deserve the attention. He stopped being a scientist a long time ago. He was Richard Geynman’s friend.

    Period.

    Dyson is a politician. Dyson’t smart enough to know the truth, he’s simply lying; he’s a fraud, a charlatan. People let him off the hook … because he was Richard Feynman’s friend. I never knew Feynman so to hell with Dyson. He is either a senile old fool or intellectually dishonest, masquerading as a senile old fool.

    He arbitrages his stance agaomst his reputation. If he was a gas station attendant or a clerk at WalMart, nobody would pay any attention to him.

    Talk about burning through a non- renewable resource! He ought to get out of the public eye before he embarrasses himself any further.

  12. #12 onymous
    June 9, 2009

    He’s the only man to have won two Nobels: Marie Curie had two for physics when Linus Pauling was ten years old.

    No, Marie Curie had one prize in physics and one in chemistry.

    John Bardeen won two Nobel Prizes in physics.

    At any rate, Freeman Dyson clearly was a very smart man, and perhaps still is. He contributed more to physics than I ever have or probably ever will, with his early work on QED. But he’s old, and he’s way wrong on this issue.

  13. #13 RF
    June 9, 2009

    I think David Deutsch, in his TED talk, was very accurate in saying:

    “I am a physicist, but I am not the right kind of physicist, so whatever I say about climate change should be counted as a layman’s opinion”

    If only Dyson had that humility.

    @ steve from virginia – you are going a bit over the top

  14. #14 Pierce R. Butler
    June 9, 2009

    onymous @ # 12 – thanks for the correction!

  15. #15 Lab Rat
    June 10, 2009

    As far as I was aware, Marie Curie was the first person to get two nobel prizes. and yes, it was one for physics, one for chemistry :)

  16. #16 tehdude
    June 13, 2009

    The denial is pretty thick here. Dyson is obviously being diplomatic, yet you interpret that as a sign of weakness. I imagine the genius has far harsher language ringing in the back of his head.

  17. #17 Richard Karpinski
    June 15, 2009

    Two mistakes in the comments that I can address a tiny bit.

    Cold Fusion, now Low Energy Nuclear Reaction, is hot again and three labs including at SRI confirm that reliably.

    HIV, from statistics of pornography actors HIV testing, UCSF study results, and the lack of the often predicted epidemic is now discovered not even to be a Sexually Transmitted Disease.

    And they locked up Ignaz Semmelweis in the loony bin when he said you could knock down the child bed fever rate by washing hands between doing an autopsy and delivering a baby. They didn’t know about invisible germs as a cause of disease yet, so doctors were quite reluctant to accuse themselves as a vector for the fever.

  18. #18 Kate
    June 21, 2009

    In ecology, there are basically two ways a population can go when it hits its carrying capacity (the point where it is consuming enough resources to disrput the ecosystem).

    1) Their population can oscillate around the carrying capacity, going up and down temporarily, but basically staying steady at a sustainable level.

    2) Their population can way overshoot the carrying capacity, then completely crash.

    As humans, we can alter our carrying capacity with the way we use resources. It may be possible to sustain 6 or even 9 billion people on this planet if we do it wisely. However, we cannot grow forever.

    I hope our species can follow the first course of action, using sustainable technologies to stabilize the carrying capacity at as high a level we can.

    However, when I hear people like Mr Dyson saying “Coal is good because it will increase the standard of living for India and China,” I worry that our species faces the second option. Coal may help our species temporarily. But in the long-term view, it might make us overshoot and then completely crash.

    For any readers who have not already done so, I’d love for you to come check out my blog, which has to do with climate change in the context of credibility and risk management. Link is on my name. Thanks.

  19. #19 Jason A.
    June 26, 2009

    Richard Karpinski #17:

    And they locked up Ignaz Semmelweis in the loony bin when he said you could knock down the child bed fever rate by washing hands between doing an autopsy and delivering a baby. They didn’t know about invisible germs as a cause of disease yet, so doctors were quite reluctant to accuse themselves as a vector for the fever.

    This is the Galileo Gambit, a common pseudoscience/denialist tactic.

  20. #20 John Mashey
    June 27, 2009

    Dyson is listed in Heartland’s list of global warming experts.

    Does anyone *know* if he indeed approves this?

    [I ask because one never knows; people have sometimes been surprised to find themselves on lists.]

  21. #21 Chris Winter
    June 27, 2009

    “He [Pauling] is also the only person so far to have won two Nobel prizes (chemistry and physics)”

    At the risk of being overly pedantic, I’ll add this to what’s been pointed out already: Three men and one woman (Marie Curie) have won two Nobel Prizes. The third man was Frederic Sanger, in 1958 and 1980.

  22. #22 Patrick
    June 29, 2009

    Like many who argue against climate change action, Dyson could care less about the science, much less the modeling. He cares about economics- the sorry science, and he cares about policy, specifically free market policy.

    Pitting the economics of China and India’s emerging middle classes against the needs of the larger society to address the carrying capacity limits of the closed system we call Earth is also a fallacy. Assuming that we can’t have an economy based upon something other than burning fossil fuels ignores history, human imagination and ingenuity.

    Yet people keep calling him genius.

  23. #23 lez sohbet
    September 25, 2009

    Thnk you

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