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?