A Dead End Dialogue

Freeman Dyson and Steve Connor, the science editor of The Independent, had a long email conversation that neither found very satisfying.

27 Responses to “A Dead End Dialogue”

  1. Tom Fuller says:

    I actually think this interview is quite important, given the status of Dyson.
    Dyson IMO engaged with Connor at exactly the correct level of distance for someone with his experience, and his responses seem to have a level of perspective that will need to be addressed.
    Keith, do you think Connor acted like a real journalist here?

  2. Dean says:

    It seems to me that Dyson plays Lindzen’s game – cling to any scrap of scientifically-justifiable skepticism that remains, exaggerate it’s potential impact, exaggerate the costs of doing something, etc, etc.
    I’d also add that if we’re listening to famous physicists, Stephen Hawking is the alarmist’s alarmist, so quite the opposite of Dyson.

  3. Jonathan Gilligan says:

    A key to understanding Dyson is his absolute faith that biotechnology will produce genetically engineered supertrees within the next few decades, which will be capable of regulating the atmospheric CO2 concentrations regardless of what we emit by burning fossil fuels.
    If you accept Dyson’s premise on this, then his perspective that global warming isn’t a big deal and that we should not do anything until we’re more certain about the science regarding consequences of climate change makes perfect sense.
    Dyson: “I consider it likely that we shall have “genetically engineered carbon-eating trees” within twenty years, and almost certainly within fifty years. … After we have mastered biotechnology, the rules of the climate game will be radically changed.”

  4. So, we should consider seriously his opinions on a field of science outside his expertise based on his outlook for another of field of science outside his expertise.
    What about, say, George Gilder? What’s he up to these days? What’s he got to say about all this?
    The techno-optomists need to be listened to. Many unknown things may be different in 50 years, so we need to incorporate that into decisions about decarbonizing our energy systems over the next decade. So they need to be consulted. Because. Simply because.

  5. Tom Fuller says:

    Yes, rustneversleeps,we should consider his opinion. Next question, please?

  6. Tom Fuller says:

    Jonathon Gilligan, the key to understanding Freeman Dyson is to start with the premise that he is wicked smart. Not with his speculation about bioengineered geoengineering.
    Why is it that in cases like this, members of the consensus team spend so much time looking for reasons not to take the person seriously and so little time looking at what the man said?

  7. Gaythia says:

    In addition to counting on the probability of rescue by super-trees, one of the issues that Dyson brings up that I think does need to be addressed is the idea that not everyone will be affected by warming equally.  In addition to out and out nay-sayers, we have to deal with people who figure that this is going to be no biggie for them.
    Dyson uses Greenland as an example.  Tom Fuller, in a previous thread, gave a list of articles that started with one attributing increases in allergies to warming.
    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/2011/02/19/on-climate-communication/#comments  #150.
    This was actually about the expansion of frost free days in Winnipeg, Manitoba and Saskatoon Saskatchewan.  Last time I visited Saskatchewan there were headlines about the province’s research to see how far north farmers could plant plum tree orchards.
    I still think that the approach to take with people like Dyson is given in the following exchange with his wife: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/29/magazine/29Dyson-t.html?pagewanted=8
    “How far do you allow the oceans to rise before you say, This is no good?” she asked Dyson.
    “When I see clear evidence of harm,” he said.
    “Then it’s too late,” she replied. “Shouldn’t we not add to what nature’s doing?”

  8. Dean says:

    @6 – Tom – Why do you think that we aren’t reading what he said? I rarely bother to read claims from those I consider the big D word applicable to. But I read the Dyson exchange from beginning to end (D here of course not referring to his latter initial).
    The issue of “”When I see clear evidence of harm,” which Gaythia quoted, is not an issue of how you understand the state of the science. It is an aspect of risk perception and one’s tolerance to it. Some people want to do a lot to avoid harm, before they are sure it will happen, just in case. Others don’t. Science informs this question, but a lot of how people react to it is not science, it is personal.

  9. Tom Fuller says:

    Why don’t you look at what he said about the fitness of models and those who get lost inside them?

  10. grypo says:

    He makes value judgments and not expert ones.  This is something he has admitted to.  Banking on low sensitivity and then hoping technology will take of it if he is wrong certainly isn’t something people who value appropriate risk management would agree to.  His intelligence is besides the point.

  11. harrywr2 says:

    @8 Dean
    There has been a long battle on a number of fronts between those who accept risk and those who are adverse to risk in any number of policy area’s.
    Science can advise us that throwing ourselves out of perfectly good airplanes as a form of entertainment poses risks, it can not advise as to whether those risks are worth taking.  Quantifying ‘quality of life’ decision is near impossible.

  12. Menth says:

    “Some people want to do a lot to avoid harm, before they are sure it will happen, just in case. Others don’t.”

    This sums it up quite nicely.

    In so far as “others don’t” I think it is important not to over generalize these “others” as people that are hare-brained bumpkins who just want to keep driving their hummers with the baby seal fur seats (not that anybody on this thread has done this, I just see it often).

    I think I first saw this cartoon on Real Climate, though I could be wrong. I feel it captures how many on the pro-agw side see things: http://bit.ly/fGNe30

    While the cartoon is clever it fundamentally mischaracterizes the stance of skeptics. In Dyson’s own words:
    “On the other hand, the remedies proposed by the experts are enormously costly and damaging, especially to China and other developing countries. On a smaller scale, we have seen great harm done to poor people around the world by the conversion of maize from a food crop to an energy crop…If it happens that I am wrong and the climate experts are right, it is still true that the remedies are far worse than the disease that they claim to cure.”

    Both sides perceive risk, one environmental the other economic.

  13. DeNihilist says:

    Gaythia, as I sit here in snowwy Vancouver typing this comment, the Weather Channel is informing me that the most of the Prairies are averaging 20*C below normal temps right now. Big deal, I know. The price of vege’s may be taking another hit, as snow and sub-zero temps are hitting the fertile valleys of Cali at this moment. My Gawd! even the Oscars are doing somethine irregular, they have actually built a cover for the Red Carpet to protect the stars from the forecasted snow this evening in L.A.

    Weather happens, and after a mandated thirty years it becomes climate, then climate happens. Like Dr. Dyson, I too feel that the scariness of the modelled future world is a bit off from what the reality is going to be. My opinion from having lived through too many other manufactured scares.

    UMM Dean, yes science informs opinion. But because I read the science from a different perspective, does not make me a Denier. Like the temp proxies, I have to “weight” the evidence from the different papers and make the best informed opinion the “I” can make. If your weighting is different, then there is a good chance that you and I will come to different conclusions on the science. That is totally acceptable in the world that I inhabit. And if in our Democratic way of life, if “your” side’s opinion wins the debate, and we as a people, embark on a plan to cut CO2 emmisions then I will begrudgingly accept that. That is how our society is supposed to work. But if “my” side’s opinion wins the debate, are you willing to begrudgingly accept that? You see science informs, but politics sets the agenda.

  14. Jonathan Gilligan says:

    @Menth (#12): Both “sides” see economic risks. The difference is in the perception of whether the economic costs of adapting to warming will be greater or less than the costs of limiting it. See, e.g., the debates over the Stern review or Martin Weitzman’s and Richard Zeckhauser’s recent work on the economics of fat tailed risk distributions. Most arguments I see for policies to aggressively curtail greenhouse gas emissions are fundamentally economic and argue that global warming will cause much more economic harm than cutting GHG emissions will.
    @Tom Fuller (#6): Dyson is wicked smart and wicked impractical. His track record is not so good on predicting practical technology. How are those space ships powered by nuclear bombs working out?  This poor track record does not mean that he might not be right this time, if he were actually saying anything testable and scientific, but it does mean we should take his nonscientific oracular pronouncements with a few grains of salt.
    Dyson has barely published anything on climate change, and nothing to my knowledge in peer-reviewed media, but I have carefully read what I have found that he has written on the subject and I conclude that he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about. He doesn’t actually engage the science. He just tends to make vague general pronouncements about how the science of climate change is not sufficiently airtight to convince him that it’s worth a big effort to mitigate emissions, especially in light of the imminent arrival of supertrees (e.g., he says that because climate models can’t properly reproduce climate, including clouds and aerosols, from first principles, they’re worthless; but he never addresses whether parametrizing these phenomena is adequate or even how we’d judge the adequacy of a particular parameterization). The email exchange at the OP does not change my impression of his lack of actual scientific engagement with climate change.
    So I’m not saying not to take him seriously. I read his argument seriously and rejected it because I couldn’t find real science there. I encourage others not to take my word for it, but to read Dyson’s writings on climate and look for the rigorous science. Don’t patronize him by accepting unsubstantiated hand-waving, but hold him to the same standards of rigor that you’d hold any serious scientist.
    Which leads me to my favorite quotation from Myanna Lahsen’s paper on wicked smart people who think intelligence can substitute for knowing what they’re talking about: Lahsen quotes a young physicist saying, “See””this is a problem with physicists: they think they know everything, because they’re smart. What they don’t understand is that yes, it is true, actually meteorology is a branch of physics. And so you take a physicist, like me, and you can sit him down, and in 2 or 3 years, they could learn meteorology. But physicists confuse being smart and having the ability to learn everything with actually knowing stuff! …  So physicists … get confused between having the ability to understand everything””which they more or less have””and then actually knowing everything.”
    If anyone thinks I’m wrong and that Dyson really does have the expertise to back up his criticisms, please correct me with citations to the places where he engages with the details of climate science.

  15. Well, with that lead-in, Jonathon, someone has to link to xkcd.

  16. Tom Fuller says:

    The Orion project was cancelled for financial reasons, not because anyone thought it wouldn’t work.
    As for engaging with the science, I think his attitude and statements are both consistent and intelligent. I think he accurately captures the uncertainties associated with models at a distance, offers a common-sense opinion regarding those who have made models their livelihood, and tries to put the issue in a broader perspective. Unless he’s willing to dive in and really get his hands dirty, that’s about all he should say. As he is probably right about that, it should be enough.
    Please note that I disagree with Dyson on global warming overall. But disagreeing with Dyson scares me and makes me want to go back to square 1 and re-examine all my assumptions. Those in the blogosphere who are all-too-blithely dismissing what he wrote should really, really think it over.
    And just think–if Orion had gone forward, we wouldn’t be worrying about loose nukes anymore–they’d all be strapped to the belly of some big ol’ ship out there.

  17. toto says:

    Please note that I disagree with Dyson on global warming overall. But disagreeing with Dyson scares me and makes me want to go back to square 1 and re-examine all my assumptions.
    As opposed to disagreeing with the vast majority of practising climate scientists?
    You might take comfort in noting that monstrously smart people such as Kurt Godel or Linus Pauling also entertained bizarre theories near the ends of their lives – with a remarkably selective evaluation of evidence.

  18. I suspect Dyson is also pretty dismissive of some of the notions in astrology. It doesn’t take an astrologist with years of charting experience to spot pseudo-science.

  19. Shub says:

    What do you mean by ‘practicing climate scientists’?

    It is enlightening to see how the ‘language of the clinic’, permeates perception of applied science itself.

    Climate scientists don’t practice anything. They do research, write papers and they are not answerable to anybody if their findings are ‘wrong’. That is how things should be.

  20. Tom Fuller says:

    Toto, if I were to say that I do disagree with some climate scientists about some things, would that surprise, offend or delight you?

    In any event, I do disagree with some climate scientists about some things. Probably more relevant to this discussion, I disagree frequently about many things with many here in the climate blogosphere who claim to speak on their behalf.

  21. Steven Sullivan says:

    Dyson punted in the last round, after Connor offered a reasoned rebuttal to his Wegener argument, and pointed out how the skeptics’ arguments have shifted in an ad hoc manner.
    It’s been noted before that Dyson isn’t really interested in, or conversant in, the detailed arguments for AGW.  His signoff, which lacks substance but trots out the ‘distrust’ , ‘party line’ and ‘open mind’ memes, appears to be a tactical retreat.

  22. Tom Fuller says:

    Mr. Sullivan, I suggest you read the interview again. Putting your ‘game theory’ around what was exchanged there seems to have very little connection to reality.

  23. kdk33 says:

    “…who just want to keep driving their hummers with the baby seal fur seats “

    Anybody know where I can get these seat covers for my suburban?

    Connor’s questioning wasn’t meant to be journalism.  So Dyson quit; what was the point in continuing.

    “They do research, write papers and they are not answerable to anybody if their findings are “˜wrong'”

    Which explains much.  Espicially regarding uncertainty.  For example: when evaluating investments, real world managers simply assume that the project’s technical people interpret data with a bias to favor the project – it’s not that they are bad, they just can’t help it; it is the human condition.  Managers internally account for this bias. 

    In climate science, acknowledging these biases brings out the attack dogs.  Oh well.

  24. Tom C says:

    For those of you criticizing Dyson, has it occurred to you that maybe he has been around for awhile and has seen how personalities and pressures extrinsic to scientific enterprise can skew sound judgement?  And maybe in the course of trying to solve complicated multi-facted problems he has learned about the limits of computer models?  And maybe he understands a a bit about the underlying mathematics and uncertainties that lie therein?  And maybe is other interests have led to a good grasp of economics that eludes most academics?  Just thinking out loud here.

  25. Sashka says:

    Unlike most people, Dyson had no trouble working through the design of the climate models. He saw the flaws and the uncertainties very quickly. Those of you who think he lacks credentials simply don’t grasp the scale of his genius. It’s not that hard for him. What’s more, most theoretical physicists would come to the same conclusions once they take time to examine the matter.

    I can’t believe that people like Steve Connor have jobs in journalism. The guy is so sadly close-minded and completely indoctrinated by the dogma that he is completely incapable of holding a conversation. Reminds me of some folks blogging here.

  26. NewYorkJ says:

    Dyson: I am glad we are now talking about more general issues and not about technical details. I do not pretend to be an expert about the details.

    Typical.  Dyson has a general but confident view that climate models are bad, global warming is good, climate science is too uncertain, yet concerns are also bogus “hysteria”, mitigation will be devastating, and the experts are blinded to this reality that he is sure of.  Yet Dyson admits he doesn’t know the details.  His arguments certainly have the simplicity of someone who doesn’t know much, such as asserting that increasing atmospheric CO2 is good because CO2 helps plants.  Note also how contradictory his arguments are.  The science is way too uncertain.  Yet he knows that global warming will be good.

    Connor’s last reply left Dyson speechless, perhaps because while not directed specifically at Dyson, it exposed the nature of his rhetoric: throw a bunch of dubious often-conflicting contrarian arguments at the wall like a lawyer would do, and hope something sticks.  Dyson’s only last argument was that if you don’t see things his way, you aren’t a good skeptic.

    RC covered some of Dyson’s views recently.


    Dyson’s views on the topic are of the philosphical/religious variety.

    Fuller says Dyson is “wicked smart”.  So is Stephen Hawking, but I’m rather skeptical of these views…
    Asked about the environment, Hawking, who suffers from a degenerative disease, uses a wheelchair and speaks through a computerized voice synthesizer, said he was “very worried about global warming.”
    He said he was afraid that Earth “might end up like Venus, at 250 degrees centigrade and raining sulfuric acid.”


    While wicked smart, I’m not sure Hawking has a handle on the details of climate science either.
    While nothing in science is ruled out completely, humans are in fact conducting an unplanned/uncontrolled global experiment.  Seems like a bad idea to presume it will all turn out good.  Seems like a better idea to limit the experiment.

  27. Barry Woods says:

    didn’t take long..

    The Carbon Brief’s thoughts on the interview..

    I presume these guy would be thought of as media professionals?

    Any thought that the people (paid) writing these articles don’t put the full names behind them.

    A professional EU NGO  funded media respnse team
    (European Climate Foundation)
    Verity (wont’put her full name to the article.)

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