Freeman Dyson and Global Climate Change

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Freeman Dyson

Two good friends of mine have both referred me recently to articles by Freeman Dyson.  One pointed me at an article in the NY Times and the other sent me to an article  in John Brockman’s site, The Edge.

Both of my friends have some reservations about global climate change and they’ve directed me to these articles, I think, because Freeman Dyson is also skeptical of climate change and he’s an extremely smart and well respected scientist.  So, I read these two articles carefully.

Freeman Dyson hasn’t converted me.  Sorry.  That he is world-class brilliant is obvious.  But I haven’t been convinced that he’s so brilliant that he’s been able to see the correct answers and that the majority of the world’s scientists have been, strangely, missing them.

In the Edge article, he trashes the use of climate models saying the following:

I have studied the climate models and I know what they can do. The models solve the equations of fluid dynamics, and they do a very good job of describing the fluid motions of the atmosphere and the oceans. They do a very poor job of describing the clouds, the dust, the chemistry and the biology of fields and farms and forests. They do not begin to describe the real world that we live in. The real world is muddy and messy and full of things that we do not yet understand.”

For someone wanting to believe that the climate scientists are just making it all up, it would be easy to gather this sort of thing to yourself and snuggle in it.

But, flash as it sounds, it’s not right.

First, climate modelers don’t just develop a model and then start it from today and run it forward.   They develop it and then prime it with data from the past and then run it forward to the present and then see how it did predicting the weather in a period where we know what the correct outcome was.   And then they iteratively tweak and adjust the model and run it again and again until it does a decent job before they turn it lose predicting future events.

Second, we’re not talking about one model here.   We’re talking about many models – all independently developed and all manifesting a good deal of agreement with each other in their predictions.

And, third, and most telling, is that Dyson’s implication that these models are exaggerating the danger is badly off.  In fact, in nearly all cases, the climatic changes predicted by the models over the last decade have been consistent in under estimating the amounts and rates of change. If anything, these models have been conservative in their predictions compared to what’s actually come to pass.

That’s not exactly a reason to decide that Global Climate Change is being exaggerated.

Concerning the scientists who develop the models, he says:

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.”

I’m sorry, but that isn’t scientific discussion – it’s simply a personal attack.  And, yes, some folks do work in buildings and do theory while others go out and get their hands dirty. But these both, theoretical and practical, are vital and real parts of science.    Dyson himself, for example, has spent the last 50+ years at at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ.   And that’s a pretty theoretical place, if there ever was one.
There are arguably more scientists out in the field today, getting their hands dirty studying the climate than there has ever been before.   But, if you uncritically accept Dyson’s attack, you’d assume that most climate scientists just sitting in their air-conditioned offices playing with computers and adjusting their climate models and ignoring the messy real world.

How can anyone imagine that such attacks improve the scientific discussion climate?

Dyson is brilliant – no doubt.   But, he’s also widely acknowledged to like being the heretic.   If everyone goes left, he’s the one who will often go right.   And there’s a place for that in the world of science to keep everyone from getting complacent.   But when people know that this has been his habitual response across an entire career, one wonders whether his current contrarianism is based on convictions or if he’s just acting out his signature response?

If you think I’m exaggerating a bit, read the two articles and see how many times he’s played the  contrarian in his career.

The Nobel physics laureate Steven Weinberg admires Dyson’s physics — he says he thinks the Nobel committee fleeced him by not awarding his work on quantum electrodynamics with the prize — but Weinberg parts ways with his sensibility:

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.”

Oliver Sacks, a good friend of Dyson, said this about Dyson:

A favorite word of Freeman’s about doing science and being creative is the word ‘subversive.’ He feels it’s rather important not only to be not orthodox, but to be subversive, and he’s done that all his life.”

Of himself, Dyson says this about how he reacted in college when he found his muse when reading J. B. S. Haldane’s work:

Haldane was even more of a heretic than I am,” he says. “He really loved to make people angry.”

And has Dyson always been right?   It would certainly be a lot more telling if he had been.

Orion BlastoffBut no, he’s gone off the rails once or twice.  For example, he opposed the Space Station and the Hubble Telescope.  And he was fully on-board with the Air Force’s Orion Project –  a project to develop spacecraft that flew by exploding atomic bombs behind themselves to get a ‘push’.

The Edge article is in Dyson’s own words and is excerpted from his latest book, Many Colored Glass: Reflections on the Place of Life in the Universe.

The NY Times article, on the other hand, was written by Nicholas Dawidoff.   Nicholas’ previous writing seems to have largely involved baseball. He’s not suited to the material and his story rambles a bit as in the following excerpt:

These days, most of what consumes Dyson is his writing. In a recent article, he addressed the issue of reductionist thinking obliquely, as a question of perspective. Birds, he wrote, “fly high in the air and survey broad vistas.” Frogs like him “live in the mud below and see only the flowers that grow nearby.” Whether the topic is government work, string theory or climate change, Dyson seems opposed to science making enormous gestures.

Jeez, I think I know what reductionist thinking refers to but, after reading this, I seriously doubt that Dawidoff does.

This, of course, shouldn’t be a reflection on Dyson’s qualifications but it is a reflection of how lightly all of this is taken by an organization no less weighty that the NY Times.

Dyson’s admirers tout him as first-class systems thinker – a big picture man.   But, frankly, I have my doubts when he says things like the following:

The move of the populations of China and India from poverty to middle-class prosperity should be the great historic achievement of the century. Without coal it cannot happen.”

India and China’s rush to try to live like we Americans live is unsupportable.  The planet simply doesn’t have sufficient resources.   Signs of the strain are appearing everywhere around us – but he thinks it is all the best thing since sliced bread.

Freeman Dyson is brilliant, as I’ve said before, and he’s got a lot of credibility based on  his earlier career work (atomic bomb spaceships aside).  But, he’s also known as a habitual maverick and he’s got some seriously loose cannon ideas about climate science.   I personally think he’s irresponsible to wade into such a critical subject area armed with no more of a purpose for being there than, as he says himself:

…I am not speaking as a scientist. I am speaking as a story-teller, and my predictions are science-fiction rather than science. The predictions of science-fiction writers are notoriously inaccurate. Their purpose is to imagine what might happen rather than to describe what will happen. I will be telling stories that challenge the prevailing dogmas of today. The prevailing dogmas may be right, but they still need to be challenged. I am proud to be a heretic. The world always needs heretics to challenge the prevailing orthodoxies. Since I am heretic, I am accustomed to being in the minority. If I could persuade everyone to agree with me, I would not be a heretic.

His credibility as a world-class scientist means that his ideas are taken as valid criticisms of the science of Global Climate Change and that’s just not helpful now.   Yes, we will always need the contrarian viewpoint to keep us honest.  But Dyson, with his credibility, should spend it a little more responsibly and not use it to sow confusion in a world that badly needs to come to consensus on its climate problems soon.

Dyson says the following of James Hanson:

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 judgment than knowledge.”

And James Hanson says this of Freeman 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.”
I know where my money is at.  And I think you’d have to be a contrairan to get this one wrong.

Dennis Gallagher
Dennis Gallagher
I’m an American by birth but I’d have to say that I primarily consider myself a citizen of the planet. I’m also a generalist and a futurist by inclination and I’m deeply grounded in systems thinking - having been a computer programmer and systems analyst for 25 years.

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  1. Dyson expresses skepticism of a theory, not a new theory. So in insisting he is wrong, you are demanding the theory is obviously correct. The theory he is skeptical of is not global warming but the ‘inevitable’ ensuing catastrophe.

    His point about models, for instance, is that an incomplete model doesn’t actually prove anything. Your point, that the models are actually many models pooled together and extrapolated from past data, is irrelevant to that point. If you cannot work in all variables affecting climate to your model, then how can you dogmatically defend it. I think that is his point. Not that the earth isn’t warming.
    So in otherwords, before we extend the suffering of 100 million chinese and indians who are trying to come out of poverty into the middle class, we should be damn sure it’s worth doing.

  2. Jonathan,

    Thanks for your comment. But, I have to say I disagree with the drift of your comment.

    You say, “So in insisting he is wrong, you are demanding the theory is obviously correct.”

    No, I’m not saying the theory is obviously correct. Nor does science make absolute statements like that. It says things like, “Based on the evidence to date the following conclusions seem most probable.” The majority of professional peer-reviewed scientists working in the field feel that the theory is the best we have. That’s what I’m pointing out and it is what Dyson is railing against as a minority.

    And again, you say that, “…an incomplete model doesn’t actually prove anything”.

    An easy an absolute statement to say but it won’t stand up under examination. Models, by their very nature, are approximations. No one reasonably expects them to be perfect. But, some are better than others. Models that get it right 95% of the time are obviously better than ones that get it right 60% of the time. Perhaps the problem is your idea that a model can be used to ‘prove’ something. The more one wades into and understands science, the more one realizes that nothing is ever ‘proved’. But as time passes, we do become surer about some things that science asserts.

    People think that science should generate black and white 100% dependable answers and when they see if doesn’t, then they say it is a failure. People who think this way don’t really get that science is all about probabilities not certainties.

    And, finally, you say, “before we extend the suffering of 100 million Chinese and Indians who are trying to come out of poverty into the middle class, we should be damn sure it’s worth doing”.

    If you do not trust the opinions of those best suited to give them, then, obviously, there is no one around who will be able to convince you.

    Indeed, it looks like most of the world’s non-scientific population are like this. The news and predictions are too grim to accept so it is better to deny them.

    I suspect that few of these folks will believe what’s coming until their hair’s on fire – and then it’ll be a bit too late.

  3. Dennis,

    I am a molecular biologist who understands the nuances of models and proof in science. I do believe in global warming and don’t doubt catastrophe is possible. . . perhaps even probable. I gathered from Dyson, though I do not speak for him, that we should ask ourselves carefully whether it is worth it to do what needs to be done. The reason is, Dennis, we could eliminate global poverty for this price. It seems to me that this is less of concern to those who live in the USA and can afford to care only about the environment.

    If Catastrophe is inevitable, it is a nobrainer. However, being a scientist myself, I understand the subtleties of charts and models. I understand the difficulties of experimental proof and especially not being able to prove what SEEMS to be reality.

    Dyson points out that this is not a no brainer. This is a tough question we all must wrestle with. Weather is a chaotic system and we don’t even know all the influential variables, even if we could accurately include them into are models. We don’t begin to have the precision to work out the extremely sensitive initial conditions. These are not easy things for climatologists to admit.

    We should be alarmed, but not to the point of losing our reason. Perhaps the possible ensuing catastrophe is to great to ignore, even if wildly unlikely. The questions Dyson make me ask are ethical, not scientific. Your rebuttal is that I am a nonscientist with my head up my ars and presumably you think I am protecting big business or conservative principals. No sir. I am a Ralph Nader voting scientist concerned with using our resources in the most effective utilitarian way for ALL people.

  4. Jonathan,

    Well, first let me apologize if I seemed to suggest that you were a non-scientist with his head in the dark. I can see by your most recent comment that you are, indeed, clear about how science works and I do owe you more respect.

    I have a good, long-term friend and he and I have discussed the Global Climate Change idea for years. And, in the end, we’ve agreed to agree that since no one can ‘prove’ that the changes we’re seeing are man-made, we’ll just ignore that point. But, he and I are agreed that changes are occurring and the trends of these changes are ominous. I’d be curious to know if you and I can agree this far – or if you are one of those who doubt that climate changes are in progress?

    I understand when you say your questions are ethical in nature. Indeed, who are any of us in the west to say to the newly rising economies and peoples of China and India, that they cannot share the standard of living we have? I get it.

    But I think there’s a deeper question. And that is can the world support another billion or more people living at the same level as some of us in the west do? A lot of thoughtful people think not. They feel that humanity’s levels of consumption now are strongly outstripping the planet’s ability to renew itself.

    But, again, this is a question which has many different answers. Some folks think that science is going to pull another green revolution out of the hat and prevent food shortages, for example. Others simply think that the earth can feed many many more people than it is feeding now.

    And again, like with Global Climate Change, these are hard issues to discuss because while there’s lots of data, there are even more divergent interpretations of the data. And in the end, a lot of what one believes about questions like these is faith – regardless of how logical all of us think we are.

    For me, I don’t think the earth can sustain China and India both coming up to the standards of living some of us enjoy in the west. And I fully ‘get’ that those in China and India resent folks like me saying that while I sit here in the west.

    I don’t have any good answers to remove the apparent hypocrisy of this position. But in this case, I think the pragmatic aspects of the situation have to outweigh the ethical ones for those who are thinking about how to deal with the world’s problems.

    I guess the last point I want to make, before this gets too long, is that this conversation began on the subject of Global Climate Change and then I added in the issue of resource uses. But, while these subjects are riveting, they are still only part of what’s unfolding in human history just now. And it is this bigger picture, when looked at with all the moving parts moving, that makes me quite skeptical of the idea that we’re still early enough in the game to be seriously pondering ethical issues like the one you raised.

    I see us (humanity) as looking at a lot of pressure valves and many of them are edging into the red and some of them are already there. Any one or two of these valve/issues, if they blow, could easily cause sufficient disruption to significantly reset global civilization.

    Food shortages, water shortages, food chain breakdowns, pandemics, increasing intolerance/fundamentalism, Peak Oil, rising ocean levels, biodiversity losses, desertification, a rising back-lash against science, melting ice-caps, ocean acidification, pollution, gender-bender compounds, deforestation and the list goes on and on.

    I am not in favor of losing our head over all of this. But I am strongly of the opinion that we, as a species, have not really grasped just how bad the situation is that we are advancing into.

    You said you were a, “scientist concerned with using our resources in the most effective utilitarian way for ALL people.” I can certainly agree with that notion. But I find it hard to think that supporting China and India’s rights to advance to the same levels of consumption and pollution that we enjoy is a viable option given the big picture.

    Again, I apologize if I seemed dismissive and/or disrespectful earlier. That’s not my intent or my wish.


  5. Dennis,

    First of all, I do of course believe data that shows the climate is warming in certain ways, though I question if there is any harm thus far. From what I understand it is warming mostly in the poles, mostly in the winter, and mostly at night. The general trend this far could easily be seen as a good thing.

    You seem to have put climate change in the context of a deeper fear of human caused problems that have nothing to do with it. I can see that in your pressure valve worldview, catastrophe is inevitable, but that is based on a feeling more than any evidence. I admit that is mostly what we have to go on since the evidence is incomplete.

    You see the world as long overused and edging toward breakdown. I understand this view and have certainly shared most of your list of fears at some point in time. I have over time though become more optimistic about the future of humanity and the world. I am not saying it is a more mature or refined understanding, for I am admittedly quite young and could very well just be delusional.

    I am convinced, for instance, that the Earth could support a great deal more people then it does today as far as food goes. From what I understand that is not an issue. I also don’t believe at all that over the grand course of history there has been a rising backlash against science or increasing intolerance and fundamentalism. On those issues, which are not easy to measure, I simply disagree.

    I also have great hope in humanity to deal with post peak oil, water shortages, future pandemics, desertification, deforestation, and pollution and those nasty gender-benders. (I don’t know what a food chain breakdown is and don’t understand this concept intuitively. Life will find a way, it seems to me, even if an ecosystem must rearrange to survive.) Some of these things do worry me. For instance I believe water could be worth warring over soon enough, even if we haven’t solved our oil problems. I think it’s very possible another terrible pandemic will occur, but I see great progress in our prevention strategies. These could potentially be major problems in the future, or we could nip them in the bud. But they are not world ending. They could arguably be less disruptive then depriving coal from currently developing economies. And they have little or nothing to do with the climate change debate.

    Some of these things, and I believe climate is one, are part of a grander cycle. Ocean levels rise and fall, biodiversity rises and falls, and when the global climate changes, Ice caps melt or form. Do humans affect those cycles? Of course. Do humans significantly change the general cycle? Maybe with biodiversity, but I sense (with admitted uncertainty) that these grand cycles are not being driven predominately by human effects. And it would be an overlooked tragedy were we to prevent China and India from burning coal, only to see the planate continue to warm and the sea level continue to rise.

    I admit uncertainty and could be convinced otherwise. I understand the clock is ticking, but according to many environmental models, it is hopeless already. Fortunately I don’t believe those models, but if they are correct then mitigation is futile anyway and adaptation is where we need to pool our resources. And that is pretty much the way I see it, either it is hopelessly too late, or not an effective strategy anyway. It is a hard sell that we are right on the brink of global catastrophe and could reverse it all with a Kyoto protocol given the uncertainty many climatologists and environmentalists refuse to admit.

  6. Jonathan,

    I agree that most of what we both have to go on are our feelings about what we think is happening. Indeed, this is the point you seem to be making in the first two paragraphs of your most recent comment.

    But, I think there are bits and pieces out there that have more substance than just our feelings and interpretations of the patterns we see.

    For example, a look at the fact that we have exponentially growing populations on a stage of fixed size has to lead one to conclude that there’s going to be a big problem at some point. And I think that conclusion has more weight behind it than mere opinion.

    And, with regard to water, central India, Northwestern China and the Ogallala Aquifer in the U.S.’s Midwest are all what are called fossil aquifers – meaning that they are only replenished during ice-ages. All of these have been dropping due to mankind’s pumping and it is an inescapable conclusion that sooner or later, they will run dry. Indeed, wells depending on the Ogallala in northern Texas, Oklahoma and parts of Kansas are running dry now.

    Combine the aquifer issues with the fact that winter snow packs are decreasing in the mountains world-wide. This is a widely documented fact. Much of central China, Northern India, the entire west coast of South America and much of the U.S’s southwest depend, in the summer, for their water from winter snow pack melt. And those snows are diminishing year by year. I don’t think that a conclusion that we are going to experience huge water shortages at some point in the not too distant future is jut a matter of how one interprets the facts.

    Producing sufficient food depends heavily on water – so one domino topples the next here.

    It is epidemiological dogma that pandemics grow more probable as population densities increase.

    Glaciers are melting, Greenland is melting. the oceans will rise and millions will be displaced. these seem to me to be more facts than conjecture.

    Jonathan, you say that over time you’ve been becoming more optimistic about these scenarios. That’s certainly something I’d like to do myself but it seems to me, as I follow what science is revealing as the months and years go by, that the opposite trend is better supported – if one lets them self be data driven.

    Can you share what trends you see that make you more optimistic?

    With regard to the ‘backlash’ against science I mentioned. As science’s understandings grow more remote from the average man, they also begin to seem more like magic and myth to him. The entire Post-Modernism thing in which they assert that science is just another way of seeing the world – no better and no worse than any other seems amazing to me. I picture someone sitting in a plane at 35,000 feet moving at 600 MPH, typing on a laptop while they are completely surrounded by and dependent on the products of the very science and they are sitting there writing a paper debunking. And I think it happens.

    I’m afraid, after going back and reading what I’ve written here, that I sound like I’m only about predicting doom and gloom. But, that’s not true. I do have an opinion about what we, humanity, should do to solve our problems. I grant you that I think it is highly unlikely that we will do these things though because human nature just does not, in my opinion, work that way.

    Mankind needs to get over the ‘growth is good’ notion of how to organize his civilizations and switch to one based on establishing a steady-state balance with the biosphere around us. We can cut the trees and pump the aquifers – but only so fast as they can restore themselves. We need to bring the number of people on the planet down to where we can live within a sustainable footprint on the environment. And, we need to hold our population at that level. If we can do that, we can live here forever without destroying the environment that sustains us. And we can allow nature to continue to evolve naturally around us.

    I continue to talk about these things because I think it is inherently the right thing to do – regardless of whether on not my talking does any good.

    But, in truth, I think the battle is lost. We are already well on our way to a major overshoot and the coming changes will be profound. I’ve made arrangements to immigrate to New Zealand because I personally think it will be one of the better places to be if things come unglued. I hope I’m wrong.


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