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This item was posted on April 2, 2009, and it was categorized as Climate, Climate Change, Climate change policy, Global Warming, Global warming skeptics.
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Some climate activists think so, but skepticism is what gives science its power

I found myself agreeing with much of the criticism directed at Nicholas Dawidoff’s profile  of theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson in the New York Times Magazine last Sunday. Although he wrote an engaging and  fascinating story, Dawidoff was out of his league when it came to climate science. (Chris Mooney zeroes in on one particularly unfortunate passage here.) 

I was also largely unimpressed by Dyson’s views on climate change.

But that is where I parted company with much of the criticism I read. At best, writers like Jim Hoggan at Desmogblog seemed to regard Dyson as a nice, brilliant old coot whose advancing decrepitude simply inclines him toward curmudgeonliness. “Dyson might be forgiven such late-in-life contrarianism,” he wrote

At worst, writers like Joe Romm accused the Times of promoting the “anti-scientific” views of a “crackpot.” Judging by Romm’s blistering attack, and the commentary I read at his blog and elsewhere, many climate activists seem to believe that any deviation from the consensus view on climate change is not merely  incorrect,  but an attack on the entire endeavor of science itself.

Dawidoff’s profile — which I enjoyed despite its shortcomings — makes it clear that Dyson has been inclined toward skepticism and an outsider’s stance for his entire career. And in this, he embodies a core value of science itself. 

“Science is not a matter of opinion it is a question of data,”  Dawidoff wrote. In a way, this was an odd moment of convergence between the writer and his most bitter critic, Joe Romm, on the primacy of pure, objective data. With more data, the truth about climate change will emerge, Dawidoff seemed to be implying. Whereas Romm, of course, believes the data already have proved that we are faced with a climate crisis that demands quick action to forestall a planetary catastrophe. This is simply what the data say, so anyone who expresses skepticism is denying the objective truth — and therefore is anti-scientific. That seems to be the crux of Romm’s and his supporter’s argument.

I sense that underlying these views is a cartoon version of the scientific method taught at the middle school level — the idea that science is a pure, unbiased, inductive process that leads toward the truth of textbooks. In this view, scientists start with objective gathering of data with no biases and presuppositions of what might be found. Next they devise theories to explain what they’ve observed. And with enough further observation, the theory can be proved correct. 

Science is not a matter of opinion. It is a question, simply, of data. And that is that.

Karl Popper, one of the greatest philosophers of science of the 20th century, discredited this naive view of science long ago:

“… in fact the belief that we can start with pure observations alone, without anything in the nature of a theory, is absurd. . . Observation is always selective. It needs a chosen object, a definite task, an interest, a point of view, a problem. . .” For a scientist the point of view is provided “by his theoretical interests, the special problem under investigation, his conjectures and anticipations, and the theories which he accepts as a kind of background…” (From Popper’s “Conjectures and Refutations,” pp. 61-62)

Popper wasn’t alone in this belief. Here’s what Albert Einstein wrote to him in a letter: 

“I think (like you by the way) that theory cannot be fabricated out of the results of observation, but that it can only be invented.” (From Popper’s “The Logic of Scientific Discovery,” p. 482)

All scientists, Popper said, are biased from the start in the way they seek to learn nature’s lessons — and which lessons they choose to focus on. And the bias of scientists like Dyson is a preference to stand outside the consensus view and swing the axe of skepticism. (More about axes in a minute.)

Without people to swing the axe, science would lose its power. That’s because science cannot actually prove anything correct. Popper showed that such positive proof is a logical impossibility (for reasons beyond the scope of this post). So the only thing science can really prove is that an idea is wrong. How then is progress made? By putting new ideas to the test in a brutal weeding out process — by subjecting new ideas to withering skepticism. And the best that can be said about the ideas left standing is that they are well corroborated. 

In essence, Dyson is saying that while the overarching consensus on climate — more CO2 equals a warmer world  — is well corroborated, much of what has followed from that is not. He is, Dawidoff argues, demanding more evidence. Of course, other scientists vehemently disagree.

Dyson’s skepticism may make him wrong. But it clearly does not make him, or anyone else with similar views, anti-scientific. As Popper and other philosophers of science have shown, without constant testing, no scientific idea would ever be corroborated enough to warrant faith that it is correct. And that makes a curmudgeon like Dyson, whose preferred stance is to demand more testing and more evidence, wholly within the scientific enterprise. 

As Oliver Sachs, the noted author and neurologist, is quoted as saying in the article, “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.”

And Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate in physics, put it this way: “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.”

Much of the time, scientists like Dyson may well do nothing more than dull their axes as they chip away at the thickening ice of scientific consensus. That appears to be what he is doing in his criticism of some aspects of climate science — especially since his apparent lack of detailed knowledge of the subject leaves him with a less than sharp axe to begin with. But history shows that sometimes, a skeptic with a well placed strike can open a great fissure in the ice, allowing wondrous insights about how nature works to bubble up. 

One of the greatest axe wielders of all time was, of course, Albert Einstein. His achievements rested in large measure on his ability to free his imagination from what other scientists believed — and from the three-dimensional prison of everyday experience. As he was formulating his general theory of relativity, Einstein embraced a truly crackpot idea: the possibility of a fourth dimension of time beyond the three ordinary dimensions of space. (I can only imagine what Joe Romm would have said about this had he been blogging back then…)  In doing so, he made use of a kind of obscure geometry invented in the mid-1800s by the German mathematician George Friedrich Berhnhard Rieman.

Using that mathematical model as his ax, Einstein took a swing at conventional physics and opened a chasm that profoundly altered our understanding of reality: the discovery that gravity was the result of curvature in the four-dimensional fabric of spacetime. 

At first, many scientists dismissed Einstein’s theory. As Helge Kragh, a leading science historian at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, writes in “Cosmology and Controversy”: “To the majority of astronomers, and of course to most laypersons, Einstein’s reconceptualization of the universe was unknown, irrelevant, unintelligible, or objectionable.”

We now know, of course, that Einstein was no crackpot, and that his theory was anything but irrelevant and objectionable. It revolutionized physics by explaining gravity with stunning precision. 

Without scientists who are willing to challenge orthodoxy, science would not make such great leaps of discovery. So when critics like Romm describe Dyson as being anti-scientific because of his skepticism, they betray a fundamental lack of understanding of how science actually works. Science needs skeptics with sharp axes to take a crack at consensus — even climate science.

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This thing has 36 Comments

  1. Posted April 2, 2009 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    Two misconceptions here. The first is in the title. Skepticism is the life blood of science – without it, no progress would ever have been made nor will be made in the future. But people indulging in pot-shots against the ‘climate consensus’ based on no knowledge of the actual science are not ‘skeptics’ in any real sense. It is very reminiscent of the Monty Python argument sketch – true argument is not simply contradiction. Joe Romm and others are not criticising Dyson because of his skepticism, they (rightly) criticise him because of his ill-informed ‘skepticism’.

    Your second misconception is that the ‘data’ are the only thing that determines the science or our understanding. This is much more fundamentally mistaken. Take the Michelson-Morley experiment – pure data right? But the interpretation of those results by Lorentz or by Einstein couldn’t be further apart, and the implication of that experiment changes radically depending on that viewpoint. Data doesn’t exist in a void – it needs to be placed with a theoretical framework that allows it to distinguish between completing underlying theories.

    Changes in the radiative balance at the top of the atmosphere only matter because we have well-quantified theories (and models!) that link that to changes in atmospheric composition and eventual temperature changes. Without some theory, the measurements wouldn’t even have been made. Data says nothing on its own.

  2. Posted April 2, 2009 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    While mainly agreeing with Gavin, it’s important to remind readers that science, at best, only reduces uncertainty about the predictions of models (theories, hypotheses, ideas) and does this by empirical observation. The reduction in uncertainty is by degree, and grows slowly with accumulating evidence – but can never be absolute, and can sometimes diminish with better evidence. Nothing is certain in science – and that’s why scientists, as a group, are skeptics.

    And the relationship of rising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases to the observed global warming of the last century is a reasonably well-supported causal connection (at the 95% level of confidence) modeled with our fundamental understanding of physics. But currently, there’s something like a 5% chance that the connection might be exaggerated – somewhat less, that it might be wrong. So Freeman Dyson’s contrarian opinion is hardly “unscientific”. It’s just more likely to be ‘wrong’ than ‘right’.

  3. L. Carey
    Posted April 2, 2009 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    I have to agree with Gavin. Real “skeptics” in science (i.e., persons who question the validity or authenticity of something purporting to be factual, with the goal of thereby advancing knowledge) are invaluable to scientific advance.

    That said, it would appear that the Einstein example (i) is directly counter to the effort to place Dyson in the same mold, and (ii) illustrates nicely how real science works. Einstein did not promote special relativity via op-eds or a multi-page magazine interview highlighting his lack of detailed inquiry into the field in question — rather he wrote the four Annus Mirabilis Papers laying out in detail his proposals regarding electrodynamics, Brownian motion, the photoelectric effect, mass-energy equivalence, etc., and these proposals were eventually taken up by the physics community and heated debate in the literature then ensued over a considerable period of time until Einstein’s ideas were eventually accepted. Einstein and his peers conducted a back and forth in the literature and progress was made.

    Mr. Dyson seems to be a very nice person and has had a very distinguished (if unconventional) career (which Joe Romm completely failed to acknowledge). However, he seems to relish making outlandish claims in regard to a field with which he is unfamiliar, and in which he has no apparent interest in actually producing either his own research or a rigorous statement of his theories for peer-review. Instead, he seems happy to throw out a rather random and sometimes contradictory assortment of hunches and suppositions, which coincidentally “just happen” to match up with his own strongly held pre-existing personal views regarding use of coal, social class, etc.

    More importantly, it appears that neither Mr. Dyson nor many (the vast majority?) of right-wing critics regarding global warming are actually “skeptics” in the sense I referenced above, since it does not appear that there is any likely evidence that would change their minds on the topic — rather it appears that their views are held based upon firmly held pre-existing ideological commitments (in Mr. Dyson’s case, his personal beliefs, rather than partisan political commitments). In fact, I note from the NYT magazine article that Mr. Dyson does not seem at all interested in even making an effort to understand present-day climate science – how on earth can one be a “skeptic” (in the positive sense) without a good working knowledge of that which one is criticizing, and the evidence supporting it? In my thinking, a “skeptic” is one who is actually interested in uncovering the truth of the matter, and in the process willing to actively consider the existing facts in the real world and the actual arguments advanced by others.

    While Mr. Dyson and ideologically motivated AGW critics are certainly entitled to freedom of speech, it should be borne in mind that (a) pushing ideologically driven conclusions or simple contrarianism are not even close to how science is done, and (b) that’s not even real “skepticism”, which would be open to changing its views based on the evidence in a search for truth, not simply arguing that the evidence doesn’t exist or doesn’t count. (While I realize that ideological commitments swing both ways, on this issue my strong impression is that folks who believe that the science supports the view that AGW exists and is a problem that must be dealt with seem to have a much greater propensity to adjust their views to account for changes in climate science as it evolves.)

  4. Posted April 2, 2009 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    Gavin:

    I agree! As I said in the post, Dyson wields a dull axe because he is out of his league when it comes to climate change. My point, though, was that some environmentalists (and I will disagree with you here and say Joe Romm is one of them) seem to believe that skepticism of the science per se is anti-scientific. And my purpose was to use the Dyson article as an opportunity to explain how skepticism actually is the lifeblood of science.

    You also seem to misunderstand what I wrote about data. I never said that data was the only thing that determines the science or our understanding. Actually, I said precisely the opposite — and spent quite a long time explaining what I meant, with quotations about the nature of science from Karl Popper and Einstein.

    I believe my error here was writing so long and convoluted a post that people do not have time to read the entire tome.

  5. Steve Bloom
    Posted April 2, 2009 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    It’s not the length so much as a lack of useful terminology. What Dyson is engaged in regarding climate science is contrarianism rather than (scientific) skepticism. The two don’t need to be in conflict, as Dyson’s legitimate scientific accomplishments attest, but he’s no longer acting as a skeptic when he speaks out regarding a field not his own despite not having done his homework.

  6. Posted April 2, 2009 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    Of course, Dyson is perfectly entitled to express his opinions on climate science, no matter how ill-informed. Gavin’s point is fair: naysaying unsupported by any knowledge or logic is not “skepticism”, it’s ignorance.

    By itself, that still doesn’t mean he is “anti-science”, it just means no one should take him seriously.

    However, Dyson has crossed the line by his apparently willing partcipation in PR campaigns designed to sow doubt about the scientific consensus on climate change.

    He was a signatory to both the Manhattan Declaration of last year (released at the first Heartland climate conference) and the infamous Bali declaration in late 2007 (where he was absurdly referred to as a “climate expert”).

    http://www.climatescienceinternational.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=66
    http://www.canada.com/business/fp/story.html?id=164002
    http://www.nationalpost.com/news/story.html?id=164004

    Both efforts were secretly organized by long time PR operative Tom Harris (now head of the International Climate Science Coalition) and paid for by … well, that would be interesting to know, wouldn’t it?

    So tell us again: exactly which “core values” of science was Dyson exemplifying when he signed those statements?

  7. Thom
    Posted April 2, 2009 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    Another foot in mouth misstep that has become almost de riguer here at the Boulder blogs is the climate “activists” meme. People who are trying to point out the importance of the science are not “activists”. Why you and RPJr continue wielding that cudgel is more than a bit amusing.

    Also, your understanding of scientific didactic is about twenty years behind the times. There was perhaps a time when there was pure scientific argument, which involved individuals dithering over differing points of view and intellectual ideologies that were informed by facts.

    This all changed when corporations stepped into the picture and began paying off experts and placing bullhorns in front of contrarian outliers. Journalists looking for “balance” and an interesting read like Dawidoff have become the enablers of this disinformation. Read David Michaels “Manufacturing Uncertainty” to get better informed.

    Your understanding of how science operates in the public sphere is simply antiquated. No corporation was sponsoring Einstein’s research. And there was no Fox News providing a platform for his views.

  8. Thom
    Posted April 2, 2009 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    Missed something. The “environmentalist” hammer is equally as boring as the “activist” club. Get creative. Pick up a more effective linguistic weapon.

  9. Posted April 2, 2009 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

    Thom:

    Your clear implication that Freeman Dyson is on the payroll of large corporations, and that he is therefore corrupt, verges on libel.

    As for your reference to linguistic “weapons,” that says quite a lot about what you value.

  10. Thom
    Posted April 2, 2009 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    Yulsman….that last post is just dumb.

  11. Posted April 2, 2009 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

    Thom:

    Sorry if I have not made myself clear. So let me try this: In your comment about Freeman Dyson, you speak about corporations “paying off experts and placing bullhorns in front of contrarian outliers.” The crystal clear implication is that you place Freeman Dyson in this category, but you offer no evidence. In fact, you can’t because the evidence actually shows that Dyson has been a contrarian through much if not all of his scientific career, and that his skepticism about certain aspects of climate science, whether it is well placed or not, derives from this stance.

    Calling Freeman Dyson a crackpot, as Joe Romm has done, is simply offensive. But implying that he is paid by corporate interests to mislead the public about climate change, as you have done, is much more than that. It is a false statement of fact about a person that harms the reputation of that person — the very definition of libel. And I simply will not tolerate this on my site. So I am asking you respectfully to think carefully about what you are saying before you hit the publish button.

    I am gratified that you read my posts, and feel compelled to comment on them. I am glad that people who disagree with me feel motivated to come back regularly to engage in discussion here. But if you want to continue to do so, please stick to the facts, keep within reasonable bounds of decorum, avoid ad hominem attacks, back up what you have to say with evidence, and above all else, do not commit libel.

    If you have any questions about the definition of libel, please go here: http://www.medialaw.org/Content/NavigationMenu/Public_Resources/Libel_FAQs/Libel_FAQs.htm

  12. Posted April 3, 2009 at 6:02 am | Permalink

    Sure, “crackpot” (actually I believe it was “climate crackpot”) is a little strong. But let’s face it, Dyson is clueless about climate models or climate change in general.

    So, yes, on this issue he is an uninformed contrarian, not a skeptic. Would it kill you to admit that?

  13. Posted April 3, 2009 at 7:17 am | Permalink

    Deep Climate:

    “A little strong”? Romm used the word “crackpot” seven times in his post, along with a number of other epithets. And “crackpot” comes up in previous post too — over and over and over again. When he accuses Dyson and others of ranting and raving he is actually projecting his own behavior onto others. All of this is a shame, because when Romm is not apoplectic, I often learn something from his blog.

    As for whether Dyson is a “contrarian” or “skeptic,” I’ll leave that for you decide. For assistance, here are their respective dictionary definitions:

    * skeptic: a person inclined to question or doubt all accepted opinions.

    * contrarian: a person who opposes or rejects popular opinion.

    It seems to me that Dyson is inclined to question accepted scientific opinion, so “skeptic” works just fine for me. But if you prefer contrarian, I won’t argue the point.

    More important, do you take issue with my main point?:

    “Dyson’s skepticism [replace with "contrarianism" if you'd like] may make him wrong. But it clearly does not make him, or anyone else with similar views, anti-scientific.”

    You quibble with words. But I didn’t accuse Dyson of being anti-scientific. Romm and other activists did. That’s a serious — and wholly outrageous — charge.

  14. Posted April 3, 2009 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    For a well reasoned analysis of the difference between informed and productive skepticism in science and uninformed contrarianism, please click on the trackback link below the comments section. It leads to Richard Gayle’s “A Man With a Ph.D.” blog.

  15. Posted April 3, 2009 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    Tom,

    I’m not aware of any evidence that Dyson has had direct or indirect financial support from fossil fuel corporations. That’s more than you can say for the likes of Ross McKitrick, Tim Patterson and Tim Ball, to name some Canadian examples with which I’m familiar. (Look them up, along with their associated think tanks and “astroturf” groups at sourcewatch.org, if you want further details.)

    Still, it is legitimate to ask some questions about Dyson’s activities. For example, does he know or care that the petitions he agreed to sign were organized by a PR professional known to “mislead the public about climate change”, as you put it, on behalf of unidentified “corporate interests”? Who approached him to do this and what due diligence, if any, did he perform before agreeing to sign? (In the case of the Bali letter, probably not much, as it seemed to come together in a few days).

    And most important of all for this discussion: why has no journalist ever thought to ask these questions?

  16. Posted April 3, 2009 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    Tom,

    “A little strong”? Romm used the word “crackpot” seven times in his post, along with a number of other epithets.

    Personally, I’d reserve “crackpot” for ravers like Tim Ball, who denies that CFCs had any effect on the ozone layer, and claims that atmospheric CO2 levels have varied wildly over the last couple hundred years (and so can’t be primarily from fossil fuels). So, no, I don’t agree that Dyson’s a “crackpot”. But his views are pretty outlandish.

    It seems to me that Dyson is inclined to question accepted scientific opinion, so “skeptic” works just fine for me. But if you prefer contrarian, I won’t argue the point.

    My “quibble” with words is not really about “skeptic” vs. “contrarian”, but “informed” vs. “uninformed”. Every commenter here has characterized Dyson’s “skepticism” as “uninformed” or “ill-informed”. Do you agree or not? I still can’t tell.

    More important, do you take issue with my main point?:
    “Dyson’s skepticism [replace with "contrarianism" if you'd like] may make him wrong. But it clearly does not make him, or anyone else with similar views, anti-scientific.”

    I would not hesitate to call any scientist (or economist) who holds similar views, *and* puts forth deliberately misleading information, *and* accepts significant direct or indirect financial support from corporate interests to do so, as “anti-scientific”.

    Dyson’s case is perhaps less problematic, as he seems to not only be sincere in his uninformed, misguided views, but has apparently not taken such financial support. Still, I would have to reserve judgment on this question until I knew all the facts about his participation in the PR campaigns documented above.

    But I reserve my greatest disdain for the PR operatives who are behind the so-called “skeptics”, the journalists who help get their message out and the corporations who fund the PR. ((To be clear, I’m not including the NYT in that group of journalists, although I do find that Tierney, Revkin and Dawidoff display various levels of gullibility).

    Frankly, I’m a lot more concerned about the PR disinformation around climate change than I am about the existence of ill-informed contrarians, or Romm’s overzealous attacks on them. You should be too.

  17. Aaron
    Posted April 3, 2009 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    Not sure I have anything monumental to add to this discussion. I’ll share my opinions anyhow.

    Tom, I understand why you point to Einstein as an example of someone fighting against the scientific ‘consensus’ of the time. Indeed you could have chosen any number of famous scientists throughout history. My issue is that when you do this, it gives the reader an unjustified value of that scientist’s opinions (Dyson for ex.). For every famous scientist who ended up being correct in their theories (Einstein, Galileo etc), there were probably 100′s who had other differing views, that ended up being wrong.

    Dyson shows he lacked some fundamental knowledge about climate science from the article. I will question any scientist who will say unjustified statements on a public forum, especially one such as large as the Times. If I did this, I would feel embarrassed in the scientific community and rightly so.

    Skepticism, is a great thing as you said. But skepticism without even taking the time to substantiate or validate your skepticism (ie reading some recent peer reviewed literature on the subject) is as Deepclimate wrote, ignorant. I’m not deeply informed on the exact course of events with which Einstein made his discoveries. But I can imagine he substantiated his claims in a forum which other scientists could evaluate his theories (ie publish his findings). This is something Dyson, and indeed many other so called ‘skeptics’ have not done. And for this I question their motives.

  18. Posted April 3, 2009 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    Aaron makes the right point. A responsible scientist would not occupy the most prominent slot in all of American newspaperdom to promote vague hunches and unsubstantiated discomforts.

    But that a retired (and always somewhat firnge) scientist would take such a position somewhere is not all that surprising. What is surprising is that the newspaper paid any attention. That is what this is about. It is another case where the issue is not the conduct of science but the conduct of journalism.

    There are many places in which climatology is not held in high regard, and climatology itself is not entirely innocent. But a great deal is known, and those who attack it publicly as opposed to griping over it privately owe it to the rest of us to make a substantial effort to investigate in detail. Dyson shows no sign of having spent any time on the climate sciences, as he illustrates by flickering mindlessly back and forth between geochemistry and climate dynamics like a layman or, sorry, a journalist.

    Alas, those of us in a position to directly perceive Dyson’s complete ignorance are in a minority. But stipulate, for the purposes of argument, that things might be as I describe them above. How would you describe them? “Crackpot” is not a nice word, but it fits better than “skeptic”.

    I do not believe Dyson’s opinions are for sale in dollars, and I believe he considers himself honest. But consider this. If he hadn’t adopted a contrary position on climate change, would the Times have stroked his ego this way? There is certainly plenty of reward for him in taking this position.

    The man is in his eighties, for God’s sake, and has always admittedly focussed on small problems. The grounds for expressing himself on this matter are very thin.

    A press that was adequately serving the public’s needs would have known this and left the man alone.

    But of course it’s too late. The Times now owes us an eight page Sunday Magazine cover piece on Lovelock for balance, OK?

  19. Posted April 3, 2009 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    Aaron makes the right point. A responsible scientist would not occupy the most prominent slot in all of American newspaperdom to promote vague hunches and unsubstantiated discomforts.

    But that a retired (and always somewhat firnge) scientist would take such a position somewhere is not all that surprising. What is surprising is that the newspaper paid any attention. That is what this is about. It is another case where the issue is not the conduct of science but the conduct of journalism.

    To this I would add the question: “Why did the newspaper pay any attention?” As I’ve said before, the obvious answer, assuming good faith (which I do), is gullibility.

    Profiling Lovelock might restore some sort of “balance”. But it’s more important to know exactly what PR efforts have been expended on getting Dyson out there as some sort of qualified critic of climate change science, and his co-operation in those efforts. That’s the real story – and so far the NYT (and you) are totally missing it.

    And I’m still waiting patiently for your answer as to whether you consider Dyson an “informed” skeptic.

  20. Posted April 3, 2009 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    The comment on this page suggest that there’s little appreciation here in how greatly Freeman Dyson is respected among scientists – not only physicists. He’s a mathematical genius who thoroughly understands mathematical computer modeling. He was a colleague of both Einstein and the father of programmed computers, John von Neumann. His greatest contribution was to show that the various successful theories of Quantum Electrodynamics (Feyman’s. Schwinger’s and Tomonaga’s) were mathematically equivalent.

    He also published a paper in Energy, volume 2, 1977, “CAN WE CONTROL THE CARBON DIOXIDE IN THE ATMOSPHERE?” So he’s been thinking about AGW for a long time!

    I may think he’s ‘wrong’ on his present climate position, but it’s a terrible injustice to run his reputation down. (As one two years his junior, it looks something like ageism and associated ignorance ;-)

  21. Posted April 3, 2009 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    Leonard:

    I think there’s more than ageism at work here. I detect something I’m seeing all too often lately — namely, close mindedness and even a desire to shut down expression of ideas contrary to one’s own.

    The New York Times profiled Freeman Dyson for three reasons: He is a giant of 20th century physics, he is a fascinating figure whose history makes for engaging and informative reading, and he has been in the news lately because of his opinions about climate change. We’ve got a news peg, a compelling story, and an excellent story teller. That’s why the Times published the profile.

    The paper is not, however, in the business of advancing one agenda or another. It is in the business of covering the news, and providing readers with an in-depth look at what’s behind that news. I believe that’s what the Times did in this story, and they should be lauded, not excoriated, for making the effort.

    Yes, the story was flawed. It could have provided a more sophisticated view of the role of skeptics and contrarians in science, and even discussed some of the interesting issues raised here. Had I written it, I might have interviewed someone like Gavin. As I wrote in my post, I think the author had a somewhat naive view of how science works. But otherwise, I found the profile absolutely fascinating. It was not about climate change per se. It was not even about science. It was about a scientist who has led a wonderful and productive life, and who continues to have an impact — for better or for worse — at a ripe old age. We should all be so damn lucky.

  22. Posted April 3, 2009 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    Tom, addressing Ornstein’s characterization of the comments here, you said:

    I detect something I’m seeing all too often lately — namely, close mindedness and even a desire to shut down expression of ideas contrary to one’s own.

    The very first thing I said was:

    “Of course, Dyson is perfectly entitled to express his opinions on climate science, no matter how ill-informed.”

    Your blanket condemnation of your critics here as close-minded or against freedom of expression of ideas is unjustified and you should withdraw it. Are you really saying that anyone who considers Dyson’s skepticism “ill-informed”, as both Gavin Schmidt and I wrote, is somehow guilty of being close minded?

    I don’t doubt that Dyson’s contrarian opinions are newsworthy or at least of interest. But the story needed to be presented in its proper context, including the obvious flaws and contradictions in his views, as well as some pointed questions about his exact relationship to Tom Harris’s disinformation campaigns. Dawidoff clearly wasn’t up to the job. Maybe Revkin would have been, maybe not.

  23. Posted April 4, 2009 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    Deep Climate:

    As I said high in my original post, I am largely unimpressed with Dyson’s views on climate — at least as they were reported in the profile. In my response to Gavin, I also said that I felt he was out of his league on the subject. As to my own views about climate, I will let my record as a journalist — my many posts about the science on this blog, my work as a writer (I wrote my first climate story in 1983), and as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine, which covered climate change in detail and great depth in the early to mid-1990s — speak for itself.

    But a fairly big caveat is in order here: Based on one profile in the New York Times by a writer who has a naive view of science, and who does not appear to have asked probing questions about Dyson’s arguments, I hesitate to be more forceful than that because the story simply provides an incomplete picture. I do not know how deeply Dyson has looked into climate science. All I can say is that based on what I read, which provides a flawed picture, and on what I know, which is itself quite flawed and incomplete, I am not willing to condemn the man. Indeed, given his stature in science, his long experience, and also my own predilection to challenge my assumptions and at least try to think outside the box, I am willing to read his views, consider them, and investigate them. That’s a lot more than can be said of many people who have bitterly and unfairly condemned him.

    As to your point that I have made a “blanket condemnation” of my critics, I did no such thing. Here’s what I said: “I detect something I’m seeing all too often lately — namely, close mindedness and even a desire to shut down expression of ideas contrary to one’s own.”

    There is nothing in that sentence indicating a “blanket condemnation.” The phrase “all to often” does not equal “blanket condemnation.” My comment was directed at people like Joe Romm, who is, in fact, profoundly close minded. He is also an enemy of free expression: He bans people who disagree with him from his site, including me. Moreover, comments on Climate Progress indicate that many of his readers have a similar worldview and approach to public discourse.

    Lastly, the over-heated reaction against the New York Times for publishing the profile indicates that some people are not willing to consider views contrary to their own, even in an engaging and informative profile that, however flawed on the science, provided a fascinating look into a man with a significant legacy in science. I don’t know about anyone else, but I am very interested to read about a man with friends as diverse and noteworthy in their own ways as John McPhee, Olliver Sachs and William Press.

    I am sorry if you felt attacked. But it was very clearly not my intention.

  24. Thom
    Posted April 4, 2009 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    Yulsman: “Your clear implication that Freeman Dyson is on the payroll of large corporations, and that he is therefore corrupt, verges on libel.”

    Now you’re just completely ridiculous. You have no clue what libel is, which is embarrassing because you’re supposed to be some sort of journalism professor. And you’re trying to twist words, which again is embarrassing.

    You’ve lost the script.

    Press the “think” button before “post comment.”

  25. Posted April 4, 2009 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    Thom:

    Sounds like I struck a nerve.

    I included the *legal* definition of libel in my earlier response, along with my source. But here it is again: a false statement of fact about a person that harms that person’s reputation. This isn’t my interpretation. It is not ridiculous. It is a straightforward definition. And my advice would be to heed it because you could get yourself into trouble some day if you don’t.

    Also, I am not twisting your words: You have clearly implied that Dyson is on the payroll of large corporations. But you provide no evidence to support this outrageous assertion — because as far as I know no such evidence exists. Unless you can show that your attack is factual, you have made a provably false statement that harms Dyson’s reputation. And that would mean that you are guilty of libel. Dyson surely could not care in the least. But as editor of this site who must enforce certain standards of decency and civility, I do.

    As I said, you are welcome to continue commenting here — but I will not tolerate libel, ad hominem attacks, and the like. Moreover, if you feel that I am “embarrassing” and that I “twist words,” perhaps you should participate in someone else’s blog. I am sure that you are more than welcome at Climate Progress. I have been very impressed and gratified by almost all of the commentary that has taken place here, including some that has been very critical of me. It can be personally distressing at times, but in the long run, I value it very much. But your comments are a rare exception to this experience.

    So unless you have something well reasoned to add to the discussion, I have only one thing to say: Please go away.

  26. Thom
    Posted April 4, 2009 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    Yulsman, again. You’re tiresome. Nobody, including myself, wrote anything about Dyson being on the payroll of any corporation. I wrote, “Journalists looking for “balance” and an interesting read like Dawidoff have become the enablers of this disinformation.”

    You then morphed this into me implying that Dyson was on the payroll of company, then some ridiculous charge of libel.

    You’ve got a muddled mind. And you are backing yourself into a corner and embarrassing yourself.

  27. Posted April 4, 2009 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    Thom:

    This is what you wrote:

    “This all changed when corporations stepped into the picture and began paying off experts and placing bullhorns in front of contrarian outliers. Journalists looking for “balance” and an interesting read like Dawidoff have become the enablers of this disinformation. Read David Michaels “Manufacturing Uncertainty” to get better informed.”

    Your comment was in response to my post on Freeman Dyson. It references “contrarian outliers,” which is a charge that has been leveled against Freeman Dyson. (And do you deny that you believe he is a “contrarian outlier”?) Lastly, your comment explicitly references Dawidoff and by implication his profile of Freeman Dyson — since that is the context of this entire discussion. So I think any reasonable person would conclude that you believe, and were implying that, Freeman Dyson is implicated in the corporate denial campaign.

    So Thom, tell us for the record: Do you think Dyson is likely an honest man who is simply wrong? Or is he, in fact, implicated in the corporate denial campaign? Do you think he is just uninformed and incorrect, or corrupt? Now is your chance to set the record straight.

  28. Posted April 4, 2009 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    Thom:

    As for backing into a corner, that only happens if you are unwilling to admit when you’ve made a mistake. I have no problem with admitting my mistakes. In fact, I know that I screw up fairly regularly, and I admit it when I do. That is how I avoid getting boxed into corners.

    Also, if you find me “tiresome,” “ridiculous,” and “embarrassing,” then why do you keep coming back for more of what I write? It sounds like you are a glutton for punishment.

  29. Thom
    Posted April 5, 2009 at 4:58 am | Permalink

    Yulsman, obviously Dyson is a contrarian outlier and Dawidoff is doing some man bites dog journalism. Quite obviously, he is not taking any money from corporations, because it doesn’t seem to fit his personality, and there have been no reports or hints of such activity.

    Quite obviously, when I wrote that Dawidoff’s piece was a “balance” piece and interesting read, I was stating that Dawidoff was falling into the trap of profiling a contrarian. Such pieces, as I pointed out, play into the corporate hand of “paying off experts AND placing bullhorns in front of contrarian outliers.”

    See that word “and”? It’s a word that means the words prior AND following are…different. You see, Tom, there can be two types. That’s why the word AND is so important. In your zeal, you sort of overlooked that. AND yes, that is tiresome. And yes, when I walked into a Republican office earlier week on the Hill, the Dawidoff piece was on a press secretary’s desk.

    So yes, it is feeding into the disinformation campaign. I’m sure it was sent around by someone at one of the right-wing think tanks. In much the same way as the Pielke studies and blog postings get sent around on the same circuit.

  30. Posted April 5, 2009 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    Thom:

    Thank you for this clarification, and please forgive me for misinterpreting what you wrote.

    As for the New York Times piece sitting in a Republican office when you visited earlier in the week, by your standard you are just as guilty as Dawidoff. The article was there, and so were you.

  31. Posted April 5, 2009 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    Leonard Ornstein:
    “The comment on this page suggest that there’s little appreciation here in how greatly Freeman Dyson is respected among scientists – not only physicists …
    it’s a terrible injustice to run his reputation down …. it looks something like ageism and associated ignorance.” [Emphasis added]

    Tom:
    “I think there’s more than ageism at work here. I detect something I’m seeing all too often lately — namely, close mindedness and even a desire to shut down expression of ideas contrary to one’s own.”

    Leaving aside Thom (more on that another time), in the context this clearly suggests that the “comment on this page” (from Gavin Schmidt, Steve Bloom, Aaron, Michael Tobis and myself) somehow represent “close mindedness and even a desire to shut down expression of ideas contrary to one’s own.”

    I take it that you are now withdrawing that presumably unintended implication. Fine, I’ll accept that.

  32. Posted April 5, 2009 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    Deep Climate:

    If I gave the impression that I was implicating the commenters on this page, please forgive me. That was not my intent. As I mentioned in an earlier comment, I was reacting more to the kinds of commentary I see on sites like Climate Progress.

    And even though I know many of you believe Joe Romm does more good than harm, I won’t hold that against you!

  33. Thom
    Posted April 5, 2009 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    Yulsman: “As for the New York Times piece sitting in a Republican office when you visited earlier in the week, by your standard you are just as guilty as Dawidoff. The article was there, and so were you.”

    That’s too funny.

  34. Posted April 6, 2009 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

    Thom:

    Do you ever stop to actually consider what other people have to say? Have you ever been at least tempted to say something like this?: “You know, I never thought of it that way. I don’t think I believe it, but I will give it some thought.”

    Or do you simply think you are infallible?

  35. Posted April 9, 2009 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    To answer the question you pose in your title requires to first define “skeptic”. Many self-defined “skeptics” are not skeptical at all: They uncritically accept any proposition that goes against the deeply hated consensus, and no evidence supporting the consensus will ever be accepted. People following this path have nothing whatsoever to contribute to science; to the contrary. Of course, there are also real skeptics, most active scientists amongst them. Some of them are less convinced than most others of the realities of AGW, and as long as they apply their skepticism in an honest way, they could in principle add to the scientific debate. The word “climate skeptic” however has changed much more into the former description, and if you have the latter description in mind, then an argument will ensue. But at the heart of the argument may just be a different definition.

  36. Posted April 11, 2009 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Bart,
    You’re about the seventh or eighth commentator to make the point that so-called climate change “skeptics” are not true skeptics as that term is usually understood.

    Moving beyond semantics, though, a more fruitful discussion would get down to cases. For example, which definition of “skeptic” applies to Freeman Dyson?

    I’ve gone back and reread the various statements he has signed, i.e. the Oregon petition, the Bali open letter to the U.N. Secretary-General (2007) and the Manhattan Declaration (2008). I don’t see how any scientist professing to be open-minded or credible on climate change science, even one as ill-informed as Dyson, could possibly sign those statements.

    I find it extraordinary that so far no one in the media has thought to ask him about any of this, or even acknowledged that this is possibly problematic behaviour. If the New York Times or Newsweek is going to be gulled into “placing bullhorns in front of contrarian outliers” (in Thom’s felicitous phrase), that’s the least they could do.

    Tom, your silence on this particular issue is deafening. Have you read the SourceWatch reference I gave you on the NRSP executive director (and ex-APCO operative) Tom Harris’s co-ordination of the Bali open letter? Have you read the open letter itself in your on going quest to “read [Dyson's] views, consider them, and investigate them”?

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