Freeman Dyson and Climate Change

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Omai's picture
Freeman Dyson and Climate Change

I just read this fascinating article in the New York Times about Freeman Dyson. A famous physicist and all around great scientist who calls into question the doomsday theories about the environment. He doesn't necessarily disagree with the politics. He just wants the decisions to be bassed on sound science. Personally, I've always just gone along with the theory that we are having very dire impacts on our global survival. I have to admit some of the data presented in An Inconvient Truth sounded a little far fetched, but (being a liberal) I felt like it was part of the mantra to go along with. Maybe too often I've pushed aside my scientific sensibilities for a political pursuit. Its a difficult balance. Most of the climate change data is built on predictive models, and we definitely don't have all of the variables for global climate change. We can't even accurately predict the weather.
Anyway. Its a great article that goes into the life of Freeman Dyson beyond his opinions on climate a change (including a short section on Jason, a military based think tank for scientific problems!) and I highly recommend the read. He's a fascinating scientist.

Ivan Delgado
Ivan Delgado's picture

I found this to be a very interesting article. Dyson deserves the outmost respect, no question about that. Even though I love the fact that he writes about things like potatoes growing in Mars and termites capable of disposing of a whole car, I think that it is exactly that kind of attitude that gets him in trouble. That kind of talk is great in private conversations. When you make them public and you are a person of stature like him, things can be twisted to mean something else. While by no means at the same level, when James Watson not too long ago stated that black people are not as smart as whites, he caused an uproar (Time article). I am not linking Dyson's comments on global warming to Watson's comments on black people. All I am trying to say is that it is not unusual for a scientist, especially Nobel prize-caliber ones at the twilight of their lives, to say things in public that they believe in and that may not necessarily be in their best interest to do so.
What most people hear when Dyson questions global warming is that he does not believe it, when in reality my guess is that deep down he does! I could not agree more with him if that is the case. A true scientist, and I think few scientists deserve the title more than he does, questions all data, no matter how much of a consensus has been reached. Personally though I would argue that global warming is an issue that, even if it were not as dramatic as their supporters claim it to be, is something that should be tackled with vigor. To put it is different terms, even if the tons of pollution we generate each year somehow are not irreplaceably destroying our planet and increasing global warming, I think it would be unethical not to do something to slow down the obvious destruction our society creates. Just because it may not be warming the planet as a whole does not mean it is not a bad thing.
I think that "global warming" is more than just the warming of the planet. It is the systematic destruction of our habitat, with warming but one aspect of the whole picture. While I applaud Dyson for being a true scientist, I worry that by questioning the "face" of the environmental movement (global warming) he may be damaging the chances of reversing the polluting trend. Of course it is quite possible that what we hear from Dyson are not his true words but what the media distills for us. Even this article, entitle "The Civil Heretic" and spending the first page (which is what most people will only read, if that) on his questioning of global warming (among other things) does not point out until the second page that Dyson himself states that he could be dead wrong about his views. In a purely literary/journalistic/online media perspective, that to me is a very selective way of portraying someone's opinion. I am not accusing, just observing. 
Pardon me for taking a small jab at an opinion that I do not truly agree with: If I were Dyson and in my twilight years, then I too would not be worried about global warming. It is fair to say whatever happens will not affect me in any way. Yet I hope to live a few more decades. While I am not even the shadow of a scientist Dyson is, my humble opinion is that while the data may be scarce and highly circumstantial, I do not think there is any doubt that we are pushing our environment in a direction that is harming it. It may not be a warmer climate, or dirtier water, or fewer species, or less water, or more disease, etc, but it will lead to a planet that will be far less beautiful, far less healthy, and far less livable than it used to be. Maybe some day science will be able to come up with a graph that can measure that. My apologies for the jab, it was totally unfair but I could not help it. In the particular humor that British scientists have (Francis Crick comes to mind), the jab was intended in jest. 
I will end by saying this. I think Dyson is a great mind that is doing a service to us all by putting things in perspective. Playing the devil's advocate and asking for the world to think in scientific terms about what the data truly means is great. To do things without enough evidence is always risky and often leads to problems. Yet, while Dyson points out that our planet has experienced warmer periods in the past, he knows quite well that you cannot compare that naturally occurring circumstance with our current gargantuan capacity as a species to generate all sorts of pollutants. I will counter his argument by saying that the choice is more about a change in our approach towards our environment and less about collecting enough data to prove without any doubt that global warming is occurring.