Notes on Freeman Dyson's irrelevance

The New York Times Magazine recently ran a long profile of Freeman Dyson, a brilliant mathematical physicist known for contributions to the unification of quantum theory with electrodynamics. Unfortunately, that seminal work was mostly done by 1949, and ever after Dyson bounced eclectically from topic to topic. His contributions have been significant, if notably unfocused, and he is generally regarded highly in the physics community. I've actually met Dyson, when he visited my undergraduate physics department to give a talk, and met with a group of undergraduates, and then attended a meeting of the research group I was part of. Dyson was very nice, and seemed incredibly bright, but even then he was very old.

In the past few years, Freeman Dyson has come out as something of a climate change denier. This isn't really news anymore, as it really has been a while, but for some reason Dyson seems to be getting more press recently. The NYT Magazine piece spends most of its effort on the climate change issue, I think in an attempt to bring across Dyson's independent spirit, or maverickness. It does not totally work because it degenerates into a fictional publicity struggle between Dyson and James Hansen. The author, Nicholas Dawidoff, exaggerates the situation and paints Hansen as a caricature.

Here I just want to pull some of the relevant things that Dyson is saying, hopefully in context, and evaluate them. The main point I want to make is that Dyson is not dealing with climate change as a science issue. Here's an excerpt from that article that starts to make my case:
... in a 2007 interview with Salon.com [Dyson said] that “the fact that the climate is getting warmer doesn’t scare me at all” and writing in an essay for The New York Review of Books ... that climate change has become an “obsession” — the primary article of faith for “a worldwide secular religion” known as environmentalism.

We all are aware that there are chunks of environmentalism that are not exactly science-based, but to lump the entirety of the global warming issue into one of environmentalism is offensive to say the least. Note that there's no science in his declaration, though.

Not all his issues are so explicitly non-scientific,
Climate models, he says, take into account atmospheric motion and water levels but have no feeling for the chemistry and biology of sky, soil and trees. “The biologists have essentially been pushed aside,” he continues. “Al Gore’s just an opportunist. The person who is really responsible for this overestimate of global warming is Jim Hansen. He consistently exaggerates all the dangers.”

This does bring up an important point in the first half. Though he misrepresents the evolution of the science, which started from a physical science point of view because the models started as weather prediction models. The role of biology and chemistry have long been recognized, and inclusion of chemical and biological processes in climate models is still being incorporated. As a practical matter this has been slow because there are trade-offs between complexity and resolution in climate modeling, which is a consequence of the limited computer power that has been available. More focus has been on physical processes because they are thought to be of lower-order importance overall; there are examples including new processes and getting wildly different solutions, though usually less realistic ones. The trend is for more and more complexity, though, and over the next few years we will have much more comprehensive representations of the carbon cycle and nitrogen cycle. The bottom line, though, is that the main results are unlikely to change much, even if some regional effects are substantial. The second half of the quote is just specious, and has nothing to do with science.

In the next paragraph of the NYT Mag article, a list of common climate denier talk is rehashed. In order, the article suggests Dyson believes that (1) rising carbon dioxide just doesn't matter much to the Earth, (2) the globe isn't warming everywhere so it isn't really global warming, (3) more carbon dioxide could be good for the climate, (4) ocean acidification is probably exaggerated, (5) sea-levels are rising but we don't really know why, and ending by essentially saying we have to do more work and figure stuff out. After a paragraph about coal, this last issue is more explicitly stated; apparently Dyson wants to see more evidence. And then this:
One of Dyson’s more significant surmises is that a warming climate could be forestalling a new ice age. Is he wrong? No one can say for sure.Beyond the specific points of factual dispute, Dyson has said that it all boils down to “a deeper disagreement about values” between those who think “nature knows best” and that “any gross human disruption of the natural environment is evil,” and “humanists,” like himself, who contend that protecting the existing biosphere is not as important as fighting more repugnant evils like war, poverty and unemployment.

Where to start? Well, I think a lot of the real answer starts to come in the following paragraph, which states, "Embedded in all of Dyson’s strong opinions about public policy is a dual spirit of social activism and uneasiness about class dating all the way back to Winchester, where he was raised in the 1920s and ’30s by his father..." In fact, I think this captures an essential aspect of Dyson's denial, as well as quite a lot of other climate change deniers, particularly the issues of class in the first half of the 20th century. As energy became cheaper and cheaper, manufacturing became easier, and wealth began to get distributed to a larger chunk of the population, at least in the countries we now think of as developed. This was all a result of the "second industrial revolution" and the advances made in the immediate aftermath, and going into World War I. Dyson seems to be concerned about distribution of wealth and opportunity, and is a proponent of equal rights, which are all worthy things, and have nothing to do with climate change. In Dyson's worldview, as far as I can tell, an important part of breaking down class barriers and spreading peace and freedom is the use of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels did completely change the world, and particularly in the early 20th century in western Europe and North America. I think this is a foundation for denying climate change: some people see the attribution of climate change to burning fossil fuel as a threat to humanity's progress. For the oldest generation or two, this can be a visceral threat, which evokes suspicion or anger. Denying climate change might be a psychological response to this feeling of threat. I also have a hunch that this fits well with Naomi Oreskes' findings linking conservative, anti-communist groups to first opposition of smoking-cancer links and later to fossil fuel-climate change links. (Even if Dyson himself isn't all that conservative in many ways, his connections with the Orion program and JASON do connect him strongly with groups that are strongly associated with that ideology.)

As for Dyson's particular claims, I don't need to devote any time to them because they come straight out of the standard climate change denier language. Take a look at how to talk to a climate change skeptic, or RealClimate's wiki. All of these claims are debunked in detail. Also note that whenever an impending ice age is invoked, it should trigger red flags, as this is a last bastion of the desperate denier.

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