Dyson disturbs

In school, Freeman Dyson became one of my heroes when I read his first memoir, Disturbing the Universe. It was an incredibly honor to meet him when he came to speak at my school — one of the advantages to growing up in New Jersey. He wrote and talked movingly of war, peace, science, books, and had an amazingly wide-ranging career, from quantum field theory to nuclear power (and nuclear-powered rockets) and a sufficiently optimistic outlook about the future of humanity to worry about how we might harvest all the energy of our own sun when we use up the more local sources in a few thousand, or million, years.

So I’ve been somewhat puzzled and a little saddened the last few years hearing about Dyson’s skepticism over climate change, which was highlighted last weekend in a New York Times profile. Dyson is smarter than most people any of us know, and probably does know more about climate science than most of us, too. But not as much as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, nor, I fear, as much as the Goddard Institute’s Jim Hansen, despite what Dyson (perhaps correctly) thinks of as Hansen’s over-reliance on big climate models. As John Conway put it on Cosmic Variance, greenhouse-gas-generated global warming seems pretty solid; what’s less clear (and more frightening) is exactly what this will mean, and what we can do about it.

On a related note, I enjoyed Ed Brayton’s take on some of the more recent manifestations of the supposed climate change controversy and why sometimes even scientists like us have to take “cognitive shortcuts” — trying to work out which experts are right without doing all of the research or even the background reading ourselves. In this case, unlike Freeman Dyson I do side with Jim Hansen and the IPCC and their more pessimistic outlook.

3 responses to “Dyson disturbs”

  1. Roland Turner avatar

    I’d have thought skepticism about orthodoxy was a prized capability for working scientists, rather than puzzling or saddening, no?

  2. Andrew avatar

    Skepticism is good, up until the point when it denies the vast majority of salient facts….

  3. Cormac O Raifeartaigh avatar

    I find it Dyson’s stance a little puzzling too – even if he’s right concerning the uncertainties in modelling, surely such uncertainties cut both ways?
    Interesting to think that this spring is the centenary of atomic theory becoming fact