Freeman Dyson gives us permission to think

March 29, 2009

If this profile of Freeman Dyson in the Times magazine doesn’t make it into both science writing anthologies, there is no justice in the world. I can’t recommend it enough. The hook is that Dyson doesn’t think climate change is a big deal. But it touches on everything: life, beauty, genius, science, masculinity, war, string theory, expertise, libertarianism, Greek mythology, polar bears, the Obamas.

I once claimed that journalists don’t play favorites. I’m forced to eat my words: Freeman Dyson is officially my favorite scientist. Bar none.

Some immediate reactions:

  • Science is a weapon. 
  • Reasonable people – read: sides of JR’s brain – can disagree about how to frame the potential threats of climate change; or in other words, how shrill to be. (The fact that I always find myself referring to them as “potential threats” says something – to myself, if to noone else.).
  • I think the point for everyone – and by everyone, I mean “me” – is don’t let your commitment to your personal identity blind you to how you’re using “facts” against other people. Translation: I’m sorry, Patrick.

More textually:

On why we could have flying cars if we wanted to:

“I don’t think of myself predicting things,” he says. “I’m expressing possibilities. Things that could happen. To a large extent it’s a question of how badly people want them to. The purpose of thinking about the future is not to predict it but to raise people’s hopes.” 

On specialists vs. informed outsiders:

Experts are, he thinks, too often crippled by the conventional wisdom they create, leading to the belief that “they know it all.” 

On how to disagree with someone:

“I don’t think it’s time to panic,” [expert says] but contends that, because of global warming, “more sea-level rise is inevitable and will displace millions; melting high-altitude glaciers will threaten the food supplies for perhaps a billion or more; and ocean acidification could undermine the food supply of another billion or so.” Dyson strongly disagrees with each of these points, and there follows, as you move back and forth between the two positions, claims and counterclaims, a dense thicket of mitigating scientific indicators that all have the timbre of truth and the ring of potential plausibility. 

On facts vs. values:

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.

On coal – well scrubbed, of course:

Dyson has great affection for [it] and for one big reason: It is so inexpensive that most of the world can afford it. “There’s a lot of truth to the statement Greens are people who never had to worry about their grocery bills,” he says.

On how not to become speaker for the dead:

Dyson writes in “Weapons and Hope,” he became an expert on “how to murder most economically another hundred thousand people.” This work, Dyson told the writer Kenneth Brower, created an “emptiness of the soul.”

On funny and less funny:

Like many physicists, Dyson has always loved explosions, and, of course, uncovering the secrets of nature is the first motivation of science. […] “I felt it myself, the glitter of nuclear weapons. It is irresistible if you come to them as a scientist.”

And finally, on being Michelle Obama:

Other physicists quietly express disappointment that Dyson didn’t do more to advance the field, that he wasted his promise. […] “I’ve always enjoyed what I was doing quite independently of whether it was important or not,” he says.


5 Responses to “Freeman Dyson gives us permission to think”

  1. Dyson’s views on climate change are clearly the product of ignorance and the same variety of arrogance he decries. Contrarianism is fine; what’s unfortunate is that the Times decided to give this profile to a writer whose specialty is baseball. No doubt the MSM will be playing the tune of false balance well past the point of no return.

  2. JR Says:

    Thanks for the link. Here’s a good bit from

    He says the “fuss about global warming is grossly exaggerated” because he is certain the climate models do not reflect reality. I agree they don’t reflect reality– but that leads me to the opposite conclusion. Dyson fails to ask whether the simplifications and omissions in climate models lead them to overestimate or underestimate climate impacts. So far, they have underestimated things like Arctic ice loss, mass loss of the great ice sheets, and sea-level rise.

  3. I agree with you, but personally, I think climate models are more or less irrelevant, and the focus on their shortcomings has given the denialists tons of rhetorical ammo and probably delayed action by at least a decade.

    If you really want to know what the future holds, look at the paleoclimate record.

    I have no idea why this doesn’t get addressed with the same frequency… perhaps because you have to already believe that CO2 = warmer earth for you to interpret it correctly, since it’s clear that in most of the paleoclimate record carbon trailed climate change and was more of an amplifying feedback than an initiator.

    Except in the periods of history that most closely resemble today. Except, oh wait, the Earth has *never* put greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere as rapidly as we are now.

    What’s really amazing is how easily (in the grand scope of human history) we can, at this point, either make ourselves go largely extinct in a Permian-Triassic “great dying” sort of event, or carry on into a probably more humane, renewable-powered future.

    Either way, we are now climate engineers, whether we like it or not.

  4. John Pavlus Says:

    Loved the Dyson profile, precisely because it was about Dyson, not about climate change. At this point I find the meta-climatechange stories (about its historiography, presentation, propaganda, personalities, ways people engage or not with it, ways culture uses it/gets used by it etc) more interesting than actual climatechange stories.

  5. JR Says:

    @John: you’ve summed up how I feel about science in general.

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