In a Sciam.com reunion of sorts, fellow traveler Christoper Mims sparked a lively exchange this Monday evening between him, myself and our colleague Nikhil Swaminathan on whether the New York Review of Books erred dangerously in giving Nobel-deprived physics genius Freeman Dyson room to vent his thoughts in an infamous 2008 piece on climate change and whether we can engineer our way out of it.
Dyson’s NYRB piece must have been the inspiration for a fascinating profile of Dyson in the New York Times magazine. The author, Nicholas Dawidoff, quoted Dyson extensively on his contrarian views. By all credible accounts, Dyson overestimates his grasp of the data. See also this piece on geoengineering as the new climate denialism.
So, did NYRB open a Pandora’s box of climate bullsh-t? Chris and Nikhil have given me permission to reproduce our exchange here. I hope the discussion will continue in comments.
Christopher: This has nothing to do with the NYTimes Magazine profile, though it certainly didn’t help.
This is why people who don’t understand science should not be allowed to write about it. And also why journalism needs something like malpractice:
Newsweek | What Else Are We Wrong About?
Climate change will be catastrophic.
We all know civilization is doomed if we don’t reduce carbon emissions, right? The physicist Freeman Dyson disagrees. Dyson doesn’t dispute that human activity is causing warming. But he challenges the consensus that warming will be catastrophic. In a New York Review of Books essay, Dyson wrote that warming “is mostly making cold places warmer rather than making hot places hotter.” Carbon emissions could make the earth more fertile and prevent harm from global cooling, which isn’t caused by humans. And if it really turns out that there is a serious problem, genetically engineered carbon-eating trees might fix it. (Might.)
Nikhil: I have no problem with what Nicholas Dawidoff did – which was show Dyson’s perspective, adding in that a f–kload of scientists disagreed with him, he’s a contrarian by nature and he’s not at all an expert in climate science.
The claim that people who don’t know about science shouldn’t write about it–that statement, to me, is somewhat ridiculous. A good reporter should be able to learn enough about a subject to portray it fairly and accurately. For the most part, I think Dawidoff did. Again, you’ll get no argument from me that Weisberg basically just lost all credibility with me.
It’s apparent to me now that simultaneous with the education of the public there needs to be an education of the media. Rarely has people’s ignorance of and disinterest in scientific nuance been so threatening.
I mean, I dunno, maybe our brains just aren’t equipped to deal with the threat of climate change, as far away and abstract as it is. When it was Soviet nukes, was anyone blathering about the silver lining of the possibility of Washington D.C. being turned into a sheet of radioactive glass? I think not…
NS: I think it’s unfair to lump Dyson with Lindzen – the latter takes liberally from moneyed interests. Other than that, I share a lot of your sentiment. And there is education of the media. It’s expensive and of questionable value – and, some would argue, outdated. The problem is entertaining the audience and not serving them.
b) The nuances here are not scientific ones, not fundamentally anyway. They are between fact/value and expertise/bullshit. No amount of scientific explanation will work on Weisberg until he buys in to the fact that he doesn’t know everything from his armchair.
JR: Further re: education, I think there’s a distinction between trying to educate the existing public, meaning people whose values and cognitive habits are more or less in place, and educating future publics, i.e., teh kidz.
CM: The point is, the NYRB gave Dyson a soapbox. Now every douche in DC thinks they have confirmation for their own ignorance.
NS: Well, this is particularly dangerous–from my perspective–because of Newsweek’s reach and the fact that there’s no caveat (so why not take him seriously).
Newsweek publishes Weisberg because it, Slate, MSNBC and the Washington Post are all associated and share a lot of content.
And that brings us up to real time. Given that it’s my blog, I’m going to give myself the parting shot. Having never read NYRB regularly or Dyson’s piece in its entirety, I’m a little hesitant to speculate on motives. But only a little. It sounds like they took Dyson at face value and journalistically, that may have been a mistake. I was happy for the Dawidoff piece, which I see as a different animal, for the following reason.
There’s a real danger I think of browbeating people like myself who are on the margin — i.e., I don’t have strong opinions about climate change policy — into accepting the fact/value bundle that anyone who voices disagreement about how and whether to address climate change is somehow part of The Problem. The Times magazine piece opened up space to take a deep breath, ideologically speaking.
My bottom line: Both sides need to stop using Dyson as a Ph-sensitive ideological football and trust in other people to draw their own conclusions in accordance with their own values. It’s a f–king democracy, right?
Update: Mims says he contacted Weisberg, who claimed it was all a joke. See comments.