Was it dangerous to give Freeman Dyson a soapbox?

April 28, 2009

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.

Apparently ‘everyone’ who knows that we should give Dyson a soapbox because he’s just helping us refine our understanding of climate change doesn’t include [Slate editor-in-chief] Jacob Weisberg, who took the crazy old koot coot at face value, and wrote that we shouldn’t worry about climate change at all – because Freeman Dyson says so.

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.

This, however, is galling. The point of that [Dawidoff] article was not “Freeman Dyson is the smartest guy in the world and doesn’t think we should worry about global warming.”

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.

CM: Yes, I’ve come around on the Dawidoff thing. And hey, if Dyson or [climate change ultra-denier Richard] Lindzen want to spout off somewhere, that’s fine too – but when the NYRB lets them do it, all it points out is their ignorance.

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.

JR: a) I think this shows the danger of giving Weisberg a soapbox, not Dyson.

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.

JR: Well, a related point is: who are the people who are going to take Weisberg seriously and what would they have thought in the absence of him? Who’s on the margin and what would sway them? Why does Newsweek choose to publish Weisberg?  Because Newsweek wants to fill a certain market niche. See also: historical debates on the causality of “great men” vs. “the people.”

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).

In the absence of Weisberg, they [people on the margin] would have thought this: global warming seemed like a big deal a couple years ago when that Al Gore movie came out. But now i am way more concerned about the economy and the fact that i don’t have a job. And here comes this guy who is the editor-in-chief of Slate — giving him some credibility as a public intellectual — and he’s telling me that i don’t have to worry about this anymore. So, instead of moving global warming to the back of my mind, I might junk it altogether.

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.

That criterion won’t save Weisberg. He fails here by reinforcing the same stale dichotomy but from the other side. Disagree with what to do about climate change? Clutch at Dyson’s brilliance to justify it!

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.

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12 Responses to “Was it dangerous to give Freeman Dyson a soapbox?”


  1. All I have to say about this is: I misspelled “coot”


  2. Ha. I made him copyedit my contribution/drivel.

  3. JR Minkel Says:

    Ya I just corrected a “who’s”/whose in my bit and made some other minor stylistic changes. And it’s not drivel. But you are a tool.

  4. JR Minkel Says:

    Apparently we blew our wad. Um, does anyone else out there want to argue?

  5. Alexis Madrigal Says:

    Let me begin by stating that I love y’all. But as the stated form is basically, “Dudes talking over beers,” let me chime in with my not-drunk-enough riposte.

    I’m deeply suspicious of all attempts to control who reports on what. What qualifies as “understanding science”? Who would get to make such a determination? A government panel? Would you have to take a test — an SAT II for science journalism integrity?

    I would also say that, if we take the chemical industry as an example, the people who understand the science the best also tend to be least willing to look at the possible ill-effects of their work. We will always need outsiders to critique scientists, precisely because we allow their expertise to count for something more than the average opinion, even though we know that science as a methodology is subject to many of the same biases as other ways of knowing.

    And lastly, the day that Newsweek moves the needle on how Americans en masse feel about climate change is the day that magazines ARE BACK in a major way. And I’m buying ads all up in there.

  6. JR Minkel Says:

    Hi Alexis!

    Dudes talking over beers? That’s a departure for this blog, which is usually dude talking from inside cloud of purple smoke. I think I speak for all when I say we welcome your cold splash of adderall-tinged reality. I like your point about the chemical industry. The Newsweek thing is also well taken. One of those nifty Matt Nisbet-style polls might be useful here – maybe this one?

    Pew: Evangelicals Little Different from Rest of Public on Climate Change

    My main concern is to look at what science rhetoric says about our culture but I’m not sure how much weight to give the rhetoric itself as a force on culture. These back and forth claims of climate change denial and climate change hype do have the flavor of two obnoxious minorities waging a food fight while the rest of the cafeteria watches perplexed.

    So let me ask you this: Right now, what do you think politicians and the relevant segment of the public are thinking about climate change, and how should that be affecting the stories journalists publish or the way they’re treating the subject matter? What do readers *need*?

  7. zeitgeiber Says:

    I sent a version of my critique of his article to Jacob Weisberg, and he responded very politely considering that I inferred he was a nazi by saying that his being a mouthpiece for Dyson basically made him, at least in this article, a climate change denialist. (Note to self: climate change ‘denialism’ is perhaps not the best rhetorical flourish climate change activists ever came up with.)

    Anyway, his response was basically “I was joking” – that the original piece was intended to be though provoking and arch, rather than newsy and truthy.

    That’s fine as far as it goes, but now you have a chain of people being taken at face value who shouldn’t be – first Dyson, whose ideas would be instantly written off by anyone who knows the science, and now Weisberg, who wrote an arch article for uber-arch Slate that was republished in comparatively-dry Newsweek where it comes across as fact, which just makes everyone involved (Weisberg, his editors, and Dyson, as usual) look like they have no idea what they’re talking about.

  8. zeitgeiber Says:

    And as for YOU, Mr. Madrigal, I’m happy you showed up to share the Bromance. As for your assertions…

    I’m not proposing we create a commission that only allows people with certain qualifications to write about science (though I’ve always thought it strange that lawyers and even accountants have certification programs, but not journalists), but I do think it’s irresponsible for editors to assign people who clearly are ignorant about a subject to write about it. Period. It’s MALPRACTICE. I’m glad we have freedom of speech, really I am – but climate change is not something we have time to dither about, and the debates we *should* be having (how to deal with it) keep getting sidelined by the debate that we should have left behind long ago — namely, what’s the scale of the threat. (Answer: Bigger by the day.)

  9. John Pavlus Says:

    OK, I’m not Alexis, but I’m going to chime in now because I like your provocative question, and when it comes to climate stuff my science-mediamaker hat goes at least partly off and I feel more or less like “everyone else.”

    What are people thinking about climate change? That it’s like abortion (I think). Are you “for” it or “against” it because it’s SO GODDAMN IMPORTANTfrothingspittleflying. Somehow it’s become an ideological issue. Like abortion, I think most people simply don’t spend all THAT much time cogitating over it or restructuring their lives to reflect where they stand on it — or paying attention to the “sides” in granular detail — unless it becomes personal, or unless there’s a national election going on.

    What do readers need… for it to be unpoliticized, but god knows how to do that because the only meaningful action that can occur RE climate change will have to be on the mass/national/governmental level and thus is inextricable from politics. I’d like to throw the word “green” onto the fucking dustbin forever, debrand the whole thing, and just somehow read simple “news you can uze” type stuff about climate change related topics the way that zillions of people read health columns or watch Dr. Gupta on TV (and maybe even ACT on it to their benefit) without it being “a cause.” The trouble is, it’s easier to turn health information into personal action because you can think, “OK, well this is my BODY we’re talking about, and the effects can be tangible.” Climate change.. not so much. If I do any of the things I see on those “green your routine” celebrity things on TV (like turning out all my lights or stop taking long showers), the tangible, personally experienced effect on the environment will be precisely nil.

    stopping now before I further embarrass myself.

  10. JR Minkel Says:

    @Christopher re: Weisberg. I started wondering last night, hey maybe we’re getting all in a tizzy at a wry joke. I mean, he did say “Might” at the end. Now that I’m actually bothering to read his piece – stupid bloggers! – his opening premise is perfectly reasonable:

    “I’m looking for issues where the received wisdom may be entirely correct—but merits a stronger dose of skepticism than it usually gets.”

    I actually agree with him about nuclear proliferation and I think I’ve made it clear I share his implication that climate change mitigation purists have dominated the conservation. But I think the casual reader would – and clearly did – get the wrong idea about his use of Dyson to buttress an otherwise reasonable claim. He should have gone one step more meta, as Dawidoff did.

    So let me turn this back on Christopher: I don’t think it’s helpful to say the scale of the threat is getting bigger every day. A point of no return is not the same thing as a tipping point – I refer you to my bit on Malcolm Gladwell ruining climate discourse.

    Basically, Al Gore did his thing. Climate change is on the radar, which means the time to play “what if” is over. It’s time to put climate change in the queue of legitimate problems to do something about, along with healthcare, the economy and so on. Discounting the scale of the potential threat based on proximity from now is perfectly legitimate.

    It will take daily, monthly, yearly work to address climate change, so let’s not get people in a tizzy about how things are GETTING WORSE EVERY DAY, which sets us up for fatigue if nothing catastrophic has happened six months from now, and which perpetuates the stupid bickering over whether the data do in fact show a slide into catastrophe.

    And let’s open ourselves to potential fellow travelers who may have different styles but who mean well and are open to reason.

  11. Alexis Madrigal Says:

    @Cmims: Problem with malpractice is that it’s incredibly hard to adjudicate — and that’s when the consequences are actually, very specifically life and death. And it increases the costs of the industry. You really want to put us reporters to pay for malpractice insurance? I hear you. Dumbshits shouldn’t write articles about stuff they don’t understand. But I don’t think science is a special category. What about all the economic articles from, oh, 2000-2007? They were listening to the experts, the ones who knew, and look where it got them. (I don’t say this to challenge the reality of climate change, but merely to point out that journalists and experts get lots of stuff wrong all the time, even when they are acting in good faith and working hard.)

    In my mind, readers probably need a better sociopolitical system that takes into account the implausibility of unlimited economic growth. In this case, our society’s problems dealing with climate change extend so far beyond journalism that thinking we’re the problem is just masochistic. I think we’re marginal players in a much larger game. Not that we can’t do anything or that we should swear off our duties to report on C.C. but to think that better reporting would change the basic equation that’s generating the American response seems very hopeful to me.


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