Freeman Dyson: On scepticism and the climate debate

Posted: February 25, 2011 by tallbloke in climate, Philosophy, Politics

Kate over at WUWT has spotted this gem:

An interesting exchange of emails appeared in the Independent today between their science editor Steve Conner (who has no scientific qualifications whatsoever) and Professor Freeman Dyson –

25 February 2011

Letters to a heretic: An email conversation with climate change sceptic Professor Freeman Dyson

World-renowned physicist Professor Freeman Dyson has been described as a ‘force-of-nature intellect’. He’s also one of the world’s foremost climate change sceptics. In this email exchange, our science editor, Steve Connor, asks the Princeton scholar why he’s one of the few true intellectuals to be so dismissive of the global-warming consensus

From: Steve Connor
To: Freeman Dyson

You are one of the most famous living scientists, credited as a visionary who has reshaped scientific thinking. Some have called you the “heir to Einstein”, yet you are also a “climate sceptic” who questions the consensus on global warming and its link with carbon dioxide emissions. Could we start by finding where we agree? I take it you accept for instance that carbon dioxide is a powerful greenhouse gas that warms the planet (1); that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have risen since direct measurements began several decades ago (2); and that CO2 is almost certainly higher now than for at least the past 800,000 years (3), if you take longer records into account, such as ice-core data.

Would you also accept that CO2 levels have been increasing as a result of burning fossil fuels and that global temperatures have been rising for the past 50 years at least, and possibly for longer (4)? Computer models have shown that the increase in global temperatures can only be explained by the increase in atmospheric CO2 concentrations (5). Climate scientists say there is no other reasonable explanation for the warming they insist is happening (6), which is why we need to consider doing something about it (7). What part of this do you accept and what do you reject?

From: Freeman Dyson
To: Steve Connor

First of all, please cut out the mention of Einstein. To compare me to Einstein is silly and annoying.

Answers to your questions are: yes (1), yes (2), yes (3), maybe (4), no (5), no (6), no (7).

There are six good reasons for saying no to the last three assertions. First, the computer models are very good at solving the equations of fluid dynamics but very bad at describing the real world. The real world is full of things like clouds and vegetation and soil and dust which the models describe very poorly. Second, we do not know whether the recent changes in climate are on balance doing more harm than good. The strongest warming is in cold places like Greenland. More people die from cold in winter than die from heat in summer. Third, there are many other causes of climate change besides human activities, as we know from studying the past. Fourth, the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is strongly coupled with other carbon reservoirs in the biosphere, vegetation and top-soil, which are as large or larger. It is misleading to consider only the atmosphere and ocean, as the climate models do, and ignore the other reservoirs. Fifth, the biological effects of CO2 in the atmosphere are beneficial, both to food crops and to natural vegetation. The biological effects are better known and probably more important than the climatic effects. Sixth, summing up the other five reasons, the climate of the earth is an immensely complicated system and nobody is close to understanding it.

That will do for the first set of questions. Now it is your turn.

From: Steve Connor
To: Freeman Dyson

So you accept that carbon dioxide is a powerful greenhouse gas that warms the planet, that concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere have been rising since direct measurements began several decades ago, and that CO2 is almost certainly higher now than for at least the past 800,000 years. You think it “maybe” right that CO2 levels have been increasing as a result of fossil fuel burning but you don’t accept that global temperatures have been rising nor that the increase in carbon dioxide has anything to do with that supposed trend. And finally, you have little or no faith in the computer models of the climate.

As a physicist you must be aware of the calculations of estimated increases in global average temperatures due to the positive radiative forcing of the extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – the heat “captured” by CO2. The mainstream estimate suggests that doubling CO2 from pre-industrial levels would increase global average temperatures by about 3C. If you accept that CO2 levels have never been higher, but not that global average temperatures have increased, where has the extra trapped heat gone to? Can we deal with this before we go on?

From: Freeman Dyson
To: Steve Connor

No thank-you! The whole point of this discussion is that I am interested in a far wider range of questions, while you are trying to keep us talking about narrow technical questions that I consider unimportant.

You ask me where the extra trapped heat has gone, but I do not agree with the models that say the extra trapped heat exists. I cannot answer your question because I disagree with your assumptions.

From: Steve Connor
To: Freeman Dyson

Sorry you feel that way, I hope we can get back on track. I was only trying to find out where your problem lies with respect to the scientific consensus on global warming. As you know these models are used by large, prestigious science organisations such as Nasa, NOAA and the Met Office, which use them to make pretty accurate predictions about the weather every day. The scientists who handle these models point out that they can accurately match up the computer predictions to real climatic trends in the past, and that it is only when they add CO2 influences to the models that they can explain recent global warming. There is a scientific consensus that CO2 emissions are having a discernible influence on the global climate and I was attempting to find out more precisely why you part company from this consensus.

You have written eloquently about the need for heretics in science who question the accepted dogma. There are a number of notable instances in science where heretics have indeed been proven to be right (Alfred Wegener and continental drift) but many more, less notable examples where they have been shown to be wrong and, in time, will be forgotten (remember Peter Duesberg or Andrew Wakefield?). So it was in the light of your heretical stance on climate science that I’d like to know why we should believe a few lone heretics – albeit eminent ones such as yourself – rather than the vast body of scientists who have a plethora of published work to back up their claims? It’s an important question because it’s about who we, the public, should believe on scientific matters and why?

From: Freeman Dyson
To: Steve Connor

When I was in high-school in England in the 1930s, we learned that continents had been drifting according to the evidence collected by Wegener. It was a great mystery to understand how this happened, but not much doubt that it happened. So it came as a surprise to me later to learn that there had been a consensus against Wegener. If there was a consensus, it was among a small group of experts rather than among the broader public. I think that the situation today with global warming is similar. Among my friends, I do not find much of a consensus. Most of us are sceptical and do not pretend to be experts. My impression is that the experts are deluded because they have been studying the details of climate models for 30 years and they come to believe the models are real. After 30 years they lose the ability to think outside the models. And it is normal for experts in a narrow area to think alike and develop a settled dogma. The dogma is sometimes right and sometimes wrong. In astronomy this happens all the time, and it is great fun to see new observations that prove the old dogmas wrong.

Unfortunately things are different in climate science because the arguments have become heavily politicised. To say that the dogmas are wrong has become politically incorrect. As a result, the media generally exaggerate the degree of consensus and also exaggerate the importance of the questions.

I am glad we are now talking about more general issues and not about technical details. I do not pretend to be an expert about the details.

From: Steve Connor
To: Freeman Dyson

Well, I’ll try to keep it general, but it may involve talking specifics. One of my own academic mentors once explained to me that science is really just a very useful intellectual tool for teaching us about the world, just as philosophy teaches us how to think. The trouble for non-scientists is that we have to rely on professional scientists to tell us what they are finding out. But as you say yourself, it is even difficult sometimes for scientists in one field of endeavour to truly get to grips with the details in a different discipline. So, as a layman, I look at the wealth of evidence being presented to me on climate change, and the qualifications and track record of those presenting their results in the peer-reviewed literature, and I make a judgement. Do I believe in the small minority of mavericks, many of whom do not have a published track record, or the vast majority who do? Do I go with the heterodox or the orthodox?

Politicians of course have to do the same but they have to make important decisions, or not as the case may be. And the problem with climate change, as you know, is that if we wait until we are absolutely certain beyond any doubt whatsover that global temperatures are rising dangerously as a result of carbon dioxide emissions, it will be too late to do anything about it because of the in-built inertia of the climate system. Even if we stopped carbon dioxide emissions overnight immediately, temperatures would still be expected to increase for some years to come before they stabilise.

So I guess my question would be, what if you are wrong? What if all the other scientists connected with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UK Met Office, NASA, NOAA, the World Meteorological Organisation, and just about every reputable university and institute doing research on climate science, happen to be right? Isn’t it a bit risky for me and the rest of the general public to dismiss this vast canon of climate science as just “fuss” about global warming when all I’ve got to go on is a minority opinion?

From: Freeman Dyson
To: Steve Connor

I have this unfortunate habit of answering email immediately, which is in the long run not sustainable. So I will answer this one and then remain silent for three days.

Of course I am not expecting you to agree with me. The most I expect is that you might listen to what I am saying. I am saying that all predictions concerning climate are highly uncertain. On the other hand, the remedies proposed by the experts are enormously costly and damaging, especially to China and other developing countries. On a smaller scale, we have seen great harm done to poor people around the world by the conversion of maize from a food crop to an energy crop. This harm resulted directly from the political alliance between American farmers and global-warming politicians. Unfortunately the global warming hysteria, as I see it, is driven by politics more than by science. If it happens that I am wrong and the climate experts are right, it is still true that the remedies are far worse than the disease that they claim to cure.

I wish that The Independent would live up to its name and present a less one-sided view of the issues.

From: Steve Connor
To: Freeman Dyson

Just to return to Alfred Wegener for one moment. Although he wasn’t the first to note that the continents seem to slot together like a jigsaw, such as the west coast of Africa and the east coast of South America, he was a visionary who actually went out to find the geological evidence to support his idea of continental drift. However, as you say, he didn’t have a mechanism for how this “drift” happened. So it is perhaps understandable that many of his peers dismissed his theory in the 1930s. It was only with the discovery of plate tectonics 30 years later that everyone could agree on the true mechanism, which replaced Wegener’s discredited theory of the continents somehow forging their way through the crust of the ocean basins. This doesn’t in any way undermine his heroic contribution to science, and I say heroic in the true sense of the word given that he died in 1930 on his 50th birthday while trekking across Greenland – his body was never recovered and is now presumably encased in ice and moving slowly to the sea.

The point I want to make is that it may well have been right for the scientific “establishment” of the 1930s to be sceptical of Wegener’s theory until more convincing evidence emerged, which it eventually did. The experts, rather than the public, could see the flaws in Wegener’s argument which is why there was a scientific consensus against him. You are saying that the situation today with global warming is similar. However, surely an important difference this time is that it is the scientific consensus that is warning us of the dangers of continuing emissions of carbon dioxide, and that this consensus is saying quite categorically that if we wait until utterly definitive evidence emerges of dangerous climate change it will be too late to do anything about it.

One of the problems I have with the climate “sceptics” is that they keep changing their arguments. First they say that there is no such thing as global warming, thereby dismissing all the many thousands of records of land and sea temperatures over the past century or so. Then they say that carbon dioxide emissions are not causing the Earth to warm up, thereby defying basic physics. If that fails, they say that a bit of extra heat or carbon dioxide might not be that bad – it may be true that more people die from cold than heat, but how many die of drought and famine? And true, carbon dioxide boosts plant growth, but did you see the recent research suggesting a possible link between two atypical droughts in the Amazon in 2005 and 2010, when the rainforest became a net emitter of carbon dioxide, with higher sea-surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic? Plants need water, not just carbon dioxide.

And if all else seems to fail, the final line of argument of the “climate sceptics” is that, “OK, carbon dioxide may have something to do with rising temperatures but what the heck, we can’t do anything about it because the cure is worse than the disease”. It seems to me that although there are still many uncertainties, much of the science of climate change is pretty settled, more so than you will admit to. To continue to report on “both sides” as you suggest is rather like ringing up the Flat Earth Society and asking them to comment on new discoveries in plate tectonics.

From: Freeman Dyson
To: Steve Connor

My three days of silence are over, and I decided I have no wish to continue this discussion. Your last message just repeats the same old party line that we have many good reasons to distrust. You complain that people who are sceptical about the party line do not agree about other things. Why should we agree? The whole point of science is to encourage disagreement and keep an open mind. That is why I blame The Independent for seriously misleading your readers. You give them the party line and discourage them from disagreeing.

With all due respect, I say good-bye and express the hope that you will one day join the sceptics. Scepticism is as important for a good journalist as it is for a good scientist.

Yours sincerely, Freeman Dyson

From: Steve Connor
To: Freeman Dyson

Sorry you feel that way. Thank you anyway.

Steve Connor

  1. Orson says:

    A gem indeed!

    To pick up and continue the skeptical sword Dyson lays down, let me reply to Connor:

    “One of the problems I have with the climate ‘sceptics’ is that they keep changing their arguments. First they say that there is no such thing as global warming, thereby dismissing all the many thousands of records of land and sea temperatures over the past century or so. Then they say that carbon dioxide emissions are not causing the Earth to warm up, thereby defying basic physics. If that fails, they say that a bit of extra heat or carbon dioxide might not be that bad – it may be true that more people die from cold than heat, but how many die of drought and famine? ”

    What Connor calls ‘changing arguments’ is merely responsiveness to changing evidence. Once warming by the end of the 1990s was confirmed by satellite, the “no such thing as [man-made] global warming” line changed. When the evidence changes, skeptics change their opinions, just as Lord Keynes averred.

    Thereafter, Connor engages in argument by intimidation. Quite wrong-headed. Dyson was only fair to break off their exchange.

  2. Robert E. Phelan says:

    I was only trying to find out where your problem lies with respect to the scientific consensus on global warming

    The absolute arrogance! He trots out the consensus over and over and seems to expect Dyson to melt into a puddle of shame.

  3. Richard111 says:

    The wording in the emails gives a clear indication of the intellectual capacity of each writer. One of them does waffle and one does not need to. Go figure.

  4. Tufty says:

    A fascinating post but embarrassing. Embarrassing because Connor clearly thought he could usefully trade emails with Freeman Dyson and because he is the science editor of a UK national newspaper.

  5. Robert Morris says:

    Having read that dialogue, I am left impressed by Prof Dyson and immeasurably depressed by Connor. Boxed in thinking just about describes the warmist mind-set.

  6. Tenuc says:

    Nice to hear again how at least one scientist remains who understands that without scepticism science ceases to be a useful tool of discovery.

  7. P.G. Sharrow says:

    From: Freeman Dyson
    To: Steve Connor

    “First of all, please cut out the mention of Einstein. To compare me to Einstein is silly and annoying.”

    LOL, best thing I’ve heard all week!

    Steve Connor is a pinhead. Right off “let us assume”, trying to box Dyson into a loosing argument. Dyson even gave him 2 out of 6. I would only give him 1. Conner should have asked questions and listened instead of expounding over and over the same lame positions. pg

  8. Chris S says:

    Conner is fishing for something/anything he can twist to discredit skeptics, but he is way out of his depth here.

    Dyson’s balanced response shows a wisdom gained over many years.

  9. Douglas DC says:

    Connor is one of those intellectuals that is enamored of himself. He has the audacity
    to take on a truly towering intellect like Freeman Dyson, and yet he cannot see that his
    pseudo- faith in AGW blocks any sort of dialogue. Dyson’s one of my science Heros
    I would’ve loved to see what Feynman would have to say about AGW in its current
    “Climate Chaos” form (whatever the current descriptive words are.)

  10. Doug Proctor says:

    I object to one of the fundamental Connor points: that the non-expert layman cannot determine the truth – or the colour of truth, anyway – and must turn to experts for the consensus opinion. True, I am a long-term geologist with a university education in the sciences and a professional history of analysis, but what I have is not special. It is what any reasonable man or woman can do with some effort.

    I am a follower of The Reasonable Man Hypothesis. The Hypothesis is that all problems or situations in their larger terms are understandable to one thinking in terms of cause and effect with a “reasonable” experience of life and the world. What is most important to the Hypothesis is the ability to determine the critical bits, such as (for climate warming) that CO2 by itself has a small effect but creates a feedback effect through water vapour that multiplies what CO2 does. Another critical bit is the amount of the global temperature rise that is “adjustment” based rather than data-based. These critical bits, when examined and found false or exaggerated, determine how much of the final conclusion (and recommendation) should be accepted.

    Reasonable thinkers can see the small man behind the curtain. They can dissect arguments to see what is evidence and what is extrapolation, what is deduction, induction, what fits rather than generates a preferred scenario. That is why, overall, the jury system works: the ability of common, untutored individuals to discern the difference between descriptions of true events from a self-serving storylines.

    Climate change, AGW and CAGW are not dependent on the tightness of left-handed swirls of nuclear particles in a cloud chamber. Basic principles, basic sets of data, basic assumptions hidden in plain sight – all these are available and legitimate for interpretation by the Reasonable Man. The experts wish it weren’t so – the blogs and attacks on non-peer-reviewed opinions demonstrate with clarity and venom that this is so. Yes, the non-expert gets confused, especially on the details, but he is able, with help, to see his way through. We – those who choose to – can review these and determine for ourselves whether “95% certainty” means “this will happen” or “my line of thinking ends up here”.

    Hansen, Gore, Connor all are correct in that their lines of thinking end up in a world on fire and devoid of human life and polar bears. I contend that when you look into their lines of thinking, you find weak links reflective of ideology, self-interest and ego. The data, the arguments are not so dense as to require a professorship at Oxford.

    In the CAGW war the concepts create the math. Further, with CAGW the math is then used to “prove” the comcepts used to create the math! This circular thinking is visible to those who look … and think. We are told we are unsuited to understand this.

    Connor (and others) wants someone to be God. God knows, and we, the little people, best do as He says. The Scientist is, today, a good candidate for God. The warmist can then abdicate his responsibility to determine for himself what is and what isn’t, what should be done and what should be left alone.

    The Reasonable Man can figure “it” out. Only those who believe they are too foolish to understand are.

  11. Gerry says:

    Connor’s last statement, ‘To continue to report on “both sides” as you suggest is rather like ringing up the Flat Earth Society and asking them to comment on new discoveries in plate tectonics.’ is incredibly disrespectful of Freeman Dyson.

    Rag-columnist Connor is basically accusing the world-renowned, universally respected scientist Dr. Freeman Dyson, of being a Flat Earth Society loony! The “Independent” owes Dr. Dyson a big apology, and really needs to replace its science editor with someone more deserving of that title.

    My congratulations to Dr. Dyson for his patience and politeness in response to such inexcusable rudeness.

    –Gerry Pease

  12. tallbloke says:

    Well said Gerry. Freeman Dyson is in good company with many other eminent scientists who have been dissed by less than stellar intellects like that possessed by Mr Connor.

    You just know the denouement is on its way.

  13. Gerry says:

    BTW, I feel that Dyson’s 21 honorary degrees (including ones from Georgetown, Princeton, and Oxford) fully quallify him for the Dr. title. Moreover, he has the respect and peer recognition of some of the most brilliant scientists of the past century.

  14. Peter Taylor says:

    I read the Independent almost every day (it is getting expensive!) and so am very familiar with Steve Connor’s work. It is sad…when the Indie first came out, I fled from the Guardian, the normal home for a left-wing science activist, which had then become known as a Viewspaper not a Newspaper, and the Independent offered really good science reporting and environmental coverage. Under Tom Wilkie as science correspondent, I even had a few articles published – one on unsustainable whaling and another on nuclear reactor melt-downs. In 2005, the paper did a full page spread on my book ‘Beyond Conservation’.

    So, naturally, I expected that Steve would review my book, even if he did a hatchet job. He would not review it. He just kept up the mantra of consensus at the UN. I talked to him and told him my book specifically analysed the UN working group reports and finds no such consensus – that is a political statement and the science does not support it….and I listed for him the areas of disagreement and uncertainty, such as solar-cloud effects, ocean cycles, dodgy feedbacks, etc. All to no avail.

    I am afraid that Steve is a hack. He writes regularly on all the latest medical breakthroughs and promising magic bullets – to the delight, I am sure of the pharmaceutical industry. His tenure at the Indie seems to bode the death of investigative journalism. The paper now has a centre pull-out – the award-winning ‘Viewspaper’ and they have no sense of irony.

    A friend explained that newspapers had changed and were now campaigning papers – and the Indie has chosen climate change. Ah, I realised! I used to do a lot of work for Greenpeace International (as their chief advocate at the UN), so I know about campaigning. In those earlier days, Greenpeace was content to be told the truth – sometimes it did not support the campaign, sometimes it did – but I always advised them it was better to know the truth. I left that world when that level of respect diminished. As Greenpeace got rich, it bought its own scientists or used academics (I always maintained my independence as a consultant and advisor).

    Campaigners work by using the truth if it suits them, and disguising it if it works against them. One tactic is never to give credence to opposing arguments in science – rather attack the scientist as a maverick or heretic or whatever. They go for a simple message aimed at subscribers or activists.

    So – you can readily appreciate that Steve Connor knows next to nothing of the critical arguments in climate science. It is not a matter of how intelligent he is compared to Dyson, but a matter of lack of motivation.

    He is also not a trained scientist. So he does not appreciate that science – including climate science, is about DISPROVING your hypothesis. And because he is an establishment man – as most science correspondents are, he has no sense of the history – especially at the UN, where pollution scientists set up very convenient hypotheses on discharges and dumping of toxic materials and then put in next to no effort at disproving them. There is very little rigour in climate science – very little focus upon the real world data that would (and does) disprove the hypothesis that carbon dioxide has driven the warming of the past century. That data does not go against Connor’s basic physics of the greenhouse – it delimits the effect (I reckoned to 10-20%). The basic physics is uncertain enough for that margin of error.

    If Steve could get this far….to one equation: T for temperature equals F times RF; where RF is the computed Radiative Forcing (IPCC expects 4 watts/square metre by 2050 from greenhouse gases, and it is currently at 1.6 for CO2 alone); F is a factor, and the IPCC favour 0.8…which gives us a T of 3.2 C for 2050 and a doubling of CO2. BUT the science literature on the uncertainty range of that factor is VAST. You can find a range from 0.4 upwards and the recent data supports the lower figure….and 1.6 C by 2050, which is not a scary eough scenario to turn the global economy upside down. I think you could get a figure lower than that from the data and that is from studying the data, not the papers.

    But again, you do need to have a little bit of scientific knowledge to go there – and it would appear Steve does not. But even if he did, you can see that the Indie is not motivated and would not assign him to the task.

    Instead, their campaign advisors advocate the following strategy: make the sceptics out to be idiots, politically motivated and in the pay of big oil or coal, or simply anti-government and taxation. They choose to interview people whom they can easily discredit (he failed with Dyson, but some of the mud would stick for your average Indie reader). The BBC follows the same tack. I have had TV science correspondents (includiing the BBC and ITV) read my book and give appreciative feedback – but they get nowhere with their bosses. In the first few months of its publication, I had three separate analysts in media and investment banking circulate notes to their departments on my arguments, and within a month, all three were seeking alternative employment! Which I am glad to say they did find.

    There is a pervasive atmosphere of suppression and oppression in the media here and it is beginning to come out into pubic awareness.

    Eventually, the truth will win and the whole edifice may come down – it will be a bad day for science and environmental policy, because the public will never trust again. Already the right-wing hacks who never thought there were any real nuclear risks, that all pesticides were safe, GMOs are a boon for humanity and acid rain was a con, gather supporters ready for this ultimate backlash. Of course, the Green campaigners then dig in harder to their trenches.

  15. tallbloke says:

    Peter, excellent comment, thanks for finding the time. I have said all along that the danger for people who care about environment was that by allowing the organising committees of campaigning groups to hitch their wagon to the AGW hypothesis, they ran the risk of being tarred with the same brush as the alarmists when the theory went down.