Freeman Dyson, Still Brilliant After All These Years

By Kennedy Maize

Washington, D.C., February 24, 2011 – The most committed global warming alarmists are alarmed by the fact that – contrary to their claims that the science is settled – formidable scientists with worldwide reputations disagree. Credentialed experts such as Richard Lindzen and Roy Spencer do not buy what Jim Hansen, Michael Mann, and Kevin Trenberth are selling.

But Princeton polymath Freeman Dyson really drives them nuts.

A mathematician by training and life-long intellectual adventurer by avocation, Dyson’s storied scientific escapades date to the Manhattan Project of the 1940s, and continue today in a wide range of published thoughts and musings on the relationship of science and society. He is the most prominent of the scientists who don’t buy the doxology of global warming. That he is also the clearest and most accessible writers of all of the scientific icons from the glory days of atomic discovery makes him doubly dangerous to the brook-no-dissent acolytes of the church of the warming world.

Here’s Dyson at his most lucid and lyrical, in the Frederick S. Pardee Distinguished Lecture in the fall of 2005, reprinted in the fine collection, “A Many-Colored Glass” (University of Virginia Press, 2007): “My first heresy says that all the fuss about global warming is grossly exaggerated. Here I am opposing the holy brotherhood of climate model experts and the crowd of deluded citizens who believe the numbers predicted by the computer models. Of course, they say, I have no degree in meteorology and I am therefore not qualified to speak. But I have studied the climate models and I know what they can do. The models solve the equations of fluid dynamics, and they do a very good job of describing the fluid motions of the atmosphere and the oceans. They do a very poor job of describing the clouds, the dust, the chemistry, and the biology of fields and farms and forests. They do not begin to describe the real world that we live in. The real world is muddy and messy and full of things that we do not yet understand.”

So a whispering campaign has circulated in academia and on the web, among the committed climate crowd, wondering why Dyson has lost his way. Maybe he’s been bought by satan, a.k.a. “Big Oil,” the all-purpose explanation for any nasty thoughts that disturb the congregation. Or – the most persistent and pernicious rumor of all – he’s gone gaga, blinded to the true faith.

Kenneth Brower, a committed environmentalist writer, comes by his green tint genetically as the son of the late, iconic David Brower, the man who put the Sierra Club on the map after John Muir and made Friends of the Earth up out of nothing. Ken Brower has entered the argument about Dyson. He’s known the man most of his life and wrote a book about Freeman’s son George, also a writer. Brower participated in the reconciliation of the elder and younger Dyson 35 years ago.

In an article in the December 2010 edition of The Atlantic, Brower explores Dyson’s apostasy on warming. The article asks, “How could someone as smart as Dyson be so dumb about the environment?” The implication is clear: Dyson can’t be right and so many other scientists wrong.

Brower advances several hypotheses about what might be ailing Dyson. Maybe he’s just a stubborn contrarian? Maybe he doesn’t really mean it? Maybe he’s just a nutty professor type with no sense of the practical world? Maybe he’s senile?

To his credit, Brower doesn’t buy any of those possible explanations, although he accepts aspects of some of them. That’s fair enough. Scientists ought to be contrarians. Puncturing gas bags is beautiful work.

Dyson, in a book review in the February 22 edition of the New York Review of Books, clearly disposes of the incipient Alzheimer’s diagnosis. His brilliant review of James Gleick’s “The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood,” demonstrates that Dyson’s mind is a supple, as strong, and as fascinating as ever. The highlight of the review is a glittering excursion into the physical failure of Lord Kelvin’s dogma of “heat death,” which postulated how the world would end as heat dissipated from warmer to cooler bodies. Dyson knowingly cites the work of Fang Lizhi and Li Shuxian, which proved the errors of that accepted scientific dogma. Has anyone else ever heard of this scientific couple?

Where does Brower come down on Dyson? He concludes that Dyson has embraced his own, offshoot religion, one that relies on technology and the ingenuity of mankind to overcome the kind of obstacles that environmentalists believe have been revealed as beyond, or outside, the power of humankind. “Freeman Dyson does not have the religion. He has another religion,” concludes Brower. He defines “the religion,” his religios, as the lessons he absorbed growing up at his father’s knee. “By this, my father meant that the person in question understood, felt the cause and the imperative of environmentalism in his or her bones. The tenets go something like this: this living planet is the greatest of miracles. We Homo sapiens, for all the exceptionalism of our species, are part of a terrestrial web of life and are utterly dependent upon it. Nature runs the biosphere much better than we do, as we demonstrate with our ham-handedness each time we try. The arc of human history is unsustainable. We cannot go on destroying natural systems and expect to survive.”

Physicist Jonathan Katz of Washington University called Brower’s Atlantic article “attempted intellectual assassination,” but I think that goes too far. Brower is simply unable to overcome his religious rigidity. The doctrine of global warming fits with Brower’s religious imperative perfectly. Brower, when contemplating Dyson’s skepticism, is blinded by the green rapture. He is unable posit the simple solution to the quandary of why Freeman Dyson says what he says about the climate. Maybe Dyson is right?