NYT Profiles Freeman Dyson, polymath and climate skeptic

By Kennedy Maize
Coming in this Sunday’s (March 29) New York Times magazine is a splendid profile of one of the more important global warming skeptics: Freeman Dyson of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies. The article by Nicholas Dawidoff – “The Civil Heretic” – is required reading for those who believe climate change is the most dangerous trend facing the world today (Al Gore and Jim Hansen) and those who believe it’s overblown and lacking in scientific rigor (Dyson and Richard Lindzen of MIT).
If you don’t know Freeman Dyson, you simply don’t know much about the history of science in the 20th and 21st century. A brilliant mathematician and a polymath in other disciplines, Dyson is probably the deepest thinker alive today when it comes to science and society, and the best I’ve come across in explaining his scientific insights.
Dyson, as a very young immigrant from Great Britain, was there at the start of the modern world of physics, working with, among others, Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, Neils Bohr, Hans Bethe, Edward Teller, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Richard Feynman. Dyson, at 85, has now spent more than a half-century at the institution that gave Einstein refuge in the 1930s, and Oppenheimer in the 1950s. Dawidoff writes perceptively, “Among Dyson’s gifts is interpretive clarity, a penetrating ability to grasp the method and significance of what many kinds of scientists do.”
Of Dyson’s many books on science and society, my favorite is A Many-Colored Glass, Reflections on the Place of Life in the Universe (University of Virginia Press, 2007). The book is a collection of a series of lectures Dyson delivered starting in 2004. The best, for me, is titled “Heretical Thoughts about Science and Society.” Dyson, without mentioning climate science by name, says scientist who get enmeshed in political controversies “tend to speak more clearly than they think. They make confident predictions about the future, and end up believing their own predictions. The public is led to believe that the fashionable scientific dogmas are true, and it may sometimes happen that they are wrong. That is why heretics who question the dogmas are needed.
“As a scientist I do not have much faith in predictions. Science is organized unpredictability. The best scientists like to arrange things in an experiment to be as unpredictable as possible….”
Talking to Dawidoff, Dyson is nearly scornful of former vice president Al Gore and NASA scientist Jim Hansen, the chief drivers of evangelical warnings of climate change. I say nearly because Dyson is so gentle and calm that he would never heap outright scorn on anybody. He describes modern environmentalism as a “worldwide secular religion” and labels Gore the religion’s “chief propagandist.” Dyson accuses Hansen and Gore of leaning on flawed computer models, which result in “lousy science” that turns the public away from “more serious and more immediate dangers to the planet.” Hansen, he says, “has turned his science into ideology.”
Dawidoff’s characterization of Dyson is, to my mind, spot on: Dyson “is a great problem-solver who is not convinced that climate change is a great problem.” Dawidoff writes, “Dyson may be an Obama-loving, Bush-loathing liberal who has spent his life opposing American wars and fighting for the protection of natural resources, but he brooks no ideology and has a withering aversion to scientific consensus.”
The article is currently available on the newspaper’s web site.