Field of Science

An honest heretic

I am deeply buried in my dissertation but I had to take some time out for this.
"He is a short, sinewy man with strawlike filaments of excitable gray hair that make him resemble an upside-down broom. Every day he dresses with the same frowzy Oxbridge formality in L. L. Bean khaki trousers (his daughter Mia is a minister in Maine), a tweed sport coat, a necktie (most often one made for him, he says, by another daughter, Emily, many years ago “in the age of primary colors”) and wool sweater-vests. On cold days he wears a second vest, one right over the other, and the effect is like a window with two sets of curtains. His smile is the real window, a delighted beam that appears to float free from his face, strangely dynamic with its electric ears and quantum nose, and his laugh is so hearty it shakes him. The smile and laughter have the effect of softening Dyson’s formality, transforming him into a sage and friendly elf, and also reminding those he talks with that he has spent a lifetime immersed in efforts to find what he considers humane solutions to dire problems, whose controversial gloss never seems to agitate him. His eyes are murky gray, and whatever he’s thinking beyond what he says, the eyes never betray."
I still remember the first time I walked into the library and discovered Freeman Dyson's autobiography lying neglected in a corner of the college library, covered with years of fine dust. I dusted off the book and noticed that the cover was missing. In spite of its miserable condition, I was so entranced that I read the volume cover to cover that night. Ever since then it has been the single-best socioscientific memoir I have read. Briefly corresponding with Dyson by e-mail was one of the high points in my life.

I won't say much about Dyson since I have already written about him in detail before. He is considered an extraordinary scientist and humanist, one of the most highly respected of the last fifty years, having inhabited the lofty Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton with luminaries like Oppenheimer, EInstein, Witten and Gödel. Earlier Dyson had worked with Hans Bethe and Richard Feynman, both legends. But what I have found puzzling about him in recent times is his skeptical stance on global warming. Now Dyson is no Bjørn Lomborg, but some of his statements really bothered me. For instance, in spite of spending some of the most productive years of his life designing a safe nuclear reactor, Dyson still does not talk in favour of nuclear energy. At least some of his ideas make sense; he has espoused research into genetically modified plants that would soak up CO2 for instance, but I cannot see how any such measures could do no more than supplement solutions to climate change.

In any case, Nicholas Dawidoff has a well-written profile of Dyson in the New York Times magazine. The article is well-written and documents well Dyson's outstanding credentials as a scientist and humanist as well as his early years in war-torn England. Dawidoff documents Dyson's contrarian stance on climate change; indeed this seems to be the reason for the article. Dyson's fondness for coal is also jarring. But while you may strongly disagree with what he says (and there's at least some stuff in there which makes sense), of one thing you can be sure; Dyson's criticism is scientific and honest and he has no political axe to grind. The invective that he seems to have received in some emails is actually amusing.

Global warming stances aside, Dyson probably has the best command over both science and the English language of anyone that I have come across; as he himself says, he has two passions- "calculation and English prose". In his magnificent books Dyson liberally quotes from both the best scientists and the best poets and writers. Over the last fifty years his mind has ranged and soared high over topics as diverse as nuclear reactor engineering, space exploration, problems of population and poverty, poetry, solid-state physics, quantum electrodynamics, adaptive optics in telescopes, origins of life and genetic engineering. Still a sprightly 85, Dyson continues to inspire and awe. I hope to gather up enough mettle to try to ask him for an audience sometime.


  1. so if you respect his opinion on everything else why do you disregard this one?

  2. Because it seems to unfortunately make little sense. For instance on a Charlie Rose interview he once said "I don't care from where we get a megawatt of power, whether from coal, nuclear or wind". I am still scratching my head trying to make sense of that one.

  3. I don't think the Lomborg calculation (money not spent on global warming will be spent on more pressing social needs - neglected diseases, poverty, childhood illnesses) makes a whole lot of sense based on how people have behaved. I'm not certain the current variant of cost-benefit analysis give reasonable and morally acceptable answers. There ought to be substantial reasoning to justify a stance to overcome these problems.

    On the other hand, Dyson's argument doesn't seem internally inconsistent (global warming is a mirage/global warming will be beneficial) and it doesn't rely on the conspiracy theory (no evidence constitutes evidence) school of global warming skeptic "reasoning" - it is an actual argument, not a desperate justification by those hoping to sell the lives of others lives for their benefit. I can't agree with him, but I can't think that he's crazy or evil for having his opinion - I wish it made more sense to me and that it were less amenable to use by those with fewer scruples.

  4. Cost benefit analysis isn't all bad. Consider the following -- as chemists you well know that the hysteria about asbestos is terribly overblown (there are different types with different risk profile, more asbestos is released in the process of removal than would get out in 100 years etc. etc). Yet the USA apparently has spent billions getting it out of schools -- money that could be much better spent on education itself. Well perhaps -- some of the worst performing school districts in the USA have the highest per capita spending (Washington D. C. comes to mind).

    That's not to say that mesothelioma is a bed of roses, or that asbestos exposure isn't a risk factor for it. As a physician I saw one or two cases, and it's a truly gruesome disease. Such cases arose in shipyard workers in WWII, but their exposure was gigantic.


  5. We do cost-benefit analysis everyday - we are willing to take large risks to use our cars everyday because (in many cases) we need to but also because the capacities they give us are worth more than enough to pay for the costs it may impose on us (probably even when other externalities - pollution, CO2, etc. are factored in).

    CBA does have significant limitations though - primarily that all of the costs be expressible in some common currency. What Ford might think my life is worth is different than what I think it's worth for example, and the cost of life is well-studied. The costs of environmental harms are probably even harder, because they don't necessarily impinge on our activities but because if we do too much, the harms may impinge really strongly, and we don't know exactly where.

    If you can't count a set of costs well, then the outcome of the analysis depends a lot on what assumptions you have to make to count them at all. The primacy and ready ability to count direct economic harms seems to lead to a higher valuation for them than other harms - and I don't know whether it's a consequence of the way we count or an actual measure of how we value harms.

  6. Reatread, the example of asebestos is an interesting one. Cost-benefit analysis is certainly valuable and should always be done. I think in global warming/climate change we face a unique problem; going back to Nassim Taleb's 'black swans' events, this is one black swan event which carries a liability and detrimental impact far bigger than perhaps any we have seen. Perhaps that is why people are so riled when others criticize the models.

  7. Sunday should be the day to read the Sunday Times magazine. You guys are way ahead of yourselves. The most interesting part of the article (to me) is Dyson's criticism of models.

    The current financial crisis is (in some part, depending on how important you think greed and crowd behavior are) due to reliance on various models of financial risk-- apparently most of them didn't go back to the last financial crisis.

    Dyson doesn't think the climate models are very good. This blog (usefully) brings up the pitfalls of various computational models (force fields etc. etc.) applied to something as 'simple' as chemistry. The world climate and atmospheric system is orders of magnitude more complicated. Dyson (and yours truly) doesn't trust them



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