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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Joseph Romm: NYT Magazine profiles climate crackpot Freeman Dyson and lets him slander James Hansen — while Revkin gives Dyson’s nuttiness a free pass

NYT magazine profiles climate crackpot, Freeman Dyson, and lets him slander James Hansen — while Revkin gives Dyson’s nuttiness a free pass

by Joseph Romm, Climate Progress blog, March 25, 2009

Shame on the New York Times Magazine for publishing an extended, largely favorable profile of Freeman Dyson, a true climate crackpot.

Shame on them for printing his scientifically unjustifiable slanders of the country’s leading climate scientist, James Hansen, even while conceding Hansen “could turn out to be right” — which is the same thing as Dyson admitting that if anybody actually listens to him, we might end up destroying a livable climate for a thousand years.

UPDATE: And shame on the NYT’s top climate science reporter, Andy Revkin, for promoting this piece on his blog (here) with not a single criticism of Dyson’s numerous anti-scientific statements and smears (see below). I call on Revkin to retract his absurdly indefensible assertion that “On climate, Mr. Dyson may be right….” (see full quote at end).

Freeman Dyson is a theoretical physicist who has always been kind of loopy. He was, after all, one of the “geniuses” pushing Project Orion — the absurdly impractical idea of creating a rocket ship powered by detonating nuclear bombs — I kid you not!

More recently he joined the “famous crackpot” camp with Bill Gray (and, formerly, Michael Crichton). He started asserting stuff directly at odds with the actual scientific evidence, like “There is no doubt that parts of the world are getting warmer, but the warming is not global” (see “Freeman Dyson, Climate Crackpot“).

And Dyson started proposing outlandish “solutions” (see Freeman Dyson and his amazing, incredible ‘genetically engineered carbon-eating trees’):

I consider it likely that we shall have “genetically engineered carbon-eating trees” within twenty years, and almost certainly within fifty years.

Carbon-eating trees could convert most of the carbon that they absorb from the atmosphere into some chemically stable form and bury it underground. Or they could convert the carbon into liquid fuels and other useful chemicals. Biotechnology is enormously powerful, capable of burying or transforming any molecule of carbon dioxide that comes into its grasp…. If one quarter of the world’s forests were replanted with carbon-eating varieties of the same species, the forests would be preserved as ecological resources and as habitats for wildlife, and the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would be reduced by half in about fifty years.

Oh, well, replacing 25% of existing trees with imaginary genetically-engineered carbon-eating trees will solve the problem. Why didn’t anyone point this out before? It certainly would’ve saved me a lot of time.

Wait, I can improve his idea. It’s obviously too risky to take the carbon and “bury it underground.” What if it leaked? Let’s put the carbon on rocket ships powered by nuclear bombs. That way we can be sure the carbon won’t ever return to our atmosphere.

And still the NYT gives this crackpot star status, while conceding in the first paragraph:

There is the suspicion that, at age 85, a great scientist of the 20th century is no longer just far out, he is far gone — out of his beautiful mind.

Well, many people never thought he was a great scientist, but it is increasingly hard to argue with this basic sentiment.

But then the NYT lets him a rant and rave on anything he wants to:

“The person who is really responsible for this overestimate of global warming is Jim Hansen. He consistently exaggerates all the dangers.”

I guess if you’re 85 you can just say whatever you want without any evidence, and the NYT will publish it because, hey, you might be out of your beautiful mind. The fact that Dyson is unaware of the extensive scientific literature by climate scientists other than Hansen on the extreme danger posed to human civilization by global warming (see here) is just another example of Dyson’s Hansen-obsessed loopiness.

But how could a serious journalist or his editor slap the headline “The Civil Heretic” on this slander-fest? There is nothing civil about Dyson at all.

Hansen has turned his science into ideology. He’s a very persuasive fellow and has the air of knowing everything. He has all the credentials. I have none. I don’t have a Ph.D. He’s published hundreds of papers on climate. I haven’t. By the public standard he’s qualified to talk and I’m not. But I do because I think I’m right. I think I have a broad view of the subject, which Hansen does not. I think it’s true my career doesn’t depend on it, whereas his does. I never claim to be an expert on climate. I think it’s more a matter of judgement than knowledge.”

These are the most uncivil, unjustified ravings.

[Note to NYT, Dyson: If you look up “air of knowing everything” in the dictionary, it has a picture of Dyson, not Hansen. Hansen is an uber-modest guy, as anyone who has met him will attest.]

Let’s remember that just this year the American Meteorological Society awarded the country’s top climate scientist its highest honor, the 2009 Carl-Gustaf Rossby Research Medal: “For outstanding contributions to climate modeling, understanding climate change forcings and sensitivity, and for clear communication of climate science in the public arena.”

But the NYT lets Dyson actually accuse Hansen of exaggerating the science and turning it into ideology because his “career” depends on it. The smearing of the motives of real scientific experts by phony ones makes Dyson a clear victim of anti-science syndrome (ASS).

And it just goes on and on:

… “the climate is actually improving rather than getting worse,” because carbon acts as an ideal fertilizer promoting forest growth and crop yields.

Except that ain’t happening. Quite the reverse (see “Science: Global warming is killing U.S. trees, a dangerous carbon-cycle feedback” and “Climate-Driven Pest Devours N. American Forests” and “Nature on stunning new climate feedback: Beetle tree kill releases more carbon than fires“).

But that’s the beauty of being an 85-year-old theoretical physicist with no training or publications in climate science — you don’t have to concern yourself with the facts.

“Most of the evolution of life occurred on a planet substantially warmer than it is now,” he contends, “and substantially richer in carbon dioxide.”

Well, yes. Of course, sea levels were 250 feet higher back then. But Dyson says not to worry:

Sea levels, he says, are rising steadily, but why this is and what dangers it might portend “cannot be predicted until we know much more about its causes.”

Seriously. Yes, some people actually once thought this guy was smart.

Note to Dyson: Sea levels are rising because the planet is getting hotter, causing the water to expand and the land-locked ice to melt and/or flow rapidly into the oceans. Those are the “causes.” Duh. Either read the scientific literature or shut up. Start here: Startling new sea level rise research: “Most likely” 0.8 to 2.0 meters by 2100.

You can read more debunking of Dyson here.

But I can’t stomach wasting any more time on this.

Shame on the NYT, shame on the reporter, Nicholas Dawidoff, for publishing this crackpot’s crap for millions to read and possibly think is credible.

Let me give the last word to our nation’s top climate scientist (see James Hansen: “Coal is the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet”).

How can [the public] distinguish top-notch science and pseudoscience — the words sound the same? Leaders have no excuse….

Precisely. I would just change one word here — “leaders” could just as easily be “journalists.”

If journalists abandon the role of distinguishing science from pseudoscience, world-renowned and widely published experts from crackpots, how can the public ever become informed?

UPDATE: The NYT’s Andy Revkin has blogged on Dyson with the too-clever-by-half headline “Some Inconvenient Thinkers.” Presumably he means to imply that Dyson — who pretty much makes up stuff that has no basis whatsoever in actual science — is just another side of the same coin as Nobelist Al Gore, who, of course, works very hard to understand what the science says and communicate it accurately (see Unstaining Al Gore’s good name 2: He is not “guilty of inaccuracies and overstatements” and is owed a correction and apology by the New York Times).

Stunningly, Revkin actually writes:

On climate, Mr. Dyson may be right or wrong, and pretty much admits that.

It is one thing for the puff-piece profilers at the NYT magazine to give the eccentric Dr. Dyson a forum and a free pass to say whatever anti-scientific nonsense comes into his head at the moment — but if the top climate science reporter for the entire New York Times thinks “Dyson may be right,” then may be the newspaper should simply dump their entire climate-reporting staff and start from scratch.

Note to Andy: You have simply gone too far on this one. I call on you to retract that statement.

Link to Joseph Romm's Climate Progress blog post:

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