Thursday, June 14, 2012

When skepticism is stupid

Among intelligent nonexperts who have weighed in on climate change, Freeman Dyson has become, now that Michael Crichton is dead, perhaps our most prominent global-warming skeptic. Charlie Rose began his interview with questions about the climate. Dyson answered that he remained very skeptical about the dangers of global warming. He did not believe the pronouncements of the experts. He did not claim to be an expert himself, so he would not argue the details with anybody; he had not given much time to the issue and did not pretend to know the real answers, but what he knew for sure was that the global-warming experts did not know the answers, either.

Dyson did not deny that the world was getting warmer. What he doubted was the models of the climatologists, and the grave consequences they predicted, and the supposition that global warming is bad. “I went to Greenland myself, where the warming is most extreme,” he said. “And it’s quite spectacular, of course, what you see in Greenland. But what is also true is, the people there love it. The people there hope it continues. It makes their lives a lot more pleasant.”

Dyson argued that melting ice and the resulting sea-level rise is no cause for alarm. He said that the release of increasing volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is a very good thing, as it makes plants grow better. The important thing to remember, he said, is that the planet is warming mainly in places that are cold, and at night rather than during the day, so that the phenomenon is essentially making the climate more even, rather than just making everything hotter.

“Have we been kind to the planet?” Rose asked at one point.

“Yes. I would say, on the whole, yes.”

When Rose expressed surprise at this answer, the physicist backtracked slightly.

“No, the fact is, of course, we’ve done a lot of damage to the planet, but we also repair the damage. I grew up in England, and England was far more filthy then than it is now. We had the industrial revolution first, so England was much more polluted than the United States ever has been, and England now is quite comparatively clean. You can go to London and your collar doesn’t get black in one day.”

The question that phrases itself now, in the minds of many, is: how could someone as smart as Freeman Dyson be so dumb?

This is from the Atlantic. Read the rest for a perspective on what the author thinks. The author points out that Dyson is wrong in the claims that he makes on carbon dioxide being good for plants, as well as the fact that the planet is better off. No disagreement from me here. However, he makes no pronouncements on whether it is good to inject some skepticism of models of sea level rises.

The author’s tone reminds me of the time of the run-up to the Iraq war. The experts declared that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Any disagreement with the experts and the Bush regime was prima facie evidence of disloyalty and stupidity. The author appeals to the same one percent doctrine of Dick Cheney. If there is even one percent probability that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction we should invade Iraq and render the country impotent. In the author’s case, we should expend all our resources on reversing the effects of climate change especially when there is a one percent chance of catastrophe. Anyone who disagrees with this statement is putting the world in mortal danger through his stupidity.

For all the diatribe against financial models and its failures as well as its role in the collapse of the economy, it would seem that we should be viewing expert models of climate change with a healthy grain of skepticism - yet any skepticism is labeled as dumb as though skepticism cannot possibly be allowed in the discussion.

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