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The Starship vs. Spaceship Earth

Eric Steig & Ray Pierrehumbert

One of my (Eric’s) favorite old books is The Starship and the Canoe by Kenneth Brower It’s a 1970s book about a father (Freeman Dyson, theoretical physicist living in Princeton) and son (George Dyson, hippy kayaker living 90 ft up in a fir tree in British Columbia) that couldn’t be more different, yet are strikingly similar in their originality and brilliance. I started out my career heading into astrophysics, and I’m also an avid sea kayaker and I grew up with the B.C. rainforest out my back door. So I think I have a sense of what drives these guys. Yet I’ve never understood how Freeman Dyson became such a climate contrarian and advocate for off-the-wall biogeoengineering solutions like carbon-eating trees, something we’ve written about before.

It turns out that Brower has wondered the same thing, and in a recent article in The Atlantic, he speculates on the answer. “How could someone as smart as Freeman Dyson,” writes Brower, “be so wrong about climate change and other environmental concerns..?”

Brower goes through a number of possible explanations for the Dyson paradox, some easily dismissed (senility; he’s a theoretician with no sense of practicality) some not so easily dismissed (he’s only joking, don’t take it seriously, he doesn’t take it all that seriously himself). But in the end, for Brower, it seems to come down to two conspiring things about Dyson. The first is that Dyson has an abiding faith in the ability of technology to do anything we want it to. It’s not surprising, then, that Dyson thinks we can ‘fix climate’ as well. That, in itself, makes Dyson not so much a “global warming skeptic” as an extreme techno-optimist. In fact, even leaving technology aside, he has a touching faith that whatever humans may do to the environment, it usually turns out for the best. In this essay, he writes:

“The natural ecology of England was uninterrupted and rather boring forest. Humans replaced the forest with an artificial landscape of grassland and moorland, fields and farms, with a much richer variety of plant and animal species. Quite recently, only about a thousand years ago, we introduced rabbits, a non-native species which had a profound effect on the ecology. Rabbits opened glades in the forest where flowering plants now flourish.”

We daresay that the Australians have a somewhat less benign view of rabbits (as the New Zealanders do of possums). And that maybe Dyson has a thing or two to learn about the biodiversity of unmanaged ecosystems.

Second, Dyson’s obsession has always been the stars, not the earth: he spent many years working on the design of a spaceship (hence the title of Brower’s 30-year old book) that would take him there. It’s not so much that he doesn’t care about our home planet — he must have learned something about ‘spaceship earth’ from son George over the years. Rather, he is simply very confident that we can always get off if we have to. “What the secular faith of Dysonism offers,” Brower writes” is, first, a hypertrophied version of the technological fix, and second, the fantasy that, should the fix fail, we have someplace else to go.” Dyson has stated in many places, and in various ways, that he thinks global warming is not a big problem, and that its importance has been exaggerated. To put things in perspective, though, Dyson doesn’t particularly think that the extirpation of all life other than human would be a particularly big deal “We are moving rapidly into the post-Darwinian era, when species other than our own will no longer exist, and the rules of Open Source sharing will be extended from the exchange of software to the exchange of genes,” he is quoted as saying in Brower’s article. Dyson’s idea of what constitutes a “big problem” may be, well, just a bit different from what most of the rest of us might have in mind.

Brower’s conclusions sound right on the mark to us, but don’t fully explain Dyson. Perhaps Brower is being gentle, since he is an old friend, or perhaps he simply isn’t aware of it, but one issue he does not touch on in his article is is how deceptive (apparently deliberately) Dyson can be.

The problem is that Dyson says demonstrably wrong things about global warming, and doesn’t seem to care so long as they support his notion of human destiny. Brower reports that Dyson doesn’t consider himself an expert on climate change, has no interest in arguing the details with experts, and yet somehow knows that the experts don’t have any answers worth listening to. That doesn’t stop Dyson from making sweeping pronouncements, many of them so egregiously wrong that it would hardly have taken an expert to set him straight.

The examples of this are legion. In the essay “Heretical thoughts about science and society” (excerpted here) Dyson says that CO2 only acts to make cold places (like the arctic) warmer and doesn’t make hot places hotter, because only cold places are dry enough for CO2 to compete with water vapor opacity. But in jumping to this conclusion, he has neglected to take into account that even in the hot tropics, the air aloft is cold and dry, so CO2 nonetheless exerts a potent warming effect there. Dyson has fallen into the same saturation fallacy that bedeviled Ångström a century earlier.

And then there are those carbon-eating trees. He likes this one so much he put it in both the Heresy essay and in his piece in NY Review of Books. He points out that the annual fossil fuel emissions of carbon correspond to a hundredth of an inch of extra biomass per year over half the Earth’s surface, and suggests that it shouldn’t be hard to tweak the biosphere in such a way as to sequester all the fossil fuel carbon we want to in this way. Dyson could well ask himself why we don’t have kilometers-thick layers of organic carbon right now at the surface, resulting from a few billion years of outgassing of volcanic CO2. The answer is that bacteria have had about two billion years to evolve so as to get very, very good at combining any available organic carbon with oxygen. It is in fact extremely hard to put organic carbon in a form or place where it doesn’t get oxidized back into CO2 (Mother Nature thought she had done that trick with fossil fuels but we sure fooled her!) And if you did somehow coopt ten to twenty percent of the worldwide biosphere’s photosynthetic capacity to take up carbon and turn it into a form that couldn’t rot ever, you’d have to sort of worry about how nutrients would ever get back into the ecosystem. And also maybe whether the carbon-eating trees might get out of control and suck out so much CO2 you wound up in a Snowball Earth.

Dyson espouses a generic disdain for climate models and climate modellers: ” 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.” Like most of us, he has little confidence in the modelling of clouds. But with great ignorance of the nature of the modelling enterprise, he declares: “It is much easier for a scientist to sit in an air-conditioned building and run computer models, than to put on winter clothes and measure what is really happening outside in the swamps and the clouds” Actually, those of us who go to Antarctica to drill ice cores certainly put on winter clothes, and paleoclimatologists are out in the swamps and ocean muck all the time. And there are plenty of scientists flying around in the clouds, trying to gauge their effects. The mainstream estimate that the climate sensitivity is around 3°C for a doubling of CO2 does not simply comes from computer models. Study of the Last Glacial Maximum, the Pliocene and the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum all rule out the idea that there is a strongly stabilizing cloud feedback. Ahe fact that we cannot precisely quantify cloud feedbacks also means that there is a lot of risk, that cloud feedbacks could make a doubled-CO2 world much hotter, not much cooler. Dyson’s writings conveniently ignore this two-directional implication of uncertainty, and they they also ignore the implications of the long atmospheric lifetime of CO2, which means if we wait and see how hot it gets and find we don’t like it, there’s nothing much to be done (unless, of course, we can simply go somewhere else).

Finally, there is the familiar examples of Dyson attacking the style of the debate, rather than its substance. Reporting on written debate between Richard Lindzen and Stefan Rahmstorf, in the New York Review of Books New York Times book review, Dyson juxtaposes Lindzen’s claim that “observations suggest that the sensitivity of the real climate is much less than that found in computer models” with Stefan calling this “simply ludicrous”. Dyson gives the impression that rational arguments from skeptics are met with “open contempt” by the majority. But he fails to mention that Stefan showed in detail why Lindzen’s claim is wrong: Lindzen ignored ocean thermal inertia when comparing observed warming with the equilibrium climate sensitivity. Any physicist should be able to judge that Stefan is right and Lindzen is wrong on this point. He also failed to mention that Stefan used the word “ludicrous” only in a “personal postscript” to a completely sober scientific article, referring to Lindzen’s claims that a vast conspiracy of thousands of climatologists worldwide is misleading the public for personal gain. Dyson’s account of the Lindzen-Rahmstorf exchange neither fairly covers the substance of the argument, nor is it a fair portrayal of its style – Dyson seems to have twisted it as much as he could to score a political point.

In the Heresy essay, Dyson repeatedly gives himself a way out by claiming he is only tossing out ideas that should be thought about; he at times emphasizes that he does not know the answers, only the questions that should be raised. However, that does not stop him from making confident claims that he has a broader view than others, as in this interview with Mike Lemonick, and somehow Dyson never gets around to thinking about what the consequences are if we continue inaction on CO2 emissions and he turns out to be wrong. More importantly, all of the things Dyson argues “heretically” should be looked at — e.g. land carbon sequestration or the lessons from the Altithermal period around 8000 years ago — are in fact already being intensively investigated and are not turning up any silver bullets to allay concern about climate change. When push comes to shove, Dyson is really only offering warmed-over standard contrarian talking points. Heresy, or more broadly an outsider’s viewpoint, can be a good thing when it shakes loose new ideas. But surely, we have a right to expect a more original form of heresy from the architect of Dyson spheres and nuclear starships.

In short, it’s not so simple as the ‘self delusion’ Brower talks about. Dyson is not doing science, but he is deluding others under the guise of science. Given’s Dyson’s evident love of science (and expertise in it), that’s the part that we still don’t get.

201 Responses to “The Starship vs. Spaceship Earth”

  1. 1
    Adam R. says:

    It seems Dyson has come to regard his own gut feelings as reliable sources, and is satisfied to construct an argument from personal incredulity upon them. The hand waving that follows certainly has brought him attention out of all proportion to the effort expended, and perhaps that is all there is to it: he is simply enjoying playing the gadfly to amuse himself. That, to me, seems the simplest and most likely explanation.

  2. 2
    Tony says:

    I know you you say that \it is easy to dismiss\ increasing senility in Dyson’s case, but – without intending any rudeness – I am not so sure. I have read Dyson’s articles in the NYRB for many, many years, and I have noticed there an at first gentle, but rapidly increasing level of fatousness, waffle, mad optimism and genral sure-of-himselfness that I think can honestly be taken in the way you reject. I gently tried to raise the issue with the NYRB editors after his CC essay, but they did not deign my inquiry worth a reply.

    [Response: If you look at his December Physics Today article on Chandrasekhar’s science, or talk to anybody who knows him at the Institute for Advanced Study, you find pretty quickly that there is absolutely nothing wrong with his mental agility. That’s the wrong tree up which to bark. –raypierre]

  3. 3
    Jon G says:

    With respect to perspective: I’ve met, talked and corresponded with Freeman Dyson several times over the years. Remember, Dyson is one of the “grand thinkers”, of nuclear (bomb) powered spaceships to travel to the stars -not just the Moon – of terraforming planets and humans expanding throughout the galaxy. And of the Jasons, who believe every problem can be solved, fixed or dispensed with as an exercise for the student. Freeman Dyson lives and thinks too far into the future; individuals and human time scales are not so important in that context.
    The Great Debate: Freeman Dyson has a lot in common with another self-espoused Great Thinker, Tommy Gold, with whom I had much more contact, especially with respect to the deep earth gas hypothesis, cause of the volcanoes on Io and other “interesting” science arguments. It was explained to me that Tommy believed in/used the “old European method” of debating science: The form and style (the game) had more to do with who one the debate than the facts (reality), much like boxing where you can win on points even though you might get knocked out. Whoever won the debate won the science, no matter if the result was real or not. I do not know if this is true or not (the European method of debating science), but it sure fit Tommy to a “t”. I think Freeman is more realistic than Tommy every was, but his head is still stuck in stars. I learned much from both.

  4. 4

    I, too, read Brouwer’s book back in the day, and it made me think pretty deeply about what was really important to me. Dyson always felt pretty sure of himself and his capabilities, if Brouwer is to be believed. I think that may be a key to not only his success, but that of many other highly gifted folks–the ‘audacity of hope’ can quite often be substituted by the ‘audacity of ego,’ and big claims quite often garner big attention. Modest ones, often none at all.

    I wonder what George Dyson, the son, thinks about all of this?

    [Response: I wonder too! But no son should speak ill of his father if it can be avoided! By the way, I think it is Brower, not Brouwer. –eric]

  5. 5
    Knute Rife says:

    Freeman Dyson has what I call “Belief in the Frictionless Transfer of Expertise”. He is an expert in one area, ergo he is an expert in any other area he chooses.

  6. 6
    Nick Rouse says:

    He is also wrong about rabbits in Britain. The argument as to whether the Romans or the Normans brought rabbits to Britain has been settled in the Romans by carbon dated butchered rabbit bones in a Roman Archaeological excavation in Norfolk. They have been Britain for 2000 years

    [Response: His ecological understanding is so ridiculously stupid that nobody would spend five seconds on it.–Jim]

  7. 7

    Right you are, Eric. Should have slowed down a bit. . . “Brower.” My mistake.

    Perhaps Leo Brouwer was in the back of my mind!

  8. 8
    skept says:

    “Study of the Last Glacial Maximum, the Pliocene and the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum all rule out the idea that there is a strongly stabilizing cloud feedback.”

    It’s a mystery to me how paleoclimates, whose many conditions are quite poorly known or constrained (eg atmospheric dust, global cover of vegetation, oceanic heat content at different layers, etc.), can help us for reducing uncertainties about climate sensitivity. For example Schneider von Deimling el al (2006) on LGM : 1.2–4.3°C, quite the same range we find in AOGCM for present-day climate. I suppose that lower values imply a form of “stabilizing feedback” (either clouds or antything else) and can’t be ruled out for the moment, even if the probabilistic “best estimate” is higher.

    [Response: It’s not *so* mysterious. Read our post on this, plus ca change.]

  9. 9
    Hank Roberts says:

    Bzzt! “… Remains of rabbits dating back half a million years were found at Boxgrove in West Sussex and Swanscombe in Kent….”

    Land bridge:

    Back vaguely on topic, if I thought H. sap. mature enough, I’d be glad to see a few surface-launchable Orion vehicles built, to use to take the world inventory of fission and fusion weapons offsite and put them to decent use collecting asteroids and comets and starting to build a future for us out at the Lagrange points.

    But alas.

  10. 10
    Hank Roberts says:

    But there was a land bridge — wait —

    “…. we do have proof rabbits lived here long before the Romans set foot on British soil. Remains of rabbits dating back half a million years were found at Boxgrove in West Sussex and Swanscombe in Kent….”

    I’d be in favor of building Dyson’s Orion vehicle and using it long enough to move our fissionables offsite and set up industry at the Lagrange points, if I didn’t remember the last line of Fredric Brown’s short story “The Weapon” — but alas, I can’t forget it.

  11. 11
    John Brookes says:

    How can you produce such entertaining commentary, and the skeptics can’t?

    I read Dyson’s heresies, and found them quirky and interesting. But lets face it, the guy is smart. I mean, those vacuum cleaners…

  12. 12
    Mike says:

    There is something I have never understood about the “extreme techno-optimist” view. Why do they seem to think adapting to climate change will be relatively easy compared to developing low GHG energy technology? Nuclear power and high mileage cars are not science fiction. Growing crops without rain is.

  13. 13
    anonymous says:

    As a young theoretical particle physicist also living, for the moment, in Princeton, I’ve been dismayed to find similar attitudes to Dyson’s among several of the more esteemed local theoretical physicists, even those much closer to my age than to his. (And these are people who I would say, based on most evidence, are among the most thoughtful and intelligent I’ve ever met — though certainly not on this issue!) The dismissals range from “climate change is real, but people overstate the problem to get funding” (from scientists who know how grants work: I find this ludicrous!) to “we’ll just put sulfates in the atmosphere, what’s the big deal?” to “it’s a problem, but not as much of a problem as the economic catastrophe that would result from addressing it.”

    As someone with a strong (but amateurish) interest in climate science and an equally strong belief that climate change is the most pressing political problem in the world today, I’ve found this pretty dispiriting. The response of the people I’ve argued with seems to be that they think I’m naive and idealistic and will, perhaps, grow out of it. At times I’ve suspected people bring up the issue when I’m around just because they think it’s entertaining to watch me get uncharacteristically heated in response. Maybe Dyson also just likes to provoke people and see how they react.

  14. 14
    Douglas Watts says:

    Excellent overview. Thank you. Ray Kurzweil is sort of in Dyson’s ilk, ie. superabundant techno-optimism. I can sort of understand the impulse, but absent concrete evidence rather than vague promises, it all seems like desperate escapism.

  15. 15
    MalcolmT says:

    Interesting piece. It’s reminding me of Lovelock and his \Revenge of Gaia\. Are both of them victims of the arrogance of age and reputation?

  16. 16
    David B. Benson says:

    anonymous @13 — Send them off to read “The Discovery of Global Warming” by Spencer Weart:
    and then Mark Lynas’s “Six Degrees”:

  17. 17
    Rattus Norvegicus says:

    Review piece you refer to is in the “New York Review of Books”, which is quite different from the “New York Times Book Review” (and better and more interesting).

    [Response: Thanks. My mistake — will correct.–eric]

  18. 18
    Toby Thaler says:

    I greatly appreciate when scientists (and others) who know a subject speak up for the public interest.

    But I am reminded of other scientists whose credibility is challenged when they stray too far from their studied areas. Like Jim Hansen’s uncritical support for biomass as a source of electricity and carbon sequestration (biochar) which cause problems in my public interest advocacy work on energy, forests, and biomass as a policy analyst and lawyer. See, &; Hansen, et al., “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?” 2008 ( does not tell me where this was published?).

    I hope this isn’t a trend.

  19. 19

    Well, surely part of the issue here is that most people tend to forget that the science on its own doesn’t imply any action is necessary about climate change. It’s only when we add in values like equity, or humanitarianism, or our duty to ‘preserve nature’, or a responsibility to future generations and so on that it becomes clear that action is imperative.

    Climate science can tell us what is happening and why. The judgment about what we *ought* to do about it depends on what value system we have. Those who care not for human suffering (especially for suffering done by foreigners living elsewhere) tend to have less concern for action on climate change. This applies to neo-liberals because they’re quite happy to accept the suffering of the impoverished masses in return for the wealth of the few. It seems to apply to Dyson because he’s living in a Star Trek fantasy world where the techno-elites can jump in their spaceships and depart on a whim. Or perhaps because he treats the prospect of human suffering as a phenomena to be observed in the context of the grand sweep of history, rather than something to try and prevent.

    Given this basis, his alarming ignorance about the science itself is easy to explain – quite simply if you’re convinced that it’s not an interesting problem, then climate science itself as not worth learning properly. If you don’t think climate change will affect you or anything you care about, the some vague, shaky grasp of the physics of radiative transfer suffices for your arm-waving dismissals of the problem.

    One other thing to ponder. A good appreciation of climate system dynamics isn’t really possible for someone who is resolutely reductionist. It requires some holistic, systems thinking, which is antithetical to many traditional physicists.

  20. 20
    Hank Roberts says:

    > science on its own doesn’t imply any action is necessary

    That’s the weak-misanthropic viewpoint.

    Those who believe science is done by civilizations that persist do it in a way that helps assure future generations of scientists will continue doing it.

  21. 21
    jyyh says:

    “One other thing to ponder. A good appreciation of climate system dynamics isn’t really possible for someone who is resolutely reductionist. It requires some holistic, systems thinking, which is antithetical to many traditional physicists.”

    This spite the fact that physics itself may be regarded as a synthesis of gravity/quantum physics?

  22. 22
    calyptorhynchus says:

    #9 Your 500,000ya rabbit in Britain was part of the fauna of the last intergacial which also included lions and hyenas.
    The debate is about the date of introduction of the post-pleistocene rabbit, in this period only native to the Mediterranean and introduced into northern Europe by humans.

  23. 23
    JCH says:

    13: …“we’ll just put sulfates in the atmosphere, what’s the big deal?”

    Say two countries and one very wealthy individual decide to secretly add their engineered sulphate aerosols to the atmosphere at the same time we do ours:


  24. 24
    Chris Colose says:

    #23 //”Say two countries and one very wealthy individual decide to secretly add their engineered sulphate aerosols to the atmosphere at the same time we do ours:


    Even worse, suppose we inject all that sulfate and CO2 into the atmosphere at increased rates for 200 years, then decide to stop everything at once.

  25. 25
    Richard C says:

    Say two countries…Brr?

    I still wouldn’t address other problems.

  26. 26

    I think a big part of this type of contrarianism is due to “professional deformation” of favoring familiar lines of evidence, while ignoring that from other disciplines. It’s not the whole story of course, as you rightly point out in this article.

  27. 27
    jason says:

    But I saw an interview on bbc news recently where a green activist said there is serious funding being allocated to sulphate releasem

    So is that rational and sane?

  28. 28
    Joe Earth says:

    Dyson thinks too far in the future – isn’t that the whole point of climate science? Climate scientists are supposed to be concerned about what is going to happen to the Earth in the far future.

    Isn’t it better to think of how we can productively deal with the issue – whether it is by expanding outwards from the Earth (just as humans dealt with increased population and decreasing resources by expandoing outwards form Africa) or by altering the environment ourselves(just as we drasticaly altered our environment by developing agriculture)than to simply tell humans to limit their behaviors.

    Human beings didn’t deal with darkness by staying indoors after sunset.

  29. 29
    Billy Blofeld says:

    You’ve changed my mind. Al Gore has a better handle on climate science that Freeman Dyson ever will.

  30. 30
    Edward Greisch says:

    Tell me more about Kenneth Brower. Was he just an author type? With a degree in English?

    I would prefer to hear from psychologists or psychiatrists or geriatricians on Freeman Dyson. I’m not convinced that Kenneth Brower knew anything about FD or the psychology that applies.

    No doubt Freeman Dyson’s mind is a century or so in the future. He is not an engineer. Building Orion class starships is a bigger challenge than Freeman Dyson imagines, perhaps because the world is not populated by 200 IQs. As a practical matter, we don’t have the space elevator yet either. We know what we need, but we don’t have the technology to make diamond nanowire or carbon nanotubes that meet the requirements at any price. Freeman Dyson skips all of those details, I think.

    We have a \race\ condition between the building of space infrastructure [space elevators and starships] and global warming. We can’t get the space transport problem solved before the bill comes due on GW. And that is ignoring the 7 Billion people who get left behind. It also omits the lack of identification of a suitable destination. Mars is too dead.

    Again, I would prefer to hear from psychologists or psychiatrists. Kenneth Brower didn’t know anything about it, as far as I can see. We need to hear from people who really know the true answers on these psychological questions. Doesn’t the University of Chicago have a psychology department? Professor Pierrehumbert; go there please and enlist some psychologists in the cause. To fight denialism and win, we need to start from solid science on the psychology involved.

  31. 31
    Donald Oats says:

    My admittedly limited reading of Freeman Dyson does at least cover the essays and some of the interviews you have mentioned, as well as a quite old book in which Freeman Dyson talks about the plant experiments he was involved in, perhaps 40 or so years ago. My strong impression is that he is incredibly sharp but has a profound world view concerning what “freedom” entails. He grew up in the shadow of war and in the thick of the cold war, participating in it intellectually, professionally, and authoritatively. To me, it seems that this has led him to see anthropogenic global warming (AGW) as a means by others to impose a “collective” will upon himself, and upon others without their consent. It isn’t the conspiracy theory exactly; Dyson is in my opinion just hyper-sensitive to what he sees in others as being the old Communism-style of problem solving, and he finds this distasteful, even scary.

    Therefore, Dyson’s responses to AGW arguments tend to be a combination of clear-headed thinking and politically driven rhetoric; it is in the rhetoric where Dyson chooses quite deliberately to apply already rebutted points to make his argument sound stronger than it really is. He is also a contrarian-style of thinker (not contrarian in the sense of climate sceptic, but contrarian in the philosophical methods of argument), and that leads to some rather cheeky statements by him.

    The one think that I do find strange and inconsistent with his position – or perhaps, my opinion as to his reasons for his behaviour – is the fact that his high-technology geo-engineering “solutions” actually impose his will upon me, and I live thousands of kilometres away from him. What does Dyson think gives him the right to do that to me? To change my living environment profoundly and probably irreversibly, by applying some geo-engineering solution he and his buddies have dreamt up? Isn’t this exactly the same as his concerns about the use of AGW by “greenies” to get a central international body to impose its power upon the USA?

    PS: At least Freeman Dyson is interesting, compared with Bob Carter, for instance.

  32. 32
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Steve Easterbrook,
    The nearest habitable planet is several hundred light years away–light years filled with little but high-energy radiation that would kill you before you left the solarsystem. The only starship that will support life longer than a few weeks is Earth. Better do some maintenance.

  33. 33
    Donald Oats says:

    Forgot to mention: whenever an AGW sceptic dismisses it with a wave to the extreme technology fixes, it’s worth asking whether they’ve heard of the \endlessly abundant energy\ or \limitless energy\ from nuclear fusion, and also how it is \only 10 years away\. Claims such as that occurred quite regularly in the late 70’s and 80’s; don’t hear it much these days though, and for good reason: nuclear fusion physics is really hard and going the whole way from concept to consumer product is enormously difficult and uncertain. Waiting for Godot writ large.

  34. 34
    Ray Ladbury says:

    I think Dyson is a wonderful illustration of the fact that what makes science smart is not smart scientists, but rather smart use of the scientific method. Dyson is by all accounts a very smart guy. His contributions to QED were instrumental to turning it into a coherent theory, and he’s made other fundamental contributions.

    However, when he is not bound by the scientific method he is just as vulnerable to drawing stupid conclusions as any other human talking out of an alternative orifice. Dyson is absolutely convinced of the bright technological future of mankind–so convinced that he seems to have forgotten the Fermi Paradox. It is a cautionary tale.

  35. 35
    Kevin C says:

    I wonder if an arrogance concerning other areas of research isn’t a special weakness of theoretical physicists (my own first discipline)? I remember Rutherford’s “Physics in the only real science, the rest are just stamp collecting” being quoted semi-seriously in undergrad lectures. I’m not really close enough to the politics to be sure, but I have the impression that in my own institution the physicists are more insular than the other sciences.

    [Response: xkcd agrees… – gavin]

  36. 36
    Edwin Kite says:

    When Dyson says,

    “We are moving rapidly into the post-Darwinian era, when species other than our own will no longer exist […]”

    he’s saying – rather concisely and elegantly – that we should create hybrids between existing organisms, but avoid any blending of human and non-human genomes.

    Brower took Dyson to mean “extinction for everything but us,” which rather degraded the credibility of his article for me. You say “Dyson doesn’t particularly think that the extirpation of all life other than human would be a particularly big deal,” which I think means you’re also misunderstanding Dyson on this one point.


    [Response: “… species other than our own will no longer exist.” seems like a pretty clear statement to me. Extirpation can work many ways, and one of them is to wipe out the fruits of four billion years of natural selection and replace it with continents covered with hybridized gengineered corn and bananas. Dyson is clearly talking (at the very least) about widespread scrambling of the non-human genome, and most of us would consider that a big problem. But agreed that my phrase “extirpation of life” is subject to misinterpretation. The Dyson essay from which Brower got the quote is here. –raypierre]

  37. 37
    J Bowers says:

    Re. 6 Nick Rouse — “The argument as to whether the Romans or the Normans brought rabbits to Britain”

    There’s also rabbit and/or hare evidence via the archaeological record of Britain (Roman fibulae, mosaics (I and II), Celtic Castor ware from the 2nd Century), as well as the written record of Marcus Terentius Varro in the 1st C. B.C. who wrote that the rabbit was introduced into Britain by the legions, the dating of which would indicate they were brought here during Julius Caesar’s self-promotional but brief tour here. There may have been an Asterix in Gaul, but there was no Myxomatosis in Britannia.

  38. 38
    Danny Yee says:

    On the arrogance of physicists, I’m surprised no one yet linked to this xkcd cartoon

  39. 39
    Brian Brademeyer says:

    A theoretical physicist friend, while a grad student at MIT, visited my rural home and observed the torn and tattered canvas covering the bottom of my yard-tractor-pulled lawn sweeper. He offered his obvious solution:

    “Just cover it with a piece of aluminum foil.”

  40. 40
    John E. Pearson says:

    I am not a climate scientist but I can’t help but know people who are working on climate measurements. I know folks with spouses tromping around on glaciers (I’m jealous!). I know folks who go on ships into the arctic to make measurements (not jealous). I know folks working on the satellite measurement of CO2. I’ve happened across more people working on climate measurements than I can keep clear in my head.

    I’ve long admired Dyson even as I disagreed vehemently with his cornucopian dismissal of global warming. I gave up on him when he dismissed climate researchers as \armchair scientists.\ Freeman, would you really have the audacity to look a Lonnie Thompson in the eye and call him an \armchair scientist?\

  41. 41
    Jay Cadbury says:

    I have a suspicious feeling this comment will not be posted. I am wondering if Gavin and the other moderators will comment on the MWP. Was the MWP warmer than 1979-present? Or do you believe that 1979-present has been warmer?

    I am asking this question because there seems to be a lot of disagreement between scientists.

    [Response: Why wouldn’t we post this (other than we’ve heard (and answered) the questions hundreds of times)? The literature says it is very unlikely that the MWP was *globally* as warms as recent decades, but it certainly may have been warmer is some places.–eric]

    [p.s. we’re not fooled by old trolls a.k.a. “Dr. Shooshmon, phd.” sock-puppetting as new trolls]

  42. 42
    Dennis says:

    I had some direct exposure with Dyson back in the early eighties during the nuclear disarmament activities back then. Like you said, Dyson had “an abiding faith in the ability of technology to do anything we want it to.” He was gung-ho for missile defense as the solution for the threat of nuclear war. But he had nothing positive to say on easing cold war tensions or arms control treaties that might reduce the tensions that lead to a nuclear war. While he put his faith in technology, he also frequently (and correctly) dismissed other’s missile defense proposals as inadequate. Only his idea — the “extreme techno-optimist” one (to use your phrase) — was the one that could work.

  43. 43
    Bill Hunter says:

    “Extirpation can work many ways, and one of them is to wipe out the fruits of four billion years of natural selection and replace it with continents covered with hybridized gengineered corn and bananas.”

    Fruits? Has a distinct religious tone to it. In the view of the evolutionist “fruits” are established solely by survivability of the fittest.

    Something which you now wish to brand non-fruitful and place curbs upon.

    One would think this to be a clear example of how you can take the boy out of religion but you cannot take religion out of the boy.

    Also, “Ahe fact that we cannot precisely quantify cloud feedbacks also means that there is a lot of risk, that cloud feedbacks could make a doubled-CO2 world much hotter, not much cooler. Dyson’s writings conveniently ignore this two-directional implication of uncertainty”

    Interesting take since you first multiplied feedbacks by 3 by using sacred groves and upside down proxies to eliminate uncertainty, criticized satellite observations to the contrary, and then laid sole claim to the hallowed ground related to two-directional uncertainty. You have more in common with Dyson than you let on except that you have not presented the alternative fruit growing standard you would have us now believe in since normal evolution is no longer appropriate in your view.

    [Response: I’ll ignore your spouting about religion and distortion of the plain meaning of the word “fruits,” and pass directly on to the utter nonsense you get to in the final paragraph. Satellite observations are not “to the contrary” of anything, but essentially confirm the thermometric record; either instrumental record just gives you the short-term transient climate sensitivity at best, and not the ultimate degree of warming once things come into equilibrium. Uncertainties are not “multiplied by three” by looking at sacred groves, etc, but by looking at what clouds can do physically (even if we are uncertain as to what they will actually do). The proxy data do eliminate some extreme forms of climate sensitivity, such as runaway greenhouse, but do not rule out climate sensitivity beyond the top of the IPCC range. The PETM in fact tends to support climate sensitivity at or somewhat above the top. And I have no idea what you mean about “normal evolution.” I think normal evolution has done quite well so far, except that it has managed to evolve a species whose technological capabilities have far outstripped the development of a moral compass that would allow that species to use its capabilities wisely. –raypierre]

  44. 44
    Chris Colose says:

    There’s a very good book called Ishamel by Daniel Quinn which I was reminded of when I read Brower’s essay. That, along with the sequels Story of B or Beyond Civilization could explain Dyson’s behavior satisfactorily. One quote in that book that stands out is:

    //”The mythology of human superiority justifies their doing whatever they please with the world, just the way Hitler’s mythology of Aryan superiority justified his doing whatever he pleased with Europe. But in the end this mythology is not deeply satisfying. The Takers are a profoundly lonely people.”

    Part of Quinn’s “Taker mythology” is that acting as if the world was made for man and only for man is a necessary part of an advanced civilization. Quinn would perfectly agree with Brower’s statements:

    //”The notion that science will save us is the chimera that allows the present generation to consume all the resources it wants, as if no generations will follow. It is the sedative that allows civilization to march so steadfastly toward environmental catastrophe. It forestalls the real solution, which will be in the hard, nontechnical work of changing human behavior.

    What the secular faith of Dysonism offers is, first, a hypertrophied version of the technological fix, and second, the fantasy that, should the fix fail, we have someplace else to go.”//

    In Quinn’s world, Dyson has taken being a Taker to an extreme. Anyway, I’d strongly recommend those books to get a better feel for what I’m saying and they are good thought-provoking texts anyway.

  45. 45
    cervantes says:

    This is reminiscent of the “Nobel Disease” that has afflicted numerous grandees of science, from Linus Pauling to now, sadly, Luc Montagnier. For some reason, they go nuts. Maybe there’s something dangerous about having too high an IQ.

  46. 46
    John-Paul says:

    Generally speaking, high intelligence is no guarantee against self-delusion. On the contrary, highly intelligent people have all the intellectual tools they need to convince themselves that what they don’t want to believe is false.

    I can’t tell if this applies to Dyson, of course.

  47. 47
    Greg N. says:

    I think it isn’t as simple as a techno-optomist perspective. He could believe, rather realistically, that adressing climate change will require a significant reduction in global energy consumption, and that this will slow technological development. Perhaps he even thinks that this could stop the development of proper adaptation technology, leaving us to deal with committed global warming unaided by new advances. The notion that a reduction in energy consumption will stiffle progress is, in my opinion, silly, but there may be legitimate arguments to support it.

    Just some thoughts. Clearly we can’t truly know his motivations. It just seems plausible to me.

  48. 48

    I never fail to be amazed by the wide, comical tableau of denial characters. Really, I couldn’t write and sell a book with the characters that exist, and the widely varied and yet somehow unified positions that they take on this one issue.

    Any publisher would say it just isn’t believable.

    I won’t bother to make the list. Anyone can make it in their head. But it really makes one ponder.

    Then, to add to that disbelief… there is an enormous army of denial fans who actually respect and applaud these people! They’re heroes to some!

    It often makes me wonder if we’re not confused, if there aren’t two intermingled but separate species of sapient beings on this planet, both of which look identical, even to an extreme similarity in DNA, but which simply have to be different species. There must be some obscure, brief genetic sequence that distinguishes homo sapiens from homo scurra.

  49. 49
    Forlornehope says:

    There is some evidence, if only through correlation, that the high levels of sulphates in the atmosphere in past decades may have effected the drying of the Sahel. Whether or not this is true it means that any such geo-engineering would be subject to litigation from those who thought they would suffer some loss as a result. That threat would be likely to prevent any effective geo-engineering being implemented over a timescale that could make a difference. The only possible exception that, arguably, would have no deleterious effects would be direct removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; so far as I am aware there is no serious proposal on how this could be done.

  50. 50
    Ric Merritt says:

    Pardon me if I missed it, but I don’t think anyone has yet pointed out that many of Dyson’s other schemes (assumptions, religions, whatever you want to call it) are just as fictional as magical trees that will save us from global warming.

    The chances of a post-Apollo extension of our space travel to Mars this century are extremely slim, because our overall economy (you may have noticed some bumps lately) will not support it. The chances of colonists surviving long term off earth are nil. (Feel free to disagree, but I must gently point out that the burden of proof is on you, and you have nothing but science fiction to go on.)

    This doesn’t mean Dyson isn’t wonderful in many ways. I have enjoyed his contributions greatly over the years. But I don’t get my policy preferences from him.