NY Times Invents a Climate Science War

Dyson NYTimes Magazine

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The cover story of Sunday’s New York Times Magazine is devoted to an affectionate portrait of the scientist Freeman Dyson. The news hook is that he’s an Obama-loving liberal and a climate skeptic — both at the same time! But here’s the real kicker: He’s a critic of NASA climate scientist James Hansen. Dyson says:

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

This is as good as the Thrilla in Manila!

The magazine plays up this attack on its cover. Pictured is Dyson in close-up, looking like the wise wizard — wrinkles, pointy protruding ears — and in the background, out-of-focus mathematical equations looming on the blackboard. The headline reads: The Global Warming Heretic. The subhead: How did Freeman Dyson — REVERED SCIENTIST, LIBERAL INTELLECTUAL, PROBLEM-SOLVER — wind up infuriating the environmentalists? (The capitalization is in the original.)

Actually, it is The New York Times that has infuriated the climate community even more, using Dyson as a proxy for a climate science war of its own invention. Here’s Joe Romm’s long headline in response.

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

The magazine story is interested in inflating the "conflict" between Dyson and Hansen, instead of the more boring truth: There is a healthy difference of opinion that might get sorted out if the two men had a conversation. That is actually the story that the evidence supports. What is especially unsatisfying — and manipulative — is that the Times plays go-between to stoke a fight but fails to tell us what finally happened. Let’s follow the action. 

Reporter Nicholas Dawidoff manages to get a response from Hansen about what Dyson had to say about him. Dawidoff writes:

Reached by telephone, Hansen sounds annoyed as he says: "There are bigger fish to fry than Freeman Dyson" who "doesn’t know what he’s talking about." In an e-mail message, he adds that his own concern about global warming is not based only on models, and that while he respects the "open-mindedness" of Dyson, "if he is going to wander into something with major consequences for humanity and other life on the planet, the he should first do his homework — which he obviously has not done on global warming." 

Here’s what Hansen had to say about the reporter and what he told him, in full: 

Tomorrow’s NY Times Magazine article (The Civil Heretic) on Freeman Dyson includes an unfortunate quote from me that may appear to be disparaging and ad hominem (something about bigger fish to fry). It was a quick response to a reporter who had been doggedly pursuing me for an interview that I did not want to give. I accept responsibility for the sloppy wording and I will apologize to Freeman, who deserves much respect. …

The reporter left the impression that my conclusions are based mainly on climate models. I always try to make clear that our conclusions are based on #1 Earth’s history, how it responded to forcings in the past, #2 observations of what is happening now, #3 models. Here is the actual note that I sent to the reporter after hanging up on him:

"I looked up Freeman Dyson on Wikipedia, which describes his views on "global warming" as below. If that is an accurate description of what he is saying now, it is actually quite reasonable (I had heard that he is just another contrarian). However, this also indicates that he is under the mistaken impression that concern about global warming is based on climate models, which in reality play little role in our understanding — our understanding is based mainly on how the Earth responded to changes of boundary conditions in the past and on how it is responding to on-going changes.

"If this Wikipedia information is an accurate description of his position, then the only thing that I would like to say about him is that he should be careful not to offer public opinions about global warming unless he is willing to first take a serious look at the science. His philosophy of science is spot-on, the open-mindedness, consistent with that of Feynman and the other greats, but if he is going to wander into something with major consequences for humanity and other life on the planet, then he should first do his homework — which he obviously has not done on global warming. My concern is that the public may assume that he has — and, because of his other accomplishments, give his opinion more weight than it deserves."

You read that and it’s pretty clear that much has been left out in order to magnify a false conflict that would play well on the cover of the magazine.

What’s also revealing is that Dyson’s contrarian stance seems to be based on his objection to relying on models too much. It turns out that models are not the primary reason Hansen is concerned. Perhaps they should have a conversation. They might even sort things out.

The reporter says he told Dyson of Hansen’s response. It would be nice to hear what Dyson had to say, but the reporter doesn’t provide it. You’d think the editors would insist he include it. But no, instead we get this extended bit of nonsense:

When Dyson hears about this [Hansen’s response], he looks, if possible, like a person taking the longer view. 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.

Yes, but what did Dyson say? Or does it not matter because we can trust this man who seems to have walked right out of the pages of The Hobbit?

Finally, it is worth noting that the reporter makes a lot of Dyson’s defiant sensibility. Let’s not ignore Hansen’s share of the same attribute, on exhibit in the same letter in which he recounted his encounter with Dawidoff. Hansen has no problem with Dyson or contrarian views, and that just blows up the premise of Dawidoff’s cover story.

The story does a disservice to science, whose fundamental method is one of skepticism and constant dispute. It would be useful if the Times found a different frame to report on these issues. Magnifying false conflicts sells newspapers, but that’s about it.

Here’s Hansen again:

Contrarians are not the real problem – it is the vested interests who take advantage of the existence of contrarians. There is nothing wrong with having contrarian views, even from those who have little relevant expertise – indeed, good science continually questions assumptions and conclusions. But the government needs to get its advice from the most authoritative sources, not from magazine articles. In the United States the most authoritative source of information would be the National Academy of Sciences.

The fact that the current administration in the United States has not asked for such advice, when combined with continued emanations about “cap and trade”, should be a source of great concern. What I learned in visiting other countries is that most governments do not want to hear from their equivalent scientific bodies, probably because they fear the advice will be “stop building coal plants now!” These governments are all guilty of greenwash, pretending that they are dealing with the climate problem via “goals” and “caps”, while they continue to build coal plants and even investigate unconventional fossil fuels and coal-to-liquids. …

It is incredible how governments resist the obvious (maybe not so incredible when lobbying budgets are examined, along with Washington’s revolving doors). This is not rocket science. If we want to move toward energy independence and solve the climate problem, we need to stop subsidizing fossil fuels with the public’s money and instead place a price on carbon emissions.

Hmmm. Maybe if Hansen wore a Gandalf mask, the Times would think he was really smart.