The Very Inconvenient Freeman Dyson

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on April 13, 2009

The recent New York Times magazine profile of the great physicist Freeman Dyson, whose work in the scientific community currently revolves largely around the issue of climate change, is a fascinating read. To put matters mildly, Dyson is quite skeptical of the alarm surrounding climate change, a skepticism that has caused rifts between him and a number of others in the scientific community. On the issue of climate change, Dyson has no problem departing from consensus, stating that “the fact that the climate is getting warmer doesn’t scare me at all,” and taking specific issue with the likes of Al Gore and NASA Goddard Institute head James Hansen, arguing that the two are promulgating “lousy science.”

“So what?” one might ask when confronted with Dyson’s views. Despite the consensus, there are people within and outside of the scientific community who refuse to sign on to the belief that global warming represents a threat. How is Dyson any different from others who deny climate change?

Well, for one thing, despite the fact that he is no spring chicken, Dyson remains an intellectual force to be reckoned with. Even those most unwilling to appreciate the intelligence of people beside themselves are forced to admit that Dyson is freakishly intelligent. Encomiums to Dyson’s intellectual firepower fill the Times piece; he is called “infinitely smart,” his books “display such masterly control of complex matters that smart young people read him and want to be scientists; older citizens finish his books and feel smart,” he’s “extraordinarily powerful” at solving problems. Some of the stories leave the reader slack-jawed:

. . . Dyson has been in residence at the [Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton] since 1953, a time when Albert Einstein shared his habit of walking to work there, which Dyson still does seven days a week, to write on a computer and solve any problems that come across his desk with paper and pencil. (In his prime, legend held that he never used the eraser.)

[. . .]

A formative moment in Dyson’s life that pushed him in an apostatical direction happened in 1932, when, at age 8, he was sent off to boarding school at Twyford. By then he was a prodigy “already obsessed” with mathematics. (His older sister Alice, a retired social worker still living in Winchester, remembers how her brother “used to lie on the nursery floor working out how many atoms there were in the sun. He was perhaps 4.”)

[. . .]

On his own in the school library, [Dyson] read mathematical works in French and German and, at age 13, taught himself calculus from an Encyclopedia Britannica entry. “I remember thinking, Is that it?” he says. “People had been telling me how hard it was.”

[. . .]

[T]aking problems to Dyson is something of a parlor trick. A group of scientists will be sitting around the cafeteria, and one will idly wonder if there is an integer where, if you take its last digit and move it to the front, turning, say, 112 to 211, it’s possible to exactly double the value. Dyson will immediately say, “Oh, that’s not difficult,” allow two short beats to pass and then add, “but of course the smallest such number is 18 digits long.” When this happened one day at lunch, William Press remembers, “the table fell silent; nobody had the slightest idea how Freeman could have known such a fact or, even more terrifying, could have derived it in his head in about two seconds.” The meal then ended with men who tend to be described with words like “brilliant,” “Nobel” and “MacArthur” quietly retreating to their offices to work out what Dyson just knew. [Nota Bene: The explanation to how this math problem is solved can be found here. One may indeed be able to teach one's fourth-grader on how to solve it, but "jaw-droppingly impressive" seems a good description of Dyson's problem-solving skills nonetheless.]

So, to say the least, Freeman Dyson isn’t a knuckle-dragging mouthbreather. Far from it; he has the kind of intelligence that the rest of us envy.

Well, if Dyson can’t be dismissed as stupid, can he perhaps be dismissed as a tool of the right-wing establishment, bound and determined to forestall valuable and needed climate change action? He’s been accused of taking money from the oil industry, according to his own comments in the Times profile, but seeing as how there is no evidence for such a claim, it can be shunted to the side. As for his general political views, the piece makes clear that Dyson supported the Obama campaign, protested against the Iraq war, and campaigns against nuclear weapons. No Vast Right Wing Conspiracy memberships for Freeman Dyson, then.

Given his brilliance and his politics, Freeman Dyson makes for what Al Gore might have called a very inconvenient opponent of the movement against climate change. He acknowledges that his arguments may be wrong, but he believes strongly that he is right. He also brings a good point to the table; whatever one’s opinions concerning climate change, the fact is that any effort to curtail it will result in less money, manpower, and resources being available to fight poverty, and disease, and that many of the proposed solutions for climate change would result in reduced standards of living that may result in the loss of life in the developing world.

Dyson differs from many of his intellectual opponents because of his faith in humanity and his respect for human progress. As John Tierney puts it, “While so many other scientists and intellectuals fret about humans ruining the planet — and some even revel in fantasies about a world free of our pernicious presence — Mr. Dyson has long had faith in humans’ ability to deal with problems like nuclear weapons and global warming.”

Dyson’s appreciation for human ingenuity sets him apart, and whatever one’s opinions concerning global warming, Dyson has much to teach the scientific community and much of the punditocracy concerning the ability of human beings to be viewed as part of the solution to a particular problem, rather than as part of the problem.

Where do I stand on the issue of global warming? I don’t like to take chances, so I will presume in an abundance of caution that it is a concern that must be dealt with. At the same time, the solution must take full account of costs and benefits; like Dyson, I worry that a misallocation of resources could detract from the ability to fight poverty and disease, and a reduction in human progress and the standard of living may end up being at least as lethal to the planet as global warming may be. It’s for this reason that two years ago, I signed on to a proposal that would implement a carbon tax featuring a dollar rate tied to twenty times the three year moving average temperature of the mean tropical troposphere anomaly–a measure of the change in average temperatures in the lower atmosphere between 20° North and 20° South latitudes, the broad belt tropical belt around the equator.

Additionally, we could have a futures market in the temperature indicator, where the tax is tied to the futures price. The beauty of this proposal–which I wish were an original idea of mine–is that if increases in the tax result in decreases in warming, then the global warming alarmists can be shown to be right about our impact on climate change. If it doesn’t, then that means they were not. Indeed, if we start experiencing global cooling, perhaps this arrangement will alert us to the need to subsidize carbon emissions. Through such a proposal, each side in the global warming debate will be able to call shenanigans on the other if necessary. And each side will be able to keep the other honest.

The need to remain honest is reinforced by Freeman Dyson’s example and I would like to think that Dyson would approve of this proposal as something of a happy medium between the climate change-deniers on one side, and the alarmists on the other. By breaking against the image of the stereotypical climate-denier, Dyson makes it impossible for his opponents to level the usual charges against him. He reminds us that we must approach questions of climate change with a certain humility and with a very real understanding of costs and benefits. If we take those costs and benefits into account, we are likely to come up with a smarter environmental policy–and a whole host of smarter policies regarding other issues as well. No matter who is ultimately found right in the climate change debate, by reminding us of the need for a stringent cost-benefit analysis, Freeman Dyson will ultimately have done us a huge favor.

He should be celebrated for that alone.

Read more at Pejman Yousefzadeh’s blog.

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