Friday, November 26, 2010

Cosmic genius and dumb article

I happened across the Atlantic at the supermarket and read “The Danger of Cosmic Genius,” Kenneth Brower’s critique of physicist Freeman Dyson, summed up in this line: “How could someone as brilliant as Freeman Dyson take the positions he does on global warming and other environmental issues?” I found it an obnoxious article, what with Brower throwing around various theories before seeming to settle on the idea that Dyson’s driven by a quasi-religious faith in the power of science and technology.

Instead of trying to explain that Dyson’s wrong about the environment, Brower mostly takes this as a given, and shifts to questions about whether he could be senile or not mean it, etc. Instead of focusing on any factual statements Dyson’s made that might be disproven, Brower hones in on something Dyson said once on Charlie Rose to the effect that we humans have largely been kind to the planet, or at least often repair the damage we do. That’s a rather vague and interpretive statement, but Brower treats it as if Dyson said the sun goes around the Earth.

Further lame tendentiousness lies in Brower’s complaint that Dyson’s speculations about ordinary people, including housewives and kindergartners, someday playing biotech games that might require regulations, show that “Dyson has misjudged the desperation of housewives, the dark anarchy in the hearts of kindergarten kids, the efficacy of rules and regulations, and, most problematic of all, the deliberation with which Darwinian evolution shapes the authentic organisms of Creation, assuring the world of plants and animals that make sense in their respective biomes.”

I don’t know what Brower thinks he’s saying about desperate housewives, and the last bit about Darwinian “deliberation” reads as if it came from some planet where there haven’t been domesticated plants and animals for thousands of years. Is Dyson the one who’s out of touch with reality?

And for all Brower’s speculations about how Dyson’s long career shaped his skepticism of environmentalism, he never gets to Dyson’s writings about the debate over nuclear winter (see Infinite in All Directions, ch. 15). In that debate, Dyson found that scientists were receptive to the nuclear winter theory not necessarily because facts showed it to be true but because they wanted it to be true so as to provide an impetus for disarmament. And he, Dyson, softpedaled his skepticism because he too shared that political perspective. I suspect Dyson’s experience with nuclear winter shaped his later skepticism about the consensus that global warming is catastrophic, as he saw this consensus too had a political element.

I write all the above as someone who has no interest in touting climate change skepticism, but who thinks Freeman Dyson deserved a better article than this sugarcoated hit piece in the Atlantic.

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