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The Sciences

New York Times Magazine on Freeman Dyson, Climate Change "Skeptic"

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyMarch 26, 2009 11:34 PM

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What is up with baseball and climate change denial? First we had George Will: Baseball lover, climate change denier. And now we've got a writer named Nicholas Dawidoff, whose Wiki bio suggests writing about baseball to be his chief area of expertise, but who has just waded into a minefield with a sympathetic profile of climate change skeptic Freeman Dyson in the New York Times Magazine. (Joe Romm detonates the ground beneath Dawidoff here.) Now obviously, there's no real correlation between liking baseball and denying global warming...but postulating one is about as scientifically defensible as many forms of climate skepticism today. In Dawidoff's piece, Dyson comes off as a classic contrarian, sounding off late in life. A journalist with a scientific background would know how important it is to take such people with a grain of salt--no matter how distinguished their scientific work may be in other areas. Dawidoff, though, just goes for it--for 8,000 words of it. He writes foolish things like this: "[Dyson's] dissension from the orthodoxy of global warming is significant because of his stature and his devotion to the integrity of science." Um, no, it isn't. It isn't significant at all. Dyson's fame and authority don't buy him any special deference in this area; science does not work that way. Does Dyson publish top work in this field? That is a far more relevant question. Dawidoff's climate science illiteracy emerges again in this terrible passage, in which he pits Dyson's views against those of an environmental scientist:

Science is not a matter of opinion; it is a question of data. Climate change is an issue for which Dyson is asking for more evidence, and leading climate scientists are replying by saying if we wait for sufficient proof to satisfy you, it may be too late. That is the position of a more moderate expert on climate change, William Chameides, dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences at Duke University, who says, “I don’t think it’s time to panic,” but contends that, because of global warming, “more sea-level rise is inevitable and will displace millions; melting high-altitude glaciers will threaten the food supplies for perhaps a billion or more; and ocean acidification could undermine the food supply of another billion or so.” Dyson strongly disagrees with each of these points, and there follows, as you move back and forth between the two positions, claims and counterclaims, a dense thicket of mitigating scientific indicators that all have the timbre of truth and the ring of potential plausibility. One of Dyson’s more significant surmises is that a warming climate could be forestalling a new ice age. Is he wrong? No one can say for sure.

There are many dumb things here, but which sentence most betrays that the reporter is out of his depth? To me it's this one: Dyson strongly disagrees with each of these points, and there follows, as you move back and forth between the two positions, claims and counterclaims, a dense thicket of mitigating scientific indicators that all have the timbre of truth and the ring of potential plausibility. Yup, that's right: If you don't know anything about a given area, claims and counterclaims have the tendency to sound equally true. This is why misinformation is effective--especially on some journalists. This is why it's dangerous to profile, to the length of 8,000 words, a climate change skeptic who is far outside of the mainstream when you don't have much grounding in the climate change debate. As I've lamented repeatedly, science journalism specialists are vanishing from the media right now. If you want to see what the media will look like without them, you need do little more than read Dawidoff's article.

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