Freeman Dyson on Scientific Organizations and Climate Models

From the Tech Central Station interview, “Rebel with a Cause: The Optimistic Scientist” (April 10, 2007):

Benny Peiser: In the first chapter of your new book, “The Scientist as Rebel,” you write that the common element of the scientific vision “is rebellion against the restrictions imposed by the locally prevailing culture,” and that scientists “should be artists and rebels, obeying their own instincts rather than social demands or philosophical principles.”

Contrary to this liberal if not libertarian concept of scientific open-mindedness, there has been growing pressure on scientists to toe the line and endorse what is nowadays called the ‘scientific consensus’ – on numerous contentious issues. Dissenting scientists frequently face ostracism and denunciation when they dare to go against the current. Has Western science become more authoritarian in recent years or have rebellious scientists always had to face similar condemnation and resentment? And how can young scientists develop intellectual independence and autonomy in a bureaucratic world of funding dependency?

Freeman Dyson: Certainly the growing rigidity of scientific organizations is a real and serious problem. I like to remind young scientists of examples in the recent past when people without paper qualifications made great contributions. Two of my favorites are: Milton Humason, who drove mules carrying material up the mountain trail to build the Mount Wilson Observatory, and then when the observatory was built got a job as a janitor, and ended up as a staff astronomer second-in-command to Hubble. Bernhardt Schmidt, the inventor of the Schmidt telescope which revolutionized optical astronomy, who worked independently as a lens-grinder and beat the big optical companies at their own game. I tell young people that the new technologies of computing, telecommunication, optical detection and microchemistry actually empower the amateur to do things that only professionals could do before.

Amateurs and small companies will have a growing role in the future of science. This will compensate for the increasing bureaucratization of the big organizations. Bright young people will start their own companies and do their own science.

Benny Peiser: In a Winter Commencement Address at the University of Michigan two years ago you called yourself a heretic on global warming, the most notorious dogma of modern science. You have described global warming anxiety as grossly exaggerated and have openly voiced your doubts about the reliability of climate models. These models, you argue, “do a very poor job of describing the clouds, the dust, the chemistry and the biology of fields, farms and forests. They do not begin to describe the real world that we live in.” There seems to be an almost complete endorsement of the world’s scientific organisations and elites of these models together with claims that they reliably epitomize reality and can consistently predict future climate change. How do you feel belonging to a tiny minority of scientists who dare to voice their doubts openly?

Freeman Dyson: I am always happy to be in the minority. Concerning the climate models, I know enough of the details to be sure that they are unreliable. They are full of fudge factors that are fitted to the existing climate, so the models more or less agree with the observed data. But there is no reason to believe that the same fudge factors would give the right behavior in a world with different chemistry, for example in a world with increased CO2 in the atmosphere.

Benny Peiser: In a chapter about the scientific revolutions in modern physics and mathematics, you describe the deep intellectual confusion in Weimar Germany in the aftermath of the First World War. You portray a society troubled by a mood of doom and gloom, a milieu that was conducive for scientific revolution as well as political upheaval. Unmistakably, the Great War set off a major shift in German thought, from the idea of progress and technological confidence to cultural pessimism and apocalypticism. As we know, the consequences of this mood of despair was calamitous. Do you see any comparison with the gloomy frame of mind that seems to be on the increase among many Western scientists today?

Freeman Dyson: Yes, the western academic world is very much like Weimar Germany, finding itself in a situation of losing power and influence. Fortunately, the countries that matter now are China and India, and the Chinese and Indian experts do not share the mood of doom and gloom. It is amusing to see China and India take on today the role that America took in the nineteen-thirties, still believing in technology as the key to a better life for everyone.

Geoffrey is an Aristotelian-Libertarian political philosopher, writer, editor, and web designer. He is the founder of the Libertarian Fiction Authors Association. His academic work has appeared in Libertarian Papers, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, the Journal of Value Inquiry, and Transformers and Philosophy. He lives in Greenville, NC.