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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 03/30/2009

NY Times Climate Story Stirs Controversy

By Andrew Freedman

NASA's Hansen clashes with famous physicist on climate

* Dry Start to Work Week: Full Forecast | Later: Blossom Photos *

Sunday's New York Times Magazine cover story, "The Civil Heretic," on prominent physicist Freeman Dyson's stance on climate change has been met with intense criticism from many in the climate science community. In his advancing age, Dyson has become increasingly outspoken about his view that the threat of climate change has been greatly exaggerated.

For example, in the article Dyson didn't find anything troubling about the ongoing decline in Arctic sea ice and the warming of land surfaces in the far north, which has major consequences for the lives of the region's native peoples and wildlife, as well as for global politics.

"Most of the time in history the Arctic has been free of ice," Dyson told the magazine. "A year ago when we went to Greenland where warming is the strongest, the people loved it."

Keep reading for more on the New York Times Magazine story, including a spat between Dyson and NASA's James Hansen...

The article portrays him as someone who has a disdain for scientific consensus, which could explain his decision to buck the views of most of his colleagues in the scientific community, who are convinced that human activities are causing the globe to warm up on average, and that this process is likely to accelerate in the coming years if actions are not taken soon.

In the article, Dyson singles out James Hansen, the well known head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), for criticism. Hansen, Dyson says, relies too much on computer models and overstates the case for how dangerous climate change may be.

"If what he says were obviously wrong, he wouldn't have achieved what he has. But Hansen has turned his science into ideology," Dyson said. "...I think I have a broad view of the subject, which Hansen does not. I think it's true my career doesn't depend on it, whereas his does. I never claim to be an expert on climate. I think it's more a matter of judgement than knowledge."

In the article, Hansen shot back with the dismissive statement, "There are bigger fish to fry than Freeman Dyson," who "doesn't know what he's talking about."

However, Hansen now says he was careless in his interactions with the Times reporter, and he sent out an email yesterday clarifying his views. In that email, Hansen said climate science skeptics like Dyson play a valuable role, but that governments shouldn't heed the advice of a skeptical minority instead of the majority of climate experts who think climate change is a major problem, and that the science is sufficiently solid to justify certain actions to mitigate and adapt to a warming planet.

"I accept responsibility for the sloppy wording and I will apologize to Freeman, who deserves much respect," Hansen said. "You might guess (correctly) that I was referring to the fact that contrarians are not the real problem - it is the vested interests who take advantage of the existence of contrarians."

The differences between Dyson and Hansen, both rock stars in the scientific community, center on who should be trusted for their climate science findings. Dyson, who has a history of being an iconoclast, thinks that independent, smart amateurs who may be working outside the normal scientific culture should be heeded.

Hansen disagrees. "There is nothing wrong with having contrarian views, even from those who have little relevant expertise -- indeed, good science continually questions assumptions and conclusions," Hansen wrote. "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."

On Dyson, Hansen stated that he fears that his accomplishments in other areas of science will cause the public to weigh his opinion on climate change more heavily than it should be, given Dyson's admitted lack of expertise in this area. "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," Hansen stated. "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."

The dynamic between Hansen and Dyson is similar to what recently played out here at CWG during a climate science discussion between NBC 4 chief meteorologist Bob Ryan and Energy Department engineer Brian Valentine. Valentine, who does not think human activities are the main cause of recent climate change, asserted that the views of nontraditional sources should also be taken into consideration, rather than organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences and U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Ryan emphasized the judgments of those bodies and others that have issued numerous comprehensive reports on climate science, all of which have warned of the major environmental risks posed by climate change, which they argue is now largely human-induced with a high level of confidence.

For more views on Dyson, see Joe Romm's post at Climate Progress and Anthony Watts' post on his "Watts Up With That?" blog.

By Andrew Freedman  | March 30, 2009; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change, Freedman, Media, News & Notes  
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the public will give equal weight to dyson's and hansen's views and come down somewhere in the middle. they'll think there's disagreement among scientists and consider the issue of AGW to be still "up in the air". this lets us wait 5, 10, 20? more years before going on a reduced-carbon diet.

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | March 30, 2009 10:46 AM | Report abuse

Despite the "warming" in Greenland, I've noticed that Summit Station [right on top of the icecap!] is still recording fifty below zero and lower.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | March 30, 2009 11:55 AM | Report abuse

boy that's cold!

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | March 30, 2009 12:16 PM | Report abuse

Yes, sadly this will be treated by our nearly brain-dead media (when it comes to science reporting) as somehow relevant and to be weighted equivalently with the consensus in the discussion. Dyson is a legend in various aspects of physics (especially by the sci-fi/futurist crowd), but he is not in any way a climate scientist.

But what a weird statement from him about the warming in Greenland. The people "loved it" there. What does that have to do with anything, I wonder? Sure, if you can now grow crops in former tundra as you swat away the new swarms of mosquitos that are moving in, that superficially has some benefits locally - as the rest of the planet goes to hell from the runaway effect the decreasing northern-lattitude albedo has on the planet's energy absorption.

This piping up from Dyson reminds me of an observation I've had - I don't know how well it bears out on the whole. It seems like the large handful of skeptics that you see almost all seem to be in the senior crowd. The generation that came of age professionally in the golden age of boundless economic expansion and cheap oil. It almost seems like something was seared into their brains about an invincible world where America could continue to exploit the environment forever. Maybe they are having an especially hard time adjusting to the fact that there are limits to our behavior here. Many of the geologists from that 1950s era, for example, are among the minority of climate change skeptics. I've assumed it has to do with the fact that most of the jobs back when they started were in petroleum engineering.

I'd be curious for others' thoughts on this. Am I the only one who's noticed this demographic tendency?

Posted by: B2O2 | March 30, 2009 12:42 PM | Report abuse

i think i've noticed that too. one obvious reason "seniors" might be in denial (i.e., they don't want to deal with) global warming is that, well, they won't be around for the real serious impacts (whatever those may be). i'm going to generalize broadly and also speculate that seniors are more set in their ways and maybe hold opinions more strongly? change is to be resisted. they are also from a time when the earth was "bigger" and we thought little ol' humans couldn't possibly change the weather (i know that's not not climate, but that's the thinking).

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | March 30, 2009 1:56 PM | Report abuse

did you see the CATO ad in the post today with a list of 115 scientists who "with all due respect" disagree with obama (and the vast majority of scientists) about global warming?

they only had ONE "steve" (and one "sten"). i was surprised there were 5 people named "james" on the list. i guess it's a pretty darn common name. i keep badgering gavin at realclimate about PROJECT JIM. he's told me to "be patient" so maybe he's working on something.

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | March 30, 2009 2:05 PM | Report abuse

I consider criticism of Dyson's background interesting considering Hansen is not a trained climate scientist either. See for yourself:

Posted by: mciaram1 | March 30, 2009 2:30 PM | Report abuse

that IS interesting. i have always assumed he "majored in" climate something. it certainly seems he's spent much/most of his career studying climate.

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | March 30, 2009 4:12 PM | Report abuse

Re Cato:
With all due respect . . .
The few meteorologists are a fringy bunch.

Posted by: CapitalClimate | March 30, 2009 5:40 PM | Report abuse

If anyone likes Dyson's idea for magic trees, please contact me offline; I have a slightly used Beltway bridge to sell you at firesale prices.

Posted by: CapitalClimate | March 30, 2009 5:52 PM | Report abuse

oh...until i clicked the link, i thought you meant they wore those funny cowboy know...with the fringes...

i saw our buddy brian valentine on the list. i swear, it's like the same hundred skeptics get recycled.

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | March 30, 2009 6:38 PM | Report abuse

The real objective of the global warming hoax is to destroy the U.S. Internationally famed climatologist, Dr. S. Fred Singer, says the global warming hoax is the last ditch attempt by the Greens, under the aegis of the Obama administration, to declare carbon dioxide a pollutant and thus open the door to its regulation.
Singer says such regulation “would be the equivalent of an atomic bomb directed at the U.S. economy—all without any scientific justification.”

The main goal of the Obama administration through CO2 regulation, exploding deficits, punishing taxation, and any other means at their disposal appears to be the destruction of the economy and the complete control of impoverished Americans.

Posted by: AntonioSosa | March 30, 2009 7:37 PM | Report abuse

interesting theory you have there. btw, what color is the sky in your world?

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | March 30, 2009 8:34 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | March 30, 2009 11:21 PM | Report abuse

It's apparently pinko:

"Progressive" (communist) politicians like Obama seem determined to force us to swallow the man-made global warming scam. We need to defend ourselves from the UN and these politicians, who threaten our future and the future of our children. Based on a lie, they have already wasted billions and plan to increase taxes, limit development, and enslave us.
If not stopped, the global warming scam will enrich the scammers (Gore and Obama's Wall Street friends), increase the power of the U.N. and communists like Obama, and multiply poverty and servitude for the rest of us.

Kerry Addresses Climate Change (Duke Chronicle)

Posted by: CapitalClimate | March 30, 2009 11:24 PM | Report abuse

Global sea ice area is greater than the thirty year mean.

Posted by: pkhenry | March 31, 2009 12:41 AM | Report abuse

Posted by: CapitalClimate | March 31, 2009 12:50 AM | Report abuse

capitalclimate, (and others)
when people talk about global sea ice they're just talking about area, right? that graph of pkhenry's, while it does show a slow downward trend in sea ice, does not account for the thickness of the ice, right? are there measurements for this?

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | March 31, 2009 7:55 AM | Report abuse


Why are you trying to find data that supports your beliefs instead of changing your beliefs (analogous to a model) to more closely fit the data? A proper scientific approach to the topic is to refine one's model to better approximate reality instead of trying to massage the data to fit ones model.

Posted by: RMVA | March 31, 2009 8:21 AM | Report abuse

no, no, i'm not doing that - but i can see how it might look like that to you. it's just that i have "heard" (probably "read", actually) that somewhere. capitalclimate is usually somehow magically able to pull these things out of his, uh, asterisk, and point me to lots of good info. we'll see.

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | March 31, 2009 8:56 AM | Report abuse

here's what i found on my own:
clearly, if this data can be trusted, global sea ice thickness and extent are declining.

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | March 31, 2009 9:48 AM | Report abuse


It's been quite awhile, but I remember from a college course in psychology the term "projection": a defense mechanism where one's own attitudes, feelings, or suppositions are attributed to others.

Never have I seen such a perfect example of projection (in the climate arena) than your remarks above to walter-in-fallschurch. Walter has demonstrated an open mind to scientific realities and willingness to learn more - something totally at odds with your writings, presentations, blog comments, etc. To accuse someone else of ..."trying to find data that supports your beliefs instead of changing your beliefs..." is the height chutzpah , but not surprising as a tactic to undermine the real science of climate change.

You have it right in saying: "A proper scientific approach to the topic is to refine one's model to better approximate reality instead of trying to massage the data to fit ones model." All I can say is: practice what you preach!

Walter, hang in there - no need to be defensive to the likes of this

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | March 31, 2009 10:35 AM | Report abuse

thanks. i too was thinking "projection", but didn't come right out and say it. something else i was thinking is "confirmation bias". i even don't see how that chart rmva linked to shows what he claims, but somehow he saw it as good news (i.e. that ice isn't melting).

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | March 31, 2009 10:54 AM | Report abuse

Grumbine (linked in last night's comment) has an analysis of the polar ice situation for a non-technical audience. He works in the area of glaciology.

Posted by: CapitalClimate | March 31, 2009 10:57 AM | Report abuse

i read that grumbine thing. i didn't see "thickness" mentioned?

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | March 31, 2009 11:10 AM | Report abuse

Walter: You raise a critical point regarding sea ice thickness, which RMVA seeks to obscure in the same manner that columnist George Will did a few weeks ago.

The NSIDC and others have detailed the dramatic decline in sea ice thickness throughout the Arctic, which is related to more extensive melting in the summertime. Basically, more melting in the summer cuts down on the amount of older, thicker ice that survives to grow even thicker throughout the long Arctic winter. Instead, there is a greater abundance of thinner sea ice that melts more easily in the summer months. We have written about this previously:

Posted by: Andrew-CapitalWeatherGang | March 31, 2009 12:08 PM | Report abuse

thanks, andrew. good links. i figured you must have covered this. i started reading a few of the comments on one and saw mr.q commenting. where is he? i miss him. i think he doesn't like me.

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | March 31, 2009 12:23 PM | Report abuse

SteveT...I think you were a little hard on RMVA. He and antoniososa have both come up with some good posts. I find their arguements more credible, overall, than those of walterinfallschurch and B202. I also fine those of Mr. Q to be credible as well, but, in all honestly, he has to learn a little tact....he doesn't know how to communicate well.

Posted by: MMCarhelp | March 31, 2009 9:03 PM | Report abuse

hi mmcarhelp,
what do you find not credible about that page i linked to showing less and thinner ice? i mean, do you think those numbers are "cooked"? as far as credibility, i don't even think the graph rmva linked to shows what he thinks it does.

CWG, scientists out there:
does that graph rmva linked to show global sea ice is "greater than the 30 yr mean"?

yes, mr.q's communication skills are unrefined, but he's entertaining.

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | March 31, 2009 10:34 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Tracton,

You attack on me is a violation of the rules on this blog and also quite immature. So much for fostering an open environment and making everyone feel welcome here. What a joke.

Posted by: RMVA | April 1, 2009 12:24 PM | Report abuse

did you see the link i gave you above? here it is again.
what do you think?

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | April 1, 2009 2:22 PM | Report abuse

Apparently Heartland was right after all:
Bulletin: Climate Scientists Declare Global Warming a Hoax

Posted by: CapitalClimate | April 1, 2009 5:03 PM | Report abuse

Thank god this "debate" is now over - now onto more important things. ;)

Posted by: John-Burke | April 1, 2009 5:59 PM | Report abuse

yes, capitalclimate. very onion-esque.

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | April 1, 2009 10:24 PM | Report abuse


Thanks for your civility, unlike some here. The article you linked to is interesting to say the least. I would be interested in learning more about how the thickness is estimated. Unfortunately due to the toxic atmosphere created here by some this will be my last post on this board. bye.

Posted by: RMVA | April 2, 2009 8:52 AM | Report abuse

RMVA, et al.: I talk more about sea ice thickness elsewhere on my blog moregrumbinescience than in the note that capitalclimate linked to. Perhaps more useful is that I also encourage science-oriented questions. Periodically I put up a 'question place' note and anything in science, running (I'm a runner), or in general keeping with my blog (I just mentioned Dante's Inferno) is fair game. How we know about sea ice thickness is certainly a relevant question.

For here, I'll encourage you to read the Rothrock et al. 1999 article that is linked to by the NSIDC site you seem to have visited.

Posted by: eratothsenes | April 2, 2009 8:58 PM | Report abuse

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