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On Freeman Dyson

No doubt many people saw The New York Times Magazine's colorful profile of Freeman Dyson over the weekend. It's a great subject. Dyson's clearly a brilliant physicist and thinker, and some of his recent essays for the New York Review of Books have been incredibly thought-provoking, such as this piece where he describes a trip to the Galapagos and then puzzles through the question of how the island can balance economic development (and its critical tourist industry) with ecological preservation. It's much recommended, even if you're not all that fascinated by environmental issues.

But, of course, Dyson garners most attention nowadays for being an incorrigible global-warming skeptic, and the Times profile spent an absurd amount of time on this topic. Unfortunately, the piece's otherwise-talented author, Nicholas Dawidoff, isn't a science writer and doesn't appear to have a solid grasp of the issues at play, and he let pass a bunch of egregious statements by Dyson, who is not a climate expert, either. But rather than a line-by-line debunking of Dyson's confusions (you can get that here), I'd just point people to this response by NASA climate scientist James Hansen.

In the profile, Dyson unfairly attacks Hansen for "turning science into ideology," which makes Hansen's measured response all the more remarkable. He notes that Dyson is a well-respected thinker and science will always need iconoclasts like him, but Dyson appears to be in the grips of a mistaken belief that global warming fears are based solely on computer-generated climate models detached from the actual world. That's simply not true (there is other evidence, and the models are tested against the real world quite frequently). Hansen also points out that government policy ought to rely on science that comes from authoritative scientific bodies—in this case, the National Academy of Sciences, which very much agrees that man-made climate change is a real problem—rather than magazine articles. Not to bash magazine articles or anything, but that sounds pretty sensible.

--Bradford Plumer