November 15, 2010

Freeman Dyson, Global Warming, and the Lost Debates

FROM-Men's News Daily
By Jerry Pournelle

Kenneth Brower, son of Sierra Club transformer David Brower, and onetime friend of Freeman Dyson, has been writing about Dyson and climate change. As is usual with books by writers who are not scientists, the scientific issues are not addressed. Those are settled. Instead the purpose of the article is to find out why Dyson, so brilliant, has gone so wrong.

Having myself grown up in Berkeley, where Nobel laureates are a dime a dozen, I certainly know the syndrome: the mismatched socks, the spectacles repaired with duct tape, the forgotten anniversaries and missed appointments, the valise left absentmindedly on the park bench. Yet hometown experience did not prepare me completely for Dyson. In my interviews with the physicist, he would sometimes depart the conversation mid-sentence, his face vacant for a minute or two while he followed some intricate thought or polished an equation, and then he would return to complete the sentence as if he had never been away. I have observed similar departures in other deep thinkers, but never for nearly so long.

Much of the article is like that. The assumption is that Deniers are off their heads, and the only question here is how someone as bright as Dyson could be so wrong.

Regarding absentmindedness, of course it’s true — less so for Freeman Dyson than some, such as John McCarthy who has famously wandered off from a conversation because he was lost in a new thought — but it’s also irrelevant. There’s a difference between being abstracted and being unable to finish a problem or publish a good essay. Minsky and McCarthy are great examples. There’s no requirement for being focused on what interests the other guy in a conversation or even an interview if there’s a better use for your powers of concentration. What matters is the ability to finish the thought, and to use that concentration to think through things before publishing them. And, of course, to ask questions, which Freeman Dyson and other “Deniers” do frequently, and which are ignored by the Believers...

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