Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Optimistic Scientist

Freeman Dyson is one of a handful of top living physicists: he is Professor Emeritus at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Studies, winner of the Lorentz Medal in 1966, and winner of the Max Planck Medal in 1969.

The Lorentz Medal
is given every four years by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. This gold medal is given for important contributions to theoretical physics, though in the past there have been some experimentalists among its recipients. Many of the award winners later received a Nobel Prize.
The Max Planck Medal
is an award for extraordinary achievements in theoretical physics. It is awarded annually by the German Physical Society.
Nice guy. I had dinner with him once, with about a dozen other people.

He gives an interview on science, hope, and the future, touching on such issues as "Global Warming" and the need for optimism and spirituality to revive Western culture:
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.
So if you don't want to take it from me -- whose job as an MIT physicist was to model atmospheric heating in the infrared according to the absorption spectra of CO2, water vapor (the real culprit!), and other atmospheric constituents (though the application was laser weapons, not climate change), that the climate models are ridiculously insufficient for prediction and that Al Gore's human-produced-CO2 Global Warming Hysteria is pernicious nonsense -- take it from Freeman Dyson.

By fitting black-box models that aren't physics-based to an agreed-upon set of data, it is not only easy but essentially certain that the models will completely fail to make predictions for conditions "out of sample", and indeed that is what is being observed. A future post will illustrate where the models are being seen to fail when applied to data taken from times and places for which they were not "tuned" by the fudge factors. This is not science, but curve-fitting. At best it is a gross simplification of the complex physical chemistry of the planet, to an extent that renders it useless. It is for similar reasons that so many promising stock-market trading strategies, developed to work on historical data, fail miserably when applied "out of sample" to the future.

Put those anxieties aside!

As for religion and techno-optimism,
Benny Peiser: One of your most influential lectures is re-published in your new book. I am talking about your Bernal Lecture which you delivered in London in 1972, one year after Desmond Bernal's death. As you point out, the lecture provided the foundation for much of your writing in later years. What strikes me about your remarkably optimistic lecture is its almost religious tone. It was delivered at a time, similar to the period after World War I, when a new age of techno-pessimism came to the fore, reinforced by Hiroshima and Vietnam.

It is in this atmosphere of entrenched techno-scepticism and environmental anxiety that you advanced biological, genetic and geo-engineering as industrial trappings of social progress and environmental protection. At the height of ecological anxiety, in the same year as the Club of Rome proclaimed the "Limits to Growth," you envisaged endless technological advancement, terrestrial progress and the greening of the galaxy, famously predicting that "we shall learn to grow trees on comets."

At one point towards the end of your lecture, you christen your speech a "sermon." Indeed, your entire lecture reads as if it was written for a tormented audience searching for a glimmer of hope. In his book "The Religion of Technology", David Noble claims that the whole history of technological innovation and advancement has been primarily a religious endeavour. Noble claims that even today your ideas of technological solutions to terrestrial problems constitute in essence a religious conviction. How much of your cosmological view of the world has indeed been shaped by Judeo-Christian traditions? And do you see that there is an inherent link between your religious and your philosophical optimism?

Freeman Dyson: It is true that the tradition of Judeo-Christian religion is strongly coupled with philosophical optimism. Hope is high on the list of virtues. God did not put us here on earth to moan and groan. As my mother used to say, "God helps those who help themselves."
Benny Peiser: Finally, let me ask you about your thoughts regarding Britain, the country of your birth, the USA, the country of your choice, and the future of the Western democracies. At the end of your new book you write that "without religion, the life of a country would be greatly impoverished." Perhaps nothing symbolises the glaring differences between Britain and the USA more than the gradual fading of religion in the cultural life of the UK and the profound permeation of religion on public life in the US. Sometimes I wonder whether both extremes may be detrimental to a stable, liberal and open-minded society. In a world of mounting intellectual dogmatism, is there, in your view, a middle way between the Scylla of nihilist despair and the Carybdis of fundamentalist unreasonableness?

Freeman Dyson: I do not agree with your assessment of religion in Britain and the USA. The extremes of religious dogmatism in the USA and of atheistic dogmatism in Britain are greatly exaggerated by the media.
Dyson disagrees with the famous remark by his fellow-physicist Steven Weinberg that "Good people will do good things, and bad people will do bad things. But for good people to do bad things—that takes religion."

[Dyson responded:] Weinberg's statement is true as far as it goes, but it is not the whole truth. To make it the whole truth, we must add an additional clause: "And for bad people to do good things—that takes religion." The main point of Christianity is that it is a religion for sinners. Jesus made that very clear. When the Pharisees asked his disciples, "Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?" he said, "I come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance." Only a small fraction of sinners repent and do good things, but only a small fraction of good people are led by their religion to do bad things.


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