The Value of Heresy

Heresy makes you think.  Amy sent me an essay about heresy written by the great physicist and thinker Freeman Dyson titled Heretical Thoughts About Science and SocietyFollowing is the setup to what is a phenomenal essay.

“The main subject of this piece is the problem of climate change. This is a contentious subject, involving politics and economics as well as science. The science is inextricably mixed up with politics. Everyone agrees that the climate is changing, but there are violently diverging opinions about the causes of change, about the consequences of change, and about possible remedies. I am promoting a heretical opinion, the first of three heresies that I will discuss in this piece.

My first heresy says that all the fuss about global warming is grossly exaggerated. Here I am opposing the holy brotherhood of climate model experts and the crowd of deluded citizens who believe the numbers predicted by the computer models. Of course, they say, I have no degree in meteorology and I am therefore not qualified to speak. But I have studied the climate models and I know what they can do. The models solve the equations of fluid dynamics, and they do a very good job of describing the fluid motions of the atmosphere and the oceans. They do a very poor job of describing the clouds, the dust, the chemistry and the biology of fields and farms and forests. They do not begin to describe the real world that we live in. The real world is muddy and messy and full of things that we do not yet understand. It is much easier for a scientist to sit in an air-conditioned building and run computer models, than to put on winter clothes and measure what is really happening outside in the swamps and the clouds. That is why the climate model experts end up believing their own models.

There is no doubt that parts of the world are getting warmer, but the warming is not global. I am not saying that the warming does not cause problems. Obviously it does. Obviously we should be trying to understand it better. I am saying that the problems are grossly exaggerated. They take away money and attention from other problems that are more urgent and more important, such as poverty and infectious disease and public education and public health, and the preservation of living creatures on land and in the oceans, not to mention easy problems such as the timely construction of adequate dikes around the city of New Orleans. “

About halfway through Dyson’s essay, I came upon what I consider to be a simple yet brilliant paragraph.

“When I listen to the public debates about climate change, I am impressed by the enormous gaps in our knowledge, the sparseness of our observations and the superficiality of our theories. Many of the basic processes of planetary ecology are poorly understood. They must be better understood before we can reach an accurate diagnosis of the present condition of our planet. When we are trying to take care of a planet, just as when we are taking care of a human patient, diseases must be diagnosed before they can be cured. We need to observe and measure what is going on in the biosphere, rather than relying on computer models.”

I’m a huge environmentalist, but really struggle with all the popular / political stuff going on around climate change.  I’ve studied it some but am not expert.  I’m careful about expressing my opinion because much of it is simply opinion and reaction, rather than data driven conclusions.  As a result, my personal focus on improving the environment has been around land conservation and intelligent land use and management.  Interestingly, Dyson touches on some of this in his discussion of the dynamics surrounding the evolution of the biomass of the earth.

I mentioned this casually in a conservation with a colleague the other day and he pointed me to an article titled Walking to the shops ‘damages planet more than going by car.’  While a knee jerk reaction from a climate change believer would be “that’s total bullshit”, it was another intriguing set of thoughts from Chris Goodall (Green Party parliamentary candidate for Oxford West & Abington) about a different approach to thinking about the problem.

While it’s currently popular to “think green”, it’s always been less popular to put forward heretical thoughts.  But the heretical thinkers are often the most innovative ones.  Hopefully they get us to think.

  • I hear you. I consider myself an “environmentalist” in that I grew up in a family full of farmers. Taking care of the environment and conserving what we have is a top priority.

    However, it seems that now “environmentalism” and the “green movement” are merely trojan-horse movements and buzz words for “socialism”. Scare tactics are being used to guide well-intended people towards heavy regulations, increased taxations, and government controlled wealth distributions.

    The sad thing is that now all “clean water” or “environmental” initiatives are stained with suspicion until proven innocent.

  • Run through the park at the Temple of Heaven in Bejing and feel your pores burn from air pollution. Then you will feel the pains of human-born pollution causing global climate change. The USA has no idea of what the true impact of pollution is. When you experiance the acid burning your skin as you jog through one of the most sacred areas of China you will not be a heritic anymore. The pollution doesnt affect us yet because they are on the otherside of the world We need a major culture change ASAP!

  • Whole earth systems are insanely complex and while we don’t know nearly enough to diagnose the patient… somewhere within the last several thousand years or so ago we became smart enough to know what we’re seeing is outside our immediate experience.

    Now, does that mean it’s part of a larger cycle or it’s something manmade? Who could possibly *KNOW*? Scientific method would suggest we stay open to all the possibilities. Yet, we seem hell bent on somekind of radical surgery. So, do we lop off a limb? Perform a labotomy? Enema? Band-aid? Or, maybe, just maybe our patient is totally healthy and isn’t reacting to the parasitic critters making a living on the surface.

  • Global Warming??

    Dear Editor,

    Recent research by Henrik Svensmark and his group at the Danish National
    Space Center points to the real cause of the recent warming trend. In a
    series of experiments on the formation of clouds, these scientists have
    shown that fluctuations in the Sun’s output cause the observed changes in the
    Earth’s temperature.

    In the past, scientists believed the fluctuations in the Sun’s output were
    too small to cause the observed amount of temperature change, hence the need
    to look for other causes like carbon dioxide. However, these new
    experiments show that fluctuations in the Sun’s output are in fact large
    enough, so there is no longer a need to resort to carbon dioxide as the
    cause of the recent warming trend.

    The discovery of the real cause of the recent increase in the Earth’s
    temperature is indeed a convenient truth. It means humans are not to blame
    for the increase. It also means there is absolutely nothing we can, much
    less do, to correct the situation.

    Thomas Laprade
    480 Rupert St.
    Thunder Bay, Ont.
    Ph. 807 3457258

  • Friedrick, you’re half-right. Even if there is no global warming, we’ll blame it on China, because that’s the plan. The whole idea of “global carbon credits exchange” is an EU/US conspiracy to put economic pressure on China. We consume all of their goods and take the profits, but outsource the dirtiest and most energy-intensive parts to China. Then, when we use up the goods and need to dispose of them, we ship the toxic waste back to China’s electronics dumps. Then we blame them for the pollution, and offer to sell them medieval indulgences in the form of pollution offsets and carbon credits. Worried about the US national debt? Problem solved! Considering that we’re China’s primary customer, it’s like johns blaming prostitutes for moral turpitude.

    And yes, I’ve been to China several times, have talked to senior people doing major energy and pollution projects in many provinces, have some background in this area, etc.

    You should read “Confessions of an Economic Hitman” before swallowing EU/US propaganda about China’s contribution to global warming.

  • I don’t get the “study fully before acting” argument.

    Dyson talks about diagnosing patients before attempting a cure, but medicine has never waited for a “perfect” diagnosis. Doctors don’t wait to “fully” understand cancer- they posit ideas, test them and use what works.

    Maybe the problem is that climate is an even more complex patient than the body, and since there is only 1 there is no control group.

    Does that argue for more study, or faster action? It probably depends on what you believed before the question was asked. I think it is time for study AND action.

  • Agreed-heresy has a value. However, history of science probably has as many cases where we knew the truth before we could prove it as cases where heresy led to a major scientific breakthrough. Cheap shot on models. Hurricane modeling is also incomplete but we are much better off with the forecasted paths than without the information. Climate modeling is probably 10-15 years behind hurricane modeling but it will eventually reach the same level of sophistication and then we will have increased confidence of what we already know.

  • Chuck McKinnon

    Robert: that was no cheap shot, and with due respect I think your estimate of 10-15 years is only wishful thinking.

    I’ve become a huge climate change skeptic since I started working for a company that produces and sells an N-dimensional vector solver for quantitative financial analytics. Modeling complex systems is inexact at best, and downright bullshit at worst. If the climate modelers were really capable of creating an accurate model of global climate (e.g. one that had genuine predictive power), then Goldman or JP Morgan or Bear Stearns would have bought them up long ago so they could apply their talents to modeling market and credit risk. There are hundreds of billions of dollars at stake, so money would literally be no object.

    Watching the Goldman GEO fund lose 30% of its value las week is just one more example of how imperfectly we model complex systems and assign risks to different factors. Considering that the solutions proposed by many climate change doomsayers are dramatic and expensive, I think it’s wiser to proceed with caution.

  • Steve Bergstein

    Have you read Michael Crichton’s State of Fear? He addresses the same basic concerns but adds a significant theme of “fear is a tool that politicians and other elites use to control the masses”. Among the circumstantial arguments that he makes is that global warming popped up only shortly after the end of the cold war.

    Continuing in the fear-as-instrument-of-control direction, I’d suggest that if the terrorists were as numerous and organized as our politicians would have us believe, then it’s incredible (in the literal sense of non-believable) that we haven’t been successfully attacked on US soil in the six years since 9/11. And the attacks on Western interests as a whole have been really, really limited (some moron trying, unsuccessfully, to drive a car into an airport – give me a break!).