Aug 11 2007

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.