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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 03/30/2009

NY Times Climate Story Stirs Controversy

NASA's Hansen clashes with famous physicist on climate

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Sunday's New York Times Magazine cover story, "The Civil Heretic," on prominent physicist Freeman Dyson's stance on climate change has been met with intense criticism from many in the climate science community. In his advancing age, Dyson has become increasingly outspoken about his view that the threat of climate change has been greatly exaggerated.

For example, in the article Dyson didn't find anything troubling about the ongoing decline in Arctic sea ice and the warming of land surfaces in the far north, which has major consequences for the lives of the region's native peoples and wildlife, as well as for global politics.

"Most of the time in history the Arctic has been free of ice," Dyson told the magazine. "A year ago when we went to Greenland where warming is the strongest, the people loved it."

Keep reading for more on the New York Times Magazine story, including a spat between Dyson and NASA's James Hansen...

The article portrays him as someone who has a disdain for scientific consensus, which could explain his decision to buck the views of most of his colleagues in the scientific community, who are convinced that human activities are causing the globe to warm up on average, and that this process is likely to accelerate in the coming years if actions are not taken soon.

In the article, Dyson singles out James Hansen, the well known head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), for criticism. Hansen, Dyson says, relies too much on computer models and overstates the case for how dangerous climate change may be.

"If what he says were obviously wrong, he wouldn't have achieved what he has. But Hansen has turned his science into ideology," Dyson said. "...I think I have a broad view of the subject, which Hansen does not. I think it's true my career doesn't depend on it, whereas his does. I never claim to be an expert on climate. I think it's more a matter of judgement than knowledge."

In the article, Hansen shot back with the dismissive statement, "There are bigger fish to fry than Freeman Dyson," who "doesn't know what he's talking about."

However, Hansen now says he was careless in his interactions with the Times reporter, and he sent out an email yesterday clarifying his views. In that email, Hansen said climate science skeptics like Dyson play a valuable role, but that governments shouldn't heed the advice of a skeptical minority instead of the majority of climate experts who think climate change is a major problem, and that the science is sufficiently solid to justify certain actions to mitigate and adapt to a warming planet.

"I accept responsibility for the sloppy wording and I will apologize to Freeman, who deserves much respect," Hansen said. "You might guess (correctly) that I was referring to the fact that contrarians are not the real problem - it is the vested interests who take advantage of the existence of contrarians."

The differences between Dyson and Hansen, both rock stars in the scientific community, center on who should be trusted for their climate science findings. Dyson, who has a history of being an iconoclast, thinks that independent, smart amateurs who may be working outside the normal scientific culture should be heeded.

Hansen disagrees. "There is nothing wrong with having contrarian views, even from those who have little relevant expertise -- indeed, good science continually questions assumptions and conclusions," Hansen wrote. "But the government needs to get its advice from the most authoritative sources, not from magazine articles. In the United States the most authoritative source of information would be the National Academy of Sciences."

On Dyson, Hansen stated that he fears that his accomplishments in other areas of science will cause the public to weigh his opinion on climate change more heavily than it should be, given Dyson's admitted lack of expertise in this area. "His philosophy of science is spot-on, the open-mindedness, consistent with that of Feynman and the other greats, but if he is going to wander into something with major consequences for humanity and other life on the planet, then he should first do his homework -- which he obviously has not done on global warming," Hansen stated. "My concern is that the public may assume that he has -- and, because of his other accomplishments, give his opinion more weight than it deserves."

The dynamic between Hansen and Dyson is similar to what recently played out here at CWG during a climate science discussion between NBC 4 chief meteorologist Bob Ryan and Energy Department engineer Brian Valentine. Valentine, who does not think human activities are the main cause of recent climate change, asserted that the views of nontraditional sources should also be taken into consideration, rather than organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences and U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Ryan emphasized the judgments of those bodies and others that have issued numerous comprehensive reports on climate science, all of which have warned of the major environmental risks posed by climate change, which they argue is now largely human-induced with a high level of confidence.

For more views on Dyson, see Joe Romm's post at Climate Progress and Anthony Watts' post on his "Watts Up With That?" blog.

By  |  10:30 AM ET, 03/30/2009

Categories:  Climate Change, Climate Change, Climate Change, Climate Change

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