Archive for November 2009

A wrong kind of religion; Freeman Dyson, Superfreakonomics, and global warming

November 4, 2009

The greatest strength of science is that it tries to avoid dogma. Theories, explanations, hypotheses, everything is tentative, true only as long as the next piece of data does not invalidate it. This is how science progresses, by constantly checking and cross checking its own assumptions. The heart of this engine of scientific progress is constant skepticism and questioning. This skepticism and questioning can often be exasperating. You can enthusiastically propound your latest brainwave only to be met with hard-nosed opposition, deflating your long harbored fervor for your pet idea. Sometimes scientists can be vicious in seminars, questioning and cross questioning you as if you were a defendant in a court.

But you learn to live with this frustration. That’s because in science, skepticism always means erring on the safer side. As long as skepticism does not descend into outright irrational cynicism, it is far better to be skeptical than to buy into a new idea. This is science’s own way to ensure immunity to crackpot notions that can lead it astray. One of the important lessons you learn in graduate school is to make peace with your skeptics, to take them seriously, to be respectful to them in debate. This attitude keeps the flow of ideas open, giving everyone a chance to voice their opinion.

Yet the mainstay of science is also a readiness to test audacious new concepts. Sadly, whenever a paradigm of science reaches something like universal consensus, the opposite can happen. New ideas and criticism are met with so much skepticism that it borders on hostility. Bold conjectures are shot down mercilessly sometimes even without considering their possible merits. The universal consensus separates scientists into a majority who provide a vocal and even threatening wall of obduracy against new ideas. From what I have seen in recent times, this unfortunately seems to have happened to the science of global warming.

First, a disclaimer. I have always been firmly in the “Aye” camp when it comes to global warming. There is no doubt that the climate is warming due to greenhouse gases, especially CO2, and that human activities are most probably responsible for the majority of that warming. There is also very little doubt that this rate of warming has been unprecedented into the distant past. It is also true that if kept unchecked, these developments will cause dangerous and unpredictable changes in the composition of our planet and its biosphere. Yet it does not stop there. Understanding and accepting the details about climate change is one thing, proposing practical solutions for mitigating it is a whole different ball game. This ball game involves more economics than science, since any such measures will have to be adopted on a very large scale that would significantly affect the livelihood of hundreds of millions. We need vigorous discussion on solutions to climate change from all quarters, and the question is far from settled.

But even from a scientific perspective, there are a lot of details about climate change that can still be open to healthy debate. Thus, one would think that any skepticism about certain details of climate change would be met with the same kind of lively, animated argument that is the mainstay of science. Sadly, that does not seem to be happening. Probably the most recent prominent example of this occurred when the New York Times magazine ran a profile of the distinguished physicist Freeman Dyson. Dyson is a personal scientific hero of mine and I have read all of his books (except his recent very technical book on quantum mechanics). Climate change is not one of Dyson’s main interests and has occupied very little of his writings, although more so recently. To me Dyson appears as a mildly interested climate change buff who has some opinions on some aspects of the science. He is by no means an expert on the subject, and he never claims to be one. However he has certain ideas, ideas which may be wrong, but which he thinks make sense (in his own words, “It is better to be wrong than to be vague”). For instance he is quite skeptical about computer models of climate change, a skepticism which I share based on my own experience with the uncertainty modeling even “simple” chemical systems. Dyson who is also well known as a “futurist” has proposed a very interesting possible solution to climate change; the breeding of special genetically engineered plants and trees with an increased capacity for capturing carbon. I think there is no reason why this possibility could not be looked into.

Now if this were the entire story, all one would expect at most would be experts in climate change respectfully debating and refuting Dyson’s ideas strictly on a factual basis. But surprisingly, that’s not what you got after the Times profile. There were ad hominem attacks calling him a “crackpot”, “global warming denier”, “pompous twit” and “faker”. Now anyone who knows the first thing about Dyson would know that the man does not have a political agenda and he has always been, if anything, utterly honest about his views. Yet his opponents spared no pains in painting him with a broad denialist brush and even discrediting his other admirable work in physics to debunk his climate change views. What disturbed me immensely was not that they were attacking his facts- that is after all how science works and is perfectly reasonable- but they were attacking his character, his sanity and his general credibility. The prominent climate blogger Joe Romm rained down on Dyson like a ton of bricks, and his criticism of Dyson was full of condescension and efforts to discredit Dyson’s other achievements. My problem was not with Romm’s expertise or his debunking of facts, but with his tone; note for instance how Romm calls Dyson a crackpot right in the title. One got the feeling that Romm wanted to portray Dyson as a senile old man who was off his rocker. Other bloggers too seized upon Romm-style condescension and dismissed Dyson as a crank. Since then Dyson has expressed regret over the way his views on global warming were overemphasized by the journalist who wrote the piece. But the fact is that it was this piece which made Freeman Dyson notorious as some great global warming contrarian, when the truth was much simpler. In a Charlie Rose interview, Dyson talked about how global warming occupies very little of his time, and his writings clearly demonstrate this. Yet his views on the topic were blown out of proportion. Sadly, such vociferous, almost violent reactions to even reasonable critics of climate change seems to be becoming commonplace. If this is how the science of global warming is looking like, then it’s not a very favourable outlook for the future .

If Dyson has been Exhibit A in the list of examples of zealous reactions to unbiased critics of climate change, then the recent book “Superfreakonomics” by economists Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner (authors of the popular “Freakonomics”) would surely be Exhibit B. There is one chapter among six in their book about global warming. And yet almost every negative review on Amazon focuses on this chapter. The authors are bombarded with accusations of misrepresentation, political agendas and outright lies. Joe Romm again penned a rather propagandish and sensationalist sounding critique of the authors’ arguments. Others duly followed. In response the authors wrote a couple of posts on their New York Times blog to answer these critics. One of the posts was written by Nathan Myhrvold, previously Chief Technology officer of Microsoft and now the head of a Seattle-based think tank called Intellectual Ventures. Myhrvold is one of the prominent players in the book. Just note the calm, rational, response that he pens and compare it to one of Joe Romm’s posts filled with condescending personal epithets. If this is really a scientific debate, then Myhrvold surely seems to be behaving like the objective scientist in this case.

So are the statements made by Levitt and Dubner as explosive as Romm and others would make us believe? I promptly bought the book and read it, and read the chapter on climate change twice to make sure. The picture that emerged in front of me was quite different from the one that I had been exposed to until then. Firstly, the authors’ style is quite matter of fact and not sensationalist or contrarian sounding at all. Secondly, they never deny climate change anywhere. Thirdly, they make the very important general point that complex problems like climate change are not beyond easy, cheap solutions and that people sometimes don’t readily think of these; they cite hand washing to drastically reduce infections and seat belts to reduce fatal car crashes as two simple and cheap innovations that saved countless lives. But on to Chapter 5 on warming.

Now let me say upfront that at least some of Levitt and Dubner’s research is sloppy. They unnecessarily focus on the so-called “global cooling” events of the 70s, events that by no means refute global warming. They also seem to cherry pick the words of Ken Caldeira, a leading expert on climate change. But most of their chapter is devoted to possible cheap, easy solutions to climate change. To tell this story, they focus on Nathan Myhrvold and his team at Intellectual Ventures who have come up with two extremely innovative and interesting solutions to tackle the problem. The innovations are based on the injection of sulfate aerosols in the upper atmosphere. This rationale is based on a singular event, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Phillipines in 1990 which sent millions of tons of sulfates and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere and circulated them around the planet. Sulfate aerosols serve to reflect sunlight and tend to cause cooling. Remarkably, global temperatures fell by a slight amount for a few years after that. The phenomenon was carefully and exhaustively documented. It was a key contributor to the development of ideas which fall under the rubric of “geoengineering”. These ideas involve artificially modulating the atmosphere to offset the warming effects of CO2. Geoengineering is controversial and hotly debated, but it is supported by several very well known scientists, and nobody has come up with a good reason why it would not work. In the light of the seriousness of global warming, it deserves to be investigated. With this in mind, Myhrvold and his team came up with a rather crazy sounding idea; to send up a large hose connected to motors and helium balloons which would pump sulfates and sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere. Coupled with this they came up with an even crazier sounding idea; to thwart hurricanes by erecting large, balloon like structures on coastlines which would essentially suck the hot air out of the hurricanes. With their power source gone, the hurricanes would possibly quieten down.

Are these ideas audacious? Yes. Would they work? Maybe, and maybe not. Are they testable? Absolutely, at least on a prototypical, experimental basis. Throughout the history of science, science has never been fundamentally hostile to crazy ideas if they could be tested. Most importantly, the authors propose these ideas because the analysis indicates them to be much cheaper than long-term measures designed to reduce carbon emissions. Solutions to climate change need to be as cheap as they need to be scientifically viable.

So let’s get this straight; the authors are not denying global warming and in fact in their own words, they are proposing a possible solution that could be cheap and relatively simple. And they are proposing this solution only to temporarily act as a gag on global warming, so that long-term measures could then be researched at relative leisure. In fact they are not even claiming that such a scheme would work, only that it deserves research attention. Exactly what part of this argument screams “global warming denial”? One would imagine that opponents of these ideas would pen objective, rational objections based on hard data and facts. And yet almost none of the vociferous critics of Levitt and Dubner seem to have engaged in such an exercise (except a few). Most exercises seem to be of the “Oh my God! Levitt and Dubner are global warming deniers!!” kind. Science simply does not progress in this manner. All we need to do here is to debate the merit of a particular set of ideas. Sure, they could turn out to be bad ideas, but we will never know until we test them. The late Nobel laureate Linus Pauling said it best; “If you want to have a good idea, first have lots of ideas, then throw the bad ones away”. Especially a problem as big as climate change needs ideas flying in from all quarters, some conservative, some radical. And as the authors indicate, cheap and simple ideas ought to be especially welcome. Yet the reception to Superfreakonomics to me looked like the authors were being castigated and resented for having ideas. The last thing scientific progress needs is a vocal majority that thwarts ideas from others and encourages them to shut up.

Freeman Dyson once said that global warming sometimes looks like a province of “the secular religion of environmentalism” and sadly there seems to be some truth to this statement. It is definitely the wrong kind of religion. As I mentioned before, almost any paradigm that reaches almost universal consensus runs the risk of getting forged into a religion. At such a point it is even more important to respect critics and give them a voice. Otherwise, going by the almost violent reaction against both Dyson and the authors of Superfreakonomics, I fear that global warming science will descend to the status of biological studies of race. Any research that has to do with race is so politically sensitive and fraught with liabilities and racist overtones that even reasonable scientists who feel that there is actually something beneficial to be gained from the study of race (and there certainly is; nobody would deny that certain diseases are more common to certain ethnic minorities) feel extremely afraid to speak up, let alone apply for funding.

We cannot let such a thing happen with the extremely important issue of climate change. Scientific progress itself would be in a very sad state if critics of climate change with no axe to grind are so vilified and resented that they feel inclined to shut up. Such a situation would trample the very core principles of science underfoot.