A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times Magazine published a cover story on the eminent physicist Freeman Dyson and his unconventional view on global warming. The article generated a lot of attention – much of it unfavorable. Joe Romm, physicist and fellow at the Center for American Progress says publishing Dyson’s views gives too much credence to what he deems pseudoscience. Author Nicholas Dawidoff, who wrote the piece, says Dyson is much too interesting and serious a thinker to be ignored.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. A couple of weeks ago, The New York Times Magazine published a cover story on Freeman Dyson, an eminent physicist who has been in residency at the Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Studies since the 1950s*. The piece, titled The Global Warming Heretic, chronicles, among other things, Dyson’s unorthodox opinions on climate change, namely his belief that scientists rely too much on computer generated models and that carbon dioxide, which is contained in coal smoke, is not that bad for the environment. Of course, his thinking flies in the face of an overwhelming preponderance of scientific research. Dyson himself says that his views might be wrong and they're, quote, “more a matter of judgment than knowledge.” Some of the reaction to the article was severe, as bloggers and online commenters questioned the magazine’s judgment, author Nicholas Dawidoff’s credentials and Freeman Dyson’s grip on reality. Among the most vitriolic was Joe Romm, a writer for The Climate Progress blog at the Center for American Progress, who ridiculed all involved and alleged that the attention devoted to Freeman Dyson was shameful.
JOE ROMM: If he were a Holocaust denier or if he said cigarettes were good for you, then Dawidoff would not be writing this favorable extensive profile of his life and times.
BOB GARFIELD: You know, I've got to say, back in the '70s a guy named William Shockley, who had won the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on developing the transistor, started coming out with some generally crackpot theories on race and was ridiculed and attacked, but the outrageousness of his theories did not make me less want to know what led to his using his Nobel Laureate status as a bully pulpit for racist, pseudoscientific views. I wanted to know more about him, not less. When people say controversial things, shouldn't we want to know more about them, not less?
JOE ROMM: Because of the way it covers global warming and similar issues as he-said/she-said, the media guarantee that a certain fraction of the [LAUGHS] community is going to go out there and say outrageous things to be covered. I think that if there’s a fire in a theater and you are screaming, there’s no fire, don't move, then you don't deserve a cover profile in The New York Times Magazine.
BOB GARFIELD: Don't you give the audience any credit for a story that clearly characterizes Dyson’s views as way beyond the scientific consensus? Do you credit them not at all for being able to parse the relative weight of these arguments?
JOE ROMM: The public is not scientifically expert, and the public’s ability to distinguish science and pseudoscience, which sound pretty much the same, is very small. So it is up to the filters, the media, to use its own judgment based on talking to many different sources and itself weighing the credibility of sources. What The New York Times Magazine has done is elevate Dyson to a very high degree of credibility as a highly credible source on global warming, which he isn't.
BOB GARFIELD: Wow, I so can't believe we've read the same story. The story I read didn't promote his opinions in any fashion, such as you’re describing.
JOE ROMM: I disagree. Let me make two points. It states many of his positions at length and doesn't rebut each one of them. That, I think, is very important. Second, it is well known that most people, when they read things, they don't recall many months later rebuttals or how things were couched. There [LAUGHS] are a lot of people who read this who don't have an informed opinion, and they are going to read this and they're going to think, oh geez, there’s a very smart guy out there who thinks global warming might well be good for us, and we don't need to do anything about it because we're going to invent genetically engineered carbon-eating trees. And I just think that it is this, you know, height of journalistic elitism to think that we're going to write a piece so clever that people will read between the lines to realize that we're secretly mocking him.
BOB GARFIELD: I don't suggest that he was mocking him either, but I think you’re also ignoring the preponderance of The New York Times’ reporting over the years, the extensive coverage that, for example, Andrew Revkin has given to this subject, you know, that I would say in no way sugarcoats the issue of climate change.
JOE ROMM: The New York Times does do some fine reporting on global warming, but the reader of this piece may or may not have read that. The media doesn't have unlimited space and certainly not in high profile places like a cover profile in The New York Times Magazine. And when they choose to write at length about a man like this, they are saying his ideas merit serious discussion.
BOB GARFIELD: I've got to tell you, Joe, you know, this show has been right out in front of criticizing the way the media have covered global warming on precisely the false equivalency issues that we've discussed, but I just didn't see this story as having done that. It seems to me that you’re not even angry about this story so much as you are about the press’ whole history of covering this issue.
JOE ROMM: I, I hear what you’re saying. As I say, I believe that the vast majority of the media and the public don't get how dire the situation is. I have talked to most of the leading climate scientists in the country. I read the literature closely. I also understand the nature of the energy system and how difficult it is going to be to reverse course and how much effort and time that takes. And this is worse than a needless distraction. This is just parceling out bad information with good information and hoping that the public is smart enough to distinguish the two.
BOB GARFIELD: Joe, thank you very much.
JOE ROMM: My pleasure. [LAUGHS] Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Dr. Joseph Romm is senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He writes about climate change for the Center’s blog, ClimateProgress.org. While Romm and others may be rightfully aggrieved by what they deem to be the legitimization of wild climate theories, their accusation that Nicholas Dawidoff is a sportswriter and therefore unfit to profile Freeman Dyson is plainly inaccurate. A Harvard graduate and Guggenheim fellow, Dawidoff has written on such diverse topics as country music, the OSS and Harvard economist Alexander Gerschenkron, who was his grandfather. Dawidoff himself rejects the argument made by Romm and others that a journalist who doesn't specialize in climate science should not write a piece that deals with it.
NICHOLAS DAWIDOFF: Many of America’s finest journalists have been people who've been drawn to a diverse and really shimmering array of subjects, and just because they didn't have a particular expertise in one subject didn't mean that they couldn't acquire it. You must display expertise when you’re writing about something, for sure, but it doesn't mean that you have to have it going in. You have to have a certain ability - you have to be able to write, you have to be able to think and you have to be able to know how to learn what is necessary to write whatever you’re going to write about. And, I mean, I killed myself for this Freeman Dyson piece, as I hope I do for every piece, but I spent months reading, talking to dozens and dozens and dozens of people. And it’s true, I'm not a – I’m no authority on climate change, and he would never say that he was an authority on climate change.
BOB GARFIELD: But now I can see how that charge might have stuck had you presumed to try to parse the various arguments and scientific explanations for global warming, but your piece actually scarcely discusses the issues at issue. This is very much a personality profile, is it not?
NICHOLAS DAWIDOFF: Yeah, it is. I mean, when I took on the assignment to write about Freeman Dyson, I wasn't writing about Freeman Dyson, the man who spent his life thinking about climate change. Freeman Dyson’s life has involved an enormous array of fascinating, important subjects, and climate change happens to be something that he’s been thinking about, which is very important to the American public right now. It’s also a wonderful prism through which to look at an extremely subversive, complicated, brilliant interesting person.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, it’s not hard for me to understand why the reaction to your piece was so sharp. The green movement has for years had to suffer through journalism that discussed climate change, on the one hand and then, through some sort of compulsive journalistic balance, would give equal space to some reactionary dissent from the climate change deniers, which drove the scientific community and the political movement just nuts, because to them that was just false equivalency.
NICHOLAS DAWIDOFF: When people feel strongly about something and when it’s a matter of great urgency and when it’s a matter, for many people, of a looming apocalypse, of course, it should be taken very seriously. But just because many people are scared and worried and feel that this is a time of impending doom, if we don't do something, doesn't mean that you don't listen to somebody who disagrees with them. If there’s somebody like Freeman Dyson, as eminent a scientist as Freeman Dyson is, who has provocative views on the subject, they're worth listening to. As you’re going forward and making policy, you definitely always want to hear from people who are going to push back against consensus. It only makes the people who are the majority or the people who are going forward and making public policy sharpen their arguments. And while I can completely understand why some people would be dismayed that someone like Freeman Dyson doesn't agree with them, the fact is, is that, you know, I think it’s healthy in a democracy, when you’re going forward with monumental legislation, that you listen to everybody’s point of view.
BOB GARFIELD: Does it matter, from a journalistic point of view, whether he’s right or whether he’s wrong?
NICHOLAS DAWIDOFF: Oh, absolutely not. I don't care what he thinks. I have no investment in what he thinks. I'm just interested in how he thinks and the depth and the singularity of his point of view. He’s a completely original person, and a brilliant and an unusual and an accomplished person, and an unpredictable person, and that’s what attracts me to him. I just think that he is so worth listening to, whether you agree with him or not. And I certainly don't agree with everything that he says, but I'm interested in everything that he says. And there are not that many people in this world about who you can say, “I'm interested in everything that he says.”
BOB GARFIELD: Nicholas, thank you.
NICHOLAS DAWIDOFF: Thank you. It’s nice to talk to you.
BOB GARFIELD: Writer Nicholas Dawidoff’s article The Civil Heretic appeared in to New York Times Magazine last Sunday. His book The Fly Swatter, about the economist Alexander Gerschenkron, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and his new book, The Crowd Sounds Happy, which won an award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, will be available in paperback in May. *Bob incorrectly refers to the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. The Institute has no association with Princeton University.