Is Freeman Dyson really “brave”?
Freeman Dyson is a noted physicist who’s argued — utterly implausibly — that carbon eating trees will save us and we shouldn’t worry about the whole climate change thing. For this, he’s been profiled in The New York Times and now dubbed a Brave Thinker by the Atlantic. But is he really that brave?
Said friend Oliver Sacks of Dyson, “He feels it’s important not only to be not orthodox, but to be subversive, and he’s done that all his life.” For whatever reason, Dyson decided enviros were the latest orthodoxy to need a thumb in the eye.
It’s a pretty common sentiment. Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner are the latest to do it, in their new book Superfreakonomics. Their chapter on climate change sits awkwardly with the rest of their work; the original Freakonomics was based on Levitt’s academic work, real data and models the authors used to make ostentatiously counterintuitive points about perverse economic incentives. But Levitt did no original work on climate. The chapter’s not about economic incentives. There’s no evidence of deep or sustained engagement with the literature or previous research on the subject. The authors just high-stepped in, cast a cursory glance around, and started condescending to the people involved in it (and stepping on rakes).
Why? What leads people to think that entire areas of climate science and policy, the subject of close study by thousands of very smart people all over the globe every day, can be overturned with facile points of logic and Silver Bullets Nobody’s Thought Of?
Well, it ain’t bravery.
The fact is, anybody who takes a poke at the Dirty F*ckin’ Hippies — anybody, for any reason — can get attention and access to media. There’s an enormous infrastructure on the right to elevate any anti-DFH voice, including random economists, physicists, meteorologists, talk show hosts, computer programmers, whatever. You don’t need any particular credentials. You don’t even have to believe what the right does; as long as you confuse the issue, they’ll amplify your voice. (Indeed, they’re embracing Superfreakonomics.)
Add to that the fact that mainstream media outlets seek one thing above all else, and that’s the unexpected, the contrarian. When it comes to climate change, that generally means taking a poke at greens (or better yet, at Al Gore). It’s even better if you’re a purported green bashing other greens. That’s the kind of media crack Nordhaus & Shellenberger dealt on their way to fame and funding. Bash the greens, no matter your qualifications or the merits of your arguments, and you will find yourself on television and in opinion sections from the New York Times to Washington Post to Wired.
Helpfully, when you offer facile dismissals of science and policy to which people have devoted their lives — “We could end this debate and be done with it,” sighs Leavitt, “and move on to problems that are harder to solve.” — they get angry, and they express that anger. Then you get to be the Brave, Persecuted Freethinker battling the Quasi-Religious Orthodoxy, and the press loves you all the more. Why else would anyone know Roger Pielke Jr.’s name? Lomborg rode that train, along with Shellenberger/Nordhaus and Dyson. In a smaller, grubbier way, even a flack like Patrick Moore (“co-founder of Greenpeace”!) has made it work for him. It’s no wonder Levitt/Dubner thought they could do the same thing, and you can sense their hesitation now that it’s not working so well. Though it did work like a charm on the normally sharp Jon Stewart, who offered Levitt this pathetically fawning interview:
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On the other hand, simply repeat the broad global consensus — climate change is an urgent problem that warrants coordinated action to reduce GHG emissions — and you get nowhere. Boooring. (I can’t tell you how many back-and-forths I’ve had with media outlets where I try to explain that the thing most people think is right actually is right, and they say, maybe so, but that’s not going to titillate our readers.)
I could start doing this crap tomorrow: Have a revelation that greens are emotional, irrational, in the grips of a cultish faith (a “secular religion”!). Realize that they’re doing everything wrong, from their message to their recommended policies. Discover that the real solution is … I don’t know, thorium reactors, and everything else is needless hype and meddling. I could be denounced by greens and wear their opprobrium as a badge to gain entry into cable news and op-ed pages.
I would get the egoistic thrill of subversion. I’d get a hearty band of supporters on the right and thrillingly dastardly enemies on the left. I could parlay the conflict into national attention and infamy. If I was a retired physicist in my twilight years, it might even be a real kick in the pants to be back in the fray again.
Yeah, I could do all that. It would be many things, but “brave” isn’t among them.