Slicin’ and Dicin’ with Dyson and Bryson

The mantle of lovable old coot of liberal persuasion who thinks global warming is hooey has been passed to a new old generation.

I tried to avoid saying anything nasty about Reid Bryson while he was around. Reid was, no doubt about it, a very nice man. He was also the founder of the department that gave me my doctorate, at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. (That is its name. I’d prefer the word “at” to the dash, but nobody asked me.) The meteorology department at UW , later the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, has been a major player through the years so this is no small feat.

Bryson used to say “the proper tool of the climatologist is the shovel” but he wasn’t indulging in crude humor. He thought of climatology as a branch of archaeology. The tradition emerged with a presumption of a steady state climate with periodic oscillations superimposed: a powerful analytic method in some fields, but not, it turns out, in climatology. He did, however, take seriously the idea of the human influence on the environment. He was, in fact, the guy who was most responsible for pushing the “imminent ice age kicked off by human activity” idea. He did get some press in the 1970s, no doubt about that.

But there’s little sign in the literature that his idea was taken very seriously. Even in the 1970s, as Oreskes explains in various places, there was a rough consensus among physical climatologists that long-lived, accumulating CO2 causing warming would eventually outweigh short-lived, quasi-steady particulate cooling.

As such he fell into an uncomfortable hole. His intuition that people would change the climate was right, but he got the sign wrong. Nobody paid much attention to his intuition after that. He never had the physical insight to get a grip on radiative transfer physics to be convinced by it. He ended up trapped into holding to his position that humans could not cause warming, and was much celebrated in that by the skeptic camp, but it wasn’t grounded in any reasoned opinion. And, as he was a very nice man and the founder of the department, and as meteorologists and midwesterners are basically controversy-averse, nobody local ever challenged Bryson too hard on it. He’d appear at various media events, hosted by people who would make an effort not to stress the fact that they were really doing the bidding of the Cato Institute and that sort.

Now he has passed on. And though I didn’t know him well, he was a kind and in many ways admirable man. I was saddened at his passing.

The sadness was tempered by a relief, though, that after a year or so had passed (which it nearly has) one could manage to be frank about Bryson’s understanding of climate physics, which, sadly, was nil, and his ironic role in the much ballyhooed but not so much professionally esteemed ice age scare of the 1970s, which was, pretty much, as its most prominent voice.

(So you see, it was never “the same people” who talked about the ice age scare at all. It was largely the denialists’ hero Reid Bryson all along.)

But one didn’t reckon with the fact that the media would be casting about for a replacement. The year hadn’t fully passed before they found their man in the less credentialed but more famed and more predictably curmudgeony Freeman Dyson.

Dyson, it appears, was part of the Jason team that wrote an early report (1979 I believe) by non-meteorologists, essentially confirming the global warming story. So Dyson has the advantage of having thought about this for some time. His conclusion is that the AGW hypothesis is roughly correct, but that there is plenty of room in the carbon cycle to hide the excess carbon. This, like Bryson’s “human volcano” gets little attention. I am not a geochemist, so I don’t know exactly how impractical an idea it is, but it does seem that Dyson hasn’t worked a lick on the idea in the intervening time, so it’s little wonder this doesn’t come up.

How this justifies Dyson’s incredibly broad-brush attacks on climatology as a whole escapes me. He complains that there is no carbon cycle in GCMs. This mistakes the purpose of GCMs. (*) Now climatology is by no means above criticism, but the principles of how the climate system works are understood to a very substantive and sophisticated level. Bryson didn’t understand them, and was in no position to admit it. Dyson appears like most of the denial squad, having no real idea that they exist at all.

(*) Note: People are trying to build combined carbon/climate models now. They look like they are going to be called Earth System Models or ESMs. I think it’s vastly premature but that’s a topic for another time and place.

But similarities and differences aside, the press has their man. I don’t think Bill Gray is on deck; he’s a little too bitter. I think many people right now are wishing Freeman Dyson a long and healthy old age. I can’t bring myself to say otherwise myself. He seems like such a nice man.

That’s no reason to give him much press, until he actually has something of scientific substance to say on the matter. What we’ve seen so far is just grumbling, not counterarguments. The New York Times has done us another disservice by treating Dyson’s ranting as serious or relevant.

The picture of Bryson in his emeritus office at 1225 West Dayton in Madison, an architecturally dreadful building where I spent many hours of my own life, was lifted from denialist site who probably lifted it from the department or the Madison local media.
The Dyson picture is the Wikipedia one.


15 thoughts on “Slicin’ and Dicin’ with Dyson and Bryson

  1. Anonymous says:

    Oh dear. Sorry to see a UW grad quoting Oreskes, but I suppose it’s of a piece with the other nonsense. We agree, Bryson was a nice guy. I remember his pointing grandly out the window toward the NW and saying “the glacier stopped right out there 20,000 years ago.” Darn right. I lived on top of Springfield Hill (highest point in Dane County) and the Summer I tried to dig postholes, I found out it’s a terminal moraine – a huge pile of rocks, covered with a thin layer of dirt. Yes, the building was a pain. I always assumed the satellite guys (SSEC) wanted the highest possible platform for antennas. I wonder if anyone has suggested putting in hybrid technology (a la Prius) to capture energy from elevators coming down?Re: radiative transfer. My major prof was Jim Weinman, and that was my topic. You’re wrong, of course. CO2 is a VERY minor greenhouse gas, less than 0.04% of the atmosphere, 96% natural, and far less absorbing than H2O. Don’t forget the logarithmic law of absorption either. Anthro-warming (AGW) is a crock. Contentious? Sure. Dull? Hope not, but it’s your site. Mine is at You’ll find Bryson prominently quoted. :-)Dick Savage, UW-M, 1976. Nice talking to you.

  2. Tell it to the Venusians. Oh, wait, they’ve all boiled off, haven’t they? Darn.I’m afraid you are just wrong, even in your very brief contribution. You are wrong on the “very minor” part and on the 96% natural part and on the “crock” part. I concede the 400 ppm and the logarithmic part. Not sure why those matter to you. Logarithmic is quite enough to make Venus hotter than Mercury.

  3. Paul says:

    I am intrigued when a strong assertion is made by someone apparently knowledgeable that is at odds with the understanding of the vast majority of atmospheric scientists. Mr. Savage asserts that CO2 is a minor greenhouse gas, far less absorbing than H20. These assertions are common in the skeptic community but seldom articulated by anyone who has actually studied atmospheric radiative transfer. I did a quick Google Scholar search for some peer reviewed contributions by Mr. Savage to atmospheric science. Alas, all I could find were a handful of 15-20 year old articles on microwave propagation and laser technology. At the time of these articles Mr. Savage was associated with the EE Dept. of UCLA.Perhaps he has published something more recent and germane to the topic about which he speaks with such certainty?Paul Middents

  4. John Mashey says:

    According to y this, he is a retired meteorologist who livies in Franktown (between Denver & Colorado Springs).And he posted at CS Monitor, in which he says:”I recommend to all some open-minded reading on the and wattsupwiththat websites. Icecap is authored by Joe d’Alesseo, a respected member of the AMS; Anthony Watts is a recent Ph. D. grad from Colorado State. We all have a lot to lose if ignorant (I’m being kind) politicians like McCain, Obama, Biden, and Palin (?) decide to “do something about it.” Nothing can be done – the cycles are natural – and the cost would be enormous.”of course, for some reason the pine beetles expected to kill the mature lodgepole pines in Colorado, and that are mostly suppressed by low temperatures, haven’t gotten the message yet from Colorado folks who think it’s getting colder, or that it doesn’t matter if it gets warmer.

  5. Paul says:

    Now here is a EE PhD from UCLA that might be worth listening to: Rignot was recently quoted by our friend Revkin on Dot Earth (not always my favorite source for insight).

  6. Ric says:

    You are right to point out that Bryson and Dyson have more in common than rhyming names. I live in Madison, where some time before his death Bryson received an very lengthy and very indulgent front-page (!) profile in the local rag. (Which has since gone more or less belly up, retreating to the web.) As with this week’s NYT Dyson piece, all the ink was spent on the lovable old contrarian personality, with hardly any mention of the compelling reasons why there are no comparably distinguished younger practitioners in the field sharing good ol’ Gramps’s complaints about the young whippersnappers who have it all wrong.The newspaper was good enough to publish my complaining letter, which mentioned the importance of actual recent publications in leading journals. If I recall, there was also a letter from graduate students, asking us not to pay any attention to old folks who can’t be relied on any more. (I paraphrase: they were polite.) So there has not been a complete absence of local challenges to Bryson.Is there really something to the idea that the last dinosaurs who pooh-pooh the new consensus are dying off, or does the press mislead us by singling them out? Dyson was brilliant, and prominent, and outspoken 40 years ago. Where are today’s brilliant young contrarian thinkers? John Christy is a pretty pale contestant for that prize. Pielke Jr is mostly whiny, and isn’t an actual physical scientist. Lindzen is around retirement age, and isn’t looking too brilliant lately. Fred Singer would like to be brilliant (and for all I know would like to be young) but in real life turns out to be both old and a laughingstock.It’s all so close to the classic (probably oversimplified) view of scientific progress by waiting for the old school to check out of the hotel, leaving the field open for the triumphant new paradigm, that it’s a little spooky.Ric Merritt

  7. Paul says:

    Thank you, John.A second Google Scholar search for the meteorologist Savage yields a few 10 – 30 year old articles on instrumentation. I await something more substantive–though he does have a colorful web page complete with Al sporting a Pinocchio nose.

  8. I sometimes feel bad having to diss Dyson, among other things, he formalized, after Feynman, the representations of quantum physics I studied in physics classes.But then again:Linus Pauling was a commanding figure in chemistry, biochemistry, physics of chemistry, etc. to put Freeman Dyson entirely to shame by comparison, but that didn’t entitle him to a free pass on Vitamin C, and he didn’t get one.It’s how science works. Dyson would have, of course, welcomed and genuflected to, say, Richard Leakey or Lynne Margulis coming in and telling him how quantum physics worked.Not.

  9. Thomas Palm says:

    When talking about the suposed ice age scare, another proponent of it was George Kukla, and he still thinks we are headed for a new ice age.

  10. thingsbreak says:

    Is anyone else a little depressed by the lack of weight given to the consensus view by those who should know better, and even more disturbing the apparently widespread belief that concern over climate change is somehow GCM-dependent?

  11. Arthur Smith says:

    On Linus Pauling – even aside from Vitamin C he was off-kilter in his later years. I happened to work for a while on interesting substances known as “quasicrystals” – materials with definite symmetries but that could not have regular crystalline periodicity (five-fold or three-dimensional icosahedral symmetry, for instance). Pauling, based on his long-ago expertise in crystallography, was absolutely determined that such things could not exist, and lectured year after year that the experiments were making this mistake or that, that it was all nonsense. He never relented on this point, as far as I’m aware, even after quite pure and beautiful materials of the sort had been found.Yes, some of this stuff is definitely reminiscent of those oversimplified views of scientific progress…

  12. John Mashey says:

    Arthur: re PaulingCan you say more about the *timing* of Pauling's bel8iefs?I'm trying to put together a decent taxonomy and transition diagram of the various reasons for anti-science beliefs, of which those of the (relatively few) scientists involved are among the more complex to figure out.So, for instance:a) Do you know when Pauling decided these things didn't exist?(I.e., did he decide this in "The Nature of the Chemical Bond" days, and then never changed?or did the topic arise later, and he decided it on what he remembered, adn then didn't change?b) And then, how long after the existence was clear was he still persisting?Note: there appear to be 2 different behaviors;1) The scientist who takes a position that some effect doesn't exist, in a turf they should know something about; the evidence builds up, and they never change.2) Scientist "gone emeritus", off into some different turf.For instance, both Bryson & Pauling (quasi-crystals) would seem to fit 1), along with, for example, Sir Ronald Fisher's disbelief in cigarette statistics.2) Is more like Pauling's vitamin C.

  13. gravityloss says:

    Thingsbreak, that was some very sad reading of hopeless stupidity (climate models didn’t predict the Amazon drought producing net CO2 so I’m not worried about global warming – what the hell???), but then I noticed it was Conway, and Sean Carroll actually had immediately posted a comment finely illustrating the problems in Conway’s thought models.I thought Cosmic Variance was Sean Carroll’s blog? Why does he enable such dissemination of stupid stuff by other people?

  14. Arthur Smith says:

    John – I don’t know any history of Paulings views on this before 1984, when the first clearly quasicrystalline materials were discovered by Schectman et al – Phys. Rev. Lett. 53 1951 ( . But from that point until, as far as I am aware, his death 10 years later, Pauling insisted that these were regular metallic crystals that x-ray diffraction was misleadingly showing extra symmetries in due to “twinning”.For example, here’s a Pauling paper from 1989, claiming he had examined the x-ray diffraction data in detail and that one such quasicrystal was actually cubic with 1024 atoms in the unit cell: yes, this fits your type (1) example more than (2), I think.

  15. John Mashey says:

    Arthur: many thanks, a very useful example, in which one person clearly has:a) A truly towering scientific reputation for numerous contributions.b) Both (1) and (2), in two orthogonal areas.

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