Guest Posting: Expanded Dyson Exegesis

I received this in the mail from a reader and thought it good enough to share.

The author is the as-yet-under-construction Peter Miesler of Durango CO, who describes himself as follows:

From my earliest years I’ve loved science and have been drinking it up (at a layman’s level), ever since.

I graduated Burlingame High School in 1973, with pretty much A’s in science classes where I learned about global warming and all.

Have only been to college on a part time basis occasionally since then.

I’ve been a working/family guy ever since but have been keeping up on science.
In the 90’s I used to send in regular rebuttals to Alston Chase’s inane columns to the local Durango Herald.

I do have a short article An Essay Concerning Our Weather in Nov/Dec 1995 The Humanitist magazine. They printed an updated version ten years later, it conveniently coincided with a post Katrina Climate issue Nov/Dec 2005, that one is titled Katrina and Rita in Context.

I consider myself an informed, scientifically literate layman, with four decades of watching the global warming science and debate develop.


This follows onto my own rather hurried but surprisingly popular (because of journalistic timeliness) article “Dyson exegesis“, which was nonetheless a shabby effort by comparison to Peter’s.

Readers may also find “Slicin’ and Dicin’ with Dyson and Bryson” of interest.

Without further ado, I give you Freeman Dyson vs Peter Miesler.

–mt


Blow By Blow COMMENTS REGARDING Freeman Dyson‘s HERETICAL THOUGHTS ABOUT SCIENCE AND SOCIETY


FREEMAN DYSON is professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton. His professional interests are in mathematics and astronomy. Among his many books are Disturbing the Universe, Infinite in All Directions Origins of Life, From Eros to Gaia, Imagined Worlds, and The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet. His most recent book, Many Colored Glass: Reflections on the Place of Life in the Universe (Page Barbour Lectures), is being published this month by University of Virgina Press.

HERETICAL THOUGHTS ABOUT SCIENCE AND SOCIETY

1. The Need for Heretics

1) In the modern world, science and society often interact in a perverse way. We live in a technological society, and technology causes political problems. The politicians and the public expect science to provide answers to the problems. Scientific experts are paid and encouraged to provide answers. The public does not have much use for a scientist who says, “Sorry, but we don’t know”. The public prefers to listen to scientists who give confident answers to questions and make confident predictions of what will happen as a result of human activities. So it happens that the experts who talk publicly about politically contentious questions tend to speak more clearly than they think. They make confident predictions about the future, and end up believing their own predictions. Their predictions become dogmas which they do not question. The public is led to believe that the fashionable scientific dogmas are true, and it may sometimes happen that they are wrong. That is why heretics who question the dogmas are needed. (1)

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(1) D makes some grand accusations, with nothing more than his opinion and word play intended to prejudice his audience from the start.
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2) As a scientist I do not have much faith in predictions.(1) Science is organized unpredictability. The best scientists like to arrange things in an experiment to be as unpredictable as possible, and then they do the experiment to see what will happen. You might say that if something is predictable then it is not science.(2) When I make predictions, I am not speaking as a scientist. I am speaking as a story-teller, and my predictions are science-fiction rather than science. The predictions of science-fiction writers are notoriously inaccurate. Their purpose is to imagine what might happen rather than to describe what will happen. I will be telling stories that challenge the prevailing dogmas of today. The prevailing dogmas may be right, but they still need to be challenged. I am proud to be a heretic. The world always needs heretics to challenge the prevailing orthodoxies. Since I am heretic, I am accustomed to being in the minority. If I could persuade everyone to agree with me, I would not be a heretic.(3)


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(1) D says he doesn’t believe in prediction, but later he makes a few of them, and expects his prediction to be a serious basis for doing nothing>ignoring
(2) It sounds to me that Dyson the theoretical physicist thinks that his way of approaching a physics experiments should be unquestioningly transfered to all Earth sciences. {I call misdirection}
(3) D makes it clear that the following is science fiction musing and should be treated with a healthy dose of salt – yet you have presented this to me as authoritative pronouncements that I should heed.
Don’t you have anything substantive?
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3) We are lucky that we can be heretics today without any danger of being burned at the stake. But unfortunately I am an old heretic. Old heretics do not cut much ice. When you hear an old heretic talking, you can always say, “Too bad he has lost his marbles”, and pass on. What the world needs is young heretics. I am hoping that one or two of the people who read this piece may fill that role. 

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4) Two years ago, I was at Cornell University celebrating the life of Tommy Gold, a famous astronomer who died at a ripe old age. He was famous as a heretic, promoting unpopular ideas that usually turned out to be right. Long ago I was a guinea-pig in Tommy’s experiments on human hearing. He had a heretical idea that the human ear discriminates pitch by means of a set of tuned resonators with active electromechanical feedback. He published a paper explaining how the ear must work, [Gold, 1948]. He described how the vibrations of the inner ear must be converted into electrical signals which feed back into the mechanical motion, reinforcing the vibrations and increasing the sharpness of the resonance. The experts in auditory physiology ignored his work because he did not have a degree in physiology. Many years later, the experts discovered the two kinds of hair-cells in the inner ear that actually do the feedback as Tommy had predicted, one kind of hair-cell acting as electrical sensors and the other kind acting as mechanical drivers. It took the experts forty years to admit that he was right. Of course, I knew that he was right, because I had helped him do the experiments.

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Anecdotal points made to proclaim the virtues of the heretic.
Sounds great and it further prejudices the audience. But, has nothing to do with climate or models

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5) Later in his life, Tommy Gold promoted another heretical idea, that the oil and natural gas in the ground come up from deep in the mantle of the earth and have nothing to do with biology. Again the experts are sure that he is wrong, and he did not live long enough to change their minds. Just a few weeks before he died, some chemists at the Carnegie Institution in Washington did a beautiful experiment in a diamond anvil cell, [Scott et al., 2004]. They mixed together tiny quantities of three things that we know exist in the mantle of the earth, and observed them at the pressure and temperature appropriate to the mantle about two hundred kilometers down. The three things were calcium carbonate which is sedimentary rock, iron oxide which is a component of igneous rock, and water. These three things are certainly present when a slab of subducted ocean floor descends from a deep ocean trench into the mantle. The experiment showed that they react quickly to produce lots of methane, which is natural gas. Knowing the result of the experiment, we can be sure that big quantities of natural gas exist in the mantle two hundred kilometers down. We do not know how much of this natural gas pushes its way up through cracks and channels in the overlying rock to form the shallow reservoirs of natural gas that we are now burning. If the gas moves up rapidly enough, it will arrive intact in the cooler regions where the reservoirs are found. If it moves too slowly through the hot region, the methane may be reconverted to carbonate rock and water. The Carnegie Institute experiment shows that there is at least a possibility that Tommy Gold was right and the natural gas reservoirs are fed from deep below. The chemists sent an E-mail to Tommy Gold to tell him their result, and got back a message that he had died three days earlier. Now that he is dead, we need more heretics to take his place.

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Yes, the history is science has many stories of the vindication of heretic notions. It is also filled with once brilliant minds getting old and trapped within their personal mental loops further and further removed from the state of the science.
D still hasn’t done more than share opinions, when solid information is what we need.

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2. Climate and Land Management

6) The main subject of this piece is the problem of climate change.(1) This is a contentious subject, involving politics and economics as well as science. The science is inextricably mixed up with politics.(2) Everyone agrees that the climate is changing, but there are violently diverging opinions about the causes of change, about the consequences of change, and about possible remedies.(3) I am promoting a heretical opinion, the first of three heresies that I will discuss in this piece.(4)

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(1) Did D just spend nearly a thousand words setting an anecdotal science fiction (his own words) stage to sing the virtues of the heretic – if not establish the correctness of “appeal to his authority.” And now he switch to climate science
{Seems to me the true heretic is the one who develops his ideas and pushes those ideals with all the evidence he can muster.
Not the crier on the street corner proclaiming what a grand heretic he is and how the world should be grateful for his heretic mind !}
(2) D doesn’t do anything to try to delineate the issues and offer some guidance in trying to recognize what belongs in which realm?
(3) Simply to claim there are violently diverging opinions and leaving it at that is nothing more than another act of misdirection. Within the climate science community their are not violently diverging opinions, there is a large and pretty much understood picture, differing opinions regarding details, and a lot of debate focused on further developing the understanding, but not “violently divergent” opinions.
The “violently divergent” opinions don’t come into the picture until it crosses over into the media realm where every start up or wannabe is afforded the same weight as those who have dedicated their lives to understanding the details.
(4) At this point we ought to remember D’s introduction and admission that the heretic is a weaver science fiction.

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7) My first heresy says that all the fuss about global warming is grossly exaggerated. Here I am opposing the holy brotherhood of climate model experts and the crowd of deluded citizens who believe the numbers predicted by the computer models.(1) Of course, they say, I have no degree in meteorology and I am therefore not qualified to speak. But I have studied the climate models and I know what they can do. The models solve the equations of fluid dynamics, and they do a very good job of describing the fluid motions of the atmosphere and the oceans. They do a very poor job of describing the clouds, the dust, the chemistry and the biology of fields and farms and forests. They do not begin to describe the real world that we live in.(2) The real world is muddy and messy and full of things that we do not yet understand. It is much easier for a scientist to sit in an air-conditioned building and run computer models, than to put on winter clothes and measure what is really happening outside in the swamps and the clouds.(3) That is why the climate model experts end up believing their own models. (4)

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(1) It is a lie to claim the crowd of deluded citizens believe in the models, without including their growing awareness of our melting Cryosphere and many other Down To Earth changes who’s acceleration we have been witnessing through out past decades.
UNTIL CONTRARIANS START ACKNOWLEDGING THESE REAL WORLD CHANGES CALLING MUCH OF THEIR PROPAGANDA MISDIRECTION, WHEN NOT DOWN RIGHT LIES ~ IS JUSTIFIED.
(2) Here again we are left to D’s appeal to his own authority. D does nothing to explain his claims. D does not discuss the advancement of models, computers, data input that have occurred over the past three decades. D does not describe how models are developed and refined using real earth measurements. D does not acknowledge that climate scientists are well aware of the limitations of models. Once again it’s only when we cross into the media realm that “the model story” gets super crazy.
(3) A slanderous distortion. There are many scientist out in the field (spending all that money contrarians want to rob from Earth observation systems of).
(4) A) climate scientists “believe” their models only so far.
B) D totally ignores how real Earth data is incorporated into the science of climate modeling.
D makes no attempt to explain the role of models as learning and mapping tools, knowing full well that the map is not the territory.
Nor does D touch on the fact that pretty much his entire career’s been based on creating and using models to help develop our understanding of nuclear physics.
{“short sharp jabs to confuse rather than explain”}

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8) There is no doubt that parts of the world are getting warmer, but the warming is not global.(1) I am not saying that the warming does not cause problems. Obviously it does. Obviously we should be trying to understand it better. I am saying that the problems are grossly exaggerated.(2) They take away money and attention from other problems that are more urgent and more important, (3) such as poverty and infectious disease and public education and public health, and the preservation of living creatures on land and in the oceans, not to mention easy problems such as the timely construction of adequate dikes around the city of New Orleans.

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(1) To make a statements like that without touching on the reality of our climate as a Heat Engine is disingenuous and misdirection in the extreme.
(2) Why should we lend weight to his opinion – appeal to his own authority should not be enough – unless one is writing a science fiction book… {oh I remember he did point out in the beginning that this was a science fiction)
(3) Hideous claim. Our climate sustained biosphere is humanities life support system and you resent
spending money on understanding it. (fyi This agenda driven jealous greed is one of the things that upsets me and allows insults to sneak through now and again.)
(4) As for the New Orleans blame the Reagan crowd for the slipshod construction of those dikes that gave way! The Depression Era dikes held just fine. 😉
But, those dikes are an excellent example of putting profits over appreciating the reality of the physical forces we have on our hands.

Katrina/New Orleans was an engineering disaster not a hurricane inflicted disaster, remember the storm had passed on.

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9) I will discuss the global warming problem in detail(1) because it is interesting, even though its importance is exaggerated.(2) One of the main causes of warming is the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere resulting from our burning of fossil fuels such as oil and coal and natural gas. To understand the movement of carbon through the atmosphere and biosphere, we need to measure a lot of numbers. I do not want to confuse you with a lot of numbers, so I will ask you to remember just one number. The number that I ask you to remember is one hundredth of an inch per year. Now I will explain what this number means. Consider the half of the land area of the earth that is not desert or ice-cap or city or road or parking-lot. This is the half of the land that is covered with soil and supports vegetation of one kind or another. Every year, it absorbs and converts into biomass a certain fraction of the carbon dioxide that we emit into the atmosphere. Biomass means living creatures, plants and microbes and animals, and the organic materials that are left behind when the creatures die and decay. We don’t know how big a fraction of our emissions is absorbed by the land, since we have not measured the increase or decrease of the biomass.(3) The number that I ask you to remember is the increase in thickness, averaged over one half of the land area of the planet, of the biomass that would result if all the carbon that we are emitting by burning fossil fuels were absorbed. The average increase in thickness is one hundredth of an inch per year.

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(1) Where does he “discuss” the global warming problem in the following paragraph – misdirection.
(2) Another fallacious appeal to authority and unreality towards the facts of our melting Cryosphere and what those implications are for humanity. From flooded shorelines to desiccation of the high mountain glacial lungs that sustain rain patterns and river systems.
(3) Hmmm, I wonder, now he expects us to take is word for it – on the appeal to his own authority, but there are people out there studying the soil and the CO2. Guess what google says:

> Canada’s soil organic carbon database. | Lacelle, B. | Soil … CABI Abstract | Canada’s soil organic carbon database. | The Canadian Soil Carbon Project was initiated in 1991 to determine the amount of organic carbon in …
www.cababstractsplus.org/abstracts/Abstract.aspx?AcNo=19981904037
> Northern and Mid-Latitude Soil Database, Version 1 The Soil Organic Carbon Digital Database of Canada. Research Branch, Agriculture Canada, Ottawa, Canada. U.S. Soil Conservation Service. 1994. …
daac.ornl.gov/SOILS/guides/mid_latitude_soils.html – Cached – Similar –
> Soil processes and the carbon cycle – Google Books Result
by R. Lal – 1998 – Technology & Engineering – 609 pages Canada’s Soil Organic Carbon Database B. Lacelle I. Introduction The Canadian Soil Carbon Project was initiated in 1991 to determine the amount of organic …
books.google.com/books?isbn=0849374413... –
> Soil organic carbon content and its distribution in Northern … Key words: Soil organic carbon database, peat soil, northern Territory of Canada, organic horizons, mineral horizons, profiles, reconnaissance soil survey …
www.ldd.go.th/18wcss/techprogram/P12249.HTM – Cached –
> Estimates of soil organic carbon stocks in central Canada using … File Format: PDF/Adobe Acrobat
by JS Bhatti – 2002 – Cited by 29 – Related articles – All 7 versions
Canadian Soil Organic Carbon Database (CSOCD), which uses expert estimation based on soil characteristics; and. (iii) model simulations with the Carbon … article.pubs.nrc-cnrc.gc.ca/ppv/RPViewDoc?issn=1208-6037…5... –
> National Scale Analysis of Soil Organic Carbon Storage in China …
by DS YU – 2007 – Cited by 5 – Related articles – All 4 versions
Canadian soil organic carbon database. In Lai, R. et al. (eds.) Soil Processes and the Carbon Cycle.CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida, pp. 93-102. … linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S1002016007600022 – Similar –

SO MUCH FOR TAKING DYSON’S WORD ON THAT !
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10) The point of this calculation is the very favorable rate of exchange between carbon in the atmosphere and carbon in the soil. To stop the carbon in the atmosphere from increasing, we only need to grow the biomass in the soil by a hundredth of an inch per year.(1) Good topsoil contains about ten percent biomass, [Schlesinger, 1977], so a hundredth of an inch of biomass growth means about a tenth of an inch of topsoil. Changes in farming practices such as no-till farming, avoiding the use of the plow, cause biomass to grow at least as fast as this. If we plant crops without plowing the soil, more of the biomass goes into roots which stay in the soil, and less returns to the atmosphere.(2) If we use genetic engineering to put more biomass into roots, we can probably achieve much more rapid growth of topsoil.(3) I conclude from this calculation that the problem of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a problem of land management, not a problem of meteorology.(4) No computer model of atmosphere and ocean can hope to predict the way we shall manage our land. 
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(1) Wait a minute D jumps from 1/100” carbon to 1/100” biomass. Weird math here, guess we’re supposed to take his appeal to authority on that.
(2) OK this would be fantastic any you look at it, but it’s contrary to modern farming by fertilizer.
(3) Yea, probably, maybe but we are talking hypotheticals.
(4) That is one grand leap of a conclusion, don’t suppose we can hope for a little more detail about how that will “actually” be achieved.

Oh, I’m supposed to accept D’s appeal to his own authority – but, let’s not forget this is a science fiction writing.
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11) Here is another heretical thought. Instead of calculating world-wide averages of biomass growth, we may prefer to look at the problem locally. Consider a possible future, with China continuing to develop an industrial economy based largely on the burning of coal, and the United States deciding to absorb the resulting carbon dioxide by increasing the biomass in our topsoil. The quantity of biomass that can be accumulated in living plants and trees is limited, but there is no limit to the quantity that can be stored in topsoil.(1) To grow topsoil on a massive scale may or may not be practical, depending on the economics of farming and forestry. It is at least a possibility to be seriously considered, that China could become rich by burning coal, while the United States could become environmentally virtuous by accumulating topsoil, with transport of carbon from mine in China to soil in America provided free of charge by the atmosphere, and the inventory of carbon in the atmosphere remaining constant.(2) We should take such possibilities into account when we listen to predictions about climate change and fossil fuels. If biotechnology takes over the planet in the next fifty years, as computer technology has taken it over in the last fifty years, the rules of the climate game will be radically changed.(3)

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(1) How in the world does D figure that? Can we ask on what information he bases such an extravagant claim? 1/100in/yr carbon = 1/000in/yr biomass (?) goes into 1/10in/yr top soil = accumulating one inch top soil every decade. Where is the 9/10inch/decade filler for the top soils coming from?
(2) So D proposes creating ten inches of top soil per century and this will go a long way to solving the atmospheric carbon dioxide problem. OH, I remember this is an exercise in science fiction.
(3) Another big science fiction if. Just because we dream it don’t mean we’ll be creating it in the future.

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12) When I listen to the public debates about climate change, I am impressed by the enormous gaps in our knowledge, the sparseness of our observations and the superficiality of our theories.(1) Many of the basic processes of planetary ecology are poorly understood.(2) They must be better understood before we can reach an accurate diagnosis of the present condition of our planet.(3) When we are trying to take care of a planet, just as when we are taking care of a human patient, diseases must be diagnosed before they can be cured. We need to observe and measure what is going on in the biosphere, rather than relying on computer models.(4)

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(1) Another giant assumption based on D’s appeal to his own authority. If you want me to take this serious he would be explaining how he arrived at that conclusion – you don’t have to do that in science fiction — BUT, I did ask for something real and authoritative not an old guys science fiction musings.
(2) How poor is “poor” is he expecting Ecological Sciences to reach the precision of atomic physics?
(3) Misdirection. D is implying that we don’t have enough information to make reasonable predictions – but climate sciences predictions have been fairly accurate, though the contrarian never looks at trying to understand the depth of knowledge we have acquired this past half century.

(4) What baloney aimed at more misdirection. Go to the hospital with a high fever and they will treat the symptom immediately and puzzle out the disease as the patient is being stabilized

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13) Everyone agrees that the increasing abundance of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has two important consequences, first a change in the physics of radiation transport in the atmosphere, and second a change in the biology of plants on the ground and in the ocean.(1) Opinions differ on the relative importance of the physical and biological effects, and on whether the effects, either separately or together, are beneficial or harmful. The physical effects are seen in changes of rainfall, cloudiness, wind-strength and temperature, which are customarily lumped together in the misleading phrase “global warming”.(2) In humid air, the effect of carbon dioxide on radiation transport is unimportant because the transport of thermal radiation is already blocked by the much larger greenhouse effect of water vapor.(3) The effect of carbon dioxide is important where the air is dry, and air is usually dry only where it is cold. Hot desert air may feel dry but often contains a lot of water vapor. The warming effect of carbon dioxide is strongest where air is cold and dry, mainly in the arctic rather than in the tropics, mainly in mountainous regions rather than in lowlands, mainly in winter rather than in summer, and mainly at night rather than in daytime. The warming is real, but it is mostly making cold places warmer rather than making hot places hotter.(4) To represent this local warming by a global average is misleading.


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(1) What about ocean acidification (OK if you prefer dropping alkalinity – big trouble no matter how you spell it.)
(2) And why is it misleading? Oceans are warming, polar regions are warming, ground temps averaged together are warming. Why shouldn’t it be called Global Warming? Oh yea I forgot this is an exercise in science fiction.
(3) What about their different absorbtion bands?
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(4) Here’s what Michael Tobis PhD has to say about that:
The argument you quote is invalid for two reasons.
First, the greenhouse effect never fully saturates; increased optical depth continues to warm the surface long after the atmosphere is essentially opaque to outgoing infrared waves.
Second, for the most part there is little overlap between the absorption bands of H2O and CO2.
The idea that the effect applies “mainly in mountainous regions rather than in lowlands” is particularly astonishing. It is exactly 180 degrees from the truth.
It is the integrated column depth of greenhouse gases that trap the outgoing IR. Mountains, being nearer the top of the atmosphere, experience less greenhouse warming than the surface.
So “particularly in the mountains” shows that the author has never even sat down with the undergraduate level approximation of how atmospheric radiative transfer actually works. It’s really quite shocking.
In fact, the high latitudes are more sensitive to warming. However this is not because they are dry but rather, in part, because of the persistent presence of low clouds, (exactly contrary to the tale he is trying to spin) as well as ice-albedo feedback. See, e.g., Holland and Botz
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14) The fundamental reason why carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is critically important to biology is that there is so little of it. A field of corn growing in full sunlight in the middle of the day uses up all the carbon dioxide within a meter of the ground in about five minutes. If the air were not constantly stirred by convection currents and winds, the corn would stop growing. About a tenth of all the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is converted into biomass every summer and given back to the atmosphere every fall. That is why the effects of fossil-fuel burning cannot be separated from the effects of plant growth and decay. There are five reservoirs of carbon that are biologically accessible on a short time-scale, not counting the carbonate rocks and the deep ocean which are only accessible on a time-scale of thousands of years.(1) The five accessible reservoirs are the atmosphere, the land plants, the topsoil in which land plants grow, the surface layer of the ocean in which ocean plants grow, and our proved reserves of fossil fuels. The atmosphere is the smallest reservoir and the fossil fuels are the largest, but all five reservoirs are of comparable size.(2) They all interact strongly with one another. To understand any of them, it is necessary to understand all of them.


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(1) Well, isn’t that the deal – coal and oil are geologic reserves that are releasing quantities of CO2 sequestered over many, many millions of years.
(2) What in the world does that mean? The quantity of CO2 in the atmosphere is comparable to the CO2 in our coal. What data is that based on? Oh, I remember this is science fiction

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15) As an example of the way different reservoirs of carbon dioxide may interact with each other, consider the atmosphere and the topsoil. Greenhouse experiments show that many plants growing in an atmosphere enriched with carbon dioxide react by increasing their root-to-shoot ratio. This means that the plants put more of their growth into roots and less into stems and leaves. A change in this direction is to be expected, because the plants have to maintain a balance between the leaves collecting carbon from the air and the roots collecting mineral nutrients from the soil. The enriched atmosphere tilts the balance so that the plants need less leaf-area and more root-area. Now consider what happens to the roots and shoots when the growing season is over, when the leaves fall and the plants die. The new-grown biomass decays and is eaten by fungi or microbes. Some of it returns to the atmosphere and some of it is converted into topsoil. On the average, more of the above-ground growth will return to the atmosphere and more of the below-ground growth will become topsoil. So the plants with increased root-to-shoot ratio will cause an increased transfer of carbon from the atmosphere into topsoil. If the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide due to fossil-fuel burning has caused an increase in the average root-to-shoot ratio of plants over large areas, then the possible effect on the top-soil reservoir will not be small. At present we have no way to measure or even to guess the size of this effect. The aggregate biomass of the topsoil of the planet is not a measurable quantity. But the fact that the topsoil is unmeasurable does not mean that it is unimportant.


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Interesting musing. But are you suggesting this should be the basis for pretending radical changes aren’t needed.
{Seems to me if we don’t initiate serious changes ~ much more heinous natural changes are going to steam roller over us.}

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16) At present we do not know whether the topsoil of the United States is increasing or decreasing. Over the rest of the world, because of large-scale deforestation and erosion, the topsoil reservoir is probably decreasing. We do not know whether intelligent land-management could increase the growth of the topsoil reservoir by four billion tons of carbon per year, the amount needed to stop the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. All that we can say for sure is that this is a theoretical possibility and ought to be seriously explored.
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3. Oceans and Ice-ages

17) Another problem that has to be taken seriously is a slow rise of sea level which could become catastrophic if it continues to accelerate. We have accurate measurements of sea level going back two hundred years. We observe a steady rise from 1800 to the present, with an acceleration during the last fifty years. It is widely believed that the recent acceleration is due to human activities, since it coincides in time with the rapid increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But the rise from 1800 to 1900 was probably not due to human activities. The scale of industrial activities in the nineteenth century was not large enough to have had measurable global effects. So a large part of the observed rise in sea level must have other causes.(1) One possible cause is a slow readjustment of the shape of the earth to the disappearance of the northern ice-sheets at the end of the ice age twelve thousand years ago. Another possible cause is the large-scale melting of glaciers, which also began long before human influences on climate became significant.(2) Once again, we have an environmental danger whose magnitude cannot be predicted until we know more about its causes, [Munk, 2002]. (3)


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(1) Why does D have to muddle frames of reference? He admits to an acceleration during the last five decades, most probably due to human influence – but then immediately tries to muddle that within the slow rise during the previous century.
(2) D gives us reassurance based on appeal to his own authority. I claim his interpretation doesn’t do justice to the data.
Why doesn’t D ever suggest visiting the National Snow and Ice Data Center to cross check his claims?
(3) Where in the world does D get making such a grand statement without offer any shed of supporting data?
Appeal to his own authority. . . As for that last sentence it is utter bs, very serious and sober predictions can be made.

{And while some continue dabbling and discoursing in their ivory towers, the Cryosphere becomes softer and dripping off the edges accelerates and the real world contemporary situation become more and more ominous. Every serious ice melt “model” made in past decades is being superseded by current real world measurements! And still all contrarians want to do is play word games. Shame on you.}
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18) The most alarming possible cause of sea-level rise is a rapid disintegration of the West Antarctic ice-sheet, which is the part of Antarctica where the bottom of the ice is far below sea level. Warming seas around the edge of Antarctica might erode the ice-cap from below and cause it to collapse into the ocean.(1) If the whole of West Antarctica disintegrated rapidly, sea-level would rise by five meters, with disastrous effects on billions of people. However, recent measurements of the ice-cap show that it is not losing volume fast enough to make a significant contribution to the presently observed sea-level rise.(2) It appears that the warming seas around Antarctica are causing an increase in snowfall over the ice-cap, and the increased snowfall on top roughly cancels (3) out the decrease of ice volume caused by erosion at the edges. The same changes, increased melting of ice at the edges and increased snowfall adding ice on top, are also observed in Greenland. In addition, there is an increase in snowfall over the East Antarctic Ice-cap, which is much larger and colder and is in no danger of melting.(4) This is another situation where we do not know how much of the environmental change is due to human activities and how much to long-term natural processes over which we have no control.(5)


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(1) Why doesn’t D point out that warm ocean waters are actually scooping out the bottoms of ice sheets and glacial tongues? Admittedly these finding are at best a couple years old.
(2) BS!!! Go visit the National Snow and Ice Data Center!!!
(3) BS!!! Go visit the National Snow and Ice Data Center!!! Furthermore a square meter of snowfall, does not a square meter of ancient glacier equal. And you tell me this guy should be accepted as a solid scientist?! Misdirection of the most grievous kind!
Visit: http://arctic.atmos.uiuc.edu/cryosphere/
{Incidentally, that’s another thing about contrarian that really p’s me off, they consistently ignore new data and keep trying to make arguments with old information that has been long since superseded –> good contrarians have a lot in common with creationist.}
(4) It makes me want to scream: and you believe your serious about looking at the data, come on, enough of chimeras, start looking at what is going on. Visit http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/vanishing/
(5) This is another unsupported opinion that I’m supposed to accept on D’s appeal to his own authority.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


19) Another environmental danger that is even more poorly understood is the possible coming of a new ice-age. A new ice-age would mean the burial of half of North America and half of Europe under massive ice-sheets. We know that there is a natural cycle that has been operating for the last eight hundred thousand years.(1) The length of the cycle is a hundred thousand years. In each hundred-thousand year period, there is an ice-age that lasts about ninety thousand years and a warm interglacial period that lasts about ten thousand years. We are at present in a warm period that began twelve thousand years ago, so the onset of the next ice-age is overdue.(2) If human activities were not disturbing the climate, a new ice-age might already have begun. We do not know how to answer the most important question: do our human activities in general, and our burning of fossil fuels in particular, make the onset of the next ice-age more likely or less likely?(3)


~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

(1) And why at this point doesn’t D remind us of orbital effect of planet warming?
(2) Why doesn’t D mention that current CO2 levels, especially those yet to be added have made another glaciation impossible unless our orbit changes most radically?
(3) Baloney!
Visit: http://www.skepticalscience.com/heading-into-new-little-ice-age.htm
More nonsense I’m supposed to accept on the basis of D’s appeal to his own authority.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


20) There are good arguments on both sides of this question. On the one side, we know that the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was much lower during past ice-ages than during warm periods, so it is reasonable to expect that an artificially high level of carbon dioxide might stop an ice-age from beginning. On the other side, the oceanographer Wallace Broecker [Broecker, 1997] has argued that the present warm climate in Europe depends on a circulation of ocean water, with the Gulf Stream flowing north on the surface and bringing warmth to Europe, and with a counter-current of cold water flowing south in the deep ocean. So a new ice-age could begin whenever the cold deep counter-current is interrupted. The counter-current could be interrupted when the surface water in the Arctic becomes less salty and fails to sink, and the water could become less salty when the warming climate increases the Arctic rainfall. (1) Thus Broecker argues that a warm climate in the Arctic may paradoxically cause an ice-age to begin.(2) Since we are confronted with two plausible arguments(3) leading to opposite conclusions, the only rational response is to admit our ignorance. Until the causes of ice-ages are understood,(4) we cannot know whether the increase of carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing or decreasing the danger.(5)

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

(1) Another example of using outdated data to make an argument.
http://oceanmotion.org/html/impact/conveyor.htm.
(2) No background facts are offered in support of D’s musings. For instance the last time the Ocean Convey Belt was interrupted, massive ice-sheets covered North America and Europe. Ever drive down the Columbia River Valley? I hear tell the Hudson is similar. Look at the size of those river valley flanks, there was some massive water gushing into the ocean back then, nothing happen today or in the near future could match that, enough ice just isn’t there. Apparently the master physicist has a problem translating that smarts into real Earth phenomena. Again why should I take D’s appeal to his own authority over obvious stuff ~ that anyone who thinks about it knows better?

(3) There’s nothing plausible about it.
(4) The audacity to claim ice-ages aren’t understood.
Perhaps this is an example of a physicist expecting Earth Science’s to meet an Engineer’s Standard of accuracy and a Physicist’s Standard of Reproducibility?
So can we examine that?
What “standards” ARE contrarians expecting our Earth Scientists to meet?

(5) Oh yea, I forgot, Freeman warned me way back at the beginning, that this was a heretics science fiction.
So why am going through this? I thought Curt was going to give me something serious.
… And if this is the best you can offer my contempt has just ratcheted up another notch.
sorry but I’m getting old and really tired of people blowing it up my behind.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


4. The Wet Sahara
21) My second heresy is also concerned with climate change. It is about the mystery of the wet Sahara. This is a mystery that has always fascinated me. At many places in the Sahara desert that are now dry and unpopulated, we find rock-paintings showing people with herds of animals. The paintings are abundant, and some of them are of high artistic quality, comparable with the more famous cave-paintings in France and Spain. The Sahara paintings are more recent than the cave-paintings. They come in a variety of styles and were probably painted over a period of several thousand years. The latest of them show Egyptian influences and may be contemporaneous with early Egyptian tomb paintings. Henri Lhote’s book, “The Search for the Tassili Frescoes”, [Lhote, 1958], is illustrated with reproductions of fifty of the paintings. The best of the herd paintings date from roughly six thousand years ago. They are strong evidence that the Sahara at that time was wet. There was enough rain to support herds of cows and giraffes, which must have grazed on grass and trees. There were also some hippopotamuses and elephants. The Sahara then must have been like the Serengeti today.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


I can’t even get into this paragraph.
Is D imagining that our climate will do some nice neat quantum leap to another steady state tailor made for humanity?

I guess the lesson is never listen to a physicist regarding down to Earth processes such as warming our planet.
No steady states here, we have induced changes that are reflected in trajectories and vortexes and they are going in one flowing direction.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


22) At the same time, roughly six thousand years ago, there were deciduous forests in Northern Europe where the trees are now conifers, proving that the climate in the far north was milder than it is today. There were also trees standing in mountain valleys in Switzerland that are now filled with famous glaciers. The glaciers that are now shrinking were much smaller six thousand years ago than they are today.(1) Six thousand years ago seems to have been the warmest and wettest period of the interglacial era that began twelve thousand years ago when the last Ice Age ended. I would like to ask two questions. First, if the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is allowed to continue, shall we arrive at a climate similar to the climate of six thousand years ago when the Sahara was wet?(2) Second, if we could choose between the climate of today with a dry Sahara and the climate of six thousand years ago with a wet Sahara, should we prefer the climate of today?(3) My second heresy answers yes to the first question and no to the second. It says that the warm climate of six thousand years ago with the wet Sahara is to be preferred, and that increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may help to bring it back. I am not saying that this heresy is true. I am only saying that it will not do us any harm to think about it.(4)


~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

(1) Omitting comparisons of the relative rates of change is misleading.
(2) No. Our climatic equilibrium is not analogues to the quantum state models this old physicist seems to be trapped within.
(3) “If we could chose” ?
Do you folks actually believe we can choose where our climate is going to land at?
Don’t you scientists know that our climate acts on geologic time scales and that is it fluid?
Oh, oh yea, I forgot again this is science fiction.
What’s bad is that it is written in a way to encourage people to forget that this is a science fictional musing.
(4) Right, like it does no harm to wonder if a falling tree makes a noise when no human is there to hear it – but it is a worthless train of empty logic none the less.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


23) The biosphere is the most complicated of all the things we humans have to deal with.(1) The science of planetary ecology is still young and undeveloped.(2) It is not surprising that honest and well-informed experts can disagree about facts. But beyond the disagreement about facts, there is another deeper disagreement about values.(3) The disagreement about values may be described in an over-simplified way as a disagreement between naturalists and humanists. Naturalists believe that nature knows best. For them the highest value is to respect the natural order of things. Any gross human disruption of the natural environment is evil. (4) Excessive burning of fossil fuels is evil.(5) Changing nature’s desert, either the Sahara desert or the ocean desert, into a managed ecosystem where giraffes or tunafish may flourish, is likewise evil.(6) Nature knows best, and anything we do to improve upon Nature will only bring trouble.(7) 


~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

(1) What about the human brain and biological details?
(2) This is not true. There are libraries full of the accumulating knowledge of centuries,
to call our understanding of Earth systems undeveloped is delusional.
Here we get back to the question of applying the standards of an atomic Physicist to Earth Sciences. It’s a fools errand.

(3) Watch out the Value’s Card is getting played.
(4) He is misrepresenting what Naturalists believe. But, we are supposed to take D’s spin on account of D’s appeal to his own authority.
(5) Excessive burning of coal is injecting excessive levels of CO2 into our Heat Engine. This should be belittled?
(6) Now we are getting into ranting.

(7) Nonsense it is the old tactic of making your enemy look like a demon in order to allow one the luxury of dehumanizing those one disagrees with. What harm contrarian tactics are inflicting upon the fabric of our society… shame on you.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


24) The humanist ethic begins with the belief that humans are an essential part of nature. Through human minds the biosphere has acquired the capacity to steer its own evolution, and now we are in charge.(1) Humans have the right and the duty to reconstruct nature so that humans and biosphere can both survive and prosper. For humanists, the highest value is harmonious coexistence between humans and nature.(2) The greatest evils are poverty, underdevelopment, unemployment, disease and hunger, all the conditions that deprive people of opportunities and limit their freedoms.(3) The humanist ethic accepts an increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as a small price to pay, if world-wide industrial development can alleviate the miseries of the poorer half of humanity. The humanist ethic accepts our responsibility to guide the evolution of the planet.(4)


~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

(1) Hey, two lines I can agree with, finally.
(2) This is all fine and good, but D doesn’t say a word about understanding , appreciating and cooperating with forces greater than we are.
(3) This seems one of the most disingenuous pieces of malarky that keeps getting passed around.
If our economic system gave a damn about poverty, hunger, disease, etc. it wouldn’t have developed into such a self-obsessed Wall Street profits-über-alles system that it has.
It’s like pretending that USA invaded Iraq to further democracy.
More sheer nonsense we are supposed to take on account of D’s appeal to his own authority.
(4) Folks we are not involved in some theorists parlor musings here. We are talking about visible effects upon our Planet that are not going away because you don’t want to pay them any mind! Contrarians seem trapped in a science fiction where we have all the time in the world to consider the plot and create our desired out comes. Too bad that’s an ugly fantasy. Shame on Dyson for printing this drivel.

{Oh god help me, another 1300 words worth of this to slosh through.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


25) The sharpest conflict between naturalist and humanist ethics arises in the regulation of genetic engineering. The naturalist ethic condemns genetically modified food-crops and all other genetic engineering projects that might upset the natural ecology.(1) The humanist ethic looks forward to a time not far distant, when genetically engineered food-crops and energy-crops will bring wealth to poor people in tropical countries, and incidentally give us tools to control the growth of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.(2) Here I must confess my own bias. Since I was born and brought up in England, I spent my formative years in a land with great beauty and a rich ecology which is almost entirely man-made. The natural ecology of England was uninterrupted and rather boring forest. Humans replaced the forest with an artificial landscape of grassland and moorland, fields and farms, with a much richer variety of plant and animal species. Quite recently, only about a thousand years ago, we introduced rabbits, a non-native species which had a profound effect on the ecology. Rabbits opened glades in the forest where flowering plants now flourish. There is no wilderness in England, and yet there is plenty of room for wild-flowers and birds and butterflies as well as a high density of humans.(3) Perhaps that is why I am a humanist.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


(1) Why doesn’t D explain any of the many reasons for concern on the part of some?
(2) Sorry now this is sounds like the diorama’s at the museums during my childhood. All the marvels, just around the corner. Well, I’m living around the corner and it turned out to lies. And you can bet D’s science fiction musing are just that if you think they have a foothold on this real world.
(3) His point is? Are we pretending something is taking us back to those marvelous times?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


26) To conclude this piece I come to my third and last heresy. My third heresy says that the United States has less than a century left of its turn as top nation. (1) Since the modern nation-state was invented around the year 1500, a succession of countries have taken turns at being top nation, first Spain, then France, Britain, America. Each turn lasted about 150 years. Ours began in 1920, so it should end about 2070. (2) The reason why each top nation’s turn comes to an end is that the top nation becomes over-extended, militarily, economically and politically. Greater and greater efforts are required to maintain the number one position. Finally the over-extension becomes so extreme that the structure collapses. Already we can see in the American posture today some clear symptoms of over-extension. Who will be the next top nation? China is the obvious candidate. After that it might be India or Brazil. We should be asking ourselves, not how to live in an America-dominated world, but how to prepare for a world that is not America-dominated. (3) That may be the most important problem for the next generation of Americans to solve. How does a people that thinks of itself as number one yield gracefully to become number two? (4)

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

(1) Apparently, he hasn’t been watching the news, in an awful lot of categories we have already slipped off the throne.
(2) So we are supposed to believe nothing has changed in society’s trajectory and good old patterns are just going to repeat themselves. Oh yea, I remember this is a science fictional musings we are dealing with here.
So why are people pointing to this thing as some seminal essay?
(3) This stuff is great for a fictional story line, but can we please remember we are dealing with a planet that does not conform it’s processes to suit our Hollyworld thinking, even if it comes from the most eminent physicist in the world.
I suggest we are going to be confronted with a wild climate and that will be dominating our future world.
(4) This is down right sad, and reinforces my growing hopelessness toward the human ability to attain the human potential. Our number one problem, bar none, is to finally learn to appreciate our planet Earth for the dynamic process driven entity that it is.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


27) I am telling the next generation of young students, who will still be alive in the second half of our century, that misfortunes are on the way. Their precious Ph.D., or whichever degree they went through long years of hard work to acquire, may be worth less than they think. Their specialized training may become obsolete. They may find themselves over-qualified for the available jobs. They may be declared redundant. The country and the culture to which they belong may move far away from the mainstream. But these misfortunes are also opportunities. It is always open to them to join the heretics and find another way to make a living. With or without a Ph.D., there are big and important problems for them to solve.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


this is too much, if I commented I would start insulting.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~



28) I will not attempt to summarize the lessons that my readers should learn from these heresies. (1) The main lesson that I would like them to take home is that the long-range future is not predetermined. The future is in their hands. (1) The rules of the world-historical game change from decade to decade in unpredictable ways. All our fashionable worries and all our prevailing dogmas will probably be obsolete in fifty years. My heresies will probably also be obsolete. It is up to them to find new heresies to guide our way to a more hopeful future. (3)

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

(1) I sure wish he would remind us that we should take this science fiction with a large dose of salt.
(2) No, the future is going to be thrust in their faces, it is not in their hands to be formed by wishful thinking.
(3) Pretty grandiose, sounds like a guy who’s more full of himself that understanding the real world around him.
NOT a good teacher to recommend to younger generations. Unless self deception is the game.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


5. Bad Advice to a Young Scientist

29) Sixty years ago, when I was a young and arrogant physicist, I tried to predict the future of physics and biology. My prediction was an extreme example of wrongness, perhaps a world record in the category of wrong predictions. I was giving advice about future employment to Francis Crick, the great biologist who died in 2005 after a long and brilliant career. He discovered, with Jim ., the double helix. They discovered the double helix structure of DNA in 1953, and thereby gave birth to the new science of molecular genetics. Eight years before that, in 1945, before World War 2 came to an end, I met Francis Crick for the first time. He was in Fanum House, a dismal office building in London where the Royal Navy kept a staff of scientists. Crick had been working for the Royal Navy for a long time and was depressed and discouraged. He said he had missed his chance of ever amounting to anything as a scientist. Before World War 2, he had started a promising career as a physicist. But then the war hit him at the worst time, putting a stop to his work in physics and keeping him away from science for six years. The six best years of his life, squandered on naval intelligence, lost and gone forever. Crick was good at naval intelligence, and did important work for the navy. But military intelligence bears the same relation to intelligence as military music bears to music. After six years doing this kind of intelligence, it was far too late for Crick to start all over again as a student and relearn all the stuff he had forgotten. No wonder he was depressed. I came away from Fanum House thinking, “How sad. Such a bright chap. If it hadn’t been for the war, he would probably have been quite a good scientist”. (1)


~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

(1) What does this have to do with climate or climate models?


{and bad advice it is}
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


30) A year later, I met Crick again. The war was over and he was much more cheerful. He said he was thinking of giving up physics and making a completely fresh start as a biologist. He said the most exciting science for the next twenty years would be in biology and not in physics. I was then twenty-two years old and very sure of myself. I said, “No, you’re wrong. In the long run biology will be more exciting, but not yet. The next twenty years will still belong to physics. If you switch to biology now, you will be too old to do the exciting stuff when biology finally takes off”. Fortunately, he didn’t listen to me. He went to Cambridge and began thinking about DNA. It took him only seven years to prove me wrong. The moral of this story is clear. Even a smart twenty-two-year-old is not a reliable guide to the future of science. And the twenty-two-year-old has become even less reliable now that he is eighty-two. (1)

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

(1) Great can we put that in all caps? D is even less reliable now than when he was 22!

You know in the good old days they had the court jester. In many ways a wise and talented person. Given liberty to cause a little confusion and hopefully a lot of reflection along with humor. I believe on some levels Dyson imagines himself that wise jester trying to rattle guests out of their stupors. Unfortunately this is a different age, and the masses need something more authentic and reflective of real world happenings.
Why? Because we have, despite contrarian induced blindness, crossed a threshold and radical biosphere changes are afoot. One need only look at down to Earth data.

This was a science fiction musing by a self proclaimed old over the hill heretic.
But, not a true heretic who would be toiling over his quest. Here we have a heretic for profit expounding from a soap box.
I don’t buy it. Show me something a bit more real and sincere.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


[Excerpted from Many Colored Glass: Reflections on the Place of Life in the Universe (Page Barbour Lectures) by Freeman Dyson, University of Virgina Press, 2007.]
 
 

 
 
 



Image from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal via Scruffy Dan

Excellent TED Talk Until the Climate Part


A really awe-inspiring TED talk by David Deutsch is also really discouraging and disappointing.

Of course at first I didn’t see where he was going. Unfortunately he was leading up to some fundamentally cracked ideas about climate change. It’s really sad, as the talk is inspiring and invigorating until it gets to the hopelessly wrong parts. But what is it about physicists that gives them license to get the climate problem so dramatically and publicly wrong while putting so little effort into investigating it?

Deutsch concludes that we should focus on fixing big problems, not on avoiding them. This is a commonly held opinion by smart people who don’t understand the climate problem. It’s fundamentally wrong on two grounds. First, as he in effect points out, there really isn’t a strong distinction between avoiding a problem and solving a problem; avoiding a problem is a version of solving a problem, isn’t it? Second, of course, the extent to which you have a problem isn’t binary. You may have a big climate change problem, or a huge one, or an overwhelming one. And of course, all the exciting progress he goes on about, all this capacity to “create the relevant knowledge” suddenly goes away once problems become overwhelming. Perhaps people whose immediate family have never actually been in overwhelming situations are overly sanguine about this possibility.

Those are just the gross failures of his position. Now onto the deatils.

He only talks about climate change for three minutes, after leading up to it for fifteen, but look at the holwers he manages to come up with in those three minutes.

1) “It’s already too late to prevent a catastrophe” is true in some weak sense, but again, the situation isn’t binary. It is the scope of the catastrophe that is exactly what is at issue.

2) “The actions proposed don’t solve the problem, but merely postpone it by a little”. That was true of Kyoto, the advantage of which would have been that we would have international protocols in place now that the real cuts are needed. Having skipped that step, our job is more difficult. But 80% cuts in the advanced countries by 2050 are at least consistent with addressing the problem at scale, and that is what we are discussing nowadays. In fact, that is the only sane recourse.

3) “in the 1970’s when the best science was warning about humans causing an ice age”. Groan.

4) “When we know how to avoid a disaster at a cost that’s much less than the disaster being avoided, there’s not going to be much argument, really.” You’d think. But, alas, no. I refer Dr. Deutsch to an interesting blog called Only In It for the Gold which is centrally focussed on why this fairly obvious “fact” just isn’t true. (Hint: what is “known” to science greatly exceeds what is “known” to policy.)

5) “Instead of reducing gases we ought to be looking at plans to reduce the temperature”. This is geoengineering idiocy. It is really necessary to get a couple of very fundamental facts across. First: the problem is not the temperature, it is the rearrangement of the fluid flow regimes in the new temperature regime. Temperature is only a crude gauge of climate change. We can have massive climate change with small changes in global mean temperature, though the case of small climate change with large temperature changes is excluded. This is where the actual scientific knowledge comes in. And though Deutsch claims to defer to the experts, it appears he has not bothered to talk to any of them.

6) He also briefly mentions an approach to carbon sequestration and then proceeds to a broad brush characterization that “nobody” is thinking seriously about these things. Of course that’s a very sweeping generalization, and I think it’s actually not true at all in the actual scientific sectors where the work is happening. Of course, the left and the right may not be paying any mind, so of course the press isn’t either. But I’d hope a physicist talking informally about the subject would know better, and I’d insist that a physicist talking publicly about it take the time to actually meet and talk to people working in the field.

So six substantial objective errors of fact in three minutes in a public talk.

Finally, let me point out that his arguments are totally disjoint from economics or politics. I sympathize. I like to start from what’s physically possible, proceeding thence to what is socially and economically possible. Deutsch ignores that problem altogether. I suppose that is better than the opposite position which ignores physics in favor of politics, but not by much.

Again, there’s much that I very much enjoyed about the talk so I’m sorry to have to say it’s irresponsible. Indeed it is irresponsible in a very Dysonesque way. Why do physicists with their perspective on the largest and smallest scales get the idea that they understand the planetary scale? I’m sure the folks at the Hadley Centre, for instance, would be happy to entertain this interesting fellow and give him a more nuanced view.

So, why didn’t he bother?

Update: A much better TED talk on geoengineering by David Keith. He seemed more optimistic than I thought was warranted, mostly based on the AGU session in 07, though.

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 moonbattery.com who probably lifted it from the department or the Madison local media.
The Dyson picture is the Wikipedia one.


Great Moments in Unintentional Irony

In a more or less typical “economists who agree with my preconceptions are reasonable, economists who don’t, aren’t, and climate science doesn’t really exist” essay, someone calling himself the Skeptical Optimist manages this wonderful blurt:

GW news is too frequently contaminated by confirmation bias, belief preservation, and rehearsed political dogma. I stop reading as soon as I detect any of that, which means I skip a lot of GW “news.”)

I was glad to see Freeman Dyson’s recent review…

(Link added by your humble editor. Needless to say, I skipped the rest…)

It is nice to see Mr. Optimist doing such a good job of avoiding confirmation bias.

Dyson Exegesis

Freeman Dyson starts an article with the words “My first heresy says that all the fuss about global warming is grossly exaggerated. Here I am opposing the holy brotherhood of climate model experts and the crowd of deluded citizens who believe the numbers predicted by the computer models”. Yet his article is hardly about climate models, or their relationship to experts or citizens, at all.

I personally have no disagreement with the “third heresy”, the idea that the USA is at the end of its hegemony, by the way. I actually think this is occurring now, not 50 years hence as Dyson suggests. I have no idea what this has to do with the purported intent of Dyson’s essay, though.

The primary practical (as opposed to theoretical) problem our field needs address these days is to identify specific regional trends and risks, to inform adaptation. This is as opposed to the mitigation question, whether and how much to change our behavior to reduce climate impacts.

The question of how much to mitigate or not is not primarily about climate science anymore, but about economics, ecology, and values. Dyson points out that this is not “a problem in meteorology”, and on this point, it must be said, he is very much correct. We already know that the global temperature sensitivity to equivalent CO2 doubling is near 3 degrees C.

The fact that this is considered to be in doubt is a consequence of people using meteorological uncertainty as a diversion, in order to avoid the issue for as long as possible. Dyson fails to understand how this is happening. Like most older scientists he lives in an older, more civilized world than the rest of us occupy. So he misunderstands where the controversy comes from.

That said, his position seems to meander: carbon is a land management problem, but it isn’t a problem anyway, and we might kick off an ice age and we might not and… Many of the common misconceptions and not uncommon hubris are scrambled together here. This isn’t a serious article, it’s an intelligent but essentially uninformed rant. Unfortunately I have to call it irresponsible.

It’s also a bit incoherent. So I respond below to some of the individual points made without further summary.

Dyson’s text is in blue, my responses in black. Hopefully people inclined to take Dyson seriously on this matter will come by here and think again.


PART I Paragraph 2

The models solve the equations of fluid dynamics, and they do a very good job of describing the fluid motions of the atmosphere and the oceans. They do a very poor job of describing the clouds, the dust, the chemistry and the biology of fields and farms and forests. They do not begin to describe the real world that we live in. The real world is muddy and messy and full of things that we do not yet understand. It is much easier for a scientist to sit in an air-conditioned building and run computer models, than to put on winter clothes and measure what is really happening outside in the swamps and the clouds.

Sure…

That is why the climate model experts end up believing their own models.

Um, I must have missed a step here… In fact climate model experts do not particularly “believe” models. Our skepticism is informed and consequently rather complex. Do we believe this, did we capture that… So here Dyson is completely off base.

Paragraph 3

the warming is not global

This is just confusion. He should read my realclimate article on the definition of “global warming”.

Paragraph 4

The number that I ask you to remember is the increase in thickness, averaged over one half of the land area of the planet, of the biomass that would result if all the carbon that we are emitting by burning fossil fuels were absorbed. The average increase in thickness is one hundredth of an inch per year.

Per YEAR!!! On every piece of viable land, under economic use or otherwise… He certainly identifies a viable carbon sequestration sink, but the idea of an inch of graphite per century being redistributed on all land everywhere in soil restructuring is hardly a trivial matter to handwave away.

Anyway, notice he is already wandering away from climate modeling and has said very little about it.

Paragraph 5

Changes in farming practices such as no-till farming, avoiding the use of the plow, cause biomass to grow at least as fast as this. If we plant crops without plowing the soil, more of the biomass goes into roots which stay in the soil, and less returns to the atmosphere. If we use genetic engineering to put more biomass into roots, we can probably achieve much more rapid growth of topsoil. I conclude from this calculation that the problem of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a problem of land management, not a problem of meteorology.

Well, it certainly isn’t an EASY problem in land management. However, I agree with Dyson that the focus on meteorology is misplaced in the mitigation arguments. Climate science is crucial on the adaptation side, but all the focus on it on the mitigation side is a red herring and a vicious one.

What Dyson is proposing here seems at first blush unrealistic to me. Of course I’m always hopeful when a mitigation startegy is proposed that doesn’t involve too much disruption. I don’t know if he’s talked to soil experts or agronomists. What it is, is a very coarse approach to a mitigation strategy.

Let’s be pleased, at least, that Dyson acknowledges a problem of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Paragraph 7

When I listen to the public debates about climate change, I am impressed by the enormous gaps in our knowledge, the sparseness of our observations and the superficiality of our theories. Many of the basic processes of planetary ecology are poorly understood. They must be better understood before we can reach an accurate diagnosis of the present condition of our planet.

Well, the topic has suddenly lurched to ecology. This has little to do with climatology. I think I can say that ecologists I know would tend to agree with this, but it has nothing to do with what is normally charitably described as “anthropogenic global warming skepticism”. That’s not the disturbing part, though. This is:

When we are trying to take care of a planet, just as when we are taking care of a human patient, diseases must be diagnosed before they can be cured.

Yikes! So should the patient keep ingesting the toxin meanwhile?

PART III Paragraph 3

If human activities were not disturbing the climate, a new ice-age might already have begun.

Maybe so.

We do not know how to answer the most important question: do our human activities in general, and our burning of fossil fuels in particular, make the onset of the next ice-age more likely or less likely?

Nonsense. (He wheels out the usual misinterpretation of Broecker’s ocean-driven change scenario, but no scientist is expecting any ocean circulation changes to overwhelm the huge warming and kick off an ice age.) This is simply a layman’s mistake and totally out of line with the evidence. Here he is simply substantively wrong, and repeating a common misconception.

PART IV Paragraph 2

First, if the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is allowed to continue, shall we arrive at a climate similar to the climate of six thousand years ago when the Sahara was wet? Second, if we could choose between the climate of today with a dry Sahara and the climate of six thousand years ago with a wet Sahara, should we prefer the climate of today? My second heresy answers yes to the first question and no to the second. It says that the warm climate of six thousand years ago with the wet Sahara is to be preferred, and that increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may help to bring it back. I am not saying that this heresy is true. I am only saying that it will not do us any harm to think about it.

It does no harm to think about it, but it can do a great deal of harm for a celebrated person to speculate in an uninformed and incorrect way. We are changing the overall forcing of the system much more than the shift from 6000 years ago to today. The extent to which this is the case is quantifiable.

Essentially the natural shifts on that time scale amount to moving solar input from one season to another. The climate system responds in interesting ways, ways which, by the way, are replicated by climate models operating from first principles.

Our present forcing operates at all latitudes in the same direction. The system cannot respond identically. Humans are focussed on climate at the surface, but physics cares about the entire depth of the atmosphere; surface conditions are an important but not a dominant component. We cannot replicate a prior natural climate with an atmosphere whose radiatively active components are different than those seen in nature.

The idea that we will drift smoothly into and settle down to a lusher more convenient climate is a fantasy and a rather stupid one. Yes, a blundering near unconscious drunk could, in fact, blunder into a wonderful jet-setters party and be celebrated for his wit and plied with champagne and caviar. This is no reason for him not to sit down and recover his wits; the champagne thing is rather a long shot.

Update: Promoted from comments:

Ugo Bardi said…

Excuse me. I have a question. At some point Dyson says:

In humid air, the effect of carbon dioxide on radiation transport is unimportant because the transport of thermal radiation is already blocked by the much larger greenhouse effect of water vapor. The effect of carbon dioxide is important where the air is dry, and air is usually dry only where it is cold. Hot desert air may feel dry but often contains a lot of water vapor. The warming effect of carbon dioxide is strongest where air is cold and dry, mainly in the arctic rather than in the tropics, mainly in mountainous regions rather than in lowlands, mainly in winter rather than in summer, and mainly at night rather than in daytime. The warming is real, but it is mostly making cold places warmer rather than making hot places hotter. To represent this local warming by a global average is misleading.

I am not sure of whether this is correct or not. Sounds reasonable, but, on the other hand, considering the level of the rest, it may not be. Is this the reason why the higher latitudes are warming more than the lower ones?

My reply:

Thanks Ugo. I’m really astonished that I missed this. I must have been rolling my eyes up a little too high.

The argument you quote is invalid for two reasons.

First, the greenhouse effect never fully saturates; increased optical depth continues to warm the surface long after the atmosphere is essentially opaque to outgoing infrared waves.

Second, for the most part there is little overlap between the absorption bands of H2O and CO2.

The idea that the effect applies “mainly in mountainous regions rather than in lowlands” is particularly astonishing. It is exactly 180 degrees from the truth.

It is the integrated column depth of greenhouse gases that trap the outgoing IR. Mountains, being nearer the top of the atmosphere, experience less greenhouse warming than the surface.

So “particularly in the mountains” shows that the author has never even sat down with the undergraduate level approximation of how atmospheric radiative transfer actually works. It’s really quite shocking.

In fact, the high latitudes are more sensitive to warming. However this is not because they are dry but rather, in part, because of the persistent presence of low clouds, (exactly contrary to the tale he is trying to spin) as well as ice-albedo feedback. See, e.g., Holland and Botz

Update 3/29/09: See also: Slicin’ and Dicin’ with Dyson and Bryson in response to recent coverage of Dyson with reference to an interesting precedent.

Update 1/23/10: See also: Guest Posting: Expanded Dyson Exegesis .