Freeman Dyson challenges the idea of scientific consensus and calls for more heretics.

All scientific and mathematical knowledge is inconsistent or incomplete. Obviously, science can never be settled and consensus means absolutely nothing. As Freeman says “Science is organized unpredictability.” Once some damn fool makes predictions, you know he is wrong. The scientific heretics must speak up and challenge beliefs.

First, the need for Heretics:

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.

He describes two cases of scientific orthodoxy that were recently challenged by a heretic. Tommy Gold overturned orthodox beliefs about human hearing and fossil fuel. Fossil fuels may not be fossiles. Chemists recently tested Gold’s hypothesis and artificially created natural gas.

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.

If so, this overturns everything you thought you knew about fossil fuels. For starters, it’s earth fuel basically. Second, there are potentially huge reserves of gas 200 km beneath the surface.

Now for the meat: Freeman Dyson puts on his heretic armor and charges directly at Global Warming.

A few very important points first. Global Warming has not been experimentally proven. That said, it is incomplete and needs more data about the environment and human economics.

The best we can do is offer constructive criticism. Any concerned individual should point out weaknesses in a scientific theory so they may be corrected.

I’ve long wondered at the lack of serious economics and social science in Climate Change. Since we’re talking about anthropogenic warming, you would think human behavior would be considered important. Instead it is treated like a static variable.

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

Climotology for some reason gives more funding to the computer modelers than the data-collectors. I will never understand that.

Computer models have been dubbed “fact-free science” and cannot be seen as much more than thought experiments. They have their uses of course. What models really do is calculate probabilities and possible outcomes. Unless you compare the results to historical data, the model could be doing what it damn well pleases with no relation to reality.

Which, in the case of climate change, we know for certain that the model has little relation to reality. As Dyson says, the models do not know how to calculate clouds, biomass, indirect effects of the sun, and economics. Each variable is critical to understanding future imputs on climate change. Clouds are a major control factor on global warming, but we know little about them. Growth in biomass, like forests or algae, will consume more CO2, but again, we do not know how to model them. Computer modelling spectacularly failed to predict human economics.

Take a stupid hypothetic problem:
You have data for variables A, B, and C, and the final product (P) but do not know much about variables X, Y, and Z. You see P and A are both rising while B and C are constant. You might conclude that the rise in A caused the rise in P.

What you should do instead is include the unknown variables, A+B+C+X+Y+Z = P, and calculate the probability that A is the primary factor in P’s rise. Given the vast array of missing data, your answer is a convoluted “I do not know.” Perhaps X and Y are the driving factors in P’s rise and A is a minor contributor. You wouldn’t know because you lack data. Given what little you do know, A is a possible factor. It may be an irrelevant correlation. It could be that the rise in P caused the rise in A. You have to go out and investigate X, Y, and Z and then experiment until you understand the relationship.

The CO2 theory fits the data available at the moment. So far as I know, climatologists are estimating the probability that things like biomass can effect climate. These estimates might be right and they might be quite wrong. And that’s perfectly fine. I’ll bet they are trying to improve their knowledge all the time.

This ignorance is freely admitted by real scientists. Unfortunately, Climatology became politicized, so everyone pretends they are more certain of the theory in public than they really are. Perhaps it’s because they are afraid of denialists. Perhaps it’s because environmental activists are pushing policies by claiming “scientific” certainty. I don’t much care.

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.

This is about constructive criticism, so Dyson offers suggestions.

Dr. Dyson looks at the biomass question that has been neglected in climatology:

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. 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.

There are some new experiments designed to test CO2 absorption by biomass. They set up sensors just above the treeline and measure the CO2 in and out of the forested area. They can detect if the biomass is releasing CO2 (via animals, decomposition, etc), or if it is absorbing CO2.

The trick is to get learn how to sequester CO2 with biomass. Dyson believes Global Warming is a simple matter of terraforming (ok, land management, but terraforming sounds cooler).

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.

Yes. The worst thing for global warming is organic farming and opposition to biotech.

He continues in discussing issues like the possibility of an ice age.

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. 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.

This is what he’s talking about. (all graphs from here)
Here’s the estimate of 500 million years of climate change. The recent period is on the left.

Here’s the million year view that shows the routine cycles between ice ages and interglacial periods that Dr. Dyson is referencing.

This is the previous Cycle over the past 140 thousand years.

So Dr. Dyson asks, is Global Warming holding off a much worse Ice Age? Or accelerating it? And perhaps it does not matter. All the factors that lead to regular ice ages are still in place. Antartica’s position at the south pole virtually guarantees another ice age.

He has another question which is worth reading in full. What if global warming is economically beneficial?

My second heresy is also concerned with climate change. It is about the mystery of the wet Sahara…. 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.

Consider this, with our current rate of accelerating technology since the Industrial era, we can easily adapt to changing environments.

Across the world, what was once temperate and settled land has since been overrun by glaciers or turned into desert. The Earth was considerably warmer around 6,000 years ago – the Holocene Maximum period. Why assume that a return to these temperatures is a purely bad thing? We can’t predict changes in the economy or how advanced our biotech will be. The answer is we don’t know.

Here’s a temperature graph that shows the Holocene period:
And that’s the Wet Sahara.

I always found something strange about Global Warming activists. They claim that this is the warmest period in history. As a certified dinosaur nerd, I know that’s wrong. The Triassic Period was at least 10C hotter than it is today. The high temperature was needed to support the rather large lifeforms of the period.

Dr. Dyson notes that much of the controversy is over values, not the science.

The biosphere is the most complicated of all the things we humans have to deal with. The science of planetary ecology is still young and undeveloped. 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.

He talks about the disputes between humanists and naturalists.

Beyond that, it’s my observation that the science behind climate change has little to do with the politics and economics.

A theory about climate change does not translate into a single policy that environmentalists advocate.

We should consider spending priorities and measure our ability to adapt to changes. We could be spending the money for more productive purposes (eliminating diseases, boosting industrialism in Africa) that remain more important than climate change.

To tackle climate change directly, we need to consider wise economic courses of action. That includes a wide selection of decisions to improve efficiency and technology, ranging from carbon taxes, to CFL lightbulbs, to biotech, to market efficiency.

Just a thought.