Saturday, January 10, 2009

Blowhard of the Month: Freeman Dyson

Most of my nominees for Blowhard of the Month are talentless, pretentious hacks. For example, David Warren of the Ottawa Citizen has won the award twice.

This month, with some reservations, I'm going to nominate a man with serious accomplishments. Unfortunately, serious accomplishments in one field don't prevent you from being a blowhard in others.

Freeman Dyson is a well-known mathematician and physicist. Number theorists know him from his earliest papers on continued fractions and Diophantine approximation, but then he got seduced by theoretical physics and most of his subsequent work was in that field.

In his later years (Dyson is now 85), though, Dyson's output has become increasingly cranky. He's commented favorably about intelligent design; yet when I questioned him via e-mail, he admitted that he had not read any of the work of Michael Behe and William Dembski, the ID movement's most prominent advocates.

Despite having no training in climatology, Dyson has sneered at the consensus of climate scientists about global warming. (The hallmark of the blowhard is to spout off in areas outside his competence.) Actual climate scientists, such as Michael Tobis, begged to disagree. Dyson used a review a review of two books on global warming, to cast doubt on the seriousness of the problem, and accused climate scientists of being contemptuous of those who disagree. Dyson's maunderings were taken apart by the actual climate scientists at RealClimate. An essay in Dyson's book, A Many-Colored Glass, also attacked the global warming consensus; his critique was dismantled by a post at Climate Progress, which didn't hesitate to call Dyson a crackpot.

Dyson even wrote a friendly foreword to Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer's credulous woo-fest, Extraordinary Knowing.

All this is in the past, so why should Dyson get a Blowhard nomination this month? It's because of an article that recently appeared in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society. Here is an excerpt:

"The mathematicians discovered the central mystery of computability, the conjecture represented by the statement P is not equal to NP. The conjecture asserts that there exist mathematical problems which can be quickly solved in individual cases but cannot be solved by a quick algorithm applicable to all cases. The most famous example of such a problem is the traveling salesman problem, which is to find the shortest route for a salesman visiting a set of cities, knowing the distance between each pair. All the experts believe that the conjecture is true, and that the traveling salesman problem is an example of a problem that is P but not NP. But nobody has even a glimmer of an idea how to prove it."

This is not even close to correct. The distinction in P versus NP has nothing to do with being a problem being "quickly solved in individual cases", but rather, that the answer can easily be verified once a small amount of extra information is provided. As stated, Dyson's example of the traveling salesman problem is not even in NP, since he states it in the form of finding the shortest tour, as opposed to checking the existence of a tour of length less than a given bound. (If I give you a traveling salesman tour, nobody currently knows how to check in polynomial time that it is the shortest one.) And finally, he blows the punchline. The decision version of traveling salesman is known to be in NP, but most people believe it is not in P. Dyson got it backwards.

The mark of the blowhard is not simply to comment on areas outside his competence, but to do so publicly, with the weight of his reputation behind him, while not doing the appropriate background reading and refusing to seek the opinions of actual experts in the field before publishing. In doing so, the blowhard frequently makes mistakes that would be embarrassing even for those equipped with an undergraduate's knowledge of the area. Freeman Dyson is the Blowhard of the Month.

Added January 13 2009: Prof. Dyson has very kindly responded to my e-mail, and concedes his description was wrong and that he was speaking outside his area of expertise.

48 comments:

andrew said...

Nice one. Time for Mr Dyson to take that long walk in the forest and meet the great spirit, in terms of career.

I hope to have the class of Trudeau (Pierre, not Kevin), who in his waning years requested that people stop asking his opinion on politics: he felt he was too out of touch to have anything valuable to say.

Takis Konstantopoulos said...

In retrospect, it does not seem surprising that Dyson has commented favorably on ID. Wikipedia says that he is a Christian (why should it even mention religion for a scientist?--for example, no religion is mentioned for Connes) and that he has received the the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.

Please correct me if I'm wrong because I don't know what exactly this foundation is about, but I feel it is a disgrace to have an award. Although the organizations mission is

to serve as a philanthropic catalyst for scientific discovery on what scientists and philosophers call the 'Big Questions'- ranging from questions about the laws of nature to the nature of creativity and consciousness, the Foundation’s philanthropic vision is derived from Sir John’s resolute belief that rigorous research and cutting-edge scholarship is at the very heart of new discoveries and human progress,

it seems to me that it is basically an organization promoting christianity by (the unacceptable) means of "science". Am I wrong? If so, I would be embarrassed to have such an award .

Dyson seems to me (from reading some of his popular books) to want to be an expert in many fields. So, again, it is not surprising for blowing it hard once or twice.
His statement on the Dembski site is not terribly upseting, in the sense that he is talking about freedom of expression. However, what is embarrassing is to have an appearance on a Dembski site. As I clearly understand now this guy is a fraud, someone who uses his mathematics title to promote christianity, a very dogmatic side of it, actually. (Have you seen his article on Jesus tomb math? Hilarious!) So, if I were Dyson, I would quickly make a statement diffeentiating me from Dembski and his goals. But, perhaps, Dyson does not want such a differentiation. Maybe he thinks that, because Dembski is so much closer to the church than he is, he has a direct channel to heaven and, being close to the end of his life, he may want to appear as a god-fearing person. There is always an explanation, I'm just speculating.

A final note: One of the missions of the Templeton Foundation is the so-called "free enterprise achievements". Having spent many years in the fundamentalist state of Texas, I should mention that these are code words for crypto-christians. In the University of Texas at Austin, for instance, there is a chair of free enterprise (in Engineering), originally held by a woman who had a degree in Theology (!). The original intention of the Texan who gave the money for the chair was to have an anti-communist forum (it was the cold war era) and promote christianity and fudamentalism.

RBH said...

Um, are there really 40 links to this post? What's Blogger babbling about at the bottom of the comments?

William Wallace said...

"Nice one. Time for Mr Dyson to take that long walk in the forest and meet the great spirit, in terms of career. "

Again, I am not surprised to read such things on this blog. Jerry Wolff, a biologist, took this advice, too.

Regarding climate change, Pravda is regressing to the global cooling theory. I wonder how long before the consensus is for a coming ice age? 10 years?

cente said...

Anyone know the story (if there is one) why Dyson never got his PhD?

Colin said...

This article is also being discussed (relatively favorably) on Scott Aaronson's blog. Without having read the whole article, I have to say I'm with you on your negative reaction to the P/NP quotation. I think it displays a very unfortunate arrogance, as if Dyson sees himself as being above such trivialities as actually checking up on the definitions of the things he is talking about.

Bayesian Bouffant, FCD said...

Regarding climate change, Pravda is regressing to the global cooling theory.

So you read Pravda? Is it your primary source of scientific information?

Anonymous said...

I've heard that the reason Dyson never got a Ph.D. was failure to pass the required lab class at Cornell, where he managed to destroy some equipment and injure himself. Not sure if it's apocryphal or not.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that it is basically an organization promoting christianity by (the unacceptable) means of "science".

I'm not sure I agree with that -- most of the recipients are Christians, but since it is basically a prerequisite to have some "religious" views, and it's a Western organization, that is to be expected. Certainly it's not exactly a beacon for scientific progress, but neither is it a pure Christian-terrorist cell.

And Dyson... Dyson is trying to branch out, and I want to give him some credit for that. P vs. NP isn't one of the most intuitive things in the world (didn't Feynman also have trouble with it?) and even if he did screw it up royally, he's 85! Give the man a break!

Anonymous said...

I think it was Pauli who was famous for causing catastrophes with lab equipment.

Dyson didn't get a PhD basically because of bureaucracy in the British university system. He was doing Nobel Prize-level work as a graduate student (there is wide agreement that he should have shared the QED prize with Feynman, Schwinger, and Tomonaga, but the limit is 3 people per prize). He was offered a full professorship at Cornell without a PhD and he accepted it. The story is in Sylvan Schweber's book "QED and the men who made it" which has a long section about Dyson.

The AMS article is quite interesting even if it incorrectly describes the P=NP problem, which as you say is outside Dyson's field.

I don't see him promoting religion heavily either, any more than Knuth does.

FWIW, I got here through Scott's blog.

Takis Konstantopoulos said...

Anonymous:

I said...

It seems to me that it is basically an organization promoting christianity by (the unacceptable) means of "science".


And you replied...

I'm not sure I agree with that -- most of the recipients are Christians, but since it is basically a prerequisite to have some "religious" views, and it's a Western organization, that is to be expected. Certainly it's not exactly a beacon for scientific progress, but neither is it a pure Christian-terrorist cell.


Well, you are actually confirming what I said: An organization that offers scientific awards, imposing some religious views as prerequisite, is totally unacceptable. I did not mention the words "christian terrorist cell", but I did say that Dembski, who, apparently has an award from Templeton is a joke of a scientist, a failure as mathematician, so he obviously got the award for his religious (christian) views and propaganda. Therefore, religious views is not just a prerequisite but-so it seems-as an alternative (to science) for getting an award from this foundation. Ergo, this foundation is a disgrace.

Again, my views are not based on an extensive inquiry of this foundation, but only on some scanty information I have about it. For example, the Templeton Foundation claim they gave a grant to Dembski for writing a book on Orthodox Theology. Nobody should be given a grant for writing a book on fiction which advertizes itself as non-fiction. It is fraud. Also, the Templeton Foundation gave a grant to the Discovery Institute. Well, this institute is the organization for creationists/intelligent-designers, i.e. con-men, idiots, liars, pseudo-scientists, backwards people, right-wing fascist crackpots. Why would someone, claiming to fund Science, give a single penny to an institute that uses the title "discovery", pretends to be doing science, but all it does is produce lies, misconception and fraud?

Jason Rosenhouse said...

As I recall, Dyson has also written favorably about the reality of ESP and other paranormal phenomena. He seems to have a taste for contrarianism and for many species of woo.

Miodrag said...

Prof. Shallit, isn't this a case of kettle calling a pot black? You yourself are not a climate scientist yet you're calling Dyson a climate science crackpot, based on expert opinion.

Could you recommend a good reference on climate science, for a person with a background in Physics, something with PDEs and data and the works, not the gospel for the laymen which is all I seem to be able to find. I'd be very grateful. This may sound like a challenge but it's not, I'm genuinely interested in learning about it.

Colin said...

Jeffrey, have you read the whole Dyson article? I got around to it last night (it's fairly long) and I thought it was full of interesting stuff. Seen in context, the P/NP remark is really a parenthetical aside. I still think it's amazing that he could condense so many errors into one paragraph, but it shouldn't detract from everything else he has to say.

It's kind of a rambling article - mostly reminiscences tied together with a vague theme about different styles of mathematical thought - but it's nicely written and has some fascinating details. On balance, I think I would have to agree with the general tenor of the remarks on Scott Aaronson's blog that Dyson being wrong is lot more interesting than most people being right.

Fortunately he doesn't mention climate (or ID) anywhere in the article.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Miodrag:

First, I never called Dyson a crackpot, and I think that word is far too strong. I called him a blowhard, and I think there is a substantial difference.

Second, the situations you are comparing are not symmetrical. If someone is untrained in an area and opposes scientific consensus in that area while denigrating the competence of experts in the field, they deserve to be ridiculed. On the other hand, acknowledging the scientific consensus while not being an expert is a statement about the consensus,not trying to add to it by the weight of one's reputation.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Miodrag:

I imagine any textbook on climate modelling should have what you want; e.g., V. P. Dymnikov and A. N. Filatov,, Mathematics of Climate Modeling, Birkhauser.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Colin:

Yes, I read the whole Dyson article. The problem for me is, if he got so many things wrong in a paragraph that i am relatively knowledgeable about, how many thngs did he get wrong in the other parts I know less about?

Mariano M. Chouza said...

Second, the situations you are comparing are not symmetrical. If someone is untrained in an area and opposes scientific consensus in that area while denigrating the competence of experts in the field, they deserve to be ridiculed.

So, if you were criticizing a "scientist" working in the "field" of parapsychology, you would deserve to be ridiculed?

Personally, I'm convinced of the reality of the climate change, but I believe that "global warming skepticism" is very different from creationism.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Mariano:

I think the scientific consensus about parapsychology is that it is bunk - to the extent that there is any consensus at all.

I'd also suggest that the connection between global warming denial and creationism is closer than you might think. Some of the most vocal deniers use exactly the same tactics as creationists: cherry-picking the data to support their preconceived conclusions.

Mariano M. Chouza said...

I think the scientific consensus about parapsychology is that it is bunk - to the extent that there is any consensus at all.

I'm not saying that parapsychology is a scientific field, only that the Parapsychological Association is still an affiliate of the AAAS... :-) (and I think that shows clearly the danger of reading too much into a "consensus").

I'd also suggest that the connection between global warming denial and creationism is closer than you might think. Some of the most vocal deniers use exactly the same tactics as creationists: cherry-picking the data to support their preconceived conclusions.

It's true that many creationists and "global warming deniers" are dishonest... but cherry-picking the data is very common (and not limited to them, unfortunately). I was convinced of the reality of global warming by reading the arguments offered by climate scientists, not by disbelieving what Michael Crichton said in State of Fear :-)

(Sorry for my clumsy English, I'm not a native speaker...)

Takis Konstantopoulos said...

Mariano:

I have *first-hand experience* with how close the connection is between denial of global warming and creationism. I was prof. in the Univ. of Texas at Austin from 1992 to 2002. That is, I saw the rise of Dubya from nowhere to being a Governor of TX and his subsequent move to the Presidency of the US. (As a matter of fact, I was one of the first to observe his lack of command of the English language [to put it mildly], something that later became known as bushism.)

While Dubya was a Governor, there was money given to the U. of TX at Austin, specifically for "debunking the myth of global warming" the rational being that those who talk about it simply want to steal the land of the Texans. The same people were promoting pseudo-science and creationism. As an anecdote, I saw once a plate (I think it was in front of the TX history museum) which said that the museum was opened on such and such date in the year 2000 and below it there was another date--I don't recall it exactly, but it was something like 6582. I asked what it meant and someone told me it was the date since the creation.

You need a bit of a perverse mind to be a creationist, a dose of right-wing political convictions along with deep faith in some divinities (I thought it was only christian but I recently found out that creationism is a muslim hobby too), and the same type of mind is required for climate change deniers. Jeffrey Shallit is right: Some of the most vocal deniers use exactly the same tactics as creationists: cherry-picking the data to support their preconceived conclusions.

Anonymous said...

Having looked at the article by Dyson for the Notices, I have to say
I feel that the P and NP mistakes
are a minor issue; though,
of course, these sorts of errors, printed in a journal as widely read
as the Notices, by someone as respected as Dyson, could be quite harmful
(for some reason, I am reminded of the pillow and the scissors story from
the recent movie Doubt). And furthermore, it makes me wornder
how many more mistakes he had made, given how many he made in an area
that I am familiar with (NP completeness). He should have asked one of his acquaintances
in computer science at IAS -- like Avi Wigderson -- to read it over for
their opinions (and hopefully corrections). Furthermore, one would have thought that the Notices
would have done a better job
refereeing his article before having it published.

What I feel is a more serious matter of his article is the whole idea that
there are researchers who are like
frogs, and others who are like birds.
I have seen these sort of dichotomies
written about before, such as
Gowers's ``Two Cultures of Mathematics'', some of the writings of Atiyah, and even Lee Smolin's
book ``The Trouble with Physics''.
In the case of Gowers, the article was written as a defense of people who are
``problem solvers'', who had been attacked by certain types of
``theory builders''; and, I suspect that Dyson's article was written
for similar reasons. And Smolin's book read like a complaint against
String Theory, which was (at the time he wrote the book) draining funds
and resources away from other promising avenues of physics research.
The fact that we hear about these dichotomies is the result of village behavior (a term
with which I recently became familiar upon reading an article by
Paul Krugman) of one sort or another: One group, because it has more
authority and numbers, takes it upon itself to point out the failings
of the other, smaller group; and then the smaller group retaliates,
and sometimes becomes dominant, and the whole cycle repeats.

I think it is unhelpful to point out the fact that there are people who
are like ``frogs'' and ``birds'', because (a) It feeds into this cycle
of village behavior, by suggesting that some people are unchangeably
one type of researcher or another; and (b) It simply isn't true -- most
people are a mix of ``frogs'' and ``birds'' (Gowers made a similar
claim in his article mentioned above). I think a more useful
sort of article would have been one just pointing out these different
modes of doing research, and that researchers can choose to go with one
mode or another at will.

.....

I think that Dyson's support of things like paranormal phenomena
is an even more serious concern, especially given his reputation.
It is exactly this sort of thing that has led to the New Age movement
using ``quantum physics'' with every breath to con people into wasting
their money on foolish things like crystal power and magnet therapy.

I have a friend who works at a
bookstore, and who I always thought of
as being very bright. One day, he
tells me about his beliefs in the supernatural, and I discover that
he follows in all sorts of
New Age baloney, especially
anything with the word ``quantum''
attached to it. I explained
to him that the world has enough
mystery as it is, and I proceeded
to explain to him Benford's law as
an example (which is not really a
mystery). He didn't seem to
believe it until I showed it to
him on the internet (it's on the
internet, so it must be true, right?)!
Maybe I should have called it
the ``Quantum Benford's Law''.

....

I have to say that I also was quite surprised the first time I read that
he was a climate change skeptic, in regards to our ability to predict
future global temperature trends, as well as the questioning of whether
it would be such a bad thing if the world were a few degrees warmer.
Though, I think in this case, unlike his comments about P and NP,
his criticisms are based, at least in
part, on his expertise and experience in physics. For example, here is
one of his comments, taken from the article at

http://www.boingboing.net/2007/08/two-views-on-climate.html

``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. ''

I am also skeptical of the ability of computer models to accurately
make predictions about something as large and complex as the Earth's
climate, decades into the future. BUT, I think that if even just one
model out of 10 tells us that we could be in for some warming of even 1
degree F within a few decades,
we should take it very, very
seriously, and plan ahead!

Unlike Dyson, my skepticism of computer models of the climate has a
much shallower origin: About two years ago, I attended a mathematics
colloquium lecture about simulating the fluid dynamics as pertains to
the water flowing around Yachts. I cannot remember the name of the
speaker, but recall that he was a big name in his field of mathematical
modeling. In his talk, he mentioned how low the resolution of most
simulations are, due to the fact that in three dimensions the number of
cells needed grows as the cube of box size under consideration. Furthermore,
he mentioned that near points of turbulence, the models give quite poor
answers unless the resolution is increased greatly around such regions;
and, even with the extra resolution, one needs some deeper mathematics
just to make the simulations possible. From this talk, I gained a heavy
skepticism that researchers will not have the computational ability and
mathematical theory to make even fairly accurate predictions about
something as simple-sounding as turbulent water flow around a boat.
Of course, maybe long term climate trends (involving air, not water)
are actually easier to predict, due to, for example, law-of-large-numbers type
effects. I just don't know, as I
am nowhere near qualified to judge --
but my skepticism remains.

Miodrag said...

On the other hand, a lot of anti-religion people, including me, are put off by the whole anthropomorphization of Earth and the mea culpa narrative, and see it as christianity in disguise.

Almost all of global warming advocacy and drum beating one hears in the media comes from people who probably haven't had a single science class in college. Now, of course you can say that about any scientific field, but in almost all other cases there is a tangible technology byproduct associated with a field, so you know the practitioners aren't full of it, even if you're clueless and can't judge for yourself.

The whole thing just stinks of a scam and dogma and a hard sell. Recently, there was a commercial running here (US) showing Al Sharpton and Pat Robertson sitting together on a love seat, well, here's the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NhmpsUMdTH8

It's a complex subject and one pretty much has to go by reputation. Am I supposed to trust people who get in bed with these two?

Anonymous said...

Politics has no place in science and being an old, white, prominent, good-old-boy doesn’t make you special. C -.

SME said...

This diminishes my hopes for the Astrochicken.
*sniffle*

SLC said...

When we observe the musing of Prof. Dyson, we should remember the musings of other distinguished scientists who ran off the rails. Remember Linus Pauling and Vitamin C can cure cancer? Or J. Allen Hynek who became convinced that alien visitations and abductions had occurred. Or Peter Duesberg who is absolutely convinced that HIV doesn't cause AIDS. Or Brian Josephson who is convinced, among other things, that cold fusion is a real phenomena.

R O'Brien said...

"...I feel it is a disgrace to have an award."

Yes, and that is a problem with you, not the award.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

And Robert O'Brien should know, as he has a prestigious award named after him!

R O'Brien said...

Dr. Shallit, you forgot to mention Ed's impressive CV:

College drop out (social "science")

Failed Comedian

(Most likely) Failed business owner

At least you have some actual accomplishments behind your insufferable vanity.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Robert O'Brien:

I'm sure you possess the virtue of modesty. But then again, you have much to be modest about.

Psalm 14:1 said...

The hallmark of the blowhard is to spout off in areas outside his competence.

The mark of the blowhard is not simply to comment on areas outside his competence, but to do so publicly, with the weight of his reputation behind him, while not doing the appropriate background reading and refusing to seek the opinions of actual experts in the field before publishing. In doing so, the blowhard frequently makes mistakes that would be embarrassing even for those equipped with an undergraduate's knowledge of the area.


Kinda like an atheist computer science prof claiming to know anything about God, theology, the Bible, Creation, or Christianity?

Blowhard pot, meet blowhard kettle ...

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Dear Psalm:

Do you understand the difference between informal comments made on a blog, and an article for a professional publication, such as Notices of the AMS?

Do you see anything on the title page of this blog where I use my professional affiliation as providing weight for my opinions?

No, I didn't think so.

Anonymous said...

Not everybody agrees with all this climate changing. By the way, I have never seen a single proof (scientifically) of everything that "experts" say on the topic.

SLC said...

Re anonymous

Not everyone agrees that HIV is the cause of AIDS. Not everyone agrees with the big bang theory. Not everyone agrees that CFCs contribute heavily to ozone depletion. Not everyone agrees that cigarette smoking is a direct cause of lung cancer. Not everyone agrees with the theory of evolution. There is no scientific theory that has ever been proposed in the history of science that does not have individuals denying that it is correct.

Anonymous said...

Talking about global warming as an individual unit is unhelpful as this encapsulates a sequence of claims with different degrees of certainty. Global warming depending on the context is used to mean:

1) Climate change
2) Climate change with a positive delta
3) Partially human caused climate change
4) Partially human caused climate change with a positive delta
5) Partially human caused climate change with a large positive delta
6) Solely human caused climate change with a large positive delta
7) Long term solely human caused climate change with a large positive delta
8) The luddite apocalypse


The above are listed in order of decreasing certainty. Let's go over them one by one.

(1) is by now pretty much established, with Nature/Science declaring the issue settled in a special issue in 2000. Only cranks and right-wing talk-radio hosts live here.
(2) some models predicted regional cooling but with overall global warming, lately most models report pretty much all warming
(3) there is strong evidence that CO2 emissions do not help, so again this is pretty much established.
(4) here's where questioning the computer projections is not necessarily being a crank. The models are imperfect. However to this date, they seemed to have erred more on the conservative side than on the pessimistic side.
(5) Contrary to what you may think from the popular press, most models claim a small positive delta.
(6-7) Here the issues are even less settled. We don't yet have all the pieces of the puzzle and confidence in the projections drops rapidly over time. Is the system stable, in that a self-"healing" effect that could be triggered at large deltas or to the contrary is there feedback in the loop and things will get only worse as some believe? The questions here are many and scientists are working on them.
(8) Paul Ehrlich is still wrong.

Perezoso said...

Let's see a link to a study proving (beyond a reasonable doubt as they say) that man-made CO2 is the sole culprit behind AGW. Models ala IPCC aren't proof: some studies (Dr. Hug I believe) have suggested CO2's benign. I don't pretend to be a pro-chemist but suspect GW's due to factors other than CO2 (perhaps methane---recent studies suggest massive amounts of methane in arctic). I'm against the GW deniers--the fox news wingnuts, etc--, but also against the Gore-bots.

What's more, there are questions regarding the reliability of the temp. data. Crichton's skepticism in regards to AGW may have been a bit hasty, but he raised some points that should be considered; and for that matter I trust Dr. Dyson more than I trust Al Gore, who barely managed C's in his "Physics 101 for Dixiecrats" at Haw-vawd.

Anonymous said...

I just read Dyson's article and I think you are out of line. It is a fine expository article on many topics. True, he got the NP stuff wrong. But that is one small paragraph. Calling him a blowhard for that mistake is ridiculous.

Kaleberg said...

I've sort of wondered about Dyson in his later years. Then again, I wondered about Shockley. I agree that crackpot is a bit harsh, but I'm sure that blowhard is quite right either. I'm tempted by the old fashioned phrasing, "going soft in the head".

As for global warming, I figure it doesn't really matter. An awful lot of the proposed fixes are things we should be doing anyway for political, economic, military and strategic reasons. If they fight global warming, that's a bonus.

Takis Konstantopoulos said...

From a recent NYTimes article on Dyson:

Chat rooms, Web threads, editors’ letter boxes and Dyson’s own e-mail queue resonate with a thermal current of invective in which Dyson has discovered himself variously described as “a pompous twit,” “a blowhard,” “a cesspool of misinformation,” “an old coot riding into the sunset” and, perhaps inevitably, “a mad scientist.”

Jay Ballou said...

Let's see a link to a study proving (beyond a reasonable doubt as they say)

They say it in court, not in science.

that man-made CO2 is the sole culprit behind AGW.

That's not the claim.

The rest of your comments are equally ignorant.

I trust Dr. Dyson more than I trust Al Gore, who barely managed C's in his "Physics 101 for Dixiecrats" at Haw-vawd.

Ad hominems are great fun, but Gore's position reflects that of the entire community of climate scientists, whereas Dyson's view reflects that of ignoramuses.

Jay Ballou said...

Prof. Shallit, isn't this a case of kettle calling a pot black? You yourself are not a climate scientist yet you're calling Dyson a climate science crackpot, based on expert opinion.

I'm trying to figure out how that could possibly be construed as an example of the pot calling the kettle black. My conclusion is that you simply don't understand the concept. One does not need to be an expert on the Holocaust or moon landings to note that someone who denies they occurred is a crackpot.

Michael Larsen said...

1. To call Freeman Dyson" well-known" is misleading. He is world-renowned.

2. The letter from Dyson to which you link no more proves that Dyson believes in ID than Einstein's famous passage about dice proves that he believes in a personal God. It does suggest a certain philosophical attitude, which might reasonably be contrasted with Weinberg's statement "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems meaningless."

3. I would not call Dyson's comment on climate scientists (to which you link) sneering. It lacks the tone of personal contempt, which is in full evidence in your own blog article. Regarding the matter sociologically (I am a mathematician, not a climate scientist), I must say that Dyson's use of the word "heresy" seems justified by the reaction his comments have elicited.

4. I would call Dyson's paragraph on P=NP a silly error in an extraordinarily wide-ranging, free-wheeling, and generally fascinating article. It is the error of a man, no longer young, who based a stellar career on forays into technical subjects on which he was not a specialist.

5. Based on my former slight acquaintance with Dyson and my reading of a number of his articles and books, I regard him as remarkably modest for a man who was once near the pinnacle of the scientific world. "Blowhard" connotes arrogance. The only sense in which Dyson strikes me as arrogant is that he is a man who has always thought for himself. To some people, this may be offensive.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Actually, Michael, I do not have "personal contempt" for Dyson at all; I admire his early work but think he, in his later years, made many missteps.

And what would you call a comment of Dyson about the "holy brotherhood of climate model experts" if not sneering?

Michael Larsen said...

What would I call it? How about gentle raillery?

If a climate scientist referred to the "holy brotherhood of mathematicians" I might be mildly amused or mildly annoyed, depending on context. If he called me a blowhard, I would be offended. There's a difference between banter and insult.

As it happens, Dyson is quite right in observing that the climate scientists are exhibiting classic professional priesthood behavior. Are they any worse than, say, mathematicians in this respect? When I was number theory editor for the Transactions, I would regularly reject manuscripts on Fermat's Last Theorem unread. I think I was justified in doing this, but it might well strike a non-expert as high-handed and arrogant. I never went so far as to call the poor misguided amateurs by ugly names, but I didn't give them a fair hearing.

I don't know where the "expertise" of the climate science community falls on the continuum which goes from the hard sciences to the social sciences. I don't know whether their state of understanding justifies their impulse to blow off brilliant outsiders like Dyson. I do know that it isn't pretty to watch.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Michael Larsen:

We obviously have very different impressions of Dyson. I see his remarks as sneering, the typical sort of contempt that many mathematicians and physicists I know seem to have for biologists, geologists, and climate scientists. You see the remarks as "gentle raillery".

It's not clear at all to me that Dyson has done the necessary homework to make his sweeping pronouncements. Experts in climate science regard his claims as naive and wrongheaded. I don't doubt that Dyson was brilliant once - and a much better mathematician than I - but he is much, much older now, and my guess is he doesn't have the needed expertise.

You're right that the spectacle is not pretty, but where you see a "brilliant outsider", I see a man in his dotage.

To paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, when a distinguished but elderly scientists takes issue with the consensus in a different field, he is nearly always wrong.

If Dyson's remarks about P and NP are so completely off the mark, why should anyone trust what he has to say about global warming?

Anonymous said...

Credentialism and consensus are not what counts in science. Seems to me a lowly patent clerk had a pretty big impact on physics around 1905. Any decent compuer scientist knows you can't model anything close to the complexity of the climate, s/he doesn't have to study 'climatology'.
"Science is the organized skepticism in the reliability of expert opinion" - Richard Feynman

Anonymous said...

Dyson has published first author papers in climate science 20 years before most people ever heard of global warming or climate change.

Gustav said...

Freeman Dyson is a well-known mathematician and physicist. Number ... dysoncool.blogspot.com