Freeman Dyson is flailing outside his field of expertise; the NYT should be embarrassed

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Freeman Dyson seems like a nice man and, in 1949, he was certainly one of the most impressive physicists in the world. Nicholas Dawidoff is a great sportswriter. And the New York Times (with obvious exceptions) is held to be a reputable and credible publication.

But none of that helps to explain why the NYT Magazine would ask a sportswriter to research an 8,000-word article on an issue he knows nothing about – featuring an 85-year-old “expert” who is similarly at sea on the issue.

Take what position you will on the degree of urgency, climate change is unquestionably one of the most important public policy issues currently facing any government in the world. It is somewhere between casually irresponsible and criminally reckless for a respected medium like the New York Times to undermine the quality of public discussion by putting so much focus on people who are so clearly out of their depth.

Dyson’s position as a climate change is pretty well established, and the position that he himself describes as “heretical” has been categorically debunked point by point. As the University of Texas Research Scientist Michael Tobis puts it in this dismissal, Dyson makes fundamental errors which show, “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.”

Dyson might be forgiven such late-in-life contrarianism. He is a hugely accomplished physicist who deserves to be treated with respect. But that doesn’t mean he deserves to be taken seriously – at this point in his unrelated career – on an issue on which he has never conducted research or published in legitimate scientific journals.

Yet the NYT, which we have a right to assume has a sense of responsibility, serves up Dyson – as interpreted by the aforementioned sportswriter. Even if the NYT had offered a steady stream of interesting (and better-informed) articles on climate change in the last six or seven issues, this would be a questionable choice.

In the circumstances, it’s purely irresponsible – and it plays, shamefully and stupidly, into the hands of those people who would like to keep us confused on the issue of climate change.

If this clumsiness had come from a news outlet that is better know for pursuing an anti-science agenda – from Fox News, or Canada’s National Post you might just shake your head and think: “typical.” From the New York Times, well, you would have hoped that we could expect more – so much more.

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