Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Heretical Science Fiction

Posted by goatchurch at 5:44 AM
I've recently been pestered with copies of the article Heretical Thoughts about Science and Society by "Hard" Science Fiction's favourite physicist Freeman Dyson. He writes:
As a scientist I do not have much faith in predictions... 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.
Okay, so predictions are always unreliable. This is not to say that some predictions are less reliable than others. For example, he continues:
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... 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... 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. Good topsoil contains about ten percent biomass, so a hundredth of an inch of biomass growth means about a tenth of an inch 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. No computer model of atmosphere and ocean can hope to predict the way we shall manage our land.
Must be suffering from amnesia here. The entirety of the Kyto Protocol (signed ten years ago when all this science was well established, but before Exxon and co set to work on our weak and feeble minds) was based on Carbon offsetting and carbon sinks, and was the subject of an entire volume of the 2001 IPCC report compiled by hundreds of scientists. For those of you who can handle more than one number, further figures can be found here. It is important to remember that CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has been climbing like a voracious weed over the last hundred years, suggesting that it might pose more of a problem than can be dealt with my merely mowing the lawn more frequently.

In fact, Dyson well knows about all this because he started the idea way back in 1976, as reported in this Cornerhouse briefing which reports:
Several decades ago, the British physicist Freeman Dyson, pondering the coming age of interplanetary travel, had a stupendous idea for propelling large payloads through space. Why not set off nuclear explosions underneath space probes and just blast them around the solar system?

Not many people found Dyson's brainwave attractive. But you can't keep a well-intentioned visionary down for long. In 1976, Dyson reemerged with another brilliant scheme: to soak up the excess carbon dioxide which the burning of fossil fuels was putting in the atmosphere by planting gigantic areas of trees.
Clearly, if he had anything important to add in the last 30 years he would taken it to one of the Working Group III meetings and had it looked into by the men with the facts, rather than merely announcing his heresies to the innumerate public. It's like a court of law. If you know the man on trial is innocent, you are suppose to avail yourself as witness, or have a very good excuse for not doing so.

No one has asked him for his excuse. However there's an interesting interview with him from earlier this year where he says:
"My view of the prevalence of doom-and-gloom in Cambridge is that it is a result of the English class system. In England there were always two sharply opposed middle classes, the academic middle class and the commercial middle class. In the nineteenth century, the academic middle class won the battle for power and status... Then came the triumph of Margaret Thatcher, which was also the revenge of the commercial middle class. The academics lost their power and prestige and the business people took over. The academics never forgave Thatcher and have been gloomy ever since."
So, apparently, this whole climate change doom thing and threats to life as we know it is just wealth envy. The Brits and the rest of the world are simply not as optimistic as those rich Americans over there, who by the power of their beliefs can ignore reality. It's always been thus, he says:
"I do not agree that there has been a recent shift from progressive ideas to dystopian anxieties. The best writers have always been dystopian. In the 1890s we had Wells's Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau. In the 1930s Huxley's Brave New World. These were the classics that I grew up with seventy years ago. Nothing that has been written recently is gloomier than Wells and Huxley. And in spite of that, there have always been optimists like me and Amory Lovins. I recommend Amory Lovins as an antidote to gloom and doom."
Friends, let me introduce Micawber Principle, by Charles Dickens:
"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery."
Now the question I would like to pose is: Is this an optimistic or a pessimistic person making this statement?

Or is it someone explaining to you in simple terms what you need to do in order to avoid misery?

I would like to think that that's what scientists are doing. And if we make up stuff in order to ignore it, then we might find that their predictions are not quite as unreliable as science fiction writers are.

Meanwhile, while you were sleeping, the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado last night have been stunned by the collapse of the Arctic ice sheet. They weren't expecting it. Turns out the climate models are indeed quite inaccurate. The situation is far worse than expected.

UPDATE: Trent, put a link to Edge Foundation, Inc on the right hand side panel, in which Dyson's article was published. It's got exactly the sort of thing SF writers ought to read if there's a chance they'll make stories that are better than real science.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but I really have no clue what point you are trying to make in this posting. I can't tell whether you're with Dyson or against him, whether you're taking the piss out of him, climate change sceptics and Americans or what. Please clarify.

9/06/2007 05:09:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah. Is gibberish mundane?

9/07/2007 05:15:00 PM  
Blogger goatchurch said...

Dear anonymous,

Once again, the substantive part of the posting was the subjects (Dyson's) own words, which some people have been taking notice of. I happen to think they are gibberish, so therefore it appeared the posting was substantially gibberish.

Briefly, I had ascertained in this posting that he was denying that climate change was a crisis, based on his back-of-the-envelope calculation from 1977 which was now totally out of date. He took the political position that scientific predictions were inherently pessimistic or optimistic, rather than just are. And he also made quite a few citations of Science Fiction literature, which I found rather interesting and revealing, as someone who tends to read this stuff.

9/13/2007 03:24:00 PM  
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