The Importance of Being a Heretic

In a world where much of society — and even much of science — has succumbed to groupthink, it is refreshing to see a distinguished scientist who recognises the vital role of heretics in both science and society.

As a scientist I do not have much faith in predictions. 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. 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.

…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. I am promoting a heretical opinion, the first of three heresies that I will discuss in this piece.

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.

…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, [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. 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. No computer model of atmosphere and ocean can hope to predict the way we shall manage our land.

Edge.org Freeman Dyson

Go to edge.org and read the full article, a refreshingly intelligent look at the world, in comparison to what is typically available in the media.

Al Fin blog has devoted a great deal of time to the conformity–the groupthink–that pervades academia, the media, and society at large. I use terms such as “academic lobotomy”, “psychological neoteny”, and “malignant narcissism” to describe how a generally healthy society might allow itself to sink into brain killing conformity.

The good news is that people such as Freeman Dyson are alive and communicating their ideas. The bad news is that academia and the media are doing their utmost to reduce the number of intelligent and heretical replacements that western society needs.

Most people will never reach the next level. The wisdom, intelligence, and originality–the overall competence needed–is not being shaped by a vacuous and incompetent pseudo-intelligentsia, that has taken control of the academic and intellectual landscape. Young people of promise are being wasted in large number by a system that is afraid of the threat that heretics and challengers might pose.

Adapted from an earlier article first published on Al Fin blog.

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