January 7, 2011 | 32
Should a scientist who believes in extrasensory perception—the ability to read minds, intuit the future and so on—be taken seriously? This question comes to mind when I ponder the iconoclastic physicist Freeman Dyson, whom the journalist Kenneth Brower recently profiled in The Atlantic‘s December issue.
"The Danger of Cosmic Genius" explores Dyson’s denial that global warming will wreak havoc on Earth unless we drastically curtail carbon emissions. Dyson questions the computer models on which these scary scenarios are based, and he suggests that the upside of global warming—including faster plant growth and longer growing seasons in certain regions—may outweigh the downside.
This article resembles Nicholas Dawidoff’s 2009 profile of Dyson in The New York Times Magazine—with a crucial difference. Whereas Dawidoff teased us with the possibility that Dyson could be right about global warming, Brower declares right off the bat that Dyson is "dead wrong, wrong on the facts, wrong on the science." Brower’s goal is to explain how "someone as smart as Freeman Dyson could be so dumb."
Brower has known Dyson for decades. Brower’s 1978 book The Starship and the Canoe was an affectionate study of Dyson and his equally quirky son George, a kayak-designer who in the 1970s lived in a tree in the Pacific Northwest. In his Atlantic article, Brower recounts Dyson’s brilliant contributions to particle physics (he helped formulate quantum electrodynamics), nuclear engineering (he designed a method of space transport based on repeated nuclear explosions) and other fields.
Brower weighs several explanations for Dyson’s stance on global warming: Brower rejects one obvious possibility, that Dyson, at 87, has "gone out of his beautiful mind"; by all accounts, Dyson’s intellect is still formidable (and I found it to be so three years ago when I attended a three-day conference with Dyson in Lisbon). Brower gives more weight to the notion that Dyson—one of whose books is titled The Scientist as Rebel (New York Review Books, 2006)—has always been a provocateur who loves tweaking the status quo. I emphasized this contrarian aspect of Dyson’s personality in my 1993 profile of him for Scientific American, titled "Perpendicular to the Mainstream".
Brower’s favorite theory is that Dyson possesses a kind of religious faith in the power of science and technology to help us overcome all problems. We can bioengineer ourselves and other species, Dyson asserts, to help us adapt to a warmer world; if Earth becomes uninhabitable, we can colonize other planets, perhaps in other solar systems. "What the secular faith of Dysonism offers is, first, a hypertrophied version of the technological fix," Brower wrote, "and, second, the fantasy that should the fix fail we have someplace else to go."
This analysis makes sense to me. Dyson’s worldview seems both oddly retro, in a Jules Verne-ish or even Jetsons-esque way, and hyper-futuristic, so much so that humanity’s current problems—notably global warming—fade into insignificance. His remarkable 1979 paper, "Time without end: Physics and biology in an open universe," calculates how intelligent beings, perhaps in the form of clouds of charged particles, can ward off heat death—the polar opposite of global warming!—even after all the stars in the cosmos have dimmed.
Much more damaging to Dyson’s credibility, however, is his belief in extrasensory perception, sometimes called "psi". Dyson disclosed this belief in his essay "One in a Million" in the March 25, 2004, New York Review of Books, which discussed a book about ESP. His family, Dyson revealed, included two "fervent believers in paranormal phenomena," a grandmother who was a "notorious and successful faith healer" and a cousin who edited the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.
Dyson proposed that "paranormal phenomena are real but lie outside the limits of science." No one has produced empirical proof of psi, he conjectured, because it tends to occur under conditions of "strong emotion and stress," which are "inherently incompatible with controlled scientific procedures." This explanation reminds me of the physicist Richard Feynman’s quip that string theorists don’t make predictions; they make excuses.
Dyson even offered an explanation for what the parapsychologist Joseph Rhine called the "decline effect," which I discussed in a previous post. "In a typical card-guessing experiment," Dyson wrote, "the participants may begin the session in a high state of excitement and record a few high scores, but as the hours pass, and boredom replaces excitement, the scores decline." When I ran into Dyson three years ago in Lisbon, he cheerfully affirmed his belief in psi and reiterated his explanations for why it hasn’t been empirically demonstrated.
I disagree with Dyson that global warming is no big deal—I urge doubters to read Storms of My Grandchildren (Bloomsbury, 2009) by the climatologist James Hansen—and that ESP is real. Yes, some researchers still claim to have found tentative evidence for psi, as The New York Times reported in a page-one story last week. But if ESP existed, surely someone would have provided definitive proof of it by now and claimed James Randi’s $1-million prize for "anyone who can show under proper observing conditions evidence of any paranormal, supernatural or occult power or event."
Despite this lack of evidence, lots of people—including scientists—share Dyson’s belief in ESP, just as many share his lack of concern about global warming. And let’s not forget that many leading scientists—notably Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health—believe in a God who performs miracles, like resurrecting the dead. Eminent physicists also postulate the existence of parallel universes, higher dimensions, strings and other phenomena that I find as incredible as psi.
In his 1984 book, The Limits of Science, the biologist Peter Medawar coined the term "bunkrapt" to describe people infatuated with "bunk," meaning religious beliefs, superstitions and other claims lacking empirical evidence. "It is fun sometimes to be bunkrapt," Medawar wrote. That’s a nice way of putting it. The gleeful rebel Dyson, it seems to me, embodies our bunkrapt era, when the delineation between knowledge and pseudo-knowledge is becoming increasingly blurred; genuine authorities are mistaken for hucksters and vice versa; and we all believe whatever damn thing we want to believe.
Photo of Dyson courtesy Wiki Commons