Yet it is much easier to criticize a skeptic like Will than one like Dyson. Case in point is NASA’s James Hansen, one of the country’s revered climate scientists. In Dawidoff’s profile, Dyson calls Hansen a “propagandist” and Hansen, in return, dismisses Dyson as essentially clueless. Romm and other bloggers rushed to Hansen’s defense, demanding retribution for such “slander.”
The day the print edition of the story was mailed to subscribers, however, Hansen sent a letter (posted by Times reporter Andrew Revkin) to his e-mail list, apologizing to Dyson. It was not a total capitulation, of course—while acknowledging that Dyson deserves respect and that contrarian views are good for science, Hansen also wrote that “government needs to get its advice from the most authoritative sources, not from magazine articles.”
That may be true, but therein lays the rub. Very few critics share Dyson’s lack of concern for warming. On the other hand, many sympathize with his leeriness of the catastrophic rhetoric used by “authoritative sources” such as Hansen, who has referred to railroad cars carrying coal as “death trains.” They also see an important point to systematic, but honest, questioning of overly certain scientific predictions (climatic or otherwise). So whereas bloggers almost unanimously disapproved of the Post’s decision to run George Will’s columns, criticism of the Times’s editorial judgment has been, appropriately, much more nuanced. The Knight Science Journalism Tracker’s Charlie Petit, for instance, wrote that:
There have been some calls, most notably from ferocious climate blogger Joe Romm at Climate Progress, for condemnation of the Times for publishing an admiring portrait of a man he calls a “climate crackpot.” Romm is correct that the piece may provide some ammo for the climate change deniers (or whatever is the term of the day for skeptics). But to squelch such nuanced and engaging profiles as this - to prevent mischief by people with a tiny fraction of the brainpower of Mr. Dyson - would be a shame.
Likewise, the Center for Environmental Journalism’s Tom Yulsman felt that both Dyson and Dawidoff were “out of their league” on points of climate science, but found merit in the Times’s attempt to explore skepticism’s role as a “core value of science.” In a comment at the end of Yulsman’s post, however, NASA climate modeler and Real Climate blogger Gavin Schmidt added an important caveat to that argument:
Skepticism is the life blood of science - without it, no progress would ever have been made nor will be made in the future. But people indulging in pot shots against the ‘climate consensus’ based on no knowledge of the actual science are not ’skeptics’ in any real sense. It is very reminiscent of the Monty Python argument sketch - true argument is not simply contradiction. Joe Romm and others are not criticising Dyson because of his skepticism, they (rightly) criticise him because of his ill-informed ’skepticism’.
Feeling such trepidation about Dawidoff’s piece is perfectly legitimate and reasonable, especially with major climate legislation currently working its way through Congress. As American University communications professor Matthew Nisbet explained so well at his blog, Framing Science:
On one hand, the social scientist in me views Dawidoff’s journalistic narrative as a sociologically nuanced take on what happens when policy debates are simplistically reduced down to a matter of “sound science” and “inconvenient truths” rather than decisions involving values and trade-offs. On the other hand, the strategist in me worries that the sophisticated article and Dyson’s lone wolf views will be used as more fodder by conservatives committed to blocking climate action at any cost.
All arguments considered, Dawidoff’s profile strikes me as legitimate in conception, but flawed in execution. Petit is right—to “squelch” this article would have been a shame. While exploring the importance of honest and transparent skepticism (as opposed to the more duplicitous kind proffered by people like Will) to science overall, however, Dawidoff could have done more to challenge the idea that, in this particular instance, Dyson is doing more good than harm.