Freeman Dyson, 94 today, on scepticism

At the excellent Curious Wavefunction blog of Ash Jogalekar, there’s an article (posted last year) about Freeman Dyson, who is 94 today.

Amongst other things, it discusses his climate scepticism. If anyone asks you what climate scepticism is, the points made about computer models, dogmatism and challenging the status quo in this paragraph sum it up nicely I think:

Over the past few years Dyson has become much more well-known in the public eye for his skepticism regarding climate change, a view made popular in a lengthy 2009 New York Times magazine profile. This was always unfortunate. Both his views and the article were blown out of proportion. In reality, as can be readily judged when you talk to him, Dyson’s opinion of climate change is mildly proffered, moderate to a fault and in the best tradition of the same skepticism that has guided science since its inception. He disapproves of faith in computer models and of the zealous dogmatism exhibited by some climate change activists, and both these points are extremely well taken. Ultimately Dyson is saying something simple; that science progresses only when there is a critical mass of skeptics challenging the status quo. It’s not about whether the skeptics are right or wrong, it’s about whether their voices are drowned out by the consensus. One of his favorite quotes is the motto of the Royal Society, an institution established by freethinkers in the shadow of a heavy-handed monarchy: “Nullius in verba” – Nobody’s word is final.


  1. Everyone is entitled to their opinion on climate change, although renowned theoretical physicists may be especially persuasive. This post compares quotes from 3 of the most distinguished: Stephen Hawking (much in the news lately since Trump’s election), Freeman Dyson and Richard Feynman. Hawking is an alarmist, Dyson a skeptic and Feynman concerned about scientific integrity.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Stephen Hawking, like Socrates, warns of the ‘illusion of knowledge’
    but fergits his own dictum in his certainty re the CAGW hypothesis.

    Freeman Dyson promotes scepticism. Isn’t the demarcation between
    science and pseudo-science, Karl Popper’s ‘testable theories that
    may be falsified?’ And doesn’t this requires the sceptical approach,
    nullius in verba, contra consensus and obeisance to ‘the expert.’?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. No one is entitled to mistranslate Martial, or dumb him down by ellipsis.
    A fair translation of the whole line from which “nullius in verba ” comes is:

    “Not forced to swear by the words of any master”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Russell,
    The Royal Society’s founders adopted the motto in 1660. If the World’s oldest scientific are not entitled to use it, then you need to take it up with them. Their lawyers might claim (a) it pre-dates copyright, (b) Horace (or his estate) need to put in the claim for the fictitious Martial.
    I would suggest that “nullius in verba” better expresses their founding principles than “Nullius addictus iurare in verba magistri“. However, to understand the pseudo-science of climatology and its associated political baggage, it is necessary to free oneself from the master of established beliefs. That means rejecting the shackles of repeated mantras and the fakery of climate consensus.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Ultimately Dyson is saying something simple; that science progresses only when there is a critical mass of skeptics challenging the status quo.

    What this is describing is the end of the process of scientific revolutionary change, broadly based upon Thomas S Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions“. From Wikipedia

    Normal scientific progress was viewed as “development-by-accumulation” of accepted facts and theories. Kuhn argued for an episodic model in which periods of such conceptual continuity in normal science were interrupted by periods of revolutionary science. The discovery of “anomalies” during revolutions in science leads to new paradigms. New paradigms then ask new questions of old data, move beyond the mere “puzzle-solving” of the previous paradigm, change the rules of the game and the “map” directing new research.

    For the revolutions to occur, there must be an ability to voice the anomalies. Discovery and articulation of anomalies occur (at least in economics) from the practice of “puzzle-solving” within normal science, through better definition of concepts, implementation of standards, thinking through the arguments and ever-increasing refinement of comparison with the real world data. Kuhn believed that the revolution involved a paradigm shift in thinking – what Kuhn called a “gestalt switch”. What seems sensible, reasonable thinking pre-revolution appears quite ridiculous after the revolution. Some of the outsider, sceptical, thinking becomes the new normal.

    But in the context of the recent Polar Bear smear paper, along with other work by the Lewandowsky / Oreskes / Cook propaganda network climatology is not “normal science”, but a warped caricature of what Funtowicz and Ravetz have termed Post-Normal Science.

    The starting point is using a mantra to promote a political programme.
    Other perspectives are rejected on the basis of extreme urgency or inability to justify the political program.
    Uncertainties are never acknowledged as contradicting the core mantra.
    Inexpert mass activist opinions are brought into play, whilst verifications of conjectures from real-world data, are made irrelevant, or not given voice.
    Objections are sourced from big business who deliberately spread misinformation.
    Rather than better definition and articulation of concepts, there is a movement vaguer definitions based on beliefs.
    The activists with the upper hand never acknowledge the possibility that mantra can be wrong. They build barriers by demanding critics justify their actions, they attempt to block (by a number of means) any attempt for the wider public to evaluate different points of view by the weight of evidence. The traditional British notion of “winning on a level playing field” is undermined in every way that can be gotten away with.
    By nobbling the competition (often based on evaluating the conjectures against the scientific evidence and human integrity) through smears, the activists can become ever bolder over time.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Seitz seems to have mistaken his Latin poets in his latest claim of erudition. Usually I don’t bother with his references, suspecting them to be the product of an addled mind, but ascribing an Epistle by Horace to Martial is quite bizarre even by his standards of error:

    Nullius addictus iurare in verba magistri, – quo me cumque rapit tempestas, deferor hospes.”
    (“(being) not obliged to swear allegiance to a master, wherever the storm drags me to, I turn in as a guest.”)


  7. Manic, thanks for your comment pulling together several strands, including Kuhn’s concept and later on the domination of climate science by political and social activists ( a process detailed by Bernie Lewin’s historical account.) No doubt that classical climatology (eg. HH Lamb’s paradigm) has been overturned by Mann and Al Gore, but is it a “scientific revolution”? IMO it is more a perversion, along the lines of Lysenko’s genetic theory, combined with a kind of Tulip mania.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Since I have now finally gone back to Horace, can we now translate “nullius in verba” as something like “since I am not a slave”?

    As a slave, I do not have to agree slavishly. I can think my own thoughts. Poor Len, the very idea of having to think for himself rather than appealing to groupthink must be shocking


  9. of course, it would not work for privy counsellors or Knights of the Garter of members of many parliaments, since they have sworn an oath to uphold stuff…


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