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Heretical thoughts about science and society

By Don Aitkin - posted Friday, 15 December 2017

I have mentioned before, with great approval (here and here), the English-born mathematician, astronomer and physicist Freeman Dyson, who is 94, and has spent most of his working life at Princeton's Institute of Advanced Study. I have been to Princeton a few times, but did not meet him, though I have had supper in Albert Einstein's house there (and that was eerie). Dyson is extraordinarily diverse in his interests, and that may explain why he never won a Nobel Prize, though he has won a stack of other prizes in several fields. His friend, the late Oliver Sacks, remarked that "A favorite word of Freeman's about doing science and being creative is the word 'subversive'. He feels it's rather important not only to be not orthodox, but to be subversive, and he's done that all his life." Since I have had a similar somewhat maverick feeling about the research business, Dyson and his approach just appeal to me.

What is more, he writes beautifully. What follows are extracts from something he wrote eleven years ago but which I have just encountered. Its title is the title of this essay, and you can read it all here. This is how it starts.

In the modern world, science and society often interact in a perverse way. We live in a technological society, and technology causes political problems. The politicians and the public expect science to provide answers to the problems. Scientific experts are paid and encouraged to provide answers. The public does not have much use for a scientist who says, "Sorry, but we don't know". The public prefers to listen to scientists who give confident answers to questions and make confident predictions of what will happen as a result of human activities. So it happens that the experts who talk publicly about politically contentious questions tend to speak more clearly than they think. They make confident predictions about the future, and end up believing their own predictions. Their predictions become dogmas which they do not question. The public is led to believe that the fashionable scientific dogmas are true, and it may sometimes happen that they are wrong. That is why heretics who question the dogmas are needed.


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. Since I am heretic, I am accustomed to being in the minority. If I could persuade everyone to agree with me, I would not be a heretic.

We are lucky that we can be heretics today without any danger of being burned at the stake. But unfortunately I am an old heretic. Old heretics do not cut much ice. When you hear an old heretic talking, you can always say, "Too bad he has lost his marbles", and pass on. What the world needs is young heretics. I am hoping that one or two of the people who read this piece may fill that role.

I think this is lovely stuff, and I encourage you to go the link and read the lot. I think it started as an address to PhD students. The main subject of the essay is 'the problem of climate change'.

This is a contentious subject, involving politics and economics as well as science. The science is inextricably mixed up with politics. 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.

There is no doubt that parts of the world are getting warmer, but the warming is not global. I am not saying that the warming does not cause problems. Obviously it does. Obviously we should be trying to understand it better. I am saying that the problems are grossly exaggerated. They take away money and attention from other problems that are more urgent and more important, such as poverty and infectious disease and public education and public health, and the preservation of living creatures on land and in the oceans, not to mention easy problems such as the timely construction of adequate dikes around the city of New Orleans.

He goes on to discuss the slow rise of the oceans, the possibility of a new ice age, the possibility of a wet Sahara (there was one several thousand years ago, just as there was a much wetter Central Australia). The latter is his second heresy, and the last is his feeling that the USA is approaching the end of its globally dominant period. He finishes with a pleasant little story about Francis Crick, he of the DNA, who started as a physicist.

And let me finish with one of my own. Thirty years ago my research granting body was offered a project on an aspect of DNA. Quite a lot of money was involved, and that brought me, as the Chairman, into it. There was the usual scurry to find appropriate assessors, and I asked, perhaps more light-heartedly than was appropriate, why we didn't ask Francis Crick. 'Oh, he'd never reply,' was the answer. 'Well, let's ask him anyway.' So we did. Crick responded with an aerogramme, which contained the reference number of the project, and the words, 'Don't do it!' and his illegible signature.


Freeman Dyson is courteous, perceptive and utterly readable. So much of what we read about climate change has to do with a new paper on this or that, mostly obscure and nibbling away at the edges of what is said to be a major problem of the world today. Dyson cuts through all the bumf. If only we had more like him!

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Moving On, was published in 2016.

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