Prof Freeman Dyson rousts Indy churnalist

Let’s see the Met Office fall over themselves to link to this piece by Steve Connor in the Independent. Or do they only do that when he writes puff pieces for them when they’re under pressure?  They should be pleased because Connor is firmly on message and gives them another mention in this article.

Titled ‘Letters to a heretic: An email conversation with climate change sceptic Professor Freeman Dyson‘, Connor’s piece could just as easily be a piece by Prof Dyson called ‘Responses to a scientific illiterate: An object lesson in biased media and ignorance‘.  For despite being a science editor Connor seems remarkably one dimensional and out of his depth.

The best Connor can summon up is the appeal to authority, and he does so right off the bat in his by-line as he refers to Dyson as one of the few true intellectuals to be so dismissive of the global-warming consensus. From the outset Dyson set out his very high level rationale for AGW scepticism when explained (paragraph bulleted for ease of reading):

  • First, the computer models are very good at solving the equations of fluid dynamics but very bad at describing the real world. The real world is full of things like clouds and vegetation and soil and dust which the models describe very poorly.
  • Second, we do not know whether the recent changes in climate are on balance doing more harm than good. The strongest warming is in cold places like Greenland. More people die from cold in winter than die from heat in summer.
  • Third, there are many other causes of climate change besides human activities, as we know from studying the past.
  • Fourth, the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is strongly coupled with other carbon reservoirs in the biosphere, vegetation and top-soil, which are as large or larger. It is misleading to consider only the atmosphere and ocean, as the climate models do, and ignore the other reservoirs.
  • Fifth, the biological effects of CO2 in the atmosphere are beneficial, both to food crops and to natural vegetation. The biological effects are better known and probably more important than the climatic effects.
  • Sixth, summing up the other five reasons, the climate of the earth is an immensely complicated system and nobody is close to understanding it.

But despite this explanation, Connor persists with what Dyson labels as the ‘party line’ focusing on what he sees as narrow technical issues, the premise of which he doesn’t accept.  So Connor, lost for an angle of attack to discredit Dyson, returns to his appeal to authority when he churns out:

So I guess my question would be, what if you are wrong? What if all the other scientists connected with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UK Met Office, NASA, NOAA, the World Meteorological Organisation, and just about every reputable university and institute doing research on climate science, happen to be right? Isn’t it a bit risky for me and the rest of the general public to dismiss this vast canon of climate science as just “fuss” about global warming when all I’ve got to go on is a minority opinion?

This was written despite earlier references in the email exchange to Alfred Wegener (theory of continental drift) with Dyson having already pointed out that there was even a consensus against Wegener among a small group of experts.  Connor clearly cannot square with the notion of a small number of outstanding scientists disagreeing with the pack. When will Connor ever ask himself and readers, what if the consensus he is so desperate to endorse happen to be wrong?  History is littered with examples of consensus opinion and ‘evidence’ being undermined by actualite.

In Dyson’s response to Connor, he reasonably writes the following:

Of course I am not expecting you to agree with me. The most I expect is that you might listen to what I am saying. I am saying that all predictions concerning climate are highly uncertain. On the other hand, the remedies proposed by the experts are enormously costly and damaging, especially to China and other developing countries. On a smaller scale, we have seen great harm done to poor people around the world by the conversion of maize from a food crop to an energy crop. This harm resulted directly from the political alliance between American farmers and global-warming politicians. Unfortunately the global warming hysteria, as I see it, is driven by politics more than by science. If it happens that I am wrong and the climate experts are right, it is still true that the remedies are far worse than the disease that they claim to cure.

Then follows the equivalent of the punch that Ali never gave Foreman…

I wish that The Independent would live up to its name and present a less one-sided view of the issues.

Connor indulges himself with another lengthy dose of pseudo-intellectual nonsense attacking what he believes to have been the varying arguments of the sceptics, before a clearly bored and unimpressed Dyson extracts himself from the exchange with this telling and penetrating summation that should give those who accept at face value all they read in the media pause for thought:

Your last message just repeats the same old party line that we have many good reasons to distrust. You complain that people who are sceptical about the party line do not agree about other things. Why should we agree? The whole point of science is to encourage disagreement and keep an open mind. That is why I blame The Independent for seriously misleading your readers. You give them the party line and discourage them from disagreeing.

With all due respect, I say good-bye and express the hope that you will one day join the sceptics. Scepticism is as important for a good journalist as it is for a good scientist.

Freeman Dyson has shown that Steve Connor is a case study in the modern media phenomenon that investigative journalist Nick Davies has apparently labelled ‘churnalism’ – which is when journalists are ‘reduced to passive processors of whatever material comes their way’ (referenced earlier by Ockham’s Razor).  In other words we don’t have journalists rather we have churnalists, mere cut and paste merchants who spew out press releases as news without any attempt at critical examination and questioning of the content.

It is another example of why we cannot trust the modern news media and how the public is ill served by these over rated churnos.

14 Responses to “Prof Freeman Dyson rousts Indy churnalist”

  1. 1 Junkk Male 26/02/2011 at 6:40 am

    A potentially useful tool?:

  2. 2 Martin Brumby 26/02/2011 at 7:22 am

    Excellent post. Thanks and congratulations.

    Connor is about as much use as Louise Gray.

  3. 3 CalvinBall 26/02/2011 at 7:58 am

    If you’ve ever read it, Flat Earth News is quite a good dissection of ‘churnalism’. It explains very well the mechanics of a modern news story and how pretty much most stories are a cut and paste from the wire services. It tells one very good story of how a journo for a local paper had come across a real juicy story that his editor would not run with or resource. After offering it about 3 times to his editor he gave up and put it to one of the wire services for them to use. It was at this point his editor took it and printed it.

    There is another good piece within it which I think is relevant to AGW within the book. It tells the story of how the Y2K bug story gained traction. Basically it starts from someone with vested interest hamming a story up slightly. From there it takes a steady path through congress and grows in the media. There’s an interesting parallel with what happened to AGW

  4. 4 CO2 Does not drive temperature 26/02/2011 at 9:53 am

    Freeman Dyson is right!

    Here’s another climate sceptic, Professor Frederick Singer offering a compelling analysis as to why climate change is a perfectly natural occurence as opposed to the alarmism of the British Government’s Professor Bob Watson

  5. 5 CO2 Does not drive temperature 26/02/2011 at 9:59 am

    Professor Frederick Singer presents some more compelling scientific arguments against man made global warming

  6. 6 CO2 Does not drive temperature 26/02/2011 at 10:00 am

    Freeman Dyson on Global Warming 1of2 Bogus Climate Models

  7. 7 Autonomous Mind 26/02/2011 at 10:47 am

    Hi Calvin, yes I read Flat Earth News when it first came out in hardback. I confess that given the Guardian’s record, Davies’ attack on churnalism seemed self serving because there were many more Guardian examples he could have used but didn’t. Perhaps it’s time for a re-read because I’ve not touched my copy for nearly three years.

  8. 8 mikef2 26/02/2011 at 11:38 am

    Hey…what is really scary is that Raveatz thinks that Dyson ducked the arguement when faced with questions he could not answer. Whilst most of us agree the Dyson thought ‘this guys an idiot, why am I wasting my time with him’…
    So supposed intellects like Raveatz cannot grasp even this truth…no wonder the worlds gone mad, heh!

  9. 9 briansj3 26/02/2011 at 11:48 am

    Consensus is not important in science, but even if it were, there is no consensus. See this post by Neil Craig There seems to be only one non-government scientist who supports the AGW theory.

  10. 10 Uncle Badger 26/02/2011 at 1:08 pm

    What I find most amusing about this incident is what it says about Connor’s self-regard.

    It’s like the old ‘wait till he shakes his head’ joke about the master swordsman. Connor must be capable of quite impressive feats of hubris if he actually believes he won that exchange.

  11. 11 eadav 26/02/2011 at 4:25 pm

    Nice post but what the entire Indie output is a drop in the bucket of partiality.

    See ‘The Search for Impartiality’ at

    Hansen believes:

    ‘… if all the evidence you have to hand suggests that removing a sea wall or a dam will have a net beneficial effect on the natural environment then, however you go about it – explosives, technical sabotage or manual destruction – the removal would be a constructive action.’


  12. 12 Stuck-Record 26/02/2011 at 5:47 pm

    Flat Earth News is a game of two halves.

    The first part, dealing with churnalism is excellent, but the second half is basically an anti-American/isn’t the Daily Mail beastly rant. He manages to pretend that the Guardian, BBC and Independent never do anything wrong.

    Yeah. Right.

  13. 13 Anoneumouse 27/02/2011 at 12:33 am

    Off Topic…. March 1st is Spring in the met office callender. Dont think we are going to get their risk of a mild end to the winter :-)

  14. 14 Leigh Harwood 01/07/2011 at 3:26 pm

    Steve Connor is really out of his depth here. He’s taking a pounding from an intellectual heavyweight; a genius in his field.

    Professor Dyson strikes me as a calm and composed man. He expresses his arguments with a simple logic and humility. He always remains sceptical and questioning just as a good scientist should.

    Clearly, from this article, Professor Dyson considers this man a waste of his time. Steve Connor is clearly unable to think for himself and the fact that he resorts to ‘flat earth’ references towards the end of the interview – really does start to reflect his underlying frustration and contempt for alternative views.

    All that it takes to see through this man-made global warming nonsense is the ability to think critically.

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