Russ Roberts

Dyson on Heresy, Climate Change, and Science

EconTalk Episode with Freeman Dyson
Hosted by Russ Roberts
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Freeman Dyson of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about science, his career, and the future. Dyson argues for the importance of what he calls heresy--challenging the scientific dogmas of the day. Dyson argues that our knowledge of climate science is incomplete and that too many scientists treat it as if it were totally understood. He reflects on his childhood and earlier work, particularly in the area of space travel. And he says that biology is the science today with the most exciting developments.

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0:36Intro. [Recording date: February 18, 2011.] What is a heretic in your view and why are they important? Tendency for people to think in groups, to follow the party line. Most of the time, we are happy going along with what other people are thinking, and very often what other people are thinking is wrong. So, if you are a heretic and stick out for something unorthodox, you have a chance to do something important. You said that most people are comfortable going along: that's not the impression I think of scientists. I think we have a romantic vision of scientists sitting in a laboratory, seeking truth. Why do you think there is groupthink in science. I see it all around me. I'm a victim of it myself, especially in astronomy, because the universe is far away and long ago, and you have all sorts of pictures about it--what we call models, which are descriptions of the way we think it is. And of course they are hopelessly oversimplified; but still it's nice to have a model to have some picture of what it is you are talking about. People just tend to believe their own models after a while, lose awareness that the model may be very different from reality. Have you seen many cases in your experience where a scientist who has devoted a significant chunk of time and passion to a model say it was wrong? Very often. That happens all the time. Particularly in astronomy. One of the famous examples was the drifting continent idea of the German--what's his name? [Alfred Wegener--ed.]--this German, in the 1920s propounded the idea that continents are moving around and nobody believed it for a long time. They preferred to think of the continents as fixed. For no particular reason except that that was the majority view. Turned out that after all they do drift. We now measure it and know exactly how it happens. Great example, because there's one data point that is obvious to everyone, which is that it looks like Africa fits in nicely in gap between South and North America. Of course, that could just be a coincidence. Yes, that was the starting point of the whole thing. There's a famous story about Einstein--I wonder if you could verify it. When he made his prediction about light being bent by the gravitational force of the sun, there was a famous experiment to test that; and it was confirmed, to the delight of many, including Mr. Einstein. And someone said to him: What would you have done if it turned out to be wrong? And he said: I wouldn't have believed it because I know my theory is right. Is that a true story, do you think? Yes, more or less true. He was, of course, a heretic, and he had this model, instinct for what was really there; and he had this sublime confidence, could test. Turned out to be right. Of course, sometimes he wasn't right, but mostly he was. Presumably there would have been enough data at some point to convince him he was wrong. If he lived long enough to see some of his theories proved wrong. Well, he never did, of course. I don't think any of his theories really turned out to be wrong. His great failure was unified field theory, which wasn't so much wrong--wasn't even wrong; never well-formulated and never clear enough to be wrong. That's a great advantage to some theories. Well, to him of course it was a great disappointment. But he never actually said it was wrong; but at the end of his life he knew he wasn't getting there. Must have been very sad. Did you see it in him? No, I didn't know him personally.
5:58The question of data and testing theories, and the difficulty of admitting that you are wrong raises a question often in the news today about consensus. Is consensus a meaningful way to think about how science moves forward? No; of course, consensus does have a good meaning--when large numbers of people agree about something, that's a consensus. But it's not something you necessarily believe in. Consensus may be right or it may be wrong. It's certainly quite real. In the example of climate science, where this is an acute problem, the whole subject has become political, which makes it a much more dubious undertaking because so many people are in it for political reasons, and then, of course, consensus becomes politically important. That distorts the science in an unfortunate way. What do you mean when you say it's political? Well, that there's a very large political fight going on about climate change, strong passions involved on both sides; and large amounts of money. Very big economic question, what to do about climate change. Very large numbers of people whose livelihood depends on keeping the public alarmed. That's unhealthy. They've responded by saying there's a lot of people on the other side who have a big financial stake in keeping the public sleepy. Right. That's true of course. Bit financial interests on both sides. So, how does the layperson, a non-expert, evaluate those sides? I would say: Keep an open mind as long as you can. That's true whether you are a scientist or not. Always be skeptical; don't necessarily believe because somebody's an expert he knows what is true. Experts are usually experts in a very narrow field, so they don't have a good view of the whole story. My view is that sometimes experts are right, and sometimes experts are wrong. Right. Your continental drift story, plate tectonics, that's definitely an example. There are so many examples in medicine and science where a heretic on something like ulcers, continental drift; in the case of economics, monetary policy, maverick view is viewed as unacceptable and outside the mainstream. Until it turns out to be true.
9:13Quote of Dyson's from a few years ago, about climate change but I see it as a quote about economics, and really any complex system where you struggle to figure out what the world would be like without the intervention that you care about or the change that you care about. So, you have to have a model of the underlying reality.
When I listen to the public debates about climate change, I am impressed by the enormous gaps in our knowledge, the sparseness of our observations and the superficiality of our theories. Many of the basic processes of planetary ecology are poorly understood. They must be better understood before we can reach an accurate diagnosis of the present condition of our planet. When we are trying to take care of a planet, just as when we are taking care of a human patient, diseases must be diagnosed before they can be cured. We need to observe and measure what is going on in the biosphere, rather than relying on computer models.
Have your views changed since you wrote that? No. I would stick with that. How would you respond to the people who say: There's a threat and the natural, healthy thing to do is to reduce our risk and respond to it as best we can, even if we don't understand it perfectly; if we wait till then, it will be too late? No, that's not the choice you have. Everything you do is risky. You don't, just by trying to reduce burning fossil fuels--doesn't mean you've got rid of the risk. Merely means you are taking different kinds of risk. They could be worse. It could very well be that the welfare of the planet would be damaged by reducing carbon dioxide. We just don't know. So, what do you advise? I advise just waiting to see what the processes are, so we understand well enough to take action where we know what the results will be. There are certain things you can do, of course, which make sense, undoubtedly a lot of the actions we could take--using less energy, using energy in a less wasteful fashion--that's good no matter what. There's a great deal you can do. But the real question is whether you put a price on carbon, which makes the poor people poorer and enriches the people who have solar panels on their roofs. That kind of thing, to my mind, is likely to be counterproductive. You've suggested some creative ideas for reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. You've also made the observations many have--that there is a natural cycle; we're not fully understanding the role of human intervention into that cycle. We may be facing an ice age some time in the future--it seems likely. May or may not be possible to avert that with human intervention. You've proposed a lot of creative ideas--tree planning, topsoil--as have some other scientists. Does anybody take those seriously? Do they get a hearing? Yes, I think some of us do. I make a distinction between what they call geo-engineering--which is big, colossal schemes for changing the whole planet in some big fashion--and land management, which is doing it on a local basis, much more conservative fashion. Those two are very different, but the public doesn't make much of a distinction. So, on the whole, big geo-engineering schemes don't make sense, but land management on a local level does make sense and it could be quite effective. Just reading an interesting piece called "Growing Cows on Grass," about the ecological benefits of growing cows on grass as opposed to growing corn and feeding the corn to the cows in feedlots. That actually could make a big difference. Some farmers in Minnesota are actually doing it on grass and some doing very well. That's the sort of thing I believe does make sense. Might taste better. Might be more consistent with our evolutionary insides. The main point is you can make mistakes and it's not catastrophic.
14:10Your politics are generally described as left of center. Here's an estimate: you probably have the highest IQ of any climate skeptic. This has caused a great deal of consternation in the scientific community and in the activist community--that you are unwilling to be on the bandwagon of climate change. What have been some of the costs to you? Really very little. I'm not suffering from this. I don't even get hate mail. I actually get more hate mail from owners of Dyson vacuum cleaners who think I'm responsible because it doesn't work. Not a problem for me at all. My friends think I'm maybe going a little bit gaga, but I don't suffer from that. You haven't been shunned? Oh, no. People here are very friendly. I get invited to give lectures, and people generally are very friendly. What I find interesting in economics, where there is much less ability to test theories--very easy to maintain a theory that is wrong, confused, or misleading, for centuries perhaps. Mercantilism goes back I think to the 14th century and it's still thriving; very hard to jar people away from that. So, the earlier issue we talked about, groupthink, what I find interesting is the social pressure to be part of the team, gang, group. When I look at economists who have taken non-mainstream positions, the suffering, feeling of ostracism and lack of respect, feeling that you are in the wilderness in terms of prizes and awards, honors--I think that's hard for some people. Happy to hear you haven't borne any personal ills of that kind. Of course, it helps to be old. I don't have to worry about finding a job. That's probably true. If you were younger, they'd probably be meaner to you, too. One more question on climate change: Do you think we are going to come to a different viewpoint? A different evolution on how we consider this issue? More data will come in? Oh, yes. I've seen it change so many times in my own lifetime. Certainly bound to change. All sorts of things will happen that are unexpected.
17:26General science question: What do you think are the most important general questions in science? Will they be answered? Are there limits to our knowledge of the physical world? Well, of course; I don't know any better than anybody else. Number one question for me I guess is the origin of life. That's something I've thought about quite a lot. Still completely mysterious. Not even an experimental attack one can think of that would settle that. But I'm fairly confident we will understand it in 100 years or so and maybe much sooner. Science is totally unpredictable; very often goes fast. The quantum revolution was just an amazing event which suddenly made the whole of physics and chemistry more or less clear almost overnight. The same thing could happen in biology. Hasn't happened yet. I wouldn't find it surprising if it did. The general question of limits: There are some limits. We have the Big Bang, the first nano-second, pico-second, veiled from us to some degree. To an amazing extent, we do actually see back that far. That's of course something that's happened just in the last 20 years. Twenty years ago, we only saw a tiny little corner of the universe. Everything else was just darkness; you could believe what you liked. Cosmology was just a collection of unverifiable theories. Now we're seeing everything, almost back to the beginning. Amazing how quickly the universe has become visible and we're now just talking about details. Amazingly rapid change in our whole view of the universe. I've lived through that and many other things of a similar kind. What change allowed us to see so much more? Mostly just new tools. The most important tool, in a way, was the computer--suddenly we are able to handle big amounts of information cheaply. That makes a huge difference in almost every branch of science. Certainly true in genetics, astronomy, chemistry. Quite suddenly you can grasp very complicated processes and actually see what is happening in a way we never could even 20 years ago. Let's talk about the origin of life for a minute. What do you mean when you say it's unanswered? I think most people think we have a pretty good understanding of the origin of life. Who says we understand it? Every schoolchild in America; every biology teacher. There was this soup and after a while there was maybe lightening, and after a while amoebas, then fish; then birds; then people. What's the mystery? Well, there's this little gap between the lightning and the amoeba--that's where the problems are. Once you have an amoeba, of course it's fairly well understood how you go on from there. But that step of getting from the lightening to the amoeba is an enormous gap. I think most people who aren't scientists think that was solved in a simulation in the 1950s, the 1940s? The Miller experiment. That has been overhyped tremendously; and Miller is not to blame for that. They rarely are. The hyping is usually done by someone else--though that's not always true. How do you think we are going make progress on that question? I think we are making progress, but no one can tell beforehand. The progress we are making is sort of understanding the archeology of the genome, being able to see in detail how ancient genomes must have looked and how genetic information got transferred from one type of creature to another. Rather like cosmology--we are getting a clearer view of the way things were long ago; in course of time that probably will bring us far enough so you will begin to see how it might have all started. We certainly haven't got there yet. Extraordinary thing that the human mind can grasp any of that--there are philosophical theories that suggest that the world might have started an instant ago, and everything we think of as the past is just a memory--famous thought experiment. The idea that we can get data on the Big Bang and the genome is an incredible thing. Wonderful piece of luck in a way that DNA is really a very good medium for preserving memories.
23:53So, you've been a scientist for a very long time. One of the virtues of being old. How has the practice of science changed in your lifetime? What has changed for the better, for the worse? What has changed for the worse is we don't know each other any more. When I got into the game, it was still true that the whole community of physicists was small enough that you actually knew everybody. You could read the Physical Review and the Proceedings of the Royal Society every month and that was it. You could keep up with the whole of physics. That's not possible today: ten times as many people and probably a hundred times as many journals. The proportion worth reading has probably gone down a little bit. Nobody reads the journals any more anyway--of course, everything is on the web. That's an advantage, too. You can actually access the information more easily now than you could then, though there's so much more of it. I suppose that's the major change--every field of science has become more specialized, harder to keep up with the whole subject. On the other hand, wonderful to have friends all over the world on the Internet. Email a huge plus; I have friends all over the world and we really stay in touch. What about the role of money? Economics, for example: used be there were maybe two people who could make a lot of money talking about economics to the general public: Paul Samuelson and Milton Friedman used to have a column in Newsweek. Different views of the world. To be a public intellectual in economics was a pretty hard way to go--wasn't much opportunity. That world's exploded. A lot more punditry, proselytizing, pontificating; part of that is because there is a lot of money in it. You can make money and be rewarded for saying all kinds of things in a loud voice. Has that played a role in physics and science? It's a political problem. Do you see any of that going on? Oh, yes. In some ways, I find it exciting. I have a daughter who is a businesswoman and I get to know a lot of business people through her; so the modern type of entrepreneurs are very attractive. In many ways it's a culture that is healthy and going forward very well, these people who start companies when they are 21 and they don't have to bother with staying in college and wasting so many years getting a Ph.D. They can go ahead and do something in the real world. That to me is very healthy. Has quite a large effect on science. Not all good, but certainly not all bad. Science is in a way in closer contact with the entrepreneurial world than it used to be. I think that's good. Practical result. By accident, I happen to known John Maynard Keynes, the great economist, in days when I was a student in England, so my view of economics wasn't quite the same as yours. He was, of course, an aristocrat who had used his knowledge of economics to make a private fortune, so he could do whatever he liked. He worked himself to death, but he didn't do it for money. That was a different world. Just the glory--which is a different form of reward. Well, he also had a very strong sense of public duty. This was during WWII, when he was basically running the British economy, under very difficult conditions. He did amazingly well. What kind of contact did you have with him? I was a student in his college. Whenever he could get away from government business he would get back to Cambridge and carry on his studying of manuscripts of Newton and things like that. He had wide interests. Anyhow, that was of course an unusual time, too, because money didn't matter. England during the war was a really socialist country; there was nothing to spend the money on. Same here. We didn't have much either, evidently. It was in many ways a good time--so everybody was sharing the hardships. Easy to say from this chair in 2011--I'm sure those who lived and survived, there was a gloriousness to that privation and sharing; probably not like anything else you'd ever experienced. Yes, in a certain way it's been downhill ever since. And what did you do during the war? First, I was a student at Cambridge, and then I went to work for the British air force as a statistician. I was only in the war for the last two years. A lot of smart people helped out through their knowledge of statistics. Milton Friedman did the same thing.
30:30You've done some very interesting speculation on space travel. Tell us what some of your ideas were in the past and what you are thinking now. I make a sharp distinction between space science and space travel. Very important to keep those separate. Space science is in a golden age, largely just because of computers and data processes. Unmanned missions can do an amazing job of exploring the universe. We are doing marvelously well with exploring planets, the sun, the universe. Also with ground-based telescopes; particularly with space missions; the Kepler mission which has just now been in the news discovering stars. Great time to be doing space science; getting more cost effective as payloads are getting smaller; costs staying more or less fixed--annual budget hasn't changed much for the last 10 years. Enterprise which is doing extremely well. On the other hand, there is space travel, which is humans in space, which has been in the doldrums now for the past 30 years. Ever since Apollo we have not been doing much. Been wasting a tremendous amount of money flying little shuttle missions around the globe, going up and down and up and down. Nobody really knows what these missions are doing except keeping the thing going--welfare program for the aerospace industry. So the question is: What's to happen with that? That's where all the public debate is. We'd like to have a space travel program that involves some real progress. Space travel. Actually going someplace. The question is what can you do? I think we ought to be concentrating much more on reducing costs. The basic problem is you need something like a factor of 100 in costs before space travel can be a sporting event that involves lots of people, not just a few billion dollar missions. I think we could do a lot better by finding cheap ways to launch payloads into space, finding cheap ways to travel. To some extent this is happening. Just in the last few years, private space companies have started actually doing things: Falcon Rocket, which has been a big success. Good chance that the private companies will in fact have beaten us by a factor of 10 or something of that kind, which would really make a difference. Something I find very hopeful. It's not yet proved they can do it. In the political realm there's a certain tension between an aversion to risk, which as we get wealthier we get more risk averse, but we also can afford to do bigger things. But that risk aversion is growing at the same time. No politician wants to kill a lot of people if he's seen as responsible for it. What do you think would be the impetus for recreational space travel? What do you suspect is the reason people would want to--we understand why people go to exotic places on earth, but exotic places that are within reach of even advanced space technology are a little bit barren. What would be the appeal of it? Everybody's different. I happen to be a friend of Charles Simonyi, who went up twice as a tourist. He happens to be the chairman of our board of trustees, so I see him quite frequently. Two years ago, went to Kazakhstan to see him launch. It was delightful to visit. The Russian space culture is very different from ours. They take a much longer view; they think in centuries, we think in decades. In Russia, it's a very ceremonious enterprise. When they have a launch, the whole town comes out on the streets to watch the cosmonauts walk by. Make a public declaration in the town square to say they are ready to fly, and the mayor and officials of the town are there to make speeches. Then they all parade to the launch site. So, it is a public ceremonial, which they are very proud of. The whole town is full of memorials to people who are past heroes, and to be a cosmonaut is sort of more of a vocation, not just skill. Anyhow, it was nice to see that. That spectacle reminds me of the role of a very expensive wedding, discouraging cold feet on the part of the groom or bride. Get your nerve up, because it's going to look very embarrassing after we've cheered you all this while. Absolutely right, yes. But anyhow, that's part of the business--public celebration which people enjoy, an international sporting event in some sense. Then you have people like Charles Simonyi who are willing to spend big amounts of money for the thrill of going up there. Seems there is no lack of such people. I imagine that will happen even more when there are more interesting places to go to. But even the International Space Station--which I would say is pretty boring--they still are quite excited about that. Especially in Russia. Of course, the Russians built it and feel it's theirs. Well, it works. It's good for them. It is a beautiful piece of technology. And the Soyuz rocket is the most reliable launcher we have; that's been more or less unchanged for 50 years. Do you think there's a future of space colonization, given the distances involved and the physical and natural restraints imposed? A possible reality down the road of human beings living outside the earth in an extended way? Oh, yes. But it's not just humans--it's life in general. Quite clear, in my mind--life will spread out, so good at adapting to different circumstances. So we will certainly have, I am sure, a wave of life going out into the universe and becoming much more diverse. Humans are just a part of that. All a question of time scale, whether you think in decades or in centuries or in millennia. I can't tell how long it well take; I'm sure it will happen. The Russians certainly feel that way. They are going to the stars--that's what this is about for them. It will take a while, but they don't particularly care. As we'd say in economics, the opportunity of staying here is much higher for Americans perhaps than for Russians--their country is not as pleasant in certain ways. At least they don't seem as happy. Well, it's Americans who are paying to go. We like thrills, too. In both countries you find people who like to go. Really not about humans--it's about finding a whole ecology to settle on Mars and turn Mars into a green planet. How long that will take depends on costs. I would guess it's about 100 years, but certainly not 10 years. So, it's not something we can plan for under the American budgeting system. As you point out, it's likely to be a private enterprise. In this country it probably goes better private; private enterprises can take much bigger risks. Russ: Want to apologize for my cheap shot at Russia. Can't help think of my Russian friend who, when I would ask him how he was doing, would say: Fine, like all Americans. Certain cultural difference I always find charming between Russians and Americans; don't know how universal it is.
41:02Something we've been talking about on the program recently is artificial intelligence and what is called the singularity--the possibility of quantum leaps in technology that would radically change the role of machines and artificial intelligence in our lives. Do you think that's going to happen? One guest recently, Robin Hanson, who mentioned that the brain is just chemicals, so it's only a matter of time before we are able to replicate it in some digital way or some other way. What are your thoughts on that? Well, of course, I don't know. I would say I don't believe any specific predictions about the singularity. I think the kind of Kurzweil thing doesn't make much sense if you look at it in detail. On the other hand, I think it's certainly true that the future of intelligence is very different from what it's like now. We see that to some extent already with what's called the information flood. I've just read a new book about this by Jim Gleick--I don't know if you've seen that. The book is called The Information; essentially it's the life of--I've reached the age where names are a problem--but anyway. I've reached the same age, too, just a lot earlier. Anyhow, but I recommend the book. It's about the flood of information, which has changed the world, particularly in the last 20 years. It's going on; and it certainly will have a transforming effect, there's no doubt. Collective intelligence is going to become more and more powerful. It's a question of how humans adapt to that. So, we shall see. I'm sure there will be radical changes, only I don't think anybody is clever enough to see how it's going to happen. Curious: how widely do you read? What do you read, and how has it changed over time? Do you stay mostly in science? I would say what I'm spending a lot of time on is writing reviews of other people's books. I depend on the New York Review of Books to send these things to review. They decide what I should read and that's more or less what I do. I'm a fairly slow reader. Most of the books they send me are peripherally about science, but not entirely. I'm quite happy with that. One of the books I enjoyed the most was a thing called The Age of Wonder, which I wrote a review of, which was a book about the turn of the 18th century--the age of the romantic poets and also the age of the romantic scientists, a most interesting period of scientific history. Do you read any fiction? Sometimes, but not recently. You write very felicitously for a scientist--wondered if you learned your craft from that as well. Well certainly--as a kid I learned the craft by having to write essays. Something I'm very grateful for; we had to write an essay every week when I was in high school. Really enjoyed that, and I took it seriously. School teachers read and criticized them. That was probably the most valuable part of my education, in a way. Didn't seem so at the time, no doubt. No, it did. I enjoyed it a lot. I had nothing but contempt for the science we were being taught. Why is that? Because we knew more than the teachers. Why is that? That is natural for young people. Science is something they can do well with. Literature is something they could teach us. How old were you about this time? When I was a rebellious teenager--15 or 16, about that age. Did you tell your teachers you knew more than they did? They understood that. I don't think we needed to say it.
46:29Over the last 300 years or so, the influence of science has grown in its prestige, and there seems to be less room for religion, at least among the highly educated. What are your views on religion and science? I've said many times: I think there is room for both. I think many of my science friends are also religious in one way or another and belong to churches; some of them are orthodox Jews; Abdus Salam was an orthodox Muslim. Perfectly compatible with being a first-rate scientist. I get impatient with militant atheists, Dawkins telling all the young people they have to choose either to be Christians or scientists but not both. Harmful thing to tell them, harmful if they believe it. Quite wrong, not true that they have to choose. Has the effect of turning a lot of young people away from science, young people who do not want to give up their religion and think therefore they had better not get involved with science. Great shame. Counterproductive. I would say I'm very tolerant of everything except intolerance. That works on both sides--I'm against intolerant religion and against intolerant science. You've made many contributions to human understanding across many fields. Are there some that stand out for you, that you are particularly proud of? I've always been a dabbler. Never paid attention to whether something was important; did things for fun more or less. Besides the vacuum cleaners--just kidding; know you didn't have anything to do with those. I think in some ways what I'm most proud of is I'm still getting emails from young people who read my books. Tremendous joy. Books I write 30 years ago are still around and young people still read them. They write to me telling me it made such a difference; they realize that their problems are not just theirs alone. Very proud of that. To be able to write a book that helps young people understand what the world is like is maybe the most important thing I've done. Most of the things I've done in science have really just been frills--little mathematical tricks which were fun to do but really don't make so much difference. Maybe possible exceptions: Orion Spaceship was a grand dream which in some ways is something I'm very proud of, though it never happened and I don't think it ever will happen. But, it enlarged imagination to some extent. That wasn't my invention; Ted Taylor's invention. What was that? A nuclear-bomb-propelled spaceship, the competition for the Apollo program, instead of using chemical rockets to use nuclear rockets to explore the solar system. Technically it could have worked and we would be far ahead of where we are now. We were planning to go to Mars in about five years. That was in the 1950s, beating Werner von Braun at his own game. All depended on using bombs. In addition to that it was a wonderful way of getting rid of the bombs. Each mission would use about 2000 bombs. Get rid of the whole stockpile in about 10 missions. Additional advantage, the only sensible way of getting rid of the bombs. Why didn't it happen? What stopped it? The environmental problems. It was a horrible way of getting around, since you left radioactive debris wherever you went. Wouldn't be possible at all under today's rules. Fifty years ago we were thinking differently about radioactivity. While this was going on, Linus Pauling was campaigning against bomb tests, and Linus Pauling fortunately won--persuaded the world that bomb tests were not a good idea in the atmosphere. You describe yourself as a dabbler who did things for fun. I often tell young people they should find something they love to pay the bills. Doesn't just mean you should do something to be comfortable, but something to help others, something they value. Do you think that's good advice, to dabble in the things you love? I think you should do both. As Einstein said, it's an advantage to work at the patent office and be able to do science in his spare time. In a way, that's the best situation to be in--you are paid for doing something that is not too demanding and then you have time left over for doing science. That's not so easy these days. In many ways, that was my situation. I had this very convenient job at the Institute--I had to take care of admissions and other things, go to committee meetings, so my official job was really half time. The rest of the time I could do what I liked; didn't have to be mathematics. I could write books. I think on the whole that's the best situation to be in. I have a daughter who is a medical doctor who has this arrangement: she married a medical doctor and they share a job. So each of them works half time and spends the other half time with the kids. The problem of raising a family, if you can get a halftime job that pays for your groceries and the rest of your time free, that's probably the best you can do.
55:26You don't have a Ph.D., correct? Right. How did that happen? Were there any costs or benefits of that? Huge benefits--I saved at least 5 years. The reason it was possible--in England at that time, a Ph.D. wasn't required. Lots of the men leading English science did not have Ph.D.s. Ph.D. was something invented in Germany and was regarded with some suspicion in England. Unfortunately, that's now broken down; now the English are just as rigid as everybody else. I was just lucky enough I got through before it became compulsory. You also avoided any damaging effects of graduate school. No, not altogether. I was in graduate school. We had research students who were graduate students, just didn't have to have a Ph.D. So, I did that at Cornell. I was in the graduate school at Cornell; and that was a wonderful time. I'm not against graduate schools; I'm only against tying it to the Ph.D. If you had one, you might do better than being stuck in Princeton at the Institute for Advanced Study--you never know. I was always in good company here. George Kennan was also my colleague who did not have a Ph.D. I have one; I always say it's over-rated. People ask me if they should call me "Dr." and I always say it's not the other kind of doctor, the kind that helps people. It is a strange form of accreditation. It has advantages. I was joking about graduate school; but there are many advantages to being educated outside the system. Many disadvantages as well.
57:41If you were 22 years old today, what would you do with yourself? What paths? Same, similar? I would certainly go into biology. I always wanted to be a biologist; but in the old times you had to work in a lab. Wasn't much you could do in theoretical biology. There were one or two who could do it. That has changed drastically. Now we have a group of theoretical biologists right here at the Institute. If I were 22 now, I'm sure I'd do that; not necessarily stay with it for the rest of my life. Clear that this is a field that's just breaking open all the time, great things being done. Handle vast amounts of information and understand it in a way they never could before. They call it systems biology, what they are doing here. That would be my first choice; could very well move on to something like neurology. Neurology is probably the next breakthrough science. We haven't yet got the tools. Where do you think biology will go in the next decades? Clearly the big unknowns are how in detail brains function. And origin of life. It's a tossup which gets attacked first; all depends on the tools. You can see in neurology, the tools are going to be available; you can sort of miniaturize the senses down to the level of individual cells. So, you could have 100,000 sensors scattered around the brain and record by radio or some other fashion in detail what a brain is doing and understand it. I would say that's clearly on the way and will probably happen in the next 10-20 years. Will have the tools to really see what memory really is, what decision processes are as they happen in real brains. Not so clear how to do something comparable with the origin of life. That's where I would look. One of the more glorious and remarkable things about science is we look very far out and very close in, at the origin of the universe and the origin of the cell, inside the atom. There are a lot of people who view science and technology as somewhat dangerous; worry about our ability to control it. I'm less worried--as an economist, I'm very trusting in processes that aren't controlled. But most people don't find those processes comforting. A lot of doomsaying: we're going to exhaust the earth; maybe the only way we will get away from that problem by getting away from the earth, going to a different planet. What are your thoughts on the human enterprise generally. I'm not a pessimist. I grew up in a time when the future really looked black, in England in the 1930s, when England was in the middle of an economic depression, just like today. And also England had much worse pollution then; London was really dirty; now it's tremendously cleaned up. Of course if you survived, Hitler. If we survived that, can survive anything. One of the most important things today is the rise of China, and India as well. That to me is much more important than the doom and gloom people talk about. China is a country that is going to become the center of the world economy. They do things differently than we do. Country of very gifted people, on the whole reasonable people. Have great confidence they will do things sensibly. They have an economic system that seems to work at least as well as ours, probably better. Able to get things done in a way we are not. A lot of reasons for feeling happy. I look forward to a gracious transfer of power from the West to the East. The main problem is to keep it peaceful. So far, looks okay. I say it's too early to tell about their economy. We don't have much data on it that seems reliable. Seems to be growing and doing very well. But to me, the centralization of power there, I find disturbing. That doesn't worry you? Oh, I wouldn't say I am worrying about it. China is to me a very hopeful place; but that's only because the Chinese people I know tell me that. I don't know anything much about it firsthand.

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COMMENTS (34 to date)
Frank Howland writes:

I enjoyed this discussion; I like the non-Econ talks just as much as the Econ talks.

Regarding the origins of life: I agree with Dyson on Dawkins, and I realize that Russ was engaging in hype when he said that every schoolchild in America understands the origin of life. However, I think it's worth pointing out that many U.S. students are told *in public school* that the account in Genesis is the correct version (I realize there are two accounts in Genesis 1 and 2) and, more specifically, that man did not evolve from other forms of life. In my small Indiana town, none of the teachers in our junior high school believe in evolution. I doubt this is unusual in many places in our country.

emerich writes:

Yes, this was a lot of fun. I already got a (kindle) sample of the book Dyson liked, Age of Wonder. But, as an Econtalk fan, of course I have to jump on Dyson's comments on China's economy, which he said seems to be working at least as well as ours (words to that effect). Russ correctly pointed out that Chinese statistics are dubious (which is putting it kindly). I would add that in a centrally planned economy you can get (as they are) hugely inefficient investment for long periods, which serve to inflate GDP. Many economists and "experts" thought the Soviet Union was outgrowing the West right up to its collapse. The economic tensions in China are building and will break at some point. The social tensions are an even bigger problem.

Selim writes:

What I find absolutely delightful in Freeman Dyson is his freedom from ideological constraints. He doesn't seem to have any overriding large-scale view of things that would push him to believe this or that particular thing. He feels not slightest compunction praising and admiring the Russians or the Chinese when he sees something worth praising. He feels not the slightest compunction saying that global warming and its consequences are far from known.

An ideology-driven person will constantly worry "Ah, but should I say this? Is is OK to think that?". He constantly has to check whether a particular claim is consistent with his grand belief or not. The freedom of thought enjoyed by someone like Dyson is exhilarating. This comes out beautifully in contrast with his host, Russ Roberts, who, I feel, is strongly ideology-driven. I get the impression that he is always being supervised and admonished by his conscience of a worshiper of private enterprise.

For example, Dyson says that the Russian space-exploration system is based on planning in terms of hundreds of years, not tens of years, like in the US. And that's perhaps a good thing. Of course, this is state planning. That's the Soviet system, which was terrible in lots of ways, but also achieved some good things, which do not fit at all well in the capitalist framework (like planning hundreds of years ahead). This thought was clearly unpalatable to Russ Roberts:

Dyson: So, it's not something we can plan for under the American budgeting system.

Roberts: As you point out, it's likely to be a private enterprise.

Dyson: In this country it probably goes better private; private enterprises can take much bigger risks.

Jim writes:

Something unrelated to the content of the discussion:

Compliments to Professor Roberts for his interviewing skills. So many people can't tolerate a couple seconds' worth of silence on the other end as the interviewee collects his thoughts in preparation of answering. The ability to wait, without prodding or interruption, makes this interesting conversation flow very nicely. Professor Roberts is also adroit at injecting asides without disruption. Sometimes that works, sometimes not (frequently when there seems to be a large, telephone-induced (?) delay). Worked well here.

Again, thanks for a well-done interview.

chitown_nick writes:

I must agree with emerich.

I was also surprised that Russ did not expand on the China / America leadership question when Dyson was explaining his expectation that China will surpass the US eventually. Perhaps, based on gross size, it has that potential, but China will likely need significant reform to surpass the long-term growth potential of the US.

I imagine the two societies goring in the following way: The US is working from life as we know it here in the US, with mostly free market opportunities to create and improve upon existing quality of life. China, in contrast, has a huge population that lives in a mostly agrarian society, moving and rapidly becoming industrialized and urbanized - essentially the US from the turn of the last century in fast-forward. Many of the problems of infrastructure, manufacturing processes, etc. have been solved by trial and error in the industrialized world, so central planning in China can learn from that experience and potentially experience real growth for decades, perhaps.

However, at some point, quality of life in China will approach quality of life in the US. This is great, both for the Chinese populous as it is for us (more white collar workers and less blue collar workers in China make a better competative environment for American production again, ultimately counter-balancing the current outsourcing trend). At this point, unless China reforms to allow less central planning and more free experimentation (creative destruction), they may likely stagnate. This scenario is likely decades off still, but the notion that central planning is the end-all solution because China is having success currently seems like something I would expect someone like Russ to address more strongly.

Krishnan writes:

I really enjoyed this one ... Dyson writes so well - .. His quote about "Climate Change" (about complexity) should be framed and be on every one's desk - including non scientists, engineers ...

Towards the end, they talked a bit about the revolution in biology ... I hope he is writing something about it (!) - should be interesting to read what he thinks is going on and what is likely to happen

Richard W. Fulmer writes:

As did others who lived through WWII, Freeman Dyson remembered the war years fondly as a time when people worked toward a common goal. The war gave people a sense of belonging and camaraderie such as they had never known before or since. Perhaps this is one of Socialism’s great appeals: the hope of unifying an entire nation behind a single vision. Sadly, people insist on living their own lives with their own aims and ambitions - some petty or tawdry, some trite - unworthy of philosopher kings. Only existential threats, it seems, are capable of rousing an entire country to strive for the common good. And so, the socialist must, in the end, resort to force.

Dustin Klang writes:

With respect to the portion of conversation on abiogenisis, Dr. Jack Szostak of Harvard Medical School has some fascinating contributions that might be of interest. Below is a short video summary of his work tastefully put to “Ode to Joy”. Demonstrated in the video is how life might have occurred via physical and chemical processes. As an explanation for abiogenisis, Dr. Szostak’s work seems to go beyond the Miller-Urey Experiment to fill much of the little gap “between the lightning and the amoeba”

For those parties uninterested in something of a smarmy rebuttal of creationist arguments, skip to min 2 sec 40 of the video.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U6QYDdgP9eg

Further~
http://exploringorigins.org/

stephan writes:

Maybe Dawkins and all the other radical atheists do have a point.
Lot's of podcasts here are about orthodxy, dogmatism and irrationality and falliability in and of science. Yet people, that have studied a work of ficition, a book that has been proven to have many authors over a long period of time and many inconsistencies, are allowed to guide our societies decisions about stem cell research, abortions, assisted suicide, bedroom activites and others.
We tell people in institutional religion, that there are just some things we will never be able to know, yet they should think what this authority on this book tells them, we tell them to just think what everyone else thinks and that the more they can suppress doubts, the better a person they are.

Of course most people would agree that religion should and could be something personal. But could it?
Can we make sure that parents raise their children neutrally so they can make up their own minds when grown up? Can we ask them to do that when they believe that there children failing to make the right decision their children will suffer eternally?
Is it good for anyone when religious scientists have to think "If I get this result, it would contradict my belief. I better not get it!"
Can we expect that actors in a secular government will make decisions based on secular principles when the decision contradicts with their belief and them acting on the secular principle would condemn them to hell?
It doesn't seem possible that religion remains personal, unaffecting of wordly things as much as we don't expect anyone to be unbiased.

To honor the principle of full disclosure I will say that I have grown up without relgion and with few religious people around me. Now when I see political decisions argued for with a piece of literature and ignoring current understanding of the world, I am horrified. I cannot put myself in the shoes of people that at one point stop asking why and just assume a personal higher power that willed it so but made me in a way that I won't understand it.

Russ Roberts writes:

Stephan,

A few observations on your observations.

There are many people who take religion seriously who do not believe the power of the state should be used to enforce various religious beliefs. I am one of them. I know many.

The role of religion in public policy has been steadily declining. On the policy issues you mention and many other so-called social issues, both popular culture and public policy increasingly tend toward the secular view. So cheer up. Yes, there are a lot of people yelling to push things in the other direction. They are losing.

If you "cannot put yourself in the shoes" of a religious person, I'd encourage you to try to be more imaginative. Or try to get out a little more or spend time with some people who take religion seriously. Many of them are fine people. You will also find they have doubts.

Maybe it depends on the religion, but I don't think many scientists see their research as threatening their religious views leading to bad science or missed research opportunities. I think that was Dyson's point.

Finally, I would observe that there are dogmatic views in almost all of us, religious or not. Some of us are dogmatic about religion. Some about atheism.

Thanks for a provocative comment.

Jeremiah writes:

All Dyson seems to be saying is I don't know anything but the people who claim to know are wrong.
When we pump all this CO2 into the atmosphere, the burden of proof should be on those who are saying nothing is changing.
We don't know simply doesn't cut it.

David C writes:

Of course, heretics are important even if they are wrong. In challenging the status quo they force the opposing side to take into consideration a new challenge, leading to potential improvements in formulation.

Yet not everyone can be a heretic. If everyone were consistently opposing the mainstream view, there would be no improvement at all, just argument and chaos. The heretic, ironically, needs the stability and structure of the mainstream in order to have something to oppose.

Cowboy writes:

Allow me to be a bit of a heretic here.

Whereas I do love the "non-economist" economics podcasts, and I eagerly anticipated listening to this one, I found this interview to be painful. Russ did a superb job moving the interview along, but I could tell that he had to give up on some fruitful avenues of questioning when Dyson simply did not understand the questions he was being asked. I thought we were going to go down the road of Hayekian diffused knowledge versus expertise early on in the podcast, and would have loved to hear Dyson expound more upon the role of expertise, but I don't think he realized what was going on. Perhaps Dyson was just brushing up on his trigonometry since he was filled with so many tangents.

And the statement that "Russians think in terms of centuries whereas Americans think in terms of decades" (to paraphrase) is utter rubbish. Really? You have a high proportion of atheists who live on average 70 years thinking about how to build a Russo-Martian empire 200 years from now?! Even if you impose upon the Russians the idea that they are trying to achieve some tsarist legacy like Peter the Great, I really have a hard time digesting this idea. I mean, hey!, what about GOSPLAN ... those were only 5 years in length. I doubt Putin has a significantly longer time horizon than any other autocratic ruler.

And as for the comments about religion above, they do reveal a tendency towards anti-religious dogmatism. Not only in Stephan's comment that Russ dealt with so well, but Howland's comments as well. Does he really think most public school students in the US are taught Genesis? Seriously?!!

As for Russ's comments that religious influence in public policy and society and general is on the wane, I would tend to be skeptical of this too. While the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition may be defunct now, there are numerous grassroots religious groups that are active in civic life, including politics. And religious belief & attendance remains one of the most salient variables in voting behavior. As for society, if you look at only the Presbyterians, yes (Presbyterian) religion is declining... but just like Schumpeter's observation about the creative destruction of capitalism, so too is the religious economy constantly changing. Think religion is becoming less important in society? Take a look at the growth of the Christian music industry and how many Christian radio stations (both music and talk) have popped up over the past decade or so.

You need to get somebody back on the show to talk about the economics of religion.

Selim writes:

Cowboy:

so, you think it is "utter rubbish" that the Soviets pursued their space program thinking in terms of centuries rather than decades. I have no opinion on this matter -- I just don't know. Dyson claim he does and I suspect he may be somewhat familiar with the Soviet space program. Are YOU familiar with it? Or are you rejecting his claim merely because it does not accord with your general preconception about human nature? A preconception that in fact underlies much of free-market ideology.

I see nothing paradoxical in pursuing goals that cannot be achieved in a lifetime or even many lifetimes. Many individuals seem to pursue such goals and even a state can do so, not necessarily to build an empire "200 years from now".

Cowboy writes:

Selim,

That is exactly what I am saying. Rubbish. And it is based upon an underlying preconception of human nature backed up with a derivation testable implications that have been examined empirically.

We need to apply the concepts of time horizons and discount rates here. And apply them in the world where political reality (power relations) impinge upon decision making and resource allocation as much as economic reality (scarcity). If political science has any "laws" akin to economic "laws" of supply & demand, it is that rulers will try to maximize political survival. Policy is determined by what it can achieve in terms of staying in office or preserving one's political position, as much (if not more so) by a desire to accomplish some ideological goal. Even in the most autocratic of autocracies, rulers and bureaucrats must worry about their position in the hierarchy (see previous two podcasts on Russia).

Now, this is not to say that when a polician or ruler implements a policy they don't foresee long-term effects. "Yes, let's start the space program because someday we will colonize Mars." Or "let's collectivize agriculture because this will build the New Man." Indeed, policy is often justified (or rationalized) on these long-term goals. However, the day-to-day management and implementation of the policy often operates on a much shorter time horizon. When you are worrying about staying in power, your time horizon isn't centuries-long because it is pretty much guaranteed that you won't be in power then.

And on a related point, I would put the burden of proof on Dyson to say WHY Russians think in longer terms and Americans don't. Is there a big difference in our human nature? And what caused that difference? Changing one's assumptions to conform to empirical outcomes is not good science. In many ways, Dyson's assertion is nothing more than an ad hoc cultural theory. "Russians do things differently because that is the Russian way. Haitians are poor because it is imbedded in their culture." Rubbish!

And so Selim, I would put the burden of proof on you. Why do Russians have a different human nature? And if Russians are so good at thinking in the long-term (relative to Americans), why hasn't their economy produced more technological innovations than the US? Technological innovation generally takes a long-term time horizon, especially when the technology being innovated has a more value added component to it.

And is it really true that Americans do not think in the long-term? When we created our space program there was lots of talk about colonizing the moon, Mars and beyond.

Cowboy writes:

To continue my critique of Dyson, it was curious to hear him dismiss the "but isn't it better safe than sorry" argument advanced by many folks concerned with climat change, and then later advocate for "land management."

Dyson did invoke (implitly) Wildavsky's thinking on the "precautionary principle," and drew (I think) the proper inference that oftentimes taking action to minimize all possible risk can have detrimental trade-offs worse than doing nothing. Good for him. I applaud this.

He further noted that it is still wise just to pursue "less waste" (more efficiency for economists) in the use of resources. Bravo there too!

However, he then continued to talk about engaging in "land management." Okay, who is going to do the managing? I caught a whiff of anti-Hayekian elitism here in that there seemed to be the implicit idea that if we just apply science to land management we will get the right algorithm. Speaking as somebody who has his land "managed" by others who are very "expert and scientific," I can tell you that the experts often get it wrong and cause more harm, as Russ noted early in the podcast. I am reminded of Sowell's work on "visions of the annointed and intellectuals" here.

And as a more specific bit of evidence of this, Dyson quickly suggested the idea of planing more trees and didn't seem to see the harm in this. This is one of my major pet peeves with the environmental movement -- both the hardcore folks and their "soft" followers. "What harm could planting trees have?" Plenty!! Trees absorb and store lots of water, often leading to lower watersheds and the decrease in river & lake levels that can have an effect on irrigation, not only for farms, but natural irrigation for meadows and other "non-tree" environments. That is not to say that planting trees cannot be beneficial, but as a blanket policy or as an intrinsic good thing, not so much.

Viva local knowledge! Viva Hayek!

Dmitry writes:

chitown_nick ,

At this point, unless China reforms to allow less central planning and more free experimentation (creative destruction), they may likely stagnate.

I think that such kind of argumentation can go either direction, i.e. unless free-market societies allow for more central planning, they are likely to stagnate due to problems which are unsolvable via market.

Selim writes:

Cowboy:

First of all, let me clarify. I did not mean to say that Russians have a different human nature (by the way, I consistently used the word Soviets, not Russians, because nationality is irrelevant here; we are talking about different social systems). They have the same nature by definition, since human nature is that which is common to all humans.

We can differ as to what this human nature is. For example, Ludwig von Mises had a certain view of human nature, and this view underlies his economic theories (as expounded in "Human Action", for instance). One of the features of this view is that humans are supposed to avoid work if at all possible (though he makes an exception for exceptional individuals, such as writers, artists etc.). From such general assumptions much is then deduced, specifically about which social systems are feasible and which are not (capitalism is feasible, socialism is not).

I really don't know whether the Soviets built their space program with the assumption that it will last hundreds of years. Dyson, who presumably knows a bit about both the US space program and the Soviet one, noticed this difference. I find this an interesting observation, even it is is offered without any justification or explanation WHY.

What I find delightful about Dyson is precisely the fact that he does not start with an ideology and then fit everything into this preconceived mold. That's what makes him a non-conformist and his views wonderfully fresh and unpredictable. Russ Roberts was surprised several times during this conversation and that's very telling.

The problem with ideology is that it's NOT science. There is nothing wrong in deducing predictions from scientific theories, with trying to fit reality into the mold of theory. Ideologies are LIKE scientific theories in that they propose general mechanisms to explain particular facts. But they are UNLIKE scientific theories in that they are terribly crude and hopelessly inadequate, and crucially, they are mere political tools. Economics has never produced a theory in the same sense in which quantum mechanics or genetics are theories.

chitown_nick writes:

Dmitry:

I suppose there may be an argument there, but I would be more interested with an example of the growing number of problems that free-market societies are not able to solve, which would cause stagnation. My understanding of the more free-market systems is the idea of near-infinite possibilities based on (real or perceived) self-interest driving new innovation.

For example, in the face of rising fuel prices, a centrally-planned economy would select an alternative fuel and invest heavily in it and steer the entire economy that direction, hopefully avoiding the sharp price spike. A free-market system would likely not see large-scale changes until price signals passed some tipping point. Anticipating this change, many individual actors would attempt to build many different alternative fuel sources. The best positioned ones available when the tipping point arises would reap the benefits of their risk. Others would follow and either scrap their efforts or try to catch up or fill some other niche. The implementation delay will hurt the free-market system. However, the risk of selecting the wrong alternative could hurt the centrally planned system. When they select correctly, the centrally planned system comes out ahead. In the long run, though, the free market system (in as much history as we have so far) wins by the sheer force of the diversity of the market.

Is there a case where this is not true?

chitown_nick writes:

Jeremiah -

When we pump all this CO2 into the atmosphere, the burden of proof should be on those who are saying nothing is changing.

This seems inconsistent with most thinking I've encountered with respect to the notion that people are free to do what they like, but when it harms someone else, they must also take responsibility. In this logic, it seems the burden of proof is on the person (or ecology) that is being harmed. If I broke my leg, it is my responsibility to prove that the driver of the car that hit me is responsible. It is not the burden of every driver to prove they are not hitting pedestrians at will.

That said, I would likely agree with the sentiment that sufficient evidence has been put forth that the environment is being affected by carbon emissions. (If I show the license plate imprint on my leg, it's not necessarily reasonable to ask for video of the event to further prove the accident happened.)

Further, I would stipulate that, at the very least, the following argument could be made: With respect to human action, desired effects often have unintended consequences (policy decisions, large scale industrialization, etc). The argument that large changes to the environment would have only benign or positive effects seems overly optimistic. Minimizing the effects of this large action would seem to be prudent, given that we are heavily invested in living on the Earth with the climate patterns that exist today. Therefore energy conservation / energy efficiency policies and pursuits should be supported to the fullest extent of our abilities. Renewables, tapping other systems, etc. are also likely a good idea, but very serious thought should be given to those policies. In no way, however, should that delay affect any delay on conservation policies.

Pedro P Romero writes:

Thanks Russ for this podcast. It was inspiring, a bit slower than usual though. Science as any other human activity is full of rituals. getting a PhD has become one of them. we should ask to ourselves, what would people say about our intellectual achievements hundred years from now? the present might be just pop science.

Selim writes:

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john berg writes:

Requiring a Ph.D. (not "having" one) is like zoning laws and auto safety regulations: it tends to create a artificial price advantage that saves any intellectual effort in selection, influences the price for selling them, and forges a potential for corrupt connections between sellers and regulators.
One should examine closely if the Ph.D. is working for the government (either first or second hand) or private industry.

John Berg

AHBritton writes:

Russ,

I am surprised people rarely talk about other effects that putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere has, such as ocean acidification.

This seems to me to have a lot less of the "model skepticism" Dyson and others have about global warming. It seems to me that large scale PH changes in the ocean have somewhat more predictable consequences as it deals less with complex weather patterns and other secondary consequences.

Are Dyson and you also skeptical about the possible destruction many marine habitats and life? Or do you just feel humans will adapt and it doesn't really matter?


Also, there is a tiny flaw in the way you two talked about the question of "acting now" vs. "acting later."

This whole discussion relies on probability (probably requiring some bayesian math I don't wish to do) and what you two believe are various prior, and current probabilities.

For instance, if Dyson believes it is unlikely that a DECREASE in carbon dioxide would be catastrophically harmful (say only a 1% probability), but he is also skeptical that an increase will be catastrophically harmful (say also a 1% probability) then these will basically balance out.

By contrast if he is still 1% on the prior, but 3% on the later, then this would be possibly an argument for action despite the minor change in probabilities because the probability of catastrophe outweighs slightly the probability of harm.

This seems to be the appropriate way to discuss this, how strong is the evidence for as apposed to against? And given the evidence, what are the various alternative countermeasures, THEIR probabilities, and the time frame of action.

None of this was discussed, instead all evidence was ignored on both sides of the issue instead taking the German Historical School stance (sorry for the cheep shot Misesians) of "we need to wait, collect data, and see).

He's possibly right, but he failed to lay any of the proper gowned work as far as current evidences, probabilities, and potential actions.

AHBritton writes:

john berg,


I am curious about your attack on zoning laws. Although, like many libertarian positions, it has an intuitive appeal, I am curious about how you feel the negative consequences would be mitigated.

For example, let's say you purchase a $100,000 dollar house in a relatively nice residential neighborhood.

After 1 year a group of houses right next door are sold, knocked down, and replaced with a very smelly lard rendering plant.

This results in your property value being cut in half to $50,000 dollars.

This is an obvious unaccounted for negative externality the rendering plant is placing on you, what in the market would counteract this.

I know this is a somewhat extreme example, but you get the idea.

john berg writes:

Cowboy,
at one time I wondered how a "political tendency" could carry over from generation to generation. (Take a generation as 30 years.) I now see that "progressivism" did exactly that from Upton Sinclair to Obama. Only now is the corrective tendency of conservatism having any influence. Would anyone like to recommend a book (or Ph.D) who can explain how the US Constitution has been corrupted? I can read in the US Constitution that the President must be "native born." Is that clause now dead and if not, who applies that test?

John Berg

AHBritton writes:

John Berg,

Was this meant to imply Obama is not a native of the united states?

If so, I have looked into that issue quite a bit an in order for you to he correct there would have to have been a very large conspiracy going all the way back to his birth and various Hawaaian officials forging documents and lying on his behalf.

There is probably more evidence of his being native born than there is for me, and no one has ever doubted my birth certificate.

john berg writes:

AHBritton,
No, I'm not a "birther" but I do want to know how, after the 2008 election, any one in the future can test presidential candidates for meeting Constitutional requirements since the Constitution has been so successfully mocked. I do fault President Obama for not acquiring that knowledge acquired by watching children's TV in his pre-school years and not attending k-6 in US Schools.

RE: zoning laws. I attacked neither zoning laws nor Ph.D.s. I did point out that, as you supported, that zoning and Ph.D.s can influence prices. And if anything controls pricing, it can be profitably exploited by regulators.

John Berg

Alfred Differ writes:

There really is a difference between the way US people think about space and the way the Russians do. Some of my friends were involved in the privatization effort that involved the MIR space station (since de-orbited) and they had to make a few quick mental adjustments to avoid a number of ghastly faux pas. 8)

I suspect the differences are as simple to explain as the differences between Russians and Americans... meaning not to simple except for the obvious geopolitical ones. Americans can afford to think short term. We can afford to tear down ideas and try again with every generation. We can afford to inefficiently set competitor ideas against each other and see who wins. The Russians face a different world, though. If their history proves anything, it is that they get invaded often and by neighbors who professed to be friends the generation before. The Russians have good reasons to think long term, so it isn't much of a surprise that they do so with space too.

The irony for my friends, though, is that the Russians are far more interested in a free market approach to space access and activities than most in the US are. Their Russian counterparts understood that irony too and just smiled. We like to think private approaches are the desired approach here, but if you take a cold, hard look at reality, the US space entrepreneurs are fighting against a very, very strong head wind coming from government, academia, and the public.

chitown_nick writes:

AHBritton -

I agree that your argument for action makes a good deal of sense ("By contrast if he is still 1% on the prior, but 3% on the later, then this would be possibly an argument for action")

Whatever the rhetoric, I feel the argument about policy really boils down to degrees and potential costs vs the benefits of problem avoidance. If one person arguing the issue sees the problem, but sees the costs as too high, they will likely still argue against any policy action until a better solution comes along. If another person sees the problem as greater, they will obviously advocate for the policy implementation.

Unfortunately, I feel we're even past this point, and there is an added degree of distrust - that the former person in this case believes the latter has an ulterior motive and is pushing for policy change despite the evidence rather than because of the evidence.

I feel smart policy will be technology neutral to the extent possible (to avoid the calls of crony-ism), strong enough to address the problem, and does so at a low enough cost to avoid significant obstruction. As with anything new, it should also be simple enough to be easily and fairly implemented.

chitown_nick writes:

john berg -

I'm not sure I quite understand :

I do fault President Obama for not acquiring that knowledge acquired by watching children's TV in his pre-school years and not attending k-6 in US Schools.

Is this supposed to imply that the President is to faulted for moving with his mother to Indonesia when he was a 6-yr old school child? Is Barrack Obama misguided in believing he can represent the American people because he lacks the connection of being physically present when the Brady Bunch first aired? I'd hazard a guess that the significant majority of voters that selected him as President in 2008 do not see these items as significant. Further, in 2012, it's more likely to be performance and promise that are significant, not Batman and the Brady's.

johnberg writes:

chi_town,
The most difficult part of Artificial Intelligence is collecting, storing in a retrieval form, and selecting that data needed for "this" access which is sometimes refered to as "common sense."

You may remember the movie "The Americanization of Emily." If you had read Obama's book, _Dreams From My Father_ you would have learned that Obama lacks this American commonsense that informs his decision making process. You can still ask yourself, what dreams came from his father?

John Berg

AHBritton writes:

johnberg,

"any one in the future can test presidential candidates for meeting Constitutional requirements since the Constitution has been so successfully mocked."

How exactly does the fact that some people irrationally believe Obama to have been born outside the United States discount the U.S. birth requirement of the constitution?

I'd imagine that the number of people who falsely attempt to claim they were born in the United States is very small, and luckily there is pretty good documentation of people's births for the most part, so if a potential candidate was NOT born in the United States, that would almost certainly come to light and cause disqualification.

I don't personally care where a candidate is born, but I am sure that those who do have very little to worry about. Personally I don't really think we should have a president at all, but that is a different story.

"I do fault President Obama for not acquiring that knowledge acquired by watching children's TV in his pre-school years and not attending k-6 in US Schools."

You fault him? Let me get this straight, you fault a kid for not running away from home between the ages of 6 & 10 in order to return to America on his own so that he could watch "pre-school" television shows (he evidently lived there between the 1st-4th grades, so I am not sure what this refers to) in order to some how radically transform his knowledge base to better meet presidential requirements?

Is this seriously your argument?

I don't even know where to start with this argument. For one thing the U.S.'s K-12 education ranks very low (although as far as I can tell currently not worse than Indonesia), but even if it did not there is no reason to expect that a quality education in Indonesia is somehow inherently worse than a substandard education in the United States (unless you think those who go to poor U.S. schools when younger should also be disqualified).

I am definitely aware of various studies which examine the importance of early childhood education, but they only go so far and only present statistical linkages, not case by case determinations of intelligence, etc.

I don't really understand what the mere geographic location of one's education, as opposed to the level of education itself, has to do with anything. Not to mention upon returning to the U.S. he gained admittance to a very prestigious college preparatory school, not to mention eventually graduating from Harvard Law school.

Also, should John McCain have been disqualified for being born in Panama? Not to mention he spent many of his impressionable years in his mid-30's in a POW camp in Vietnam. Do you consider these his "fault" as well?

After all he missed the introduction of Americans to Scooby-Doo, The Dick Cavett Show, The Archie cartoon show, Hawaii Five-O, and Here's Lucy!

"And if anything controls pricing, it can be profitably exploited by regulators."

True, then the question simply becomes whether a system can be put in place to efficiently deal with the negative externalities or not, and how best to implement that.

Although I don't always agree with zoning, I think it most likely is a net benefit.

"If you had read Obama's book, _Dreams From My Father_ you would have learned that Obama lacks this American commonsense that informs his decision making process. You can still ask yourself, what dreams came from his father?"

What do you mean by this exactly? That he is an anti-American anti-imperialist? or something else? and what exactly in "Dreams From My Father" shows that he lacks some form of commonsense that all Americans who never left the country possess? Or in fact, where is this evidence that he lacks some form of common sense that in general contiguous American's have?

What do you think are the "dreams" he gets from his father and why?

I don't know if that is the best way to describe the main difficulties in artificial intelligence, but I guess I understand what you might mean.

Oscar writes:

"Experts are usually experts in a very narrow field, so they don't have a good view of the whole story. My view is that sometimes experts are right, and sometimes experts are wrong."

And then he goes on speculating about all kinds of things he's not even an expert on.

Some intellectuals just love their intellectual image, and no one more so then the stock-of-the-trade heretic intellectual that is so loved by anyone who doesn't like the prevailing consensus on a specific issue. Everybody loves the heretic who turned out to be right, but it's easy to forget how excepetionally rare that is. Most heretics are just plain wrong.

His idea that it's best to wait because we don't understand everything about climate change is just nonsense. I'm quite a sceptic myself, but even I realize that you have to choose policy based on what you know right now. 100% certainty will never happen.

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