I have known, and occasionally worked with, Freeman Dyson for 36 years. His most distinguishing characteristic, even more than raw brainpower, is his absolute intellectual integrity. He will follow a path of reasoning wherever it leads, even if the conclusion is not what he expected or wanted to find. I know that he always has very good reasons for his conclusions, and that if I disagree, I had better have very strong arguments to support my disagreement!
Kenneth Brower’s attempted intellectual assassination fails this test. The physics of greenhouse-gas warming has been understood for more than a century. Whether warming is a threat is, however, entirely subjective. Brower defines any anthropogenic effect on climate as necessarily bad, and likely catastrophic. Dyson considers the question open, and points to at least one region (sub-Arctic Greenland) where the effect appears to be favorable. It is not possible to challenge with logic or scientific evidence the quasi-religious revealed truth of environmentalism. The crime of which Dyson is accused is that of taking a skeptical scientific attitude to the question. Without more evidence and a better definition of what is good or bad, it is impossible to decide whether climate change is something to be feared or welcomed, or something to which we should remain indifferent.
Professor of Physics
St. Louis, Mo.
Critics have long bemoaned the fact that American students fare less well than others on standardized tests of science and math—proof, they say, that the U.S. has a failing public-education system. Amanda Ripley, like so many others, ignores the role of poverty (“Your Child Left Behind,” December Atlantic). Having taught college students from both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, I believe that using average scores doesn’t capture the most important facet of education in the U.S.: poor kids do less well in all subjects. The problem is not in our educational system, it is in our economic system, which perpetuates chronic poverty and leads to many negative social outcomes, including poor academic performance.
Wesley B. Renfro, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Political Science
St. John Fisher College
Amanda Ripley replies:
Research clearly shows that poverty alone cannot explain our inferior scores. It’s hard to compare the family income of students taking these tests, but as a substitute, the study I wrote about considered the performance of white kids and of kids with a college-educated parent—attributes that tend to correlate with higher family earnings. America still underperforms. On a percentage basis, New York state has fewer high-performing white kids than Poland has among kids overall.
“Dirty Coal, Clean Future” (December Atlantic) said that the collaborative efforts between Duke Energy of the U.S. and Huaneng of China included Huaneng’s investment in a low-emissions Duke plant in Indiana. In fact, Huaneng has not invested in that plant. The article also said that the Texas Clean Energy Project will conduct its decarbonization processes underground. They will be above ground. In “Fighting the Next War” (January/February Atlantic), we misidentified Gary Hart’s affiliation. It should have been the University of Colorado at Denver.
In response to December’s cover story, “Dirty Coal, Clean Future,” readers offered alternative means to slow down climate change:
33% Solar, wind, and other renewables
19% Nuclear energy
14% Natural gas
12% Efficiency/ conservation
7% Carbon tax/reduce demand
3% Population control