Yale computer science professor David Gelernter ’76 — a potential science advisor to President Donald Trump — told the News he does not believe in man-made climate change in an interview Tuesday afternoon.
“For human beings to change the climate of the planet is a monstrously enormous undertaking,” Gelernter said. “I haven’t seen convincing evidence of it.”
Gelernter had previously expressed skepticism about the reality of man-made climate change in a 2012 book, writing that President Barack Obama was unaware of “gathering scientific doubt” about the causes of climate change.
But in his interview with the News, Gelernter went one step further, arguing that the warming of the planet is likely the result of natural “oscillations” in the Earth’s temperature.
“We’re in Connecticut, so we know about the ice age. The Earth’s climate oscillates, there’s no way to stop it,” he said. “My first supposition is that if it’s getting warmer, then it’s a natural oscillation.”
Gelernter met with Trump in Manhattan on Jan. 16, causing him to miss the first meeting of his course “The User Interface.” On Tuesday, he declined to specify the precise subject of the conversation with Trump, saying only that it was a “broad-ranging” discussion covering a number of different topics.
“No one’s offered me a job, nothing is official,” Gelernter said. “If I were Trump, I would have a billion more things to think about than who my science advisor is. I’m not looking for anything to happen terribly fast.”
Gelernter added that Trump seemed intelligent, thoughtful and well-versed in the issues under discussion.
“He took long thoughtful pauses, and had clearly thought about a lot of different things. He was very sharp and very, very smart,” he said.
In the 1980s and ’90s, Gelernter helped pioneer the field of parallel computing, a type of computation in which multiple processes are executed at the same time, and invented an influential programming language. He is also the author of several books, including the 2012 book “America-Lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture (and Ushered in the Obamacrats),” which argues that liberal academics have caused the erosion of traditional American values.
In 1993, he was nearly killed by the Unabomber after the notorious anarchist sent a mail bomb to his Yale office.
Although his views on climate change are out of step with the overwhelming scientific consensus, Gelernter would not be the only climate skeptic in the Trump administration. During the presidential campaign, Trump criticized the science of human-caused climate change as a hoax and nominated a vehement climate-change denier, Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt, to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.
The Washington Post was the first to report that Gelernter was a candidate for the science advisor position, in an article last Wednesday.
Traditionally, the science advisor provides input to the president on issues related to science and technology and serves as the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, collaborating on scientific matters with government agencies and the private sector.
In many ways, Gelernter would represent a significant departure from past science advisors. He does not belong to any major scientific organizations such as the National Academy and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Gelertner would also be the first computer scientist to hold the position. Four of the last five scientists to officially serve in the role have been physicists.
“That was a bit of surprise … I don’t think I would have come up with [Gelernter]’s name,” said William Gropp, a parallel computing expert at the University of Illinois. “I would’ve looked at somebody who was still somewhat active in the community as a whole and was participating more on a policy level” in organizations such as the National Science Foundation or the Department of Energy.
According to Gropp, who overlapped with Gelernter at Yale in the 1980s, Gelernter has not contributed significantly to computer science in recent years. Gropp said Gelernter made important contributions to the field early in his career, but that his work tailed off after the Unabomber attack.
“His name just doesn’t come up when we’re talking about people who are currently advancing the field,” Gropp said. “He built an interesting, elegant system for programming parallel computers. … But since then he really has not been a major player, certainly in parallel computing, and I don’t really see much sign of significant work in other areas of computing.”
Over the past two decades, Gelernter — whose bachelor’s degree is in modern Hebrew literature — has written books on a wide range of topics, from his experiences with the Unabomber to the history of the 1939 World’s Fair. In 2015, Gelernter published “The Tides of Mind,” which explored the field of artificial intelligence and human consciousness through the prism of great authors like Ernest Hemingway and William Shakespeare.
In his interview with the News, Gelernter described his work on artificial intelligence as his most important scientific contribution, and cited positive reviews of “The Tides of Mind” in the Chicago Tribune and The Wall Street Journal.
The conservative essayist Joseph Bottum, a friend of Gelernter who has edited some of his work, said Gelernter’s scientific and literary achievements make him “as complete an intellectual as we have in the United States.”
“He’s widely knowledgeable about science in general, an expert about a particular branch of science and technology, and yet at the same time a man who is learned and humane in the arts and in theology,” said Bottum, a member of the National Council for the Arts.
Still, in recent years, Gelernter has been fiercely critical of the liberal academic elite, leading the Post to describe him as “fiercely anti-intellectual” in its article last week. In his interview with the News, Gelernter called the Post’s coverage “infantile” and “clumsy.”
“They made fools of themselves,” he said. “They make the whole press look bad. I side with the press, but that sort of thing makes me squirm.”
At Yale, many students got their first taste of Gelernter’s political views when he appeared on Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor” last October, and labeled the University “an intellectual ghetto” dominated by supporters of Hillary Clinton LAW ’73.
Still, on Tuesday, his class “The User Interface” in the Arthur K. Watson Center was packed with students, some of whom had to huddle in the aisles after the seats were filled. Two students walking out of the class called Gelernter “brilliant,” if a little “old-fashioned in his thinking.”
“Certainly, he may be different from a lot of people at Yale,” one student said. “But he’s a very smart person.”