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Getting the balance right…

Filed under: — group @ 10 April 2006

We’ve commented before on the “false objectivity of balance”, i.e. the tendency for many journalists to treat scientific issues–for which differing positions often do not have equal merit– in the same “he said, she said” manner they might treat a story on policy or politics.

This approach can appear balanced, but it leaves it to the reader to figure out on their own which position is most likely correct. However, the reader is rarely as well equipped as the writer to determine the bottom line, and in practice this plays into the hands of those who might seek to confuse the public through clever disinformation campaigns.

Thankfully, some journalists “get it”, and take the time (and effort) to assess where the balance of evidence really lies and report it accordingly. Two recent articles discuss what it takes, the first, an interview with Andy Revkin of the NY Times by Paul Thacker and the second a recent Ideas piece in the Boston Globe by Christopher Shea.

Hopefully this attitude is catching on!

78 Responses to “Getting the balance right…”

  1. 51
    Gar Lipow says:

    Re 48: as previously commented variability is a global response, not merely a local one. The “blanketing affect” refers only to temperature extremes, not to drought and flood. That is much of the warming occurs during winter and at night, so that extreme (as opposed to mean average) highs not raised as much as extreme lows are moderated. Even if this were all the results would be mixed, as warmer nights and winters is one of the things that decreases biomass – making them work harder when solar energy is absent or minimal. But the same studies show that other events are more extreme – precipitation, drought, storms:

    For example see this Canadian study back in 1998:

    Or this Australian one from this year:,,.html

    Or for indirect evidence, this bird migration from the Smithsonian

    In short you are being highly misleading, focusing on moderation of temperature extremes, where it is other types of weather variablity that were mention. Note though that as mean average rises most models and common sense suggests that you will see more record extreme highs as well as record averages. Those extremes will come about more slowly than the rise of mean temperature, but I have seen zero models that suggests a continued rise of global average with no rise of global high.

  2. 52
    Hank Roberts says:

    The CO2 ‘blanket’ idea has been argued at length, but I’ve not found any footnotes or cites supporting it. and

  3. 53
    M. Simon says:

    Gar Lipow,

    Increased CO2 is a great booster of plant growth. CO2 is one of the limiting factors re: plant growth. And then there is always genetic engineering. I know the Euros don’t like that much. I propose if they don’t want GM food they don’t have to eat it. If they starve that will solve at least a part of the pooulation problem. Which is actually not much of a problem. Population is expected to peak around 2050 and then decline. It is the wealth effect. Once GDP goes abouve about $4K per capita per year population starts to decline. The best way to stabilize population is to incease wealth. Counter intuitive. True.

    I’d rather deal with the problems of farming in a warmer climate – including bugs and water shortages – than I would with the problems of farming under ice.

    BTW how can we be absolutely certain that current levels of CO2 will prevent an ice age? Wouldn’t it be good to have more as insurance? Also note that CO2 levels in the atmosphere have been higher without man’s intervention. As have been temperatures. We can innovate, adapt, overcome. It is our lot in life.

    Sure things will change. Haven’t they always?

  4. 54
    pat neuman says:



    Yes. I have the numbers used in the plots. I believe that analysis of temperature and dewpoint data at NOAA NWS cooperative climate station locations, many stations with more than 110 years of daily maximum minimum and mean temperature data, has great value which is not being fully utilized by scientists and the public. Lumped regional and global temperature data is good for a quicky picture, but too much information is overlooked or smoothed.

    The temperature data that I use in my plots were obtained from the Western Regional Climate Center and the Midwest Regional Climate Center. The streamflow data was obtained from USGS websites. I use Microsoft Excel spreadsheets to store and plot the data, and Microsoft Power Point to produces the jpeg files for display using yahoo photo album software. Each station is local but stations in many regions of the U.S. and Alaska are displayed… thus regional not local if one looks at many climate stations in many states, and regions. The decreasing variation about a trend line seems clear to me, but hard to explain.

  5. 55
    Hank Roberts says:

    That ’49′ was me, Pat. I only remember enough statistics to believe you’ll need to find a statistician to opine on what’s needed to conclude (at p < .05) that there’s any trend (a big classical statistics problem is, the statisticians want to have analysis planned before the data is collected — which avoids the human tendency to pick likely looking data. But of course climate work is being informed all the time by gathering up and digitizing old records wherever they can be found).

    It may be your best bet for calling attention to those — this is my *amateur* opinion, to be corrected I hope by someone competent — is to catalog the source material somewhere — being as evenhanded as you humanly can and including references to everything you can find — to hope to attract the attention of someone who would want to include it.

    My experience from small area botanical restoration work is that about all one human lifetime allows is getting a good baseline together, one good enough that in 50 or 60 years someone else would find it useful as a basis for comparison. I found I needed either a gazillion data points over a few years (impossible), or a few data points taken separated by a gazillion days, to have numbers sufficient for detecting any trend on a small area, and realized I had a 200 year project going. So it goes.

  6. 56
    Ike Solem says:

    Re #53:
    First off, it is unclear whether CO2 is the limiting factor for plant growth (particularly now). Generally, the main suspects are nitrogen, phosphorous, iron (in certain special instances) and water availability. There could be a CO2 fertilization effect but even so, numerous plant physiology studies have demonstrated physiological sink limitation under high CO2 regimes – for example, the roots can only store so much excess sugar. The plant response to high CO2 has typically been shown to be that they down-regulate RuBisCo (CO2 fixation enzyme) synthesis over time. There is a vast literature on this topic. Yes you can increase plant growth in greenhouses uing high CO2 – but the effect is short-lived; might apply to annuals but not to anything else.

    Secondly, while genetic engineering may potentially have certain benefits, the mode in which it has been developed has generally been to engineer in herbicide-resistant and pesticide-production genes. Again, studies show no increase in yields under identical growth conditions, and the strains suffer from the same limitations as all monoculture crops do – in fact, these genetically engineered strains often call for high applications of fertilizer, water and herbicides (which, after all, is why they were engineered to be herbicide resistant). Agribusiness is more interested in patentable plant strains then anything else; ‘feeding the world’ is nice PR but absolute baloney in practice. Europeans don’t have to worry about starving!

    Again, if you want to mitigate CO2 using biological means, planting long-lived trees (and then maybe burying the wood in deep lakes) is probably the only feasible mechanism. It is nice to see that the final fallback position of ‘global warming is good for you’ now seems to be the dominant theme.

  7. 57
    pat neuman says:

    re 55. Hank, my plots as explained in 49 are merely X-Y plots using Excel software. I picked 5 yr moving average or linear for trend lines, mainly for ease in viewing of the data. If you have Excel and think it would help to have some of the data let me know by email and I’ll try to send some to you.

  8. 58
    Chris Reed says:

    Re My comment 32, Gavin’s response, and 42 Gar’s response. Thanks for your responses.

    Gavin, taking comfort that it’ll still be bad even without the worst case scenarios, that’s an odd way of looking at it. ;)

    Gar, I know of, understand and accept, all the points you make. And indeed I feel that you could reasonably add a far more speculative point 8. This could be the exacerbatory ‘feedbacks’ in the human domain, such as economic effects and ultimately war as a result of the pressures caused by the problems you outline.

    Essentially I find that the scare stories are easier to understand, thus have more potential to motivate people to change. In the necessary process of countering the worst scare stories with empirically based balance (i.e. a broader process of evidence based reasoning than the common understanding of science may imply). We are likely to have the effect of undermining the strength of calls to action. Although as you imply Gavin, this would counter the fatalistic “what’s the point” attitude that means that “even no-regrets actions are extremely difficult to get implemented.”

    “some would like this issue to stand in for all their concerns about modern sustainability” I agree. One issue I have not had the time to do full justice to being Peak Oil. The idea of both Climate Change and Peak Oil (arguably symptomatic of a deeper underlying cause; population growth) occurring in the same century is something that should be galvanizing our whole civilization into action.

  9. 59
    Gar Lipow says:

    >I’d rather deal with the problems of farming in a warmer climate – including bugs and water shortages – than I would with the problems of farming under ice.

    And I’d rather deal with the problem of farming in a warmer climate than farming under attack by Martian death rays – which is as relevent as the possibility of a new ice age for the next 150+ years.

    [Response:I object! Recent research (suppressed by the Venusian global warming mafia) shows that Martian Death Rays are in fact beneficial to agriculture, and will lead to a Redder, Kinder Earth. See our web site, --theMartians]

  10. 60
    CO2-Lord Of Creation says:

    “And I’d rather deal with the problem of farming in a warmer climate than farming under attack by Martian death rays – which is as relevent as the possibility of a new ice age for the next 150+ years.”

    Well now you are just being silly aren’t you. Farming is going to be a lot more productive with less frosts, more rainfall, warmer weather and greater concentrations of CO2. Now why is it that we have REAL greenhouses. Its to get the plants to grow better isn’t it.

  11. 61
    CO2-Lord Of Creation says:

    “Again, if you want to mitigate CO2 using biological means, planting long-lived trees (and then maybe burying the wood in deep lakes) is probably the only feasible mechanism. It is nice to see that the final fallback position of ‘global warming is good for you’ now seems to be the dominant theme.”

    That’s no final fallback position. That is clawing off the layered ambit claims of leftist lunatics. Global warming was always good for you and obviously so. Nothing could have been more obvious then that right from the getgo. This planet is a nastier planet when its a colder planet.

  12. 62
    CO2-Lord Of Creation says:

    “The CO2 ‘blanket’ idea has been argued at length, but I’ve not found any footnotes or cites supporting it.”

    Its too obvious an idea to footnote. If you can spell your name you ought to get that right on the next test. And its really what CO2-based global warming IS.

    Why is it that the warming at Mid-Troposphere is so pronounced in the Antarctic Winter? This is a blanketing effect. An effect toward equalisation.

    We can only hope that it makes it all the way down to the ground.

  13. 63
    Lee says:

    “Leftist lunatics.” Gee, how persuasive. Graeme?

    While this site concetrates on climate, you might check out the ocean carbonic acidification literature. And the sea-level-rise literature.

    Not to mention, if y’all are arguing that with warming we can just shift ag north, why cant we, with cooling, just shift ag south? Those glaciers didn’t cover the entire planet, much as you might like to imagine so. Maybe we’ll take all the people from the european and asian low coutries, the pacific islands and the coastal SE US, the ones that I’ve read we can deal with by simply letting them emmigrate as the sea rises, and set them to moving the farms.

    I am amused, though. It isn’t happening” became “it won’t have any effect” became “its going to be good for us” in just a very few years.

    My apologees to the RC regulars; I’ve just spent a few days over at the von Mises blog, and this stuff pervades their discussions of climate over there; its hard to treat it with even polite seriousness after a while.

  14. 64
    CO2-Lord Of Creation says:

    “why cant we, with cooling, just shift ag south?”

    Well we would have to wouldn’t we. And we’d have to deal with the droughts, famines, violent weather events that the freezing would entail. The human race was almost wiped out the last time round and the Neanderthals didn’t make it (except for one or two big-brained survivors like myself).

    The amount of habitable space would be severely attenuated. During the last ice age Australia had a massive permanent antycyclonic system that whipped off topsoil and threw it as far afield as New Zealand. We could demand compensation I suppose. It would have been a horrible place. Not unlike Mad Max Beyond Thunderdomes apocalyptic vision.

    In summary a cold planet means a dry harsh inhospitable planet with violent weather.

    A warm planet means a wet, productive, flourishing planet and if its warm due to CO2 it means an even more flourishing planet with less violent weather.

    So its pretty clear that the campaign against giving the Estonians a fighting chance is a gigantic example of Wrong-Way Corriganism.

    Which is not to say that one cannot get too much of a good thing. How much warmth is too much warmth? I don’t know that and would not trust you guys for an answer. You see we (the laity) really need to rely on you guys (the high-priesthood) to give us accurate and politically unbiased information on request. And to try and demystify what is going on. So that we can check your reasoning and make good decisions.

    And being as so many of you are tax-eaters I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

  15. 65
    Almuth Ernsting says:

    Re 60:
    Farming does better when it is warm? Let’s just look at weather for a moment: Summer 2004 was much cooler in the main grain-growing area of the US than summer 2005. Which year produced a bumper crop? Which year saw massive losses due to heat and drought? And which type of weather is likely to become more common in the US as the globe warms up?

    Re 64:
    You don’t seem to like the planet as it is now, the one which human civilization has adapted to over thousands of years? Do you not think that the person who (like yourself) advocates a massive change to the atmosphere should be the one to prove that it will be benign – rather than those who advocate caution?

  16. 66
    Lawrence McLean says:

    Re #64
    CO2-Lord Of Creation, where did you find the references to the Australian Ice age climate?

  17. 67
    John L. McCormick says:

    Enough of Lord CO2 Graeme.

    Lets take a vote and do this democratically. I move we shut Lord Graeme up on this page and send him to the Bozo Bin where he can relax and contemplate his warmer world without being heckled by us.

    He offers nothing but nonsense and diversion to what is a vital service Real Climate provides.

    Does anyone second my motion?

    John McCormick

  18. 68
    Coby says:

    Perhaps an equally effective approach is to ignore him. He has not said anything new for many posts. That fact is just as good a reason to block him, but blocking people creates martyrs!

    Trolls starve very quickly.

  19. 69
    CO2-Lord Of Creation says:

    In the end you could just admit your wrong-headedness and resolve to not be so foolish in the future.

  20. 70
    Dan says:

    re:69. You have yet to admit your “wrong-headedness” and intellectual dishonesty about not understanding the scientific process, which was clearly shown on your posts. Or the fact that you asked twice for “proof” and then changed that to “evidence” after you were schooled about the meaning of “proof” but could not admit that you were wrong. You have the internet at your fingertips where you can find all sorts of peer-reviewed, scientific articles regarding the issues at hand. Please educate yourself.

  21. 71
    Hank Roberts says:

    And the nitwittery continues today, in an article forwarning of a media flood as we approach Earth Day 2006.

    From this page:

    “… Either the world will continue to heat up, or a complex series of climate changes could tip us over into a sudden new ice age – one so severe, suggests Peter Schwartz, co-founder of the Global Business Network consultancy, that the planet’s remaining arable land would only be able to support a mere two billion people…..”

    [Response: That's really a messed up claim. We probably ought to do a post on this. Does anybody know more about who Peter Schwartz is and what the Global Business Network is? I'd like to check the original sources, and not count on CNN having quoted Schwartz correctly --raypierre]

  22. 72
    Hank Roberts says:

    “… global warming …. So how did this virtual certainty get labeled a “liberal hoax”?”

  23. 73
    JohnLopresti says:

    While I am reading this thread and its ample links to further my own research on the web, I want to leave a new link today which accompanied a UCSUSA bulletin: the link is to a 50-pp pdf published by an assortment of individuals in academia and government in CA, which document is to serve as the basis for an online colloquy involving UCSUSA members April 27. For particulars, contact UCSUSA. I wish at least one of the most expert people who host and monitor the RC website could participate in this event which is comprised of a conference call plus emailed powerpoint images for reference at each attendee’s workstation. The pdf link, above has the title “Scenarios of Climate Change in California: An Overview” with the attribution CA Energy Commission published four weeks ago.
    Disclaimer: While UCSUSA’s information and activities are interesting, I am not a member or participant in any other way. My hope here is different from posting a PSA: rather, a way of spreading the news of what might be an important virtual conference which would be improved if some of the finest minds in the climate change community are available, should there be a realistic context for genuine apolitical expertise to contribute to the event.

  24. 74
    Tom Fiddaman says:

    Re 71 Petere Schwartz & Raypierre comment

    Peter Schwartz was an author of the DOD Abrupt Climate Change security scenario that caused controversy a while back. That led to an exchange with Wallace Broecker in Science in September 2004.

    It may be useful to make up extreme scenarios to help DOD to think out of the box, but it’s irresponsible to then foist them off on the business community by claiming that warming and cooling are equally likely outcomes, somehow forgetting in the interim that the exercise was science fiction. It’s even worse to denigrate “incremental” mitigation policies, then puff up even more marginal strategies.

  25. 75
    Hank Roberts says:

    Arrrgh. Just found this teaser outside the New Scientist pay-to-read wall. It ends

    ” …. Are changes in ocean circulation about to turn our lives upside down, or is this something only our grandchildren will have to cope with?

    “This vital question is in doubt because …
    The complete article is 2502 words long.
    To continue reading this article, subscribe to New Scientist. …”


    [Response: Well, magazines have to make money somewhere. The blogosphere is great, but blogs don't have investigative reporters, research staff, illustration departments, full-time writers, etc. Information wants to be free, but writers wants to be paid. --raypierre]

  26. 76
    pat neuman says:

    re 75.

    This text from an article listed in TERRADAILY EXPRESS – APRIL 19, 2006
    may be of interest in discussion (75). The article contains links to other information.

    Carbon Cycle Was Already Disrupted Millions Of Years Ago
    Amsterdam, The Netherlands (SPX) Apr 19, 2006


    [... Dutch researcher Yvonne van Breugel analysed rocks from seabeds millions of years old. ...]

    [... In sediment cores from various widely-separated areas Van Breugel found a 0.4% decrease in the 13C/12C ratio. This means that there were large-scale changes in the carbon cycle over a short geological timescale of several tens of thousands of years. From the results Van Breugel deduced that large quantities of 12C in the form of CO2 or methane were suddenly released into the atmosphere. ]

  27. 77
    Hank Roberts says:

    Here’s their web page:

    Here’s cofounder Peter Schwartz’s bio:

    A link on the gbn page offers some explanations:
    “Eamonn Kelly describes GBN’s origins and work in “GBN Advises Clients to Respect and Leverage the World’s Dynamic Tensions”

    (Aside: “Dynamic Tension” perhaps from the Charles Atlas weightlifting school; Atlas graduate Bokonon made it the basis of his religion (in the book Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut). Someone at GBN has a sense of humor, I’d guess cofounder Stewart Brand.)

  28. 78
    rasmus says:

    ‘Scientists fear new attempts to undermine climate action’:

    Let’s hope that more journalists will read RC in the future.


    P.S., In fresh article published in Iternational Herald Tribune (Global warming’s PR problem) Andrew C. Revkin gives comprehensive and intelligent account of the climate-change media coverage which gives me some hope in terms of the journalists understanding of the problem…

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