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How not to write a press release

Filed under: — gavin @ 21 April 2006

A recent BBC radio documentary on the possible over-selling of climate change, focussed on the link between high profile papers appearing in Nature or Science, the press releases and the subsequent press coverage. One of the examples chosen was the Stainforth et al climateprediction.net paper that reported the ranges of climate sensitivity within their super-ensemble of perturbed physics runs. While there was a lot of interesting science in this paper (the new methodology, the range of results etc.) which fully justified its appearance in Nature, we were quite critical of their basic conclusion – that climate sensitivities significantly higher than the standard range (1.5 – 4.5ºC) were plausible – because there is significant other data, predominantly from paleo-climate, that pretty much rule those high numbers out (as we discussed again recently). The press coverage of the paper mostly picked up on the very high end sensitivities (up to 11ºC) and often confused the notion of an equilibirum sensitivity with an actual prediction for 2100 and this lead to some pretty way-out headlines. I think all involved would agree that this was not a big step forward in the public understanding of science.

Why did this happen? Is it because the scientists were being ‘alarmist’, or was it more related to a certain naivety in how public relations and the media work? And more importantly, what can scientists do to help ensure that media coverage is a fair reflection of their work?

A point that shouldn’t need repeating is that the media like a dramatic statement, and stories that say something is going to be worse than previously thought get more coverage than those which say it’s not going to be as bad. It’s not quite a fair comparison, but witness the difference in coverage for the recent Hegerl et al paper, which presented evidence that really high sensitivies are unlikely (a half dozen stories), and the Stainforth et al paper (hundreds of stories). (As an aside, a comment in the documentary that the recent Annan and Hargreaves paper was deliberately ignored by the media is without foundation – GRL is not Nature, and no press release was issued (a press release was issued - apologies). Expecting mainstream press coverage in such circumstances would be extremely optimistic).

Secondly, the scientists also need to appreciate that most journalists will only read the press release, and possibly only the first couple of paragraphs of the press release. Very, very few will read the whole paper. This implies that the press release itself is the biggest determinant of quality of the press coverage, and of course, the press release is generally not written directly by the scientists.

Thirdly, though we are trying to do something about it here, most journalists are not experienced enough in scientific topics to be able to place new results in context without outside help. Often they have a small number of preconceived frames into which they will place the story – common ones involve forecasts of possible disasters, conflict within the community (the more personal the better), plucky Galileos fighting the establishment, and of course anything that interacts directly with politics, or political interference with science. This can be helpful if the scientific story fits neatly into one the boxes, but can cause big problems if the story is either more complex or orthogonal to the obvious frames. Scientists are aware of this, but often are not pro-active enough in preventing obvious mis-framing. This implies that even if a press release is 100% scientifically accurate refection of the original paper, the press coverage can still be terrible.

So what went wrong with Stainforth et al paper? The press release is available here. The only science result in the press release refered to the 11ºC outlier but the release itself is not incorrect. However, both the title ‘Bleak first results…’ and the first paragraphs do not provide any context that would correctly lead a (relatively ignorant) journalist to appreciate that there was even a distribution function of climate sensitivities. I’m pretty sure that the point that was trying to be made was that relatively small tweaks to climate models can change the sensitivity a lot, and that you can’t rule out high sensitivities based on model results alone, but that was not clear for people who didn’t already know the context.

Myles Allen, for whom I have the utmost respect, I think made a rather poor argument in the BBC program. He stated that “if journalists embroider the press release without reference to the original paper, [the scientists] are not responsible for that”. I disagree. Looking at the press release, one could have predicted with high confidence that much of the coverage would focus solely on the 11ºC number and that they would assume that this was a new prediction. As scientists, I would argue that we have to take responsibility for how our work is portrayed – and if that means we need to provide better context, then we need to insist that that is included in the release. Myles is on much stronger ground when he argued that the mean model response (~3ºC sensitivity) wasn’t terribly interesting because it is just a reflection of the basic model they started with before any perturbations, which is true. However, without some statement about the relative likelihood of any of the high-end numbers, I find it hard to see how the journalists could have got the message right. Having said that, implications aired in the program that the scientists deliberately misled the journalists or said things that knew would be mis-understood are completely without foundation. (Update: Please see the response of the journalists listed in this comment below to really underline that).

What can we learn from this? The first and most fundamental lesson is that scientists should not relinquish control of the press releases. Public relations professionals are talented and useful when it comes to writing releases for media consumption, but the scientists have to be fully involved in the process. If there are obvious frames that the scientists want to avoid, they need to be specific within the press release what their results do not imply as well as what they might. A clear statement in the Stainforth et al release that placed the 11 C result in context of how unlikely it was and specifically stated that it wasn’t a prediction would have gone a long way to allay some of the worst coverage.

For an example of how this can work, the Solanki et al paper on solar sunspot reconstructions had a specific statement that their results did not contradict ideas of strong greenhouse warming in recent decades, neatly heading off simplistic (and erroneous) interpretations of their paper. On the other hand, much of the poor reporting related to the ‘methane from plants’ story could have been avoided if the authors had been more upfront in their release that their work was not related to greenhouse gas changes and had no significant implications for reforestation credits under Kyoto!

In summary, I would emphasise that the scientists and the actual papers discussed here and in the BBC documentary were not ‘alarmist’, however there is a clear danger that when these results get translated into media reports (and headlines) that scientifically unsupportable claims can be made. Scientists and the press professionals they work with, need to be very clear that, for the field as a whole, the widest possible coverage for any one paper should not be the only aim of a press release.

All publicity is not good publicity.


258 Responses to “How not to write a press release”

  1. 51
    ocean says:

    Thank you Isaac Held. That was very helpful to me. I am an earth scientist and a climate scientist to be :)

  2. 52
    Coby says:

    AGW less important than Alzeimers to average person? I don’t think so and I sure hope not. I think people who realize there is no real debate about its reality consider AGW one of if not the single most important global challenge.

    Eli: thanks for your comment about the relevance of high end sensitivity, be it less likely than low end or not. You are totally correct that severe, low risk danger is deserving of greater coverage than less severe but more likely danger. Who among us would gamble everything we have, including health and children, with a 5% chance of losing it all?

    JohnLopresti, #43, I mostly agree that sensationalism will more likely mobilize, but there is in fact a very considerable down side. If you succeed in mobilising people with a prediction of 11C warming, great. But what will happen when new research gives great certainty to only 4C warming? It just happened: I wrote “only 4C warming” as if it is not so bad.

    The real challenge that science faces here, is getting across the message that 3C is hugely problematic! The new critical message has to be about the possible ramifications of “only” 3oC warming. Reef death, more intense storms, droughts, extinctions, the public needs to learn that there is a lot more going to go on than warmer weather. Emphasize that we are now matching the warmest climate seen in the glacial record. 3C warming puts us in a climate not seen in millions of years. These are simple, factual statements that will resonate with the public.

    The other advantage of focusing here, is that this is the next point of attack for the septics. “What warming?” is in its death throes, in the next one or two years Bob Carter’s “it stopped in 98″ crap will be back firing. The focus these days is “5C is a ridiculous exaggeration”, that argument should be dropped and we should focus on what 3C warming really involves, heading them off at the pass.

  3. 53
    Maureen Vilar says:

    The fact that Myles’ results were misrepresented in the press only happened, and in one sense only matters, because there are two fairly polarised ‘camps’ regarding global warming.

    That there should be two camps at all is on the face of it extraordinary. Are there two camps regarding Hubble revelations, WHO strategies to eliminate polio, or new hip replacement prostheses? There is discussion, but no polarisation or war of words.

    Of course it’s not extraordinary at all because the emissions reduction debate is is many ways a metaphor for the debate on world poverty. The solutions for both problems that can at present be envisaged engender deep, if often unmentioned, fears. For if ‘they’ are to have more, we must have less, and if the supply of resources is more limited than previously thought, our share is smaller still. Hard to come to terms with if you have to reconcile winning the popular vote and your personal ethics.

    I am a moderator on one of the Oxford Climate Prediction forums, where we are also slowly learning to be more circumspect in some of what we say than previously seemed necessary.

  4. 54
    pat neuman says:

    In 37. Alastair McDonald wrote: Pat Neuman showed us his press release. … He describes what is happening as rapid climate change. That is wrong.

    Alastair,

    I said Rapid Global Warming is Happening Now (10/30/2003) http://releases.usnewswire.com/GetRelease.asp?id=22702

    Ancient Climate Studies Suggest Earth On Fast Track To Global Warming
    by Staff Writers Santa Cruz CA (SPX) Feb 16, 2006

    Human activities are releasing greenhouse gases more than 30 times
    faster than the rate of emissions that triggered a period of extreme
    global warming in the Earth’s past, according to an expert on
    ancient climates.

    “The emissions that caused this past episode of global warming
    probably lasted 10,000 years. By burning fossil fuels, we are likely
    to emit the same amount over the next three centuries,” said James
    Zachos, professor of Earth sciences at the University of California,
    Santa Cruz.

    http://www.terradaily.com/reports/Ancient_Climate_Studies_Suggest_Earth_On_Fast_Track_To_Global_Warming.html

  5. 55
    Eli Rabett says:

    To ocean (what a nice handle:) IMHO you are drawing a false set of analogies. There is a major difference between AGW climate associated risks and risks of Alzheimers, AIDs, etc. The latter are personal risks, the former is global. Bird flu, if it ever jumps into direct human to human spreading is more of a global risk because of the rapid mechanism by which flus propagate.

    I absolutely believe Hegerl et al and Annan and Hargreaves. I also believe that the data they analyzed are not complete and do not include the “unpleasant surprises” that may await us. The further the climate system is pushed into terra incognita, the less trust one can put into these probabilistic analyses and climate models.

    As I said in a previous life: Worry

  6. 56
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    There is a big gap between what scientists know & what the public makes of it (assuming the public even tune into the science news).

    Scientist: “11°C? If that’s for real, we’d all be double dead within x number of years, given current rates of xyxy.”

    Public: “11°F [<=C]? Well, it usually varies more than that within a 24 hour period. What’s the big deal?”

    Another problem (correct me if I’m wrong) is sensitivity is sort of like a rate, and is only one consideration in the total picture, certainly not the total picture. My thinking is, “unsafe at almost any sensitivity.”

    It’s like we’re all in this train which increases its speed a certain amount per amount of coal added, but we don’t know exactly how much; we only have a range. It says nothing about people rushing to stoke the engine with more and more coal, or how much actual coal is added (thus the actual range of speeds to expect), or the possibility of a precipice with bridge out up ahead (runaway GW), how dangerous that might be at various speeds, entailing greater or less number of deaths, or how far or close that precipice is, which we don’t know either (except we have some fossil evidence of train wrecks in which 90% of life died, so we know it could be bad). We also understand that even if we slam on the breaks (totally stop emitting GHGs), we’re going to slide forward for some time — maybe even over that precipice.

    But then people would think, “I’m going to bail from this train,” so maybe SPACESHIP is a better metaphor, & we’ve got engine problems & may be self-destructing, like Apollo 13 — “Spaceship Earth.” And Tom Hanks would really like to solve this problem in a cool-headed way, except naysayers & denialists are harping in his ears, “We’re not 100% sure we’re going to self-destruct until we actually do so. It’s just not a big problem yet.” And the people in the back cabin don’t even know there’s a problem, because they don’t even tune into science news.

    I hope all this sounds alarmist enough to get people to reduce their GHGs. I mean, what will it take? Nothing seems alarmist enough. Nothing seems to resonate with the general public. I guess science is just too boring — even an 11°C sensitivity. A big public yawn.

  7. 57
    ocean says:

    Wow, I started something :) I am plenty worried about global warming. I am on the same page with you guys. I wasn’t trying to minimize the importance and panic-worthiness of AGW. But if you ever had to care for someone with cancer, AIDS or Alzeimers, you might want to fund medical research over environmenetal research. We have to be healthy and alive to resolve environmental issues. However, it is also a fact that most of these diseases are caused by human induced environmnetal issues. Don’t get me wrong. I am a publishing, grant getting ocean scientist [hence the handle] and have strong feelings about AGW. I am all for AGW research from the most mundane scenario to the most extremist one. It is extremely important for humanity and our palnet. No argument there. And as I said I am plenty worried.. But, on a personal level, if I get Alzeimers, how can I continue my research? How can you ? :)

  8. 58
    ocean says:

    I’m sorry. I have to ask what does IMHO stand for?

  9. 59

    Given your public concerns with Stainforth et.al. 2005 such as:

    we were quite critical of their basic conclusion – that climate sensitivities significantly higher than the standard range (1.5 – 4.5ºC) were plausible

    would you mind saying when those opinions will be appearing in the Correspondence section of Nature or if you have submitted letters to Nature detailing those concerns? Thanks

    [Response: David, I neither have time nor the interest in writing official replies to every paper I may have some issue with and to do so without having some new analysis would most likely be a waste of time. This topic is already well populated with papers that are tackling the issue more constructively and I'm happy to sit back and see how it unfolds. - gavin]

  10. 60
    Mark A. York says:

    Ocean,

    IMHO: While it sounds like a medical plan that doesn’t actually cover illnesses, it means “In my humble opinion.”

  11. 61
    Dan says:

    re:60. Once again, this gets back to the understanding, or in this case the apparant lack there of, of the scientific method. It is sad to see so many skeptics who reflect a lack of that basic, fundamental understanding. Science is about hypotheses and theories, gathering evidence and data, conducting experiments or models to test those hypotheses and theories, generating new hypotheses from those tests, subjecting those results to peer-review, and others repeating those experiments. Global warming research follows the scientific method. If scientists followed (A) and were “deliberately misleading” the public, it would not follow the scientific method at all. The process would show that through peer-review and the inability to repeat the experiments. As for (B), if they are wrong, again the peer-review process and inability to independently repeat the experiments would show it. Since the scientific method works, neither A or B apply.

    It is noteworthy that relatively few of the skeptics arguments appear in peer-reviewed journals simply because their “results” can not be repeated. Nor have they proposed (or tested) valid theories which can explain past or recent trends.

  12. 62
    Steven T. Corneliussen says:

    It seems to me that many readers of RC, especially readers of the present and recent threads, will be interested in the Andrew Revkin piece that’s just been posted by the New York Times at the top of tomorrow’s Sunday “Week in Review” section (http://www.nytimes.com/pages/weekinreview/index.html). It’s called “Meltdown: Yelling ‘Fire’ on a Hot Planet” and there are links to a graphic sidebar and a video sidebar. In part Revkin responds specifically to the Lindzen WSJ piece. I hope I find out through RC discussion what climate scientists think of Revkin’s article overall. Is it, for example, too balanced in the sense of crediting foolishness in a phoney balance with fact — i.e., in the sense of that science-journalism “balance” dynamic that RC has criticized? I believe I recall that Revkin has drawn high marks at RC in the past.

  13. 63
    Eli Rabett says:

    In my humble opinion, (IMHO) a rather good list of these abbreviations in an unlikely place http://www.assessmentpsychology.com/internetglossary.htm

  14. 64
    ocean says:

    Thanks Eli. I am new to blogs and posting messages..

  15. 65

    #60, In the struggle to successfully predict the future, those who project will only look back and see if their calculations were correct, in the process of making projections only time can confirm a particular theory,. There should be no restrictions on theories and announcements through various medias, the future is very unforgiving in this domain, exactitude is the goal, perfecting projections is hard work. The lay person need not be confused, the direction of our world climate is nothing but warming, the big question remains: at what rate this warming? To have some confidence in the work of climate scientists, look back, say to the 80′s, research those who predicted todays climate accurately, and see what they have to say about the next 20 years.

  16. 66
    Coby says:

    Re #60

    can see no other reasonable interpretation of these statements than that the scientists believe their experiments show we’re in much more trouble over global warming than previously thought

    Skeptick, you have gone wrong already, this is not the correct paraphrase at all.

    The scientist believe, and said quite clearly, “their experiments show tha it is possible we’re in much more trouble over global warming than previously thought”

    These qualifiers are important, but unfortunatley they are the first thing to get chopped when stuffing things into sound bites. But that is not evidence of any wrong doing on the part of researchers. It’s not even evidence of anything worse than irresponsibility and/or sensationalizing on the part of the journaists either (ie not evidence of conspiracy)

    [Response: Note: I deleted the original comment 60. Skeptick is evidently just another of Graeme Bird's numerous pseudonyms, or at least a post by somebody doing a good imitation. These are just trolls, and attempts to disrupt the dialog. Don't take the bait, and expect the few such things that slip through to disappear once one of us notices. --raypierre]

  17. 67

    Re #43: “It is noteworthy that good science continually attempts to restrain exaggeration”

    This is a very astute observation indeed. I would add that good scientists do not publish results until they understood all caveats, especially instabilities in their models. For example, the Stainforth et al. article states in “data quality” section:

    “Finally, runs that show a drift in Tg greater than 0.02 Kyr21 in the last eight years of the control are judged to be unstable and are also removed from this analysis.”

    Also, from the same source: http://climateprediction.net/science/secondresults.php
    “Most models still maintain a temperature of between 13 and 14 °C, however some get colder – these are not stable and the heat flux calculated in phase 1 was not correct to keep the model in balance.”

    These statements pretty much nullify results of the whole article IMO – it looks like the data were filtered in favor of desireable result – GW.

    Similar situation is with the Annan and Hargreaves article. They base their analysis on an assumption that all objects in their ensemble are independent. This assumption was not quantified in the article, they assumed this as obvious. Unfortunately, all their objects are based (in one or another way) on linear concepts and perturbations near an alleged global equillibrium, while even superficial inspection of paleoclimate data (like ice cores) makes it quite clear that the climate-bearing system is continuously on the move, it oscillates back and forth like an relaxation generator, and therefore is never in static equillibrium. As result, multiplying outputs from predominantly wrong models does not create any more overall confidence.

    Cheers,
    – aap

  18. 68
    Steve Bloom says:

    Re #67: “I would add that good scientists do not publish results until they understood all caveats, especially instabilities in their models.” Anyone with a Science or Nature sub could tell you that this isn’t true. Science would have awfully hard time making progress using such an approach. Even relativity and evolution still have unresolved caveats, and no string theory paper would ever have seen print.

    “Unfortunately, all their objects are based (in one or another way) on linear concepts and perturbations near an alleged global equillibrium, while even superficial inspection of paleoclimate data (like ice cores) makes it quite clear that the climate-bearing system is continuously on the move, it oscillates back and forth like an relaxation generator, and therefore is never in static equillibrium. As result, multiplying outputs from predominantly wrong models does not create any more overall confidence.” This is utter nonsense. If you have a dislike for the conclusions of climate scientists, just say so. Resorting to multi-syllabic gobbledygook just wastes bandwidth.

  19. 69

    Re #69 “This is utter nonsense … multi-syllabic gobbledygook…”

    I am truly sorry that I was not up to your educational level when trying to express myself in such a confined space as webblog. If you could be a bit more polite and ask me which part of the above paragraph you do not understand, maybe I would find some time to educate you (but now it is very unlikely) :-(

    Re: “Even relativity and evolution still have unresolved caveats, and no string theory paper would ever have seen print.”

    Anyone with practical experience in personally contributing to advances in Physics or Mathematics would immediately realise that the above statement lacks so much of truth that in common language is called “utter BS”. You failed to realize one important thing: in a good science a researcher clearly states his assumptions upfront, and does not state conclusions without proper reference to underlying assumptions. As far as I see, this discipline is severely lacking in the field under discussion.

    -aap

    [Response: Then you obviously haven't been reading the scientific literature, or are less than honest about what you have seen there. In fact, the climatePrediction.net paper in Nature is a model of clear statement of assumptions, procedures and objects, within the space constraints of a Nature piece. As far as I can see, you are simply making unfounded assertions in the hopes somebody will be fooled. It's bizarre -- more than bizarre -- that a person who has defended Zbigniew Jaworowski's gobbledegook alchemical claims about ice core CO2 , as you have in posts elsewhere, would think he had any credibility in criticizing climate science. As for the phrase "multisyllabic gobbledegook," yes, that's perfectly descriptive what you wrote at the end of your post. Wish I had thought of that phrase myself, but I was sure one of our readers would find an appropriate response. --raypierre]

  20. 70
    Steve Bloom says:

    Re #59: David, you seem eminently well-qualified to submit such a letter yourself, having just had a paleoclimate review article published in a leading Australian geological journal: http://www.aig.asn.au/pdf/AIGNews_Mar06.pdf ; see page 14. I see that on page 15 there is an interesting related commentary by the esteemed editor of the journal. Anyway, please let us know how Nature responds.

  21. 71
    John Hughes says:

    THE PROBLEM WITH GETTING ACTION ON CLIMATE SCIENCE IN THE USA AND HENCE THE WORLD

    Stuff like this.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/money/main.jhtml?xml=/money/2006/04/23/ccfeaf23.xml

    In the USA the political right are so against action to combat climate change because it appears to somehow appear to be communist in nature, anti freedom and individual restrictive and hence against the seemingly free market economy that the USA has embraced since the end of the 2nd world war culminating in such neurotic/paranoid behaviour as being labelled a left wing conspiracy.

    I also imgaine that these right wingers (neo cons I believe they are known as) are also very religious in nature (or appear to be) and they carry a lot of power in the USA and hence considering the evolution vs creationism debate that is raging over there at the moment getting action on climate change seems to be almost impossible in the current or by a future republican administration.

    I also imagine that this is the reason why there has been such a lot of debunking of climate science since the problem has become mainstream with the fossil fuel industry being represented at every turn in the fight for cuts in greenhouse gases that as yet we have none !!!!

    The USA seems to be a country with a heady mix of “totally at odds” poltical agendas and views. Republicans really are right wingers who appear to believe in some very odd things but carry great power. Not sure about the democrats but I guess they must be the liberals/left wingers that might do something about GG emissions and hence appear to be feared by the right.

  22. 72
    Dan says:

    re: 70. No! A good scientist makes hypotheses, not assumptions. He/she then proceeds to test those hypotheses.

  23. 73
    ocean says:

    Mark A. York: I did at first think IMHO was some medical term :) Thanks for the clarification…

  24. 74
    ocean says:

    While I agree with Dan, there are assumptions that go into any model. Even plate tectonics had to assume the Earth is not expanding when it was first developing as a theory. Now I think we know for a fact that the Earth is not expanding and that strengthens plate tectonics as a theory. [For the skeptics out there: It is still a theory, though sea floor spreading is a fact, because the exact machanisms driving plate motion need to be better understood]. I think good scientists explain their assumptions clearly and re-consider their assumptions when drawing conclusions. And their assumptions are hypotheses themselves which are/should be tested. And if the assumptions turn out to be true, then the theory/model based on those assumptions gains more strength/credibility.

  25. 75
    Lee says:

    I’m wondering if there isn’t some not very good assumptions to some of the models. But don’t know one way or the other.http://members5.boardhost.com/whalehead/msg/1145783395.html

  26. 76

    Re # 62, Revkin in the NY Times:

    Revkin says “If the bad stuff doesn’t happen for 100 years or so, it’s hard to persuade governments or voters to take action.” But “bad stuff” is already happening, and it’s only going to get worse. Scientists are reluctant to claim “proof” of a connection of individual catastrophes to human causes, and yet the evidence of a connection is plausible and compelling, if not absolutely proven. Isn’t that enough to justify alarm?

    A plague of mountain pine beetles has suddenly devastated an area roughly the size of Great Britain in British Columbia. British Columbia hasn’t been this warm in 8,000 years, and the winters are no longer cold enough to keep the beetles in check. About half the living pine forest is already gone, and most of the rest is expected to be infested and die within 10 years. How much proof of a connection between CO2 and pine bark beetles do we need before we become legitimately alarmed, rather than have concerns dismissed as needlessly “alarmist”?

    In the waters around the U.S. Virgin Islands, as much as 40 percent of coral died in some reefs last year, and the coral that survived probably isn’t healthy enough to survive another hot summer, according to a U.S. Geological Survey biologist. Scientists can’t prove that global warming is the cause, because that would take decades of data and research. But the evidence of a connection between warming ocean waters and greenhouse gas increases is compelling and consistent with theory and observations. Certainly future ocean warming from increasing levels of greenhouse gases is reasonable to expect. Isn’t that reason enough to be legitimately alarmed?

    “We’re definitely seeing species going extinct because of climate change,” says Camille Parmesan, a conservation biologist at University of Texas. Lindzen would apparently dismiss her, and the hundreds of scientists whose work she bases her assessment on, as irresponsible “alarmists”. “This is bad news, not good news,” she says, …. It covers every geographic range, every taxonomic group. Zooplankton. Phytoplankton. Birds, frogs, butterflies. Mammals. Fruit flies. It’s overwhelming.” Isn’t it reasonable to be alarmed?

    It is irresponsible to dismiss this widespread concern as merely alarmist. It’s perfectly reasonable to be alarmed at plausible threats posed by unprecedented changes in the atmosphere and biology of the earth wrought by human activity, even in the absence of absolute proof of a connection between individual storms, extinctions, and economic catastrophes, and rising levels of CO2.

    Climate scientist Jerry Mahlman, a senior researcher at the National Center for Atmospheric research, says that each and every person in the world would have to reduce his and her per capita consumption of fossil fuels by 75 percent to keep additional future temperature increases to no more than 1 degree. “That’s a horrific number if you think about everything that you do…” he says. “We get all of this dirt-cheap fossil fuel. We burn it all up, we screw up the planet with greenhouse gases, warm up the planet, warm up the ocean, and therefore have many manifestations that are negative.”

    No wonder the skeptics would rather believe that greenhouse gases are nothing to fear. The solution to the problem requires an unthinkable sacrifice, and a change to our material culture that even a science fiction writer would have a hard time imagining. I think it is perfectly sane and reasonable to be alarmed.

    [Response: But one shouldn't despair. If one can't keep the warming to 1 degree, it's still worthwhile to keep it to 2 degrees. If one can't keep it to 2 degrees, it's still worthwhile to work to keep it below 3 degrees. And remember, energy is far from the dominant component of the economy, and phasing in a 50 or 75% reduction in carbon emissions doesn't mean a 50 to 75% reduction in energy usage -- still less a 50 to 75% reduction in productive use of energy, given likely efficiency gains. People should have a lot more faith in the ingenuity of engineers and business enterprises, once given the right market signals. --raypierre]

  27. 77
    Dan Allan says:

    Are any of you aware of a secret meeting between Bush and Michael Crichton??

    The quote below is from this week’s New Yorker Talk Of The Town.

    “A book that the President did eventually read and endorse is a pulp science-fiction novel: “State of Fear”, by Michael Crichton. Bush was so excited by the story, which pictures global warming as a hoax perpetrated by power-mad environmentalists, that he invited the author to the Oval Office. In “Rebel-in-Chief: Inside the Bold and Controversial Presidency of George W. Bush”, Fred Barnes, the Fox News commentator, reveals that the President and Crichton “talked for an hour and were in near-total agreement”. The visit, Barnes adds, “was not made public for fear of outraging environmentalists all the more”. ”

    I thought this would be of general interest to posters and moderators on this site, so apologies if this is off-topic.

    To me it puts in rather depressing perspective the notion of how best to inform policymakers on the state of the science, as our president prefers ignorance, self-delusion and science-fiction.

    Not that it is likely to succeed, but I think some of the very distinguished scientists here should request equal time from the prez.

  28. 78

    Re #74: “While I agree with Dan…”

    I am sorry, while I applaud to the logic of the rest of your post, I can’t resist from mentioning one little discrepancy. You logically arrived to the statement that “their assumptions are hypotheses themselves which are/should be tested”. Aside the fact that the terms “assumption” and “hypothesis” are synonyms in first place
    http://thesaurus.reference.com/search?q=assumption
    you seem to disagree with yourself, since “Dan” markedly disagree with this parallel. So, what do you agree with Dan upon? ;-)

  29. 79
    ocean says:

    Assumptions are not hypotheses. A hypothesis is an educated and testable potential solution to a scientific problem. Not all assumptions are testable.

  30. 80
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    Oops, used an html directive above… [fixed - gavin]

    I think what’s more disturbing than “alarmist” journalism, are the responses to it. The headlines, blurbs, ads for the programs that backtrack from the “alarmist” piece (and most people only have time for these, not the full story) then become: “GW not as dangerous as reported,” “Dangerous GW not likely.” Even “11 degrees of warming not likely” is problematic.

    First of all the public don’t understand what 11 degrees of warming means or entails, or 3 degrees, or 2. They experience more than an 11 degrees warming in a 24-hour period. We really depend on scientists, not headlines, to give us some idea about it. I think Mark Lynas is writing a book, SIX DEGREES, about what each additional degree entails in terms of effects and harms. That should help.

    Second, climate sensitivity is only one part in the whole picture. (Correct me if I’m wrong.) It says nothing about how much GHGs we’re pumping into the atmosphere, or the response of nature to the warming that causes either greater warming (reduced albedo effect) or more GHG releases from melting permafrost, etc. And once we’re on that positive feedback track for good, it’s just a matter of time (which climate sensitivity can help us understand, but only in part) before it gets really really bad. In my thinking climate sensitivity is “unsafe at nearly any level” (if we don’t reduce our GHGs).

    However, the debate swirling around sensitivity comes across as the whole enchilada.

    It seems to me there is no way we can be too alarming on this issue. I just don’t see people around me concerned enough even to, say, invest in a few CF bulbs & save money. I’ve told people that Green Mountain Energy provides wind power here for about 1 cent more per KWH & wind/hydro for the same price as fossil fuel electricity, but no one cares to switch. So, even if you tell people the world will end in 15 years if you don’t switch to CF bulbs & buy clean electricity, they just aren’t going to do it. Maybe they’re thinking, the problem is a long way off, surely scientists will solve it by then, so let’s get back to Saturday night planning.

    GW reporting is “under-alarmist” at any level of alarm you can conger up.

  31. 81
    pete best says:

    Climate scientists are surely suggesting that society does something regarding their conclusions from their research rather than just telling us their findings ?

  32. 82
    Mark A. York says:

    Perhaps Alex hasn’t heard the slang definition of “assume?” Assuming anything makes “an ass of you and me.”

  33. 83
    Dan says:

    re: 79. Precisely what I was going to say, ocean, thanks. Many assumptions are made without any testing at all. In science, hypotheses are tested.

  34. 84
    ocean says:

    #81: Can you elaborate please. I am not sure I understand what you mean.

  35. 85
    Adam says:

    Re 52 & 80: This is linked to my main gripe with the BBC programme. Early on they ask a load of people (kids? I yuned it at this point) what they thought the temperature rise so was and a lot said 2-3C, but the journalist pointed out to them that its 0.7C. There was no other context put to this figure.

    later on he kept referring to the sensitivity (or as I think he put it, “expected warming”) being “only” 3C. Though he repeatedly said that all the scientists in the programme thought that GW was a (big) problem, he never actually pointed out how bad 3C could be.

    I bet many people came away from that programme thinking it we can expect “only a 3C rise which probably won’t be all bad”.

    Also, ref the ideas about probability of an event multiplied by the seriousness of it, there is a measure for this isn’t there? I can’t remember the term, but do recall Martin Rees discussing it in his book “Our Final Century?”.

  36. 86
    Grant says:

    Just a silly note: every time someone uses “GW” to refer to global warming, it makes me think of “GW” as George W. (Bush, that is). So I’ve gotten in the habit of using “AGW” (I’ll be bold enough to include the “anthropogenic” part).

    Either way, “GW” is one of the world’s biggest problems today.

  37. 87
    ocean says:

    Grant: Do you mean George W or Global Warming is one of the world’s biggest problems right now? :) I’m sorry, it was too funny to pass up.

  38. 88

    Re #79 and #83, “Many assumptions are made without any testing at all. In science, hypotheses are tested”

    You two are losing focus. I haven’t said anything about testability or other fine distinctions between assumptions and hypotheses. In #69 (formerly #70) I simply noted that a good science states assumptions it uses in a particular work. So, again, which part of this statement do you both disagree with?

    Granted, some assumptions propagate through paradigms of a particular science “by assumption”, usually and largely because the printed space is quite limited. This is true more than ever for climate science, where assumptions are piled upon assumptions and more assumptions and non-proven conjectures. I think the trouble in this field is that many younger folks simply forgot how shakey their whole foundation is, and take old doctrines at their face (numerical) value, which was canonized through years and years of repetitions by popular science articles. I see the problem when rare author (if any) mentions the chain of assumptions (and associated error bounds) when some result about climate is stated in his/her article. Obviously, regular folks and press have not enough intellectual abilities to discern and dig out all that chain, and make a really informed judgement on the importance of the result. I see that as a fault of climate scientists who forgot to make those clarifications, especially if the work contains sensational claims.

  39. 89
    ocean says:

    Ok Alexi.. Can you be specific at least about the few assumptions that these GW models are shakily grounded on? I am asking this genuinely. I really would like to know because I am new to climate science. But for the record, testability is not a fine point no one but trained individuals should care about. It is the core of the scientific method. It also applies to legal matters. Would you rather be tried on untestable assumption or verifiable facts? Or at least testable hypotheses?

  40. 90

    Re raypierre response to my remark #69:

    Yep, I see, “less than honest about”, “simply making unfounded assertions”, “had any credibility in criticizing climate science” … Nice lineup of solid scientific arguments. Why not to drop this BS and stop embarassing yourself?

    Let’s take the climatePrediction.net paper. You state that the paper “is a model of clear statement of assumptions, procedures and objects”. I sort of disagree, quite a few assumptions are not spelled out. For example, the paper states that their model usues “the usual horizontal grid of 3.758 longitude 2.58 latitude and 19 layers in the vertical.” For an unsophisticated reader it sounds like a great deal, while we all (all?) know that subgrid models do not resolve actual weather patterns, therefore some parametrisation has to be involved, with all necessary assumptions/simplifications, implicit or explicit adjustment of fluxes, etc. As result, the assessed value of model’s predictive power must be considered mostly as a matter of computational curiousity, with some resemblance to historical data being by design and as a result of subjective trajectory discrimination. I certainly do not mean that this kind of statement should be included in the paper itself, but when it comes down to unscrupulous interpretation of the paper results in press, some reputable (and honest) scientist must stand up and spell it for unsuspecting public.

    Regarding the “gobbledegook alchemical claims” of Dr. Jaworoswki, maybe you can clear my confusion and present quantitative analysis of changes in gas composition that occur during 2-3 millenia of air occlusion time, pressurised stage for 400,000 years, and drillng and sample extraction phases? With error bounds for each step please.

    Also, could you be more specific on which part of my post do you consider as “multisyllabic gobbledegook”, other than declaring this monosyllabically?

    Thanks.

    P.S. When you delete some posts from the pipeline, could you please reallign reference numbers as well. Or maybe it would be easier just to delete the content as, say, “unrelated garbage deleted for clarity and space saving”, but leave the number intact?

  41. 91

    #68 Steve, your absolutely correct, we especially have to publish findings without necessarily understanding everything.

    [Response: Yes, consider the progression in climate science. Based on work of Herschel, Fourier concluded that the effect of atmospheres on infrared had a warming effect. He published that even though he had no understanding of what gases in the atmosphere trapped infrared, or even how infrared emission depended on temperature (save that it went up with temperature). This stimulated Tyndall to start doing spectroscopy. Meanwhile Stefan and Boltzmann discovered the sigma-T**4 law, and then Arrhenius put it together into the first predictions of warming. Arrhenius himself didn't understand how the oceans affected CO2, and for that reason could not quantitatively estimate how much CO2 would rise. That was left to Revelle and Suess, a half century later. Publishing incomplete theories with major gaps is part and parcel of the dialog that allows science to progress. --raypierre]

  42. 92
    ocean says:

    Raypierre,

    Your response to Wayne Davidson [I think post 92] is very interesting. Is there a book you can recommend for the history of climate science or let’s say global warming science? I love to give my students many examples of the scientific method in action. I would much appreciate any reading suggestions you have.

  43. 93
    Mark A. York says:

    Possibly this one: http://www.aip.org/history/climate/index.html

    I’ve yet to get into it but the chronolgy looks valuable.

  44. 94
    pat neuman says:

    re 62. [I hope I find out through RC discussion what climate scientists think of Revkin's article overall.]

    Yelling ‘Fire’ on a Hot Planet, New York Times,
    April 23, 2006 by ANDREW C. REVKIN

    Excerpts: … The latest estimates, including a study published last week in the journal Nature, foresee a probable warming of somewhere around 5 degrees should the concentration of carbon dioxide reach twice the 280-parts-per-million figure …

    A Gallup survey last month shows that people are still not worried
    about climate change. When participants were asked to rank 10
    environmental problems, global warming was near the bottom,…

    … according to “Americans and Climate Change,” a new book by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. … “Urgency is especially prone to being discounted as unreasoned alarmism or even passion.”

    Earlier, in comment 52, Coby wrote: … The real challenge that science faces here, is getting across the message that 3C is hugely problematic! …

    I agree. Lindzen and company belittled the last 100 years of global temperature increase of around 1 degree as being inconsequential. However, even just 1 degree warming was huge in high latitude areas where polar amplification is occurring (early Jan 2006 post at RC).

    What may be helpful is a scale similar to those used for hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes. Projected changes as a result of 1, 2, 3 … 5 degrees C global warming per 100 years might help people get a feel for what’s coming.

  45. 95
    Jeffrey Davis says:

    I hope readers will re-read JohnLoPresti’s comments and think about his list of consequences. There might be none of the cinematic disasters associated with AGW and huge numbers of people could suffer terribly. Agriculture depends upon regularity and predictability. The optimum conditions for agriculture are that the growing season match what you anticipated when you planted. If it’s wetter, warmer, cooler, drier, windier than what you anticipated that will have an effect on what you harvest. Warmer weather might expand the range on pests or disease. Warmer weather might kill off a beneficial species in your area. Who knows? Agriculture thrives on reliability, and more energy in our atmosphere means more variable weather. A threat needn’t be dramatic or picturesque to be real. Consistently sub-optimum harvests when we depend upon greater and greater bounty is as real a threat as a bullet.

  46. 96
    Dan says:

    re:89. You continue to lump (multiple) assumptions and science together. For the second or third time, science is built upon hypotheses. Read any peer-reviewed scientific journal and its paper to see what we mean. It is the scientific method.

  47. 97

    Re #34 (comment)

    Raypierre, may I disagree with your downplaying of the role of the sun on climate in the 20th century? Based on a study of Stott ea. (2003), The Hadcm3 model probably underestimates the influence of solar variations on climate with a factor 2. And the “best estimate” was that solar was responsible for 40-60% of the warming in the first halve of the 20th century, but still for 16-36% of the second halve, depending on the solar reconstruction that was used and within the constraints of the model. Not directly a small effect.

    [Response: I already corrected your misreading of the Stott et al study once, and I'm not going to do it again. I have also edited out your repetition of the discussion of the supposed sun-cloud correlation in Johanssen et al. which is also well-trodden material not worth repeating. Let's not go round and round the same circles. It wastes everybody's time--raypierre]

    Btw, I had consecutive a few climateprediction.net models running in background on my computer, until a hard disk crash, just before I heard about the “11 degrees C” news in the media. At that moment I felt quite disappointed by the hype about the more extreme results of the experiment. The explanation by Myles Allen make me think to work again with the project. Will see if I do that or play with a model where I can do runs with my own parameterizations and efficacies (like 3 times solar!), after the climate models course I will follow in Oxford…

  48. 98
    ocean says:

    Thanks Mark. That’s a cool website!

  49. 99
    Skeptick says:

    RE #61: I understand scientific method perfectly well, being a scientist myself. I have read the climateprediction.net paper in question, and because of the serious methodological problems with it (but nevertheless it got into Nature – go figure), it is considerably less alarming than the press release issued by the researchers themselves.

    So how can you draw any other conclusion than the one I made? If I am so off the mark, what was the point of the press release?

    To raypierre: I have never heard of this “Graeme Bird” character. Instead of deleting posts that are contrary to your point of view, why don’t you address the issues raised?

    [Response: Anybody reading the comments can see that I do not delete posts just on the grounds that I disagree with them. I have been attempting to keep out posts that appear to be trolls designed to derail a reasoned discussion without adding anything substantive. We've had a certain amount of trouble from a few repetitive posters in that category and your userid and the nature of your post led me to think (evidently erroneously) that you were one of them. Moderation is done in haste, and mistakes do get made. If serious issues are raised, rather than just flat assertions, they do get addressed. So please do tell us just what these serious methodological flaws are supposed to be. --raypierre]

  50. 100
    Stewart Argo says:

    Re. #93 (as things stand at present :) )

    Ocean,

    I’m sure Raypierre and others may have other suggestions, but I personally found “The Discovery of Global Warming”, by Spencer Weart, a thoroughly good read when I first got interested in the subject. It details the history of Climate Science, but it doesn’t restrict itself to pure science – it also looks at how the public has responded to reports in the press, how the Government has reacted, and includes models of climate change.
    Best of all, Spencer Weart has produced an on-line version of it at The American Institute of Physics.

    So your students wouldn’t have to pay for a hard copy (unless they really want to, of course!).


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