Andy Revkin has a good article in the Science Times today on the problem of journalistic whiplash in climate change (also discussed here). This phenomena occurs with the more uncertain parts of a science that are being actively researched and where the full story is only slowly coming together. In such cases, new papers often appear in high profile journals (because they meet the ‘of general interest’ test), and are often parsed rather simplistically to see what side of the fence they fall – are they pro or anti? This leads to wide press interest, but rather shallow coverage, and leaves casual readers with ‘whiplash’ from the ‘yes it is’, ‘no it isn’t’ messages every other week.
This is a familiar pattern in health reporting (is coffee good for you/bad for you etc.), but in more recent times has started happening in climate science too. Examples picked out in the article include the hurricanes/global warming connection and the state of Greenland’s ice sheet. In both cases, many new pieces of evidence, new theories and new models are being thrown into the pot, but full syntheses of the problems remain elusive. Scientists are of course interested in knowing how it all fits together (and it usually does), but the public – unaware of what is agreed on and what is uncertain – see only the ping-pong across the media. Unlike more mature parts of the science (such as the radiative effect of greenhouse gases), there is much less context available to relate to these new pieces of science.
This spectacle of duelling and apparently contradictory science fuels the notion that scientists can’t agree on anything. Ironically, just as climate change has made it on to the front page because the weight of evidence supporting a human role in recent warming, increased coverage may actually be leading people to think that scientists are more divided on the basic questions.
Is this inevitable? Or can scientists, press officers and journal editors and journalists actually do anything about it? Your thoughts are most welcome!