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Journalistic whiplash

Filed under: — gavin @ 29 July 2008 - (Español) (English)

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!


287 Responses to “Journalistic whiplash”

  1. 1
    RPauli says:

    Audience supported media must build audience numbers. An easy way to do that is by pandering to emotions. Mass media journalists are agents of that system.

    It is inevitable. Just as the rising sea levels and temperatures.

    Lessons not learned, will be repeated.

  2. 2

    The media likes controversy, has been shedding its competent science journalists, and by-and-large doesn’t get the dire nature of global warming, so I see no prospect of this changing any time soon.

    Heck, even Revkin himself, one of the best climate journalist in the country, keeps pushing the meme that those who say we are headed towards catastrophe are no more credible than climate deniers like Inhofe.

    Much of the confusion arises because so much of scientific modeling of climate impacts assumes a wide variety of possible stabilization targets, which gives a wide range of impacts, which makes it seem like scientists don’t know what’s going to happen.

    In fact, the latest IPCC report makes clear that absent strong and swift action, we are headed toward 1000 ppm atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, which is humanity’s self-destruction.

    That’s why serious climate scientists are so dire, why IPCC head Rajendra Pachauri said, “If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.”

    So, yes, we need to move past the study-of-the-day mentality and keep our eyes on the prize — we need strong action now or we face warming in excess of 5°C.

  3. 3
    Greg says:

    I get the impression that many newspapers are seeking to increase their profits by paying their journalists less – leading to a real drought in investigative journalism. Journalists given their time/budget pressures are basically copy and pasting direct from press releases without really taking time to research and provide context.

    Perhaps a start is to provide more background in press releases to make their job simpler?

    In NZ a “science media centre” has recently been started to help provide journalists with scientific contacts for different topics. Of course this has brought up claims of state control… Will have to see how that one goes.

  4. 4
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Having had to write up science for the quasi-press (a physics trade journal), one thing you realize quickly: If you produce a piece that is totally correct in the science but completely unreadable, you’ve failed utterly. If you utterly fail to get the science right in a very readable article, the only ones that will know are the few scientists who already know it. As a journalist you have to figure out a way to present the research in a way folks will follow. There has to be a problem or conflict to resolve that is somehow compelling to the reader:
    1)Conflict–two implacable foes battling for truth–hell, who cares who’s right; it’s the struggle people buy
    2)A narrative–A lone scientists struggle to understand a fundamental mystery of nature
    3)Read my research or die–This really works best with flesh-eating bacteria and things like that. A slow-moving catastrophe like climate change is hard to sell like this–as James Hansen has found.
    4)The revolutionary discovery–ala relativity, the Big Bang, etc.

    If your research doesn’t fit into one of these archetypal stories, most science reporters won’t have the foggiest notion what to do with it.

    Another aspect people seem to have trouble with is that different aspects of a problem can have vastly different levels of uncertainty: The fact that we are uncertain about clouds doesn’t mean we’re equally uncertain about CO2.

    Still another issue I see is that not only do people not understand how science gets done–they get a mistaken notion of it from popular culture.

    The final issue I see is that most people don’t realize how mind-numbingly ignorant they are. In a world where knowledge increases exponentially, this is perhaps inevitable, but it doesn’t make the job of the scientist or the journalist any easier.

  5. 5
    Hank Roberts says:

    > can scientists, press officers and
    > journal editors and journalists actually
    > do anything about it?

    Create a forum similar to this one.
    Run TWO threads in parallel for each paper discussed. One for the actual researchers who are authors, and who are cited, and for the journal editorial people and some selected journalists, to discuss the paper in public.

    The other for the audience comments.

    Ignore the latter and do a public conversation.

    Let the public see the two scientists engage in this different medium, talking out what their research means and focusing on the points that are likely to be overhyped.

    This won’t work where there are actual deep differences — those end up in an exchange of published journal articles or letters or followup research, as it’s always been.

    But _most_ of this problem is as Andy Revkin points out, that one paper “seems to say” one thing and another paper “seems to say the opposite” when the people who actually understand the area can say clearly that

    – these aren’t contradictory results, they’re interesting and different and both scientists see ways to do something more to investigate what’s going on

    – these aren’t contradictory results, they’re (from different hemispheres, from different glaciations, from different species, from different ice cores, from …. the journalists are setting up a fake disagreement and let’s put an end to it).

    Like that.

    Vital — keep the commenters apart from the scientists. Give the researchers who want some anonymity from the _public_ that courtesy. Help them out reading and writing drafts until what they’re saying in terse academic language reads like they were explaining it to their 18 year old smart niece or nephew.

    It’s needed. Maybe invite someone like David Brin in to do summaries and meta-summaries about how the Enlightenment works (when it does) and what small, fragile treasures both our scientific approach, and our planet, are.

  6. 6
    Peter Houlihan says:

    Scientist should provide context for their findings. Both in the published papers and in the press releases about the work. Too often I read a paper in Nature or Science and the author(s) provide me with no context whatsoever. I have taught my undergraduate science writing students the importance of this. I’d like to see the wider scientific community practice it.

    In addition, scientists should insist on the right to comment on drafts of media articles on their work as a condition for granting interviews.

    Finally, if you suspect your work may generate controversy, real or imagined, then prepare your press response well ahead of time and make sure it is context rich.

  7. 7
    Gary Herstein says:

    Taking this opportunity to mutilate Shakespeare, may I suggest that the fault, dear Brutus, lies not with the media, but with ourselves?

    We have allowed science education — hell, we’ve allowed ALL of education — to be passed off upon people as a “product.” Students are no longer students, they are “customers” and “consumers.” How unbridled must our hypocrisy be to fain surprise that they do not “get” that science (and, yes, while we’re on the subject, education writ large) is a process; specifically, a process of inquiry?

    Wringing our hands and gnashing our teeth at the mustache twirling villains of the media is probably not going to help, particularly since they are only doing what they’ve been trained to do: spoon feed their “customers” and “consumers” what their “customers” and “consumers” want and expect to be fed. Pushing back against this is not going to be easy; but pushing back against the media is in many ways attacking the superstructure when we need to address the foundation of the problem.

    How do we EDUCATE people to be more than just passive “consumers,” but to be participating citizens in a Representative Democracy? (This, of course, means possessing an active appreciation of the processes of education and science.)

  8. 8
    Nigel Williams says:

    I think it’s important – when offering additional information up to people – to let them participate in building the full picture.

    We have a goodly number of solid bits of work – which we could say equate to a wagging tail, and fur. We suggest that the discerning viewer may be able to figure out that its probably a D O G.

    When new data comes along – pointed ears, for example – rather than just plonking it out there and relying on the public to remember the other bits, we should make sure in each paper that we briefly run over the whole thing again so the public can again draw an educated conclusion. Mmmm tail, fur AND a pointed ears. Yup – looking more like a dog every day.

    The authors owe it to themselves and us to make sure their conclusion (which ever way it points) is placed in the context of prior knowledge, and that they give readers the opportunity of remembering their past conclusions, and deciding if the new element contributes positively or negatively to those earlier conclusions.

    “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still”

    So science has to help folk end up feeling that the idea is theirs – not someone else’s

  9. 9

    It’s rare that Gavin wrtes anything I am qualified to comment on, but alas this one I can make a claim to.

    I have to agree with Peter (6). It may not be a part of the scientific process (peer review, etc.) for authors of published papers to put their research into context, but it would lead to better reporting.

    When I wrote and produced a series on climate change last year, I introduced it by saying that journalists always strive to get both sides. However, that very practice leads people into the false impression that there is great disagreement over climate change.

    There is hope in this regard. The American Metr. Society has pushed hard on their Station Scientist concept. It’s goal is to get Meteorologists/Science Reporters, who work on air involved in the editing process for subjects that are science related.

  10. 10

    Scientists are weird that way. First the universe is absolute, then it’s relative, and then it’s weird.

    Now they say it isn’t even unified, but it’s dual.

    Next they will be invoking multiplicities.

    Mathematics is weird that way.

    Clearly scientists and mathematicians can’t be trusted.

  11. 11
    charlesH says:

    It seems to me that if one really believes co2 is harmful then more nuclear is the realistic alternative. Nations are not going to give up low cost 24/7 energy.

    thorium is the green nuclear http://www.energyfromthorium.com/

    http://www.forbes.com/opinions/forbes/2008/0811/094.html

    “A number of influential people in Russia, China, India, Indonesia and Vietnam say the planet is now entering a 30-year cooling period, the second half of a normal cycle driven by cyclical changes in the sun’s output and currents in the Pacific Ocean. Their theory leaves true believers in carbon catastrophe livid.

    To judge by actions, not words, the carbon-warming view hasn’t come close to persuading a political majority even in nations considered far more environmentally enlightened than China and India. Europe’s coal consumption is rising, not falling, and the Continent won’t come close to meeting the Kyoto targets for carbon reduction. Australia is selling coal to all comers.”

  12. 12
    Lance Olsen says:

    It’s inevitable. And there’s something that can be done whether it is or not.

    It’s inevitable for more reasons than one, including the debunkers are persisting in efforts to gain market share in the truth market, that all new (to the public) ideas take some time for sorting out, and so on. Others can complete the list.

    If it’s inevitable, what can be done? One thing is to be patient, and to persist at least as vigorously as the debunkers. Another is to stress that uncertainty is always part of science, but that those certainties hover around a certain core.

    In the case of perception that climate scientists are unsure, the reply is “You’re darned right they are. And with good reason! But whoa, this body of science started settling core questions back when Fourier (sp?) asked his founding question in the 1820s, and Arhennius (sp?) put the founding question to the test. Climate science is only uncertain how much pepper is in the shaker because it knows very well that the pepper is there.”

  13. 13
    Chris Colose says:

    Copied from my comment over at DotEarth:

    I don’t know if the media is really the people to blame here. There has been a large disconnect between the scientific community and the “laymen” population on this issue as to what the real implications of a warming world at today’s rate and magnitude can be. A few exceptions include the realclimate team, Hansen, and some other people who give public talks and will sit for interviews frequently (Richard Alley comes to mind). More people like this is the answer, not more balanced journalism (though it never helps when you have 1,000 people on one side, 1 on the other, and it is given the illusion of a 1 vs. 1 “debate”). For the most part, I don’t think a lot of people (or at least those that matter) take people like “kim” seriously, yet even pseudoscience gives the illusion of debate (Monckton’s latest artwork on climate sensitivity being an example)

    For most people though, I think global warming is kind of a mysterious thing: it’s something that isn’t so bad now, but will be a threat in centuries. Overall, it will not effect “me” but “them” and not on the timescales of political terms, but becomes a factor over the long-term for our grandkids. This is important for understanding the public response…you can’t sit on the beach and see the sea levels rising and start to hit the alarm bells, yet this is what most people would consider to be important (things in the here and now, not the there and then). Single “extreme” events cannot be attributed to it, yet it’s going to cause more of them. For many, the idea of a 3 degree global warming is meaningless…as we’re used to 30 degree fluctuations from day-to-day!!! Even basic definitions as “weather” and “climate” or regional vs. global scale variability get muddled up.

    Overall, the “laymen” and “scientist” crowd have too many different assumptions even before going into the conversation, and the media may just be reporting accurately what the scientists find.

    It also seems well in human nature to let bad things happen before we decide to actually do something about it. For an interesting read concerning our inability to “divert the flow of the river headed toward the waterfall, but only to throw sticks in the way to slow the doom” (As the author goes on to) see the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. The difference is that global warming is not like a volcanic eruption that is bad for a year and goes away– the CO2 we release will effect climate for thousands of years to come.

  14. 14
    Hank Roberts says:

    Take a surprising example that impressed others of a journal doing it right:

    http://calculatedrisk.blogspot.com/2008/07/good-for-wall-street-journal.html

    (Now paywalled, so you’ll have to rely on the excerpts there.)

    Mentioned also at Michael Tobis’s site; he more recently pointed to a NYT columnist who also is doing this well:
    http://initforthegold.blogspot.com/2008/07/journalists-and-hyperlinks.html

    I know that Science, and Nature, and many other sites provide “Cited by” and “Related” links to several different services that track subsequent citations and mentions, and Google Scholar provides non-scholarly as well as journal cross-references. I’m not suggesting duplicating that, at all.

    But it’s the relatively rare appearances at RC of working scientists, often only identifiable to us onlookers because one of the principals clearly knows who they are or mentions their work, that I find most helpful sources of real understanding and interesting new information.

    Encourage them — support, appropriate masks for privacy vetted by people we know, a Tip Jar for their lab work via PayPal — to speak up more online, to add a personal layer of comments and links to the “cited by” and “related” information attached to journal articles.

    Judith Curry did it for a while with grad students. Other bloggers are doing it from time to time. It _is_ happening. But it’s not well connected to the journalists and newspaper editors yet at all. Needed.

  15. 15
    tharanga says:

    Reading about science in the general media is always a little painful. Beyond the issue of context, journalists also rarely mention sample sizes, the quality of the controls, and the challenges in establishing a causative mechanism, as opposed to merely showing correlation.

    Headline writing also contributes to the whiplash effect: I cringe when I see “Scientists say.” Such phrasing falsely gives the appearance of a general consensus on something that’s just hot off the presses.

    The breakneck speed of the news cycle makes it difficult for the reporter to gather context, but it looks as if reporters try to at least get some comment from other researchers in the field, which is probably the most helpful way forwards. Nobody expects the science journalist to do a lit search on every topic that comes along.

  16. 16
    Andrew says:

    Part of the problem is the very active campaign by those who now hold the reins of power and are loathe to give them up. Exxon, Shell, Peabody, and the well off that want no one to rock the boat whether they be newspaper or TV station owners, their hired talking heads, journalists with an “endowed chair” (columnists), or a myriad others. I am amazed at the amount of disinformation published in my hometown newspaper (Houston Chronicle). Disinformation that is supplied by an oil company, repeated by their hired gun in Washington, and then noted as reality by the local news folks.

    This is the problem: just as creationists cite bible chapters as proof of their “scientific” theories; journalists are are citing what are no more than opinions, often from idealogues, to refute data and analysis.

    How many times have you read or viewed a news story that counterposes a published study or synopsis such as an IPCC chapter with an opinion from a “think” tank and gives each equal weight? Is this the end of the age of enlightenment?

  17. 17
    Hank Roberts says:

    > Nobody expects the science journalist to do a lit search
    > on every topic that comes along.

    Ahem. Ten dingwhistle seconds it takes to get at least a slight clue.
    Of course they should. This “Internet” thing is a lot easier than going down to the library!

  18. 18
    Fred Jorgensen says:

    Welcome to politics! IPCC head Pachauri (2), dramatically stated that action before 2012 is mandatory. Now he says
    India and China have no obligation to take immediate action.
    Let’s face it, the international system of ‘civilized anarchy’ will not agree to collective, adequate emission controls.
    Science need to work on greater precision regarding severity and time line, and focus on amelioration, which is the only
    practical, political strategy.

  19. 19
    Joe Hunkins says:

    A nice phrased question. My view is that in the face of very ignorant journalistic nonsense, too many scientists are failing to maintain their research objectivity and argue against alarmist or foolish interpretations (such as the obvious alarmist tone of AIT) I see good scientists lining up ideologically rather than methodologically, and find this painful to watch.

  20. 20
    Hank Roberts says:

    Fred, cite please for that? I can’t find what you claim Pachauri said. Where’d you find it? ‘Mandatory’ doesn’t always mean ‘legally required’ and ‘obligation’ doesn’t always mean ‘legal commitment’ — I find places where he says what many others say, that there’s a brief period in which measures can be adopted that are not terribly harsh because the longer we wait the more warming is committed to downtime.

  21. 21
    Danny Bloom says:

    To Joe Romm, above: It’s already too late, Joe. You know that, too. What the IPCC head said is good, the media needs to hear that. But we’ve already passed the tipping point. No amount of feel good journalism or editorializing is going to change that. Sad to say, our goose is already cooked. We need to start planning now for adaptation, in many ways. Here’s one cocamamie idea: front page of a Colorado newspaper that was not afraid to print the truth:

    http://northwardho.blogspot.com

  22. 22
    pete best says:

    I thought the fact that the media looks in the scientific journals for headlines on science are naking a mockery of it because although peer review is necessary it is not sufficient and scientifically is only the start of the journey. However once the science in the papers has been totally analysed and embedded into the proper body of knowledge and context of the science then the media does not want to know because the science often says both yes and no.

    I think that the big problem with AGW is that so called disaster is slow in coming and many many years away which allegedly gives us plenty of time to deal with the issue. The media reports on every wind farm or turbine being erected as if this satisfies the terifying prospect of phasing out oil, gas and coal in favour of as yet infant technologies that have yet to be deployed to the masses.

    Maybe the media thinks that we really can continue to live our energy intensive lives here in the west, whilst the east also tries to bring equivilent numbers of people into the first world ethos.

    387 ppmv now means what, 1.5C of temperature rise overall, add in the existing fossil fuel infrastructure and you might be hitting around 2C. The media seldom talk about this, they know not that indiea and chinas 500 million $7000 per annum western style people are going to guarantee >2C even if we do something wondeful in renewables within 30 years which is doubful due to economic and population growth.

    I am not saying we are all doomed but it will be close as to how many millions actually do perish eithe through starvation due to economic issues or weather events in the future.

  23. 23
    GT says:

    Unfortunately, the cause of this situation is straightforward and inevitable. The purpose of commercial media organizations is not to inform but to make a profit by selling advertising space. Accurate reporting and analysis of complex issues, whether in science, politics or whatever, is largely irrelevant.

    In fact, complex issues will only be explored when the target audience is seen to be highly educated and, even then, the context will often be one of contoversy. If the issue can be presented as a left wing/right wing dichotomy, even better.

    And no, I don’t know what the answer is – other than to seek out the few non-commercial outlets/web sites that do explicitly set out to inform (such as this one).

  24. 24
    tharanga says:

    Re Hank, 17: Of course, journalists should put forth some effort. And indeed, ten minutes or an hour online should be sufficient to sort out the latest from the likes of Monckton.

    But in general, one would need to have read dozens, if not hundreds, of prior papers in order to assess the contribution made in the most recent publication. This takes time.

    That’s all I mean – that we shouldn’t really expect journalists to have specialized knowledge in each and every field which makes its way into the top journals.

  25. 25
    Mike Donald says:

    Channel 4 might be having a debate on the The not so Great Global Warming Swindle this Saturday so if you have the time or inclination to join the live studio audience. Meet journalists, shake their hands that sort of thing – go for it!

    http://community.channel4.com/eve/forums/a/tpc/f/5200030229/m/65100280501

  26. 26
    Mike Donald says:

    Chaneel 4 might be having a debate on TGGWS.

    QUOTE
    Just a reminder that August’s edition of The TV Show goes out live on Channel 4 this Saturday, 2 August, at 4.10pm.

    Front runners for this month’s debates are The Great Global Warming Swindle and The Qur’an – both of which have generated significant viewer feedback in recent weeks.

    If you have any views you’d like to share on either of these programmes, please let us know by leaving your comments below. Alternatively, if you’d like to join the live studio audience, please see our Take Part section for more details.

    Thanks,
    The TV Show
    UNQUOTE

    http://community.channel4.com/eve/forums/a/tpc/f/5200030229/m/65100280501

    Join the live studio audience?

    Drop em a line, take part, shake the hands of a few journalists. That sort of thing.

  27. 27

    Charles H writes:

    It seems to me that if one really believes co2 is harmful then more nuclear is the realistic alternative.

    Renewables would be better. Wind is already cost-competitive, solar is getting there.

    “A number of influential people in Russia, China, India, Indonesia and Vietnam say the planet is now entering a 30-year cooling period, the second half of a normal cycle driven by cyclical changes in the sun’s output and currents in the Pacific Ocean. Their theory leaves true believers in carbon catastrophe livid.

    Who are these “influential people?” How do they reconcile their theory with the fact that solar output has been essentially flat for 50 years?

    http://members.aol.com/bpl1960/LeanTSI.html

  28. 28
    Thom says:

    It’s great that Andy Revkin has finally figured this out, and then got it in the paper. But journalists need to take a lion’s share of the blame for why the public is confused.

    Scientists are engaged in an intellectual exercise and are supposed to try out new ideas. Journalists ride the edge of credibility when they go chasing some of these ideas that are outside the mainstream.

    Every time a journalist quoted from an industry hack [edit], it only added to the confusion. The he said/she said journalism failed us.

    If Revkin really wants to explain the confusion about climate change, then why doesn’t he explain and report on why the New York Times never ran a story on corporate campaign to create this confusion. Why was it left up to Greenpeace to bring this to light?

  29. 29
    Dave Goforth says:

    Journalists are trained to look for alternative views on a story and, as a general principle for achieving fairness and reducing subjectivity across a variety of story situations it is not a bad one. Applied to stories of evolving scientific knowledge, this principle has different effects on public perception of the science, depending on the stage of its development.

    Early on when an idea is new, radical, iconoclastic, journalistic fairness gives it more coverage and cred than it has yet earned by ‘fairly’ portraying it in contrast to conventional wisdom. Thus we get coverage of visionaries and nutcases.

    As an idea gains support, it becomes the subject of hot debate and controversy. This is reflected journalistically in the whiplash effect described by Revkin.

    When a scientific idea becomes the accepted norm, journalistic fairness gives perhaps unwarranted exposure to the old resisters, fighting a rearguard action against it. This is the state of affairs with climate change in general.

    In terms of the old s-curve of adoption of ideas or technologies, the effect of fair journalistic coverage is to help new phenomena get started but then to extend the time until complete acceptance.

  30. 30
    SecularAnimist says:

    Scientists need to explain to the public that while they continue to study the details of anthropogentic global warming and consequent climate change, that we already know enough to be certain that continued unmitigated warming will be a disaster for all humanity, and that we urgently need to phase out all fossil fuel use as quickly as possible.

  31. 31
    Peter Hess says:

    Many of the comments about Revkin’s article point the finger at someone: scientists should provide more context, readers should be more informed and the media should be more nuanced. There is a grain of truth to each of these, and the finger-pointing ultimately doesn’t help. We have to work with what we have.

    This means understanding how the media and reporters work in order to help those scientific community properly frame and communicate their findings to the media in an understandable and compelling way; educating key people in the media on how to set specific stories in a broader context, and figuring out how the public can best hear, understand and assimilate complex messages.

  32. 32
    Chris MCV says:

    Been lurking a long while both here, at CA and some other climate sites and blogs.

    Yes, I am a skeptic, but not a denier. But that is not really relevant to this (relax, you will see).

    There are politics, power and money interests wrapped up on BOTH sides of this entire issue. Not everyone is a pawn of it, nor are they always agents of it. But the fact is all are under the effect of it. That is the social climate of the issue so to speak. The media preys off that climate as that is what sells stories. The talking heads on both sides exploit what they can to promote the agenda they seek to promote. I truly believe that most of the researchers are simply doing research, and *SOME* *MIGHT* be biased as it is simply human nature. For the laymen, this creates a situation where you simply cannot tell whom to believe. I am reasonably educated but far from an expert, yet I can see legitimate points and concerns on both sides of the issue. I am greatly concerned with this entire issue because of the ramifications if EITHER side is right. The nature of the complexity of the issue requires you to put your faith in the research and statements made by whom you hope is correct. I am willing to dig (which is while I may be a skeptic, I simply cannot deny things either), but even with digging, there is little I can latch on to with my level of expertise and say “this is right” or “this is wrong”.

    When trying to look into the issue, either side of it, I simply hate when the line between the research and the politics becomes blurred. My instant reaction is to distrust the information at that point, whoever is presenting it. Well, on this issue, that pretty much means I distrust EVERYONES opinion because the politics just filter down to all levels to a certain degree.

    This creates a problem for everyone if I am typical of some people looking into the issue. People often ask me my opinion on involved scientific issues because they know I am into this sort of thing. What I have to tell them is I just don’t know. Its like listening to two sales people espousing their products and talking about why its better then the other. The outside reviews are a toss up, with reviews coming down on both sides. My life (and our future) depends on which product I choose.

    There has GOT to be a way for the people who are genuinely working to find an answer to be willing to be critics of those on their own side for going off and diving into the political instead of focusing on the science.
    If that happens there just might emerge a voice that might be able to be heard above the din that will be listened too instead of the noise generated by those who want to push you into one camp or another for reasons that have nothing to do with the science. As long as the political voice is loudest the only thing that results is further division and the entrenchment of people it the opinions they have already formed.

    You most likely can NOT educate people to the degree needed to really understand the complex nature of the issue. Therefore you MUST find a way to remove the remotest chance that politics may be intruding into the research. That includes even the PERCEPTION that it is.
    Both sides of this issue need to understand this or nobody will “win” and losing in this game one way or the other is probably a very dangerous thing as the win must be with reality, not politics.

  33. 33
    Paul Middents says:

    Chris MCV,

    Why don’t you try asking a specific question on some aspect of climate science that you feel has two “sides”?

  34. 34

    Can someone explain how so many well-intentioned people are failing so miserably to share a common understanding of what is happening in our planetary home in these early years of Century XXI?

    There are moments like this one when it appears to me that we in the family of humanity must be living within some huge manmade construction reminiscent of the ancient Tower of Babel. Whatever the reasons for our spectacular failure to communicate meaningfully and sensibly about what somehow could be real about the workings of the Earth and the placement of the human species within the natural order of living things, these circumstances are incredible and present the human family with a potentially colossal threat to life as we know it and the integrity of Earth as a fit place for human habitation.

    As an example, let us look at the growth of absolute global human population numbers. In 2008 there are more people literally existing on Earth on resources valued at less than $2 per day than the total human population in the year of my birth. Our population numbers have been skyrocketing in our time and are projected to continue skyrocketing to the middle of this century when our numbers are anticipated to reach 9+/- billion and then somehow, magically I believe, automatically stabilize. The is no unchallenged scientific evidence to indicate how this “demographic transition to population stabilization” can possibly occur. This has not kept many so-called experts from continuing to say that the preternatural ’science’ on which they rely is outdated and fatally flawed. A mere 108 years ago, at the beginning of the 20th Century, human numbers worldwide were between 1 and 2 billion. Most people can agree, I believe, on these numbers.

    Now let us look at the relatively small, evidently finite, noticeably frangible planet we inhabit. Many experts have asked the question, “How many people can the Earth support?”

    No reasonable and sensible person would say that an unlimited number of people can exist in a limited world. That cannot be. It also follows that the size and make-up of Earth naturally limits the growth of human production and per human consumption activities worldwide. The growth of these activities are subject to certain biophysical limitations of Earth. Endless growth cannot occur in a finite world.

    What do you expect will happen if human propagation, production and consumption activities continue to grow, given their current scale and expected annual rate of increase? Please know that comments are welcome.

    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population
    established 2001

  35. 35

    I’m thinking that a newswriter could start with, “While the basics of global warming are well established, and our greenhouse gas emissions are causing the warming, with many dire consequences, there is still some scientific uncertainty about (or debate on)…..”

    Or, short version: “While human-caused global warming is well established, there is uncertainty about (or debate on)….”

  36. 36
    SecularAnimist says:

    Chris MCV wrote: “I simply hate when the line between the research and the politics becomes blurred.”

    The fact is, that only happens on the side of those who deny the reality of anthropogenic global warming. The best example being the blatant, egregious actions by the current US administration to censor and suppress scientific information on global warming and climate change, to the point of paying former oil industry lobbyists to edit and rewrite government reports to remove all references to climate change.

    There is no evidence whatsoever that “politics” in any way, shape or form has influenced actual climate science, or its overwhelming conclusions regarding both the reality of anthropogenic global warming and the danger that it poses to humanity and to life on earth in general. ALL of the political interference has been on the side of the deniers, and that interference is driven by those with a huge financial stake in prolonging the use of fossil fuels as long as possible. If you want to “hate” someone for “blurring the line” between politics and research, then those are the folks at whom your “hate” should be directed.

  37. 37

    A bit OT. Could any tell me if any of the following websites using/promoting accurate climate science. I know at least some are not:

    -Cato Institute: Natural Resources and Environmental Studies
    -Competitive Enterprise Institute: Environment
    -Free-Market Environmental networkRoom
    -Green-Watch
    -Heartland Institute’s Common-Sense Environmentalist Suite
    -Heritage Foundation: Energy and the Environment
    -Instituted for Economic Affairs: Environment
    -NewEnvironmentalism.org
    -Pacific Research Institute: Center for Environmental Studies
    -Political Economy Research Center
    -RAND: Environment and Energy

  38. 38
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Chris MCV, I have to ask where you are looking for evidence. There are over 1000 peer-reviewed papers that support anthropogenic causation for the current warming epoch. On the other side… not much. There are >20 global climate models–not one of which works with a climate sensitivity of <2 K per doubling of CO2. Countless professional and honorific scientific societies have looked at the science–and not one has dissented from the consensus position. I am just curious: Even with no scientific background, how could you have missed that all the peer-reviewed research, all the real expertise, all the evidence are on one side of this issue?

  39. 39
    PaulD says:

    I am not a scientist. However, for my entire adult life I have noticed that whenever I have known information about a story first-hand or have had specialized knowledge about a particular topic reported in a story, the press has frequently reported significant parts of the story incorrectly.
    The problem being commented about here is not limited to stories about science. It applies to just about every thing the press covers.
    As a lawyer, I cannot tell you how many times I have read stories about court decisions that just didn’t sound correct. When I have actually read the decision being reported upon, I have frequently found that the press account contained major errors that would be obvious to a lawyer.

  40. 40
    Chris MCV says:

    Paul,
    I think you miss the point entirely. The very fact that I come to this point shows that nobody is doing a very good job presenting the facts. The effort is made, by both sides, but then it devolves into AGW promoters and Denialists debates. Guess what, you just lost what is most likely the ONE chance you have to present your side of the issue. People will look at the debate and decide nobody knows whats going on and push off to be something they don’t understand and have no opinion of because it seems clear to them the issue is NOT resolved, no matter how sure you are of that facts you have.

    Its probably not an answer you like, but it is most likely what is happening and why reasoned response is missing on both sides of the issue by your average person. If you don’t have expert level of knowledge then your opinion is by nature going to be more idealogical, or faithful, then logical. Debate by people on that basis is pretty doomed to gridlock.

    It would be nice if the decision could be simply made by whoever “knows”, but the fact is that the majority of average people have to decide on a direction. These people do not have the expertise to decide based on delving into websites and research papers (they are not going to do it) so they simply will shrug their shoulders and ignore it, or take up a flag based on political ideology.

    Do you see my concern?

  41. 41
    Steve Easterbrook says:

    re 32 – the phrase “both sides of this issue” is part of the myth.

    One of the most critical things is to teach journalists that not all scientists are created equal – expertise in the subject matters crucially.

    Good scientists spend a long time becoming expert (in their field) and learn along the way how to judge good work (in their field) from bad, who has expertise (in their field) and who does not, which journals are credible (in their field) and which are not, and so on. Well-trained scientists in other fields should be able examine the field of climatology, weigh up the wealth of peer-reviewed evidence, and realise that the IPCC reports are authoritative. Poorly-trained scientists might look at the field of climatology and fail to sort the wheat from the chaff, or worse still, convince themselves that they can do a better job than the climatologists. I’m constantly amazed at the number of people in the latter category.

    But the overwhelming majority of the population have no scientific training whatsoever, and have no clue who to trust. They think that anyone wearing the label “scientist” is equally credible on any topic. [not to mention that too many people put no more weight on scientific evidence than they do on political or religious beliefs]. Hence, journalists and the general public think there are “two sides”, both with credible positions.

  42. 42
    Rod B says:

    Ray (4), very insightful post. I think, while the dual objectives (accuracy, readability) are both critically important, they have different levels of priority in the different media. In industry rags like yours accuracy (truth) is more important, though closely followed by readability. I think it’s the opposite in public media. Most importantly it must be appealing (a nuanced but important distinction from readability), then, by journalistic rules, it ought to be correct. However, the separation of those levels is increasing in the public press, mostly do to business and financial drivers. They get around this by usually quoting someone else rather than making their own learned assertions. “Mr. Bonos says, “blah, blah, blah”" is accurate and truthful prima facie as long as the quote was recorded accurately. If the blah-blah-blah itself proves incorrect that’s Mr. Bonos’ problem, not the papers’/magazine’s. In industry rags you don’t get totally off the hook like this, though.

    Unless one can magically change the business model and environment of the public press, it will continue to get worse

  43. 43
    SecularAnimists says:

    Chris MCV wrote: “… then it devolves into AGW promoters and Denialists debates … People will look at the debate and decide nobody knows whats going on …”

    What you describe is exactly the outcome that Exxon-Mobil and other fossil fuel companies desire, and have achieved by their funding of right-wing propaganda mills, disguised as “think tanks”, that spew a steady stream of fake, phony, pseudoscientific bunk and employ cranks and liars to create the completely false impression that there is a genuine “debate” about the reality of anthropogenic global warming.

    In fact there is no genuine scientific “debate” about the reality of anthropogenic global warming. None. There is overwhelming agreement by the entire world’s scientific community that anthropogenic global warming is real, that it is happening now, and that unmitigated warming poses a grave danger to humanity.

    That many people imagine there is a genuine “debate” between “both sides of the issue” is a tribute to the success of the fossil fuel industry’s deliberate campaign of deception.

  44. 44
    Hank Roberts says:

    Tharanga:
    > But in general, one would need to have read dozens,
    > if not hundreds, of prior papers in order to assess
    > the contribution

    Nope. Just look it up with Google Scholar, limit it to the last few years or take the default 2003 span.

    Compare the result just by total number and journal name to what you get from the same search in Google.

    If there are a good many studies in reputable journals (somewhere in J-school they must have studied this?)
    say so.

    If there are few or no studies in the journals and a plethora of mentions in the usual PR sites (ditto), say so.

    That’s what is usually missing.

    I realize they are teaching the controversy, only filling the pages in between the space sold to advertisers, and at least in Florida, not even expected to try to tell the truth if it offends their owners.

    But, hell, somewhere there ought to be a good honest newspaper. Pointers welcome if anyone knows one.

  45. 45

    That is the real big challenge, how to properly communicate what we know. Distinguishing the relative (un)certainties of the different aspects are crucial, though indeed mainly in the hands of tthe journalists, press officers and editors. For scientists, it only applies to those writing an overview article or participating in an assessment such as IPCC or NSF reports. On Revkin’s site, I think Schneider made some very good points, and Pielke’s quote I liked as well, of discussing the “so what” question, though it seems strange to hear that from him, because it seems to blur the line between honest broker and policy advocate, one of his favorite points. And again, it doesn’t really fits most research articles, that only usually deal with only a very specific and minor detail, compared to the big picture. But perhaps that is exactly what needs to be communicated. Unfortunately, with the pressure to publish, esp in high profile journals, authors won’t like to downplay the importance of their own results (which is what it may feel like to many). Both for the science itself, for the people working in it, and for the communication to the public, it would be good if this pressure were to diminish.
    Furthermore, endeavours such as undertaken by the RC authors and others, are to be encouraged. If the pressure to publish as many papers as possible were to diminish, scientists may have more opportunity to communicate their knowledge to the public. And that should be funded: Science is publicly funded, so why is the communication of its results not? That’s actually rather strange and definitely unfortunate.

  46. 46
    Chris MCV says:

    OK, let me show you what I am talking about and why statements made appear hollow at best, although I really don’t think you mean them that way, or are arrogant or that entrenched in ideology.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_warming_controversy

    That is the wiki site that talks about the issue. A regular person trying to look into this is going to find sites like this trying to explain the issue. I am using it so you can see that there are places where both sides are presented (and wiki is not exactly an unlikely site to find) and there is a whole lot of information presented regarding both viewpoints. It covers funding, bias, data quality, etc. Statements that there is only one side to this issue, when compared to sites like that, look very suspect. If someone goes to an actual skeptics site like CA, then the statement comes off as defensive and close minded. I am not saying you are, but that simply is how it comes off and its only fair to let you know that.

    Please understand that, yes, I am a skeptic and do not have the knowledge to understand the papers even if I dug though thousands of them. Yet the fact is, myself and thousands like me do want to know the truth. Balancing a website like that wiki entry and your statement that the issue does not have two sides makes it pretty tough to think you are open to any critique of your methods and such. When sites like CA are critiquing research, peer review, data archiving and the like, and there is not much more reply then simply calling them hacks, it doesn’t help your case, true or not (I have no way of knowing).

    Realize I am NOT saying they are right and you are wrong, simply that at this point, I can not tell who is right and who is wrong, and niether side has really convinced me. My lone opinion doesn’t mean much, but how many thousands of others have hit the same point? These same people are probably the semi-informed that others will ask their opinion and what response is there other then, “well, I am not sure.”

    It is not ME you need to convince, it is realizing that there are a lot of people like me that need way of seperating the political buzz and the scientific opinion, and you just saying so probably isn’t going to be enough. No offense intended.

  47. 47
    Mark says:

    Dave, #29

    Despite the apparent inviolable law of “getting both sides” from journalists, we don’t see two sides in the debates:

    12 years old: Old enough to marry or too young to know?

    Murder and cannibalism: A good population control or evil in nature?

    Sometimes, really, there IS only one side. The idiocy with Faux News and other “high-volume/low-content” news sites is that they seem to understand this implicitly in a very few areas but are completely blind to it being possibly true anywhere else.

    And they hide behind it.

    Same as IDers getting “the controversy” in schools. What about Satanism? Surely we should hear “the controversy” there…?

    This is not to say that these things should be discussed but you cannot use “we must see both sides” as a defense without proving there ARE two relatively appropriately accepted sides (as there is not wrt Satan being a nice old chap) or accepting (and protecting/producing) a debate on something repugnant to society being defended.

  48. 48
    Walter Pearce says:

    As a publisher, and long-time lurker on this site, I believe it is unreasonable to expect the public, on its own, to be able to evaluate the merits of competing scientific claims. It needs a referee and, as on so many other issues these days, the press has failed miserably in that role. There are really only two requirements: First, there must be an investment in reporters as willing and able to do the climate beat as Revkin is. Second, there must be a willingness to speak truth to power and to stick with the story.

    Visiting realclimate.org impresses one with the complexities of climate science. But what the public needs to know in order to make good decisions is straightforward. Yet, rather than tell the big story – that increasing concentrations of CO2 would lead to big climatic changes – the press over the last twenty years largely modeled a famous Stephen Colbert bit and merely took dictation from competing camps. Predictably, a confused public was left with the impression there was an honest debate taking place, when instead a well-funded propaganda campaign was being waged on independent science. Without vigorous truth-telling from the press, there was no pressure brought to bear on a government in thrall to the fossil fuel lobby. Whatever happened to “follow the money?”

    It seems to me that the best way to avoid journalistic whiplash is to practice good journalism. Keep the focus on the big climate story and to tell the money story as well. The public may or may not become engaged over the threat to polar bears, they will surely be aroused to action if they realize the consequences of a warmer world – and that they have been sold out for a few pennies.

  49. 49
    SecularAnimist says:

    Chris MCV wrote: “I am a skeptic and do not have the knowledge to understand the papers even if I dug though thousands of them.”

    In that case, exactly what is the basis of your so-called “skepticism”? What, specifically, is the reason that you are “skeptical” of the conclusions of the overwhelming majority of the world’s climate scientists and every relevant scientific organization in the world, including the national science academies of every major country in the world, that anthropogenic global warming is a reality? What, specifically, is the reason that you less skeptical of propaganda funded by the fossil fuel corporations?

    An a priori determination not to accept the reality of anthropogenic global warming, and an eagerness to grasp at any straw, no matter how flimsy, to support that determination, is not “skepticism”. It is denial.

    I can understand why some people choose denial: Al Gore was wrong about one thing — the truth is not “inconvenient”, it is terrifying.

  50. 50

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