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Why don’t op-eds get fact checked?

Filed under: — gavin @ 30 November 2008

Debra Saunders is a conservative columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle who has a history of writing misleading contrarian pieces on climate change. She contacted NASA Public Affairs recently for a comment on the initial glitch on the October GHCN numbers (see this earlier post for discussions of that). They forwarded the query to me and since her questions were straightforward, I answered them as best I could. Indeed in her subsequent column, she quotes me accurately and in context. However, the rest of her column shows none of the same appreciation for basic journalistic standards.

She starts by asking why newspapers are no longer trusted – a good question, and one that may indeed be answerable. However the column quickly goes off the rails. First off, her headline “When the warmest year in history isn’t” doesn’t appear to be related to any actual content. Possibly it refers to the 1934/1998 hoohah from last year (again see posts passim for discussion on its irrelevance to global warming). Journalists don’t generally write their own headlines, but a vague connection to current events is the more usual practice.

Next, she gets the Oreskes’ Science and society paper story completely wrong (it was a sampling of literature and survived numerous challenges to its validity – see here and here). Then she uncritically quotes David Bellamy (a late-developing contrarian who used to present natural history programs on the BBC) who appears to think that an anti-GW article he wrote in 2004 is responsible for him not presenting BBC documentaries since 1994 (an event he had previously blamed on his running against John Major (then UK prime minister) in an election). She then throws in a few completely untrue ‘facts’ (i.e. “in every year since 1998, world temperatures have been getting colder” (not) and “in 2002, Arctic ice actually increased” (no it didn’t) or that there ‘has been no statistically significant warming since 1995″ (wrong again: 0.21 +/- 0.13 deg C/dec GISTEMP, OLS, 95% CI)). However, note that she is quoting Bellamy and Lindzen here, so that it can be plausibly claimed that she is just reporting the statements rather than endorsing their nonexistent truth value. Sneaky. She even quotes Marc Morano and the Erika Lovley Politico.com column in support of a contention that the consensus is collapsing. Oh dear.

In fact, the only bit of original reportage in the piece comes from the email from me; the rest of the article is simply a cut-and-paste of untrue and unverified claims strung together in a facsimile of logical argument. Why is it so hard for newspapers to insist that their columnists at least make an effort to check their facts? If she can email NASA about the GHCN issue, she could have emailed any number of people about the other points she made if she’d wanted to get it right.

The sad thing is that this kind of empty rhetoric is being employed at a time when maximum intellectual effort needs to be put into dealing with the energy and climate situation. As I’ve said elsewhere, the reflexive refusal of some commentators (on the right and, occasionally, the left) to come to terms with the reality of climate change is profoundly disappointing and an abdication of their potentially constructive role in public life.

If Ms. Saunders wants an answer for why “people don’t trust newspapers”, she need only fact-check her own column.


262 Responses to “Why don’t op-eds get fact checked?”

  1. 151
    jcbmack says:

    Actually state functions tell the difference between initial and final conditions, whereas path functions tell the way, or “path,” it took.

  2. 152
    jcbmack says:

    Jim you may email me at jcbmack@yahoo.com for more information, but listen to Ray as well, as he knows what he is saying.

  3. 153
    RichardC says:

    149 Hank says, “decompose” doesn’t mean “go away” for “the number one type of litter—cigarette filters”

    Decompose does mean go away. Wiki says 10 months to 15 years. Point is that a billion filters will decompose in 10 months to 15 years, just as one filter will. (We’re talking about current filters, of course) A quote structured to fool people into multiplying quantity times duration is deliberately misleading.

    “number one type of litter” had two HUGE caveats – collected and marine. In other words, filters float. And is that number one by pieces, weight or volume? In any case, the comment is hype. The plastic rings which hold drink cans are likely a far greater environmental risk. They last forever and are way good at killing. By contrast, if something can eat a filter, it can likely expel one without harm.

    Yep, cigs are nothing but addiction and death. No need to add exaggerated claims. Filter litter is unsightly but pretty benign, especially on land.

  4. 154
    Slioch says:

    re

    #137 Gavin: “Discussion of the former is boring and pretty much futile”

    #144 Gavin: “The proof by assertion that the ’sun was wot done it’ is not in the least bit convincing. If this is the best that the Australian commentariat can come with, they are rightly being ignored.”

    The trouble is, constant repetition of ‘it’s the sun wot done it’ and similar refrains appears to be very convincing to a large proportion of readers, most of whom are scientifically illiterate or have only the slightest understanding of climate science, but all of whom have the vote and make personal decisions about whether to fly half way round the world on holiday or buy the latest gas-guzzler.

    You, Gavin, already do more than your share on Realclimate, but I believe the scientific community as a whole ignores such letters and columns in newspapers at our peril.

    On numerous occasions one finds statements similar to the following, which show how people are being persuaded that AGW is a scam by these sort of articles and letters and websites: from “RoyFOMR”, on:

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml?xml=/opinion/2008/11/30/do3010.xml

    “How can a non-scientist, like myself, make sense of all these claims and counter-claims where AGW is concerned?
    After struggling with a Maths and Physics that I could, at best, gormlessly gawp at, I decided that, for me, another approach was needed.
    Which camp did I trust most? I initially presumed that two camps, pro-AGW and anti-AGW, existed.

    On pedigree, consensus and ‘common-sense’ – there was only one winning candidate – The Pro-AGW’ers!

    Clearly, mankind was on the eve of climatic armegeddon – and had only itself to blame!
    This was an opinion I was more than willing to share with anyone close enough or daft enough to listen to my pontifications.

    The more prescient among those unfortunates who read these words may suspect that I’ve changed my opinions and shifted my prejudices.

    I’ve done both- maybe temporarily- but that’s where I am today.

    My mistake- if that’s the right word – was when I stumbled upon an Internet blog-site – WattsUpWithThat.

    Once there I bounced about to other url’s – as many pro-agw as anti. Slowly I began to form opinions that were 180 degrees (neither C/F or K- just Euclidean) from where I started.

    The ‘deniers’ about AGW, suddenly, became the rationalists. Their open, sceptical transparency compared with, what too often for my comfort, repetitious mantras about peer-reviews and scientific consensus came over very honestly!”

    We cannot afford to conclude that responding to this anti-AGW propaganda is boring and futile. We cannot afford to ignore it. These letters and articles should be countered with polite, reasoned, factual information.

    What chance we have of avoiding catastrophic climate change depends to a large degree, I believe, on taking the mass of people with us. For that the scientific community as a whole needs to expend a far greater effort.

  5. 155
    David B. Benson says:

    Re my comment #145: I just reread the PNAS paper and realized I made a mistake of not one, but two orders of magnitude! So I’ll have to rework some estimates using a somewhat different technique.

    Later.

  6. 156
    Lawrence Brown says:

    Re: Gavin’s response to #137:
    “The implicit assumption that you are making is that all discussion reduces to worrying about the ‘A’ in AGW – it doesn’t. And note, the ‘A’ stands for anthropogenic, and that is not synonymous with alarmist.” – gavin]

    It(Anthropogenic) definitely doesn’t equate with alarmism. However, it is very important in any discussion about global warming. If humans are the cause, then humans can more readily take corrective measures.
    Good luck with changing the Sun’s output, or the Earth’s orbital parameters. Reducing the emissions of CO2 caused by burning fossil fuels(especially coal) is a lot more doable. AGW is synonymous with Alarmist GW? No way! Alarmism is not one of the factors affecting the Earth’s climate.

  7. 157

    Slioch (#154): unfortunately it’s a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If you respond, the editors feel validated because they’ve generated a flurry of activity and the denialist position is elevated to a debating position. If you don’t, the mythologies get propagated unchallenged. I went through the same thing with the HIV-AIDS denial position that was dominating government policy in South Africa for some time. That one only went away when people were dying in such big numbers that denial became seriously delusional.

    A ploy I’ve used in online comments on this sort of garbage is to include a link to my blog (which comments editors frequently let through). This means I can get in a short response, while redirecting readers to place where the issue is discussed in more depth. I’ve had a few nasty interactions with denialists (I suspect some may slightly dislike this one) but also managed to get some good material up taking apart some of the most obvious misconceptions. RealClimate does this better than I can but we have to counter the death by 1,000 blogs phenomenon whereby the junk dominates search engine hits.

    If enough others who are well-informed on the issues do this, it will at least mean that the net-connected universe will tend to have a higher hit rate in their searches on the good stuff.

  8. 158
    truth says:

    Donald Oats:
    I agree that those journalists you list , touch on the subject now and then, and make known their scepticism re the anthropogenic nature of any warming that’s happening—and for that I applaud them—–[ all of them have been treated as pariahs---as stupid---as ‘dinosaurs’, the epithet used by the poster I replied to here----all the invective that anyone showing even the vaguest possibility of scepticism or questioning of the ‘consensus’ must endure] —but it’s Andrew Bolt who raises it in a sustained way, and he who cites various views, research etc on a regular basis.
    That’s the reason I said he was the ‘ [almost] lone questioning journalist’—-which is not a lie, as your cute preamble seems to suggest.
    I would never have raised any names at all , had another comment from Australia not ridiculed him.
    You are being misleading when you say those others ‘pay a lot of attention to broadcasting the other side of the debate’—an occasional reference, short interview, or call for the alternative scientific views to be heard, is not debate. Up until now, there has been no debate, [ except for the ABC’s pretence at one on Martin Durkin] —-and anyone even trying to ask for it has been pilloried.
    You seem to want to imply some dark motivation for the increase of letters in The Australian on the subject—-but surely the simple reason is that the Australian government is about to announce the details of their carbon trading scheme on December 15.
    It’s said to have been seriously watered down—and hopefully, in this economic crisis, that’s true.
    I want lots of research into renewables of all kinds for all the reasons most people do, but none of them are anywhere near ready to replace coal and oil etc , and I don’t want Australia and other countries, especially the US, done in by bad policy on inadequate information.
    And Gavin, you must know that it would not be possible to give the details that back up those suggestions of alternative possible drivers of warming mentioned , in a letters column of a newspaper.
    That’s where these people are helpless—-they don’t have the luxury of being on the acceptable ‘consensus’ side—–they’re at the mercy of the media that wants any theory or alternative scientific concept encapsulated into a soundbite.
    But what about the Great Pacific Climate Shift of 1976/77—have you written anything on that ?
    Do you know of any reason why it would not be implicated in the warming?
    And , although the details are not given on the letters page, there is quite a bit of research, is there not, by quite distinguished researchers, suggesting that the sun is the driver of the recent warming?

    [Response: No, there really isn't. Show me one serious paper that demonstrates that a shift in 1976 can give rise to a 30 year warming trend globally. Show me one serious paper that demonstrates that solar forcing is dominant in causing those same trends. And then tell me how you can think that these causes are in the least bit compatible with each other and with the known greenhouse gas forcing. In their eagerness to find something (anything!) to avoid dealing with reality, the logically incoherent and inconsistent arguments put forward by those you are championing do indeed mean their voices will be ignored. That is their fault alone. Should they decide to start advocating something that resembled a coherent position, they might find that things would change. - gavin]

  9. 159
    Jim says:

    Okay,

    I’ve read your responses. Thank you.

    JCBMack, I appreciate your references, and the fact that you took my points seriously. I’ll get out of everyone’s hair after this, and just bug JCBMack for a while.

    I appreciate the link. I agree with the development of Kirchoff’s Law with a closed system in thermal equilibrium. However, an open system is a very different matter. It is the crossing from a closed system in thermal equilibrium to an open system approximately in thermal equilibrium that is the basis for my disagreement.

    In fact, using the LTE arguments, any substance could be declared to emit as a blackbody … but they don’t. This is why I insisted on an experimental measurement to validate the hypothesis. Experiment is the only means of scientific validation. The emission spectrum from a substance can be used as a fingerprint, just as the absorption spectrum can be used. The emission lines of a number of molecules have been observed in the atmosphere, and the intensities are not on the same order of magnitude as the emission from the planet’s surface. I have not however found a good reference for measured emission lines from atmospheric CO2. Perhaps they are markedly more intense than I expect.

    Proceeding by small increments through the atmosphere so as to retain the radiative properties because the temperature has not changed does not appear to be a good approach. It appears similar to moving a mile one millimeter at a time, then declaring that you have not moved at all because each increment was small. The troposphere is in fact colder than the surface, on average, and real absorption does occur. The spectrum of the earth from space shows this.

    So, Ray, I do appreciate that you responded, but we’re really not talking about blackbody radiation because the system is open rather than closed. I know I did use the term thermal equilibrium, by which I was referring to the attainment of a Boltzmann distribution of states in the gases of any given sample in the troposphere. I did not mean to imply that the atmosphere was in thermal equilibrium with the surface, it isn’t.

    With that said, I’ll get out of your hair, except JCBMack. I hope you’re willing to continue this in bits and pieces over the long haul. I should have more time over the Christmas break.

    Lynn, Thanks, but I really don’t think I want to change careers at the moment, although your suggestions were good, and we could probably all use a few extra bucks. Of course, if by some miracle JCBMack convinces me to change my mind, I’d be leaving a perfectly good job for nothing.

    I hope at least some of you may realize that not all folks who disagree with your position are necessarily stupid or politically motivated. It is often quite important to question things, even those that are considered fundamental and are documented in textbooks. After all, people write textbooks, and even science textbooks change, sometimes dramatically.

    Cheers.

  10. 160
    jcbmack says:

    Jim I am available and I will discuss this further with you once you email me, I will also have more time after Xmas day (gotta keep the wife happy:)

  11. 161
    John Mashey says:

    Well, this is slightly OT, but along the lines of educating journalist / editors / friends who who ask “where do I start learning?” I just finished David Archer’s “The Big Thaw” and recommend it highly as a nice exposition for a general audience. See Amazon.

    The popular term “Long tail” may apply, although in a different way.

    =====
    A minor nit :-) There’s an old story of two researchers determined to write a perfect paper, which they checked carefully. When it was published, they discovered they’d left a typo in a reference to one of their *own* papers…

    p.177: David Archer, “Methane hydrdate stability…”

  12. 162
    Hank Roberts says:

    > unsightly but pretty benign, especially on land.

    Do you know how that stuff gets into the ocean?
    Think it “goes away” on land, without going somewhere?

    Seriously, you can look this up.

    Try p.37 of this PDF file, which sums up and gives citations to the research. It’s always a good practice to occasionally test what you think. Local groups like this one make it easy to find things out.

    http://www.adoptabeach.org.uk/downloads/beachwatch/BWFullReport.pdf

  13. 163
    Eli Rabett says:

    Jim, I suppose I should put this up as a post since people continually get it wrong:

    There is a REALLY neat experiment described in Applied Optics 35 1519 (1996) by Evans and Puckrin. Essentially anyone with a half decent FTIR or even a good dispersive instrument could do this experiment with undergraduates

    The paper is simple enough that any interested amateur could understand it and it is elegant (IMHO) in the parsimonious way that it answers a complicated question.

    So, you asked for it and you got it.

    Instead of turning on the glowbar light source in your spectrometer, place a gold mirror at 45o above liquid nitrogen in a dewar, so that the detector looks through the spectrometer at the LN2 surface at 77K. Then you can place your sample in the light path and measure the emission.

    Because the temperature of the “source” is so low, 77K, the spectrometer is looking at a source of very low (almost no) emission and will not see any absorption of the light launched into the system, but only emission from any gas in the light path.

    Evans and Puckrin showed that the radiative transfer codes could reproduce the measured emission spectra essentially perfectly.

    This means that not only do you SEE the effect of that 0.03% CO2 in the IR emission spectrum, but you can, from first principles, calculate what it looks like. They looked at the emission from CFC-12, but the principle is the same.

    To quote them:

    “In atmospheric radiation codes such as FASCDIP, (note the one they used – er) the absorption spectra of gases are used to calculate emission spectra. These emission spectra actually determine the atmospheric greenhouse radiation; any increase in this radiation will affect the surface energy balance and will cause global warming. In large climate models and most radiation codes, Kirchoff’s law is assumed to be valid without any caveats. However, there have been questions raised recently by Barett as to the validity of Kirchoff’s law in the atmosphere. Hence an experimental verification of Kirchoff’s law for laboratory cells containing greenhouse gases which shows the validity of the radiation codes should be beneficial in answering such criticisms of the global warming theory. In this paper we have demonstrated that radiation codes predict the correct emission spectrum of CFC-12 from a laboratory gas cell even though the cell is not in a blackbody cavity. These laboratory measurements will also assist in the measurements of absolute greenhouse fluxes……”

  14. 164
    Dave Werth says:

    A nice 2005 summary of the return of life to the Mount St. Helens blast zone and future prospects is at:
    http://www.fs.fed.us/gpnf/mshnvm/research/faq.html

  15. 165
    t_p_hamilton says:

    Jim:”I have not however found a good reference for measured emission lines from atmospheric CO2. Perhaps they are markedly more intense than I expect.”

    via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenhouse_effect, has a good figure, with the reference

    L.S. Rothman, D. Jacquemart, A. Barbe, D. Chris Benner, M. Birk, L.R. Brown, M.R. Carleer, C. Chackerian Jr., K. Chance, L.H. Coudert, V. Dana, V.M. Devi, J.-M. Flaud, R.R. Gamache, A. Goldman, J.-M. Hartmann, K.W. Jucks, A.G. Maki, J.-Y. Mandin, S.T. Massie, J. Orphal, A. Perrin, C.P. Rinsland, M.A.H. Smith, J. Tennyson, R.N. Tolchenov, R.A. Toth, J. Vander Auwera, P. Varanasi, G. Wagner (2004). “The HITRAN 2004 molecular spectroscopic database”. Journal of Quantitative Spectroscopy & Radiative Transfer 96: 139-204.

    Also, two CO2 bands are expected to be intense, and they are. IR band intensity is directly related to the dipole moment change (first derivative). The carbonyl stretch in organic spectroscopy is always intense, primarily as a C=O bond stretches, the bond becomes more polar (resonance structure C-O with a formal negative charge on O starts to become more important, if you believe in resonance). The asymmetric stretch of the C=O bonds in CO2 leads to differing magnitudes in individual bond dipoles, making the molecule polar, and the change from nonpolar to polar is large.
    The O=C=O bend is intense because the molecule goes from nonpolar when linear, to polar when bent (the individual polar bond moments no longer cancel by symmetry).

  16. 166

    Jim (#158): no one is saying that everyone in disagreement is an idiot. There is a big difference between your willingness to discuss with someone well qualified and the kind of repetitious bluster we see so often on the opinions pages. Especially in Australia. Here’s a factoid that may explain a bit: Australia is the world’s biggest exporter of coal.

    David BB (#155) no problem with making a mistake. Look for my name above for another one. It’s refusing to admit it that’s objectionable. From having looked at other proposals (remember iron filings?) to magick away CO2 I can’t say I’m optimistic but don’t let that stop you.

  17. 167
    Guenter Hess says:

    Jim #158,
    Jim, I have a question for you and Ray Ladbury and others for your topic.
    I posted it under the thread mountains and molehills here in realclimate, since there is already a discussion about this.
    Best regards
    Guenter

  18. 168
    Russell Seitz says:

    How odd anti-smoking forces should chose the 75th anniversary of the repeal of prohibition to declare war on cellulose bases cigarette filters instead of celebrating this minor triumph of carbon sequestration– as butts tend to outweigh the renewable fuel combusted, cigarettes per se may be better than carbon neutral.

    But all means let us lobby for filters made of Biochar, as activated charcoal is called these days. Only the dourest of the neopuritan Elect could object to smokers simultaneously reducing their tar intake and CO2 output, and as radiative forcing is certainly a two pipe problem, climate conference organizers who lack the courage to accommodate smokers risk doing a grave disservice to humanity.

  19. 169
    Mark says:

    Jim:

    “Proceeding by small increments through the atmosphere so as to retain the radiative properties because the temperature has not changed does not appear to be a good approach.”

    Well that is wrong.

    If this was true, differentiation and integration would not work.

  20. 170
    Mark says:

    Lawrence: “Good luck with changing the Sun’s output, or the Earth’s orbital parameters.”

    But the Sun’s output is very slowly going up, no disasterous climate change from that forcing would happen for millions of years. The Earth’s orbital parameters indicate we should be going out of the warm interglacial and into a glacial period, so no warming there.

    So the requirement to change these are not an issue.

    So we only have CO2 that we produce to undo.

    Lucky for your argument there, isn’t it.

    So I take it you’ll be promoting the MMCC/AGW arguments so that people do not sit on their bums and wait to see how hot it gets, yes?

  21. 171
    Barton Paul Levenson says:

    Jim,

    LTE does not make things radiate as a blackbody. In general, if something has a measurable temperature, it can be said to be in LTE.

  22. 172
    Geoff Beacon says:

    Thanks Slioch #150,

    “The BBC has scrapped plans for Planet Relief, a TV special on climate change.

    The decision comes after executives said it was not the BBC’s job to lead opinion on climate change.”

    I think my examples are of non-existent factual reporting. Does anyone know of any others?

  23. 173
    pete best says:

    Re# 160, Public service broadcaster, I guess that must take into account global warming but no as the BBC is now obsessed with Dr Who, ratings and Digital TV but it did run the programs by the geologist on climate change recently and by the same person on earth history which did mention warming by GHG.

    The BBC to a degree may have a point about AGW as the UK Government now is passinga climate change bill through parliament in an attempt to make 40% of us drive electric cars from electricity from sustianable sources and CCS coal.

  24. 174
    Geoff Beacon says:

    Pete #173

    I remember the programs but I got the impression that, after giving strong trails/adverts for the programs initially, they clammed up. I didn’t notice that the programs were mentioned much by other BBC programs, as they often do.

    OK, I may be exploring an outrageous hypothesis, but did someone higher up in the BEEB have a quiet word? They were strong programs that could have been used for further discussion.

    More concrete examples would be interesting.

  25. 175
    Chris Colose says:

    truth,

    Honestly, I’d rather hear the right side, than a for wrong sides to get equal show time just for the sake of “balance.” If there was a real debate or, if as gavin mentions, you can point to serious peer-reviewed papers contradicting AGW then you may be right in your request for a wider array of viewpoints. But no one requests “journalistic balance” to entertain flat-earth or creationist arguments, and AGW denialism is no worse.

  26. 176

    #175–”AGW denialism is no worse.”

    Chris C., don’t you mean “no better?” :)

  27. 177
    Mike Tabony says:

    Ike, #63, and Slioch, #150, come close to stating what should be considered somewhat in all this talk about the SF columnist and her untruths.

    That is, the product of the mainstream media in the industrial world is “consensus”. The media masters know that to let the “consensus”, regarding AGW, develop that it is real and must be addressed will be very detrimental to many of the customers (advertisers) of their media empires. It will also be phenomenally disruptive to the industrialized consumer society the industrialists have already established here in the US and seek to establish world wide.

    Hence the denialists and doubt-sowers can be expected to be around and gainfully employed at these media outlets until sea level rise floods those same offices in many cities on Earth. Such is the world we live in.

  28. 178
    pete best says:

    Re #174, its quite possible as the BBC seldom mentions AGW these days or discusses the political implications too much, well not on Radio 5 at all these days anyway although I do not know about Radio 4, nor the TV news programmes. What should the BBC report on exactly ?

  29. 179
    Tom Dayton says:

    As of this morning, the San Francisco Chronicle has not published any letters to the editor about Debra Saunders’s Sunday article. Unless I’ve been too pre-coffee bleary to notice them.

  30. 180
    Geoff Beacon says:

    Chris (#175)

    What about a petition for No10? (http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/)

    “We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to instruct the BBC to report the truth about man-made climate change irrespective of ‘journalistic balance’.”

    Any better wording? Who would sign?

  31. 181
    Hank Roberts says:

    One more, to counterbalance Dr. Seitz’s excusing littering as a form of carbon sequestration, a few posts back. Just look at the numbers.
    http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-lazarus30-2008nov30,0,679460.column

  32. 182
    Lawrence Brown says:

    Mark,
    I was trying to make the point,apparently not too successfully, that man(and women)based causes of GW are more easily correctible than natural effects.Solutions such as dimming the Sun, have been proposed, and rejected based on various factors, one being that the continuing emissions of CO2 would still add tothe acidity of the oceans.
    You say:
    “So I take it you’ll be promoting the MMCC/AGW arguments so that people do not sit on their bums and wait to see how hot it gets, yes?”

    I won’t be promoting anything,Mark. I’ll remain a student here at RealClimate and see how the science continues to unfold.

  33. 183
    not a boffin says:

    Newspapers aren’t high-minded organisations dedicated to informing the public. Maybe they were once, but like most businesses nowadays they have to follow the money or go under. Rupert Murdoch’s worldwide media success comes not from following a particular ideology, but from telling his audience what they want to hear. The world shouldn’t be like this but it is, and we’ll have to learn to live with it.

    There’s a simple way to get your message across: be entertaining! Give the media a story their audience will like and they’ll run with it. Right now, all they can see is a bunch of worthy scientists with letters after their names slugging it out with another similar bunch. It’s no good saying “the science proves we’re right”, because the other side are saying the same thing. Some journalists can check it out for themselves, but the majority can’t. And even fewer of their audience can.

    Here’s my plan: science is about prediction. Very few understand the science, but everyone understands a bet. Gavin &c come up with a list of ten predictions, some short-term, some medium-term. I’m willing to bet $100 that their predictions will be largely correct. Get enough people on board and we’re talking serious money. Then all we have to do is find someone to take the other end of the bet. Anyone who spouts poor or discredited science can be asked to put their money where their mouth is. If they don’t take the bet, that’s news – they don’t really believe what they’re saying. If they do take it, great! I stand to make some money, which I’ll donate to RealClimate. More important, we can start building up some quotable data which the average Joe in the street can understand. “Out of 500 bets completed, ALL have been won by AGW proponents and none by denialists” would be a VERY good quote! :)

  34. 184
    RichardC says:

    162 Hank, yes, once decomposed, harm only occurs via atomic elements, such as lead. Cellulose is benign, and tobacco, once degraded, can’t have anything in it that didn’t already exist in the biosphere. The paper you linked to says that cigarette butts are only 8 to 10th most common ITEM, and they are awfully small. One plastic cooler vs one cigarette butt…

    Entanglement is the biggest threat, along with ingestion of non-degradable plastic. Cigarette butts have neither problem. The paper says that butts are safe up to the immense concentration of one butt per 40 litres of water, and even then the toxins are released within an hour and persist for a mere seven (or was it 10?) days. Yep, according to your paper, cigarette butts are small, infrequent (only around 80 butts per kilometre of beach) and safe at far higher concentrations than found in the real world.

  35. 185
    Mark says:

    not a boffin. That’s been done several times. All attempts to get a bet going have been refused.

    Shows how secure they are in their predictions, doesn’t it?

    Yet they are still listened to. The story of the refused bet doesn’t even get to your ears, and you’ve thought about it yourself.

    And I would say that this may be the world we live in but that doesn’t mean we should live with it. Even if I cannot change the world, that is no reason not to try as hard as you can. Even if you fail, the Sun will die, the universe will exhaust itself in the heat death of inevitability rendering anything we do ultimately pointless.

    And in an existence where the end result is pointless, we have two choices:

    a) give up and die
    b) don’t accept that pointlessness doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it

    I go for (b). I may not change things. I may not make a difference. But the pointlessness of trying doesn’t mean I will give up.

  36. 186
    Hank Roberts says:

    RichardC, I’m trying to convince _you_ to look this stuff up, by giving you just a few examples of the information. You need to read more than the examples. You looked at the British information. Now try reading some of the US info:
    http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-lazarus30-2008nov30,0,3821918,full.column

    Want to know how the material breaks down, what chemicals come out of it? Museums are a good resource because they track this carefully in isolation. The museum conservation books detail what comes out of the material over time. Want to know the research the tobacco companies are doing about additives to the filters, trying to get them to actually break down instead of fall apart? You can find that with Google Scholar, in publications from Japan Tobacco. You don’t want to inhale what they’re adding to the filters though.

    Seriously, man, I’m not trying to do your homework for you, I’m urging you to check your own beliefs by looking for information for yourself. It’ll take more than some guy on a blog to change your mind. You can change it for yourself. Same as for climate change.

  37. 187
    Mark says:

    RichardC, 184, the cadmium and mercury from batteries was in the system before. But it still poisons the groundwater because we dump them in landfill. Because it gets concentrated through the biological systems.

    Something small that doesn’t degrade becomes a choking hazzard, even though the materials existed before.

    When things change, you don’t rely on guesswork unless you have no other recourse.

  38. 188
    Mark says:

    Fair enough Lawrence.

    However, working to get people to change the CO2 waste produced will reduce the certainty of harm in the future. It will reduce the energy needs and thereby keep the reserves available in case of disaster from another source. It will keep the planet cleaner. And the harm to the economy? Horses used to be a major part of the economy. No more. And the economy had a hiccup in the changeover and now is as good as ever. Maybe better.

    So help your children. Or someone else’s. It doesn’t hurt.

  39. 189
    Aramingo says:

    Just out of curiosity, did you send this post to the editors of the Chronicle?

  40. 190
    jcbmack says:

    BBC may have some issues regarding global warming, but PBS is still reporting on it and doing specials like always and the NY Times is still a good paper.

  41. 191
    jcbmack says:

    One correction, I meant to say phase state; grading papers, dealing with transition state…lol.

  42. 192
    Timothy says:

    My answer to the question is:

    1. Fact-checking can be time-consuming.

    Apart from anything else, what does a newspaper do if it fact-checks an opinion piece and then has to completely gut it necessitating a complete re-write? They have column inches that need filling.

    2. Free speech makes people lazy. At best. Other times people abuse it.

    On the Guardian “commentisfree” blog, they have a tagline that states “Comment is free… but facts are sacred”. Only the first part of that holds. People can say what they like, because it is their opinion. Also, it turns out it is rude to point out to them that what they say is complete bunkum.

    Personally, I’d be embarrassed to base an argument on incorrect facts, and you’d think it would be through this sort of social pressure that people would be encouraged to self-check their facts.

    Now that just about every established fact is open to ridicule, this social pressure breaks down, and can sometimes be used to suppress inconvenient truths.

    I’m not suggesting that legislation should be used to outlaw lying, but clearly there is a problem here, and I don’t know what can be done about it.

    3. Controversy sells newspapers.

    This also helps to explain why a great deal of reportage of just about anything, let alone complex science, is inaccurate.

  43. 193
    Ed Halbert says:

    Very good post. One note, and you are probably aware of this, but in case you are
    not, Debra Saunders’ article in the SF Chronicle was NOT an “oped” article.

  44. 194
    dhogaza says:

    I don’t know if Richard Steckis will return or not, but the recent government summary linked by David Werth makes the reality of the “rapid recovery of forests on Mt. St. Helens” very clear:

    “The first 25 years of vegetation recovery at Mount St. Helens can be viewed as the opening chapter in a long-term (200 to 500 year) successional sequence that, in the absence of another large-scale eruption or other disturbance, will eventually return the 1980 blast zone to an old-growth forest.”

    So, apparently, those biologists back in 1980 who claimed it might take 200 years for the forests to recover might be very wrong, as Steckis tells us.

    Wrong in the wrong direction from his point of view, though. Wrong in that 200 years might not be nearly long enough.

  45. 195
    David B. Benson says:

    Philip Machanick (166) — What was the other one? I already noted your comment #138, but didn’t see any others related to peridotite weathering.

  46. 196
    Swan upping says:

    Re: #146 The BBC may have been well advised not to rush into attributing the Berwick swans’ behaviour to climate change. The swans started to arrive in the UK from Siberia a couple of days after that story (3 Nov) (they had reached the Netherlands in late October) and an early Nov arrival is not unknown according to the Slimbridge reserve

    http://www.wwt.org.uk/blog/821/bewicks_blog.html?s=11&e=20

    ‘It’s not unheard of for the swans to arrive this late. Over the past 20 years, Bewick’s have arrived at Slimbridge between 13 and 29 October, but the last time the swans arrived in November was in 1981 when they flew in on the 3rd. They are still a good week off the record for arriving late – back in 1967, the first Bewick’s didn’t arrive at Slimbridge until 9 November. ‘

    So the swans did not stay in Siberia, but I didn’t see many stories correcting the earlier reports when they did arrive in the UK.

  47. 197
    RichardC says:

    187 Mark, no, the cadmium in batteries was not in the system before. That stuff was mined from far below the “traditional” biosphere. Fertilizers are often made from mined rock, so I have to retract my “was already there” comment for tobacco. By the way, tobacco is good at absorbing heavy metals and so is on the short list of plants that can be used to help clean up after a nuclear incident. Koop once said that 90% of smoking-related cancer is probably linked to radiation.

    Hank, I’ve looked the stuff up. I hate cigarettes and despise the tossing of butts, but filters are primarily visual pollution. Cigarettes are deadly, butts are butt ugly. My proposal? Switch the age requirement for smoking to a specific date. If you’re legal to smoke today, you’re legal. If not, you never will be. No new smokers allowed.

    No, I don’t mind if you smoke — as long as you don’t exhale. Me? Yes I smoke — if I catch fire… And remember, cancer cures smoking.

  48. 198
    Hank Roberts says:

    > primarily visual pollution
    Nope. That’s only true if you don’t look at the research.
    That’s op-ed in a nutshell.

  49. 199
    Lawrence Brown says:

    Re:#188
    You and I are on the same side on this, Mark. I’m for saving the planet for everyone’s progeny, including the flora and fauna we depend upon, and those we don’t necessarily depend on.

    It ain’t much but all my bulbs are flourescent or compact fluorescent. I take public transportation all the time( not
    too hard here in NY City). I’ve tried to promote to managment the advantages of putting solar panels on the roofs of our condo units. They say it’s too long a payback period( 11 years according to them). I say the sooner we start the closer we’ll be to gainingt some independence from the power company.

    As to the economic side , I firmly believe that erecting wind turbines and solar photovoltaic panels, and the transmission
    lines needed to accompany these renewables, will help the economy by constructing the hardware and putting people to work operating and maintaining these units. There are( in my opinion) professional prevaricators among some columnists,economists, and scientists, that say it’s not so, and switching from fossil fuels will hurt, but I believe the opposite is true.

  50. 200

    David B (#195) if you mean what was the other error, I meant in my calculation on volume of CO2 in #97.


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