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Overheard in the newsroom

Filed under: — group @ 12 January 2011

Reporter doing a phone interview: “Please slow down, professor. You’ve been researching this topic for a decade. I’ve been researching it since lunchtime.”

From here (h/t Josh).

214 Responses to “Overheard in the newsroom”

  1. 201
    adelady says:

    Brian, the other thing you have to remember is how much prior and concurrent 1970s talk there was at the time about nuclear winter.

    People were ‘primed’ for the idea that we could be thrown suddenly into devastating cooling. Journalists are just people, scientists are people too. There was a lot of continuity and conflation of the two separate cooling possibilities. I remember reading a (very badly written) novel about the horrors of sudden cooling and I really cannot remember whether the initiating event was nuclear war or climate change.

  2. 202
    John Pollack says:

    JiminMpls @197 Interesting! At about the same time as you, I was a grad student at the UW-Madison meteorology dept, with a particular interest in climate studies. I did my M.S. on a paleoclimate reconstruction using tree pollen in lake sediment cores as a climate proxy.

    There was certainly talk in the Center for Climate Research about possible global cooling. As I recall the state of the research at the time, dating sediments was starting to become practical, but good dates (mostly radiocarbon) were still expensive and sparse. It was becoming apparent that Milankovitch cycles could be driving glacial/interglacial cycles. It was also plausible that we were nearing the end of a Milankovitch interglacial, and the LIA could be a precursor to the next glacial downturn.

    (Note: this is a personal glimpse, and not intended to be any summary of the collective state of knowledge at the time, only my own local state of knowledge.)

    At the time, I regarded climate models as little better than a joke. They were mostly two dimensional, and loaded with assumptions that made them tractable on the computers of the day. My own study seemed very dubious, due to the flaky reconstruction method (canonical correlation analysis) that I was encouraged to use. I never published it, beyond my thesis, and switched out of research to become a weather forecaster.

    What a difference a few decades make! I’ve followed the climate science with some interest the whole time, and it’s now solid, fairly detailed, and backed up with all kinds of well-dated paleoclimate proxies. My kudos to the people who stuck with it, while I was dealing with tornadoes and snow storms!

  3. 203
    Jim Eaton says:

    Brian Carter: I recall that many moons ago Dave Foreman (of Earth First! fame) sent me a book about John Hamaker’s theory that we must immediately remineralize the earth to avoid an imminent ice age (I think Dave was hoping an impending ice age was true so that Mother Nature might take quick revenge on those ravaging her). I can’t recall who wrote the tome (although it still might be somewhere on the bookshelf), and I managed to get through much of the pseudoscience until I got to the point where the author stated that rock dust not only was essential to thwarting the coming ice age, but it also was critical to human health — so he ingested rock dust daily. At that point I informed Dave that I thought the book was a plop of bull pucky.

    That is my memory of “scientists” promoting global cooling in the 1970s.

  4. 204
    Brian Carter says:

    199, Ray Ladbury, dear chap, you are already into monosyllabic grunts. Two of them in fact. “News” and “Week”. You really must do something about your fixation on that journal, you are starting to sound unhinged.

    202, John Pollack: That was interesting, did you include any work on coleoptera at the time? This would be about the time Dansgaard was identifying climate variations with his O16/O18 ratios and made his possibly ill-advised extrapolation?

  5. 205
    JiminMpls says:

    #202 John

    I’ll stand corrected then. There was some discussion about global cooling among those studying the climate.

    BUT, was it thought to be an imminent threat or something that would occur in another thousand or few thousand years? Was it tied to aerosol pollution or some other human activity or just a natural cycle?

    I remember concerns about all kinds of threats. Plate tectonics, for example, were pretty new, too. In Geology 101 we watched lots of movies about earthquakes and heard dire warnings about massive earthquakes striking major cities. The threat of The Big One came into general conversations, too.

    As a humanities major, I don’t remember hearing anything about the imminent threat of a new ice age.

  6. 206
    Didactylos says:

    Brian Carter: Why are you reduced to insulting Ray? Do you really have nothing useful to say?

    So far, I have refrained from pointing out that everything you have said is straight from the concern troll manual. After all, people do sometimes say these things quite innocently.

    But you are really pushing it, you know.

  7. 207
    John Pollack says:

    #205 Jim – no need to stand corrected. What was being talked about within Center for Climatic Research at UW apparently wasn’t even making it over to the environmentally concerned humanities majors.

    What I recall was a lot of uncertainty about the future direction of climate change. We had certainly warmed since the LIA, but global temps had stalled, and local winters were of course quite harsh, contributing to the psychology, if not the research. The models were interesting, but hardly trustworthy. I was impressed that quite a few of the grad student modelers were transfers from math or physics majors, and couldn’t tell you what the weather was doing if they were staring right at a weather map. It was certainly understood that it would take a long time to develop another glacier, not something that would sweep over us in a decade or two.

    As part of my studies, I took a glaciology course. The accepted wisdom was that it would take a very long time to melt an ice sheet. (This was intuitively “obvious” to anybody who had defrosted a refrigerator on a hot summer day, and waited a long time for the thaw.) However, the only heat transfer method seriously considered was conduction – which is very slow.

    #204 Brian – Coleoptera weren’t considered. Not many in lake sediments. Many of the lakes were varved (annual layers)and could be dated cheaply without radiocarbon. Dansgaard’s work was regarded as important, but preliminary.

  8. 208
    Snapple says:

    Sometimes I think you folks are a bit critical of the media. Northwestern University’s Medill School of journalism has been publishing a series of student-written articles in many newspapers about global warming and national security. I think they are very informative, and I told them so.

    You might check out the links here.

  9. 209
    Carolyn says:

    Hi,as a non-scientist but a keen student of many disciplines and observer of human behavior, my observation here is that the fear factor is very significant. While it’s true that Americans in particular are ignorant of science (and of most other stuff, but I digress), there is still some underlying respect for it, perhaps a legacy of the 1960’s space program. What I observe most often as I discuss climate change with regular people (I spend a lot of time, usually in vain, trying to raise awareness) is that scientists, who of course are telling the truth, are scaring the heck out of the general public, not intentionally of course, but probably because there is no quick solution in a test tube to make the problem go away. When the (petroleum industry supported) denier community says “don’t worry, there’s nothing wrong” the public heaves a sigh of relief and goes back to happily destroying the biosphere.

    The other factor, of course, is that the problem is too big – many individuals want to act to solve the problem but they as individuals have no easily measurable way to “fix” this, either in their own small efforts or at the ballot box – the task seems unbelievably huge. This helplessness results in avoidance and also leads to denial.

    Maybe the Russians have it right, don’t mention it until we have an answer (that’s sarcasm, I’m not serious).

    What we need to do is find a way to make this palatable and digestible for the average person, and find ways to give them hope. A tall order, easier said than done, but one thing we can do is have more of our scientists engage human to human via the media (You-Tube anyone?), at events and so on. The more we can humanize the messenger, the more the problem can be brought down to a human scale. Real, sincere and truthful explanations, and most importantly, proposed, achievable solutions, will be able to overshadow the lies of self-serving, obfuscating deniers. This is not a solution, but it will help. So, we know you’re busy, but keep communicating.

    Don’t we miss Carl Sagan right now?

    Thanks for this fantastic site.

  10. 210
    Steve R says:

    An October 2010 survey by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication found that “68 percent would welcome a national program to teach Americans more about the issue.” That’s the good news. Whether or not you see as good news the fact that 45% understand that carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere has to do with your perception of glasses as half full or half empty. The way I see it, your target audience isn’t 99 percent of Americans: it’s 6 percent – just enough to make those who understand the basics of AGW into a bare majority.

  11. 211
    Ron Mader says:

    Why not create venues in which reporters and scientists edit the same article / website? Wikification now! This means not only the creation of a ‘wiki’ but also of the events in which we can meet face to face and strategize about how best to communicate these issues, particularly including the Web 2.0 channels (invading Facebook, Flickr, Twitter and the like).

  12. 212
    Snapple says:

    I think I know where “ex-CIA operative” Kent Clizbe may get his information about global warming. Recently I drove out to Haymarket,Virginia to see this science institute I had read about on the Internet; but they must do a lot of really secret work, because I had a lot of trouble finding the Institute even with my GPS.

    I didn’t give up, and I eventually located the science institute. It is run by “Bob,” a mighty wizard who somehow manages to operate reconnaissance satellites and other classified sensors from his “primary” address (mailbox #209 in a Haymarket, Virginia parcel post store).

    It finally occurred to me that Bob’s technology must be highly-miniaturized and invisible to the naked eye.

  13. 213


    Nice job, Snapple.

    And yes, many of these points were also made in Gwynne Dyers’ Climate Wars, which I summarized/reviewed here.

  14. 214
    Ray Ladbury says:

    I think your diagnosis is spot on. Humans have a regrettable tendency to “turn off” when confronted with a truly frightening prospect–particularly one that is not imminent. This is why pictures of diseased lungs on cigarette packages are not particularly effective anti-smoking propaganda.

    What I think is missing from the discussion is the fact that a carbon-neutral, or even carbon negative society is entirely achievable on a timescale of a couple of decades. And of course, we have fossil fuel interests predicting immediate catastrophe if we try.

    Then, too, the need for global actions plays right into the fears so many Americans have of “global government”. I’ve been wondering lately whether in a wired world we really need global government to get global action. Would it be possible to set up a “game” that people could play all over the world that would implement effective strategies to decrease energy use, sequester carbon, plant forests…? We have a whole generation of gamers all over the world.