What with #AGU15 going on, and a little bit of overlap in content with Shindell (2014), NASA wasn’t particularly keen to put out a press release for the paper, but we did get a ‘web special‘ put out on Friday Dec 18th, the last day of AGU and a few days after the paper appeared online. I’ve been involved with many similar releases for papers and it is always a struggle to concisely say why a paper is interesting while not overselling it or being too technical (which is why only a small fraction of papers get press releases at all).
As we’ve previously remarked about other people’s press releases (eg. Stainforth et al or Willerslev et al), properly calibrating the aspect of a release that will get picked up by the media can be tricky, and so it proved in this case.
and the as-good-as-plagiarised version the next day from the Daily Mail:
This was followed by a credulous Investors Business Daily editorial using the Express and Mail articles as examples of a supposedly fearless UK media reporting on what the US media would not!
Safe to say, that was not what was being aimed for.
The obvious error is that they thought it was news that aerosol emissions have partially cancelled out some of the warming one would expect with greenhouse gas emissions. Now if this was the 1980s they might have had a point, but the fact that aerosols are an important climate forcing, have a net cooling effect on climate and, in part, arise from the same industrial activities that produce greenhouse gases, has been part of mainstream science for 30 years.
As bad as that was, WUWT went one better. Apparently, not only is there a cancellation between aerosols and greenhouse gases, it is perfect(!) and that is why there hasn’t been any climate change(!). This is of course much stupider and relies on a complete lack of reading comprehension combined with a predisposition to think that the bloggers at WUWT are much smarter than everyone else. That they end up demonstrating the opposite is an appropriate karma.
The line in the release that gave rise to the (shocking!) Express headline, was a quote from the lead author:
“Take sulfate aerosols, which are created from burning fossil fuels and contribute to atmospheric cooling…”
This is of course true and well-known – at least to people paying attention. But this is where we went wrong – we assumed a basic level of knowledge that was roughly equivalent to the summary for policy makers from the last IPCC report e.g. Fig. SPM5. While this would be reasonable for most beat journalists, it isn’t true for even science journalists who don’t cover this area, and certainly isn’t true for most news desk staffers.
So whenever one talks about aerosols, one needs to put a caveat noting that greenhouse gases also come from fossil fuels and are the dominant effect. (As an aside, even the NY Times sometimes gets confused about aerosols).
But is there something more going on here? Despite some neat things about this paper (IMO), and how well it fits into a story about how science really works (again, IMO), it did not get picked up by any of the more specialised journalists (ATTP did write a pretty sensible blog post though).
Such is life – it obviously did not sufficiently hit any of the ‘news pegs’ journalists use to successfully pitch stories to editors. Both these responses (nonsense from the Express/Mail/WUWT, and nothing from the specialist media) confirm a well-known trope about the media in general: The Express covered it because they (incorrectly) saw it as going against the mainstream, while perhaps the specialist press didn’t cover it because they (correctly) didn’t. Just as ‘man bites dog’ is news, the opposite is not.
We can sometimes get a more nuanced view of science in the media though. A narrative of a scientific establishment thrown into
chaos mild confusion by outlier results that leads a band of plucky computer modellers to take up a lot of supercomputer time to investigate and who then come up with a perfectly reasonable explanation that reinforces the consensus, can occasionally get written about. It would be a story that tries to explain how science actually works, as opposed to trying to get people excited about some new result (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Some journalists and magazines do a good job on stories like this, but for every Nautilus reader, there are thousands of people reading nonsense from the tabloids.
Science journalism is actually getting better over time; there are more voices and deeper coverage with the increasingly diverse number of sources available now, But whenever you see stories like this one in the Express, it reminds us that, outside of the specialist bubble, progress can be slow.
- K. Marvel, G.A. Schmidt, R.L. Miller, and L.S. Nazarenko, "Implications for climate sensitivity from the response to individual forcings", Nature Climate Change, vol. 6, pp. 386-389, 2015. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2888