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How not to write a press release

Filed under: — gavin @ 21 April 2006

A recent BBC radio documentary on the possible over-selling of climate change, focussed on the link between high profile papers appearing in Nature or Science, the press releases and the subsequent press coverage. One of the examples chosen was the Stainforth et al paper that reported the ranges of climate sensitivity within their super-ensemble of perturbed physics runs. While there was a lot of interesting science in this paper (the new methodology, the range of results etc.) which fully justified its appearance in Nature, we were quite critical of their basic conclusion – that climate sensitivities significantly higher than the standard range (1.5 – 4.5ºC) were plausible – because there is significant other data, predominantly from paleo-climate, that pretty much rule those high numbers out (as we discussed again recently). The press coverage of the paper mostly picked up on the very high end sensitivities (up to 11ºC) and often confused the notion of an equilibirum sensitivity with an actual prediction for 2100 and this lead to some pretty way-out headlines. I think all involved would agree that this was not a big step forward in the public understanding of science.

Why did this happen? Is it because the scientists were being ‘alarmist’, or was it more related to a certain naivety in how public relations and the media work? And more importantly, what can scientists do to help ensure that media coverage is a fair reflection of their work?

A point that shouldn’t need repeating is that the media like a dramatic statement, and stories that say something is going to be worse than previously thought get more coverage than those which say it’s not going to be as bad. It’s not quite a fair comparison, but witness the difference in coverage for the recent Hegerl et al paper, which presented evidence that really high sensitivies are unlikely (a half dozen stories), and the Stainforth et al paper (hundreds of stories). (As an aside, a comment in the documentary that the recent Annan and Hargreaves paper was deliberately ignored by the media is without foundation – GRL is not Nature, and no press release was issued (a press release was issued – apologies). Expecting mainstream press coverage in such circumstances would be extremely optimistic).

Secondly, the scientists also need to appreciate that most journalists will only read the press release, and possibly only the first couple of paragraphs of the press release. Very, very few will read the whole paper. This implies that the press release itself is the biggest determinant of quality of the press coverage, and of course, the press release is generally not written directly by the scientists.

Thirdly, though we are trying to do something about it here, most journalists are not experienced enough in scientific topics to be able to place new results in context without outside help. Often they have a small number of preconceived frames into which they will place the story – common ones involve forecasts of possible disasters, conflict within the community (the more personal the better), plucky Galileos fighting the establishment, and of course anything that interacts directly with politics, or political interference with science. This can be helpful if the scientific story fits neatly into one the boxes, but can cause big problems if the story is either more complex or orthogonal to the obvious frames. Scientists are aware of this, but often are not pro-active enough in preventing obvious mis-framing. This implies that even if a press release is 100% scientifically accurate refection of the original paper, the press coverage can still be terrible.

So what went wrong with Stainforth et al paper? The press release is available here. The only science result in the press release refered to the 11ºC outlier but the release itself is not incorrect. However, both the title ‘Bleak first results…’ and the first paragraphs do not provide any context that would correctly lead a (relatively ignorant) journalist to appreciate that there was even a distribution function of climate sensitivities. I’m pretty sure that the point that was trying to be made was that relatively small tweaks to climate models can change the sensitivity a lot, and that you can’t rule out high sensitivities based on model results alone, but that was not clear for people who didn’t already know the context.

Myles Allen, for whom I have the utmost respect, I think made a rather poor argument in the BBC program. He stated that “if journalists embroider the press release without reference to the original paper, [the scientists] are not responsible for that”. I disagree. Looking at the press release, one could have predicted with high confidence that much of the coverage would focus solely on the 11ºC number and that they would assume that this was a new prediction. As scientists, I would argue that we have to take responsibility for how our work is portrayed – and if that means we need to provide better context, then we need to insist that that is included in the release. Myles is on much stronger ground when he argued that the mean model response (~3ºC sensitivity) wasn’t terribly interesting because it is just a reflection of the basic model they started with before any perturbations, which is true. However, without some statement about the relative likelihood of any of the high-end numbers, I find it hard to see how the journalists could have got the message right. Having said that, implications aired in the program that the scientists deliberately misled the journalists or said things that knew would be mis-understood are completely without foundation. (Update: Please see the response of the journalists listed in this comment below to really underline that).

What can we learn from this? The first and most fundamental lesson is that scientists should not relinquish control of the press releases. Public relations professionals are talented and useful when it comes to writing releases for media consumption, but the scientists have to be fully involved in the process. If there are obvious frames that the scientists want to avoid, they need to be specific within the press release what their results do not imply as well as what they might. A clear statement in the Stainforth et al release that placed the 11 C result in context of how unlikely it was and specifically stated that it wasn’t a prediction would have gone a long way to allay some of the worst coverage.

For an example of how this can work, the Solanki et al paper on solar sunspot reconstructions had a specific statement that their results did not contradict ideas of strong greenhouse warming in recent decades, neatly heading off simplistic (and erroneous) interpretations of their paper. On the other hand, much of the poor reporting related to the ‘methane from plants’ story could have been avoided if the authors had been more upfront in their release that their work was not related to greenhouse gas changes and had no significant implications for reforestation credits under Kyoto!

In summary, I would emphasise that the scientists and the actual papers discussed here and in the BBC documentary were not ‘alarmist’, however there is a clear danger that when these results get translated into media reports (and headlines) that scientifically unsupportable claims can be made. Scientists and the press professionals they work with, need to be very clear that, for the field as a whole, the widest possible coverage for any one paper should not be the only aim of a press release.

All publicity is not good publicity.

258 Responses to “How not to write a press release”

  1. 1
    PHEaston says:

    You say that the scientists did not deliberately mislead the journalists. Well, they did. Out of a couple of thousand runs, the average was 3degC with only one or two results at 11degC. To only mention ‘up to 11 degC rise’ is deliberately misleading. Any true sicentist knows that the 11 degC does not represent anything meaningful. This was deliberate headline grabbing. Now, if it is acknowledged that dramatic statments are required to get your science into the news, this may well be valid. But at the same time, the scientists must be honest about what this is, and not, as Myles Allen does, is to come up with some pitiful ‘politician-style’ defence of the indefensible.

    [Response: No. The whole point of the study was to examine the range of sensitivities you would get. The mean was set in the initial set up and could not be described as a result – the result was the range and since the range ended up being skewed to the high end it made sense to describe that. However, the context in the release was not sufficient to make that clear. -gavin]

  2. 2
    Doug Percival says:

    National Geographic News reports that this week’s issue of Nature will publish a study from a team led by Gabriele Hegerl of Duke University which finds climate sensitivity of 1.5º to 6.2ºC, with a higher end somewhat higher than the standard range of 1.5 – 4.5ºC.

    The title of the National Geographic News article is “Climate Less Sensitive to Greenhouse Gases Than Predicted, Study Says” (emphasis added).

    Since the study apparently found a high end of sensitivity which is greater than the standard high end (6.2ºC vs. 4.5ºC), how come the title tells us that it shows the climate is “less sensitive than predicted”?

    Because the title is comparing Hegerl’s results not with the standard range, but with the subject of your post, namely “recent research suggesting that the climate may be susceptible to extreme increases in temperature”, noting that “Several studies have found that the temperature change may be higher than 16.2ºF (9ºC). One estimate put it at 19.8ºF (11ºC).”

    The NGN article itself gives a good explanation of climate sensitivity and the various studies and estimates of it, and does quote Michael Schlesinger of the University of Illinois saying that Hegerl’s result “means climate sensitivity is larger than we thought for 30 years, so the problem is worse than we thought. This doesn’t give us any solace.”

    But the title certainly seems to misleadingly suggest that Hegerl’s result indicates the problem is not as bad as we thought.

    [Response: This only makes sense in the context of the Stainforth et al results (and a few others). The ‘we’ in the last sentence is a bit ambiguous because nobody actually thinks 11 C is likely (or even plausible). What the ‘in context’ translation would be is that ‘the results rule out some of the high end stuff previously reported in the media‘. Schlesinger’s response in the article is not quite valid either – there are other constraints that mean even Hegerl’s top limit is too high (as linked to above). – gavin]

  3. 3

    OK, I’m admittedly totally biased, but with all the misinformation out there from so-called “climate scientists” (i.e. anyone with an opinion on global warming, plus their grandmother), carping on the +11C sensitivity on the CPDN press release is a bit much.

    The proof is in the pudding — and for the few examples on the show that can be scientifically disproven (whether in the peer-review stage or later publications), then it seems that science is doing its’ thing. There are far worse things being done by “scientists” with an agenda, already biased opinions that leapfrog onto anything they see as backing up their psychoses or appeasing their right-wing think-tank supporters. Not to mention just plain old schadenfreude & jealousy & ambition. Please refer to “beams & motes in eyes” etc.

    (as a disclaimer, although I work on the project and am named on the Stainforth et al paper; I was not employed nor around at the time of the press release in question (not that they would have cared for my opinion anyway, as I’m a computer geek and not a climate scientist ;-)

  4. 4

    PS — it was not “one or two results at 11degC” (it was a low probability, yes, but not “one or two results out of 2000 results). jeez everyone is just dying to chop our “fat tail” off by any means necessary! ;-)


  5. 5
    SC says:

    As one that used to be a firm believer in Global Warming and Kytoto, I decided to nonetheless to do my own research in the matter.

    I read the contents of the IPCC report (not the conclusions) and I was impressed with all the actual information that is in there. Everyone for or against the theory of GW should read it. It is imformative. I have also lurked around the usual GW discussion web sites that either favour or oppose the theory. I have stayed away from NGO and oil companies web sites.

    However, I must say that I have a lot more doubts about Global Warming that I used to. I, too, was under the impression that there was proof that 1) Global Warming was a fact and 2) It was induced by human behaviour. My information in the matter had been provided by general TV and newspaper articles.

    For me, what I don’t like to hear in the media are the following:

    1) CO2 is a “pollutant”.

    [Response: Many other pollutants are also present naturally in the atmosphere, at low concentrations. A pollutant is any constituent whose concentration we increase to the point where it can cause harm. In this regard, anthropogenic CO2 is clearly a pollutant. –raypierre]

    2) Greenhouse effect is a “bad thing”.

    [Response: The natural greenhouse effect is a good thing, since the Earth would be frozen over without it. The anthropogenic increase of the greenhouse effect has many demonstrated adverse consequences, but the main reason for not blithely assuming it will be benign is that the human species has done pretty well in the climate we’ve evolved in over the past two million years, and the amplified greenhouse effect really takes us into unknown territory so far as impacts go. –raypierre]

    I think that the debate about it being an unproven theory is quite justified and needed.

    My doubts are the following:

    1) Even though CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere has gone up by 30% over the last 200 years or so (compared to being stable for 400 000), I have a hard time to comprehend how an increase from 0.028% to 0.038% of CO2 by volume can have any effect on the thermal mass of the atmosphere considering that water vapor by volume is 50x greater and has higher thermal coefficients. Is this physically possible? Why aren’t we seing atmospheric H2O time plots as well?

    [Response: See the various posts on RealClimate regarding water vapor,particularly Gavin’s post on water vapor feedback and my post on “A Busy Week for Water Vapor.” Water vapor amplifies the effect of CO2. It is difficult to monitor, but there is now satellite evidence that water vapor in the atmosphere really is increasing with temperature, in a way that yields positive feedback. The CO2 doesn’t alter climate by affecting thermal mass; it affects climate by retarding the efficiency of infrared radiation, and it has important IR absorption bands in places where water is ineffective. –raypierre]

    2) There seems to be some valid correlations between the Sun’s activity and temperature variations over the last few hundred years.

    [Response: Most of the more spectacular looking correlations are bogus, a result of manipulating data, as has been reported in EOS, and various places on RealClimate. IPCC does take into account solar variations in a physically-based way, and they don’t account for the 20th century temperature rise. –raypierre]

    3) The temperature variation of the 20th century is non-linear while CO2 increase seems to be.

    [Response: You really need to read the IPCC report more carefully. There are other climate influences beside CO2, notably anthropogenic and volcanic aerosols, as well as some solar fluctuation. It’s these that account for the irreguarities in the temperature increase. –raypierre]

    4) The evidence about the medieval warming period and little ice age are convincing and supported by different methods.

    [Response: How is the little ice age an argument against CO2 sensitivity? The medieval warm was not a global event, was probably not synchronous even in the Northern Hemisphere, and was probably not as warm as we are now — and certainly was not as warm as we’ll be in 2100 if CO2 continues to increase. You’ll have to make it more clear just what you mean by this objection. –raypierre]

    5) There is a possibility that higher CO2 concentrations is a result of warming rather than the cause.

    [Response:No, there is no possibility of this. There are a vast number of lines of evidence that the industrial age CO2 increase is a result of human-caused emissions. There is absolutely no doubt of this. It is a point that is so certain that even most of the skeptics agree that the rise in CO2 is caused by humans. –raypierre]

    My conclusion: Man made GW is an unproven theory. It hasn’t been proven or disproven either.

    [Response: See my post “Happy Birthday Charles Darwin” In science no theory is ever definitively proven, but GW is proven to a far higher degree than most other theories on which governments routinely make very consequential decisions. –raypierre]

    We should continue to reduce Fossil Fuel emissions for other reasons than GW.

    [Response: Yes, there are multiple reasons for reducing emissions. However, nobody would go to the bother of sequestering Co2 from coal fired power plants if it weren’t for concern about GW. Things like building energy efficiency and better fuel economy are another story, and can be justified with or without concern about GW. –raypierre]

    1) Reduce the other really nasty air pollutants.

    2) Preserve the energy resources for future generations

    Not that it really matters but I graduated in Electrical Engineering at Queen’s University in Canada.

  6. 6
    Steven T. Corneliussen says:

    Amen, Gavin. Scientists whose work reaches the public need to think hard about that dynamics of that transaction, as you obviously have. It’s great when they combine their natural deep awareness of the actual implications of their work with an acquired deep awareness of the ways in which those implications could be misunderstood, misreported, or distorted.

    It is not at all to disagree with you, then, that I’d add something: no solution is perfect, and if certain scientists get too much of a veto over wordsmiths, there can be costs to the quality and value of communications. I’m thinking, just for one example, of a time when some of us were asked to craft one single sentence for use by the governor at the state capital in a public ceremony, and the principal scientist involved insisted that the sentence needed to include the word _stochastic_. Sheesh. Another problem can be certain scientists’ unwillngness — or maybe it’s just inability — to recognize that an ounce of benign semi-inaccuracy can sometimes save a pound of droning, confusing, communication-quality-undermining, though precisely accurate, irrelevancy. But those kinds of risks are better to take than the kind you’ve focused on, because (in my view, anyway) you’re right: not all publicity is good.

  7. 7
    Paul says:

    Gavin, some points. As far as what journalists read, it depends on the journalist and the audience. I think it’s fair to say that most journalists get their news from the press release. But a surprising number ask to see the study. For instance, I’ve gotten a number of requests for copies of a study for which I wrote the news story.

    See here:

    Here’s the typical pattern which I can tell you is replicated by most people I know who work at ES&T, Science, Nature, Reuter’s Health, JAMA, and other organizations.

    1. Get paper. Read two sections–the introduction and the conclusion.
    2. Send out paper and explain to researcher that it’s embargoed, not to be passed around.
    3. Interview primary author, and a couple others for comments.

    This is for a quick and easy “new research finds” type of story. Others can be more complicated.

    [Response: Paul, I didn’t mean to imply that conscientious science journalists didn’t exist, they certainly do. But unfortunately they’re not the only people covering this beat. – gavin]

  8. 8
    James Annan says:

    Since you bring it up, I agree that the “Annan and Hargreaves ignored” point was probably a little stretched – but note that they only said “ignored”, not “deliberately ignored”, and the original rejection was indeed on the grounds that an editor (explicitly on consideration of it’s media-friendliness, not the scientific content) judged that it was not sufficiently interesting to merit coverage. Of course, the program also cut its timing fine cos the paper rates an oblique mention in Science this week alongside Hegerl et al :-)

    I think we all agree it’s a fine line to tread between presenting the research in an engaging and interesting manner, and being tempted into exaggeration. I thought the programme addressed this issue in a pretty reasonable manner.

    [Response: In doing interviews on the Hegerl paper, I also suggested that the journalists contact you and refer to the A+H paper. That’s another way that journalists can find context. PS. I made an error in suggesting there wasn’t a press release on your paper – sorry about that! – gavin]

  9. 9
    Cora Randall says:

    Thanks for these great words of caution. A press release I was involved with last year is at least one other example confirming some of what you say. I had led a GRL paper showing unprecedented NOx enhancements and O3 reductions in the upper stratosphere during the Arctic late winter/spring of 2004, an indirect result of energetic particles [Randall et al., Stratospheric effects of energetic particle precipitation in 2003-2004, GRL 32, L05802, doi:10.1029/2004GL022003]. In another post on this site, Markus Rex referred to this paper, noting that the press it received had the unfortunate effect of causing confusion (comment by Markus Rex on 24 March 2005, in response to a post on 10 March 2005 “Will spring 2005 be a bad one for Arctic ozone?”). I agree that it did.

    The results presented in the GRL paper are a remarkable example of how our atmosphere responds to a unique set of natural events, so they are certainly of general scientific interest. I wrote the first version of the press release, and at least was savvy enough to add a paragraph (that was intended for the press officer, not for release) that this had the potential to be confused with the ozone “hole”, so we needed to make sure that the final version was entirely clear on this matter. We went to great lengths to include all the necessary qualifiers (e.g., this was in the upper, not lower, stratosphere) within the space limitations.

    Yet some of the media reports still ended up implying that solar effects might be responsible for an Arctic ozone hole, and that therefore anthropogenic effects might not have caused the Antarctic ozone hole. I discussed this problem in a university critical thinking class that I taught this semester, and one of my students made a very good observation: The title, although accurate in one sense, was misleading.

    The press release was entitled, “Huge 2004 stratospheric ozone loss tied to solar storms, Arctic winds”. To my narrow way of thinking, this of course *was* a huge (as poorly quantified as that is) stratospheric ozone loss â?? because I was focused on 40 km. But in terms of the column it was only about 3 Dobson units, so looking back on it, it was understandable that the release led to some confusion. On the other hand, had we inserted â??upperâ?? before stratospheric, Iâ??m quite certain that some confusion would still have ensued. I should add here that the confusion was not universal, by the way, and some media reports with widespread audiences got it right. In any event, one lesson learned here was precisely as you stated; that the title of a press release sets the tone for what the reporters will infer from the text, with a fine line between being misleading and still capable of capturing attention.

    The latter brings up an interesting point, however. When should a journal article be publicized? Only if it appears in journals such as Science or Nature? What if it appears in less general but timely journals such as GRL? Or maybe only if it is obviously relevant to policy? In other words, to what extent is it the scientistâ??s responsibility, and to what extent is it the mediaâ??s responsibility, to try to educate the public on issues that are of general scientific interest? As you note, drama sells to the media. Few scientists I know do work that is dramatic, so somehow we need to understand how to most effectively capture the publicâ??s attention so that the wealth of information that scientists are producing is not buried in the scientific literature.

  10. 10
    John Fleck says:

    Gavin, I’m frankly horrified at your comment that “most journalists will only read the press release, and possibly only the first couple of paragraphs of the press release. Very, very few will read the whole paper.” You and the other RC people deal with a lot of reporters. Is this really your experience – that they’re not reading the papers y’all write?

    [Response: John, Not at all. The journalists I deal with in general are extremely conscientious and really make an effort to understand what the papers are about and canvas a wide range of opinion before writing the story. However, not all journalists that cover science are actually science journalists, and for a big story it’s often the news desk that gets the job. I don’t think it’s their fault, but news journalists don’t have the background or contacts that you or Paul or Andy have. I apologise if it seemed that I was criticising good science reporting – that was not at all my intention. – gavin]

  11. 11
    Isaac Held says:

    I too feel that the publicity given to the possibility of 11K sensitivity was unfortunate and that a more strenuous effort should have been made to avoid it. The possibility of there existing a plausible model with such a high sensitivity is of such overarching importance, I would have liked to have seen one such model chosen, and to have available all of the standard runs being provided for the IPCC Fourth Assessment by the major modeling centers, in the same format used by those models, so that the climate community could judge for itself the plausibility of this model’s climate simulation. Even without the ice age test, which ideally all models will eventually use, I find it hard to believe that one could not rule out such a high sensitivity model in a host of ways.

    An additional interesting question is whether the huge ensemble of models used in this study is actually more valuable than the 20 or so models generates by the best efforts of the world’s modeling centers for the IPCC. Arguably, the 20 “best shot” models could be providing a more meaningful selection of interesting points in the “space of all possible climate models” than those obtained by exploring so exhaustively the neighborhood of one particular model in this space. I think this is an open question.

  12. 12
    Steve Bloom says:

    Re #6. John, I’m afraid if you were a sensitivity projection you’d be 11C. :) My suspicion is that most science reporters will vary considerably the amount of background work they do based on the importance of the story and their deadline situation. In the context of daily newspapers or broadcast media in particular, I would bet that not reading the paper itself is very common as long as the press release appears thorough and not sensationalist in tone and/or a credible science reporter (Andy Revkin e.g.) has already done a story.

  13. 13

    Re #7 – If you go through the paper in the link above, you would find that the value (not “more valuable”) in the thousands of runs is in exploring the parameter space, and finding out that high-sensitivity models aren’t just a “one-off” that you can happily throw out when you do an ensemble of 5 to 50 or whatever. We are hoping to explore this more fully in our coupled model experiment. Although we had a recent snafu with our sulphate forcing file which you may have seen reported (now THAT is publicity which is not good ;-)

    I still think that the blogosphere is getting a bit alarmist about alarmism. Let’s face it, the worst thing from the CPDN press release was that the London Metro (the free paper on the Underground) made it seem like we said the earth would be 11C hotter by 2100. Anybody glancing at the paper could see that’s absurd.

    Yet while pointing out the motes in our eyes, the beams in the eyes of the Cato Institute, George Will, Ebell, Lindzen, and every other non-scientist posing as a “climate expert” often gets ignored. Not that we should stoop to their levels, but at least we have the science and terabytes of model data behind what is at worst a little hyperbole on a press release. So have another chablis after you’re done patting yourselves on the back that you have yet another 3K sensitivity model to report, and you chopped off all the outliers so as not to offend Fred Singer even more! ;-)

    Alarmism? In a world that has “Saddam can bomb us in 45 minutes” and “Saddam was behind 9/11” as typical fare from the media establishment? It is to laugh….

  14. 14
    Mark J. Fiore says:

    Am I missing something?I am a self taught individual regarding global warming. I’ve read most all the press releases in ENN and ENS and the regular newspapers regarding global warming. I also read about all the scientific studies that hit the news, and read Scientific American ,and some other publications. I am in no way a full expert, but I believe that by looking at sites like Real Climate and Pew Center for Climate Change that I’m well informed. Why should we shield the public from the bad news? I’ve read that temperature changes may be even much greater that those talked about above.Some environmental groups say we c’ant paint too bleak a picture becauses people and governmnents will just give up. I say that if they d’ont realize the full potential of the catastrophe they will never come close to the 80% reductions in co2 emmision we need now. Coddling the public is not the answer. They need to know the worst case scenarios, and that the worst case potential has gotten much worse over the past two years, given the magnitude of efects which we are seeing now, predicted for the year 2100.
    Mark J.Fiore

    [Response: This isn’t a matter of shileding the public from bad news, its a question of fairly presenting the results in an accurate way, and not over-emphasising extremes – William]

  15. 15
    Mark A. York says:

    In my journalism training I was given a number of press releases from which I had to craft a story by contacting the people in the release. I had to read them by default just to be able to continue. However headline writers are likely to just trumpet some aspect that may not have been portrayed as the most significant thing in the study. Moreover, they will actually edit out context just to save space.

    I think this deliberate campaign by people like Milloy is very damaging since these are the readers that decided the last two elections. Anything that plays into those hands is not a good thing. Overblown claims of temperature rises are just what they wait for.

  16. 16
    Grant says:

    I read the paper in Nature. One of the possible causes of the extreme results is clear: parameters were chosen to represent upper and lower limits of elements of the model, which the authors themselves describe as, “the perturbed values chosen, which were relatively arbitrary.” They go on to state, “In our case even the physical interpretation of many of these parameters in ambiguous.”

    That’s probably why, as the authors state, “Six of these model versions show a significant cooling tendency in the doubled-CO2 phase.” Those (admittedly very few) simulations were omitted from the analysis, but as far as I can see, no simulations were omitted because they seemed unrealistically high.

    In my opinion, the science is sound (given the limitations) and the paper is both frank and honest. I think it makes the point validly that climate sensitivity (response to doubling CO2) above 5 deg.C is at least possible, albeit quite unlikely; a conclusion borne out by many other arguments and simulations. My best guess is that the actual probability of extreme sensitivity is well below the result of their simulations (~ 10%), but above previous belief, which seems almost to rule it out completely.

    On the one hand, even if the probability of sensitivity > 5 deg.C is very low — say, < 0.001 -- the consequences of that much temperature change is high enough that probability x consequence can still be non-negligible. So, we as scientists should be very concerned. On the other hand, the probability is low enough that public statements based on this possibility will open us up to more ridicule than trust; we're giving ammunition to contrarians when we publicize extremely unlikely outcomes. Thanks for providing the link to the article from Nature. Any chance you can link to, or post, the press release?

  17. 17
    pat neuman says:

    re 9. … Am I missing something? …

    Are you?

    Those who just give up are missing something.

    Emitting fewer GHG emissions now will result in a volume of accumulated GHGs at a given point in the future that will be less than it would have been had we not emitted fewer GHG emissions. Thus, at that point in the future, a lessor volume of accumulated GHGs in the atmosphere would mean a global climate that is not as warm as the global climate would have been had we not emitted fewer GHG emissions now. Therefore, it’s best to emit fewer GHG emissions now, for the sake of those who are living at that point in the future … the young people now, their children and maybe us. What matters most to me is the climate which young people and their children will have to deal with as they grow older. It is our moral obligation to emit fewer GHG emissions. How much fewer? … as much as we can.

  18. 18
    pat neuman says:


    Is the press release (link below) an example of how-not-to-write-a-press-release? What’s good or not so good about it?

    Senior Scientist: Rapid Global Warming is Happening Now
    10/30/2003 8:28:00 AM

  19. 19
    raypierre says:

    I am sympathetic to Carl Christenson. We must keep a sense of proportion. The press release announcing the results was not an entirely admirable example of publicity, but it’s not a scandal either. We are holding our field to a very high standard, and that’s as it should be, but the transgression here pales to the point of disappearance compared to what has been routinely perpetrated by the likes of Milloy, Crichton, Lindzen, Bill Gray and the like. Any mistake has been amply rectified, it is possible for people to read the original paper for the full (and entirely defensible) story, and we won’t be going around crowing that models show there will definitely be an 11C warming in 2100 — a contrast with, say, Milloy, who is still saying that Jaworowski trumps 1000 peer reviewed papers on Pleistocene CO2. The most unfortunate thing is that the somewhat clumsy press-release obscured the true message, which is that physics alone does not rule out high sensitivities, even if you impose the requirement that the model match the present annual mean climate. One can temper that with studies of paleoclimate sensitivity, but the ensemble results still should be borne in mind, since doubling CO2 takes us into a climate that has no real precendent in the part of the climate record which has been used for exploring model sensitivity, and in many regards may not have any real precedent in the entire history of the planet (in terms of initial condition and rapidity of GHG increase). There’s no doubt that the result is an important contribution.

  20. 20
    Grant says:

    Re: #18

    I’m interested in the opinions of others on this, and I’ll offer mine. I think it’s a good example of how NOT to write a press release. The press release has very little to do with the study to which it refers (which I also read). Instead, it seems to be a forum for the paper’s author to express his concern about global warming, and his certainty about its cause (anthropogenic). Although I share his opinions, his *paper* is only relevant to evidence of warming in one small geographic location and has nothing to do with the likely cause of warming.

    In fact, having read the paper, the “press release” doesn’t seem to be a press release at all. At least the press release about the Nature paper (Stainforth et al.) is about the results of that paper!

  21. 21
    Rob Negrini says:

    Regarding comment #5. I would like to see SC respond to raypierre’s comments. SC has fallen prey to misconceptions right out of the standard, knee-jerk skeptic playbook, either because he didn’t read the IPCC report carefully (or in an open-minded enough way) or because he hasn’t kept up with the literature (e.g., Damon and Laut, 2004). The ball’s in your court, SC. Are you convinced by RayPierre’s comments or not. If the latter, why not?

    [Response: Well, nobody should be convinced by my comments alone. They are only pointers to further reading (like Damon and Laut, or the various references in the RealClimate posts I mentioned). It’s only after reading the background material that they should be convinced. –raypierre]

  22. 22

    A press release for the paper by Annan and Hargreaves WAS issued on 1 March, here:
    Yes, it is in Japanese. And its English version
    appeared online actually a week later. Perhaps the delay was not intended. The administrators of our institution usually try to make equivalent PR materials in two languages. But it seems that their primary preoccupation is that our institution must be visible to Japanese taxpayers.
    (Aside: I am not another K. Masuda whose name appears as the contact point of the press release.)

    [Response: My mistake. Apologies all round. – gavin]

  23. 23

    Well I find it sort of amusing (and a little tragic) that climate scientists (at least the blogger ones) are patting themselves on the back over their high standards of a press release that will just focus on the mundane “we also show a 3K sensitivity as most likely.”

    And then act “ever so ‘umble” that they aren’t investigating the extremes, so as not to seem too “mad” or “liberal” or “wild.” So then they work on constraining things to chop off the extremes, as if the skeptics will even allow them a 3K increase.

    So what we have in the climate change area (and what I find fascinating for cynical reasons) is that everyone and their grandmother, whether they be lawyers, anthropologists, economists, semi-retired mineral engineers, poets, old academic codgers, weigh in on this scientific issue often with more aplomb and fanfare than the actual scientists (earth obs through modellers) themselves. So the great mass of scientists is far behind in the battle for minds even before they get started. But they’ll send out a conservatively-stated press release, by god!

    Let’s get a grip — a little hyperbole in a press release is to be expected — the critical moment is whether the science is backed up. I’m starting to whiff a bit of jealousy behind the sanctimony over “alarmism in the media.”

    [Response: Indeed, let’s get a grip. None of the scientists here or who have commented on the matter are short of media exposure, so I don’t think there are any ‘whiffs’. Scientists are indeed conservative (small c), and they need to be – but that doesn’t mean that they systematically underestimate effects – it means they try and assess the most likely outcome plus how unlikely it is – on both ends. No-one is expecting perfection here, just a wider appreciation of what ‘best practice’ could be. As I’ve said before, I’ve been very supportive of the project and I think some great science is being done. This ‘issue’ is indeed a bit of a distraction, but there are lessons that are worth learning. -gavin]

  24. 24
    ocean says:

    #23: Re to Carl Christensen: Well said Gavin. But I would like to say scientists are being “responsible” when trying to assess the most likely outcome and by quantifying the uncertainty involved in that, not “conservative.”

  25. 25

    Re #5 I would like to take up one point where I felt Ray had not given the full story, perhaps because it is political. SC writes:

    — For me, what I don’t like to hear in the media are the following:
    — 1) CO2 is a “pollutant”.

    and he writes:

    — We should …
    — 1) Reduce the other really nasty air pollutants.

    Scientists are well aware that CO2 is not a pollutant. The OED definition of pollutant is something that is foul and filthy. In fact, carbon dioxide is natural and neccessary for life. Without CO2 there would be no vegetation. Without vegetation there would be no food for animals or mankind. Without CO2 we would starve to death. OTOH, with too much CO2 the global temeprature would rise to such an extent that all plants would die, much as happened at the PT mass extinction, and we would be exterminated too. With just a little less CO2 we might enter a new ice age, or with just a little more CO2 we might enter a greenhosue world, similar to that at the time of the dinosaurs.

    But I am sure Ray is very familar with all of that. What he might not be aware of is that it was GWB who introduced the idea of greenhouse gases being a pollutant. GWB was interviewed by Science prior to the 2000 election [Science 13 October 2000 Vol. 290. no. 5490, pp. 262 – 269], and when asked about greenhouse gases claimed that he had a good record of dealing with pollutants!

    Science: What is your view of the scientific evidence that attributes global warming to human activity? Should the United States take steps in this decade to reduce its emission of greenhouse gases? If so, do you favor annual targets or another mechanism?

    GORE: There can no longer be serious doubts that human economic activity is affecting the global environment. While uncertainties remain, …

    BUSH: As governor, I’ve taken steps to reduce harmful, ozone-forming pollution. In 1999, I signed two landmark clean air bills that will reduce industrial air emissions an estimated 250,000 tons annually–the equivalent of removing 5.5 million cars from Texas roads and highways. One of those new laws mandates that by 2003 older power plants must reduce their emissions of nitrogen oxide (by 50%) and sulfur dioxide (by 25%). This law …

    In other words, what Bush has done is try to minimise the dangers from CO2 by lumping them in with the air pollutants SO2 and NO2. If, as a result, it means that educated people like yourself think that scientists do not know the difference between a pollutant and a greenhouse gas, then so much the better for his oil industry :-(

    [Response: There’s a lot of truth in what you say, and certainly even if I want to call CO2 a pollutant, I will freely acknowledge that the way it does harm is very different from the way NOx or tropospheric ozone or mercury do harm. I would argue, though, that the OED notion of pollutant is behind the times. The question of “what’s a pollutant” is a little like the question of “what’s a weed.” –raypierre]

  26. 26
    Steven T. Corneliussen says:

    This comment is closely related to, but is not directly on, the present thread’s topic. That is, it’s off-topic in that no amount of fair-minded, journalism-aware wisdom by press-release-writing scientists can change what the Wall Street Journal is doing — and is doing again this morning. But I hope RC will let this comment fly anyway. Today’s WSJ editorial “Breathe Easier: The world is getting cleaner, Al Gore notwithstanding” is available freely on the open part of the WSJ’s site, In my view the editorial illustrates yet again why this overall discussion about climate scientists’ communication with the rest of society is important. Some highlights:

    * The editorial repeats an old charge by asserting that “the global-cooling crisis has become the global-warming crisis without missing a beat.” It shows no sign of awareness that that charge has been rebutted, or of any response to the rebuttal.

    * The editorial continues the WSJ’s disregard of the difference in significance between odd weather events and climate change overall, which is the basis for a running gag that the WSJ’s James Taranto uses in his Best of the Web e-mail column — usually, but not always, by targeting an instance when Al Gore gave a global warming speech on a really, really cold day. Taranto plays that juxtaposition as a funny irony, which in turn fits with his unserious sarcasm about the whole topic. But this time the WSJ adds a twist: it specifically cites the climate-weather difference, but then broad-brush-accuses all opponents of having used the weather event Katrina to generalize about climate — which is a true charge, but not about RC and other serious climate scientists.

    * The editorial also charges that “full-scale demonization of anyone who questions the global warming orthodoxy is now under way. MIT’s Richard Lindzen recently described in these pages how this intimidation is stifling scientific debate.” But the editorial shows no sign of response to the belief of many that the WSJ owes it to the world to give some responsible climate scientist a chance to rebut not just Lindzen, but the WSJ’s overall editorial stance on climate change.

    * Near the end, the editorial expresses contempt about the climate consensus, in part by putting the word consensus into what James Taranto himself calls “scare quotes.” Then it ends by quoting Winston Churchill in a way that’s meant to group the furthest-out global-warming alarmist with the likes of RC and other responsible scientists: “A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.”

  27. 27
    pat neuman says:

    re 20. I’m interested in the opinions of others on this, and I’ll offer mine. …


    I’m interested to learn what you think the purpose (or purposes) of my 30 Oct 2003 press release were at that time. The press release was to represent my views only … not the views of NOAA NWS. I used my own money ($500.) to have it issued. The person who helped me issue it inserted a couple statements on his own.

  28. 28
    myles allen says:

    Dear Gavin,

    We were naturally concerned when David Frame and I were interviewed for this programme at any suggestion we were “sexing up” the results of Stainforth et al (2005), so we asked Fiona Fox of the Royal Institution Science Media Centre, who convened the January 2005 press conference announcing those results, to follow up. None of those involved in the Battle for Influence programme were present at the press conference or covered the story at the time. Fiona kindly wrote to a number of journalists who were at the press conference asking them for their reaction to the “sexing up” accusation, stating:


    My own clear memory of this briefing is that the scientists were very clear that the results showed a range of warming between 2 degrees and 11 degrees and that each time they were asked about the impact of 11 degrees they reminded journalists that this was the worst case scenario and it could just as easily be at the lower end. Obviously we all knew (the press officers that is) that you would report 11 degrees and the fact that this was twice the level suggested by previous studies was clearly a significant news story. However I believe that the scientists themselves were very measured and did not emphasise the 11 degrees.

    Fiona Fox , Director
    Science Media Centre
    The Royal Institution

    The responses Fiona received were as follows:
    Hi Fiona,

    My memory tallies with yours. They presented the range, they described the concept of the ensemble, they emphasised (in response to a very perceptive question from some star BBC journalist) the role of clouds in the uncertainty, they mentioned 6 main reasons for uncertainty.

    If anyone went for the exaggeration it was the journalists – we all mentioned 11 degrees I’m sure but as far as I recall, PA and Metro presented it virtually as a fait accompli.

    Richard Black, BBC
    Thanks Fiona, my memory is as yours. Let me know what feedback you get and I’ll write you something properly tomorrow.

    Ruth Francis, Nature
    Hi Fiona,

    As I recall, the researchers, and Myles Allen in particular, emphasised the fact that the bottom end of the range (ie the 2 in 2-11 degrees C) corresponded to previous predictions of 2-5 degrees C. I seem to remember that they said this gave strength to the prediction that there would be a warming of *at least* 2 degrees C, but that there was a greater degree of uncertainty at the top-end. This last point was definitely underlined. To back that up, refer to Myles’ quote in my article:
    Hope this helps.
    Catherine Brahic
    Senior correspondent
    Science and Development Network (SciDev.Net)
    I’d agree with Catherine’s interpretation – as far as I recall, they were all quite careful to stress the greater temperature change the greater the degree of uncertainty. I’ll try and dig up the bulletins report.

    Sarah Mukherjee, BBC
    Hi Fiona – my memory is that the scientists took pains to point out that it was a range and quite a broad range at that. I also remember Myles in a rather vivid phrase saying that we had to remember that we could still take actions to avert the worst warming and that we shouldn’t assume “that our children will stand by and watch as the seas boil around them”, showing that the worst case wasn’t necessarily the most likely outcome.

    Fiona Harvey
    Environment Correspondent
    Financial Times

    As far as the press release, drafted and issued by the Natural Environment Research Council, was concerned, NERC assured us that recipients (including all those quoted above) would have received it attached to the paper and would have known that it was intended simply to draw attention to some interesting results in the paper, not to provide a comprehensive summary. We understand this point was not made clear to the scientists who were asked to comment on the press release, who naturally commented on the fact that it left a great deal unsaid.

    We told the Battle for Influence team about all this, but they refused to discuss revising their programme. Given that they refused to “spoil the story with facts” by interviewing any of their own journalists who reported on the original story, and went to some lengths to conceal what their programme was actually about when they first approached us for an interview, it seems they had already made up their minds at the outset and there was very little we could do about it.

    We think these responses speak for themselves, and that their allegation that we sexed up the results of Stainforth et al for the benefit of the media is simply false.


    Myles Allen

    [Response: Myles, thanks a lot for forwarding the comments – that’s very interesting. I might need to provide a context for the ‘sexing up’ comment for those of our readers who aren’t big BBC radio listeners though… – gavin]

    [Response:My personal reflection is that one big problem is that there is a culture difference between the science community and the media community (or perhaps the rest of Earth’s population?). A scientist may explain the problem in a very precise and dilligent way (which it sounds like what happened in this case at the press conference from the accounts above…), yet still the media cover may sometimes be framed in an incorrect way, for the various reasons provided above in this thread. I therefore think that this dicussion is very useful, and one important aspect of this is what Gavin calls for: how should we best solve this problem? How to bridge the two communities? Could we improve the situation by better press releases or having science-media conferences (e.g. Should scientists get more media training? The American Geophysical Union ought to be commended for its efforts to liase between media and scientists, and provide media training/experience for younger scolars. Or is the best answer to provide the community with a better background knowledge of natural sciences (thus making it easier to put things in context), and focus on improving science teaching in schools? One problem may be that some journalists do not have sufficient scientific knowledge, so should one reward journalists who go to the trouble of learning more about sciences (get some kind of credits, salary increases)? The Royal Meteorological Society (Am. Met. Soc. too, I believe) has a chartered status for meteorologists, perhaps journalists who report on science should have a kind of charter too, and that some journalists/editors should be more specialists? Then, there are the cases where text has deliberately been twisted to give a different meaning (to inflate the story, in debates, or in WSJ), and I think in those cases, blogs like RC come in really handy. Climate scientists who see their work being misreported could perhaps respond, by contacting the editor of the paper, issuing a second release, contact a widely read blog, etc. Perhaps there should also be some new routines recommended for journalists – like a check list (such as checking the publication history of the scientists, checking with other scientists, reading the whole paper, etc) for ensuring good reporting. Too many exaggerated/false claims will erode the credibility of science (just like for the WMD-reports). -rasmus]

  29. 29
    Joel Shore says:

    Re #2: Although the headline might have been poor, I didn’t think the National Geographic story on the Hegerl paper was too bad. Contrast it with this story in the Washington Times if you want an example of really bad reporting: [Although you got to love a line like “The Duke estimates show the chances that the planet’s temperature will rise even by 11 degrees is only 5 percent…” for the humor value. As if a rise of 11 F (which, as I understand it from Hansen is likely at least as much as occurred between the last ice age and now) is something to be considered rather trivial!]

    I do agree that an important reason why one has to be careful about writing a press release (besides the general principle of trying to insure the most accurate story gets told) is this way in which it comes back to bite you. I.e., we are now reaping the effect of several stories (and there are more than 6 now) on the Hegerl study that are emphasizing how the warming won’t be as bad as thought. If the possibility of an 11C sensitivity hadn’t ended up being oversold in the media in the first place, this would probably not have happened. [Some headlines are better though…for example the Washington Post headline is “Climate Change Will Be Significant but Not Extreme, Study Predicts”.]

  30. 30
    Grant says:

    Re: #27

    I gave an opinion of the press release, considering it to be a report about the research to which it refers. Reading the press release, it seems that the purpose is to emphasize the seriousness of the AGW problem, and the need for the public and policymakers to treat the issue with more importance.

    As a summary of the research, I’ll stand by my earlier opinion (in #20). As a statement of the seriousness of the problem, I’d say it’s pretty good.

    BTW, I found your research fascinating. So, I tracked down your email address and sent you an email this morning.

  31. 31
    Grant says:

    Just a thought …

    As scientists, we constantly emphasize that we know the *science* behind AGW better than journalists. That’s OUR field! Maybe we should recognize that journalists know how to write a press release better than we do. That’s THEIR field!

    So, maybe the best way to write a press release is to collaborate with a journalist. They’ll know right away which claims are vulnerable to accusations of “alarmism,” they’ll understand which bits journalists are likely to latch on to, and they’ll certainly know when a PR needs a little more “sex appeal.” By collaborating, we can avoid both bad science and bad journalism getting into the public record.

  32. 32
    caerbannog says:

    SC said,

    Not that it really matters but I graduated in Electrical Engineering at Queen’s University in Canada.

    Not that it really matters, but I received a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of California, San Diego. The degree requirements at my alma mater, curiously enough, did not include any climatology coursework.

    So color me unimpressed with your climatology credentials (which are certainly no better than mine).

    (So what is it about my fellow engineers, anyway? So many of my colleagues seem to think that an engineering degree endows them with special expertise in unrelated subjects like climatology or evolutionary biology?)

    [Response: For the record, I think any reasonably educated person, whether with a technical degree or not, should be able to understand and critically evaluate the basic arguments involved in predictions of global warming. We routinely have English majors and poets in our introductory global warming class that do very well. Some people say that because Crichton is only a medical doctor,he has no credentials to criticize the experts, for example. I’ve never bought that. I’d say instead that because Crichton has some scientific training, he really has no excuse for passing off bogus arguments as science. We are in a democracy, and for that reason I wouldn’t want people to just “trust the experts.” There are some things that non-experts will probably never understand, but the basic contours of the argument should be readily accessible to just about everybody –raypierre]

  33. 33
    SC says:

    Re. #21

    “SC has fallen prey to misconceptions right out of the standard, knee-jerk skeptic playbook, either because he didn’t read the IPCC report carefully”

    First I would like to thank raypierre for taking a considerable amount of time in answering my post.

    You mention that I have fallen prey – that is you opinion. I did not “study” the IPCC report nor do I spend time to carefully study and verify scientific papers. What I have seen from the IPCC report is that the conclusion doesn’t really match the contents. It says that climate is impossible to predict , but it offers climate projections in the conclusion! It doesn’t even take into consideration that the temperature may actually decrease! Everything is on the positive side.

    Personally, I think that you can predict as the climate as much as you can predict the stock market. Taking 100 years of data of the earth is like taking 10 minutes of the stock market data and making predictions on where it’s going in the next week.

    I have noticed that the “misconceptions” you refer to are either re-inforced by those who oppose and are completely dismissed by those who favor the theory. You should consider myself as someone who is tyring to educate himself – not necessarily understand everything. A devil’s advocate I suppose.

    Living in Canada (Quebec – Excuse my french) I have to deal with the misconceptions that Americans are the worse polluters on the planet even though that Canada has increased their CO2 (and therefore all other pollutants) at twice the rate of the US. We are one of the worst energy consumers in the world by capita. People talk about the bad Americans without really looking at their own actions. Environmental laws in the US ae lot more severe and punishable than in Canada.

    BUT, if we are to implement an expensive binding agreement (Kyoto), it has to be based on strong facts. I don’t buy the argument that we should err on the safe side if we are wrong. It’s the same argument for going to War with Iraq based on WMDs. The argument now is that getting rid of Sadamm was not a bad thing – of course not but it was not worth the monetary cost but most of all the human cost. Back to GW, of course if we reduce pollution it won’t be a bad thing anyways – but the cost of being wrong will be quite high. Kyoto will probably stall the conversion of Coal firing plants to to Natural Gas since it doesn’t reduce CO2 production much anyways. But it does reduce all the other crap. In Quebec , we favour Hydro Electric. It is sold to the population as the cleanest energy on earth. But it’s not when you consider the ecological dammage it does. Kyoto will favor Hydro Electricity which is much more expensive and permanently dammages the environment (water and land). Of course no one sees the dammages in the far north.

    The bottom line to all this:

    There seems to be very little unbiased scientific eveidence available. The papers themselves are probably unbiased.

    Raypierre (he probably knows 1000 times about the subject than most) pretty much dismissed 100% of the sun being a major factor. I’m sure the astro-physycists will not be happy with the pro-GW view and will re-double their efforts to prove otherwise. Are astro-physicists more dishonest than cilmate researchers?

    The reason I was mentioning the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age (if they even existed) as important to me was that we have seen some wild fluctuations in the earth’s temperature in those periods while the CO2 atmospheric concentrations was a “constant”.

    My problem was that even though I had previous doubts in the GW theory, it had been settled by scientists with proof. That’t why I supported Kyoto. My research (limited to about 25 hours but much more than 98% of the population) in the matter proves otherwise. To me, both sides have valuable arguments.

    I really don’t think we should dismiss any arguments. The character assasinations of honest scientists should stop. I think that both sides is guilty of this. Should we give more weight to a study financed by Greenpeace or Sierra than one financed by Shell or Exxon? Shoud we dismiss both studies as being biased?

    Raypierre has not convinced me but he has taken me more towards the neutral ground.

    [Response: I’ll be happy if I merely convinced you to do more reading. As for astrophysicists and solar forcing, I want to clarify my statement a bit. I only dismiss solar forcing as a major factor in the 20th/21st century climate signal. Based on physical modelling taking into account measured and astrophysically plausible variations in solar spectral luminosity, and on consistent physical models of the response of he climate system to solar forcing, you can’t explain away the 20th/21st net warming trend with solar effects. I don’t think there are any astrophysicists that would disagree with the estimates being used for luminosity variations, not even Baliunas. It is the purely empirical claims of close association between solar activity and climate (generally coming from Fries-Christenson and Svensmark) that should be discarded, primarily for the reasons documented in Damon and Laut’s paper. As for the broader view of Holocene climate change, the Medieval Warm is a rather diffuse event and so ill-defined that it isn’t very easy to use it as a test of anything. However, something very clear and real was happening during the Little Ice Age, which demands explanation. The only viable mechanisms on the table for that have to do with solar forcing, but it has so far proved very difficult to get a sufficient cooling out of any astrophysically plausible luminosity change. Understanding the LIA is difficult because we are lacking most of the direct observations needed to answer the major questions. For the 20th and 21st century we have many more direct observations of the Sun, the clouds, and so forth, and are on much firmer ground with regard to saying what the Sun is or isn’t doing to climate. –raypierre]

  34. 34
    SC says:

    Re. #32

    I have never claimed to be an expert, but I’m trying to learn enough on my own rather than rely on journalists ,TV commentators and politicians. This blog was originally about media inflation.

    In Engineering, you get courses in combustion, Geology, physics , heat transfer ,liquid mechanics etc. What I was really trying to say is that in general, Engineers have a “prove it” mentality which is not always a good thing. Just ask my wife. I do agree that Engineers tend to move beyond their area of expertise.

    But I never came here as a climate expert. I believe I came here with some questions and a few doubts.

    [Response: That will always be welcome here ! I only wish I had the time to respond more fully, and in more detail. –raypierre]

  35. 35
    Grant says:

    I agree that although scientists in general are rarely climatologists, we do have a better perspective on the scientific evidence. Most of us know basic physics, and we’re well versed in the scientific method and the criteria for study.

    Also, climatologists don’t live in a vacuum! They need, e.g., mathematicians. That’s how I’ve become convinced of the AGW hypothesis; I don’t know much about atmospheric chemistry, but you have to get up pretty early in the morning to fool me with *numbers.* I first took the AGW issue seriously when I discovered that Soon & Baliunas had published a paper disputing the paleoclimate record. Dr. Baliunas’ reputation was sufficient to cause me to *doubt* global warming! So, I investigated carefully, and I can tell you for sure, that paper is faulty on so many levels, it’d be funny if it weren’t such fuel for contrarians. And you don’t have to be a climatologist to know that.

    I’ve noticed this consistently: papers denying global warming *often* have fundamental errors in data analysis. Papers supporting the AGW hypothesis consistently adhere to high standards of mathematical analysis. Numbers don’t lie — people do.

  36. 36
    Bob King says:

    An aspect that hasn’t been addressed here (as far as I can tell) is the role of Nature in all of this. It would be interesting to compare the first draft (or abstract) submitted to Nature with what ended up getting published. Prof. Myers – how about it?

    Even if few changes were made, reading the abstract suggests that the thing that made it “Nature worthy” was the 11 degree finding. I’m certainly not suggesting that it shouldn’t have been published, nor am I suggesting that the 11 degree finding is being hyped out of context – after all the title was “Uncertainity….” which should have led to some pause by journalists.

    However, all that having being said, what Nature and Science decide to publish or not publish seems a bit idiosyncratic and somewhat geared to it’s potential publicity or “splash” value. For example, they have their own press releases, embargoes and the like all of which add to a certain “breathless awaiting” of each issue. I think Chris Christensen is on the money when he says “a little hyperbole in a press release is to be expected — the critical moment is whether the science is backed up.”

    Getting published in Nature or Science demands more than just cutting edge science – some hype is demanded by the journals themselves. In fact, without it the editors will ding the manuscript without even sending it to review. So you more or less have to come up with something edgy to start with.

    After reading the paper I really think the authors did an excellent job of presenting a fair account and of keeping the hype to a bare minimum.

  37. 37

    RE #31 At last a post that I can agree with!

    Newspaper depend on their sales. If the paper does not sell it won’t get published. In order to sell it must be ENTERTAINING. That is why they report the unusal. They don’t report “dog bites man.” They report “man bites dog.” And that is why they don’t report that “climate sensitivity is probably in the middle of previous predictions” and do report “Climate sensitivity may be twice scientists’ previous estimate.” Which story would you read? Don’t shoot the messenger. The journalist can only get published what his editor will accept, and that is what his readers find interesting. The sooner scientists realise this the better.

    If you think that there is a danger from global warming, then the press releases must emphasis the dangers, otherwise the public will not get to hear the real facts. But it is worse. It seems that Gavin does not wants the public to hear the facts. he wants to censor what the public should read. If the model says that an 11C sensitivity may be possible, he does not want the public to be told. He seems to believe that James Annan’s 3C is the correct value. No other figures may be published.

    But the 3C is just his opinion based on the fact that most models come up with that value. That is no guarantee that it is correct. In fact, since there is such a large range of results from the models it is almost certain that it is wrong! But let’s assume that it is the most likely rise.

    If my house caught fire, how much of it would be destroyed? Perhaps the chimney will catch fire and I will have to pay a sweep to clean it out. Perhaps a chip pan will catch fire and I will need new kitchen units. Perhaps the electric blanket on our bed will ignite and all the upstair bedrooms will be destroyed, or perhaps teh house be burnt to the ground. The most likely case is that it will not be totally destroyed. So should I only insure it for half its value? Of course not. I want to know the total value of the house so I can insure against that. And I want to know what is the maximum climate sensitivity so I can bring in global policies to prevent that happening. I, as a member of the public, need to know that there is a possibility of an 11C rise. I don’t want scientist hiding that information from me because I might be alarmed.

    Pat Neuman showed us his press release. It is in fact inaccurate. He describes what is happening as rapid climate change. That is wrong. The last instance of rapid climate change was 10,000 year ago at the end of the Younger Dryas, when the temperature in Greenland leapt by 20C within three years [Richard Alley, The Two Mile Time Machine] That is rapid climate change, and that is fact not a climate model.

    It is really about time that climate modellers who are posting on this blog came down from their ivory towers and had a look at the real world. Read Pat Neuman’s press release and see what the physical world is like. Read Mark Serreze when in 2002 he was asking if we had reached a tipping point See,

    Meanwhile forest fires have raged from California to Alaska, and from Portugal to Greece. Last month they were raging in Victoria Australia. In Africa Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro are losing thair ice caps

    In the radio program, on which this thread is based and you can hear by clicking on the button on the right of the web page, Dr Tim Lenton says “We don’t literally have to start reducing emissions tomorrow” That was totally misleading, far worse than saying that an 11C rise might happen sometime in the future.

    The problem is that the models are wrong, and Lenton is basing his ideas on the models rather than the facts. The models can’t reproduce the rapid climate change at the end of the Younger Drys, nor can the models reproduce the lapse rate in the tropics measured by radiosondes and MSUs. The data has been massaged to make them fit the models, but then the new figure are completely incompatible with the effects of aerosols which it is purported are causing global dimming. Aerosols are the only way global dimming can be made to match the models. The modellers should not be allowed to have it both ways. If the middle troposphere is warming it is either as predicted by the models or because of aerosols not both. Every time the models fail to match reality, it is reality that is changed to fit the modesl.

    I have already explained here that the models are using classical thermodynamics to calculate the effects of radiation, rather than quantum mechanics. What more can I say that in order to save the planet from the scientists?

    [Response: Alastair, please, no more about Kirchoff’s law and how all the radiation models are wrong. We’ve been through all that before. –raypierre]

  38. 38
    raypierre says:

    Regarding #24, the remark by Ocean on scientists being more “responsible” when emphasizing the most probable outcomes:

    I would say that it would actually be irresponsible for scientists to only emphasize the most probable outcomes and fail to explore the more extreme possibilities. One must take care to label the extreme possibilities as such, but these extremes are very relevant to policy decisions. Even assuming we are assigning probabilities correctly (very dubious in itself), the usual use of probabilities of outcomes in things like cost-benefit analysis assumes an aggregation of harms across many, many similar decisions, in some of which cases things turn out very badly, but in others of which things come out not so badly. In the case of global warming, all our eggs are in one basket, as it were, so the chance that something really, really bad happens needs to be weighed very seriously. The study is very significant in that it forces modellers to think more broadly about what their parameterizations can do.

  39. 39
    ocean says:

    #37: Thanks Raypierre. I agree with you that the extreme cases should also be explored by scientists and that it would be irresponsible to do otherwise. . I simply offered “responsible” as an alternative to “conservative.” I don’t see scientists as conservative because that defeats the purpose of looking for truth.

  40. 40
    Mark A. York says:

    If you want to comment on the WSJ editorial it’s open.

  41. 41
    Eli Rabett says:

    To Rasmus’ comment in #26, scientists ARE getting intensive media training, unfortunately they are the Michaels and Baliunii of the world.

    On a more serious note, the problem for journalists (if they know what they are doing) in reporting a range of results for climate sensitivity is that the low end is ho-hum, but the higher end is more interesting. BUT THEY ARE RIGHT! The high end is where the threat is and the correct approach is to weigh probability by threat.

    For example, even though the threat of asteroid impact is low, the threat is so large that it has to be taken seriously.

    Let us look at a similar problem that has been much featured on this site, cyclone intensification. Assume for the sake of argument that there is an even divide on whether this is happening due to AGW. One approach is the “more study is needed”. That is traditionally the approach of scientists. Policy makers have two choices, “ignore the threat and in 50% of the cases we are right, and in 100% of the cases we are retired from office”, or “this is a serious issue, and because the large losses associated with what would happen if this were correct, start taking action now”. In the second case, would it be responsible, or irresponsible for policymakers and journalists to emphasize the extreme in their reports?

    Which brings us back to climate sensitivity. (Note: even the sensitivities in the two new probabalistic estimates are strongly skewed to the high side). What is interesting to most people who read newspapers is not the narrowing of the range (still pretty much Arrheniuslike) of probability for climate sensitivity, but the distribution and the associated risks for themselves. They denialists make use of this by emphasizing and exaggerating monetary costs of action. The traditional response has been that there are many no/low cost responses, but this is a losing position, because what the public does is to weigh high cost vs. low cost, average them together and gets medium to serious expenses…. This, of course, ignors the costs associated with doing nothing, but they are in the future, and what has the future ever done for us.

    How should this range be weighed by those, including the public, for the purposes of action or inaction? I would submit that it would not be unreasonable to use a sharply increasing exponential weighing and I further submit that this would restore a needed reality to the debate.

  42. 42
    Jinni King says:

    While I can appreciate the wish for scientists work to be portrayed faithfully, I ask what is so wrong with hyping up climate change predictions. Yes the high end estimates may not be the most likely to come to fruition, but they are the most likely to get people to start acting. We can all sit around arguing over whether global temperatures will rise 2 or 11° by 2100, but lets not wait til then, doing nothing, to find out who’s right. If, by allowing the press to report that a change of 11° is likely within many people who are alive todays’ lifetimes, people become more aware of the issues and the dangers of AGW and start to take action, start to insist that Bush listens to those urging him to join Kyoto, what harm does that do?

  43. 43
    Paul says:

    Re #28 (Rasmus),

    There are definite cultural differences between the disciplines of science and journalism. Some of the problems that occur when information is exchanged between simply cannot be avoided.

    Here’s a couple
    1. Scientists enjoy nuance (on the other hand statements) Journalists need clarity (boil it down into one sentence)
    2. Science is conservative and moves cautiously. Journalism needs quick results and eye catching headlines.

    I think that every science journalist should have training in science. I know that some journalists will read this and get angry, but I think it’s important to understand how scientists think.

    I also believe that scientists should get media training. If not, they will make mistakes and inevitably come away thinking, “Well, why did she write that?”

    Much of this has been hashed over in exquisite detail by Deborah Nelkin, a researcher at NYU who passed away a couple of years ago. I would really recommend her book “Selling Science: How the Press Covers Science and Technology.” Link:

  44. 44
    JohnLopresti says:

    I think the 11-degree variant is of such dimension that the media consumer recognizes it is significant; to a reader the reaction is almost visceral; the body realizes 11 degrees would alter the conditions in which we live.

    If the Stainforth study is replicated one decade from now based on ten more years of data, we might find a need to augment that 11-degree distance.

    It is noteworthy that good science continually attempts to restrain exaggeration.

    Yet, while the Stainforth article offers much for further examination, the BBC linked material has value in a different realm. As a former livestock raiser, and forest replanter, I observed one BBC graphic captioned ‘Drought or flood’ is a perfect illustration of the error of oversimplification, as I thought immediately of alternatives to that binary, such as soil compaction, trampling, decreased vigor offering susceptibility to fungal infection, as the tree is denuded and there is livestock nearby. Science is complicated; it makes it worthwhile to pay well for bright people to write the press releases. Beyond fact, there is politics, and other contexts abound; indeed, as the author alludes, Gallileo per force needed to have considerable pluck, as his disgrace lasted a long time.

  45. 45
    Isaac Held says:

    Re #37. I would go farther and say that the plausibility of the high sensitivity end is the single most important scientific issue facing us at this point. The potential for surprises presumably rises dramatically as a function of sensitivity. is a nice way of generating candidate high sensitivity models for more detailed analysis. How the distribution of sensitivities that they generate should be publicized is a separate question.

  46. 46
    SC says:

    Re. #41

    “I ask what is so wrong with hyping up climate change predictions”

    For the same reason that it would be wrong to downplay it or ignore it if it exists. The truth is the truth whatever it is and people deserve to know it. You mention Bush for Kyoto but you believe that the exact same tactics be used to sell Kyoto that he himself used for the case for War and WMDs.

    Don’t you find it a little strange that the United Nations believes that there is 100% chance that the temperature will increase in the next century? To me, it would have been more credible to say that the range will be -1.0 to 5.

    Let me ask you something. If the earth starts unexpectedly to cool down in the next dozen years that wipes out all the previous gains, should our response be to start pumping more CO2 in the atmosphere to limit it?

    The green house effect was well known in the 70s. Did any scientists say “don’t worry about the global dimming alarmists, the CO2 we are pumping will take care of the problem”?

    the reduction of fossil fuel consumption should be sold to the public for the real reasons. Whatever they may be. If it happens that CO2 causes no harm – then let it be. I agree that it this would not be a good situation – since the guilt factor in people would drop.

    I am no fan of GW Bush but I tend to agree with him on Kyoto. Why close plants in the US and move them to China and India (who don’t have to reduce their emissions). The net benefit to the Earth will be 0. Not only that, Kyoto will increase the long distance transportation of hazardous chemicals (on the oceans) as these will get produced more and more in countries who don’t have to reduce their emissions. The demand however will not geographically change.

    Simply moving production of goods to countries much further than where the demand is only acts to increase the need to transport them a longer distance – which in turn also burns more fossil fuels.

  47. 47
    Mark A. York says:

    I got the lead online comment albeit with a copyediting issue. The others are of the same sort Ray noticed before for the mostpart.

  48. 48
    ocean says:

    Re#44: I wouldn’t say it is the “single most important scientific issue..” In fact I don’t think the lay person would consider AGW “more imporatnt” than say, Alzeimers, AIDS or cancer research. The potential for surprises increases as a function of sensitivity, but even “not so alarming” trends in warming can have long standing negative effects on reefal communities, continental aridity, etc. While I think worst case scenarios are well worth analyzing, I don’t think it is the one thing we should focus on. Because this quickly begins to sound like a Hollywood horrorr flick to the casual reader. But maybe I read your post incorrectly.

  49. 49
    Isaac Held says:

    Re #45: Sorry, I meant the single most important issue in global warming research. (I am used to just corresponding with by climate modeling colleagues.) The potential for surprises is already much greater at the high end of the canonical range as opposed to the low end. The ramifications of even higher values is truly frightening to most of us, so evaluating claims that the probability of such values is non-trivial needs to be at the top of our list of priorities.

  50. 50
    Mark Shapiro says:

    Our alarm over alarmism is all well and good. Neither scientists nor journalists communicate perfectly, and all should work to improve. But no matter how well they do, skeptics will always be able to cast doubts and aspersions.

    And then the skeptics’ simple conclusion goes unchallenged: that it is not worth spending trillions of dollars to decarbonize the world economy. This conclusion is often only implied, other times mentioned offhandedly, as if it is inherently obvious.

    IMHO we must not let that huge conclusion go unchallenged. Not ever. (For one thing, it’s alarmist!) I know that is not RC’s charter to discuss energy technology, economics, or policy, but we can at least point to those who do it well, and arm ourselves with the main points. If you can excuse a shameless plug, Amory Lovins, a physicist, has been doing just that for us all since about 1973, and has data and analysis at the Rocky Mountain Institute website, .

    How much money would we save by decarbonizing? How energy efficient can we become, how fast, and how profitably? What is the best array of renewables? How many other problems would we solve by decarbonizing? How healthy, wealthy, safe, and secure do we want to be?

    Skeptics who advocate free markets should at least agree to end all fossil fuel subsidies. But they are rarely mentioned, even in the WSJ cited in #26.

    You are absolutely right that we shouldn’t be alarmist. But couldn’t we be “solutionist”?