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A Tale of Three Interviews

Filed under: — gavin @ 9 April 2007

The release of the IPCC Working Group II summary report (on climate change impacts) lead to a large number of stories on climate change in the media and, inevitably, lots of requests for media appearances for climate scientists on the journalists’ Rolodex. On the same day, there was a short article in Science on the ‘framing’ of science communication.

The Science piece, by Scibloggers Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet, make the point that the way science is expressed in public makes a difference to how it is received. So much, so uncontroversial. However, it generated some trenchant counterarguments, (and countercounterarguments), possibly because they start off criticising a bit of a strawman ‘scientist’ who thinks that ‘if only laypeople better understood technical complexities… controversies would subside’. It’s certainly possible that such people exist, however, they are unlikely to be found among the scientists who are active in trying to communicate to the public. However, instead of arguing about this in a rather abstract way, I thought I’d illustrate the issue by discussing three interviews I did last Thursday and Friday in relation to the IPCC WG II release.

I was asked to do three TV appearances to discuss the upcoming report: CNN (World News Tonight), Bloomberg Media (Peter Cook’s Money and Politics) and the Weather Channel. Each interview was very different – CNN and the Weather Channel pre-taped them, Bloomberg was live. CNN’s interview was from a news reporter who knew the basics, who asked questions that she was interested in and ended up with answers that were comprehensible at the level of the average viewer. The Weather Channel interview was done by Heidi Cullen who is much more versed in the topic (and has a climate science background) and is very aware both of the real issues and the fake ‘pseudo-debates’ that often surround the topic. Her questions were spot on, but possibly at a higher level than would be appropriate on CNN. In both cases, the details of the new report were of less interest than the overall message that the IPCC reports and climate science community are giving.

The Bloomberg producers (who come with a very ‘Wall Street’ focus/attitude) however, still see this as a partisan political debate and while they had a brief factual intro from their reporter, they followed it with a spokesman from CEI, Christopher Horner – author of the “Incorrect guide to climate change” (I’ve possibly got the book title slightly wrong), – and then me. As you might expect, the subsequent 5 minute ‘conversation’ was neither informative nor entertaining, and I doubt that anyone watching was the least bit swayed, intrigued or had their curiosity piqued or their prejudices reinforced. Horner zipped through his grab-bag of talking points (mostly focussed on the imagined failings of the IPCC process), which probably went over the heads of any civilians watching, while I tried to stick to the point that climate change impacts have started and will likely get worse (when I could get a word in edgewise).

So what does this tell us about the ‘framing’ of the issue? First off, the interviewee doesn’t get to change the ‘frame’ in a 5 minute TV interview – however often you are on. Instead the frame is imposed mostly from the editorial and production decisions. It’s easy to see that the CNN and Weather Channel producers see climate change story in a ‘news event’ frame, for which they get outside expertise to explain some of the finer points. Bloomberg see this in a ‘political controversy’ frame and set up their interviews accordingly. Horner would like the frame to be about ‘political/scientific corruption’ which clearly appeals to some, but since he asks you to believe lawyers over scientists, it’s unlikely to get very far (scientists are roughly 3 times more ‘trusted’ than lawyers). Given the other channels decisions’ and the House/Senate hearing a couple of weeks ago, I think that this ‘framing’ has probably had its day but will likely linger on in some corners for a while.

How do frames shift then? Despite what some might think, it is a matter of education – not of the general public though (as welcome as that would be) – but of the gatekeepers: the journalists, editors and producers. Communication efforts are much more likely to succeed if they target the people who communicate for a living, rather than the general public directly. While the overall frame for climate change has clearly moved from ‘controversy’ to ‘news event’, there are still sub-issues that advocates for specific policy changes are fighting over – those are however, more subtle and aren’t so much of a problem of ‘pure’ science communication, and so I’ll leave it for others to discuss those.

155 Responses to “A Tale of Three Interviews”

  1. 1
    Stewart Argo says:

    Christopher Horner’s book is “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Global Warming and Environmentalism”.

    Unbelievably, it’s one of a series – other “guides” include Islam, American History and Darwinism.

    [Response: I think my title was more apropos.. ;) – gavin]

  2. 2

    Do you seriously believe these four issues are free of politics?

    That is unbelievable!

  3. 3
    Hank Roberts says:

    I like your point. I wish “science journalists” routinely published errata, corrected mistakes, and commented on their own ambiguities when something they wrote fails by being easily misinterpreted. And I sure wish they could rise in their profession by pointing out where other people covering the story got it wrong, pointedly correcting and citing past stories to update them.

    Nitpick, for “(scientists are roughly 3 times more ‘trusted’ as lawyers)” I suggest: (Harris Poll: 77% trust scientists; 27% trust lawyers) to avoid fixing “more … as” — writing around the problem.

  4. 4
    Stewart Argo says:

    Sorry about this, but there’s an amusing take on the Politically Incorrect Guides (PIG) on
    Forthcoming titles include Maths:

    “Many prestigious mathemeticians are beginning to question the relevance of Pythagoras’ Theorem in geometry and are being censored by Pythagorists in government positions”

  5. 5
    J.S. McIntyre says:

    re #1.

    Sadly, there is nothing unbelievable about it. Mr. Horner is a populist-type author/spokesman who plays to a polarized constituency that tends to want hear things that agree with their often erroneous and/or dogmatic preconceptions. His book on Islam could easily be viewed as hatemongering. His book on American History appeals to sensibilities that are outraged by uncomfortable facts. His book on Darwinism, though, is a real gem: it stands out as a classic example misrepresenting science in favor of reinforcing dogma, taking the “best” arguments Creationists and Intelligent Designers have to offer in order to show science has it wrong.

    I bring this up only to echo a sentiment I’ve seen repeated from time to time on these boards and which I agree with: the “debate” over Global Warming has taken on the character of the “debate” over evolution. The same kinds of tactics can be seen at play: misinformation, obfuscation, mischaracterization and general disingenuous behavior.

    It might be helpful if Climate Scientists had an organization behind them much like the National Center for Science Education, actively taking on the denialists. Another thing that might be helpful is a website along the lines of, in particular their extremely helpful webpage that outlines Creationist’s arguments and debunks them point by point. I have found it is an great way to learn for the non-expert.

    That said, my ongoing thanks to this site for the information is provides.

  6. 6
    pat neuman says:

    Only the focus has changed – to how bad and when.

  7. 7
    Mark A. York says:

    Demiers of anything will always find areas of uncertainty to mine. During my research of WWII for a book, I unfortunately ran into a holocaust denier. They use a series of false causes basically, in which they attribute the blame to some kernal of truth, and discrediting the evidence of certain intra-events is a key part.

  8. 8
    George Ortega says:

    Perhaps it’s time for climate scientists to deliver their messages directly to the general public, rather than allowing them to be filtered by the news media. Here’s an idea for how this could be done using product labels as a tie-in campaign to Al Gore’s 7-7-07 Live Earth Concerts:

  9. 9
    Mitch Golden says:

    Gavin, to me the most amusing thing about the “framing” is one thing you failed to point out – that they chose to “balance” you with a guy who’s not even another scientist. In other words, it’s someone who knows something against someone who doesn’t.

  10. 10
    Thom says:

    Every contrarian story about climate change with the frame “are researchers overstating the science” or “are politics are play” requires at least a comment or two from conservative fave Roger Pielke Jr.

    I wonder what’s wrong with the guys are Bloomberg.

  11. 11
    B. Buckner says:

    The public discussions by scientists never acknowledge the positive aspects that fossil fuels have on civilization in general. The average person looks around and sees that his house is heated with oil or gas, his electricity is generated with coal, his car is fueled by gasoline, and the company he works for uses large amounts of energy. We are in large part comfortable and happy with our carbon-based lifestyles. Furthermore, most Americans would prefer to live or retire in the southern US because, well, most people prefer warmer to colder. Lastly, the public has been continually bombarded with scientific news stories of various impending disasters over the past 40 years. Over the past decades, history indicates that the real problems eventually get addressed and we move on. People, appropriately so, have a tremendous built in faith in man’s ability to adapt and create.

    With all this as a backdrop, I think it is unlikely that the public will fully embrace the global warming disaster scenario until it is upon us.

  12. 12
    Aaron Lewis says:

    Science is about ‘truth.’ Why doesn’t the public trust ‘scientists’ 100%? Why do the ‘gate keepers’ treat some science issues as political, rather than as facts to proven or disproved?

    I think it is because of the way we teach science. (With all due respect to science teachers.) We teach science as a series of half-truths and half-fallacies, each of which must be corrected in some later teaching. If a student drops out of their science sequence before learning the last teaching, then they take some half-truths and half-fallacies with them into the real world. And, the process of unlearning half-fallacies and learning more half-truths leaves some with a deep resentment, and even distrust of science.

    For example, the young student learns that the Earth spins on its axis and goes around the sun. However, in Physics 1, they are taught Newton’s Laws, and on the exam is that classic question, “A book is sitting on a table, what are the forces on the book?” THE CORRECT ANSWER IS, “F=MA; the book is not moving, therefore A=0, and F=0; the forces on the book are 0.” The teaching assistant says F=0. That is what she has been told to say, and her Ph.D. in Physics depends on her teaching freshmen that F=MA. The encyclopedia says that everything on Earth is accelerating. Who does the freshman believe? This imposes an immediate cognitive dissonance, which will not be resolved until the study of “Frames of Reference.” If the student does not get to study Frames of Reference, then the student is going to walk away from science thinking that science has real internal conflicts within it, and therefore cannot really be trusted. Moreover, in the discussion of Newton, the lecturer said that balls of different density fall at the same rate, and the students most likely used a computer to “prove” it. If the student leaves science at that point, they will go into the world thinking that “scientific theories” just do not work in the real world. I mean like; the real world has things like air friction!

    Now! We want that student that transferred to Journalism after one year of science to believe our “theories” about future climate as “proved with a computer”? Fat Chance!

  13. 13
    Hank Roberts says:

    Aaron wrote:
    > Science is about ‘truth.’ Why doesn’t the public trust ‘scientists’ 100%?

    You’re misreading what Gavin meant to write (grin). The poll doesn’t say how _much_ people trust scientists. The poll says how _many_ people trust scientists, stated as a percentage.

    That’s exactly the misunderstanding I saw coming, that’s why I suggested rewriting that bit.

    You don’t need to wonder “why don’t 100% of the people polled trust scientists” — right?

  14. 14
    Paddy Lenihan says:

    Re 3: Most polls indicate that there are two classes of people who are distrusted even more than lawyers, journalists and politicians. Trust of scientists would be better if there weren’t so many who are 2d or 3d rate, and whose work is driven by public policy agendas rather than science.

    [Response: It’s much more difficult than this. Precisely because science is trusted more than politics, politicians and other advocates try to use ‘science’ to bolster their cases. Since this abuse of the process is often seen by the public as coming from scientists themselves, it devalues the ‘brand’ (if you like). Plus, there are lots of cases where real, but minority, scientists have been wildly wrong when discussing issues of public concern (Mad Cow Disease, MMR vaccines, tobacco apologists). This obviously does not help the reputation of science. So, I’m happy that scientists are not unquestioningly trusted, but I’m also conscious that maintaining the credibility we do have requires a certain careful approach. – gavin]

  15. 15
    Figen Mekik says:

    So we should make sure our communications and journalism majors in our introductory science courses get the science straight :)

  16. 16
    lars says:

    Aaron wrote:
    > Science is about ‘truth.’ Why doesn’t the public trust ‘scientists’ 100%?

    Because they are often wrong. even Einstein.

  17. 17
    Aaron Lewis says:

    Re # 13.
    Even the folks that say that they trust scientists do not trust scientists whole-heartedly.

    Science works, which is why I trust it. But, the science that I learned in Physics 1 does not work when I throw a box of nails and a bundle of insulation off my roof at the same time. The biology that I learned in Biology 1 is not going to help me grow an orchid from seed.

    So, do I trust the scientist with a computer that says that the Arctic Sea Ice will be gone in 40 years? No! I do not think his slab ocean model reflects the currents and thermohaline structures in Arctic waters in a time of AGW.

    [Response: FYI. None of those model results use slab oceans. – gavin]

    I think, that if you want to go play on the Arctic Sea Ice, you better go soon! And, that includes those huge ice shelves that are supposed to last for thousands of years.

  18. 18
    J. Jackson says:

    A recent study from the University of Chicago (by economists Jesse Shapiro and Matthew Gentzkow) showed that the slant of newspaper articles depended much more on the audience than on the individual beliefs of the editorial staff. There is probably only so much good you can do in educating reporters/editors. You also have to show them that their coverage is going to translate into dollars. This is a much more difficult proposition, however, the producers of Al Gore’s documentary hit upon a great solution. That movie’s box office numbers (over $45 million worldwide) and Oscar win no doubt were primary factors leading to Time Magazine’s recent cover story on global warming. Maybe it’s time to start working on a treatment about the exploits of daring climate scientists trekking around the world …

  19. 19
    Eli Rabett says:

    Perhaps a way of dealing with folk like Horner starts by stopping him as he gets into his litany and pointing out that anyone who has come up hard and fast against reality understands that there is neither a theory or a model that explains everything. There are always residuals, unexplained anomolies and people on the fringes who will hold onto those for dear life, weaving webs of conspiracy theories that focus only on what remains unexplained. This throws the baby out with the bathwater: the fringe theories might explain the residuals, but they can’t deal with the basic facts of the situation.

    The best theories and models deal with the largest extent of the evidence available using intellectually valid and understandable ideas with predictive power. Those with no tolerence for ambiguity are doomed to a life of carping.

    Carpe diem.

  20. 20
    Aaron Lewis says:

    Re # 17
    Then the general description on the CCSM website should be updated.

    [Response: It seems pretty clear to me: “As recently as the 1990s, most climate models used a “slab” ocean—one that behaves as a single unit. Today, the CCSM and other sophisticated models include a much more dynamic depiction of the ocean that tracks changes in ocean currents, temperature, and salinity.” . -gavin]

  21. 21
    Stewart Argo says:

    Response: I think my title was more apropos.. ;) – gavin

    Touche, Gavin. :)

    There’s an amusing take on the Politically Incorrect Guides (PIG) on
    Forthcoming titles include Maths:

    “Many prestigious mathemeticians are beginning to question the relevance of Pythagoras’ Theorem in geometry and are being censored by Pythagorists in government positions”

  22. 22
    Edward Greisch says:

    Most journalists haven’t got a clue as to what Science is about. They think that You are an “authority”. They probably think that scientists decide what is true by voting. They don’t realize that all of your friends are “opposing councils”. Good luck on giving them a 4 year education in 5 minutes.

    Nature isn’t just the final authority on truth, Nature is the Only authority. There are zero human authorities. Scientists do not vote on what is the truth. There is only one vote and Nature owns it. We find out what Nature’s vote is by doing Scientific [public and replicable] experiments. Scientific [public and replicable] experiments are the only source of truth. [To be public, it has to be visible to other people in the room. What goes on inside one person’s head isn’t public unless it can be seen on an X-ray or another instrument.]
    Science is a simple faith in Scientific experiments and a simple absolute lack of faith in everything else.
    This is what needs to be taught in those “Intro to Science” courses for humanities majors. “Intro to Science” courses for humanities majors need to be heavy on laboratory to get the point across.

    Reference book:
    “Science and Immortality” by Charles B. Paul 1980 University of California Press. In this book on the Eloges of the Paris Academy of Sciences (1699-1791) page 99 says: “Science is not so much a natural as a moral philosophy”. [That means drylabbing [fudging data] will get you fired.]
    Page 106 says: “Nature isn’t just the final authority, Nature is the Only authority.”

  23. 23
    cat black says:

    One outcome of AGW is that just about everyone with half a brain is about to become a climate junky of some kind or another. Those that try to ignore the issue in the hope that it will go away are going to come across as ignorant and useless. Those that follow along with the science and data will be in a position to assume leadership (if only locally) as their communities try to cope. The cream will rise to the top.

    OTOH, we might be in for a bumpy ride; the ignorant will shortly turn to their favorite demagogue for validation and a promised return to “our cherished American way of life”. It ought to be good times for the neo-con pundits as they fight the good fight against leftist pinko anti-Democracy tree-hugging enviro-freaks. And you all know who you are. ;)

  24. 24
    Valuethinker says:

    Bruce Brukner

    We must read different scientists. Or at least different policy experts.

    Every discussion, including the IPCC, is couched around continuing economic growth and therefore use of fossil fuels (except perhaps the Peak Oil crowd).

    I agree with you about the human connection ‘warmth=good’ making it hard for the global warming story to raise alarm. Tim Farrell makes this point very well in The Weather Makers. There is a lack of what psychologists call ‘strong affect’ in the understanding of global warming (at least there was before Katrina), ie strong visual and emotionally charged images of what global warming might be like. (work of Antony Leiserowitz) and also 2 articles about the perceptions of global warming amongst Americans:

  25. 25
    Hank Roberts says:

    > …daring climate scientists trekking around the world …
    Easier to do that than one about the modelers, I guess (sigh).

    “Quick, get the drill into that icecap — before it melts!”

    “Wait, what’s that rumbling noise? Oh Nooooo, an ice quake.

    [a two-mile fall to the bottom, just as the ocean rushes in from all sides]
    “Thank goodness you landed on your feet, Dr. Daring.”
    “Never mind that, get the drill out of the hole, back to work!”

  26. 26
    Valuethinker says:

    Sorry this is the best reference on Leiserowitz’s work:

  27. 27
    TonyGuitar says:

    Are enviro scientists lost in the fine print?

    Clear directives anyone? Like get clean-coal tech installed on as many of thousands of coalgen plants as possible,[ China, India,USA], and a switch to EVs.

    Be sure to see or rent **Who Killed the Electric Car**. Provided you are not a Liberal with brain-freeze, it could lead you to a fortune.

    The following could improve your life and lungs, clear cities of smog, and defeat Acmahdinejad.

    Three facts – The EV wave has started

    [1] General Motors were shocked that their trial electric car of 1993, the EV1, was a wild and addictive public success. Indicating the death of the ICE engine. So much so, that they gathered every last EV1 and crushed them in a secure GM compound. [Rent the video, *Who Killed the Electric Car*.]

    [2] Chevron / absorbed Texaco and gained control of patents for the large format NiMH battery. The ideal BATTERY FOR AUTO-MOTION. For nay, they have no wish to keep us dependent upon products of their 8 to 12 Billion$ refineries and their giant distribution networks.

    [3] Suspect ye not the governments, who, [at the moment], have no idea how to bring in tractor trailer loads of money on the 8 to 16 cents of charge required by EVs that can plug in anywhere anytime.

    The Electric Vehicle wave has started and is well under way. The range of the GM *93 EV-1 was 130 miles. Today, a range of 250 miles between charges is reasonable, however smaller NEVs [neighbourhood electric vehicles], of a 40 mile range are popular and sell for only 12 to 14k.

    Freedom from the grip of volatile gas, [remember the *70s empty gas pumps?], makes the EV a life-saver that pays for itself. A solar panel roof can provide an extended range. = TG

    Job losses galore. Government revenue losses galore, but just breath in that fresh air and watch Acmahdinejad wilt on the vine.

  28. 28
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    RE #2, “Do you seriously believe these four issues are free of politics?”

    Nothing is free of politics (which I take to mean power relations). And as Foucault said, “Power is knowledge.” And the big industries, fossil fuels, and the government & media bought by such, have quite a bit more power than scientists, who still have some power in our technocracy — which is more than what environmentalists or the victims of AGW have (many yet to be born), which is nil.

    Which brings me to the point that this is not a 2-sided debate, but a 3-sided debate. However, the voices of environmentalists have been almost totally silenced in this country (though not as much in the rest of the world). So much so, that any environmentalists who make it to the big time (like Al Gore) come off sounding close to scientists. That is, somewhat cautious in making claims; they try to stay within the outer bounds of science.

    And scientists, who require 90-95% confidence to make claims (to protect their reputations, so people continue to believe them), are not too far from skeptics, who need 99% confidence, though admittedly they are worlds away from contrarians who need 101% confidence. On the far other side of the trilateral discussion, people trying to avoid harm would refuse the drink of poison, even if it were only 85% certain to kill them. Their standards of precaution are very different from scientific standards of proof.

    Let me put it this way, there was plenty enough evidence/theory/proof back in 1990 and before re AGW & its harms for environmentalists (and anyone else concerned about life on planet earth – which should include gov policy-makers, you’d think) to start mitigating GW. It is a crying shame that only now more and more non-scientists are beginning to say, “the evidence is now in [with AR4].” You know the first studies to reach 95% certainty on AGW came out in 1995, but oh no, we need over 99% of scientists to be on board, not just a few scientists reaching 95% certainty on this extremely serious problem we’re facing.

    History is NOT going to judge this generation kindly. Assuming the 3 Rs are still being taught in the future and there is history. 2nd to the worst case scenario, we could eventually go into a post-history phase, perhaps hundreds of years from now, sort of like prehistory — no one left able to write things down or read it — assuming we don’t go into the worst case scenarios and there are no people left at all (I personally assume there will be people left, and even some who can read & write, but I could be wrong).

    So, how’s that for an environmentalist perspective? See the difference between scientists and environmentalists? I dare any media source in the U.S. to include environmentalists in their supposedly balanced — but grossly tilted to the false positive avoiding side — discussions of global warming.

  29. 29
    John Bailo says:

    Given the difficult issue of communicating science to the public, the IPCC and Al Gore do a great disservice to science by interjecting their “mediated” layers.

    Sometimes removing complexity from a complex issue does not result in a benefit. I think the [edit] “end run” type of ploy, such as that by Al (I had to warn them!) Gore, is a very bad display by someone who should know better.

    [Response: Frankly, I think you are completely wrong. First off, the IPCC is not a mediated layer to the public – it is an assessment of the science for governments. That is vital if governments are to have any confidence that they are getting a considered opinion from the community rather than just a few loud voices. Al Gore is clearly working on taking the science to the public. Two years ago, the idea that anyone would have paid good money to see a powerpoint presentation on climate change would have been laughed at. Now it doesn’t seem so strange – and has lead millions of people to look into the issue more closely. If that isn’t a good example of science communication, we aren’t talking about the same things at all. -gavin]

  30. 30
    joel says:

    Talking about trust of scientists here.

    Did any scientists predict this really, really cold spring in the Eastern USA this year?

    And, can someone please explain why it is happening? And, will it happen next year? Or, is this just chaos?

    Just saying that the jetstream shifted South really doesn’t explain anything, BTW.

  31. 31
    Bob Reiland says:

    When the second IPCC Summary came out earlier this month, I watched as much of the media coverage as I could, and also checked out internet news services. As such things go, the coverage was unusually good, and the message was that this is the best inforamtion summary from climate science to date. I was really positively impressed. Coverage was not perfect, but it was good.

    I also saw that a recent Pew Poll indicated that 75% of Americans now accept that climate change is happening. In spite of attempts at misdirection by some well funded individuals and groups, the truth is getting out.

    The public still isn’t good at science, but this is one physics teacher who nearly always tells students when they are getting information that is only approximately correct and why. There is a substantial movement in physics education to avoid science by formula in favor of doing more to develop and check ideas. It will still be a long time before a majority of people understand what science is about.

  32. 32
    James says:

    Re #23: […they fight the good fight against leftist pinko anti-Democracy tree-hugging enviro-freaks.]

    Err… What about us tree-hugging enviro-freaks that aren’t of the leftist pinko persuasion? Who might, on other issues, be found much closer to the libertarian or even (shudder) neo-con corners?

    Maybe it’s time to start seeing environmentalism as something apart from the so-called liberal agenda. Indeed, I have a hard time understanding how they came to be conflated, because to me environmentalism seems at base a very conservative philosophy. Don’t go around messing up the Earth, especially those bits of it you happen to own, or expect to be breathing any time soon. What could be more conservative than that?

  33. 33
    Joseph O'Sullivan says:

    This post brings up some good points. The framing has to be considered along with the venue. If the venue is a major media outlet, the management is going to do most of the framing. It does not help when some major influential media outlets are intentionally framing the science in a way that casts doubt on it. Blogs change this because scientists can create blogs and frame the science themselves.

    Lynn Vincentnathan (#28) is one person who makes up a very varied group of people who call themselves environmentalists. The environmental groups are not being silenced and shut out of the debate or politics. The people who are actually working on political and legal issues for environmentalist groups do use science to make decisions on the goals they will pursue. Because they need to convince people to act who do not share environmentalist values, they try to use scientific facts.

  34. 34
    Jeffrey Davis says:

    re: 30

    Due to Global Warming, one of the predictions for the changes we’d see is for greater variability in weather due to more energy in the atmosphere. Hotter hots. Wetter wets. Dryer dries. And even, in places, colder colds.

    [Response: Actually, I don’t think this is a fair statement. There is evidence for the dry places getting dryer, and wet places getting wetter – mainly in the tropics and subtropics. And there is evidence for greater intensity of rainfall events due to increased specific humidity. Evidence for greater variability per se is much weaker if it exists at all. What we are seeing this month are extreme excursions of the jet stream – but in most of the models there is a weak increase in the ‘NAO’ pattern, which is actually associated with less winter variability in the jet stream and reduced extreme cold outbreaks. I am not aware of any study suggesting that extreme cold events should be more likely or more extreme. Be careful not to fall into the contrarian trap of blaming everything (and therefore explaining nothing) on global warming…. – gavin]

  35. 35
    sidd says:

    Re: comment by Jeffrey Davis 9 Apr 2007 7:19 pm and the response

    “There is evidence for the dry places getting dryer, and wet places getting wetter – mainly in the tropics and subtropics. And there is evidence for greater intensity of rainfall events due to increased specific humidity.”

    Is this not the same as greater variability ? Let us say we had the data for temperature and humidity worldwide. If we look at the moments of the distribution, will we not see an increase due to outlier events becoming more common ?


    [Response: Not necessarily. For precipitation maybe, but without further information, I would estimate that the temp and humidity distributions will simply show a shift towards higher values. For instance, if you look at daily weather records, they are running about 6 to 1 towards new warm records compared to cold records (this is a remembered factoid – I can’t find the reference for it though… anyone?). That would be consistent with a simple shift in the mean, not in the higher moments. – gavin]

  36. 36
    steven mosher says:

    Hi gavin,

    Sorry to hear about your experience. Frames are hard for some people to appreciate and manipulate because they are basically metaphorical ways of thinking. Telling stories. I’d reccommend Lakoff to you. Start with “metaphors we live by” He’s done some work since then, primarly in the politcal space. A strong “framist” ( I made that up) would argue that all communication happens in a metaphorical context. We are always telling stories.

    Anyways, a strong rhetoritician can always reframe a frame.

    Let me give you a cartoon example.

    FRAME: climate skeptic is a holocaust denier ( metaphor)
    REFRAME: I am not a holocaust denier, I am more like Galileo fighting against the religion of global warming.

    So, he reframes and tells a better story. So people identify with him as a hero rather than villian. They SEE people attacking him, so his reframe is grounded and tied to some observational content.

    FRAME: Nobody agrees with this guy. He is out of the mainstream. 2000 of us agree.
    REFRAME: I am like einstein. in the end he was right.

    Again, the reframe wins. We love the underdog. and lots of people have heard the story

    Now, ‘facts’ and truth have nothing to do with this rhetorical moment.
    One speaker tries to make the guy into an outcast( we’ve all felt the pain of that) the outcast comes back and compares himself to an Icon.

    Who do you think “wins” this debate?

    So. In your first two interviews you were brought on as the expert.
    PRIEST. And the questioner plays a role. ENLIGHTEN US. That’s the Frame.
    You Priest. They disciple. You Yoda, they skywalker. And of course the story ends nicely.. And here your concern is will they get it. Now, you didnt create this frame, and you dont want to change it. In these cases you were preaching to the choir. Not winning new souls.

    Now onto Bloommberg. By bringing in a sceptic they set up the following frame. Priest:disbeliever. So, he asks a bunch of questions, throws out bogus facts, interupts you ( what priest would stand for that) and if you lose control of the situation, then you lose your status as the speaker of truth. Have your ever had a student who badgerred you with endless stupid questions? Kinda ruined the pedagocial moment. Anyways, I think this is one of the toughest frames to reframe. Doubters almost always win these debates. Not because “truth” is on their side, but because “Question authority” is a powerful ethic in some cultures.

    I’ll ponder how to Reframe, but it might be best to avoid these types of situations altogether, because the frame is so hard to break. Think of it like negotiating with a terrorist. his whole point is to get on the same level. You talk; you lose. because its a status war, not a truth war. make sense?

  37. 37
    john fernbach says:

    I think Tony Guitar’s post on electric vehicles is a total non-sequitur considering this discussion. For one thing, it’s not really about climate change, but about US energy independence — getting us “free from Ahmadinejad,” as Tony puts it. And while US energy independence and curbs on CO2 emissions are both good ideas, the one issue isn’t necessarilty congruent with the other.

    Beyond that, the idea of using electric vehicles or EVs to curb global warming may be worse than a non-sequitur, it may be an oxymoron, for there’s a good chance that if western societies replace gasoline-powered cars with the wrong kinds of EVs, the change will make national CO2 emissions higher and accelerate global climate change.

    If the electricity used to power electric vehicles comes from coal-fired electricity generating stations, which now provide much of the electricity generated in the United States, then we will be replacing petroleum with coal as the main energy source for our transportation system. This is something the coal companies would like to see, as Jeff Gooden points out in his recent book BIG COAL. But unfortunately, coal generates much more CO2 per BTU than petroleum, so just by itself, the switch from one fuel to another could produce far more global climate change.

    Secondly, in many cases electricity generated from coal has to travel hundreds of miles by high-tension wire before it gets from the power plant to the end user. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed under most conditions, true, but it can be transmuted into a non-useful form, into waste heat or entropy. And for every mile that electricity travels, there’s some effective power lost in this fashion, although running the electricity through the wires at ultra high voltage does minimize this loss.

    In any case, a fair amount of the potentially useful chemical energy in the coal will be squandered in the form of energy inefficiency AKA entropy before the coal is converted to steam, which is then converted to the rotary motion of the dynamo, which is then converted to electicity, which is then shipped a really long distance to be converted back into rotary motion again.

    When Amory Lovins thought about the abstract efficiency of cars fired by the power of coal-fired electric power stations versus the abstract efficiency of cars powered by gasoline in his 1978 book “Soft Energy Paths,” he concluded that given all the problems with transmission, etc., coal-based electric power was likely to create more environmental problems per BTU of transport energy used than the more direct combustion of gasoline.

    I don’t know if “Soft Energy Paths” still represents cutting-edge thinking on this issue, if it ever did, but Lovins’ argument certain suggests that EVs will never be some kind of climate panacea.

    BTW, for those with an interest in transportation history, it’s a fact that the electric utility grid of the United States and a good many European countries was originally built around the provision of electricity to the electric streetcar lines of approximately the 1890 – 1930 period. The American utility genius Samuel Insull, a transplanted Englishman who served some time as Thomas Edison’s private secretary, was the man who basically put together the idea and the economics of connecting electric generating companies and streetcar lines in a single integrated system.

    If the United States now decides to retreat from the gasoline-powered automobile, the transport technology that replaced the streetcars, and if we create a new integrated system that once again links electricity generation to transportation, won’t we essentially be going back to Sam Insull’s system? Explaining, perhaps, why certain people in this country — e.g., the coal companies and the private electric utilities — are displaying such a fervent enthusiasm for EVs?

    And if we use coal to power the electric generating plants that support the entire system, won’t we essentially be subsidizing the coal mining industry and the private electric utilities — with some benefit to urban air quality, maybe, but at a major cost in terms of increased global warming?

    Of course, we could as an alternative power the EVs with nuclear fission reactors, a solution which would have its own problems. Or, possibly, we might power them with wind, solar, biomass power and other forms of renewable energy. But even with “green” energy sources, I submit that the price we would pay in terms of increased waste heat aka entropy might make the electric vehicle era far more environmentally destructive than we now imagine.

  38. 38
    George K says:

    I don’t understand.

    Are you saying that the IPCC WGII did not get enough media coverage?

    Are you saying they did not play up the climate impacts enough?

    Are you saying the journalists don’t understand enough of the science to adequately explain the seriousness of climate change to the public?

    The headlines were, in fact, climate disaster coming, species extinctions even, millions to be forced to move from their homes – a classic disaster movie would be a better description.

    Or are you saying they overplayed the case?

  39. 39
    steven mosher says:

    Hi gavin,

    One more note. confidence is not encouraged by the following.

    Found in FAQ about your climate model.

    7) The model crashed in the dynamics near the pole. What should I do?

    Occasionally (every 15-20 model years), the model will produce very fast velocities in the lower stratosphere near the pole (levels 7 or 8 for the standard layering). This will produce a number of warnings from the advection (such as limitq warning: abs(a)>1) and then finally a crash (limitq error: new sn < 0″). There are a number of things you can do to get past such an error: i) Go back to the last monthly rsf file and use ISTART=4, ii) change DT to a smaller value (like 180 sec), run past the crash for a couple of days, and then increase DT back to normal afterwards.

    The second option is more straightforward and can be dealt with automatically (see here for more details). The first option is not guaranteed to work unless the number of hours that have elapsed from the start of the run to the end of the last month are not an integer multiple of NRAD. (This is to ensure that the model will follow a different path). If there is a problem, then going back to the previous months restart file generally works.

    Please make a note in the rundeck that this happened, and how you fixed it.”

    Ok. how does this frame you?

    Hmm. Imagine your next Interview. Imagine the other guys says. ” I ran the professors model. It crashed! I went to his web site. He suggested that when it crashed people should tell HIM how they fixed it.”

    Now you are sputtering. ya but, ya but. Truth does not matter. You get skewered.

    Now, when you develop software to fly an airplane, You have to follow standard proceedures. Mil.std 2167A/T. Inputs Can’t crash the models. It’s a plane. A guys life is at stake.

    So dang. You write a model about the climate future of the planet and it crashes. Yikes. It does not matter that this is a boundary condition.

    Now, I’m not serious here. I’m just needling you. But seriously dude, don’t publish code that crashes. nasa and crash should NOT be in the same frame.

    Ok, watch me reframe. “Here is this Nasa expert. He publishes climate code that crashes. And then he wants to tell us what to do! Challenger go with throttle up. Rememeber the challenger. These nasa guys destroyed that vehicle, and columbia too. and now they are telling us to believe their climate models and their own websites they document that these models crash. Trust them with our future?”

    So see how someone can reframe your expertise as bumbling. This guy works for NASA. He published code that crashes. maybe he worked on the shuttle.

    See how that reframe works. Unfair, biased, wrong, diabolical, but it puts you in a frame. Nasa EXPERT. His code crashes. Priest screws alter boys. See how reframes work. Now this is tough, because it is emotional and illogical warfare. Frames are metaphors. Like “the planet has a fever.” Like “bush is hilter.” Frames. Angry yet?

    Unfair? You bet. Biased. Yes. Obnoxious. Yes. But that is how reframing works.

    Seriously, fix the code. Ah.. you probably have already.

    [Response: yep. -gavin]

  40. 40
    James Annan says:

    “lots of requests for media appearances for climate scientists”

    I’m surprised at this. As I understand it, WG2 covers a much broader school than just climate science – indeed looking down the author list there are very few familiar names (to me). I wouldn’t have thought that climate scientists are the most obvious people to talk about resource management and economic/social/technological development.

  41. 41
    steven mosher says:

    Hi george..

    I think the issue is most scientists (ok some scientists) don’t know how to tell stories well. Some do, Feynman, bless his precious soul, did. Remember that. Show. don’t tell. He could have worked up a bunch of charts and graphs and error bands and elasticity verus temp, and tensile strength and and and and.. But he told story. “I put the Oring in the ice water.”

    See? He didnt blather on about consensus and forcings and tree rings and etc etc

    He put the oring in the ice water. And we all knew how our friends had died.

    That man knew how to control a frame and play the bongos.

  42. 42
    Ike Solem says:

    It seems this issue has lit up the science blogosphere; see for more.

    When it comes to science communication, it is worth looking at articles by people who do it well; the best example I’ve seen recently is by Wally Broecker in Science:

    CO2 Arithmetic
    Wallace S. Broecker
    “If we are ever to succeed in capping the buildup of the atmosphere’s CO2 content, we must make a first-order change in the way we view the problem. Most policies that have been discussed, including cap-and-trade systems and the Kyoto treaty, have treated the problem exclusively in terms of incremental reductions in CO2 emissions. These, however, will not stabilize atmospheric CO2 levels; they only slow the rate of increase. Instead, to actually stop the increase, we must develop the concept of what might be called a “carbon pie.” Currently, for each 4 gigatons (Gt) of fossil carbon burned, the atmosphere’s CO2 content rises about 1 ppm; including deforestation, we now emit about 8 Gt of carbon per year. Further, this four-to-one ratio will only change slowly in the coming decades. Hence, if we set a desirable upper limit on the extent to which we allow the CO2 content of the atmosphere to increase, then this fixes the size of the carbon pie. If, for example, this limit were to be double the preindustrial CO2 amount (i.e., 560 ppm), then the size of the pie would be 720 Gt of carbon [i.e., 4 (560 – 380)]. Were the limit to be set at 450 ppm, the size of the pie would be only 280 Gt.

    Once the size of pie has been established, each of the world’s nations would be allocated a slice. In an ideal world, the size of these slices would be based on population. In this case, the world’s rich countries would get only about 20% of the pie. If the limit agreed upon were 560 ppm, then the rich nations’ share would be about 150 Gt. As these countries together currently consume about 6 Gt of fossil carbon per year, if they continued at this pace, their allotment would be consumed in just 25 years. Faced with this limit, each of these rich nations would be forced to rapidly reduce its emissions (see figure). Poor nations would be able to sell portions of their pie slice to the rich countries and still have enough left to permit them to industrialize.”

    Now, if reporters and editors would only try and include a similar level of detail in their news reports – there’s nothing in the above piece that your average high school student would have any problems understanding. Also – unless you want to depress and begloom your audience, tell them about solutions to problems as well as about the problems themselves!

    You can also read the historical descriptions of Michael Faraday’s famous public lectures for hints on how to proceed when it comes to discussing science with the public.

  43. 43
    Ed Sears says:

    re 36 and framing.

    Try a Margaret Thatcher technique: when a journalist asked her something ‘off message’, she would say ‘I don’t think that’s the right question to ask. The question you should have asked is …. ‘ and then she would reply to that.

    FRAME: i am Einstein/Galileo exposing the failures of the great left-wing scientific conspiracy.
    REFRAME: I don’t think you are. Where do you propose 10Gt of CO2 goes each year? As the Supreme Court might say ‘Do you have scientific proof that it is doing no harm in the atmosphere?’ Al Gore’s original thinning-icecap data came from the US Navy: are they alarmist left-wing anti-captialists? If insurance companies think it is risky to build in lowlying coastal areas, perhaps you could reassure viewers that actually they are completely safe?

    Please note this is a rhetorical not a scientific technique: don’t leave time for him to reply, just set out a load of questions designed to show in the short time of the interview that you have a handle on risks we face and he doesn’t. It’s not just a consensus of greenies, scientists and certain politicians: there is agreement from a far more diverse section of society. Extrapolate his views to the ridiculous extreme: ‘Ah now I understand! – the US Navy invented Global Warming to make lots of money and win more oscars.’

    FRAME:people who believe in AGW are gullible wacko extremists who will believe anything as long as it involves raising taxes.
    REFRAME:people who respond to AGW by planning for the future are being cautious and conservative.

  44. 44
    Tim Jones says:

    How can important messages be quoted if your “spam word” filter auto deletes the message?

    It’s quite annoying to write up a message only to find yourself having to do it over again sans the offending “spam words.”

    Impossible in fact!

    Eos, Vol. 88, No. 15, 10 April 2007

    Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore testified about possible solutions to mitigate anthropogenic climate change at two 21 March hearings held before committees of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. His 10 recommendations to reduce U.S. carbon emissions:

    [Response: If you saw how much spam there is, you’d understand. If you avoid anything to do with gambling, loans and pharmaceutical products you are usually ok. In this case it was the word ‘mortgage’. – gavin]

  45. 45

    Gavin, if you make people think for themselves the job is done. There is not enough personal interaction. ie placing the viewer into the thinking, it starts from their knowledge being involved in a process of recognition, for instance the first step is to introduce their experiences as scientific fact, it was colder then, they know that, that is a crucial start. Then why is it warmer now? This unstoppable question of interest needs an evaluation which includes the near future. Being correct for the near future helps reinforce AGW theory presented has no other alternatives. The 100 year estimates are fine, but are vague by temporal distance, and meaningless as there is no hope in seeing them come through. Contrarians have fun with long term projections, and muddle the short term by assuming that it will be very cold one day, but this is insulting to the intelligence of the viewer, the entire Earth has to be put in perspective and connecting the climate experiences of the people of the world is the only way to make the subject more compelling.

  46. 46
    Randolph Fritz says:

    “I have a hard time understanding how [liberalism and environmentalism] came to be conflated, because to me environmentalism seems at base a very conservative philosophy.”

    Because some sorts of conservatism conserve entrenched privilege, and that, any serious response to environmental issues will not do.

  47. 47
    Tim Jones says:

    Perhaps the issues should be framed in a manner through which we solve the problem.

    Eos, Vol. 88, No. 15, 10 April 2007

    “Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore testified about possible solutions to mitigate anthropogenic climate change at two 21 March hearings held before committees of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. His 10 recommendations to reduce U.S. carbon emissions:”

    1. Immediately freeze carbon dioxide emissions and then begin a program to reduce them by at least 90% by 2050.

    2. Replace the payroll tax for Social Security and Medicare with a tax on pollution, particularly carbon dioxide.

    3. Use a portion of the tax on pollution to help low-income individuals adapt as carbon emissions are reduced.

    4. Work towards de-facto compliance with the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate
    Change, and create a new, strong international treaty with a starting date of 2010 instead of 2012.

    5. Enact a moratorium on the construction of any new coal-fired power plants that are not compatible with carbon capture and

    6. Create an ‘Electranet,’ a smart grid in which power generation is widely distributed. Homeowners and small businesses
    could use solar and wind energy generators and sell that energy into the grid at a rate that is determined by the market.

    7. Raise Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for automobiles, and set energy standards for other industries.

    8. Set a date for a ban on incandescent light bulbs.

    9. Create a ‘Connie Mae,’ a carbon-neutral mortgage association that would help homebuyers pay for energy reduction measures such as insulation and energy-efficient windows that can have high upfront expenses.

    10. Have the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) require the disclosure of carbon emissions in corporate reporting.

  48. 48
    Al S. says:

    If a news station is framing an issue badly, it could help to pick up the phone and tell them so. When I heard a local radio station give an AGW skeptic equal time and the last word in response to an AGW news item, I called them up and told them that by giving equal time to the skeptic, they were practicing irresponsible (and I should have said lazy) journalism and misrepresenting the scientific consensus. The person I was talking with said they would think about it for the next time.

  49. 49
    Grant says:

    #3 – Hank

    Just another source for your “lawyer / scientist” trust levels. Look at the latest Edelman Trust Barometer ( This gives lawyers a 41% (developing country) and 27% (developed) credibility. Although no specific mention of scientists – financial analysts; academics; health care specialists etc. all scored considerably higher than lawyers.

  50. 50
    Valuethinker says:

    Ike Solem

    Your logic is good, but you give the average journalist and editor, let alone the average newspaper reader, *let alone* the average TV watcher, far too much credit.

    Studies show as much of half the population is functionally innumerate. Put a number in an argument, and their eyes glaze over.

    You’ve got to remember 90% of people don’t take science or math beyond a high school or freshman level, and I’ve know Phd level biologists and medical doctors who have trouble with math. And even those with that level of quantification in their education, never really learn how to apply it.

    You can see it in the US mutual fund data. Most people don’t realise that a fund that returns 50% and then loses 50% in 2 successive years has lost them 25% of their money.

    Financial reporters, in my experience, are innumerate. Let alone general reporters.

    One of the most common questions I get, btw, on global warming, is ‘why are scientists only 95% certain’?

    Human beings don’t think like actuaries or economists. To the latter, 95% certain is a truth. But the average person thinks 95% certain means that there is a lot of doubt. After all, people play the lo–ery (edited for spam blocking). And they will not install an energy saving measure in their homes, that has a 3 year payback (so 12-15 times the after tax return of money in their bank account).