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Saturday, August 21, 2010

Arthur Smith on Keith Kloor's obsessive misrepresentations of climate scientists' research

Kloor's five strikes

Keith Kloor is a free-lance writer who reportedly now teaches journalism at NYU; during 2008-2009 he was on some sort of fellowship in Colorado. He has been blogging for a couple of years on climate issues at Collide-A-Scape, generally on meta-level issues concerning the image of particular individuals and their claims in discussions of climate, rather than any technical science questions. Some of his stuff has been mildly interesting. His best stuff has been interviews with bloggers and scientists who have had differing stances in discussions.

But he has also persisted in a pattern of what I consider deception - whether inadvertent or deliberate - in misrepresenting the views of other people. He usually does this with selective quotation in a way that almost completely reverses the meaning of the person who made the original statement. Is this the sort of thing he's teaching journalism students? I have commented extensively on several threads at Kloor's, but his latest instance of this pattern was just too much, I've committed to not returning. You can take a look and see whether my assessment of his persistent misquotation is fair or not.
Herewith 5 specific examples:

(1) Kloor's obsessive jeremiad regarding Joe Romm of Climate Progress, accumulated over many, many, many posts, but as a typical example see this one from February 2009. Here Kloor selectively quotes Romm's stated opinion that reporter Andy Revkin has gotten behind the current science on global warming impacts to declare that Romm is "hysterical or inconsistent" because previously Romm had praised Revkin. Kloor seems to have his back up on this because Revkin is a highly respected "award-winning" journalist, and Kloor seems to think Romm has no right to tell Revkin when he's wrong. But Revkin was clearly, unequivocally wrong in the article under discussion in Romm's post, which essentially equated a complete distortion of global warming science by George Will to some minor quibbles with Al Gore's movie. Yes, both sides make "mistakes." One side honestly admits them, quickly corrects them, and if you look closely, you will note the mistakes are on exceedingly minor issues that don't change the thrust of the message. The other side, well, pretty much the opposite on every count. Anyway, with Kloor's selective quote you might think Romm was just attacking Revkin and calling him ignorant or other epithets with no basis in fact - except that in that very same article Kloor quoted from, Romm stated:
"What Revkin does is what we all do, including Gore. I was not trying to accuse Revkin of journalistic malpractice, but of making the same kind of choices and honest mistakes. When such actions rise to the level of mistake or, in Gore’s case (or my case here), something between a correction or clarification, a correction or clarification should be made quickly. Now we will find out if Andy is journalist enough to realize that the widespread condemnation his article has received requires a correction and/or clarification itself.
It boggles the mind that any serious reporter for the New York Times would quote such an inane point of view, let alone present it with no response whatsoever. [...]
Seriously, Andy, what purpose does the Times serve? Either there is such a thing as facts — in which case Will is a liar and you should say so — or there isn’t — in which case every New York Times reporter should just find a different job, which, I guess, It’s pretty much what’s going to happen anyway, and maybe we just shouldn’t mourn that."
I.e., Romm is holding Revkin to a high standard, one an award-winning journalist at a major newspaper should be held to; he's not accusing him of being wrong about everything, but about one specific article that was indeed egregious in its neutral "stenography" in regard to blatant misinformation.

Kloor's claim this is "hysterical or inconsistent" could only be valid in a world of personality cults, where the word of an "award-winning" reporter is not only to be respected, but never to be questioned.

There are plenty of other instances of stupidity in Kloor's attacks on Romm. I particularly liked the one where Kloor left out the "New" part of "New York Times," while attacking Romm for not saying something that he did in fact say, afterwards updated with Kloor's apology that he "speed-reads" Romm's posts because they are so long. Keith, maybe if you slowed down a bit you'd be a better journalist?

(2) In March 2009, after some discussion of the very same Revkin article by climate blogger Michael Tobis of Only In It For The Gold, Kloor gleefully attacked Tobis by quote-mining this gem:
I don’t think his dragging Gore into Will’s muck was a minor transgression of a fine point of propriety. I think it was palpably evil.
I've posted my own take on why Tobis' words regarding "evil" here were entirely justified. In any case, Kloor then goes on to quote what seems to be Tobis' blaming Roger Pielke Jr. for Revkin's mishap here. But in fact, the post in question was largely a *defense* of Pielke: the title itself suggests Pielke was being "framed" (by other bloggers) to take the blame for the Gore/Will fiasco by Revkin. Tobis instead clearly states: "As far as I can tell the blame for this particular travesty rests squarely with Revkin."

Why does Kloor twist Tobis' words around to mean essentially the opposite of what Tobis' actual blog post says? More "speed-reading" problems? Well, there are worse examples to follow.

(3) The David Brin case, this past July. Brin had written an article about distinguishing "deniers" from "skeptics," a version of which was apparently published in "Skeptic magazine." If you read Brin's article it's very clear that to qualify as a true climate "skeptic" now you have to be almost entirely ignorant of any of the scientific evidence. That evidence is now so overwhelming (see IPCC reports, etc.) that anybody who is a "Skeptic magazine"-type skeptic, seeing the evidence, would be convinced we have a very serious problem on our hands regarding climate. Keith Kloor, however, chose to selectively quote Brin to make it appear that his article was actually about distinguishing "pro-science" skeptics (such as presumably himself? Roger Pielke Jr.? Unnamed bloggers?) from anti-intellectual "deniers." It was not, as Brin himself confirmed in comments on the post. Every one of Kloor's "pro-science" skeptics is clearly in Brin's "denier" camp, if you actually read Brin's article.

That Kloor chose to misrepresent Brin this way is very strange, but again seems typical - speed-reading again, I guess. I found this case particularly bad because Kloor's selective quotes were from a *print* article, not available online (the version I linked to just now was an earlier article on the subject, though Brin later confirmed it was substantially the same).

(4) Climate scientist Gavin Schmidt of NASA and the Real Climate blog has had several forays on "Collide-A-Scape." The most recent episode involved some debate with fellow climate scientist Judith Curry. Schmidt was evidently trying to figure out what Curry was on about regarding uncertainties and complaints she had regarding models, and so was trying to get specific details on the issues she claimed to be concerned about. This was evidently a frustrating process, as perusal of that thread and linked discussions should make obvious. As Schmidt pointed out in the comment just linked, "You [Curry] brought up a series of issues which were just not relevant." He then concluded his comment with an explanation of why he was bothering at all to try to get to the bottom of this:
When smart and informed people see basically the same information but come to different conclusions, I find that interesting since there might be something to be learned. I’m not interested in winning an argument with you, I’m interested in seeing whether there are issues that might not have been considered or where there might be new information that could be brought to bear. I am not here to play games.
Schmidt is clearly showing frustration at the lack of any "learning" so far from their discussion. This is not a complimentary or conciliatory comment, it is a highly critical one. So what does Keith Kloor do with it? Why pull out just the seemingly conciliatory part and highlight it in his next post. The post itself had very little commentary from Kloor, but it was immediately seized upon by Curry with Kloor's support in the comments... as I pointed out later in the thread:
As usual Keith leaves out the damning context of the apparently conciliatory quote – the one this “chasm” is centered on was preceded by:
“I have merely been trying to see whether you have any actual basis for your complaints about a specific statement in AR4 (which I think was (and is) a justified conclusion). You brought up a series of issues which were just not relevant.”
The problem here is exactly what I stated in that same thread:
“the one thing we really can learn … is the need to be extremely careful and precise in the things we say and claim. Scientists should exercise greater care in their work, and those criticizing the science should also be precise and exact in their statements.”
Dr. Curry has made many statements in these threads that have almost all been of a very vague character, made in a careless manner that led either to confusion or frustration on the part of people trying to respond (for example, Gavin’s continued attempt to respond to the IPCC AR4 attribution question regarding post-1950 change, while Dr. Curry kept talking about pre-1950 issues), or in cases where she actually was specific (that the latest GISS model sensitivity had dropped, that models were tuned to temperatures, that no-feedback sensitivity was much more uncertain than radiative forcing), at face value these statements were all clearly wrong. Dr. Curry responded to many of these with “clarifications” of one sort or another, but why not be specific and precise at the start about what you’re claiming, if what you’re actually saying is not what the rest of us interpret by it at face value?
Clarity in communication is the real problem here. Gavin seems to have been trying to be very precise in his statements and responses. Dr. Curry, not nearly so much. There’s a real issue here, and it’s not a “both sides do it” problem. The confusion is fostered by only one side here.
Kloor is playing the Revkin stenographer game writ small, with selective quotation to distort the truth of one-sided misbehavior.

(5) The worst case, though, is Kloor's recent return to attacking Michael Tobis.
At least one notable thing about this August 14th distortion is Kloor's technique is so blatantly obvious this time around. Kloor calls Tobis (and Romm for good measure) a hypocrite for making moral arguments regarding climate, while pointing out that "mitigation (curbing carbon emissions) has to take precedence over adaptation, and that in any event, adaptation [is] largely a local matter." which Kloor interprets to mean Tobis is downplaying "adaptation," i.e., helping people handle the consequences of climate disruption. But reading the original comment you can see it starts with the clear statement: "Adaptation is crucial. It is necessary, but it is not sufficient." Tobis' point regarding precedence is simply that, if you don't mitigate, the amount of adaptation needed just keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger. And worse than that, because we can't readily model all the regional responses but we know that some of them will involve significant changes in, for example, precipitation patterns, we can't even know in advance what adaptations are needed! Do you prepare for 1000-year drought, or 1000-year flood, or one after the other??

The best comment I've seen on this question is this quote from John Holdren:
We basically have three choices: mitigation, adaptation and suffering. We’re going to do some of each. The question is what the mix is going to be. The more mitigation we do, the less adaptation will be required and the less suffering there will be.
That is exactly the point. Kloor completely misses it. Perhaps he was speed-reading his own comments? But he still has not corrected his post on Tobis. And I have no intention of writing any more about Keith Kloor, or visiting his blog again. Sorry Keith, your 15 minutes is over.


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