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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Joe Romm on Andy Revkin's worst Dot Earth post ever: What’s the difference between climate science and climate journalism? The former is self-correcting, the latter has become self-destructive

What’s the difference between climate science and climate journalism?

The former is self-correcting, the latter has become self-destructive

by Joseph Romm, Climate Progress, August 29, 2010

So New York Times blogger Andy Revkin has written perhaps his worst post yet. The blogosphere and my inbox are filled with the most amazing rebukes I’ve seen from scientists and others, which I’m reposting here, including Steve Easterbrook’s, “When did ignorance become a badge of honour for journalists?”

Revkin’s guilt-by-(distant)-association piece, “On Harvard Misconduct, Climate Research and Trust,” betrays a remarkable lack of understanding of the scientific process. And what is most ironic is that if you replace the word “research” with “reporting” — and “science” with “journalism” — throughout his piece, you get a much more plausible indictment of modern climate journalism.

As one of the country’s leading climatologists emails me (paraphrasing Revkin’s final gaff):
Can we trust Andy Revkin to cover the science of climate change in an honest way without misquoting scientists, drawing false equivalencies, and interpreting all new findings through the myopic lens of a contrarian narrative? I wouldn’t be a scientist if I answered “yes.”
Science blogger Eli Rabett of Rabett Run fame writes (here):

A really depressing post, which just about kills any remaining credibility you ever had and it comes right above another one which shows how your ilk jumped on the bandwagon to libel Pachauri. That the original source has been forced to retract is cold comfort, the damage was already done. 
In the huge IPCC report, only a few mistakes were found. Most of those that you blew hot air into have now been shown to be fabrications (see, for example the Amazon story, where the Sunday Times was forced to take down its article), yet you have the gall to claim that it is the scientists who are behaving badly.
[I have corrected Eli's typos and made the change he suggested.]

Revkin says his piece arose this way:
Earlier this week I was invited to join an e-mail discussion involving a variegated array of scientists and science communicators exploring a provocative question posed by one of them… 
The conversation encompassed the case of Marc Hauser, the Harvard specialist in cognition found guilty of academic misconduct, and assertions that climate research suffered far too much from group think, protective tribalism and willingness to spin findings to suit an environmental agenda. 
The question? “Maybe science—in some fields, not necessarily all of them—is much more corrupt than anyone wants to acknowledge.”
Seriously? A Harvard scientist is found guilty of academic misconduct — and that’s spun into an excuse to pile on climate science, which has withstood multiple independent investigations in the past year?

Revkin can’t even point to an actual pattern of serious errors or misconduct by climate science to make his case — and by serious, I mean large enough to call into question a significant set of conclusions or research.

Remember that the single most attacked piece of climate research to this day, the Hockey Stick, was affirmed in a major review by the uber-prestigious National Academy of Scientists (in media-speak, the highest scientific “court” in the land) — see NAS Report and here. The news story in the journal Nature (subs. req’d) on the NAS panel was headlined: “Academy affirms hockey-stick graph! No such body would ever find “Academy affirms New York Times reporting on climate.”

Let’s make the switch I suggested:
… assertions that climate reporting suffered far too much from group think, protective tribalism and willingness to spin findings…. 
The question? “Maybe journalism—in some fields, not necessarily all of them—is much more corrupt than anyone wants to acknowledge.”
Wikipedia notes:
Jayson Blair (born March 23, 1976) is a former American reporter for The New York Times. He resigned from the newspaper in May 2003, in the wake of plagiarism and fabrication being discovered within his stories.
And unlike Revkin’s launching point for his story, the NYT has actually displayed a pattern here. As Slate explained in their story, “The Times Scoops That Melted: Cataloging the wretched reporting of Judith Miller“:
If reporters who live by their sources were obliged to die by their sources, New York Times reporter Judith Miller would be stinking up her family tomb right now. In the 18-month run-up to the war on Iraq, Miller grew incredibly close to numerous Iraqi sources, both named and anonymous, who gave her detailed interviews about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Yet 100 days after the fall of Baghdad, none of the sensational allegations about chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons given to Miller have panned out, despite the furious crisscrossing of Iraq by U.S. weapons hunters.
Talk about a consequential journalistic and tribalistic blunder!

Why precisely would anybody believe the New York Times again on a matter of national consequence, to go by Revkin’s standard?

And do get me started on their dreadful climate reporting, much of it by Revkin himself  (see New York Times public editor files final report, never mentions the paper’s dreadful global warming coverage and links below).

Heck, Revkin made this a stunning admission on NPR last fall: “I’ve made missteps. I’ve made probably more mistakes this year in my print stories than I had before.”

Modern journalism sets the standard for group-think and protective tribalism and willingness to spin findings….. Why do you think they call it pack journalism? Why do you think they call it the gaggle?

The difference between modern science and almost any other human enterprise is that science is self-correcting through the most rigorous process ever invented. That’s how we put 12 men on the moon and got them back. That’s how we beat scourges of humanity like smallpox. That’s how it even become possible your cell phone has vastly more computing power than the entire Apollo missions, and I can communicate with hundreds of thousands of people by talking into a microphone, having my voice dictation software transcribe it into a blog post, which then gets sent across the web.

But here’s what Revkin writes:
A prime problem with climate science — related to peer review — is that it is implicitly done by very small tribes (sea ice folks, glacier folks, modelers, climate-ecologists, etc.), so real peer review — avoiding confirmation bias — is tough, for sure.
Pretty much every aspect of scientific and medical research is done by small tribes. How many world-class, widely published experts are there on the safety of large-scale childhood vaccination programs? Let’s throw them overboard, too.

The scientific process is designed to eliminate confirmation bias as much as any human enterprise possibly can. It is modern journalism that is stuck in confirmation bias. Three letters: WMD.

As Scott Mandia, professor of physical sciences at Suffolk County Community College, writes:
Tribalism or not (I think not), seas are rising faster and faster so why keep dredging up these climategate-type stories? 3C-5C is coming on our current emission trajectory and these values are essentially society-busters. Stories like this one just fuel those that wish to delay action. One could easily wind back several decades and claim that there may be tribalism with all of those “smoking causes cancer” researchers. They are all saying the same thing so, heck, there MUST be a level of group think, right?
Sometimes scientists converge on a similar set of findings because they are actually honing in on the truth. But all of the time scientists are the least tribal group I’ve ever met — they are all of the time desperately trying to poke holes in the work of their colleagues, because that’s how they’re trained and because that’s how they make a name for themselves.

Revkin asserts:
One other problem particular to climate research is that meaning only emerges when its tribes collaborate (sea level is not an oceanography question, but a glaciology question, etc.). Group think can emerge, and journals have been complicit.
Unadulterated B.S. without a shred of evidence to back it up, except for one tangentially related interview.
Ironically, Revkin has managed to pick the one area where climate scientists have bent over backwards to be ultraconservative — the projection of likely sea level rise this century on our current emissions path (see Scientists withdraw low-ball estimate of sea level rise — media are confused and anti-science crowd pounces).

Revkin asserts wildly:
There are periods of overstatement (as was the case in the grand Katrina-Gore-I.P.C.C. era)….
Huh? Revkin sweeps aside the entire IPCC era as a “period of overstatement”? And on what basis? He provides one link to his own absurdly out-of-date 2006 article, “Yelling ‘Fire’ on a Hot Planet” — an article that quotes precisely one climatologist, the now widely discredited Richard Lindzen (see Kerry Emanuel slams media, asserts Lindzen charge in Boston Globe is “pure fabrication” and Lindzen debunked again: New scientific study finds his paper downplaying dangers of human-caused warming is “seriously in error” – Trenberth: The flaws in Lindzen-Choi paper “have all the appearance of the authors having contrived to get the answer they got”). That 2006 article includes this uber-misleading statement:
The latest estimates, including a study published last week in the journal Nature, foresee a probable warming of somewhere around 5 degrees should the concentration of carbon dioxide reach twice the 280-parts-per-million figure that had been the norm on earth for at least 400,000 years. This is far lower than some of the apocalyptic projections in recent years, but also far higher than mild warming rates focused on by skeptics and industry lobbyists.
First off, most research has focused on the sensitivity to fast feedbacks (like polar amplification) while omitting analysis of the longer-term feedbacks like the melting of the tundra and the resulting emissions of methane and carbon dioxide. Second, a sensitivity of 5 °F for a doubling is hardly “far lower” than most other analyses — it is in fact in the middle of the pack. Third, Revkin appears to be conflating the sensitivity to a doubling with projections of the total warming if we stay on our current path of unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions and end up far higher than the 560 ppm doubling. I know for a fact that Revkin knows that we are headed for far beyond 560 ppm on our current emissions path — as he has communicated that directly to me. But he continues to mislead on this subject even now — see Revkin’s DotEarth hypes disinformation posted on an anti-science website.

It is laughable to associate the IPCC era with a period of overstatement. One can state with very high confidence that history will judge the IPCC era of the last decade as a period of gross understatement. In a AAAS presentation this year, William R. Freudenburg of UC Santa Barbara discussed his research on “the Asymmetry of Scientific Challenge”: New scientific findings are found to be more than twenty times as likely to indicate that global climate disruption is “worse than previously expected,” rather than “not as bad as previously expected”

I would have thought Revkin would be too embarrassed to cite that 2006 article ever again. Yet Revkin blithely asserts:
But the outcomes most consequential to society remain the least clear
Uh, not if we take no action — a point I have made to Revkin time and time again. I’ll agree that if we ignore Revkin and the people he likes to quote in his pieces and take very aggressive action to mitigate emissions and stabilize around 450 ppm, it is not clear exactly whether we have avoided multiple catastrophes. Hansen thinks not.

But if we listen to the Revkins of the world, then the scientific literature is increasingly clear that if one takes no serious action, catastrophic change might best be considered business as usual = highly likely:

The best climate reporting is done by people who spend the most time talking with the top climatologists. For the record, the top climatologist I quoted at the start is Michael Mann, who is simultaneously one of our most honored and exonerated climate scientists.

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