John Tierney IS the country’s worst science writer, not Gregg Easterbrook

Science blogger extraordinaire Tim Lambert (aka Deltoid) has called me out. I wrote:

Tierney is easily the worst science writer at any major media outlet in the country. Pretty much every energy or climate piece he writes is riddled with errors and far-right ideology, including this one.

Lambert writes that he “must, however, disagree with one of Romm’s points”:

The second sentence is correct, but what about Gregg Easterbrook?

I do realize that Tierney cites Easterbrook as a scientific authority, so his Easterbrook number is 1, but Easterbrooks’s Easterbrook number is zero.

I cannot argue with the assertion that Gregg Edmund Easterbrook (GEE) is one of the leading anti-scientific writers (see “People Who Just Don’t Get Global Warming: Gregg Easterbrook and the Editors of the Atlantic” and “Gregg Easterbrook still knows nothing about global warming — and less about clean energy“). And I must agree with Wonk Room, which recently documented “Brookings Science ‘Expert’ Doesn’t Understand Basic Science.

But first off, I am going to claim victory on a technicality. GEE is not a science writer at a major media outlet (see his Wikipedia bio here). He writes on a broad variety of subjects, including football, for a broad variety of outlets. GEE is easily the worst freelance science writer published by multiple major media outlets — but that’s as far as I can go.

Tierney not only has a real science column with the NYT where he says staggeringly anti-scientific things and quotes anti-scientific organizations like CEI. Tierney states his anti-scientific philosophy right on the front page of his online column, Tierney Lab:

About TierneyLab

John Tierney always wanted to be a scientist but went into journalism because its peer-review process was a great deal easier to sneak through…. With your help, he’s using TierneyLab to check out new research and rethink conventional wisdom about science and society. The Lab’s work is guided by two founding principles:

  1. Just because an idea appeals to a lot of people doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
  2. But that’s a good working theory.

Huh? These “founding principles” are the clearest anti-scientific statement you will ever find by anybody claiming to be covering science [— if they are supposed to be partly humorous, then he should be writing a column for the Onion, or the NYT should file his posts under “humor” not “science”]. Democracy appeals to a lot of people. So does freedom. They must be wrong. Oh, wait, this is a science column. Okay. Gravity appeals to a lot of people. So does thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, plate tectonics, the germ theory of disease….

Is Tierney covering science or just indulging in ideological, knee-jerk contrarian thinking. Couldn’t we just program a computer to write mindless pieces that attack conventional wisdom without any discrimination as to whether or not it is based on detailed scientific observations that support a well developed theory.

And, I repeat, Tierney writes staggeringly anti-scientific things like

Dr. Holdren is certainly entitled to his views, but what concerns me is his tendency to conflate the science of climate change with prescriptions to cut greenhouse emissions. Even if most climate scientists agree on the anthropogenic causes of global warming, that doesn’t imply that the best way to deal with the problem is through drastic cuts in greenhouse emissions. There are other ways to cope, and there’s no “scientific consensus” on which path looks best.

In short, scientists should be seen and not heard.

As for other ways to “cope,” in the face of 5-7°C warming; 1 to 2 meters of sea level rise plus 6 to 20 inches a decade warming by 2100; a third the planet desertified; and a large hot, acidic dead zone where our oceans used to be (see Hadley Center: “Catastrophic” 5-7°C warming by 2100 on current emissions path) — in the face of all that, we can always “cope” with prayer.

Though I’d recommend praying for science writers — and science advisors and science-based presidents — who understand the urgent need for “drastic cuts in greenhouse emissions.”

How can a science writer for a major newspaper trash Obama’s science advisor pick for endorsing the only plausible solution to catastrophic warming — and never bother to offer his own alternative, while at the same time citing and linking to deniers, like CEI, who want to do nothing at all, or denier-eqs, like Pielke, who want to do the equivalent of nothing, a $5 a ton CO2 tax.
So, no, GEE, can’t compete — Tierney is easily the worst science writer at any major media outlet in the country. I’ll go further:

As long as Tierney has a “science” column at the NYT, it cannot be considered a great newspaper.

12 Responses to John Tierney IS the country’s worst science writer, not Gregg Easterbrook

  1. Wes Rolley says:

    I guess that you would classify Christopher Booker (Sunday Telegraph.. UK) like Easterbrook.

    Wes Rolley
    CoChair, EcoAction Committee, Green Party US

  2. Russ says:

    Here’s another characteristic example: Tierney trashed Rachel Carson a few years back on some anniversary regarding her, I forget what.

    The bulk of his attack was to quote a “debunker” who was…a paid cadre for big pesticide companies! Surprise surprise.

    I used to read Tierney years ago, and at first he seemed relatively reasonable on things like climate change and nukes.

    But then at some point he seems to have made the conscious decision to reinvent himself as a kind of ombudsman for anti-science ideology. So now he does stuff like deny Exxon pays deniers for their denial.

    (Another mannerism he has is to comb through academic papers to find fancy terms for simple things, then crow about it as if the term represents some radical new concept.

    The reason I bring that up is because I still remember how he accused Al Gore of being an “availability entrepreneur” – a publicity seeker, for those who speak english.

    That’s interesting because I think the best explanation for Tierney’s own reinvention as an anti-intellectual is simply that he thought he could stir up more publicity that way. You don’t make much of a splash as an MSM science columnist if you just affirm the evidence and don’t add anything new or otherwise stir it up.

    So it’s also a good example of accusing your opponent of doing exactly what you’ve set out to do.)

    In good Nietzschean spirit I’ll end affirmatively by praising Tierney for one thing – his ongoing attack on America’s insane and fascistic drug war. There at least his contrarianism is on the side of both science and morality.

  3. I like the word “blasphemy”

    Perhaps science might use that term; or find another similar word.

    “the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for…”
    Certainly these writers show contempt and irreverence for AGW science.

    Normally science would shrug and move along, but the stakes are so high, the time left is so short – this is essentially a religious battle of words.

    Despite hundreds of years of experience, Science does not know how to quickly defend against religious based attacks.

  4. paulm says:

    I hope bush, cheney and even blair are going to be shaking in their boots…then there is the climate issue to reckon to.

    Seasonal forgiveness has a limit. Bush and his cronies must face a reckoning
    Heinous crimes are now synonymous with this US administration. If it isn’t held to account, what does that say about us?
    But other prosecutors elsewhere in the world should weigh their responsibilities. In the end, it was a lone Spanish magistrate, not a Chilean court, who ensured the arrest of Augusto Pinochet. A pleasing, if uncharitable, thought this Christmas, is that Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush will hesitate before making plans to travel abroad in 2009. Or indeed at any time – ever again.

  5. jorleh says:

    NYT science? Tierney? Are you mad there on the wrong side of the pond?

  6. Asteroid Miner says:

    Richard Pauli: I don’t see a way of commenting on
    My computer is too old to use ActiveX or Java. The farthest it will upgrade to is Mac OS 9.1 and ie 5.1 or iCab 3.0.5.
    I also don’t see a contact thing on your web site. I was going to send you a comment or an email on fighting religion. I will try to post a couple of “weapons” here.

    Blastphemy is the correct word to use for all religion. Yes, you can fight religion, if you happen to be both a scientist and good at writing. They won’t burn you at the stake only because they aren’t allowed to these days.

    The best way to fight is by education. We unfailingly obey instincts that many of us refuse to admit that we share with all other apes, or even refuse to admit that we have. Our instincts were created by evolution over the past 400 Million years or more. Our instincts worked fine before we invented stone tools and stone weapons. Pre-stone-age instincts do not make sense in a technological society, yet our instincts are hard wired programs that we cannot disobey without enormous and severe training, if at all. Ideally, we need to do genetic engineering to replace most of our ancient instincts with conscious computations suited to the age we are in.

    We can make a start by requiring all high schools in the US and the world to require 4 years of physics, 4 years of chemistry, 4 years of biology and 8 years of math for all students. That is the least you need to be a good common citizen of a technological society. All colleges should require all majors, even English, drama, music, and painting, design and sculpture students, to take the Engineering and Science [E&S] Core Curriculum + 1 computer course + 1 laboratory course in probability and statistics. The E&S Core Curriculum is 1.5 years of calculus, 2 years of physics and 1 year of chemistry. Laboratory is mandatory. In addition, I would explicitly say to all non-E&S students: “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 with another instrument.]”

  7. Asteroid Miner says:

    For Richard Pauli:
    As a sophomore undergraduate student in Physics, your homework in Probability and Statistics class may include figuring out when the second coming would be required, assuming that the bible was 100% true in the year zero. That is, when would the bible be down to 50% true? The popular and professors’ answer in 1965 was the year 500. The true answer: A friend of mine was born and raised in Budapest, Hungary. As an adult, he came here and stayed. After 25 years, he visited his home town of Budapest. He was unable to communicate with his high school classmates because the Hungarian language had changed so much. The correct answer is less than 25 years. The first gospel was not written down until 50 years after the alleged events and then in a different language. The people who told the story were at about the same level of civilization as “wild Indians”, I mean Native Americans before Columbus got here. We have all played or seen played the game called “Telephone” in which a story is passed down a line of re-tellers. By the Sixth re-telling, the story has no resemblance to the original. The gospel story had to have been re-told at least 6 times before it was mis-translated the first time. [Note that whoever wrote it down the first time was free to write whatever he wanted to. The storytellers were illiterate and unable to check his written text by reading it. Besides that, he wrote in Greek rather than Aramaic.] Conclusion: There is no truth anywhere in the bible, and there never was. There is no way to know what “jesus” or “mohammed” or any other such character actually said or did.

    ALL of the jurisdictions that were formerly in the jurisdiction of religion have been taken over by Science. There is no longer a need to debate the issue. Religion is an unfortunate side effect of having evolved from a chimpanzee-like animal in a very brief 6 or 7 million years. “God” will not save us from the consequences of global warming or an asteroid impact or a tornado because there is no such critter as “god.”. Ethics and morality are instinctive, not derived from religion. Female instinct has greater force in morality than male instinct because the female is in command of the sexual encounter. Look up “Sociobiology”. The origin of the Universe is the subject of Cosmology which is part of astronomy which is part of the science of physics.
    Religion is a SCAM. ANY religion, there are 10,000 to choose from at any one time. People keep inventing new religions [for the benefit of the “prophet,” of course] and forgetting other religions. ALL preachers, priests, imams, rabbis, iatolas, etc. belong in jail for “grand theft, bunko type”.

  8. Asteroid Miner says:

    For Richard Pauli:
    Religion is caused by any one or more of about half a dozen mental illnesses. The truth about religion can be found in these books and others:

    “The Neuropsychological bases of god beliefs” Dr. Michael A. Persinger MD, psychiatrist 1987 “Religious people are just like my temporal lobe patients”

    “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bi-Cameral Mind” Julian Jaynes Professor, Harvard University 1976 “Religious people are just like schizophrenic patients”

    “The Psychiatric Interview in Clinical Practice” Roger A. MacKinnon, M.D., Robert Michels, M.D. W. B. Saunders Co. 1971 “Religiosity is a common symptom [of] schizophrenic patients”

    “The God delusion” by Richard Dawkins. “Religion is caused by a kind of computer virus that infects the living computer, the human brain.”

    “The Science of Good and Evil” by Michael Shermer, 2004 “Morality and Ethics are now in the jurisdiction of Science and greatly improved thereby.”

    Many books in the new science called “Sociobiology”: Morals and ethics are instinctive and they evolved.

    “God: The Failed Hypothesis” by Victor Stenger. Scientific proof that god does not exist.

    “The God Part of the Brain” by Matthew Alper 1996. “The USA is anomolusly religious because many early founder groups were religiously insane and fleeing prosecution in Europe. Religion is a genetic disorder.”

    “The Accidental Mind” by David J. Linden, 2007 Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Religion is caused by the extreme klugeyness of the “designed” by evolution brain. In particular, the narrative creation system cannot be turned off. It generates false narratives that are believed by the generating person. This is seen in experiments done in the laboratory. This book has the best explanation of resistance to evolution: “There has also been an assumption that if one accepts the idea that life developed without divine intervention, it necessarily follows that all aspects of religious thought must be rejected. Those who take this line of argument to extremes argue that when religious thought is rejected moral and social codes will degenerate and “the law of the jungle” will be all that is left. It is imagined by religious fundamentalists that those who do not share their particular religious faith are incapable of leading moral lives.” These suppositions are not true many times over. Linden later mentions that the creationists [intelligent design advocates] are exactly 180 degrees wrong rather than just a little wrong. Being exactly wrong, they are unable to unlearn their error. See Sociobiology or Sciobio.

    “Scientists Confront Intelligent Design and Creationism” edited by Petto & Godfrey, 2007. The ID and creationist crowd are trying to do away with science. They see science as a “godless religion.” Science is a process, not a religion.

    “Manufacturing Belief” by Lewis Wolpert

    “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation” by Sam Harris

    “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon”, by Daniel Dennett Let’s do scientific research on religion and find out what causes it.

    “Origins of the Modern Mind” by Merlin Donald 1991 “So what did you expect from a brain that is based on the Chimpanzee brain?

    “Atheism, A Case Against God” by George Smith

    “God is not Great; how religion poisons everything” by Christopher Hitchens, 2007

  9. Asteroid Miner says:

    In the above, I mean “For” in the sense of “To”. My last 2 comments are for delivery to Richard Pauli.

  10. Joe Romm, check what the paleontology department says about 6 degrees Centigrade: is a NASA web zine. See:

    Book: “Under a Green Sky” by Peter D. Ward, Ph.D., 2007.

    Book: “Six Degrees” by Mark Lynas

    All of the above references say the same thing: 6 degrees Centigrade of global warming allows sulfur bacteria to take over the oceans and make enough H2S to kill every human. We go extinct. Almost all mammals and birds go extinct. This is a repeat of the end-Permian [Permian-Triassic boundary] super mass extinction.

    [JR: Interesting stuff. I’m on semi-vacation now — I’ll take a closer look when I get back.]

  11. Dr. Holdren is certainly entitled to his views, but what concerns me is his tendency to conflate the science of climate change with prescriptions to cut greenhouse emissions. Even if most climate scientists agree on the anthropogenic causes of global warming, that doesn’t imply that the best way to deal with the problem is through drastic cuts in greenhouse emissions. There are other ways to cope, and there’s no “scientific consensus” on which path looks best.

    The above quotation isn’t really anti-scientific, some much as basic sophistry. It’s mostly a string on nominally true statements. Scientists are entitled to their opinions, there isn’t a scientific ‘consensus’, there are other policies you could follow, and in and of itself the causes of global warming don’t dictate the best solutions.

    That type of analysis wouldn’t be any better in non-science field.

  12. crackbaby says:

    Tierney is definitely one of the worst pseudoscientific “journalists” out there. I’d also nominate NPR itself for their horrible environmental coverage overall and for their employment of Dan Harris as a science reporter. Harris sucks too, but overall NPR is among the worst.

    It’s easy to eviscerate these hacks if given the chance but the media outlets will never ever ever have a well-spoken scientific advocate be able to counter the BS of the rightwing. Its not entertaining, I guess.