UPDATE: Wonk Room has an excellent critique of the Revkin piece here where he points out, among other things, that “Revkin Cites A Paper’s Argument Without Disclosing The Paper Cites Revkin”! I have also made some changes in word choice that I explain below.
The lead climate reporter for the New York Times, Andy Revkin, remains stuck in the he-said she-said school of climate journalism that typifies everything wrong with the traditional media’s coverage of the issue of the century.
Indeed, if we were to apply his analysis to his own work, then it would be fair to say that there is no difference between Andy Revkin and George Will — especially since Revkin altered a key word in a major report — he exaggerated — to make his case against Gore stronger.
[Note to Andy: As I reread this, I STILL really think you need to make a correction/retraction.]
His latest “News Analysis” piece, “In Debate on Climate Change, Exaggeration Is a Common Pitfall,” manages to equate the recent 99.5% disinformation-filled (and widely debunked) op-ed by George Will — that Will and the Washington Post still stand by some 10 days later (see here) — with the 99.5% accurate, science-based (and Nobel-Prize winning) talk/slideshow that Gore has developed over the decades, and which, when it was pointed out he slightly overstated what could be said about one slide, Gore quickly pulled it.
Apparently, to Revkin, if during an extended discussion about climate-related issues you make a single statement that — while not provably incorrect — is not 100% backed up by the scientific literature you cite, you are no different then someone who just repeats huge amounts of long-debunked disinformation.
So let’s apply that to Revkin. A year ago, he wrote an article that helped sell the “global cooling” meme. It had a chart labeled “An Unusually Cold Winter,” when in fact, as I pointed out that “January was the 31st warmest on record” since 1880 (see “Media enable denier spin 1: A (sort of) cold January doesn’t mean climate stopped warming“). Does that story make Andy no different than Will?
[As a telling aside, Andy wrote a comment to that post: “To have my story lumped in with a quick blog post that did cite some of the spin as fact is neither accurate nor useful.” Gosh, Andy, you don’t like your thoughtful, though partially mistaken, piece “lumped in” with some “spin.” I guess people who live in green houses shouldn’t throw stones. You are right, though, lumping Gore in with Will is neither accurate nor useful.]
And just to be clear here, this is hardly the only misstatement Andy has made. As I detail here, Andy wrote in a different story:
With or without the threat of human-caused climate disruption, it’s clear the world lacks the menu of energy options it will require to avoid trouble as the human population heads toward 9 billion people (more or less), all seeking a decent life….
By some credible estimates, triple today’s fossil-based energy supply is likely to be required by mid-century.
Do these statements — which hardly represent a clear-cut scientific consensus and I would argue are actually wrong — turn Andy Revkin into George Will? They do by his standards. [Note also that the link he cited doesn’t support his statement.]
And let’s look exactly at what Gore did “wrong” according to Andy:
Mr. Gore, addressing a hall filled with scientists in Chicago, showed a slide that illustrated a sharp spike in fires, floods and other calamities around the world and warned the audience that global warming “is creating weather-related disasters that are completely unprecedented.”
… Mr. Gore removed the slide from his presentation after the Belgian research group that assembled the disaster data said he had misrepresented what was driving the upward trend. The group said a host of factors contributed to the trend, with climate change possibly being one of them. A spokeswoman for Mr. Gore said he planned to switch to using data on disasters compiled by insurance companies.
So what did that group say (here):
Indeed, justifying the upward trend in hydro-meteorological disaster occurrence and impacts essentially through climate change would be misleading. Climate change is probably an actor in this increase but not the major one — even if it impact (sic) on the figures will likely become more evident in the future.
Yes, that’s right, Andy Revkin changed “probably” into “possibly.” Revkin weakened the wording from a major report — he exaggerated — to make his case against Gore seem stronger.
UPDATE: My word choice was imperfect here, as was Andy’s in his story. Since it is not significant to my overall case, and since I do consider myself a journalist, I will change what I wrote. While Andy still refuses to give Gore the benefit of the doubt, and (so far) stands by his absurd accusation that Gore is no different than Will, I am going to give Andy the benefit of the doubt here. My argument is that Andy occasionally cherry-picks what he cites and makes misstatements that are no different from what Gore did — but very different from what Will did. Andy asserts in an email that it is 100% crystal clear that the sentence “The group said a host of factors contributed to the trend, with climate change possibly being one of them” MUST be referring to their statement and not the report that they wrote that says climate change is “probably” a cause. Okay, the group is entitled to issue a statement about what they “believe” to be true, and that statement is entitled to be different from the report that they published, and Andy is entitled to quote the statement and not the report (even though he had earlier quoted that very line from the report on his blog). But I am then entitled to say Andy is choosing what he does and doesn’t cite to bolster his case — and that is what Gore did in this one instance briefly, until he was asked to change and he did. In any case, I provided two other instances in which Andy and Andy’s articles made statements that either were not scientifically accurate or were not supported by the links he provided. So let me restate my point:
In his articles and blog, Andy Revkin makes choices about what he cites to bolster his case. He also writes statements that are occasionally not scientifically accurate or are not supported by the links he himself provides. Does that make him no different George Will?
Of course not. 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.
Revkin owes Gore an apology for equating him with George Will.
To be clear, Gore’s statement that global warming “is creating weather-related disasters that are completely unprecedented” is scientifically accurate (whereas most of Will’s statement’s are scientifically disprovable). For instance, the scientific literature supports the statement that the unprecedented 2003 European heat wave was driven in part by global warming (see “Breaking News: Global Warming Makes Heat Waves More Severe“). Certainly the Australians, who are suffering through a once–in-thousand year drought, understand this (see “Australia faces collapse as climate change kicks in”). Revkin himself contributed the part of a recent NYT story on Australia’s extreme drought, heat wave, and wildfires that said (see here):
Climate scientists say that no single rare event like the deadly heat wave or fires can be attributed to global warming, but the chances of experiencing such conditions are rising along with the temperature. In 2007, Australia’s national science agency published a 147-page report on projected climate changes, concluding, among other things, that “high-fire-danger weather is likely to increase in the southeast.”
The flooding in the northeast and the combustible conditions in the south were consistent with what is forecast as a result of recent shifts in climate patterns linked to rising concentrations of greenhouse gases, said Kevin Trenberth, a scientist at the United States National Center for Atmospheric Research.
So Gore’s “mistake” if it can be called that, is at most a minor infraction and one largely of word usage.
This extreme weather issue can be a little tricky to talk about, so I will do another post on it later, to look at what the science says and how climate science advocates should talk about it. If I were Gore, I’d probably say “global warming is helping to create weather-related disasters that are completely unprecedented.” But that is truly a small point, not the same order of magnitude as a single one of Will’s howlers.
Again, I’m not going to redebunk what Will did — but it’s worth noting that Will attacked Steven Chu for accurately quoting the scientific literature (much as Revkin’s colleague Tierney did, see here), Will repeatedly misquoted experts who don’t agree with his conclusions (see here), and he generally repeated a litany of long-debunked disinformation (see CAPAF report here).
But apparently Revkin, although he is the chief science reporter on climate for the NYT, is simply unable to come to his own judgment about what Will wrote:
Mr. Will, peppered with complaints from scientists and environmental groups who claimed the column was riddled with errors, has yet to respond…. But the scientists whose research on ice formed the basis for Mr. Will’s statements said their data showed the area of the ice shrinking, not expanding.
Andy, the column IS riddled with errors. Why not just say so? Heck, this is a “News Analysis” piece that in theory gives you the latitude to do so. Indeed, why do you write:
Mr. Will, in a column attacking what he said were exaggerated claims about global warming’s risks, chided climate scientists for predicting an ice age three decades ago….
Climate scientists were not “predicting an ice age three decades ago” (see “Killing the myth of the 1970s global cooling scientific consensus“). Your phrasing and the use of the word “chided” leaves the impression that you think Will’s statement was true, that “climate scientists” as a group were predicting this. You just perpetuated a myth that you know has been debunked many times.
Revkin’s entire analysis is a complete vindication of the critique leading U.S. journalist Eric Pooley wrote for Harvard: “The media’s decision to play the stenographer role helped opponents of climate action stifle progress.”
One final point, Revkin cites Matthew C. Nisbet, a professor of communications at American University, who authored a paper being published in the March-April edition of the journal Environment. I will deal with the flaws in Nisbet’s analysis in a later post, but the money quotes are:
But Dr. Nisbet said that for Mr. Will, there was little downside in stretching the bounds of science to sow doubt.
Will wasn’t “stretching the bounds of science.” He was lying. Making stuff up. Repeating long-debunked myths. Revkin ends the piece:
Criticism of Mr. Will’s columns, Dr. Nisbet said, “only serves to draw attention to his claims while reinforcing a larger false narrative that liberals and the mainstream press are seeking to censor rival scientific evidence and views.”
Huh? George Will writes a column publlished in hundreds of newspapers and read by millions and millions of people — and the proper strategy to deal with this broad-based disinformation effort is … to say nothing? Gosh, I really hope Will doesn’t start writing about how cigarette smoking is actually good for you or start denying the Holocaust happened.
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.
But let’s assume Andy really believes his final quote. I guess there is no need for any organized effort to communicate the facts to the public. After all, that effort merely plays into a narrative that the mainstream press is seeking to contradict those who hold a rival views of the facts. So I guess, if Nisbet and Revkin are right, there is no need whatsoever for the New York Times.
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.
When future generations write about this time — and assuming that we continue to pursue the path advocated by those who spread disinformation, like Will and John Tierney, and those who enable them, like the Washington Post and the New York Times — they will marvel that any serious journalist equated Will with a man who has dedicated his life to understanding and communicating the science the public needs to understand to avert unmitigated catastrophe and who won a Nobel Prize for his effort.
At this point, I simply question whether Andy Revkin himself understands the state of climate science today and what happens on our current path of unrestricted emissions. I suggest he reimmerse himself in the recent literature and in discussions with leading climate scientists, if he wants to return to his former position as the leading climate reporter in the country.
But that will be a tough task since, right now, the best climate reporter in the country is Al Gore, a former journalist, a brilliant synthesizer and communicator, who clearly spends far more time than any other journalist in the country reading the literature and talking to experts, who like any good journalist, quickly corrects the small number of mistakes that are inevitable when you communicate to a large audience on a regular basis.