Jeff Masters sets record straight on Milbank’s column

If political reporters are going to cover climate science, they need to take more care

UPDATE:  Yikes — even FoxNews reported the press call more accurately than Milbank!

Political reporter Dana Milbank managed to glom onto the one somewhat ambiguous statement made by Dr. Jeff Masters on the press call.  Milbank then then spun it — inaccurately — into more he-said she-said that is the catnip (crack?) for the gaggle:

Scientific arguments, too, are problematic. In a conference call arranged Thursday by the liberal Center for American Progress to refute the snow antics of Inhofe et al., the center’s Joe Romm made the well-worn statements that “the overwhelming weight of the scientific literature” points to human-caused warming and that doubters “don’t understand the science.”

The science is overwhelming — but not definitive. Romm’s claim was inadvertently shot down by his partner on the call, the Weather Underground’s Jeff Masters, who confessed that “there’s a huge amount of natural variability in the climate system” and not enough years of measurements to know exactly what’s going on. “Unfortunately we don’t have that data so we are forced to make decisions based on inadequate data.”

The scientific case has been further undermined by high-profile screw-ups….

Hacked emails, IPCC, blah, blah, blah….

Masters’ comment did not shoot down mine or “undermine” the scientific case.  Gimme a break.

The entire press call was in the context of extreme regional weather events, and the natural variability in the climate system makes it exceedingly difficult to forecast the extreme events at a regional level.  That was the context in which Masters was answering  questions.

But if you have any doubt whatsoever what Masters believes, he has set the record straight on his blog today in response to Milbank’s column:

Media coverage by the Washington Post
I did a phone-in press call with 20 media outlets on Thursday, to discuss how record snowstorms do not imply that global warming is not occurring. Participating on the call with me was Dr. Joe Romm, who blogs on climate-related issues for The audio is posted there if you want to listen.

The Washington Post highlighted a portion of the call where I said, “there’s a huge amount of natural variability in the climate system”, not enough years of measurements to know exactly what’s going on, and “Unfortunately we don’t have that data so we are forced to make decisions based on inadequate data.” The article said that my statements shot down the statement by Joe Romm that “the overwhelming weight of the scientific literature” points to human-caused warming and that doubters “don’t understand the science.” Let me clarify that there will always be considerable uncertainty in our understanding of a chaotic system like the atmosphere. We should not demand certainty where it cannot exist, always using uncertainty as an excuse for taking no action. Keep in mind that the uncertainty goes both ways–climate change could be far worse than the IPCC is predicting, and it would be wise to buy an intelligent amount of insurance to protect ourselves.

I agree with Dr. Romm’s statement, and the offical Statement on Climate Change from the American Meteorological Society, “Despite the uncertainties…there is adequate evidence from observations and interpretations of climate simulations to conclude that the atmosphere, ocean, and land surface are warming; that humans have significantly contributed to this change; and that further climate change will continue to have important impacts on human societies, on economies, on ecosystems, and on wildlife through the 21st century and beyond.”

The official statement from the UK Royal Society and UK Met Office is also one I agree with, “The 2007 IPCC Assessment, the most comprehensive and respected analysis of climate change to date, states clearly that without substantial global reductions of greenhouse gas emissions we can likely expect a world of increasing droughts, floods and species loss, of rising seas and displaced human populations. However even since the 2007 IPCC Assessment the evidence for dangerous, long-term and potentially irreversible climate change has strengthened. The scientific evidence which underpins calls for action at Copenhagen is very strong. Without coordinated international action on greenhouse gas emissions, the impacts on climate and civilization could be severe.”.

In retrospect, I made a mistake in the press call.  The call was about the science — indeed, just one aspect of the science — but it was in the context of a political story, and that meant political reporters would be on the call, and that meant people who don’t follow the science at all, and that meant a serious possibility that an ambiguously worded response would be leapt on and spun.

We should have begun with a very brief overview of what the science says — indeed, to save time, we should have said what Masters ultimately put in his blog, that we agree with the statements of the AMS and especially the Met Office/Royal Society.  That wouldn’t have eliminated the possibility of mistake but would at least have made it difficult for any reporter to take any specific, ambiguously worded statement and used to to make a grossly inaccurate generalization.

I hope to learn from this mistake.  And I hope political reporters covering a story that is far outside their area of expertise will learn, too, that this subject deserves more attention than typical political stories because so much is at stake.

UPDATE:  Even FoxNews reported the press call more accurately than Milbank!  Blake Snow, who asked a couple of questions during the call, writes:

Masters says in a perfect world he’d need “200-300 years worth of records” to accurately predict further climate change. But since that’s not available, “We’re forced to make decisions on a limited data set.” Nevertheless, Masters feels the possible dangers of global warming outweigh the risks of remaining idle. “We need to take action even in the face of inadequate data,” he says.

Not perfect, but a fairer representation than the Washington Post, which ought to worry Milbank!

43 Responses to Jeff Masters sets record straight on Milbank’s column

  1. Ron Broberg says:

    It’s all about the politics.

    Scientists, wishing to influence political policy, have ventured out of the Ivory Tower into the town square.

    Now the Townies are showing them just how much regard they have for those guys in the Ivory Tower.

    Pitchforks and torches!

    (To be fair – the mistrust and disdain can run both ways – and did and does)

    Of course, the science is still there. For those who care to read Science, and Nature, and GRL, and all the other myriad scientific journals. But that’s not a story. Scandal and fraud and conflict-of-wills – that’s a story! Or a soap opera. Or infotainment. Or at least something that sells.

  2. MapleLeaf says:

    Wow, that is quite the spin by Milbank.

    Then again, maybe she just does not understand what is going on very well. I’m not going to critique her for that, but please check with the scientists to make sure that you got it right before going to ‘press’. Had she followed up this could have been avoided.

    Then again, maybe she just has an agenda….

  3. I too have done an enormous number of interviews and one has to learn that reporters are at times like miners. They sift material for whatever they are looking for. With that in mind I almost always spend a half an hour or so writing up responses to as many possible answers as I can think of and then have them in front of me during the interview. It’s not a script but the practice does help one to say exactly what one wants to say and nothing else. I even do this when I get a call out of the blue. I simply tell folks I was just walking out to do an errand and than they can call back in five minutes. Even busy reporters will wait five minutes since they have managed to get someone to agree to talk to them. And then I do the same prep. only faster.

    [JR: Yeah, the problem here was the while we spent a lot of time on the main thrust of the call — we didn’t do that for this secondary thrust.]

  4. RyanT says:

    So more confusion of the longer-term trends and the shorter-term fluctuations (particularly regional) related to the distribution of energy within the system. That is, the natural variability that’s harder to pin down and largely unrelated to the planet’s overall energy budget. There doesn’t seem to be a “huge amount” of natural variability in the global holocene averages, and those are what the climate issue is about.

  5. Jeff Huggins says:

    No! An example and a need for followup.

    Joe, although the call-in session and earlier post are to be applauded, I think there is even another lesson to be learned here. I don’t sense that it’s being learned. At least, as far as I can tell, your present post doesn’t reflect what, I think, should be done in this case.

    There is WAY too much of the tendency to think: “My fault. I’ll be more careful next time and do it differently.”

    Correspondingly, there is WAY too much of a tendency to think: “Oh yea, that’s a political reporter. I should have expected something like this.”

    No, no, no, no, NO.

    By doing that, if that’s what you are doing, i.e., blaming yourself too much, and (in the end) “excusing” Milbank, you let Milbank get away with WAY too much, and that sort of thing is just enabled going forward. It’s way past time to just say NO.

    Although I don’t have time right not to re-listen to the entire call-in recording, or to meticulously compare all the dots, SOMEONE SHOULD. Don’t let this pass.

    If my impression (and yours) is correct, there is no excuse here. My guess is that, if someone listens back to the call-in program, and then reads Dana Milbank’s piece, it will be pretty darn clear that one of two things is the case: Either Milbank is ignorant, in essence, and either incapable of understanding the matter or listening to a simple discussion, OR ELSE Milbank has completely lost track of what it means to say that the media are supposed to serve the public good.

    On a matter as important as this, you simply can’t — and shouldn’t — confuse and misrepresent matters like that (as Milbank did) if you understand the stakes and what is really going on.

    I would ask someone from ClimateProgress to re-listen to the entire call-in program and carefully re-evaluate what Milbank wrote. I’d ALSO as someone from Columbia Journalism Review to do the same and to post on this matter … perhaps Curtis Brainard.

    If you compare what was discussed and said in the call-in program, with what Milbank wrote, does that analysis show that Milbank somehow misunderstood the key points (and if so, why is Milbank then writing in a major paper about the climate issue or any issue that mentions climate?), or is it more likely that Milbank understood but nevertheless chose to write the piece in a misleading and (in essence) inaccurate way?

    I think that ClimateProgress should do the analysis, and ALSO that CJR should do such an analysis. This situation provides a GREAT and somewhat unique — and public — and on-record — opportunity to get closer to the bottom of what happens far too often in the media. It shouldn’t be passed up. There is a lesson here.

    After the analysis, or as part of it, both ClimateProgress and CJR should request to interview Milbank. Present Milbank with the transcript of the interview, and a copy of Milbank’s own piece, and then ask, “how do you explain?” Again, in the end, this is a great — and necessary — opportunity to figure out whether some reporters do not have an ability, apparently, to listen and understand and report responsibly, or whether some reporters can understand but knowingly CHOOSE to put the public good at risk by reporting inaccurately, in the interest of the “controversy” and ideology only.

    I am (as you can hopefully tell) quite serious about this. Do the analysis. CJR should do the same. Request an interview with Milbank. Request an interview with Milbank’s editor. Request an interview with the paper’s senior editor. Ask the pointed questions. Figure out what went on here. What is ignorance, or was it disregard for the public good?

    Although I agree, Joe, that there is a lesson to be learned about how you do the process next time, and you did (in my view) a great job, I don’t think that we can afford to just let the opportunity pass and to simply “excuse” Milbank without learning more from the process and turning the heat up on the media. Milbank has a name. Milbank heard a discussion, apparently, that is on tape. Milbank reported very poorly. Why is that? What happened? I’d like to know.



    [JR: You persuaded me to change the sub-head. I listened to the tape. It was ambiguous and I endeavored to clarify. But Milbank should have followed up directly with Masters.]

  6. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    What message would you rather believe? Wouldn’t it be so much more comforting if global warming was just a huge hoax.

    The sun is continuing to fire up solar cycle 24. All the solar cycle 24 records: Flux, sunspot numbers, continuous days, flare strength are all in the last week.

    We still have an El Nino, but it may be going.

    That water around your ankles is just part of the show. The Titanic is not sinking.

  7. Jeff Huggins says:

    In case my earlier comment was too long, or in case the one or two typos confused matters, here’s the point: We should get to the bottom of this! The immense gap between what was said in the call-in discussion and what Milbank reported and implied is WAY too large. Was it ignorance, or was it disregard for the public good? That’s what we should find out.



  8. Frankly, I disagree. I think we have to work with the system we have and learn to live with it. We need to put ourselves in the mind of the reporters. Ask ourselves what agendas they are likely to have, what “hook” they are likely to have chosen for their piece. This is after all not just about science it is about communicating science through all sorts of different types of media. Some folks might find an article I wrote about this a while back interesting.

  9. Jeff Huggins says:

    Thanks Joe. Of course, I haven’t re-listened to the program, so perhaps your present subhead — “If political reporters are going to cover climate science, they need to take more care” — is the central point.

    But, it still sounds way too gentle to me.

    After all, by the time someone is in sixth grade, they should know not to pee on the floor. In other words, Milbank is a reporter for a major newspaper, right? Milbank knows the topic is important. At a MINIMUM, Milbank should “understand” before Milbank writes. If Milbank had any question or doubt whatsoever, Milbank should have followed up with one of you folks, to gain clarification, BEFORE writing.

    I am, frankly, tired of this sort of thing in the media. Period. I attended a talk, recently, by one of the major scientists involved in all this — I’m sure you would know his name, and may even be friends with him — and in his talk, he essentially offered that he had concerns about whether democracy itself could be functional IF the media give us such garbage on such important issues. These are my words, but that is clearly what he meant. And, if I’m going to continue putting energy into the climate change cause, I think we need to start holding the media completely accountable, naming names and so forth. I do not think, at this point, that it is all that helpful (with the media, anyhow) to give them a gentle obvious reminder that, if they are going to report on climate science, they should be careful to understand the matter first, before they write. They should have gotten that point five years ago, and they should have been spanked (figuratively speaking) the very next time they didn’t do it.

    So, even if the call-in program was slightly ambiguous on this particular point, that in no way excuses such reporting. Milbank could have called for clarification, and should have. And, really, unless we have do-dos in the media reporting on important matters, Milbank should have understood material covered in the call better than that. What sort of education does Milbank have? How long has Milbank been reporting? Who is Milbank’s editor?

    On this one, I think you are being too polite. With the media, I’m coming to the conclusion that the time for polite is over, or nearly so.



  10. Jeff Huggins says:

    Now Up To Milbank

    And here is another test: Let’s see, now, whether Milbank prints an honest and clear retraction and correction — a clear clarification and an admission of misunderstanding — in the next paper, in the same space.

    After all, Milbank should be reading this piece of yours, Joe, as well as these various comments. Will Milbank call for clarification? Will Milbank be responsible enough to clarify the matter for readers? Will Milbank’s editor and the paper’s leadership insist on careful and honest coverage?

    That much, we’ll find out.



  11. David B. Benson says:

    I recommend showing decadal averages. Here are the decadal anomalies from the GISTEMP global temperature product, prduced by BPL:
    1880s -0.25
    1890s -0.26
    1900s -0.27
    1910s -0.28
    1920s -0.16
    1930s -0.03
    1940s +0.04
    1950s -0.02
    1960s -0.01
    1970s +0.00
    1980s +0.18
    1990s +0.32
    2000s +0.51
    Note that the last 30 years are significantly warmer than the prior 30 years; that’s climate. Chnages from one decade just to the next don’t mean much. Although these numbers alone don’t show it, the centennial scale trend is much faster changing than at almost all times during the entire Holocene (and hence the practice of agriculture).

    So I told the main thrust of the sotry (I hope) and I never had to say the words “natural variability” which some reporters will grab and run with.

  12. Robert says:

    WEATHER, [may i venture my explanation] is the mix of the high and low pressure [energy] air masses of the earth. ‘LOWs’ are the moist air mass which is a form of heat energy originally generated in the tropics and the tropical ocean areas. Highs [heat energy masses void of moisture] are sourced in the dry dessert areas. The source of seasonal cold [in-part] is a resultant movement of the sunless arctic air mass pushed via that ever increasing heat energy’s highs & lows. That mix is the variability that we call weather.
    The only way one can study the total effect of weather is to measure its total valve. That total value must be viewed as an averaged measure; weekly, monthly, yearly, decadently(?) centennially and even as the millenniumly average. Only now are we talking about climate! One can never look at any one event and say it proves or disproves the premise of AGW. For sure it only proves the brass of the spin artist! Some folks may not understand all this but many will if our message is presented often enough. When man turns away from science he is betting on the spin misters that will not ever look at truth. Their game is deceit and so they must be defined by the falsehoods they push! We call them the Denier/liars!

  13. Jeff Huggins says:

    “In times like the present …”: Words from Abraham Lincoln that reporters and the media should carefully consider when deciding how vitally important it is to UNDERSTAND something BEFORE writing about it, and then to write about it CLEARLY and RESPONSIBLY, with respect to the climate change problem

    “In times like the present, men should utter nothing for which they would not willingly be responsible through time and eternity.”

    – Abraham Lincoln, December 1, 1862, message to Congress

  14. Dano says:

    Look: the corporations need to find stuff like this to delay carbon legislation.


    Joe: it is not about ‘hoping to learn’. Learn. Make it happen. Hit these f’ers back. Hard.



  15. Wit's End says:

    Why don’t we table the he said she said quibbles about models and interpretations of nuances about subtleties, and buy ad time on the teevee and the movie theaters with videos like this (and there are others that explain the science that are accessible to the average person):

    Seriously if what we want to do is motivate people to demand that our elected officials take action to subsidize clean energy and curb fuel emissions, perhaps the best approach would be to concentrate our efforts on raising funds to educate the public.

    What appears to be going on now is a vociferous testosterone-laden holy water pissing contest.

  16. Wit's End says:

    Joe, the more I think on this the more I think this is the way to go.

    You have tremendous readership. Ask everybody to send in some trivial amount – $5 or $10, to start an ad campaign in the NYTimes or on the teevee. We could get some really slick companies to do the ads.

    Let’s do it!

  17. mike roddy says:

    If anyone here has been the subject of a story in the press, they will have learned that they always get it wrong. Unfortunately the consequences now are much more serious.

    I’m with Wits End- pushback is going to have to take a different form from trying to educate reporters. And Dano has it right, too- financial considerations are preventing our media from telling the truth, for reasons of sales (phony controversies) and advertisers (fossil fuel related ad revenue). Exhibit A: The New York Times. And let’s not even talk about Fox, The Post, and the rest of them.

    Movies are not likely to work, either. The major studios are owned by corporations, with lateral investments in fossil fuels and banks.

    That leaves UTube and citizen action. There is precedent for this- Teach Ins on campuses and in city auditoriums against the Vietnam War in the 60’s, which succeeded in telling the story that the media were avoiding.

    Let’s set up roving town hall meetings, staffed by entertaining and well educated panelists, and hold them throughout the country. They would be broadcast on Utube, live and in storable form. Possible roving panelists could be Leonardo DiCaprio, Greg Craven, Ben Affleck, Dr. John Harte, James Hansen, and (ideally) Steven Colbert or Jon Stewart. Professionally produced videos containing comic takedowns of the likes of Watts and Monckton would be broadcast in the background to break up the yak yak.

    Maybe scientists aren’t good enough communicators. Deniers distort and attack a detail of what they say, and they turn around and apologize to that rabble. Everybody so far has failed, in spite of noble efforts from IPCC and concerned citizens. Time for the people to act to protect our future.

  18. In the race to the bottom, the denialist have won.

    The brand of AGW denialism promoted by politicians and opinionistas is much the same as human traits of racism and sexism. It is based on fear and ignorance

    Such anti-science pandering should not be tolerated.

  19. Wit's End says:

    Mike Roddy, I am homage to you. I am kind of old, by now. I will do whatever I can, to support you and make reparations for what my hideously selfish and stupid generation has incurred upon our children.

    But basically, I’m relying on you and your generation to demand the change that is required.

  20. Fred Teal says:

    I listened to the entire recording last night and went back again today to check it out. The segment in question is at minute 27 on the recording which you can access by just putting the mouse on the gray line and starting at that point. For other readers, Milbank is a man. Check his background out at Wikipedia. He was dropped from Keith Olberman’s show and made a joke about Hillary Clinton that was in very poor taste. He has an obvious conservative bias.

    When he referred to your summary about climate change as “well-worn”, it was clear what his intentions were. Both you and Jeff explained things very well but Milbank just cherry picked to suit his own purposes. When you read his entire article, it is clear that he has not set out to convince the public about the potential dangers of climate change.

  21. Chase says:

    Milbank is not really a journalist, at least not any more. This was not a news piece. Milbank is WaPo’s response to Maureen Dowd: an equal-opportunity offender. He is a pioneer of the post-modernist “fake even handed” style of truthy reporting, in which the reporter affects to strike a balanced middle ground between two competing positions, while snarking at both sides. In this example, in order to snark effectively at the science side of the “debate”, it was necessary to misrepresent what the scientists actually have said: not just on the Romm/Masters call, but about severe weather events in general and their relation to climate disruption, and of course in the CRU e-mails.

    It was an unusually horrible piece, and one hopes he will retract it.

    The big story here is that the journalists just cannot understand that the 150-year snowstorms in the mid-Atlantic are evidence FOR the models, rather than contradicting them as the denialists claim. I think the disinformation campaign is taking a page from the Rove playbook: go for the opponent’s strongest point. They are terrified that people will wake up to the fact that we are having SOME WEIRD WEATHER as the scientists have predicted. Record storm events on both costs, record warmth at the Vancouver olympics and globally.

  22. paulm says:

    . I can only reiterate keep it accurate, short, straightforward, consistent, firm and loud.

    . always try to talk about any up coming interviews/debates with others, especially media savvy colleges.

    . have three main issues on Climate Change which are core and essential. Constantly steer the interview round to these points whenever you can or in any case do this anyway when you feel things are getting out of hand.

    . Alway try to conclude sections with one or all of these points. They should adhere to point 1 above.

  23. Andy says:

    Its still winter. The globe can’t be warming, right?

    Here is a book that speaks volumes about the usefulness of human observations in the absence of science. I swear it could have been written by Sen. Inhofe. “Does the Earth Rotate? NO!

    Wherein the author proves the earth is stationary and flat as a board.

    But this is most interesting. Here are the authors arguments against the “round, rotating earth” theory. Sound familiar?

    “There are […] large sums of money spent annually at our Observatories throughout England on astronomy based upon Astronomers’ opinion and enormous distances given by them, such as the distance of the earth to the pole star and sun of millions of miles, whereas ordinary mathematics as taught at schools daily, absolutely prove the distance in both cases to be less than 10,000 miles.

    With all due respect to astronomers’ prophesies of future happenings as to comets, readers will see their judgment as to distances and earth rotation cannot be relied upon. May I ask, is it worth while keeping a large staff at our Observatories, or anyone working at a false and unreasonable theory, especially when our Government has now definitely decided on economy at their establishments?

    A considerable sum of money can now be saved by greatly reducing the staff at observatories in this country, and undoubtedly the Government will be convinced that the proofs given in this small book is [sic] overwhelming against the enormous distances given by astronomers, and that the earth rotation theory is absolutely disproved.”

  24. Mim says:

    From my observations, many so-called political reporters are mis-named. They see their job as tripping people up not reporting facts. The lesson I would take from this is try to avoid allowing them to do that. This is probably not possible in the type of phone session that took place. As demonstrated by the reported Milbank article, all she needed to do was find two statements that would look as if they were contradictory when removed from their context and placed side by side. One could do that with almost any long discussion.

    Some of the reporters asking questions in the phone call seemed to be genuinely interested in getting answers. There would be others who wouldn’t care what the answers were, provided they could mine the transcript, manufacture inconsistencies and write a story that was juicy as well as fitting the reporters own agenda. AKA tabloid sensationalism.

    A lot of newspapers seem to be reverting to sensationalist reporting and disregarding the facts. I think it’s an effort to sell more papers. It will come back to haunt them in the long run.

    Once it’s done it’s done. I wouldn’t waste too much more effort other than maybe a letter to the Editor. It’s the future that’s more important.

  25. Ryan_T says:

    Greater precision in the language seems as important as ever, with so many people still confusing weather fluctuation and climate change. Just those words “short-term” or “regional”, could make statements about large amounts of variability and not enough data harder to misinterpret. Too often the message gets translated as scientists don’t really know squat about climate trends, but we need cap & trade just in case, when it’s the annual to decadal fluctuations that seem less understood. Question is, Joe, will Dr. Masters submit a response to the WP? I suspect a significant portion of those reading Milbank’s piece will never see the Wunderground blog entry.

    In any case, I know on-the-fly verbal exchanges regarding complex topics can be a challenge. Maybe we need a centralized climate communication service, where experts from different organizations and blogs can post, and journalists can submit follow-up questions and get reasonably quick but more precise responses.

  26. prokaryote says:

    Romm explains that cold weather doesn’t cause snow. What brings the flakes down is a combination of cold and precipitation. And since warmer air holds more moisture, global warming and heavy snowfall can coexist, so long as temperatures keeping dipping below 32 degrees.

    Bill Nye, the Science Guy, agrees, going so far as to tell MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow that scientists who doubt climate change’s manmade origins are unpatriotic. “If you want to get serious about it, these guys claiming that the snow in Washington disproves climate change are almost unpatriotic — it’s as if they’re denying science,” Nye said.

  27. Doug Bostrom says:

    I’ve got to conclude that journalists are finally discovering climate science, only as a fad of gossip instead of a topic for serious reporting.

    It’s a shame.

  28. Jenn says:

    Hey Joe,

    Why do you keep censoring my dad’s comments? You afraid of a little healthy dissent?



    [JR: Let’s see, he tries to post comments whose full contents read “Can’t believe you still cite the IPCC. You have to emerge from your cocoon. You look foolish.” That isn’t “healthy dissent’ — it’s just anti-scientific rambling. For the record, if you stopped citing sources that made a few small errors, you wouldn’t cite anything, including your Dad!]

  29. Richard Brenne says:

    Mike Roddy (#17) – I’m working to do just what you suggest, have already done a dozen such panels and have approached a number of the people you suggest (sometimes with their people) and others. Now I’m talking to Joe about highlighting him during his book tour while doing just the kinds of town meetings you suggest – and with a lot of appropriate humor at times, but dead serious also.

    I thought Joe and Jeff did a great job but when I heard Jeff’s “Inadequate data” comment within about half a nanosecond I knew the deniers were going to be all over that like a cheap suit. I’ve seen this syndrome many times, where a scientist speaking like a good scientist about caveats is misunderstood. They’re speaking at level 8 to 10 in science-speak (that is thoroughly appropriate at a scientific conference, etc) but the media and public are more like at level 0 to 2,
    or in the case of Fox, 0 to -10.

    So the deniers jump to their erroneous conclusions because that’s where they’re determined to jump. When scientists speak to the media or public they need to keep statements in the 0 to 2 range. I agree with everything Jeff says, including that we need more data (I’d argue that with proxy data, more time passing and better analysis and modeling we’re getting closer all the time and encourage a phrase like “We always want more data” rather than “inadequate data”) to truly understand all the cycles of natural variability that can range from 420,000-year orbital cycles to 11-year solar cycles.

    These are like smaller pendulums swinging within the axis swings of larger ones, and it’s difficult to determine which pendulum swing is the dominant one in the realm of natural variability. What we do know is that none of them explains CO2, ocean and atmosphere warming levels. The primary forcing that explains this is human burning of fossil fuels, together with human-caused methane and nitrous oxide releases into the atmosphere, and deforestation removing a percentage of forests as carbon sinks. And positive feedbacks resulting from these forcings.

    That is a graduate school or upper-division undergrad level discussion within an atmospheric science department, and unfortunately most of the media and public are at something like a fifth grade level.

  30. Mim says:

    Having just looked at the fantasies in the UK press twisting Dr Jones’ comments, it reminds me of the situation politicians face all the time. Dr Jones was asked a series of questions from skeptics, put to him by the BBC and answered them. The first thing that a novice politician learns is that you never answer a direct question, instead you answer the question you want to be asked, while making it appear that you are answering the question as it was asked. Some people can do this better than others.

    Jones answered questions relating to ‘significant trends’ for very short periods of time. If he’d instead talked about trends on the time scale used to monitor climate change, it would have been more difficult to misrepresent what he said. But, being a logical person, he answered the question as asked, even though it was a silly question to start with and obviously designed to be used against him.

    BBC questions from ‘skeptics’

    How the responses were twisted by the Daily Mail

    In trying to inform the media, it seems to me that the best approach for the totally uninformed (ie most journalists) is to keep the message short, simple and consistent – and keep repeating it.

    [JR: Thanks for the links. BBC’s questions are inexcusable. Jones needs to read the literature more! I’ll do a post.]

  31. prokaryote says:

    “Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate, and defer to scientists and other experts in the field.”

    2,500 scientists in the IPCC, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Royal Society of London and the Royal Society of Canada. In 2004, Donald Kennedy, editor-in-chief of Science magazine, said, “We’re in the middle of a large uncontrolled experiment on the only planet we have.” And to back up this sense of certainty, he reported that University of California, San Diego science historian Dr. Naomi Oreskes had published an analysis in Science in which she had combed through 928 peer-reviewed climate studies published between 1993 and 2003 and found not a single one that disagreed with the general scientific consensus.

    Yet journalists continued to report updates from the best climate scientists in the world juxtaposed against the unsubstantiated raving of an industry-funded climate change denier – as if both were equally valid.

  32. prokaryote says:

    Maybe we shoudlprovide a disclaimer with every news item and on top of every single page till the ignorance settles and we can start to act in 2010.

    Time is running out now, even Gates realized this.

  33. Leland Palmer says:

    Hi Joe –

    You could have wafted in carried by a choir of angels, and the Washington Post would still have found a way to spin your words into something critical or negative.

    What’s really going on in the editorial offices of the Washington Post is a mystery, but we have to realize that a big portion of the American press has taken on at least the appearance of a controlled press. More and more, the output of the New York Times and the Washington Post resembles very cleverly spun, very adeptly written propaganda.

    Consider their reporting on the Iraq war, and on the weapons of mass destruction fiasco. The really terrible reporting, which appeared to be the output of a controlled press, of the Iraq war and the supposed reasons for it, is just one example of systematic subtle bias, which appears to met to be aimed at promoting the interests of a small financial elite in this country.

    These are the same “news” outlets that cooperated with a campaign to transform the U.S. military from a defensive force into an offensive one, during the Bush years, for example.

    Anyway, don’t beat yourself up.

    You did fine.

    By the way, the way to communicate with the American public effectively appears to be by the use of “talking points”.

    Our talking point for the recent snowstorms should be “well, the atmosphere contains more water vapor now, due to global warming”, along with a link to a study like this

  34. Leland Palmer says:

    Whoops, posted prematurely by mistake.

    Oh, well.

    The study referenced by Joe’s post:

    appears to be subscription only, does anyone have a link to a good review study or the IPCC report showing this correlation?

  35. Dennis says:

    One aspect of Milbank’s piece that troubles me is the “he said” – “unnamed environmentalists claim but I cannot name them” attempt to present “balance.” He goes at length with direct quotes from well-know deniers (Inhofe, Beck, DeMint and McConnell) that are utter nonesense. However, he then tries to balance the column real estate with “environmentalists have undermined the cause with claims bordering on the outlandish.” Who, Dana, who? Anyone in the conversation we’ve ever heard of?

  36. Keith says:

    Bill Nye had a good description for the anti-science types: Unpatriotic
    Trouble is, try to get the MSM (Pravda?) to run with this angle.
    Unpatriotic only gets hung by the MSM on those left of center.

  37. John McCormick says:

    RE #23

    Andy thanks for that interesting link.

    However, I have driven across Kansas and I can attest to the fact that the earth is flat.

    John McCormick

  38. SecularAnimist says:

    Milbank is a hack. He cranks out that drivel because that’s what he is paid to do. He is a propagandist, not a journalist.

    The fact is that the owners of The Washington Post made a decision that it was in their financial interest to join The Wall Street Journal as an aggressive purveyor of fossil fuel industry-funded denial, deceit and obstruction. And their editorial and op-ed pages as well as their “political” reporting have reflected the results of that decision.

    What you get from the corporate-owned media is corporate propaganda. To expect anything else — to expect that the handful of giant corporations that own virtually all of the mass media in the USA will use that power to impartially inform and educate the American people as a public service, out of the goodness of their hearts — is foolish. The corporate media exists to make a profit, and to propagandize the American people in furtherance of the corporate agenda.

    And the fossil fuel corporations are among the largest, wealthiest and most powerful — and certainly the most ruthless, rapacious and relentlessly greedy — of all corporate interests, and as a result their agenda dominates the corporate media’s propaganda on climate and energy issues.

    Dana Milbank didn’t make any “mistakes” here and there aren’t going to be any “corrections”. Milbank knows what he is doing. Milbank’s JOB is to “use uncertainty” — or distortion, or dishonest, or whatever comes to hand — as an “excuse for taking no action”.

    That’s what denialism is all about: manufacturing and promoting excuses for taking no action. Because every single DAY that action to reduce fossil fuel consumption is delayed means millions of dollars of profit for the fossil fuel corporations.

  39. mike roddy says:

    Richard Brenne, I’m glad you’re taking the lead on this, and let me know how I can support your efforts. I have some contacts in academia and environmental NGO’s, and could possibly help write a funding proposal. My Hollywood connections are pretty weak- a few screenwriters and producers- but you never know who may end up stepping up.

    My email address is

  40. Ben Lieberman says:

    Has Mr. Milbank responded at all, or does he think that his original article was just fine?

  41. The Wonderer says:


    The “outlandish claims” quote in the online Dana Milbank article provides a link to a Heritage Foundation page listing “outlandish claims”, which should tell you something for starters. The “outlandish claim” about sheep size turned out to be an article in New Scientist discussing a study on the impact of UK climate on sheep size. The “outlandish claim” claim, therefore seems wholly inaccurate, and is lazy reporting as well.

  42. Greg Craven says:

    Re: #29:
    If you do something in the Northwest and I can help, let me know. I’m spending all of my time focusing on my health and my family after the marathon sprint of the last few years, but if it’s not too demanding I’d be glad to speak at something you arrange. Email me at wonderingmind42 at gmail dot com.
    Greg Craven

  43. Leif says:

    Dr. J.R. A quote from Bertrand Russell. You might want to tack it on the wall someplace.
    Dana Milbank, however, I believe is acting from malice.

    “A stupid man’s report of what a clever man says can never be accurate, because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something he can understand.”