104 Responses to What’s the difference between climate science and climate journalism?
The former is self-correcting, the latter has become self-destructive
UPDATE: Revkin replies below with a tweet that pretty much makes my case.
UPDATE 2: Dr. Robert J. Brulle of Drexel University, whom the NYT itself quoted last year as “an expert on environmental communications,” writes me that Revkin “fundamentally misrepresents the actual history of climate science.” His full comments are below.
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 graf):
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”.
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. He now has a longer post that is well worth reading here.
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.”
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.
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 typical sensitivity numbers, many “latest estimates” are higher, but in any case this framing that it somehow undercuts worst-case scenarios is misleading. Relatedly, 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
Uhh, 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:
- M.I.T. doubles its 2095 warming projection to 10°F “” with 866 ppm and Arctic warming of 20°F
- Our hellish future: Definitive NOAA-led report on U.S. climate impacts warns of scorching 9 to 11°F warming over most of inland U.S. by 2090 with Kansas above 90°F some 120 days a year “” and that isn’t the worst case, it’s business as usual!“
- Ocean dead zones to expand, “remain for thousands of years”
- Sea levels may rise 3 times faster than IPCC estimated, could hit 6 feet by 2100
- Science: CO2 levels haven’t been this high for 15 million years, when it was 5° to 10°F warmer and seas were 75 to 120 feet higher “” “We have shown that this dramatic rise in sea level is associated with an increase in CO2 levels of about 100 ppm.”
- Nature Geoscience study: Oceans are acidifying 10 times faster today than 55 million years ago when a mass extinction of marine species occurred
In his latest blog, Mr. Revkin indirectly impugns the nature of scientific research on climate change. Climate science represents one of longest and most reviewed bodies of scientific literature that exists. It has accumulated over 50 plus years (if you measure from the Revelle and Suess paper in 1957) based on the efforts of thousands of independent scientists.
But Mr. Revkin ignores this history, and maintains that this science is based on small tribal communities in which real peer review is tough. Specifically, he states: “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.”
So if climate science is done by small tribes, adhering to group think, why should we take climate science seriously? Does Mr. Revkin have any real evidence of this other than his own opinion? If he does, he should produce it..
Contrary to Mr. Revkin’s assertion, the veracity and soundness of the climate science research process, and the reports of the IPCC have been documented by several outside investigations.
By creating and promulgating this characterization of climate science as tribal groupthink, Mr. Revkin not only fundamentally misrepresents the actual history of climate science, but plays into the hands of those groups who seek to discredit climate science in order to delay action. DOT Earth has done much better than this in the past, and I hope it can do so in the future.
Let me end with the piece by computer scientist (and occasional CP blogger) Steve Easterbrook’s, “When did ignorance become a badge of honour for journalists?”
Here’s an appalling article by Andy Revkin on dotEarth which epitomizes everything that is wrong with media coverage of climate change. Far from using his position to educate and influence the public by seeking the truth, journalists like Revkin now seem to have taken to just
making shit up, reporting what he reads in blogs as the truth, rather than investigating for himself what scientists actually do.
Revkin kicks off by citing a Harvard cognitive scientist found guilty of academic misconduct, and connecting it with “assertions that climate research suffered far too much from group think, protective tribalism and willingness to spin findings to suit an environmental agenda”. Note the juxtaposition. On the one hand, a story of a lone scientist who turned out to be corrupt (which is rare, but does happen from time to time). On the other hand, a set of insinuations about thousands of climate scientists, with no evidence whatsoever. Groupthink? Tribalism? Spin? Can Revkin substantiate these allegations? Does he even try? Of course not. He just repeats a lot of gossip from a bunch of politically motivated blogs, and demonstrates his own total ignorance of how scientists work.
He does offer two pieces of evidence to back up his assertion of bias. The first is the well-publicized mistake in the IPCC report on the retreat of the Himalayan glaciers. Unfortunately, the quotes from the IPCC authors in the very article Revkin points to, show it was the result of an honest mistake, despite an entire cadre of journalists and bloggers trying to spin it into some vast conspiracy theory. The second is about a paper on the connection between vanishing frogs and climate change, cited in the IPCC report. The IPCC report quite correctly cites the paper, and gives a one sentence summary of it. Somehow or other, Revkin seems to think this is bias or spin. It must have entirely escaped his notice that the IPCC report is supposed to summarize the literature in order to assess our current understanding of the science. Some of that literature is tentative, and some less so. Now, maybe Revkin has evidence that there is absolutely no connection between the vanishing frogs and climate change. If so, he completely fails to mention it. Which means that the IPCC is merely reporting on the best information we have on the subject. Come on Andy, if you want to demonstrate a pattern of bias in the IPCC reports, you’re gonna have to work damn harder than that. Oh, but I forgot. You’re just repeating a bunch of conspiracy theories to pretend you have something useful to say, rather than actually, say, investigating a story.
From here, Revkin weaves a picture of climate science as “done by very small tribes (sea ice folks, glacier folks, modelers, climate-ecologists, etc)”, and hence suggests they must therefore be guilty of groupthink and confirmation bias. Does he offer any evidence for this tribalism? No he does not, for there is none. He merely repeats the allegations of a bunch of people like Steve McIntyre, who working on the fringes of science, clearly do belong to a minor tribe, one that does not interact in any meaningful way with real climate scientists. So, I guess we’re meant to conclude that because McIntyre and a few others have formed a little insular tribe, that this must mean mainstream climate scientists are tribal too? Such reasoning would be laughable, if this wasn’t such a serious subject.
Revkin claims to have been “following the global warming saga – science and policy – for nearly a quarter century”. Unfortunately, in all that time, he doesn’t appear to have actually educated himself about how the science is done. If he’d spent any time in a climate science research institute, he’d know this allegation of tribalism is about as far from the truth as it’s possible to get. Oh, but of course, actually going and observing scientists in action would require some effort. That seems to be just a little too much to ask.
So, to educate Andy, and to save him the trouble of finding out for himself, let me explain. First, a little bit of history. The modern concern about the potential impacts of climate change probably dates back to the 1957 Revelle and Suess paper, in which they reported that the oceans absorb far less anthropogenic carbon emissions than was previously thought. Revelle was trained in geology and oceanography. Suess was a nuclear physicist, who studied the distribution of carbon-14 in the atmosphere. Their collaboration was inspired by discussions with Libby, a physical chemist famous for the development of radio-carbon dating. As head of the Scripps Institute, Revelle brought together oceanographers with atmospheric physicists (including initiating the Mauna Loa of the measurement of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere), atomic physicists studying dispersal of radioactive particles, and biologists studying the biological impacts of radiation. Tribalism? How about some truly remarkable inter-disciplinary research?
I suppose Revkin might argue that those were the old days, and maybe things have gone downhill since then. But again, the evidence says otherwise. In the 1970’s, the idea of earth system science began to emerge, and in the last decade, it has become central to the efforts to build climate simulation models to improve our understandings of the connections between the various earth subsystems: atmosphere, ocean, atmospheric chemistry, ocean biogeochemistry, biology, hydrology, glaciology and meteorology. If you visit any of the major climate research labs today, you’ll find a collection of scientists from many of these different disciplines working alongside one another, collaborating on the development of integrated models, and discussing the connections between the different earth subsystems. For example, when I visited the UK Met Office two years ago, I was struck by their use of cross-disciplinary teams to investigate specific problems in the simulation models. When I visited, they had just formed such a cross-disciplinary team to investigate how to improve the simulation of the Indian monsoons in their earth system models. This week, I’m just wrapping up a month long visit to the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, where I’ve also regularly sat in on meetings between scientists from the various disciplines, sharing ideas about, for example, the relationships between atmospheric radiative transfer and ocean plankton models.
The folks in Hamburg have been kind enough to allow me to sit in on their summer school this week, in which they’re training the next generation of earth science PhD students how to work with earth system models. The students are from a wide variety of disciplines: some study glaciers, some clouds, some oceanography, some biology, and so on. The set of experiments we’ve been given to try out the model include: changing the cloud top mass flux, altering the rate of decomposition in soils, changing the ocean mixing ratio, altering the ocean albedo, and changing the shape of the earth. Oh, and they’ve mixed up the students, so they have to work in pairs with people from another discipline. Tribalism? No, right from the get go, PhD training includes the encouragement of cross-disciplinary thinking and cross-disciplinary working.
Of course, if Revkin ever did wander into a climate science research institute he would see this for himself. But no, he prefers pontificating from the comfort of his armchair, repeating nonsense allegations he reads on the internet. And this is the standard that journalists hold for themselves? No wonder the general public is confused about climate change. Instead of trying to pick holes in a science they clearly don’t understand, maybe people like Revkin ought to do some soul searching and investigate the gaping holes in journalistic coverage of climate change. Then finally we might find out where the real biases lie.
So, here’s a challenge for Andy Revkin: Do not write another word about climate science until you have spent one whole month as a visitor in a climate research institute. Attend the seminars, talk to the PhD students, sit in on meetings, find out what actually goes on in these places. If you can’t be bothered to do that, then please STFU.
Update: On reflection, I think I was too generous to Revkin when I accused him of making shit up, so I deleted that bit. He’s really just parroting other people who make shit up.
Update #2: Oh, did I mention that I’m a computer scientist? I’ve been welcomed into various climate research labs, invited to sit in on meetings and observe their working practices, and to spend my time hanging out with all sorts of scientists from all sorts of disciplines. Because obviously they’re a bunch of tribalists who are trying to hide what they do. NOT.
– Steve Easterbrook
For the record, I suppose it bears repeating that I don’t necessarily endorse every single word by the folks I repost — heck, I posted a piece by Judith Curry here! I wanted to show some of the real anger that exists over Revkin’s column. And I think Steve put his challenge and his strong language in an appropriate conditional.
The best climate reporting is done by people who spend the most time talking with the top climatologists and reading a broad spectrum of the literature.
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.
UPDATE: Revkin has replied in the comments with a tweet that links to a slightly longer reply on his blog. Characteristically, he ignores the multiple critiques by other people and the entire substance of my post, and attempts to personalize this. Revkin writes:
Speaking of fallibility, I’ve got to add that I love how Joe Romm has repeatedly described — as breaking news — my admission in 2009 that I make mistakes. Only the Pope, and Joe Romm, appear to be infallible. I won’t interpret that pairing’ I’m just noting it.
So Revkin can link to a 2006 article of his that doesn’t even support his argument, but apparently I can’t link to a 2009 admission by him that does. No Andy, it isn’t described as a breaking news, merely relevant news.
Ironically, had Revkin read my other media post from Sunday he’d have seen that I acknowledge no one can avoid making mistakes of a certain kind (typos, grammar, small factual mistakes) if one blogs. But Revkin apparently can’t tell the difference between making some small mistakes — and just being plain wrong. It’ll be interesting to see just how many scientists have to tell Revkin that he was dead wrong in this piece before he simply retracts it.
Revkin writes that in this 2000-word piece, I “didn’t mention the conclusion of that post, which was that I trust climate science (and, implicitly, the scientific process). I guess he can’t attack me and, at the same time, remind folks that I’ve written more about the risks posed by global warming than he has, over a far longer span.”
I didn’t mention the conclusion because the rest of the post undercut it entirely. Here is what he concluded:
Do I trust climate science? As a living body of intellectual inquiry exploring profoundly complex questions, yes.
Do I trust all climate scientists, research institutions, funding sources, journals and others involved in this arena to convey the full context of findings and to avoid sometimes stepping beyond the data? I wouldn’t be a journalist if I answered yes.
Note that the first sentence is essentially devoid of meaning because Revkin has refused to explained what conclusions of climate science he trusts. In his post, Revkin associates the IPCC era with a period of overstatement, when in fact it is a period of understatement. So in fact Revkin does not appear to trust climate science in any meaningful fashion.
Finally, not that is terribly relevant to the fact that Revkin is just dead wrong in his post, but I don’t think it’s true that he has written more about the risks posed by global warming than I have. More to the point, Revkin seems to ignore or no longer stand by the few truly hard-hitting pieces he’s written on this. Back in May 2008, I blogged on Revkin’s brief interview with Nobel laureate F. Sherwood Rowland, “Nobel Winner: CO2 Going to 1,000 Parts Per Million“. He asked Rowland “Given the nature of the climate and energy challenges, what is his best guess for the peak concentration of carbon dioxide?”:
His answer? “1,000 parts per million,” he said.
My second question was, what will that look like?
“I have no idea,” Dr. Rowland said. He was not smiling.
For the record, science does have some idea what 1000 ppm looks like — although admittedly there isn’t a vast literature on this subject because the scientific community never thought the world would be so foolish as to ignore its warnings and let that outcome become a real possibility. But I have assembled some of that literature above and in these two posts:
- An introduction to global warming impacts: Hell and High Water
- An illustrated guide to the latest climate science
Bottom line: There’s no point in Revkin hiding behind his earlier writing on the dangers posed by global warming if he spends his time now saying that they represent a period of overstatement and instead links to old pieces that quote discredited people like Lindzen.
- N.Y. Times Faces Credibility Siege over Unbalanced Climate Coverage: One oft-quoted communications expert calls this attack on the IPCC, “the worst, one sided reporting I have ever seen”¦. In this article, the New York Times has become an echo-chamber for the climate disinformation movement.”
- In yet another front-page journalistic lapse, the NY Times once again equates non-scientists “” Bastardi, Coleman, and Watts (!) “” with climate scientists
- Brulle: “The NY Times doesn’t need to go to European conferences to find out why public opinion on climate change has shifted”¦. Just look in the mirror.”
- Media stunner: When asked “Does it matter, from a journalistic point of view, whether [Freeman Dyson is] right or whether he’s wrong?” his NYT profiler replies “Oh, absolutely not.”
- Signs of global warming are everywhere, but if the New York Times can’t tell the story (twice!), how will the public hear it?
- MacCracken: The New York Times quote did not represent my views, and it did not even represent the reporter’s attempt to portray my comments
- Grist on the NYT’s “baseless hit job on Gore,” plus the story’s origin in a Fox News doctored video
- The New York Times sells its integrity to ExxonMobil with front-page ad that falsely asserts “Today’s car has 95% fewer emissions than a car from 1970″³
- Shame on the New York Times for running ExxonMobil’s greenwashing ad once again “” they can’t plead ignorance this time, only greed
- Is the New York Times coverage of global warming fatally flawed?
- NYT climate reporter on NPR: “I’ve made missteps. I’ve made probably more mistakes this year in my print stories than I had before.”
- NYT pushes global cooling myth (again!) and repeats outright misinformation
- NY Times spins the greatest nonstory ever told, suckering UK Guardian into printing utter BS
- NYT persists in selling spin from long-wrong deniers that the IPCC overestimates the danger from warming, when the reverse is true
- Here’s what we know so far: CRU’s emails were hacked, the 2000s will easily be the hottest decade on record, and the planet keeps warming thanks to us! The NY Times blows the story.
- Unstaining Al Gore’s good name 2: He is not “guilty of inaccuracies and overstatements” and is owed a correction and apology by the New York Times
- NYT embraces false balance, equates Will’s active disinformation with Gore’s effort to understand and communicate climate realism
- NYT seems shocked, shocked by media’s own failure to explain climate threat
- John Tierney IS the country’s worst science writer, not Gregg Easterbrook
- John Tierney makes up stuff “” does the New York Times employ several know/do-nothing fact checkers
This post has been updated.