"Bad Headline Mars Good NY Times Story Debunking Lindzen’s ‘Discredited’ Cloud Theory. Can You Do Better?"
Your not-so-impossible mission, should you choose to accept it, is to write a headline that better reflects the actual content of today’s NY Times article, which redebunks long-debunked disinformer Richard Lindzen.
Headlines are important because research shows that most newspaper readers don’t get much beyond them. And NY Times headlines sweep across the internet through twitter, facebook, news aggregators and search engines. Probably 10 to 50 times as many people see the headlines as read any substantial portion of the story.
So when the New York Times publishes a front-page piece eviscerating Dr. Richard Lindzen and his “discredited” theory — the NYT’s word — that the cloud feedback could somehow save us from catastrophic global warming, it ought to have a better headline than “Clouds’ Effect on Climate Change Is Last Bastion for Dissenters.”
Even worse, the heavily-trafficked front page of the NY Times website has this teaser for the piece:
Again, far more people are going to read this teaser — written by the editors, not the reporter — than actually read the story. What they are going to come away with is the notion that climate skeptics aka deniers aka disinformers have legitimate arguments that might “save us.”
Obviously nothing could be further from the truth, especially when it comes to the discredited Dr. Lindzen. As the article notes:
When Dr. Lindzen first published this theory, in 2001, he said it was supported by satellite records over the Pacific Ocean. But other researchers quickly published work saying that the methods he had used to analyze the data were flawed and that his theory made assumptions that were inconsistent with known facts. Using what they considered more realistic assumptions, they said they could not verify his claims.
Today, most mainstream researchers consider Dr. Lindzen’s theory discredited. He does not agree, but he has had difficulty establishing his case in the scientific literature. Dr. Lindzen published a paper in 2009 offering more support for his case that the earth’s sensitivity to greenhouse gases is low, but once again scientists identified errors, including a failure to account for known inaccuracies in satellite measurements.
Dr. Lindzen acknowledged that the 2009 paper contained “some stupid mistakes” in his handling of the satellite data. “It was just embarrassing,” he said in an interview. “The technical details of satellite measurements are really sort of grotesque.”
The reporter, Justin Gillis, has done a fine job here. What could be clearer than “most mainstream researchers consider Dr. Lindzen’s theory discredited”?
But why should a reader have to wade through many, many paragraphs to learn that this “last bastion” is nothing more than a “Potemkin village”? Again, “bastion” is a very strong image that should not be applied to something as flimsy as the house of cards that is Lindzen’s discredited theory.
Indeed, the recent scientific literature includes multiple studies that conclude clouds are likely to be an amplifying feedback, not one that reduces impacts:
- Science: “Clouds Appear to Be Big, Bad Player in Global Warming” — an amplifying feedback (sorry Lindzen and fellow disinformers)
- Major Science study: Observations confirm “the short-term cloud feedback is likely positive”
- Journal of Climate: New cloud feedback results “provide support for the high end of current estimates of global climate sensitivity
Lindzen himself has been debunked by some of the leading climate scientists in the country (see Lindzen debunked again: New scientific study finds his paper downplaying dangers of human-caused warming is “seriously in error”). Climatologist Kevin Trenberth said in 2010 of one paper co-authored by Lindzen that the flaws “have all the appearance of the authors having contrived to get the answer they got.”
This is hardly the first time the NY Times has ruined a good climate story with a lousy headline — see “Crappy Headline” Ruins New York Times Story on Link Between Climate Change and Extreme Weather. In that case, the headline was “Scientists See More Deadly Weather, but Dispute the Cause.” The author of that piece, John Broder called it a “crappy headline.” He said of the two scientists he spoke to and quoted — NOAA’s Thomas R. Karl and NCAR’s Kevin Trenberth — “they don’t dispute the cause.” Doh!
I get that even the NY Times is under pressure to write headlines that will appeal to the most people, headlines that suggest controversy and dispute. But such headlines are inappropriate for articles whose actual content does not reflect controversy and dispute. It is time for the paper to review its headline policy, at least on climate, and, I think, give reporters some sort of a veto power.
We’ve seen the lousy headlines. What headline would you suggest?
One final point. The other reason that only slashing greenhouse gas emissions — not having your head in the clouds — can “save us” is that there are many, many more documented amplifying feedbacks poised to kick in if we keep taking no action:
- NSIDC bombshell: Thawing permafrost feedback will turn Arctic from carbon sink to source in the 2020s, releasing 100 billion tons of carbon by 2100
- Stunning Peatlands Amplifying Feedback: Drying Wetlands and Intensifying Wildfires Boost Carbon Release Ninefold
- The destruction of the tropical wetlands
- Decelerating growth in tropical forest trees — thanks to accelerating carbon dioxide
- Wildfires and Climate-Driven forest destruction by pests
- The desertification-global warming feedback