Bad Headline Mars Good NY Times Story Debunking Lindzen’s ‘Discredited’ Cloud Theory. Can You Do Better?

Richard LindzenYour 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.”

Last year, he tried offering more evidence for his case, but after reviewers for a prestigious American journal criticized the paper, Dr. Lindzen published it in a little-known Korean journal.

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:

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:


40 Responses to Bad Headline Mars Good NY Times Story Debunking Lindzen’s ‘Discredited’ Cloud Theory. Can You Do Better?

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    A lot of us only read the first page of Gillis’ article, and were also struck by the editors’ “not so easily debunked” sub headline.

    If Lindzen’s ideas represent the “last bastion” of the deniers, they are fighting incoming intellectual artillery with bb guns.

    Times reporters and editorial staff are clearly conflicted, which is why their messages are often confusing, even, as here, within the same article. Gillis’ belated efforts to show the bankruptcy of Lindzen’s ideas don’t redeem either him or the Times. Memo to NY Times: If you’re going to decide to finally speak the truth about global warming, go ahead and do so, and stop screwing around. The reputation of your newspaper is on a precipice right now, and a lot of us are paying attention.

  2. anonymous says:

    Forecast: Cloudy, No Brain

  3. Ben Lieberman says:

    I’m willing to bet that lots of deniers emailed the article around without bothering to actually read it first. The actual article stood out for a willingness to avoid a false balance. The closing lines were especially strong.

  4. todd tanner says:

    Deniers In The Mist:
    Clouds Actually Amplify Warming

  5. John Tucker says:

    Plus/minus what the difference? Remember the denial surface station debacle.

  6. John Tucker says:

    “Adjustments applied to USHCN Version 2 data largely account for the impact of instrument and siting changes, although a small overall residual negative (“cool”) bias appears to remain in the adjusted maximum temperature series.” ( )

    You couldn’t make this stuff up.

  7. Uh, just one problem here. The article just isn’t news. Whether or not keeping Lindzen’s name alive is a good idea depends upon the quality of the copy that could have been written instead. I would have preferred a real story with real news.

  8. Corey Simmonds says:

    John, that paper couldn’t have been linked at a better time.

    I’m doing a semester-long GIS project with the station data, and I was looking for this paper to justify some of my premises, but couldn’t remember the authors.

    Thank you!

  9. Mike Misner says:

    Could not agree more. I’d add that it’s worse than poor reporting, it’s irresponsible and with what’s at stake, it’s downright dangerous.

    A big part of our dangerous inaction on climate change in the US remains public opinion. Big Oil and their paid politicians are only too happy to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to throw doubt, fear, and anything else at the public to maintain the status quo. It’s a shame the NYT is now helping.

    I can’t wait to hear from the next denier — “But what about clouds — I heard clouds protect against climate change.”

    Thanks NY Times.

  10. Timeslayer says:

    “Gillis’ belated efforts to show the bankruptcy of Lindzen’s ideas don’t redeem either him or the Times.”

    Amen. And, Obviously.


  11. Joan Savage says:

    “Dissenters Place Their Trust in an Increasingly Cloudy Future”

    could have told the basic premise and given at least me the joy of a good pun.

    By the way, the NYT interactive graphic shows persistent absence of cloud cover in a pattern that is thought-provoking.

  12. Joan Savage says:

    As in relying on less cirrus, with more cumulus or nimbus, if that doesn’t cloud the issue too much.

    The NYT interactive graphic shows cirrus clouds denser along the equator, not what Lindzen suggested would be the case.

    Given the wide use of NYT material for educational purposes, this article gives some handy tools to improve conversations. Its content may not be news, but its presence is.

  13. Sarsaparilla says:

    Ah yes the Richard Lindzen that testified for cigarette companies that they didn’t cause cancer, then testified that CFC’s weren’t destroying the ozone hole and now he’s testifying we don’t have to worry about Climate Change? Sounds like he’s got a perfect record for choosing the corporate funded untrue side of these issues – 3 for 3.

  14. prokaryotes says:

    Something attention grabbing maybe?

    “Met the new Holocaust denier’s”

  15. prokaryotes says:

    “Climate disruption will kill many people and change the planet’s face, but a small group of people is spreading doubt about the science at hand, met one of them”

  16. prokaryotes says:

    Maybe this is a bit to much but…

    Lindzen, the epitome from the fundamentalist playbook. The only thing missing for most drama in above fox flick screenshot is a mushroom cloud in the background!
    His denial if equally destructive and even more so…

    How to inflict chaos on generations to come. A book written by R. Lindzen

  17. Sasparilla says:

    I like that prokaryotes, excellent headline.

  18. Alex says:

    Headline should have been:

    Lindzen Clown Says Send in the Clouds

  19. Matt Wiener says:

    ‘Clouds Won’t Save Us from Climate Change’

  20. Charles Stoy says:

    Professor with head in the clouds misses the facts

  21. CW says:

    “The Silver Lining in Cloud Theory Paid For by Fossil Fuel Interests”

    “Head in the sand? This Denier Has His Head in the Clouds”

    “Staring at Clouds, Contrarian Scientist Sees What He Wants to See”

    “Discredited Climate Theory’s Forecast is Still Cloudy”

    “Evidence For Climate Cloud Theory Acumulus Nimbae”

    “Cloud Is Not Computing. Climate Cloud Theory Doesn’t Add Up”

  22. Timeslayer says:

    The first one is great. Clever and informative.


  23. Gail Zawacki says:

    The NYT actually published my comment, a minor miracle:

    The entire premise that clouds will save us is specious. Even if there were a shred of evidence, temperature is not the only existential threat created by burning fuel and producing emissions.

    The CO2 is acidifying the oceans, which is going to cause the collapse of the food chain. Since we rely on life in the sea for sustenance for a large percentage of humanity, the famine and refugee dislocation that results will tear apart established borders and international civility, such as it exists. Furthermore, much of our oxygen comes from the sea.

    Secondly, the emission of precursors to tropospheric ozone continues to rise relentlessly, causing an inexorable increase in the invisible but persistent, background level in even the remotest, rural corners of the earth. It has been well-established through scientific research for decades that ozone is toxic to all living things, causing cancer, heart disease and other fatal conditions in humans.

    It’s less well known but just as incontrovertible that ozone is actually far more poisonous to all forms of vegetation when it is absorbed through foliage and needles. Annual crop yield and quality are significantly reduced and perhaps even worse, trees that are exposed to cumulative damage season after season are dying off at a rapidly accelerating rate, as they lose immunity to insects, disease and fungus.

    Learn more about it – our survival depends on it!

  24. biggerbox says:

    “Climate Skeptics Count on Clouded Judgment”?

    “Clouded Thinking Latest Scheme of Climate Skeptics”?

    “Science Destroys Yet Another Claim From Climate Skeptics”?

  25. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    There is a cascade of inevitable consequences that begins with the fact that CO2 is a greenhouse gas. Pretty old science, irrefutable save by the looniest denialist die-hards and boneheads. CO2 is released by burning coal, gas and oil, which humanity is extracting in increasing amounts, thereby increasing atmospheric levels far beyond that which is safe for our species, which is hugely dependent on relative climate stability. This extraction and the subsequent burning for energy constitutes the biggest industry on earth, the richest source of profits and the greatest store of wealth in history. This wealth underpins the entire capitalist edifice, and delivers huge wealth and power to the 1% who control it. That 1% also own and control the MSM, personified by the NYT.
    So any ‘journalist’ who states the simple, well-nigh irrefutable truth, that burning hydrocarbon fuels will destroy our ‘civilization’, such as it is, if not also our species, is directly attacking their owners’ wealth and power. I suppose the hacks are just not suicidal, and enjoy their power, prestige and comparative wealth.

  26. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    One Fell Out of the Cloud Cuckoo’s Nest.

  27. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    A man who clearly does not care what his reputation will be in the near future.

  28. Anne van der Bom says:

    I think it is a terrific headline! A honeypot, intended to ambush skeptics. The headline that Joe had wanted, would just scare them off and they would skip the article without reading it.

    And I did like the image it provoked of a small and desperate clan making a last stand in their castle, surrounded by an overwhelming force. The closing chapter of a story of constant retreat.

  29. Mike Roddy says:

    The oil companies are starting to lose the public, Anne, and even Steve McIntyre has been keeping his mouth shut lately. For a change, the deniers were pretty mute in the NYT comment section, too.

    The oil companies’ strategy now will be to continue to bribe our politicians. There are so many legal ways to do it that this will keep them going for a while.

  30. Raul M. says:

    The very notion that misinformers have legitimate arguments that might save us.
    Joe, the very way you said that is a good one. I’d add the word very.

  31. S.B. Ripman says:

    “Last Bastion for Climate Change Deniers Is Crumbling.”

  32. SecularAnimist says:

    Joe wrote: “We’ve seen the lousy headlines. What headline would you suggest?”

    The headline I would suggest is:

    “New York Times Systematically Misleads Its Readers About Global Warming”

  33. caroza says:

    Climate science denial: the Cloud of Unknowing

  34. Ric Merritt says:

    How about:

    Elderly Climate Scientist Who Doesn’t Publish Much Any More Is Last “Skeptic” Who Used To Be Well Respected and Distinguished


    Until He Insisted On Running His Mouth In Public In Ways He Knows He Can’t Get Away With In the Scientific Literature

    OK, so I probably will never make it in a journalism career. PS I won’t take any criticism about the “elderly” crack: I’m not too far from Prof L’s vintage.

  35. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Malice in Cloud-Cuckoo Land.

  36. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Very good!

  37. We’ve had around .9C of warming so far. We’re 11.5 years into the century. Lindzen’s climate sensitivity calcs would posit that we’ve got around .1C of warming left.

    At what point does Lindzen’s name go into the Symmes Hole of nonsense science?

  38. Chris Winter says:

    “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.”

    Lindzen’s Cloud Theory Found To Be Vaporous
    Multiple studies show clouds will not limit global warming.

  39. Sasparilla says:

    That was an excellent one Charles!

  40. owlbrudder says:

    MIT Professor Fogged In: Clouded Judgement Distorts The Truth – Again