Post-Paper Journalism

Once the news media understand that the printed paper is an adjunct to the website and not the other way around, we may start getting more useful information.

Hank Roberts just posted a comment on this thread pointing to a recent case wherein our friends at the Wall Street Journal got it right. Now of course, they didn’t get it right on any topic of immediate interest to sustainability questions, but there’s no reason that the same approach couldn’t be taken.

OK? To review:

  1. Take an extra day and get it right.
  2. Word count doesn’t matter. If you only have a paragraph about an important news item, write a paragraph. You can add more later.
  3. There is no more ink. If it takes 15,000 words to tell a story that is not featured prominently, tell it all anyway.
  4. Your work will be more valuable if you link to your competitors than if you just link to random places on your own site.
  5. Link to your sources. If you did your job right you have nothing to hide.
  6. Not everything important has a specific dateline. Feature slow but important stories on the front page sometimes.
  7. The paper copy isn’t important. It isn’t a “paper” anymore.


Update: So much for getting it right. You’ll have to just imagine the example now; it’s behind the subscriber firewall. (Or at least I will, anyway. While Rupert Murdoch should feel free to send me money, I prefer not to have it flow the other way, thanks. )

How the Public is Deliberately Misled

Deltoid reports on a complaint to the UK’s media watchdog commission about the unfairness of the infamous Great Global Warming Swindle swindle. The outcome appears to have been somewhat marginal; if I understand correctly the commission agreed that the program was egregiously misleading, but somehow not in violation of the letter of the law.

Actually Ofcom said that to be in breach, not only did Swindle have to materially mislead, this misleading had to cause “harm or offence”. Ofcom decided that it wasn’t harmful if viewers came to believe untrue things about the science, so it sidestepped the question of whether Swindle was misleading.

Charming. Anyway, the text of the complaint is perhaps the most thorough document we have of the methods of this particular effort to mislead the public on matters of science, and is most revelatory about the techniques used elsewhere in the misbegotten sleight-of-mind industry.

People taking the bait on such nonsense as the culpability of Rachel Carson in all malaria deaths and so on ought to consider that there are people going around doing this sort of thing.

The text of the complaint is available, and a summary is also available.

[Update: Above emphasized because it is my main point and I didn’t want it lost in all the bickering.]
The plaintiffs have also got some interesting supporting commentary from some leading lights including Pachauri, Houghton, Wunsch, Santer and Trenberth. (Unfortunately the organization of their website is a mess; hopefully they will reorganize it somehow. The only thing worse in an information website than a how-to-use page is an information website whose how-to-use page is 404.)

Tim Lambert has crossed my mind several times this week, and it’s time I doffed my cap to him for some extremely valuable work he has done over the years on his blog. People interested in environmental science and environmental policy really ought to follow his efforts.

And congratulations also to William, who appears to have had a hand in setting the ball in motion, and who has an insightful summary of the outcome. Links in the comments there are also useful.

Assorted bickering follows:
Update: [Meta-Update: McIntyre continues to insist I withdraw the following, on the grounds that the text “That’s not to say that Ofcom said that Durkin’s point of view had been vindicated, merely that the complainants were seeking comfort in the wrong bed.” was in the original article. He is correct. Accordingly I hereby withdraw the following:

McIntyre is portraying this as complete vindication [Update: “vindication” is disputed by McIntyre: see below; however, unabashed admirers of McIntyre also read McIntyre’s description as vindication] of the propagandists.

My attribution of “vindication” was factually incorrect, and I apologize for it.

I remain very unhappy with the way McIntyre is handling this business, but I did not phrase my complaint, which expressed my honest opinion after a quick reading, with acceptable precision. I’ll be more careful in future.

We now return you to our regularly scheduled Update.]

Presuming he is serious, and not simply as malign as Durkin, this [McIntyre’s apparent satisfaction with a result he sees as a “stuffing” of the plaintiffs] is a very grave error and a real shame, I think. I can understand a nonscientific body being shy about judging what is or isn’t a reasonable representation of science, but nobody with any grasp of the issues should condone this level of spin, in any direction.

This sort of provocation cannot serve to improve communication between scientists and serious skeptics.

Update: Under my challenge Steve McIntyre recast what read to me as a celebratory bleat as helpful advice to scientists undertaking a legal challenge that I oddly misread. See if you are convinced (comments 69 and 71). Then go read the latest on Deltoid for some context. Tim seems to share my impression that McIntyre’s report reads as something other than sage advice to future petitioners.

Update: quoth McIntyre (comment 92):

I repeated the statement that he had not been “vindicated” twice in the comments here here, including once in reponse to Michael Tobis.

Notwithstanding these clear and repeated statements that Durkin had not been “vindicated” by Ofcom (which is a quite different thing than thecomplainants being stuffed), Tobis told his readers at his blog that he had siad the exact opposite – that I claimed that Durkin had been vindicated. Tobis: in a post about “How the Public is Deliberately Misled”, then misleads his reading public by attributing to me a statement where I had said the opposite three times.

McIntyre is portraying this as complete vindication of the propagandists.

Maybe he was trying to see if his readers could pass a skill-testing question on being misled. If Tobis wants to talk to his readers about “deliberate misleading”, maybe he could start by withdrawing his untrue and misleading characterization of my post.

I concede that McIntyre has adopted a conciliatory tone in his response to me and explicitly disavowed vindication in that reply, as well as perhaps elsewhere.

This doesn’t change the fact that his article actually seems not just to emphasize the aspects where the complaint failed but to relish them. To be sure, that seems to be what his audience wants, but I think it undermines his claim to want to get past games and actually look at the facts. There is little doubt that making fun of opponents can be fun. (See Joe Romm using an inappropriate and excessive Monty Python metaphor about the celebrated Lord Monckton of late) but it doesn’t do a lot of good either way, insofar as one concedes that we need to collectively get a good estimate of the seriousness or otherwise of the carbon problem.

So I am a bit taken aback by the injured tone, here.

McIntyre here is just gleefully stirring the pot. At least Romm knows he is being puerile. (Not that this didn’t lose Romm quite a few points with me; one should keep one’s class resentments in one’s own country and not try to import others’. Such things lose a great deal in the translation.)

I really do try to see the point of what the skeptics are saying, and it is on occasion more interesting and thought-provoking than you might expect (though, of note, a couple of silly lit-crit types apparently haunt CA trying to go all deconstructionist out of left field at the slightest opportunity!) It wouldn’t take a great shift on their part to make the conversation much more productive than it is, and I’m willing to do some compromising of my own to that end.

Alas, though, McIntyre’s protestations, though arguably valid in the letter, frankly seem contrived to me in spirit. Worse, they seem contrived to reassure McIntyre’s audience, largely populated by politics-first no-such-thing-as-AGWists, and to offend those of us in the mainstream.

Update: Stoat’s take, from closer range than McIntyre’s, obtains a very different verdict on who was “stuffed”. And Revkin comes right up the middle!

Update: Tim Lambert has mysterious psychic powers about such matters.

The Party’s Over

Eliza Gilkyson again:

the party’s over, we had us a time
everybody got loaded, everybody looked fine
we emptied the coffers of water and wine
the party’s over
we had a good time

we danced on the tables midnight til dawn
’til all the time was up and the good stuff gone

the house is a shambles, broken glass in the streets
guttering candles, blood on the sheets
we burned all the kindling, passed the bottle around
watched the last coals dwindling
and the ice melting down

the party’s over, we had a blast
brought in the lawyers to cover our ass
left a note for the children to clean up the mess
the party’s over
it was a big success!

Los Angeles

The picture is lifted from here on 3quarks. I don’t know anything about the picture. The traffic is quite light; it could be a sunday morning or something, which makes the haze all the more impressive.

Huge interchanges fascinate me, in the light of the constant assertions of the powerlessness of the public sector to achieve anything non-automotive. These are astonishing constructions, the likes of which were never seen on earth before the modern era, and are treated as mundane, especially in the southern half of the US, where respect for government is perhaps lower than anywhere on earth.

The south (and for these purposes that includes California) is a land of bizarre contradictions that are somehow invisible to the natives.

My Point of View in a Nutshell

If tribal cultures could consider the seventh generation, we with our much greater power should be considering the seventieth. The thirty year horizon that economists and politicians consider very long range is just a blink in the geological history of our planet. Now that we dominate surface processes of the earth we have taken over the responsibility for its sustenance. Our obligation to our descendants and our world doesn’t end when the discount rate kicks in.

Our minimal goal is to avoid an abrupt human population collapse, which in retrospect, if there are any survivors, will be eventually be called a “world war”. The carbon problem is a serious threat to sustaining human population in the long run. Although it is one threat among many, it is imminent. The time to address it has come. The energy shortage problem is temporary, but any solution that doesn’t deal with the carbon problem is disastrous. I am pro-nuke, pro-sequestration, pro-renewable including big hydro projects, pro-biofuels, conscious of the drawbacks and risks of all of these. Any geoengineering that targets temperature rather than carbon is worthless. You can call me an “environmentalist” if you want but that doesn’t mean I agree with everything any “environmentalist” says, nor they with me, by a long shot.

Individual conservation action is useful to set an example, and habitual long distance travel especially must be scaled back, but such efforts are insufficient in the face of the necessity of bringing 3/4 of the world out of poverty. Vigorous and intelligent policy changes are urgently needed.

While outside investigation of a field should be tolerated, economic theory as it exists is vastly more primitive than climate theory, and deserves much more auditing attention since it claims such vast importance. Claims that “growth” is indefinitely sustainable and always desirable, which lie at the core of most modern interpretations of economics as axiomatic, are at odds with fundamental dynamics of the rest of the universe, and should be treated with great skepticism. The presumption of indefinitely sustained meaningful growth, along with an outmoded attachment to equilibrium models which can’t handle and thus ignore long time constants, skews the thinking of economists into recommending minimal and delayed policy action. By claiming to be gatekeepers of policy decisions, economists systematically subvert any attention to the long range trajectory of society.

From the point of view of mitigation policy, we shouldn’t be talking about climate theory all that much. It’s not that climatology is complete or “settled” as some like to claim we claim; it’s a very interesting and fruitful pursuit as sciences go these days, and it may well have application value in adaptation planning. It’s that the carbon question, which is crucial for policy, isn’t a close call anymore, and hasn’t been for about two decades now.

There is too much carbon in the active reservoirs of the earth system, by which I mean the collective stores of carbon which have large annual fluxes, i.e., atmosphere, ocean and biota. It is the total carbon in these places that matters, and it’s getting rapidly worse. There isn’t anything subtle or marginal about it. Consequences are inevitable, but not instantaneous. One thing many people don’t understand is that what we see now is the consequence of decisions made decades ago.

Carbon is by no means the only problem of this sort. Human actions form a first order perturbation on the nitrogen cycle, the phosphorus cycle, ocean biomass, fresh water, bulk minerals and many other important systems. The consequences of many of our current decisions are decades in the future. We are already committed to much larger disruptions of climate and geochemistry than we are now experiencing.

Any controversy about the point that we have committed to disrupting global scale processes too much already is partly due to malfeasance. A few private interests have actively tried to prevent a solution to this problem. Even as major industrial organizations quietly withdraw from such efforts, the efforts persist. A major strategy is to confuse the public. One way of achieving this is to paint sober facts as wooly-eyed fantasies, and serious, moderate thinkers as extremists. They think they’re protecting an economic or political interest and doing their job, but they really ought to rethink on ethical grounds.

Most people have trouble believing anybody competent would be so shortsighted as to risk the survival of the planet for a few bucks. I have trouble understanding it myself, but it’s apparently true. Some journalists understand the source of the confusion, but most popular media are afraid to report it for some reason. Positions that are at odds with any reasonable interpretation of facts and any reasonable ideas of morality are not challenged in the way the press would have done in the past. As a consequence, the public debate about global change issues is dangerously skewed from the most basic and crucial facts, as currently understood and enunciated by virtually every major scientific body in existence.

Avoiding the Clathrate Echo

I’ve been talking about the ethics of leaving the world in a condition where a major clathrate release in the rather distant future (order thousands of years) would be more likely. Others have suggested that the human influence is so strong that predicting that far would be futile. Perhaps we’ll be smart enough to be able to overcome this problem easily. Perhaps we’ll be stupid enough that we won’t be here, and we can let the rats and roaches fight it out…

Well, one way to avoid the release of clathrates in the distant future, saddling our distant descendants with a rerun of the global warming episode, would be to dig em all up now. Indeed, I am invited to a talk this week:

Gas hydrate research in India – a synoptic view

The world is searching for new and alternate energy resources due to the manifold increase in consumption of fossil fuels. Methane gas hydrates are perceived to be the future alternate energy resource. Hence, considerable interest has been generated in the field of research and technology development of these deposits world over. In order to meet the India’s energy demand, Indian National Gas Hydrate program (NGHP) was launched in 1996. NGHP is a consortium of national E&P companies and national labs steered and guided by the Directorate General of Hydrocarbon (DGH). A separate R&D intense programme on exploration and technology development on exploitation of gas hydrates has been launched by Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES), Govt. of India with national labs as members.
The occurrence of gas hydrates in the Indian continental margins has been inferred from the presence of Bottom Simulating Reflectors (BSRs) as observed in the multi-channel seismic data. Total prognosticated gas resource from the gas hydrates in Indian offshore area is placed at around 1894 trillion cubic meters, which is almost a few hundred times the conventional natural gas resource established in the country.

… The drilling results confirm the presence of gas hydrates in the Krishna-Godavari (KG), Mahanadi and Andaman offshore basins. Krishna-Godavari basin shows a fracture-dominated massive gas hydrate deposit.

Great news, huh? You’ll notice that climate is not a primary concern among solid earth geophysicists.

Seriously, unless most of the clathrates are recoverable, this is the worst of both worlds. It makes the potential warming more severe while still leaving the gun loaded for a burst of warming in some future we can’t envision.

We need to find alternatives to fossil sources and/or sequestration strategies. Unfortunately, the people who look for fuels are talented and numerous and have little need of public funding and all the productivity overhead that comes with it.