More on George Will

Much, much, much more… All tolled, (and not yet all told) this is the first major league blogstorm emerging from the non-denialist climo-blogosphere and is thus a historical event regardless of your position on it.

If there’s one thing you should understand about this event it is this one: Jonathan Schwarz tells an old Noam Chomsky story about George Will in an article entitled “So Much Nicer To Be George Will Before The Internet”.

So she looked it up and called me back, and said, “Yeah, you’re right, we found it there; okay, we’ll run your letter.” An hour later she called again and said, “Gee, I’m sorry, but we can’t run the letter.” I said, “What’s the problem?” She said, “Well, the editor mentioned it to Will and he’s having a tantrum; they decided they can’t run it.” Well, okay.

Of course there’s more from Joe Romm. Especially consider this comment from “agog”:

The great mystery to me is why in the age of the interweb does anyone bother with US journalism. As disgraceful as these George Will columns have been, after its support for the Iraq war how could any sentient reader of WaPo have credited it with any journalistic or moral integrity? The NYT and WSJ are no better and anything on US television is a waste of time.

For English speakers surely the FT, the Independent, BBC, Channel 4 or Al Jazeera are better alternatives: none of them come close to being perfect but if one consumes critically it is possible to cherry pick the best of them depending on the issue. And, of course, there is the blogosphere where sites like this usefully both contribute and critique.

Americans seem to be living in an information bubble (or is it vacuum?): their own version of The Truman Show. From abroad, the world looks very different. Equally f**ked, but somehow in a way that one can make more sense of.

Then there is Curtis Brainerd on no less than the Columbia Journalism Review. This mostly consists of a clear and cogent history of the episode, but ends with a jawdroppingly muddled piece of journalism-insider blathering:

Revkin quoted American University communications professor Matthew Nisbet, who argues that the wave of criticism of Will “only serves to draw attention to his claims while reinforcing a larger false narrative that liberals and the mainstream press are seeking to censor rival scientific evidence and views.”

There is some truth to that. Indeed, because of the hullaballoo, Will is now writing about climate change for the second time this month. On the other hand, this whole affair raises a number of important questions about how the press, particularly columnists, cover climate change. The most important seems to be: can inference rise to the level of such absurdity that it becomes subject to the same rigors as evidence?

Carl Zimmer

What has kept me hooked on this saga is not George Will’s errors. Errors are as common as grass. Some are made out of ignorance, some carefully constructed to give a misleading impression. What has kept me agog is the way the editors at the Washington Post have actually given their stamp of approval on Will’s columns, even claiming to have fact-checked them and seeing no need for a single correction.

The climax to this part of the story came yesterday, when the Columbia Journalism Review was finally able to get Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor at the Post, to speak directly about the ice affair:

It may well be that he is drawing inferences from data that most scientists reject–so, you know, fine, I welcome anyone to make that point. But don’t make it by suggesting that George Will shouldn’t be allowed to make the contrary point…I think it’s kind of healthy, given how, in so many areas–not just climatology, but medicine, and everything else–there is a tendency on the part of the lay public at times to ascribe certainty to things which are uncertain.

I’ve heard that line before…the one about how people can look at the same scientific data and make different inferences.

I’ve heard it from creationists. They look at the Grand Canyon, at all the data amassed by geologists over the years, and they end up with an inference very different from what you’ll hear from those geologists.

Would Hiatt be pleased to have them writing opinion pieces, too? There is indeed some debate in the scientific community about exactly how old the Grand Canyon is–with some arguing it’s 55 million years old and others arguing for 15 million. Would Hiatt consider it healthy to publish a piece from someone who thinks the Grand Canyon is just a few thousand years old, with just a perfunctory inspection of the information in it?

At this point, it’s hard for me to see how the answer could be no.

Senator John Kerry makes a sympatico pronouncement on HuffPo:

Let’s be very clear: Stephen Chu does not make predictions to further an agenda. He does so to inform the public. He is no Cassandra. If his predictions about the effects of our climate crisis are scary, it’s because our climate is scary.

Amen. Even the best of our J-school friends seem incapable of getting a grip on that.

Andrew Siegel has more and a huge supply of links, enough to fill your whole rainy day if you’re lucky enough to live somewhere they still have those.

Who Framed Roger Pielke?

An interesting and sympathetic take on Roger Pielke Jr. comes to us from from Dylan Otto Krider. One of the first comments on this blog was what I took to be a sincere welcome to the fray from RP Jr, and I’ve been torn about how to deal with him from well before I took up blogging in earnest.

It seems to me that sometimes he adds value but sometimes he seems to be so far out in right field that he’s playing in a different game. It’s hard to know what to make of him in any holistic sense. But it’s clear to me that dismissing him as a “right-winger” with “ties to industry” as Brad Johnson did in his otherwise elegant takedown of Revkin is excessive and off target. RP Jr. seems to want something different of the debate, and what it is I can’t entirely understand, but then again, I suppose that’s true of me as well! It does seem he tries so urgently to articulate his something and he fails, which is ironic given the sorts of critique he hurls at others.

On the other hand, it appears from the comments on Dot Earth that he approves of dragging Gore into the article on Will, an exercise I find inexcuseable.

Some folks are gearing up to push the Will case at the Washington Post for all its worth. That is definitely a good thing. It is time the press was forced to let go of its unearned carte blanche. So I suppose I shouldn’t try to rail against Revkin too hard; it’s just a distraction as long as the real action looks to be elsewhere.

Still, I don’t forgive Revkin. (Update: I don’t think his dragging Gore into Will’s muck was a minor transgression of a fine point of propriety. I think it was palpably evil.) To the extent RP Jr had a hand in it, I don’t forgive him either, even though he is something other than a corporate lackey, which is I don’t know exactly what.

Update: The massive blogstorm continues with a presistent mesoscale convective complex centered over Roger Pielke Jr . David Roberts had some musings about RPJr recently, for which John Fleck took him to task (see comments), much as I was uncomfortable with Brad Johnson’s stuff above. And Dylan Otto Krider is on the topic right now. ( Meta-Update: So is Backseat Driving. Brian updates: ” edited to tone down a bit. Must find the right tone….” Indeed. So, what is it about RPJr that makes that so hard?)

I also have some inside information that Joe Romm intends to weigh in soon, and one guesses not in the gentlest way. ( Meta-Update: It’s here. )

I should add that RPJr. did not originate any linkage between Gore and Will that I have been able to see. Although he did comment on the linkage after the fact, well, so did I.

Criticizing Gore on content is an odd sport and one which I find unsavory, but it is not in a league with finding symmetry in a comparison of Gore to Will. As far as I can tell the blame for this particular travesty rests squarely with Revkin.

I think there is little doubt that Pielke enjoys saying things that Republicans want to hear, but that is very different from being scientifically dishonest. It’s not even, necessarily, malign, despite the alarming current state of the federal Republicans. He does, at least, get a voice for legitimate climate science into quarters where it might not otherwise be heard.

I’m not convinced that he is entirely sincere, though. I find myself suspecting that he gets so much pleasure from explaining how things go awry that he is disinclined for them to go reasonably.

New: Eli posits a different explanation.

Update May 6: Though I have become a fan of Kevin Kloor‘s (despite the obvious cause for suspicion that he was a willing participant in my railroading a couple months back), I am a bit hurt that he has sent people back to this thread without providing some needed context, by which I mean specifically this almost contemporaneous posting, wherein what hit the fan in this present posting, leading to the above-mentioned railroading, was discussed at some length.


I feel a death-of-journalism topic coming on. Here’s a teaser.

I’ve been following @jayrosen_nyu on Twitter. He’s an excellent source of post-web meta-journalism stories. Including this one by Steve Rhodes mentioning among many other things my pet peeve about how the NYTimes uses link tags:

I was reading a trade industry publication last week informing those of our profession that you don’t have to use the old AP inverted pyramid style when writing your stories. You can use feature leads! You can write in narrative style! You can use all sorts of gimmicks to “write” if you just learn the craft of newspaperese! You’ll win awards!

Um, what is this, the wayback machine to 1975? Not only is that an amazingly stale discussion, it’s amazingly outdated. The revolution of the simple link has irrevocably altered the way we should be writing and structuring our stories. But guess what? Newspaper reporters don’t put links in their stories! It’s true! And when newspapers put stories online, an editor doesn’t put links in those, either!

Oh sure, there are auto-generated links that helpfully point readers to encyclopedia entries of every proper name mentioned . . . woo-hoo!

If you haven’t ever made a link, you have no business being within 500 miles of any “town hall” on how to save journalism.

Much more at the link.

Update: Another very insightful column, this one from Whet Moser, remarking on the same event.
and so it goes…

Shovel Ready

Please, sir, may we have another?

(CNN) — A NASA satellite crashed back to Earth about three minutes after launch early Tuesday, officials said.

“We could not make orbit,” NASA program manager John Brunschwyler said. “Initial indications are the vehicle did not have enough [force] to reach orbit and landed just short of Antarctica in the ocean.”

“Certainly for the science community, it’s a huge disappointment.”

The $273 million satellite, called the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, would have collected global measurements of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the Earth’s atmosphere to help better forecast changes in carbon-dioxide levels and their effect on the Earth’s climate.

Hard luck for sure. We all need this thing, and the clean coal people need it especially. Look at the bright side: it’s expensive! Plus, all the bureaucratic snags have already been cleared once. It’s shovel ready!

I guess rewarding NASA for this is like sending money to bank managers in gratitude for them destroying the banks, though. Maybe we can outsource the launch vehicle to the French or the Chinese?

Revkin Beyond the Pale

Revkin falls into his old habit of splitting the difference between lies and truth, and then offers some lame justification on his blog.

This is not acceptable. Revkin should take a hint from Joe Romm on what the actual climate news is this week.

I am also 100% behind Joe Romm on his take on Revkin’s article. Just when you think Revkin is actually performing a service he comes up with this sort of poison.

Unlike George Will, Revkin knows better. That being the case, this sacrifice of genuine balance for a cute but shallow sort of journalistic symmetry is not just lazy but unethical.

Update: If this sort of tempest is your cup of tea, there’s a vast array of related links at Thing’s. Whatever you do, though, don’t read Revkin’s rant without also looking at Brad Johnson’s detailed critique of it.

Update: Comment by me at Climate Progress:

For me this isn’t nearly as much about George Will or the Post as it is about Revkin and the Times. To be sure, neither part of the tale is pretty.

In the article in question, Revkin frames the debate as balanced between Gore and Will. Yet, from the point of view of the most informed people on the topic of climate change, the IPCC represents the middle of the road, not an extreme, and Gore himself is a dyed-in-the-wool moderate. Anything that casts Gore’s position as extreme drastically misframes the issues we should be talking about.

Revkin clearly knows enough about the situation to know that the posited equivalence between Gore and Will is not just strained but ludicrous. His readers may not know this.

The disservice of knowingly and falsely presenting the two as roughly symmetrical in the interest of a tidy little article is more than run of the mill journalistic laziness. It is a betrayal of the public trust. If ever a journalist were eligible for impeachment it would be Revkin as a consequence of this travesty.

Any sensible points made in passing (and there were some) notwithstanding, his article is unacceptable and uncivilized, because Revkin surely knows better. I care little for George Will’s opinions. On this matter he is a confused old man, and will for the most part be ignored.

Revkin is presumably not so confused, but if one presumes so, it seems that he is willing to confuse others. It is no exaggeration to suggest that by capitulating to the Times’ desire to be nonthreatening, Revkin may have contributed directly to worsening the scope of the catastrophe our world will face.

Revkin owes us a vastly more cogent explanation or apology for this gobsmackingly shallow and vile blithering than he has managed to date. If he was pressured to produce this travesty by management at the Times, all the more so. I believe this matter is so severe that Revkin ought to make it his highest priority to repair it immediately or failing that to resign.

Update: Will goes on as expected. Revkin, to my eye, backpedals a bit without addressing the core malpractice in his column:

The office of former Vice President Al Gore complained about my story on climate exaggeration the other day and now George Will, the other (very different) example in that piece, has weighed in as well with a column, “Climate Science in a Tornado,” defending his accuracy and questioning my competence. I’ll leave the competence judgment to readers.

Update: I’ve recently become a huge fan of Jay Rosen. I am pleased to note that he gets it exactly right in the comments at Dot Earth (#183):

… in my opinion you have seriously under-estimated and mishandled the “false equivalence” issue. It’s good that you acknowledged it; it’s bad that you dismissed it. And I don’t know why you reduced it to a question of qualifications. I think you’ve seen in the days since how little resemblance there is between Gore as a mistake-maker and George Will. This alone should cause you to regret what you wrote suggesting they were caught in the same trap.

You talked of temptation in your original story on exaggerations in the climate change debate. I urge you to please consider what a temptation there is for editors and reporters in a “both sides engage in hype” story. The temptation to portray the two sides as equally at fault, equally misleading, equally loose with facts is HUGE, and you failed to resist it.

Please re-consider. I think your judgment about the original story is off. Way off.

In case you missed my point, I am very, very, very disappointed by this. I see all the moaning about the future of the press, including by a couple of my friends who are practicing old-school newspaper journalists, and I worry about it, I really do. But frankly, if this is the best the press can do, I have to say to hell with it. (edits blogroll)

Henchman: I promise you it won’t happen again.

Zorg: I know.

Will Progress in Climatology Affect Mitigation Policy?

Will progress in climatology affect mitigation policy? Not very much, no.

“Steven Chu, the new secretary of energy, said Wednesday that solving the world’s energy and environment problems would require Nobel-level breakthroughs in three areas: electric batteries, solar power and the development of new crops that can be turned into fuel.”

according to a recent article in the New York Times.

Note what he doesn’t mention: supercomputing, climate modeling, earth system modeling frameworks. Dr. Chu is putting his attention in the right places.

It can be argued that climatology is not an important input into climate change related policy. It is premature to take climatological input into account in adaptation strategy, while on the other hand as far as mitigation goes (i.e., on the global scale) the picture has pretty much stayed about the same for some substantial time.

Many readers will find this peculiar. Certain sorts of denialists are arguing that the tide has turned against the IPCC consensus over the last couple of years. With regard to that, nothing has changed; they have been making similar statements for twenty years. Certain sorts of alarmists meanwhile are emphasizing how things have gotten so much worse, but again these sorts of claims are nothing new. The fact is that things are pretty much about as bad as we have thought for a long time, except on the sea level rise front, where relatively new insights into ice sheet dynamics and new data about sudden postglacial sea level rise in the past raise the possibility of rapid changes in sea level.

It’s not outside the realm of possibility that ice sheet modeling will make sufficient progress to constrain the behavior of ice sheets effectively. It is certainly worth a try.

On the other hand, consider this. Carefully targeted expenditures on science can be effective, but you cannot hire nine women to make a baby in a month. Intellectual progress can reach some maximum rate but then it reaches a point where more manpower and more funding is just redundant.

Some problems in earth science are undecidable. We may never understand the ocean circulation of the Eocene, much though we might want to.

My guess is that the most likely outcome is that there will be several viable scenarios for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet until one of them occurs. Maybe Greenland will turn out to be a tad less capricious, but we don’t know that for sure yet either.

As for aerosols, (and as for clouds, and so on) yes improvements can perhaps narrow the uncertainty of climate prediction a bit, and I’m happy to be helping out in that regard, but the chances of the first order picture changing very much are slim.

The real issues are environmental, agricultural and civil engineering problems, and the response issues are in the social, political, economic and geopolitical realms.

Climatology is a worthy pursuit in itself as a pure science. As far as application goes, if geoengineering is necessary you will need to rely on huge advancement in the field. Possibly we can improve our abilities for local and regional predictions, which would add a lot of value to adaptation startegies. So by all means support climatology, but don’t look to us for input into what needs doing now on the mitigation front.

We have said our piece and it is unlikely to change, not because we are stubborn, but because there are some things we understand pretty well. And certainly not because we are in it for the gold. The big money is not heading our way, nor should it.

PS from the same article:

Dr. Chu said he was still adjusting to his surroundings and title after most of a career spent as an academic scientist. Asked whether he preferred to be called “Dr. Chu” or “Mr. Secretary,” he answered, “Steve is fine.”

New York City

Wherein our hero indulges himself in an actual blog entry…

So while it was all hitting the fan in Austin, I find myself in New York City where people don’t know what picante sauce is supposed to taste like, mostly for the  purpose of talking about applying the web to the problem of elicitation of expert opinion and formal development of collective wisdom with Paul Baer. This is entirely off budget and outside my formal job description as far as U Texas is concerned, though perhaps it shouldn’t be. (I took vacation time.) 

Today I had an interesting conversations with Paul and his colleague Sivan Kartha, who gave me quite a bit more respectful a hearing about the prospects and limitations of climate modeling than I normally get. 
It turns out that a well-known climatologist of our mutual acquaintance has said “We’re done”, meaning that physical climatology has essentially nothing more to contribute to the discussion of global change. I said that barring a substantial change of direction which I could imagine but could not envision getting funding for, that I agree. (I exclude geochemists, who have a lot more work to do on the carbon cycles. We also talked about glaciologists a bit. I think the glaciologists are doing fascinating science, but I don’t think they’ll answer the motivating policy questions effectively. Even though the field is suddenly data rich doesn’t mean the question “when will what melt” is sufficiently constrained.) 
Climate change policy is not about climatology anymore, as I’ve said here on more than one occasion, and all efforts to make it so are efforts to divert from the much harder questions of what to do about it. All this conversation took place at an amazing and bustling pizza/pasta/pannini/patisserie near Penn Station. I’m grateful to my companions for letting me expound on my opinions, which I have had few chances to express in as much detail.
Then we all took the subway up to Columbia where Paul and Sivan had a meeting with the Nobel prize winning economist Joe Stiglitz who is a professor there (and who was giving a public lecture that evening). Remarkably, my Twitter feed had made me aware of a panel the very same day at Columbia, at which Coturnix/Bora Zivkovic was one of the panelists. So I had an excellent opportunity to keep myself occupied while Paul was busy.
While I was familiar with Bora’s work on the PLoS journals, the other two panelists were new to me. I was very entertained by the idea of treating DNA sequences “like one of those old Texas Instruments TTL chip catalogs” I may have been the only person in the audience who knew exactly what Barry Canton meant by that. A certain shade of bright orange-yellow was activated in my memory. (It certainly revived my confidence that such if such a thing is possible for living beings, it certainly should be possible for a computational model of physics, contemporary boondoggles notwithstanding.) But that’s not the direction I seem to be heading. 
I was much more interested in Jean-Claude Bradley’s description of “open notebook” science, which ties in both with the work I am doing with Paul and with some of the ideas I have for extending Sergey Fomel et al’s Madagascar package. In open notebook science, every little step you take is instantly public.  Bradley showed how this sort of collaboration can advance chemical science; both contemporary work and ancient out-of-copyright texts can be imported into a vast and multilayered structure. This seems to me the a substantial step in the real world into the sort of science envisioned back in the 1940s by Vannevar Bush. I also see applications of their approach in the world of collective intelligence, but here it might pay me to be a tiny bit closed for awhile.
I also had a brief conversation with the charming Miriam Gordon, who was very taken with my mention of Marshall McCluhan in the context of new media and my question about the future of peer review. (The panel really threw up their hands with a vague hope that peer review might somehow get better someday in the distant future.)
I would be remiss, though, if I didn’t mention how much I enjoyed Bora’s talk. He’s obviously a fine writer, but I didn’t expect what an extraordinarily engaging speaker he is. Though there was little in his presentation that was new to me, I enjoyed it thoroughly and highly recommend you give Bora a listen if you ever have the opportunity.
I can’t begin to express how much more productive this day was than my day job in Texas. It’s not just that I had more fun. I meanwhile added more value to the world. (I captured essentially none of the value, though Paul is covering my expenses through a small grant of his.) I have been miscast and I don’t know quite what to do about it. I think I might convince Paul to coauthor some papers to help get me into policy space for real. Cause y’know, blogging “doesn’t count”.
I do know that the answer has something to do with the internet. I would never have met Bora, or Paul, or for that matter Damon Gambuto, Clifford Johnson, Sheril Kirshenbaum, Chris Mooney, John Mashey, Erik Conway, John Fleck,  Julia Hargreaves, James Annan and and even (indirectly through Paul) Michael Mastrandrea and Stephen Schneider were it not for this blog, meetings which easily constitute some of the most interesting and encouraging moments of the past two years. (I hope to meet more of y’all in future!)
So then I walked directly from this remarkable event to the next building, home of the business school at Columbia, to meet up again with Paul and to listen to Joe Stiglitz talk about the Great Unwinding. While, to be sure, he was in many ways far more sophisticated than I, it reamined, like most talk by most economists, profoundly unsatisfying to me, in that “growth” was treated as normal and non-growth as pathological. This whole way of thinking still seems divorced from reality. 
In any case, Stiglitz made what seemed to be a strong case for nationalizing banks (ironic that capitalism itself will be the first business to be socialized) a strong case for Keynesian expenditures, and a strong case against rescuing shareholders and executives of banks and other companies that are struggling. Those latter he considered “looting”. He adamantly opposes any sort of government action where the government is left holding the bag in case of failure but gains nothing in case of success. That, he said, “is not capitalism”. 
He also allowed that things would not go back to “normal” until “demand” reasserted itself, and he could not see how that was going to happen. He believes that the consequences of the recent financial failures will be very long-lasting. 
Isn’t it bizarre? Nothing was burned or flooded. How do such things happen? Why is paper more important than physical reality? Anyway, it all seemed so weird to me. Not only did the word “climate” not pass his lips, but not even the word “energy” entered the picture for Stiglitz. Sometimes I wonder if most economists live on a different planet from the rest of us. 
In any case, there is little question that I have to be here in the land of bad salsa (try Ollie’s Noodles for some easy on the wallet and the palate consolation. Yumm!) burning vacation time under the terms of Tim O’Reilly’s rule of productivity: “Work on stuff that matters”. It sure would be nice if the stuff that matters didn’t actually compete with the stuff that pays, though. I hope to have more to report to you soon.