I just had a wonderful afternoon with Steve Easterbrook and his students, and am very pleased to see that this was on the same day that his excellent essay (with the concluding paragraph quoted as the quote of the weekoid at the top of the blog) appeared on Climate Progress.
Meanwhile, I find I have stepped into the tar at Tom Fuller’s, and I find that a couple of bits of tar are sticking to me. Steve’s points in his article are very much relevant to those issues.
First, there is the question of journalistic responsibility. Tom is, I believe, a dyed in the wool liberal, as am I myself, so some may find it peculiar how much we are at odds.
Tom’s liberalism is essentially classical journalist-liberalism. That is, it accepts the contemporary Overton window and is most comfortable with positions directly in the center of that window, while being somewhat oblivious to the organized efforts to shift the window, (in practice, these days, mostly by the Murdoch press). In choosing climate science as his beat, Tom tries to wend a path between dismissing climate science entirely on the one hand, and treating it as hopelessly corrupt and empty on the other, by presuming that it is more or less half corrupt and perhaps half of it is worthless. With friends like this…
My form of liberalism is formed by Pierre Trudeau and is in line with Obama’s. It is fundamentally non-ideological and pragmatic, but it favors vigorous action in line with the best available evidence. Climate science is my beat too. And here I see the efforts of Fuller and his crowd as profoundly anti-liberal, in essentially driving their opinion of science by an ideological shortcut.
It makes sense, of course, to pick a neutral position, halfway in between the extremes you have heard, on a topic on which you know little or nothing. But you should write very little about such a topic, and what you write should begin “Here is what confuses me about X”. Or “I can’t decide whether to trust the X camp or the not-X camp; do you think there might be a middle ground or does that make no sense at all?”
But you cannot responsibly build a career or a substantial fraction of one writing about X until you learn about it. In a recent article of Fuller’s that showed up in one of my feeds, he woefully confused carbon concentration and carbon emissions. I called him on it, stating that this was the class of error that did not indicate a reporter who takes his responsibilities seriously. That is, I claim that while most non-specialists do make this mistake, a specialist should know better. Indeed correcting this common confusion should be a very important part of journalistic work in this area.
In response there has been some modest backtracking from Tom Fuller, and some sputtering of outrage from his followers.
Fuller came up with a secondary defense, asking me to critique Nicholas Stern’s projection of a global population of 15 billion by 2100 as ardently as I criticize his confusion of emissions and concentrations.
This is the Sister Souljah strategy (as I recently learned from Eli). It cuts both ways. When somebody “on your side” says something “my side” finds stupid, you are challenged to either agree or disagree.
Now I find it absolutely ludicrous that I am perceived to be “on the same side” as the Stern report. I have absolutely no confidence in the methods of that report and have never said otherwise. A slight exaggeration of demographics is the least of its problems as far as I am concerned.
But there’s another question.
I do conclude based on the evidence as I understand it, that it is past time that we get in gear and actually start moving off carbon. That said, many times, I disagree on various specifics (nuclear power, cap and trade, political strategy) with other people who think the same.
There is a good question as to whether I am obligated to respond to it. I think I am no more required to address it than McIntyre is to defend everything Motl or Monckton blurts out.
When I look at the prominent naysayer sites (CA, McIntyre, even Watts) they are not entirely without merit or reason, though their focus is sadly and irredeemably wrong. But they are tolerant of the most absurd lunacy. They err on the side of silence. This is probably good for building traffic.
Yet their folk will come over here and constantly play the Sister Souljah game. One AMac is obsessed with getting people to admit that Michael Mann is in a league with Bernie Madoff as a con artist. He bases this on some technical disagreement about a particular tree ring record that seems highly unlikely to shake the foundations of science. And he comes by, feigning interest, trying to get me to “denounce” Mann, about whom I know essentially nothing, either regarding himself as an individual or about his work. It turns out that AMac is expert at dragging out conversations about tree rings to exhaustion, never yielding any ground. I decided not to get into it and carefully stated agnosticism on the point. Interestingly, not another peep from AMac has appeared here. It’s almost as if he is the designated Mann-tarnisher.
So we see that they are playing a different game. In the search for truth, we scientists are happy to debate any assertion we don’t find plausible. So debatable points are constantly dangled.
What the McIntyre squad is proposing is ultimately far more radical than they think. They suggest we change the nature of scientific debate. I’m very sympathetic to a radical opening and democratization of science, myself. One problem is that they fail to see how extreme the proposed changes in scientific practice would be, but that’s another topic. The immediate problem is that science and politics are so entangled, so that any genuine scientific controversy will get spun into a “darwinism disproved” sort of foolishness by the extremist press.
We should take a tip from the bad guys here. If someone claims to agree with us, we are under no obligation to state whether or not we agree with them. We should focus on the things we find interesting or relevant. Our job in explaining things to the public is to focus on the aspects that are most revealing of the facts, not on the aspects that can most easily be used to obfuscate.
I think a big part of the solution is to move away from yes/no questions and toward quantitative questions in public discourse. If we stick as much as possible to questions where there is a genuine middle, (what is the tolerable maximum CO2 concentration? what is the tolerable asymptotic net emissions rate?) we get back to a civilized tug of war and away from, well, actual war.
Journalists should be helping science convey these quantitative ideas to the public. The public is capable of understanding them to the same extent they understand their favorite sports league, and at present, they don’t.
I myself know very little about sports. I am, consequently, not trying to set myself up as a sports reporter. Someone who knows very little about climate science should not be setting himself up as a climate science reporter.
If this is too much to ask, then scientists need to act as reporters.
Image: Wikipedia. Apologies to the memory of old Bucky.