The Cowardice of the Media

Another approach to understanding the cowardice of the media is to contemplate the litigious nature of the partisans.

Journalist Amy Fisher on being sued by anti-vaccine extremists for accurate reporting:

So, we won. But not before thousands of hours (and countless dollars) were spent proving how fair the story was. This is the nature of the beast. And the beast doesn’t tire, it seems, of taking whacks at those who dare to describe it.

A few weeks ago, Age of Autism caught wind of the fact that my Wired article is going to be included in the next edition of the annual compilation Best American Science Writing. The site promptly published a post. “Remember Amy Wallace? I sure wish I didn’t,” the writer began, adding: “For those lucky enough not to, I apologize for ruining your day.”

The post then asserted that the inclusion of my Wired piece in the book was simply payback from the pharmaceutical industry. How, you may wonder, did they make that leap? Well, this year’s collection is being edited by Dr. Jerome Groopman, the Harvard professor, scientist and writer. And according to Age of Autism, “Drug companies Immunex and Hoffman-La Roche have funded Groopman’s research. He has authored a chapter on viral infection in a symposia published by Novartis, and has served on the speaker’s bureau of Ortho Biotech, a subsidiary of Johnson and Johnson…”

They keep going in their list of supposed conflicts, but you get the idea. The point is this: When you enter the vaccine-thicket, one thing you can rely upon is that experts will be vilified. To the extent you attempt, with thorough reporting, independent research and cogent analysis, to become something of an expert yourself, you likely will be labeled a villain, too.

And then, what if a partisan gets to be attorney general?

The fact that the courts seem to remain sane on many of these cases is some consolation. But litigation is not fun (especially for the defendant) or cheap, and not every judge is all that well-grounded in reality.

Props for Jay

Jay Rosen is the person best at making sense of modern journalism, especially in America.

He doesn’t usually think of science journalism in particular, but his comments are often strikingly on target for our interests as well.

There’s an excellent interview with Rosen in The Economist

Some of it reflects on the quandary that someone like Revkin faces:

I do not think journalists should “join the team”. They bridle at
that, for good reason. Power-seeking and truth-seeking are different
behaviours, and this is how we distinguish politics from journalism. I
think it does take a certain detachment from your own preferences and
assumptions to be a good reporter. The difficulty is that neutrality
has its limits. Taken too far, it undermines the very project in which
a serious journalist is engaged.

Suppose the forces that want to convince Americans that Barack Obama
is a Muslim or wasn’t born in the United States start winning, and
more and more people believe it. This is a defeat for journalism—in
fact, for verification itself. Neutrality and objectivity carry no
instructions for how to react to something like that. They aren’t
“wrong”, they’re just limited. The American press does not know what
to do when neutrality, objectivity, balance and “report both sides”
reach their natural limits. And so journalists tend to deny that there
are such limits. But with this denial they’ve violated the code of the
truth-teller because these limits are real. See the problem?


That’s the whole problem in a nutshell, along with the fact that journalists are stunningly blind to the problem.

There is a tradeoff between valid goals: on the one hand, journalistic independence, and on the other, journalistic participation in actually evaluating the truth of competing narratives. On the whole, journalists overvalue independence and undervalue truth. In the limiting case they become utterly useless.

Portrait of Jay Rosen lifted from the cited Economist piece

Fox Clears Everything Up Tonight

via National Review

Sean Hannity will host a special on global warming tonight at 9 p.m. EST on Fox News.

They clearly dedicated time and energy to this over the past several weeks, including lengthy interviews with me and a couple of colleagues.

DVR it to torture certain dinner and holiday guests.

Chris Horner

I am sure Fox will apologize for all the wild allegations of the last few months, right? Right?

Quote of the Week, Elaborated

Hi Michael – as I write below, I was indeed pleased and surprised to see my quote at the top of your blog. But it is sufficiently different from what I would say if I were to craft the sentence carefully, that I felt motivated to elaborate. I don’t want you to alter the quote itself because any alteration would be no more faithful to the original than your version. But if you feel like posting the letter, I try to clarify and justify the argument. Fairly concisely, or at least that was my goal.

Let me know what you think.


A word from the horse’s mouth…

I was surprised and pleased to see my words at the top of MT’s blog. It wasn’t a perfect quote of what I think I said, but I’d already forgotten the exact words when Michael asked me to repeat it mere seconds after.

What do I mean “to scare the people out of their wits”? Well, the “out of their wits” part is just melodrama. But the part about scaring people is completely serious.

I believe strongly that the threat of anthropogenic climate change is such that fear is the proper response. In a very real sense what we are doing may kill (many of) us. For those of us in the wealthy world, the risks may be smaller and come later. But deaths from extreme events, famines or other causes are growing steadily more likely with our GHG emissions, and while we may or may not be the victims, we are responsible even if we are not. And it is first and foremost those who understand best why that is so – the scientists who study the subject – who must convince the rest of us to fear the consequences of not acting.

This of course is a major simplification of the situation. I will not raise issues of the transmission of ideas and arguments between scientists, politicians, activists, the media and others. But the point is this: those of us who have seen the picture and have been scared by it – a reaction that is widespread in the scientific community – are morally obligated to do our best to get others to feel the urgency and severity of the problem. For there to be a possibility to act to prevent it, it is necessary both to believe that climate change is a huge risk, and to have an emotional reaction to that belief.

The last part of the quoted statement – that scientists are ill-trained and ill-suited for this task – I suspect is less controversial than the claim that it should be our task. The question then is, if you buy the premise that how to deal with the fact that scaring people is not part of our job description: what we should actually do? I will end here with only this thought: it can’t be done quickly, but it can’t be done quickly enough.

"Super-Extreme" Weather in Indonesia

Jakarta Globe, August 19 2010:

Jakarta. Indonesia has been experiencing its most extreme weather conditions in recorded history, meteorologists warned on Wednesday as torrential rains continued to pound the capital.

All regions across the archipelago have been experiencing abnormal and often catastrophic weather, an official from the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) said.

“We have reached a super-extreme level of weather this year, the first time in our history, and this is much worse than what we experienced back in 1998, when the La Nina caused extreme weather in the country,” Edvin Aldrian warned.

Edvin, who leads the climate change and air quality division at the agency, told the Jakarta Globe that a combination of a heating planet and the La Nina climate cycle were behind the unseasonable downpours.

“The combination of global warming and the La Nina phenomenon makes everything exceed normalcy,” he said, adding that global warming causes higher temperature in sea waters, and La Nina boosts humidity and the likeliness of rains.

Sea temperatures, Edvin said, were also at a level considered normal for Indonesia’s rainy season, not for the dry season. “It is about 28 to 29 [degrees] Celsius now. Normally, for August it should have been around 24 to 26 degrees.” August 16, 2010:

A large-scale bleaching event due to high ocean temperatures appears to be underway off the coast of Sumatra, an Indonesian island, reports the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

An initial survey by the conservation group’s “Rapid Response Unit” of marine biologists found that 60 percent of corals were bleached. Follow up assessments “revealed one of the most rapid and severe coral mortality events ever recorded” with 80 percent of some species dying.

“It’s a disappointing development particularly in light of the fact that these same corals proved resilient to other disruptions to this ecosystem, including the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004,” WCS Indonesia Marine Program Director Dr. Stuart Campbell said in a statement.

Campbell, and other members of the research team, linked the event to a sharp rise in sea surface temperatures in the Andaman Sea. Temperatures reached 34 degrees Celsius (93°F)—4 degrees Celsius higher than long term averages for the area—in May 2010.

“If a similar degree of mortality is apparent at other sites in the Andaman Sea this will be the worst bleaching event ever recorded in the region,” according to Dr. Andrew Baird of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University. “The destruction of these upstream reefs means recovery is likely to take much longer than before”.

This appears to be, at least as yet, nothing on the scale of what has happened elsewhere in terms of human impact, but is another substantial climatological anomaly. There appear to be some crop losses in Indonesia as well.

Of course, coral mortality leads to reduced fish catches, too.

Is Anthropogenic Forcing Quasi-Linear?

In following up on the World Climate Report (Pat Michaels’ sute) article comparing 1936 to 2010

July 1936 T anomaly

July 2010 T anomaly

a couple of folks have hastened to provide anomaly maps of 1936 and 2010 on the same scale. Sure enough, they are not exactly identical. (Click for better images) Surely the author of the article ought to have done as much. In fact, it isn;t difficult to produce comparable anomaly maps here as contributor NewYork points out.

I’m not sure how compelling this all is either way.

What I find even less compelling is the argument on the WCR site from telconnection indices. That just restates the problem; it doesn’t resolve it. And then there is this:

The WCR article concludes:

There are several things of note:

1) The July 2010 combined value is the highest since 1950—nearly 50% greater than the second highest value which occurred in 1952.

2) The combined index has been mostly positive since 1981, and mostly negative from 1955 through 1980. This behavior imparts an overall positive trend since 1950.

3) The 2010 value is about 3 times greater than the value expected based on the trend alone.

Is anthropogenic global warming behind any of this behavior?

It is hard to know for sure, but one thing that is certain is that if global warming does have a hand in the game (perhaps through the trend term), what it’s holding is pretty weak.

(emphasis added).

The argument seems to be that since this year is so far off the trend line, that the anomaly cannot possibly be caused by the same “thing” that caused the trend. One would expect a sounder argument from a professional, but I am seeing versions of this all over the place. The system is nonlinear. There are thresholds, and regime shifts. “Tipping points” if you will. The current year is so anomalous in so many ways that it demands explanation. The fact that it is off the trend line is no secret. The idea that its strangeness cannot possibly be because of anthropogenic forcing since the trend itself has been modest simply doesn’t hold water.

Examples in mundane life? How about blowing up a balloon? The more pressure you put into the balloon, the larger it gets. Up to a point. Then the balance of forces shifts, and it finds a new equilibrium, in shreds all over the room.

This reminds me of the argument that n-g made about the fraction of the Nashville flood (the earlier one, remember?) attributable to anthropogenic change. I simply don’t think these linear arguments stand. There are reasons to anticipate new configurations of the atmosphere during the rapid shifts we have now initiated. It’s not reasonable to assume that it’s just business as usual plus a gentle additive trend in all variables. It may turn out that way (one can hope) but you can’t assume it. And on the evidence of this year, that mild scenario is not the one that is going to play out.

To be fair, the WCR article didn’t really commit to this argument, but it seemed to me to wave in that general direction. A lot of the people who think we are not in very deep trouble seem to have a small-perturbation view of anthropogenic climate change. But it’s only a small perturbation until it ain’t, and nobody really knows when nonlinear adjustments cut in. The simulation models seem unexcitable on this front, but how much do we trust the simulations outside the realm of observational experience?

Fair is Fair

I’m not a great fan of Pat Michaels. But whether you like a person or not doesn’t affect whether they are right or wrong.

In the context of whether recent events in eastern Europe and western Asia have a precedent, Michaels comes up with this.

Surface temperature anomalies (°C) for July, 1936 (figure from the Goddard Institute for Space Studies).

It certainly looks like the same pattern we saw this year over the eastern hemisphere, perhaps slightly less intense, but not much so. North America is different, but ENSO is neutral to cool and the Atlantic is hot, similar to this summer. This calms me down a bit, since I don’t actually want an unprecedented climate disaster.

Further, let’s admit this gives ammunition to RP Jr., who says disasters are MORE about human habitation and management practices than about weather extremes. In fact that is true, and Roger’s tendency to overemphasize it at the expense of other factors shouldn’t cause us to forget it.
While this may take a bit of the edge off of recent arguments, neither of these items should encourage us to let down our guard too much. First of all, the Pakistan human disaster is BECAUSE of water management, not despite it: the population has greatly increased because the Indus river has been channelled and diverted all across the otherwise barren land. So now there is a much enhanced population in a much expanded flood plain. (I think Russian mismanagement of their environment both pre and post communist is well-known and demonstrated here.)
Secondly, even if the pattern is not entirely unprecedented, it is not a good pattern. So while the attribution to climate change may be weakened (and again, let’s not jump the gun in either direction here, let’s let the weather guys think about it for a while) it still isn’t good news that we are seeing wild oscillations, and we still have reasons to suspect these are becoming more frequent.

Finally, we still have an open question. How will we know when we’ve “rolled a 13“?