Journalists, Advocates and Scientists

I am deeper into considering what it is I do here and why, and whether it is a sensible life’s pursuit. As I make more connections among others doing similar things, I have come to the conclusion that there are very fundamental sociological and cultural differences that underly our wretched incapacity to make good collective decisions.

I came to some realizations today as I pondered my mixed feelings about Climate Progress. I’m not going to go through the complexities of my feelings about Joe Romm’s approach, at least right now. Instead, consider my astonishment at how much more traffic his blog generates than does any of the old sci.env gang’s blogs (Stoat, Rabett Run, Empty, Grumbine and your humble host) or those of simpatico types like Things Break, Tamino, Maribo, Chris Colose, etc., according to various blog metric services. All of those blogs strike me as less predictable than Romm’s and consequently more interesting. (And of course, the fact that his primary competition among climate-focussed blogs is Watt’s Up is even harder to take.)
That astonishment has abated. It appears that the similarity between Romm and the rest of us is coincidental. Romm (and Watt and to some extent Deltoid, but this is somewhat confused by the fact that he does everything upside-down) are part of a different community.
My first great burst of popularity was after Freeman Dyson got some press, and I was first off the mark in criticizing him. It was far from my best writing or my best ideas, but people were frantically casting about for something to throw at the peculiar mess Dyson had come up with, and I was the first to cook one up. I got topical, newsy.
Attention is good of course. Once people see that you are saying interesting things, some of them stick around. If enough of them stick around, eventually you get to quit your day job. Since I find myself intrigued by that concept, trying to be newsy seems attractive.
But in the end, if you capitulate too much to newsiness, you aren’t representing the scientific way of thinking at all. In an essay on science blogging, Bora Zivkovic duly salutes the best of the science journalists. I’d mention John Fleck. Bora mentions the very highly rated Carl Zimmer. And in fact I like Carl Zimmer, but consider this blog entry of his.
Yes the article is partly another rehashing of the George Will fiasco, but Zimmer comes around to a paper by Swanson and Tsonis, along with the comment that “This story has been bouncing around a lot around the blogosphere.” And at MSNBC, and at the Heritage Foundation.

Despite all the attention, the fact is that this is under the category of “yet another Tsonis paper”. Now, it’s not just that I want to be polite to Tsonis. He actually comes up with some interesting stuff. But frankly it doesn’t take the climatology world by storm. The reasons for this are hard to explain in brief. The fact is that for practical purposes what he is doing is at best a crude qualitative model of the climate system, and that’s being generous. It hasn’t got any physics behind it. He is essentially a mathematician and not a climatologist, and comes up with interesting excursions into nonlinear dynamics, inspired by climate time series, but he could use just about any time series in the same way. It is, for the purposes of anything the press might have a legitimate interest in, completely and totally irrelevant.

Very few papers cause instant buzz in a real scientific community and this is not one of them.
So why is Tsonis getting press? Well, because, as Zimmer quotes Tsonis:

“If political organizations want to pick up what they like in order to pass their point and ignore the real science, there is nothing we can do.”

In practice, what interests a scientist is hardly ever a single paper without the context of a dozen other papers, and various social contexts. This is also how a trained scientist writes. We don’t seek a play-by-play of the hockey game, who has the puck, who has the man advantage. We seek to understand why there is hockey at all, a question irrelevant to who is on offense and whether they were offside on the latest play.

Journalists give even coverage to each team. Advocates root for one team or the other. Most people are far more familiar with these types of discourse and find scientists way of reasoning very peculiar.
In fact, the advantage of advocacy blogs or advocacy articles is the fact that they mostly work to reinforce the beliefs of their respective followers. You know which topics they are going to bring up and what they will say about them. They will rarely back down, or point to places which give them pause, or where their opposition may have a point. They are providing ammunition, not discourse. (Most such blogs do allow significant conversation in their comments. This at least is a great improvement over traditional magazines. But usually you just get flame wars, so what is the point?)
So the question of where scientists fit into the spectrum of science journalism is quite fraught. Of course, journalists are not feeling very happy these days for all sorts of reasons beyond their control. The fact that someone like me might be looking to break into their field at a time like this will strike them as both stupid and threatening. On the other hand, the world needs the sort of information which is cumulative and sound, not impulsive and jumpy and, well, sometimes clueless.
Now that I understand that people read news and advocacy, and do not read science, I at least have a better grasp of the compromises and issues required to increase traffic. The expectation of “news” is neutrality among competing parties, and of advocacy to choose one side regardless of evidence. Both are fundamentally lazy.
We, the public, the whole world, need to learn how to think, collectively. It’s a tall order. I am not sure that either of the two types of nonfiction feature writer that get most of the attention are up to the task. Science blogging is important, even if nobody has noticed yet. And now, in the climate blogging community (and biology as well) we have an emergent category of advocacy science writing.
Advocacy science? What the hell does that mean? Advocacy that is based not on alliances and social constellations but on facts. Advocacy that is unreliable in alliances but reliable in sincerity and principles. Advocacy that dares to change its mind once in a while!
Which is what I’m trying to achieve here. It turns out to be a very interesting challenge in itself, and as far as I know one with little in the way of pre-blogospheric precedent. That’s even before we talk about building enough of an audience to support such an activity at a professional level.
More very recent discussion on the topic of science blogging vs science journalism appears at Nature. See, I am up on the news, right?
Keep up with the latest, ladies and gents! You heard it here first! Watch my recommends and my twitter stream!
Extry! Extry! Read all about it!
All the news that’s fit for a sustainability nerd to cogitate on!
Update: Excellent article on Bioephemera.
Update / apology: Let me make it clear that while I don’t always agree with Joe Romm, and I do find the more sciencey flavored blogs more interesting for myself, 1) I fully understand that other people find more politically flavored reporting more interesting and 2) on the whole I think Climate Progress is a force for good in the world. 

This article is not intended as criticism of either the teams or the referees in the hockey analogy, neither in general or with regard to any specific person or group. It’s just intended to stake out some territory that isn’t part of the day to day political world at all, and to note that the audience for that territory, at present, seems unfortunately small.

Specific mention of Climate Progress in this article should only refer to its prominence in the blog statistics and to my newfound understanding of the origins of that popularity. 

I have changed some wording to make other interpretations less prominent. I don’t want to start a feud with Joe nor to distract from the main message. While I reserve the right to disagree with Joe on specifics, it seems inappropriate to paint our disagreements in such broad strokes. 

If I am to raise my profile I will need to be more careful with my words.  I sincerely apologize to Joe for my clumsiness and thank him for his forbearance in our email conversation.