Free Book on Science & Media

For Immediate Release: Oct. 14, 2010

Contact: Paul Karoff, pkaroff@amacad.org, 617-576-5043

“Science and the Media” Explores Challenges to Scientific Literacy in U.S.

Essays Published by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Scientists and the journalists who cover their research approach their roles from very different perspectives, yet they depend on each other to do their jobs. Science and the Media, a new volume from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, examines this dynamic though a series of essays by scientists, journalists and public relations specialists.

At a time when the general public depends on the media for information about the scientific or technological components of pressing challenges facing society, such as climate change, energy, national security, and health care, many newspapers are eliminating science sections, and the science beat reporter is an endangered species.

The Academy convened experts to examine the sometimes conflicting cultures of journalists, who value timeliness, speed, simplicity and clarity; and scientists, who grapple with and embrace nuance and evolving states of knowledge. The study was led by Donald Kennedy, President Emeritus of Stanford University and former editor-in-chief of Science Magazine, and Geneva Overholser, director of the University of Southern California’s journalism program.

The authors in Science and the Media find:

  • The journalistic tradition of presenting opposing sides of an issue in order to ensure unbiased reporting may actually cloud scientific issues when views that fall outside the mainstream are given equal weight with consensus scientific thinking.
  • Adults over age 35 never learned about relatively new areas of science like stem cells, nanotechnology and global warming in school and thus depend on the media for information about such topics.
  • Some scientists may shun the media limelight for fear that colleagues trivialize work that is highlighted in the popular media.
  • Online science information is a double-edged sword: some sources may be unreliable, yet feedback on blogs allows responsible science journalists to gauge followers’ understanding of issues.
  • General education requirements unique to the American higher education system usually require that students study science. As a result, only Sweden has a higher rate of scientific literacy than the United States.

The accumulated facts and observations of the essayists point to the need for scientists, journalists and public relations specialists to become partners in promoting scientific literacy. Contributors to the volume include:

  • Donald Kennedy, president emeritus, Stanford University; former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; former editor-in-chief of Science
  • Geneva Overholser, USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism; former editor of the Des Moines Register
  • Alan Alda, actor, writer, director; host of “The Human Spark” on PBS
  • Robert Bazell, chief science and health correspondent for NBC News
  • Rick E. Borchelt, director of communications for the research, education and economics mission area, U.S. Department of Agriculture
  • Cornelia Dean, former New York Times science editor; teacher of seminars on the communication of science
  • Alfred Hermida, University of British Columbia Graduate School of Journalism; former news editor, BBC News web site
  • Jon D. Miller, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan
  • Cristine Russell, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School; president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing
  • William A. Wulf, University of Virginia; president emeritus, National Academy of Engineering

A copy of the volume may be downloaded free of charge at http://amacad.org/publications/scienceMedia.aspx.

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?

Yep.

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

Who Watches the Watchmen?

Tim Lambert asserts that the high profile article in the London Times claiming that former IPCC chairman, Prof. Robert Watson, says that IPCC has a warming bias, is flagrant and willful distortion:

Yes there is bias here, but the bias is in the media that only reports the errors that overstate the problem and also reports as errors things that are not errors at all. This seems pretty obvious and Robert Watson is no fool, so I asked him if The Times had accurately report his views. He replied:

The article distorted my statements – I was interviewed for an hour and it was obvious that the reporter wanted me to say that the authors were biased – I said I did not believe that.

Watson said that the authors were not biased, but The Times reported him as saying that they were. That’s outright dishonesty by Webster and Pagnamenta.

This is serious business if true, and is easily verified. If Watson will talk to a blogger (albeit as distinguished a one as Tim) he will talk to another major newspaper. The press had better get off investigating IPCC and start investigating its damn self.

Keith’s Lament

On a recent article here, Keith (I am guessing Keith Kloor) laments:

I’m not defending my professional pride. I know well that journalism has its shortcomings. (See Iraq war for for obvious and tragic example.)

I just happen to believe that your expectations of journalists are unreasonable. You seem to think it falls on journalism’s collective shoulders to rescue humanity from imminent climate catastrophe. Or you at least hoped so at one time.

But now that you’ve apparently given up that hope, I’m asking you or any of your readers to demonstrate an alternative means of communication for the daily reporting of climate-related news.

Forget about long-form magazine stories or investigative pieces. Those are different beasts. Let’s stick to the guts of daily journalism–the reporting of events, meetings, research findings, et al. That’s the cog in the wheel.

I doubt your grassroots effort will supplant the reach and influence of the mainstream media on this front. Nonetheless I welcome whatever innovation you can bring to climate change journalism. In the meantime, if you’d like to help make us poor wretches part of the solution (as opposed to being “part of the problem), show us how it’s done.

I’d like to see a blog out there that actually stops bitching about journalism and starts showing us how to do a better job. Criticism is easy and lazy. I can find a story I don’t like everyday and carp about it.

Perhaps the best way to do this is to set up a parallel universe journalism web site, where someone like yourself writes up an alternative story to Pearce’s. (I had high hopes that Grist would do this back in the day…but that’s not going to happen now.)

At least then you and so many other climate advocates could constructively channel all that antipathy towards the press.

This is a thoughtful and constructive query. I’d be happy to have more discussion of it.

I’m not sure I have any advice for the individual journalist caught up in the day-to-day of conventional journalism. My beef is with the system.

There are at least two primary complaints that come to my mind.

Much has been made of the false balance problem. When there are two political parties, and the press implicitly is obligated to “split the difference”, that provides a huge polarizing mechanism, motivating the most extreme possible positions to drag the “middle” slightly in the desired direction. The consequence of this, a particularly American journalistic ethic, have obviously been disastrous, not only on the climate question.

The second issue, though, is the “timeliness” one. My wife went to see a talk to budding journalists by Jim Lehrer, who spoke of a report on the Ogalalla aquifer as one of his worst mistakes as a young journalist; after all, the effects were not anticipated to even begin for forty years. But in fact it was not a mistake! It was an issue that people should have in mind forty years in advance, because the planning and coping for such a thing takes a very long time!

Any scientist (leaving aside economists, apparently) understands that phenomena have specific time scales associated with them. Science itself has a time scale of about a decade – it takes about five years between a paper being published and it being recognized as an important advance. This can vary, typically between, say, immediate and twenty years. An attempt to do a “This Week In Science” (and once say an awful eefort at this on TV) is therefore utterly ridiculous. News hooks in science simply don’t have that shape! Biasing toward obvious “hot stuff” completely skews what people understand.

I think it might be better to identify fifty scientific disciplines, and do a “This year in solid earth geophysics” once a year; even then most of the items should be expected to be a year or two out of date.

Finally, every single person who talks about “the scientific method” as if there were one and they know what it is needs to have their mouth washed out with soap. Especially schoolteachers. Some of what needs to be conveyed is what scientists actually do, where these results come from, and how understanding actually emerges from these efforts.

As Clifford Johnson once said to me, “We need to explain that we are not special people. We are people doing a special thing.” We try. But y’all journalists are supposed to be the professionals at explaining things.

In short, my advice is simple. Understand things. Explain them. Pay no attention to who wants which facts emphasized, and don’t ignore stories just because they have long time scales. Is that so difficult?

Journalism of Climate Change per Yulsman

Apparently, Tom Yulsman has been on the “climate beat” for quite some time.

Anyway, he has a collection of interesting observations about communicating climate science from various participants. Unfortunately, no compelling position emerges from it. Sometimes I suspect that it is exactly the purpose of conventional journalism, to avoid influencing the reader’s position at all.

In this (for all I know unintentional) goal, Yulsman succeeds.

The necessary bow in the direction of RPJr contributes to the obfuscation:

As the politics heat up, he urges journalists not to take sides in what is certain to be a vigorous debate with all kinds of information vying for people’s attention and belief. “Climate policy needs more options, not less,” he argues. “Like it or not, people wanting to go slow or not go at all are part of the political scene.”

Whatever the hell that means.

Yulsman quotes Revkin saying something more or less sensible at first blush:

In his opinion, that clear view of the science is getting “terribly lost in the distillation that comes with saying that there is no more denying it.” His warning: “There is complexity out there, folks, and the things that are clear are only the basics: more CO2 means a warmer world.”

which hardly accounts for his craven habit of giving far too much attention to the people not clear on the basics. As I’m always pointing out, Revkin seems incapable of taking note of the extent to which he perpetuates exactly the problem he is complaining about here.

Schneider, of course, talks sense, though one wonders if there weren’t juicier quotes that got left on the cutting room floor:

“Given the risks we’ve identified, how many chances do you want to take with planetary life-support systems, versus how many chances do you want to take with the economy?” Schneider asks. “That’s a value judgment, and that’s the government’s job, the corporation’s job, an individual’s job.”

Out of this muddle, Yulsman only manages to make one cogent summary point, a plaintive plea for more journalism:

Demanding that the case for climate change be proved “beyond a reasonable doubt” is unreasonable and has contributed to the false balance problem. “‘Preponderance of evidence’ is the order of the day in a civil court.… [And] this may be the fairest analogy to apply to policy and science issues such as climate change,” Dykstra recommends.

This is great advice. It’s just too bad that his bosses at CNN are no longer receiving it. They dropped Dykstra and his entire unit at the end of 2008. He believes their ouster leaves broadcast and cable news with no reporters or producers working full time on environmental issues, not to mention science and technology.

This gaping chasm in environmental expertise in television news, along with downsizing at nearly every newspaper and the slackening of online ad revenues that might pay for serious-minded digital journalism, does not bode well for the future of news reporting about climate change.

Dykstra’s advice about the burden of proof, though nothing new, is solid. The question here is whether the reporting about climate change will be missed, whether the plea for more of what passes for science journalism should be heeded. As far as I am concerned, not this sort, thanks.

It’s certainly true that blogspace as currently configured does not create readily credible sources for the average person investigating a complex topic. Perhaps this can be repaired somehow. Credentials are crucial to preserving the function of reporting on the net. But that doesn’t mean that the sort of lukewarm indecision propagated in this article or elsewhere among trained journalists is helping the situation.

There are two questions that come to mind about science journalists:

  • 1) Do journalists know who is lying? If so, why do they give the liars so much prominence? If not, what service do they provide as filters?
  • 2) How do journalists decide correctly which stories are important enough to follow? Climate is not the only sustainability story out there. Where is the press on the rest of them?

It definitely feels, on our end, like earth scientists and biologists against a wall of ignorance, with the press as the guys on top of the wall dropping the burning oil.

It doesn’t feel at all like the press is an ally of science conveying legitimate balance on matters that are open and backing up the experts on matters that are settled. And without huge improvements along that front, we are so very hosed. The question of how the public learns about science is a primary survival concern for civilization going forward. More “not taking sides” like this might just kill us all, good and dead.

Update 4/12: Jay Rosen just blogged a very insightful article on the false balance problem. From that article:

he said, she said is not so much a truth-telling strategy as as refuge-seeking behavior that also fits well into production demands. “Taking a pass” on the tougher calls (like who’s blowing more smoke) is economical. It’s seen as risk-reduction, too, because the account declines to explicitly endorse or actively mistrust any claim that is made in the account. Isn’t it safer to report, “Rumsfeld said…,” letting Democrats in Congress howl at him (and report that) than it would be to report, “Rumsfeld said, erroneously…” and try to debunk the claim yourself? The first strategy doesn’t put your own authority at risk, the second does, but for a reason.

We need journalists who understand that reason. And I think many do. But a lot don’t.

Also, and this is crucial:

The newswriting formula that produced it dates from before the Web made all news and reference pages equidistant from the user. He said, she said might have been seen as good enough when it was difficult for others to check what had previously been reported … but that is simply not the case … in April, 2009.

Where’s Marshall McLuhan when you really need him?


Roman coin showing the two-faced God Janus from livius.org is in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien.

I thought about including a picture of the old Batman nemesis “Two-Face”, but, well, ewww.


Sustainable Science Journalism Toward a Sustainable World

This is something of a rant about science journalism and my place in it. 

The core of the matter is this.

In our peculiar circumstances, science writing has an ethical component.

Although speech is free in a free country, individuals or corporations aren’t free of ethical responsibility for what they write. The problems we face these days are so vast, the decisions we collectively make so consequential, that the ethical responsibility is greatly magnified. 

That said, here is the problem.  I heard Clay Shirky say this at the ill-fated #sxswbp: filtering (editing) is everything. “The filter is the single most important function on the internet today.”

Before the internet, anybody could say anything, but nobody could get anybody to listen. The Brits maintained their soapbox tradition in Hyde Park, I imagine, but I doubt anybody gathers much of an audience that way anymore. The action, for almost a century now, has been in the mass media. Consequently, for the lifetime of everybody living and until just a few months ago, it was the moneyed interests who decided who would speak and who would be silent.

This broke down a bit in the period of 1966-1974, often called “the sixties”, a brief period when radicals understood media better than the people who owned them. Soon enough everything interesting about that period was sanitized, obfuscated and duly forgotten by everybody who wasn’t privileged to come of age exactly at that moment.

Control of intellectual input by the corporate sector is totally shattered now.
There is no governance on the internet. It’s totally mob rule, as a Google search on “global warming consensus” will instantly reveal. The corporations run a bigger chunk of the economy than ever; even our barristas are publicly traded. But they have lost control of the media in a way that makes the revolution of the sixties look like a fraternity prank. (Which, in a way, it was, come to think of it.)

The corporate control of the Overton window (thanks to Eli for teaching me the concept) was already weakening before the great AIG screwup proved what many of us had always suspected about the Phil Gramms of the world. Now it’s hopeless. Speech is uncontrolled but it doesn’t matter very much, because nobody trusts anybody anymore.

This is both very good news and very bad news. Freedom is the good news. If you have something interesting to say, you can find the audience to whom it is interesting. There is much more interesting stuff to read nowadays. 


Unfortunately, we also have the bad news. Lies are cheaper than truth, vague misgivings cheaper than balanced analyses, and wild-ass guesses cheaper than interview and investigation. In short, noise dominates signal. As things stand, most people lack effective filters. 

An important function that the corporations used to provide for us, and before that the culture and the churches, was to provide a sense of what was reasonable and what was outlandish, what was worthy of polite conversation and what was certifiable. As we lose this imposed sense of propriety, we are in desperate need of filters, of reliable mechanisms to connect the people who have lost faith in every institution to the people who really do mean well and really do know what the f*** they are talking about.

Now, one could argue (I used to argue this more vehemently) that science at least provides a model for how this could be done. It turns out that for a vast range of reasons, that science is struggling to scale up to its modern circumstances as well.

Instead, it surprisingly appears that the most functional corner of civilization nowadays is the software design community. (The reasons for that could fill books, and better books need to be written on the subject.) Many people are already  looking to the software community, particularly the open source community. for models of how to better organize ourselves at scale. This is promising, one of the few trends that is promising. And indeed, that model may solve science’s internal communication and validation problems as it tries to scale to unprecedented complexity. That isn’t the problem that has been occupying me, though.


The problem that suddenly fell into my lap was not that of George Will, nor of Roger Pielke Jr., nor of Mark Morano, nor Glenn Beck (nor Laurie David or James Kunstler either). These people’s successes and failures all shine some light on our collective dysfunction in one way or another, but
the moment I slapped my forehead and said, that’s it, I’m in the wrong game, something has to be done, was specifically in reference to Andy Revkin.

Three things, to me, are fairly obvious about Andy Revkin:

  • 1) he has a wonderful job and enjoys it and does it competently and successfully
  • 2) he thinks he is helping
  • 3) he isn’t.

And it’s point three that specifically galvanized me into rethinking whether this blog is really a hobby.


 It started with removing Revkin from my blogroll, but of course I don’t think he cares. At worst it will cost him a handful of hits a month, and honestly, I am not going to stop reading it. To his credit, despite the extent to which I am on his case, Revkin still takes my comments, too. Delisting him on my humble little blog seems a pathetic and futile gesture, and maybe it will turn out to be. It’s meant as a gesture. What matters in substance is replacing the Times as an authoritative source for scientific reporting. If Revkin thinks his family’s comfort is more important than the survival of the planet, if he doesn’t have the cojones to stand up to the publisher and say “kill the Dyson crap or I am out of here” or something like that, he is not doing us much good. As my good friend John M says, “you can’t achieve anything if you’re not willing to quit your job over principle“.

Revkin might say that somebody else will be glad to do his job at the Times. A problematic excuse, of course. One thing you can easily say is just, yes, Andy, but not as well. We need you telling the truth full time, not 50.00% of the time.

The problem, of course, is that the Times is a pre-internet institution, and is incapable of blunt honesty that might be inconvenient for its owners or its advertisers. This is just a human foible under ordinary circumstances, but the time for hemming and hawing is over. The world is changing in ways that are casually obvious and are likely to become overwhelming if not grappled with soon. If these ways are embarrassing to the corporations that own newspapers, they simply must be replaced. I know that sounds grandiose, but I am not just windmill-tilting here. The Times is not serving effectively in science journalism of policy consequence. (The same phenomenon likely applies to the rest of their reporting, but that’s not my topic here.)

In the huge tangled quandary that the world faces today truth is the commodity in most desperate shortage, and its lack is traced to the lack of its raw material, trust.

So what will replace the Times given that the Times has gone out of its way to prove that we cannot actually trust the Times?

A good place to start is from analyses of the future of the press in general, and Steven B. Johnson has that one right. And here is his figure, which I am lifting from his sxsw talk.

It seems that there must be a role for me in developing some corner of Johnson’s model for scientific communication to the general public. But what? What’s the business model? It’s obvious to me that filtering is crucial.

The issue in scientific reporting is about trust. One has to create mechanisms for individual science writers to establish trust with their audience. This isn’t without precedent. I trusted Asimov, I trusted Sagan, I trusted Gould. Didn’t you? The writer is the brand. It is only with the individual human voice that trust develops. I read those guys because I trusted them. I trusted them for at least three reasons:

  • they wrote things I could understand,
  • they were close enough to science to know how it works,
  • they spoke with their own voices in ways that average everyday people around me never seemed to manage.

The great pop science writers of my youth were lucky to be on relatively uncontroversial turf (less so Gould, I guess, but I always found doubts about evolution to be laughable.) Nowadays though, I just discover someone like the unspellable Hrynyshyn and find myself trusting him, whether he is being controversial or not, whether I agree with him or not. When I take the time to read Hrynyshyn I get something out of it; it alters my point of view. When I read Revkin, I expect him not to get the facts wrong, but now that I understand what he does better, I am very surprised if the experience affects my behavior or beliefs in any way. Revkin is not wrong, usually, but a scientist is usually right, and usually in a non-obvious way. There is a difference. And in the quandary we are all facing, that is the difference we desperately need.

In the course of becoming a not entirely anonymous blogger I’ve met a couple of science journalists in person, some of whom I admire more than others, some of whom are quite commendable. I hope I’m not out of line in singling out John Fleck as a standout. But unfortunately he also seems to me still something of an exception. For the most part, I get a lot more out of reading scientists, or journalists who were trained as scientists, on science than I do from reading trained journalists on science, even if that’s their beat. Don’t you?

(Less profoundly and with more exceptions, but still strikingly, I get more out of reading scientists on politics and economics than I do journalists, politicians and economists. For instance, Steinn Sigurdsson has been “indispensible” on the Iceland story, but has opened my eyes to many other aspects of the economic crisis as well. Steinn is an astronomer.)

It doesn’t matter what level of sophistication the article is pitched at. Scientists writing at the 11th grade level are usually much more interesting to me than journalists writing at that level. See Grumbine, for instance, or my scientific colleagues on the imperfect but lamented Correlations blog.


So, let’s pretend a business model has emerged in my fevered brain out of all these constraints. What would it be like?

What I’m willing to say about it:

  • reporters must own their content and be their own brand
  • filtering is crucial and must be achieved by a collaborative infrastructure
  • new software is involved
  • I think I see how the people who work hard enough and produce a good enough product can get paid even though the content will be free. Anyway after pondering it intensively for six weeks, I have an idea worth considering.
  • Science journalism is my target, but the core idea will probably work for some other branches of reporting.

I’d like to talk this through with someone willing to confer in confidence. I need allies to make this work (even as a nonprofit, which is definitely a consideration). Which is really the point of this great long rant. I am looking for somebody to talk business who understands the nature of the problem, something about how the web works, and a little bit about making a business concern go. 


The business model chart, as I said, is lifted from the linked Steven B Johnson article


The comic clippings are from an episode of Tom the Dancing Bug
I thought Bora Z might be having some similar thoughts so I deliberately avoided reading his recent article on science journalism until I got this out to avoid undue influence. So finally I looked at it. He did indeed say some similar things among many ideas. His recent article on blogging, journalism and science is excellent indeed and very highly recommended for those who care about communicating science.

Slicin’ and Dicin’ with Dyson and Bryson

The mantle of lovable old coot of liberal persuasion who thinks global warming is hooey has been passed to a new old generation.

I tried to avoid saying anything nasty about Reid Bryson while he was around. Reid was, no doubt about it, a very nice man. He was also the founder of the department that gave me my doctorate, at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. (That is its name. I’d prefer the word “at” to the dash, but nobody asked me.) The meteorology department at UW , later the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, has been a major player through the years so this is no small feat.

Bryson used to say “the proper tool of the climatologist is the shovel” but he wasn’t indulging in crude humor. He thought of climatology as a branch of archaeology. The tradition emerged with a presumption of a steady state climate with periodic oscillations superimposed: a powerful analytic method in some fields, but not, it turns out, in climatology. He did, however, take seriously the idea of the human influence on the environment. He was, in fact, the guy who was most responsible for pushing the “imminent ice age kicked off by human activity” idea. He did get some press in the 1970s, no doubt about that.

But there’s little sign in the literature that his idea was taken very seriously. Even in the 1970s, as Oreskes explains in various places, there was a rough consensus among physical climatologists that long-lived, accumulating CO2 causing warming would eventually outweigh short-lived, quasi-steady particulate cooling.

As such he fell into an uncomfortable hole. His intuition that people would change the climate was right, but he got the sign wrong. Nobody paid much attention to his intuition after that. He never had the physical insight to get a grip on radiative transfer physics to be convinced by it. He ended up trapped into holding to his position that humans could not cause warming, and was much celebrated in that by the skeptic camp, but it wasn’t grounded in any reasoned opinion. And, as he was a very nice man and the founder of the department, and as meteorologists and midwesterners are basically controversy-averse, nobody local ever challenged Bryson too hard on it. He’d appear at various media events, hosted by people who would make an effort not to stress the fact that they were really doing the bidding of the Cato Institute and that sort.

Now he has passed on. And though I didn’t know him well, he was a kind and in many ways admirable man. I was saddened at his passing.

The sadness was tempered by a relief, though, that after a year or so had passed (which it nearly has) one could manage to be frank about Bryson’s understanding of climate physics, which, sadly, was nil, and his ironic role in the much ballyhooed but not so much professionally esteemed ice age scare of the 1970s, which was, pretty much, as its most prominent voice.

(So you see, it was never “the same people” who talked about the ice age scare at all. It was largely the denialists’ hero Reid Bryson all along.)

But one didn’t reckon with the fact that the media would be casting about for a replacement. The year hadn’t fully passed before they found their man in the less credentialed but more famed and more predictably curmudgeony Freeman Dyson.

Dyson, it appears, was part of the Jason team that wrote an early report (1979 I believe) by non-meteorologists, essentially confirming the global warming story. So Dyson has the advantage of having thought about this for some time. His conclusion is that the AGW hypothesis is roughly correct, but that there is plenty of room in the carbon cycle to hide the excess carbon. This, like Bryson’s “human volcano” gets little attention. I am not a geochemist, so I don’t know exactly how impractical an idea it is, but it does seem that Dyson hasn’t worked a lick on the idea in the intervening time, so it’s little wonder this doesn’t come up.

How this justifies Dyson’s incredibly broad-brush attacks on climatology as a whole escapes me. He complains that there is no carbon cycle in GCMs. This mistakes the purpose of GCMs. (*) Now climatology is by no means above criticism, but the principles of how the climate system works are understood to a very substantive and sophisticated level. Bryson didn’t understand them, and was in no position to admit it. Dyson appears like most of the denial squad, having no real idea that they exist at all.

(*) Note: People are trying to build combined carbon/climate models now. They look like they are going to be called Earth System Models or ESMs. I think it’s vastly premature but that’s a topic for another time and place.

But similarities and differences aside, the press has their man. I don’t think Bill Gray is on deck; he’s a little too bitter. I think many people right now are wishing Freeman Dyson a long and healthy old age. I can’t bring myself to say otherwise myself. He seems like such a nice man.

That’s no reason to give him much press, until he actually has something of scientific substance to say on the matter. What we’ve seen so far is just grumbling, not counterarguments. The New York Times has done us another disservice by treating Dyson’s ranting as serious or relevant.


The picture of Bryson in his emeritus office at 1225 West Dayton in Madison, an architecturally dreadful building where I spent many hours of my own life, was lifted from denialist site moonbattery.com who probably lifted it from the department or the Madison local media.
The Dyson picture is the Wikipedia one.


The Problem and the Problem with the Problem


The prolific (and arguably indispensable) Joe Romm has a terrifying summary about global warming which appears to me to be pretty much on the mark.

Joe believes that people who understand the situation in this way should stick together. Given the scope of the problem, and the vast difference between the perspectives of those few who understand it and those many who don’t, you’d think we ought to stick together through thick and thin.

Matt Yglesias makes a similar point:

Where he goes wrong is that he seems to see this primarily as a political calamity in terms of the administration’s standing both domestically and in the eyes of international participants at the coming Copenhagen conference. That’s all true enough, but I think it’s important for people not to write about this issue without mentioning that failure to start reducing carbon emissions in the very near term is a substantive human and ecological catastrophe. Absent emissions reductions, the globe will continue to warm. That will, year after year, keep altering weather patterns around the world. A world inhabited by six billion people based on patterns of settlement established under existing climactic patterns. Climate change means drought and famine, flood and forest fire, all in new and unprepared places. People will die.

Well, people will die anyway, but let’s not split hairs. This is starting to look like the whole world is a complete idiot and will march over the cliff in some sort of hypnotic trance.

The problem with the problem is that people don’t actually believe it. They think we are, not to put too fine a point on it, making shit up. Why they think that is obvious enough. Some people are trying very hard to confuse matters. And being very effective at it.

The question that immediately follows, the motivating question of “In It” is “so what should we do about it“? And here we have a problem: the confusers have managed to convince the public that people who express deep concern do so for personal gain. In my own case, it has been nothing of the sort, at least insofar as personal gain reduces to wealth.

I very much appreciate and enjoy any encouragement I get form my readers. It has been one of the nicest aspects of the past couple of years. Indeed, I would like to be able to get a tiny amount of personal gain from doing what I do here. While not everybody could do the work I currently do for pay, I’d have to admit I’m replaceable. I could make a much better contribution given the time.

But that leads to an interesting problem of credibility. Lawrence Lessig, at a very impressive talk at SXSW, argued that a big problem with government nowadays is the corrupting power of money which mostly flows through issue advocacy. Once you associate yourself with a position for pay, your opinion, your arguments, even your soundest unassailable proofs, automatically lose value in the discourse.

Unfortunately we have entered a period when the truth itself “has a liberal bias”. Things are really serious.

Does that mean that one has to toe the line for fear of injuring one’s allies? Many people seem to think so.

But I’d like CSS on the table, and nuclear, and also reduced growth and economic decline. All of these options are anathema to the engine of green politics. And as for the cap and trade vs carbon tax thing, I’m just completely dazed and confused. I’d like to take it up as a neutral party.

I am no longer interested in debating the “Ravens” of the world on their terms. They are a problem but I find it odd that people persist in engaging them as if they had any intention of examining their beliefs. But we have to find some way to make it visible to the world that they are not actually the real thing.

To do that we need credibility, and to gain credibility we have to avoid lining up behind ideas that make little sense.

For instance? I’m glad you asked.

I am interested in debating the proposition that “green jobs” will “revive the economy” in the short run. It’s considered heresy to question this in some circles, but there’s a simple argument that in traditional economic terms it just can’t be true, else it would have happened already.

Yes, it will cost. The longer we wait the more it will cost. We have to get started regardless of the cost; there is no limit to the cost of never shifting to sutainability. No limit short of the end of life.

Does it really help matters to pretend that there is some conspiracy behind the use of coal instead of wind and solar? How shall we think about these things if nobody is allowed to say anything other than the most cheerful nonsense on their side?

Well, it’s not disallowed, it just doesn’t have much presence in the “marketplace of ideas”. Scientists are funded to talk to scientists. Anti-scientists are funded to talk to the public. Even the political parties aligned with the science scowl furiously at any effort to publicly think things through.

So how to fund a voice that is perceived as intelligent and independent, that engages with politics while representing science? The traditional structures of science and of politics and of journalism all fail us: not just me, who really would like to do that sort work if it existed somehow, but all of us, who need to think our way out of our quandary collectively.

Like Lyndon Johnson, we should recall the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Come, let us reason together.” That doesn’t mean ignoring the seriousness of our predicament, but on the other hand it doesn’t mean marching in lockstep either.

We have to butt heads or we won’t get anywhere. There’s my paraphrase of Isaiah 1:18.


I am going to try to do better with image credits, but I can’t track down the page the excellent drought photo was on. It is from a government site in New South Wales, Oz.
The grackle is available at Stuffed Ark .



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.