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.

Grist for the Mill


Using SXSWi as an occasion to ponder the future of journalism has been fruitful so far.

Larry Lessig did not disappoint. He really had two themes. He said that the first problem is separating congressional job retention form money. “That’s bnot the only problem. That’s not the most important problem. But is is the first problem.”

The odd thing is that while he made a compelling case for solutions to that problem being logically precedent (in the USA, what about elsewhere?) to all the other ones, it seems to me he ALSO made a case for a different logically precedent problem.

As Dylan Otto Krider quotes Amanda Gefter, “It is crucial to the public’s
intellectual health to know when science really is science”. And there is no shortcut. Lessig showed a very disturbing vidoe of RFK Jr, siding with the vaccination paranoids, calling real research “tobacco science”. There really is no shortcut to knowing which science is the real science, and it is completely necessary.

The big picture, of course, is this: if you don’t trust your government, your industry, your press or your scientists, you aren’t going to come up with very clever solutions to your problems, are you?

Anyway, the relation between science and journalism in America in the next few years may be a linchpin for the future of the whole world. With all due respect to the people whose lives are being disrupted, I think it’s a good thing that science journalism has to be reinvented under the circumstances; what this means for the rest of journalism doesn’t concern me.

I’m starting to get some business ideas, but much as I’d love to babble about them here it’s probably best to be a little circumspect.

Meanwhile, a lot of fascinating stuff to think about.

This one from Craig Shirky has been causing a splash in journalism circles this week: “Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism.”

Here’s Tim O’Reilly’s amen.

Similarly, a recent article in The New Republic by Yochai Benkler: “The newspaper’s decline does not portend anything resembling the end of democracy.”

There there’s Steven Johnson’s talk, the last few seconds of which I caught. A rough model for the new journalism business is sketched out at the end.

And here’s Seth Godin on keeping existing businesses going.

Remember, science isn’t the only topic that is being mishandled, though. Are the existing newspapers institutions we can afford to have around anymore?

(Picture: A guy wearing Google Austin shirt at SXSW)

Sustainable Awesomeness


(Picture: guy in a pink gorilla suit selling some silly thing or other at SXSW;
guy on cellphone at left probably has a more consequential job)

Why am I at SXSWi?

“SXSWi?” regular readers will surely ask. If I tell them it’s locally pronounced “Sowfba enneractive” the confusion may well mount.

“South by Southwest” or “SXSW” (locally pronounced “Sowfba” if you have a sufficently mumbly Texas accent, else “Southbye”) is an annual conference of “indie media” that has turned into one of the main events on the Austin calendar and definitely the biggest thing at the convention center. Next weekend is the culmination, when the musical portion of the event occurs. It’s essentially a meeting of people calling themselves “creatives”. And the “interactive” part is about web professionals, most of them, from the looks of it, about 25, and the seasoned veterans pushing 35 by now.

Why, you ask, would I spend $495 on such an event? The answer is twofold. One is that my usual annual dose of optimism, PyCon, is off the table for this year. (Dang. Last I heard they were using my idea for the T-shirt too!)


Creative professionals, like Python programmers, are an intensely optimistic breed. All my time with doomsters and Fortran programmers tends to make me sour. That, and, the end of the world and stuff. These people come up with lines like “care and feeding of your epic shit” and “sustainable awesomeness”.

This kind of epic shit tends to cheer me up. The amount of creative and fundamentally decent energy in the world is vast. Our only hope is to channel it, but it’s good to remember that it’s there. Admittedly, in this crowd there is a lot of posing to slice through. Fortunately, it’s pretty shallow posing.

The main reason I ponied up for the ticket (aside from it being a local show I could sneak off to without a plane ride, and remember:

) is that I am trying to think about how to become a freelance writer/web content provider/client side web programmer. The logic is inescapable: newspapers are folding, the need for information is expanding, there has to be some way to monetize the demand.

I’m very tired of the science world where the way you prosper is by an endlessly tedious (and increasingly maladaptive) process of going for a sort of collective approval. Yes it’s true, it is still a mostly functioning meritocracy, but my merits don’t map onto it all that well.

I feel that I have something to offer not just as a blogger, but as someone who helps find and implement the business model for the new world, where there is less sharp of a distinction between producer and consumer of intellectual property. We should all be spending more and earning more online. Hey, we could even have “growth” if we did that.

Also, I just need to go to a webby meeting every couple of years lest I lose my edge as someone who understands what is actually going on. But I’m serious. I realize both how big an accomplishment my audience here is and how tiny it is compared to what I would need to make a living freelancing. (Consider: if I could get 100 people to pay a dollar a week to listen to me rant, what a great achievement, and what a feeble income stream!)

So once I had managed to wend my way through the hour-long registration process (almost as miserable an experience as an airport) and started flipping through the over-designed and almost illegible program, I was pleased to see that a session on the future of journalism had just started. I rushed to the session, only to find that the huge (300 people?) room was full and latecomers turned away. Yet this was the event I had come to see.

The speaker of the event was a fellow named Steven B Johnson and I noted he was signing books immediately after, so I decided to say hello and complain about my fate. He is the author of “The Invention of Air”, a book about the discoverer of oxygen, a fervent supporter of the French Revolution, a tolerant stoic and a rationalist utterly opposed to religious fundamentalism who had a great influence on America’s founders. His talk apparently included “MacWorld mag circa ’87, old-growth forests, 92 election, Obama’s race speech, hyperlocal, and more!” He founded a website called “outside.in” which scrapes the blogs for references to places and aggregates them by locale. All of these imaginative and intelligent achievements are things I can imagine doing. The thing he has done that I can’t conceive of is getting 173,000 followers on Twitter. And yet, that is the scale needed to make writing worth doing as a business rather than as a hobby.

Anyway, Johnson (can I call him Steven on the basis of 37 seconds’ conversation? hell, yes, that’s the way to do it) , Steven I should say, told me he was releasing the talk on the web and I should follow his stream to find out exactly where. Sort of ironic that I paid admission to get that information. And here I am passing it onto you for free.

Update: Here is Steven Johnson’s talk.

Centrism is a Pose

If there is a sidewalk on either side of a busy street, you may argue whether to walk down the east side or the west side, but it’s not a useful compromise to walk out in traffic.

There is more than one question we need to solve, so there are lots of ways of looking at the world.

We need to collaboratively and collectively come up with something coherent. The average of two or more coherent positions is not necessarily coherent. Thus:

Atrios on Centrism

An impossible project is convincing journalists that contemporary “centrism” is a clubbish ideology which is usually not, as communicated, some happy medium between “left” and “right”.

Krugman on Centrism

Atrios is right, though I’d put it a bit differently:

centrism is a pose rather than a philosophy.

(h/t Ian Bicking)

I don’t think I would have understood what this means a couple of weeks ago. I don’t think it means there are two teams, left and right, and you have to choose sides.

What I think it means is that you aren’t being anywhere near as clever as you think if you just try to hold the average of all the positions you see around you. Unfortunately, the US press seems to think of this simpleminded approach as a guiding principle; the road to success and righteousness. Which seems to be why Revkin screwed up, and that sort of thing in turn is why people are losing interest in the press.

Or, for another example of the way the press operates, consider Jon Stewart vs CNBC. As Will Bunch (h/t Jay Rosen) says at philly.com (OK, yes, that is a daily newspaper site):

the story shows how access to the nation’s most powerful CEOs — supposedly the big advantage of a journalistic enterprise like CNBC — isn’t worth a warm bucket of spit when it results in slo-pitch softball questions, for fear of offending the rich and powerful.

and

The American public is mad as hell right now, so why isn’t the mainstream media? Balanced reporting is important, but a balanced, modulated tone of voice? Not now, not when millions are hurting from lost jobs and under-water mortgages, and many millions more are living in fear of the same fate.

and so on. (Go read it, and watch the video. Highly recommended.)

If the conventional press will not serve the purposes of genuine public discourse at a time like this, alternatives will emerge, and fast.

We don’t have time for or interest in fishwrap anymore. Make us think, or just go away.

Update: Stewart reprises, including Atmoz’s favorite line. (Anyone know how Atmoz is doing? He’s been very quiet lately.)

Update
: Somebody’s making a @buckyfuller tweetstream. It’s great. Here’s today’s entry, which seems altogether germane:

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

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.