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
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Tamino vs Montford

Presumably nobody has missed taking note of Tamino’s rebuttal of Montford on RealClimate, but maybe, like me, some have put off reading the comments. Don’t miss the whole thing; it’s fascinating and one of the best RC threads ever.

In the view of keeping on pressing the press, I will leave you with the concluding part of Deep Climate’s comment #50:

A rare front-page science feature appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal in February, 2005. That report featured an account of the just-published GRL article by Steve McIntyre and Ross McKitrick.

Which PR disinformation outfit contacted the Wall Street Journal to arrange this prominent coverage? My guess is APCO Worldwide. Or perhaps the Wall Street Journal got the idea from coverage in the National Post, then in the thrall of APCO Worldwide operative Tom Harris. No one knows because the Wall Street Journal has consistently refused to discuss the matter.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. The likes of Patrick Michaels and CEI’s Chris Horner are not legitimate sources for “balance” from the “other side”. Rather, they are appropriate subjects for journalistic investigation. At the very least, they should not be allowed access to reputable journalistic platforms until they come close to the same transparency that most scientists have always exhibited.

The “hockey stick” scientific “scandal” has been manufactured from the start on non-existent evidence, and promoted diligently on behalf of powerful interests. “Climategate” is the real hoax, one perpetuated by complaisant media outlets like Fox News, the National Post and the Wall Street Journal.

It’s high time Andrew Revkin recognized that awful truth. His continued silence on the real issues is a disgrace.

(emphasis added)

Yo, Andy! It’s not just me.

Update to the Recent Long Piece

In a recent essay which is much too long for most blog readers to bother with, “We Are What We Think“, I argued that we need to rethink our relationship to the world. I was somewhat vague as to how to do it. Also for good measure I snarled at Andy Revkin, which I sill usually do given a chance.

Revkin has gone a way to redeem himself with his most recent Dot Earth piece which I think is both wonderful, and whether so intended or not, an excellent follow-on to “We Are What We Think”.

In “The Climate Bill in Climate Context“, Revkin offers a realistic look at the many further steps along the road which we begin here, and concludes with the realistic and yet radical advice of the UK’s Prime Minister Brown. This provides a good basis for the new thinking, new thinking which needs to pervade all societies, quickly. For fundamentally, the extent to which we are competitors is dwarfed by the extent to which we are, like it or not, teammeates.

Success will require two major shifts in how we think – as policy makers, as campaigners, as consumers, as producers, as a society. The first is to think not in political or economic cycles; not just in terms of years or even decadelong programs and initiatives. But to think in terms of epochs and eras — and how our stewardship will be judged not by tomorrow’s newspapers but by tomorrow’s children.

And the second is to think anew about how we judge success as a society. For 60 years we have measured our progress by economic gains and social justice. Now we know that the progress and even the survival of the only world we have depends on decisive action to protect that world. In the end, without environmental stewardship, there can be no sustainable prosperity and no sustainable social justice.

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.


It’s the Food, Stupid

It’s time we faced the facts:

  • The world is overpopulated, near or beyond its long-term carrying capacity for modern humans
  • Resources are being depleted and environmental supports weakened
  • Energy usage is getting tangled in supplies of water and fair weather
  • Economic systems designed for none of the above are misfiring for various reasons including but not limited to the above

We are going to have to think carefully and learn how to decide to make difficult decisions together.

I’m sure today’s grim news from Gallup (hat tip to no less than Mark Morano, whose mail about the surprising result showed up in my inbox this morning) will be a very prominent climate story for a while, but I hope that a blog item provocatively titled Sea level rise a red herring? by James Hrynshin will not be lost in the shuffle. In today’s article, James addresses the very large potential scope of the climate problem.

I’ve been dimly aware of his Island of Doubt, but I’m adding it to the blogroll forthwith. Discovering this site was one of the silver linings of the recent clouds on my horizon.

James gets into a bit of trouble with Stoat over what the sea level rise estimates are currently looking like, and perhaps he is a bitover the top in this regard. But that really isn’t the point of the article at all. The point is that while sea level rise is the sort of thing we can wrap our heads around and have quantitative arguments about, if things go really badly, it likely won’t be the worst of it. The really worst cases involve disruptions sufficient to interrupt the food supply.

Do I think these will occur? Actually, no. Or, really, that depends on how stupid we elect to be as well as how unlucky we are. Unfortunately, severe drouught and severe storms are both on the table. (Some places may literally get too hot for habitation, but I think those are marginal already.) As scientists, we should be working to reduce the scope of the impact tails, and as participants in the world we should be working to avoid testing whether we can get there.

The thing I liked most about this article, though, was the reference to “the still ridiculously sparse coverage afforded to matters of climate change”. Yes, exactly. This feeds back onto today’s above-the-fold question of what the populace thinks. Not only is the coverage ridiculously sparse, but grotesquely avoidant of considering the more severe risks.

On that note, see Revkin’s latest, on the Gallup report. I find his concluding paragraph interesting and encouraging in a silver lining sort of way. (Pity about that cloud.) I can hope this paragraph backhandedly acknowledges that he has a position where what he says matters.

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.

Revkin Beyond the Pale

Revkin falls into his old habit of splitting the difference between lies and truth, and then offers some lame justification on his blog.

This is not acceptable. Revkin should take a hint from Joe Romm on what the actual climate news is this week.

I am also 100% behind Joe Romm on his take on Revkin’s article. Just when you think Revkin is actually performing a service he comes up with this sort of poison.

Unlike George Will, Revkin knows better. That being the case, this sacrifice of genuine balance for a cute but shallow sort of journalistic symmetry is not just lazy but unethical.

Update: If this sort of tempest is your cup of tea, there’s a vast array of related links at Thing’s. Whatever you do, though, don’t read Revkin’s rant without also looking at Brad Johnson’s detailed critique of it.

Update: Comment by me at Climate Progress:

For me this isn’t nearly as much about George Will or the Post as it is about Revkin and the Times. To be sure, neither part of the tale is pretty.

In the article in question, Revkin frames the debate as balanced between Gore and Will. Yet, from the point of view of the most informed people on the topic of climate change, the IPCC represents the middle of the road, not an extreme, and Gore himself is a dyed-in-the-wool moderate. Anything that casts Gore’s position as extreme drastically misframes the issues we should be talking about.

Revkin clearly knows enough about the situation to know that the posited equivalence between Gore and Will is not just strained but ludicrous. His readers may not know this.

The disservice of knowingly and falsely presenting the two as roughly symmetrical in the interest of a tidy little article is more than run of the mill journalistic laziness. It is a betrayal of the public trust. If ever a journalist were eligible for impeachment it would be Revkin as a consequence of this travesty.

Any sensible points made in passing (and there were some) notwithstanding, his article is unacceptable and uncivilized, because Revkin surely knows better. I care little for George Will’s opinions. On this matter he is a confused old man, and will for the most part be ignored.

Revkin is presumably not so confused, but if one presumes so, it seems that he is willing to confuse others. It is no exaggeration to suggest that by capitulating to the Times’ desire to be nonthreatening, Revkin may have contributed directly to worsening the scope of the catastrophe our world will face.

Revkin owes us a vastly more cogent explanation or apology for this gobsmackingly shallow and vile blithering than he has managed to date. If he was pressured to produce this travesty by management at the Times, all the more so. I believe this matter is so severe that Revkin ought to make it his highest priority to repair it immediately or failing that to resign.

Update: Will goes on as expected. Revkin, to my eye, backpedals a bit without addressing the core malpractice in his column:

The office of former Vice President Al Gore complained about my story on climate exaggeration the other day and now George Will, the other (very different) example in that piece, has weighed in as well with a column, “Climate Science in a Tornado,” defending his accuracy and questioning my competence. I’ll leave the competence judgment to readers.

Update: I’ve recently become a huge fan of Jay Rosen. I am pleased to note that he gets it exactly right in the comments at Dot Earth (#183):

… in my opinion you have seriously under-estimated and mishandled the “false equivalence” issue. It’s good that you acknowledged it; it’s bad that you dismissed it. And I don’t know why you reduced it to a question of qualifications. I think you’ve seen in the days since how little resemblance there is between Gore as a mistake-maker and George Will. This alone should cause you to regret what you wrote suggesting they were caught in the same trap.

You talked of temptation in your original story on exaggerations in the climate change debate. I urge you to please consider what a temptation there is for editors and reporters in a “both sides engage in hype” story. The temptation to portray the two sides as equally at fault, equally misleading, equally loose with facts is HUGE, and you failed to resist it.

Please re-consider. I think your judgment about the original story is off. Way off.


In case you missed my point, I am very, very, very disappointed by this. I see all the moaning about the future of the press, including by a couple of my friends who are practicing old-school newspaper journalists, and I worry about it, I really do. But frankly, if this is the best the press can do, I have to say to hell with it. (edits blogroll)

Henchman: I promise you it won’t happen again.

Zorg: I know.