06 March 2012

Are Media Apologists Good for Climate Science?

[UPDATE 3/7: In a move rather ironic given this post, Michael Mann writes on his Facebook page that I have "teamed up" with Marc Morano to produce a "dishonest smear." How have I "teamed up" with Morano?  Apparently Morano linked to this post. Mann appears challenged with the truth.

Also, on Twitter (gotta follow lots of media these days) Mann suggests that his advocacy for the Hockey Stick was in one part of the IPCC report not another. My reply -- So what? The Gillis NYT article mentioned and linked to the entire IPCC report. In how many places was the Hockey Stick featured in the 2001 IPCC report? At least in 6 places (PDF).]

Yesterday, Michael Lemonick asked of journalists at Climate Central, "should we tell the whole truth about climate change?" His answer is to ask "So where’s the right balance between telling the whole truth and being truthful in an effective way?" (have a look at the link title as well). For some journalists a desire for "effectiveness" trumps "truth."

Journalists, like everyone else, have their biases and perspectives. And on the issue of climate change journalists are as prone as any of us to the seductive siren of tribalism, with good guys on one side and evil ones on the other. But does this framing actually serve the interests of the broader climate science community?  I think not.

Here is an example (and to be clear, it is one example that could be selected from many). In today's New York Times, Justin Gillis (who has made clear on several occasions that he is no fan of mine) offers a favorable review of Michael Mann's new book. That Gillis likes Mann's book is not at all problematic. However, the fact that in his review Gillis includes a statement that is demonstrably false in his defense of Mann is problematic and arguably reinforces the polarization around the debate.

Gillis writes of the so-called "hockey stick" graph produced by Mann and highlighted by the IPCC in its 2001 report (emphasis added):
The graph of reconstructed temperatures is called a hockey stick because the right-hand side shows temperatures veering sharply upward in the last century. The paper and its graph, along with subsequent studies by Dr. Mann and several other scientists, suggest that this recent warming is anomalous, at least over the past millennium. Through no choice of Dr. Mann’s, the graph became a symbol of modern climate science when it was featured prominently in a 2001 report by a United Nations panel.
Now you don't have to be a climate insider to know that Mann was in fact actively involved in promoting his own graph to be featured by the IPCC in its 2001 report. and that Gillis' statement is flat out wrong. You don't have to believe me (or Steve McIntyre, who Gillis denigrates but does not cite by name), but Mann himself. Mann was unequivocally a vigorous advocate within the IPCC promoting his own work. When the NYT gets such a basic fact wrong it not only makes them look bad, but has collateral damage for the climate science community.

The realities of the most intensely contested aspects of the climate debate are that there are human beings on both sides -- complex, contradictory, red-blooded, imperfect human beings. When the media places scientists up on a pedestal and does so via the spinning  of untruths, they simply set the stage for a bigger fall when the scientists cannot live up to their adulatory press coverage. And besides, many of us know better. The media should cover science in three dimensions, and eschew the two-dimensional fiction of good vs. evil, even if that means exploring nuance and contradiction.


  1. My wife remarked yesterday (in a context not remotely connected with climate debates but about exaggeration and untruths in a purely social arena) that people just love drama. Will it turn out, I wonder, that much of the differences of opinion have been more because of the love of a satisfying narrative rather than dishonesty or incompetence.

  2. As individuals and cooperatives pursue leverage over their competing interests, both science and risk mitigation have become casualties of their struggle. This has historical precedent and it is being repeated for the same reasons as before. It would seem that people are either incapable or unwilling to learn from their history.

  3. Roger Pielke, one of the good guys, and I mean that in a suitably nuanced way.

  4. But where did Gillis get his erroneous idea from?

  5. #1 Rich’s drama analogy is apt; if one wants to win a PR battle, the more messengers, the merrier.

    While the pros, the climate researchers, can limit themselves to precise statements and descriptions, the apologists can spread exaggerated accounts of the misfortunes that will befall the populace if they fail to care properly for Mother Gaia. Each can take a different tack, tell a different story, emphasize different points in such a way that countering everything that all of them say becomes almost impossible. A sympathetic pro can readily admit that this point is wrong or that is poorly stated or there’s certainly exaggeration in another point, but such admissions can’t stem the broad assault because it’s pervasive.

    None of this helps the science, but it wins battles, garnering public support if not full acceptance if done long enough and with sufficient force. A policy is born!

    All that said, I think the climate wars would have ended five years ago if the so-called skeptics had not arisen and if the climate had not flat-lined. In a guerilla war, timing is everything…

  6. #5 : SC Mike, You may want to have a look at a book called 'The Climate Fix'. There is an iron law in there that might make things clear to you.

    The climate debate would be over if there was a low C02 emitting energy source that was as cheap as coal. Doubts about acid rains nastiness (ask some Germans, they think the scientific establishment lied about that), didn't stop S02 scrubbers.

    It's economics, not science, that stops decarbonisation.

    The scientific argument, while great for bloggers and for people to get excited about is not the main game.

  7. The attraction of preaching to the choir is so great that many people can't help themselves. The social reinforcement is so appealing that it's like a drug. And then, of course, journalists as a group are not particularly intelligent, or particularly capable of critical thinking.

    Years ago, I had multiple scientists tell me that whenever they talked to a reporter, what they said was inevitably scrambled. This was not a matter of subject difficulty or jargon - plain English statements would just end up turned upside-down. Now if you can't keep a straight fact statement right, how can you expect them to be capable of parsing technical debates?

  8. 5. SC Mike said...

    None of this helps the science, but it wins battles, garnering public support if not full acceptance if done long enough and with sufficient force

    In all propaganda wars there is white, grey and black.
    White is unvarnished truth.
    Grey is 'true' but misleading.
    Black is a lie.

    Only white will survive the test of time. Grey and Black will yield tactical victories but at the expense of long term credibility.

    In the US we toss our 'glorious leader' every 4 to 8 years...mostly because they've engaged in enough 'grey speak' by the end of 8 years to be considered by a large portion of the public to be 'bold faced liars'.

    The 'Climate Change' issue needs policy and public support on a mulch-decadel time frame.

    As soon as the public learns to take anything information regarding 'climate change' from anyone with a 'grain of salt' because some of the predictions work out to be false you can't convince them of anything.

  9. Re: 7. Harrywr2

    I don’t disagree with a thing you write, but the propaganda regardless of color need be accepted only as long as it takes to get the necessary legislation in place. Under a parliamentary system without a constitution of the sort the US has, it’s possible to implement near-revolutionary changes in law and culture in a relatively short period of time as Thatcher and Blair did as long as the party in charge can maintain a modicum of public support.

    That the EU was able to implement a carbon-credit trading scheme that shipped wealth to China and other foreign lands to purchase carbon credits of questionable provenance, prompt countries to subsidize otherwise unaffordable wind or solar projects on a massive scale, risk a trade war with the US and China over airline carbon fees, and so forth is remarkable, especially given the financial instability the West is trying to cope with.

    Whether it’s because of good sense or financial pressure, we see today that Germany is terminating its solar subsidies and the UK may be re-thinking its devotion to wind. (I lived in Germany for a total of eight years -- four in Berlin -- and kept a picture of the sun in my wallet for most of that time, until it mildewed…)

    We in the US may yet learn from this. Our political system is much messier: the good and bad news is that we have many more lawyers than the Europeans do and a federal / state system to muck up the works, much to some pundits’ dismay. As a result we’re as likely to follow Australia’s example of imposing a carbon tax as we are to disarm the populace, ban fox-hunting, or break the miners’ union.

    Time is both our friend and enemy in the Climate Wars. In the words of a great half-American, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.”

  10. It is interesting to note that few people reference his newer proxy reconstructions where the Medieval Warm Period has been quietly reintroduced. The trouble is that is doesn't support the narrative of unprecedented warming in the 20th century. Check figure 3.

    He is still 'hiding the decline' though.

  11. "In a move rather ironic given this post, Michael Mann writes on his Facebook page that I have "teamed up" with Marc Morano to produce a "dishonest smear." How have I "teamed up" with Morano?"

    I asked him this very thing on his facebook page. It was up for about 10 mins before he deleted it.

  12. Keith Briffa wrote to Mann and others on September 22, 1999, "Let me say that I don't mind what you put in the policy makers summary if there is a general concensus."


  13. Was Mann making such claims as a "Public Figure" (as self described on FB) or as a scientist (as argued in his bio)?

    All's fair in erroneous claims during election years, after all.

  14. I find it remarkable that Mann can describe your comment about his self-promotion as a smear and then elevate it to a group effort because it is linked.

    Good grief. Perhaps your father could stage an intervention with poor Mickey and show him what a concerted smear really looks like.