Choosing Sides

By Keith Kloor | April 14, 2010 1:08 pm

There’s big news today that will reinforce the hardening belief among many climate scientists and climate advocates that there is nothing constructive to be learned from climategate. That would be a huge mistake.

Alas, perhaps the die is already cast. In the volatile climate change debate, journalism has come under increasing attack in the blogosphere since the Climategate story broke in late 2009. Call it the creeping Rommification of media criticism, in which individual journalists are harshly upbraided for their commentary or news coverage. Joe Romm, as anyone who has followed his blog knows, has practiced a highly personalized form of journalistic criticism. Over the years, Andy Revkin has been a frequent target of Romm’s broadsides.

I’ve long thought it curious that the scientists at Real Climate, an influential and well-respected lot, have never expressed public disapproval of Romm’s behavior. Romm has an impressive grasp of climate science and he’s plugged into beltway politics, but even his admirers, if they were given truth serum, would admit that his unrestrained attacks on well-meaning journalists further poisons the climate debate. Or maybe I’ve got that wrong and they would sooner admit that Romm’s heavy-handed posts are necessary to keep journalists in line.

I’m starting to think it’s the latter, for the gang at Real Climate has practically leapt off the sidelines in recent months to single out journalists, such as Fred Pearce and Tom Yulsman, for what Gavin Schmidt has termed the “pathologies of media reporting” on climate change. Now I think it’s perfectly acceptable for climate scientists to engage journalists in the blogosphere, and RC is way more polite and evenhanded than Romm. That said, of late I’ve noticed that they’ve been registering their approval and disapproval of media stories more frequently. But even in their approving appraisals, they can’t help hurling a few digs, such as this one directed at Revkin:

Those who do not appreciate this point can easily be misled by the cavillous arguments of others who have become adept at focusing on this or that that specific bit of data and using it to convince people that they have uncovered some fundamental flaw in the theory.

To put this in a larger context, one has to understand that climate scientists are not happy that Revkin–more than any other journalist–has explored the political and scientific fissures revealed by climategate. Now, has the story been hyped in the media and manipulated by Morano? Yes. Does this mean Revkin was wrong to delve into issues raised by Judith Curry and Mike Hulme? No, not even in the wake of the latest news. Still, you get the feeling from RC and climate advocates that any broader analysis of climategate is illegitimate because no crime was commited.

That’s certainly the message that George Monbiot has been receiving for months. Last week he wrote in his column that he’s “been assailed by climate scientists and environmentalists” since he started writing on the affair. For a taste of that ill will, check out this recent William Connolley post, in which he writes that “Monbiot is still rubbish.”  But one of Connolley’s readers, noting Monbiot’s long record of defending climate science, can’t help remaining puzzled:

But you still have to wonder that if you’ve “lost” moonbat errr Monbiot, what what wrong, and how can it be handled better. Was Monbiot just swayed by the right-wing blogology & noise?

Connolley’s response to the comment is notable because it demonstrates the “tribalist” atttitude described by Judith Curry, which at the end of the day, may well be the most damning thing one can say about climategate. Which isn’t saying much, obviously. But the trouble is, that tribalist mindset is what keeps climate scientists from acknowledging “what went wrong.”  Anyway, here’s the response by Connolley to his puzzled commenter:

Well, that is a good point. I think the answer is that Monbiot isn’t really “‘on our side’” at all, because in the end he is oon his own side. I don’t think that is unreasonable – it isn’t indended as a criticism – but I do criticise the people who say “Monbiot is one of you and even he says X so X must be true”. Monbiot has his own interests – writing stories, mostly – and as others have said, being a journo givees him a very different perspective on FOI. And of course he knows nothing about the doing of science.

So Curry’s point remains quite relevant, no matter what the latest panel says about climategate. Connolley’s main problem with Monbiot is that he’s not “on our side.” This entrenched, tribalist attitude may be what’s driving Real Climate’s sudden emergence as a press critic. They are kinder and gentler than Romm, but they’re still doing what he does: dividing journalists into two teams: their side and the opposition’s. Is that really the best way to advance the climate debate?

It’s ironic that Connolley accuses Monbiot of knowing nothing about science. I’d say the same could be said of Connolley with respect to journalism. We’re not supposed to take sides.

UPDATE: At his site, William Connolley says I’ve misconstrued his meaning; he also has some worthwhile observations on my post.

UPDATE: Nothing but “bupkis”–for the second time–Michael Tobis gloats, re: the the latest report exonerating climate scientists. Andy Revkin, over at Dot Earth, has a useful overview and larger perspective.

  • http://initforthegold.blogspot.com Michael Tobis

    Phil Jones, whatever he is, is not a conspirator or a manipulator of data or a subvertor of scientific peer review. The publication of his emails was a violation of reasonably expected privacy. No significant wrongdoing was revealed. That is about all the press should have to say about this matter. On page 17. Once.

    You misread Connolley quite badly, though I admit he could have been clearer. Ultimately science has no “side”.

    In particular, Phil Jones, being an almost archetypal scientist, is just exactly as neutral an observer as the best and most careful journalist. If a journalist reports a story that is inconvenient to a faction, how would you respond if that faction tried to drum up false accusations about that journalist being sensationalist and making stories up?

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    Sorry, I don’t agree that this is quite the open & shut case you make it out to be. Obviously, you don’t share Curry or Hulme’s observations, which strike me as important to consider, irrespective of any panel’s outcome.

    Also, you’ll not be surprised to hear that my view of the affair tracks roughly with Monbiot’s take in his latest column. I guess that would make me rubbish as well. Oh well.

  • Marlowe Johnson

    Keith,

    Stoats and others beefs with Monbiot (myself included) has nothing to do with ‘sides’.  It has to do with the fact that Monbiot called on Jones to resign DESPITE the fact that he wasn’t in possession of any of the relevant FACTS.  It puzzles me that you try to make this about tribalism rather than about adhering to basic principles of professional conduct.  In the case of journalists such principles would suggest witholding judgement about something until one is in possession of relevant facts.  starting to make sense?

  • http://hankroberts.wordpress.com Hank Roberts

    You’ve somehow missed comments the RC folks have made following up postings by Joe Romm, if you think they “never expressed public disapproval” — he’s gotten the same treatment others have when their rhetoric outflies their facts.

    You have to watch the “… With Inline Responses” column in the right sidebar to notice when they’ve added an inline comment correcting anyone’s error.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid Tim Lambert

    Always quick to leap to the defence of your tribe, aren’t you, Keith?

  • http://initforthegold.blogspot.com Michael Tobis

    You mistake anger for gloating. I am angry. The harping on the sheer nothingness behind the accusations is not celebration. It is a necessary correction. There is nothing to the accusations against Jones. I am not dancing in the street. I am feeling somewhat vindicated for getting matters right in the first place, but my dominant emotion is outrage.

    Does that mean science is constructed ideally? No, far from it.  I myself advocate both for far greater openness and for formalisms that go to conduct rather than just to final publication. I think pure science should look more like applied science, and in particular climate science needs to wake up to being an applied science. I see the point about circling the wagons. I see the point about opacity. I see the point about arrogance. If seeing these things more clearly is a side effect of this charade, so much the better.

    But positive side effects aside, it’s still a charade. There is no cause for vilifying Jones or CRU any more than there has been in the past about Mann or Santer or whoever the bete noir of the year is in denialist circles.

    The only substantive question at hand is, when someone publishes someone else’s correspondence, which party committed the crime. I would have thought it was the party doing the stealing, not the party doing the having been stolen from.

    If the press continues to get that wrong, it isn’t time to be talking about two-bit tribalism or wagon-circling in the scientific community. A criminal act was committed which resulted in the persecution of the victim. That is the story. It is a pretty interesting story. Why don’t you just run with that one for a while and then get back to us, mmmkay?

  • http://hankroberts.wordpress.com Hank Roberts

    When someone publishes a careful selection from stolen correspondence, while representing it as a “random selection” — and people claiming to be journalists report this dispassionately as news, asking nothing about how it came to them — one must wonder why they are so purblind about the motives of those using them as mindless tools

    http://quotationsbook.com/quote/19331/

    “If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.”

    Attributed to Cardinal RICHELIEU, or one or another of Richelieu’s agents as possible authors.

    —–

    Keith, if someone gives you a “selection” of stolen material, do you ask any questions before taking it for granted?

    What questions do you ask?

    Where were they published?

  • http://arthur.shumwaysmith.com/life/ Arthur Smith

    I’m sorry, but when people with a similar background to you, whose devotion to the pursuit of truth you respect are receiving threatening emails and getting shredded dead animals left on their doorsteps, claiming that there is no “other side” that scientists should legitimately be defending themselves against is either the height of naivete or deliberate victim-bully behavior.

    When a journalist actually does anything comparable to what John Mashey or Greenpeace have done recently in pursuing the origins and funding of the “other side”, exposing it for what it really is, then I will start to regain some respect for that profession. Until then, I’m sorry, start learning how to do your jobs or we’re going to do whatever we can to kick you out of them.

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    It may strike some of you as odd, but as a journalist I’ve worked with scientists more than any other group. USGS, FWS, FS, NASA, NOAA, EPA, among many others in state agencies and academia. I’ve got nothing but the highest  respect for them. They are the smartest, most honorable people I know.  And I think  climate scientists have a right to feel aggrieved and even persecuted. And I think it’s deplorable that some have been the subject of threatening harrassment.

    I also think it’s ironic that some of you advocates conveniently overlook or wink, wink at the nasty behavior exhibited towards  journalists by some of your cohorts (and even a few of you in this thread.) So sorry we’re not carrying water for the cause. At least take heart that your opposition believes we’re no good to them, either.

  • http://manuelmoeg.blogspot.com/ manuelg

    Quoting Keith Kloor:

    > At least take heart that your opposition believes we’re no good to them, either.

    But surely the forces rejecting the science of climate disruption are happy with even just postponing the inevitable, so they can continue levels of profits in the short term.  And journalists belching out billows of smoke of fake controversy helps that postponing of the inevitable.

    It is telling that your scope of responsibility stops well short of presenting the mechanisms of motivated anti-scientific obscurantism.  And you defend that limited scope of responsibility vigorously.

  • http://hankroberts.wordpress.com Hank Roberts

    > the nasty behavior exhibited towards journalists
    > by … a few of you in this thread …

    You consider some of the above comments nasty?
    Could they be phrased in any way that you’d take seriously? Guide us, please, how to be heard.

    http://pathtosustainable.wordpress.com/2009/12/01/learning-to-converse-with-a-brick-wall/

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    Hank,

    No, I did not mean that any comments in this thread were nasty.  Sloppy wording on my part. I meant that some of the commenters of this post have engaged in Romm-like character attacks.

  • Steve L

    Outcomes are important, Keith.  I’ll start feeling sorry for the journos involved when one of them, doing his or her job as responsibly as Jones had, undergoes the same level of harassment.  The equivalence you are drawing here is false.

  • http://ourchangingclimate.wordpress.com Bart Verheggen

    Keith,

    I don’t think that climate scientists (and their defenders) are necessarily against “any broader analysis of climategate” (though some may be).

    I think that they are against the slinging of baseless accusations and framing ths story as a analogy to watergate, as is some dirty manipulation has been uncovered. At least, that’s what I have a problem with.

    Looking at both the roles of the outside world (the attacks on science) and introspectively (how science has responded to those attacks in perhaps not the smartest and most constructive way possible) would indeed be a worthwhile pursuit.

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    Bart,
    The only people who have been framing this story in such fashion (akin to watergate) are the Moranos. And he knows better, too. He’s got an agenda. (Yes, I’m aware some of the UK papers have been shrill and mistake-prone with the IPCC stories, but that’s a different story.)

    Are you saying that Revkin, Pearce and Monbiot fall into this “baseless accusation” category too? Because they’re the ones that many climate scientists and their defenders are angry with, and so far as I can tell, they’ve been doing their job.

    For what it’s worth, I’m well aware of the history of attacks on science in this country, and the deceitful campaigns to undermine very important scientific findings, which have had terrible consequences for human health. But as other commentators have noted, the contemporary climate debate is rather unique in this respect. It’s the health and societal consequences of AGW that are much less known than the actual science. I don’t have any issues with the science, but I do have issues with how the debate over projected consequences of climate change is framed by some climate scientists and advocates. This is where I think people like Mike Hulme and Roger Pielke Jr. have important things to say about the debate, but aren’t they just breezily dismissed as “delayers” by the more exitable advocate wing? 

    Additionally, because of the uncertainties I am referring to, it seems to me that perhaps this whole debate should be reframed in terms of energy, which is what the Breakthrough Institute has been doing. But they too are often dismissed with a sneer and worse by the likes of Romm.

    Nonetheless, if climate scientists and advocates cointinue to insist on making  the case for future catastrophe because of our increasing carbon load, then I think Paul Krugman laid out the best argument in his recent Sunday Times piece: the ethical one. But that would mean we would have to have a sustained and substantive debate about Risk. Alas, there is little evidence so far that Americans can have a rational debate, much less understanding of long-terms risks.

    Ah, well I went off on a tangent there. But I hope this puts my own frame of reference into clearer context for people.

  • http://rabett.blogspot.com Eli Rabett

    As opposed to Pielke like character attacks?

    Pot vs. completely burned kettle.  Frankly Eli prefers some really good pot.

  • http://rabett.blogspot.com Eli Rabett

    Oh yeah, you might ask yourself why we are not debating risk, might it be because of the megaphone the journos have lent the denialists?

  • Steve Bloom

    It’s telling that Keith never took up the challenge to critically examine Revkin’s innuendo-filled front-page NYT article that got things rolling in the U.S. media.  It was quite the Judy Miller-esque exercise.

    My hypothesis is that the scandal would never have gotten legs if not for the behavior of Revkin, Monbiot and Pearce.  Blame their editors?  Maybe. 

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    Steve,

    I didn’t see any picture of a person pointing to hidden WMD’s–I mean–concealed FOIS’s–did you? :)

    (For what it’s worth, I do believe that the Times–and most of journalism utterly failed in the run-up to the Iraq war. The press was cowed. I think Romm has drawn the wrong lesson from that deplorable period.)

    Seriously, I didn’t know there was a challenge. But now that you mention it, I’ll have a look at that piece. Hindsight is always a great palliative, right?

  • gravityloss

    The problem might be much worse than people realize with all this relatively civil tone going on. It is evident from the way Kloor interprets Tobis’ truth vindication as gloating or Connolley’s posts… In the same there is no real truth, it’s all just two sides vein.

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    Gravityloss, I don’t get what you mean. Can you clarify what you are inferring by my interpretations of Tobis and & Connolley? And exactly what problem “might be much worse”?

  • gravityloss

    That you interpret it so that Tobis or Connolley only want their group or side to get an advantage – that there is nothing larger going on – the larger thing being the quest for truth.
    Ie when Connolley essentially says that Monbiot isn’t interested in informing people about how things really are – rather just pushing FOI since it enables him to write more stories – he is just being selfish. He is not “on the side” of truth*. Or “team”. Or whatever word or analogy anyone wants to slap on an abstract concept.
    You interpret it literally of course. That Monbiot isn’t on Connolley’s team (what ever it includes). Hence the classical fallback to the “he said she said” journalism. Sports fans.
    *: I don’t necessarily agree.  I haven’t looked at the issues so closely and reserve judgement.

    “Tobis gloating” is showing a similar phenomenon from a different angle. It’s seeing the problem as just red vs blue or something like that…
    Let me give an example, an analogy. Most things might not be equal to the case.
    Imagine something like a conspiracy to jail up innocent people for years. Then that is revealed. Some of the people have died in jail already. The people that are left are then released reluctantly. Nobody that was responsible for the conspiracy is put to bear any responsibility. Some person X who both has information and also is somehow close to the jailed ones, perhaps having had to suffer some similar but milder form of persecution by the same conspirators, feel at least partly vindicated by this and express it – that the guys X had always said were innocent – really are recognized to be that by others too once it was really carefully examined – that the conspiracy was a really terrible thing – and it’s good that there’s finally some justice, although not nearly enough has been done.
    A journalist J may then step in and just say – person X is gloating. Would that do any justice to the story above? Would it be an anywhere near accurate description of what person X is doing? What does it tell about J:s world view? Is it all just red vs blue, everyone cheering their team, the arguments being arbitrary and random, where the actual world could lie in any way at equal probabilities, and all claims about its state have equal merit? It is an extremely naive and easy to trick position – J will just relay those who make the most noise.

  • http://neverendingaudit.tumblr.com willard

    Is framing the story akin to Watergate comparable to framing it akin to the Bre-X, the Enron and the Madoff scandals?

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    Gravity:

    I disagree with your characterization of Monbiot’s motive. His body of work on the climate issue suggests he’s motivated by sincere interest and concern

    Willard:
    Excellent point.

  • Tacroy

    Monbiot’s body of work on the climate science issue suggests he’s not at all motivated by any sort of interest in actual, you know, science. Seriously, look up the responses to his arguments – and they’re all over the Internet – he makes the most basic, ridiculous mistakes.

    Consider for instance Monbiot’s debate with Tim Lambert (who posted in this thread actually), wherein Monbiot seriously screws up his analysis of climate dynamics in the simplest of ways. And also doesn’t realise that the Pinker in the paper he’s quoting is a woman.

  • Lucas

    “We’re not supposed to take sides.”
    “So sorry we’re not carrying water for the cause.”
    So you’re not supposed to take sides but are sorry for not carrying water for the cause ? Which cause?
    “it seems to me that perhaps this whole debate should be reframed in terms of energy, which is what the Breakthrough Institute has been doing.”
    So, no matter if climate science is sound or not, we should be talking exclusively about energy policy. We can safely slander climate scientists as long as energy policy is debated in the public sphere.

    Journalism needs an urgent reboot. It’s current philosophy is doomed. At this pace, I’ll not be surprised that politicians will command more respect than journalists in the near future.

  • elspi

    “Monbiot’s debate with Tim Lambert”
    Nope that was monckton.
    To his credit, monboits is nowhere near as delusional as Monckton

  • gravityloss

    Keith, did you even read my comment? I said I didn’t necessarily agree with Connolley on Monbiot’s objective.

  • http://rabett.blogspot.com Eli Rabett

    Keith the most enraging thing about you and Roger Jr. is your total lack of self awareness, which allows you to distort anything and everything while posing as a disinterested honest broker.  This means essentially that there is no point in trying to discuss anything with you, and all that is left is ridicule.  Eli recently found a <a href=”http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/prometheus/once-again-attributing-katrina%E2%80%99s-damages-to-greenhouse-gases-3774″>perfect example</a>, but, of course, this post of yours is almost better.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

    Eli,

    If you want me to at least have a fighting chance at deciphering what you are talking about, you have to do better than a broken link. In the meantime, rage on, dude.

  • http://deepclimate.org Deep Climate

    Apparently this blog doesn’t support html links. But Eli’s link itself works fine. Try it:

    http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/prometheus/once-again-attributing-katrina%E2%80%99s-damages-to-greenhouse-gases-3774

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    DC:

    Okay, I read the old Prometheus post. What am I supposed to make of it? My view of the structural devastation wrought by Katrina is similar to that of one of the commenters in that thread, who attributed it to “an engineering failure.”

    The human tragedy that unfolded was because of the Bush Administration’s callousness and incompetence.

    What is the point of directing me to this post? Can you and Eli stop speaking in tongues and tell me what you’re talking about–preferably with as few insults as possible?

  • http://neverendingaudit.tumblr.com willard

    Keith,

    I would surmise that Eli’s point is that this Prometheus thread exemplifies most of the reasons why the Rabbett became cynic. 

    For instance, please see the violence of the non-exchange between Pielke Junior and Bloom.  Scholarly-minded bunnies can hear the monkey wrenches flying by, without any sign of displaced manner, almost solemnly.

    When you get as old as an old bunny, it just gets boring.  Or maybe the monkey wrenches are getting too heavy.   Or maybe not, since what’s left is ridicule.  Maybe the ridicule kicks in as a way to stay in shape.  Who knows?

  • tonylurker

    The problem we are having with journalists on many issues of science (vaccines, creationism, climate change, alternative “medicine”) is that they’ve abandoned any sense of responsibility to get the information correct. They feel that if they represent “both sides” they are somehow giving a complete picture.  They don’t bother to do the legwork to find out if one side is lying.

    If “one side” feeds a journalist a bunch of hooey and he prints it along with a token response from the “other side”, he has failed to perform his job.  He’s become nothing more than a conduit for misinformation and propaganda. He’s no longer a “journalist”, he’s a reporter.  And if that’s the case, why should we respect him, or be nice to him, or refrain from mocking his incopentence?

  • Lewis

    Keith, wow, what a girl ( if I can say that! )! And, I don’t, Judith, you should worry about defending Wegman – I, myself, am not knowledgeable about all the details but I can see a calumny from a mile off! Good luck to you and all you do,
    Lewis Deane.

  • Lewis

    Errata: ‘Think’ was missing, as always

  • Lewis

    Micheal Tobis, Your anger is both misplaced and based on a misunderstanding, if it isn’t disingenuous.   Besides the fact the phrase ‘archetypal scientist’ is absolutely meaningless, your attempt to set up Phil Jones as some kind of saintly martyr just does not wash – he did refuse, obstruct and attempt to obstruct a proper examination of his and other results, he did write an email instructing others to delete emails re IPPC, as well as implying he had done so himself, and he did take a sometimes very partial stance in presenting his results – re the graph that ‘hides the decline’ in the IPPC report. I am certain that he is a sincere and well meaning and, also, honourable fellow and these errors were unintentional and in ‘the heat of battle’. But that’s the point – all passion must be excluded from science. As for the more scurrilous terms used about him and other scientists, I deplore them but I, also, note the many, sometimes, extremely vicious commentary made about McIntyre,  Anthony Watts,  even Keith Kloor, some of the more sceptical scientist  ( ‘second rate’, ‘lier’ etc ), even, damn it, Dot Earth. I don’t see you getting ‘angry’ about that! Besides, this article, as the previous ones, was not about personalities but about process, and how that affects the general perception of the science and, therefore, how that might affect our going forward. And yet you jump on about Phil Jones – what?!

  • Lewis

    Keith, probably Micheal Tobis doesn’t read the commentary but , sometimes, I feel he should be dragged here in ball and chains. Also, I recognise a certain time difference - Eastern or West Coast?

  • Lewis

    Sorry, I meant to say, I’m in the UK, hence you’re still having breakfast!

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    Lewis,

    This thread is over a week old, so he probably stopped reading it some time ago. All the action now is over at the current post, where a new discussion is taking place.

  • Lewis

    Sorry, Keith, I can only pay attention at weekends, hence my embarrassing tardiness. Sorry. Would it be right to copy and paste my ‘reply’ to MT or should I start again. There’s so much to read! I wait on your reply.

  • Lewis

    I just realise, nada! A stock reply is what one wishes to avoid. Btw, Keith, I think your ‘generosity of spirit’ is wonderful and, I’m sure, inspiring.  If some think, that for the ‘populous’, knowladge=doubt’ and ‘doubt=inaction’, they are wrong, as you know. Good luck to you.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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