Salon in No Position to Judge What Sets Back Science

By Keith Kloor | July 17, 2014 11:43 am

This week the New York Times published a profile of longtime climate skeptic John Christy. I found the piece perplexing because it contained no obvious hook or peg, as we say in journalism.

There were no newsy events in Christy’s life that might have prompted a story about him in a prestige media outlet: No new studies published by him being debated (or debunked) by the climate science community, no new book making a splash, no new controversial statements by him lighting up social media, no academic recriminations at his university, no close personal friendships suddenly and irrevocably breached because of his outlier stance.

The NYT profile could have been published last year or five years ago.

To be clear, I’m not opposed to journalists writing about high profile contrarians that have scientific standing. I applauded the 2009 New York Times magazine profile on Freeman Dyson, which climate partisans attacked. Dyson is a supernova intellect with huge stature in the science world, so his outspoken and widely publicized contrarian views were a legitimate peg for a magazine-style profile of him.

The same goes for Michael Lemonick’s 2010 profile of Judith Curry in Scientific American. At the time, Curry was undergoing a professional metamorphosis, from respected member of the mainstream climate science community to pointed critic of her peers and renunciation of her own previously held views on consensus positions. Naturally, the same climate partisans vehemently objected to Lemonick’s fair and evenhanded profile. (He explained here why he thought Curry’s turnabout merited a profile.)

So it doesn’t surprise me that a profile of Christy would trigger similar disapproval from those most passionately concerned about climate change and who are always on the lookout for media coverage that gives any voice to outlier positions. I’m not a fan of false balance myself, and I certainly don’t approve of shoddy journalism about any science topics of enormous public interest, be it climate change, GMOs, or evolution. But sometimes, as in the cases of Dyson and Curry, there is legitimate news value when well known, highly credentialed individuals promote views that are at odds with the majority of their peers in the scientific community. To ignore such individuals entirely would be a journalistic dereliction of duty.

My beef with the Christy profile is not that it was written, but that it had no discernible relevant news hook or theme (which it would have had, were it done as a magazine-style profile). It seemed pointless. It didn’t explore why or how Christy arrived at his contrarian position. (Might political persuasion, ideology, or religion played a role?) It didn’t put his situation into any larger context by bringing into the picture someone like Richard Lindzen, perhaps the most controversial and influential climate skeptic. If I were to pitch a profile of Christy to an editor, I would only do so if he had recently made news (he has appeared before Congress numerous times) or if there was something notable he recently did or something newly revealing about him I could explore. I don’t see the NTY profile meeting any of that criteria.

As a stand-alone piece in the news section, it amounts to little more than a story about one man’s battle against a science establishment that scorns and rejects him. That’s a legitimate story, in of itself.  I just wish it was more probing and contextualized. But as with anything climate related, the story’s importance has been breathlessly elevated by some. Salon asserts that the NYT profile “sets back science.”

This from an outlet that ran a piece earlier in the year that shouted:

Your cellphone is killing you: What people don’t want you to know about electromagnetic fields

Salon, when you publish laughable, scare-mongering crap like that (which is not supported by evidence), you are in no position to be telling others what sets back science.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Uncategorized
  • Eric Wright

    The article’s throwing a bone to the denial community. They’ll run with it all the way to the voting booth.

  • mem_somerville

    Mm hmm.

    There was this too:

    We’ve removed an explosive 2005 report by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. about autism and vaccines. Here’s why

    That said, I do think the NYT set back synthetic biology recently with incorrect info on the Ecover story. They had to issue a correction on that.

  • Tom Scharf

    I think there is an inherent conflict here between journalism and environmentalist. The environmentalists are all in favor of eliminating dissent by fiat (aka false balance), where journalistic integrity is to cover both sides of the debate as accurately as possible, regardless of who has a consensus.

    What is an environmental journalist to do?

    Almost all environmental journalists are environmentalists. I don’t say this as an accusation, all sport journalists are fervent sports fans. I think they tend to always protect the home team when it is under fire.

    If a person holds a view there is no debate and there is no controversy and the “science is settled” on all aspects of global warming, then we will just agree to disagree. There are very important aspects of AGW that are quite uncertain and controversial (how fast are sea levels rising, how accurate are the models, can we trust them, how much would it cost to switch to clean energy, are extreme events tied to AGW, etc. etc. etc.

    It really depends on what aspect of AGW you are speaking of, you cannot broad brush it.

    I agree this was mostly a non-news puff piece. The point seemed to be that when a professional scientist takes views opposing the consensus, he gets ostracized by the “science” community, which most people view as being non-political. It’s unclear whether the public really knows how the consensus “mafia” operates. It’s not just the people with political interests, it is the scientists themselves.

    • DavidAppell

      Anyone who’s ever gone to a scientific seminar knows scientists welcome free and open debate — sometimes even heated debate. That doesn’t mean they’re open to any and all ideas, because the findings of their field are hard won.

      All groups are political, including scienfic groups. The same would have happened to Christy if he was a biologist who didn’t accept evolution, or a physicist who didn’t accept quantum mechanics. In recent years theorists who weren’t working on string theory were often overlooked for positions, though that now seems to be fading somewhat.

      Christy and Spencer resisted correcting their temperature algorithms in the 1990s, and there was a big battle about it. Curiously, all versions of their models came in too low, repeatedly, and it’s understandable that would cause hard feelings. That kind of thing makes scientists suspicious.

      Christy still seems biased. At a Congressional hearing in 2012, he used a “paper” that Anthony Watts et al had breathlessly announced _just the day before_. (Christy was a co-author.) It was barely a preprint. The Internets immediately found the work to be highly flawed, and it still hasn’t passed peer review after 24 months.That kind of thing makes scientists suspicious.

      • JH

        “Anyone who’s ever gone to a scientific seminar knows scientists welcome free and open debate”

        ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!!! OMG, David, man, why do you say things like that? :)

        I’ve see the spittle fly so many times at conferences when scientists of different opinions get worked up that I can’t even count them! I’ve seen scientists stand up in the middle of a presentation and shout “that is bull****!!!!”

        Yep, welcoming free and open debate, a scientific trademark! Oh, man, you’re hilarious.

        • DavidAppell

          I wrote, “…sometimes even heated debate.”

          Shouting “b.s” IS free and open debate.

          • JH

            It’s also usually done by a person who’d rather not have free and open debate. Right? :)

            Your grade school bible story view of science doesn’t depict reality. For the most part, the “welcome free and open debate” mentality doesn’t exist in science. Most scientists have a view, are set in that view and disagree strongly with people who express alternate views – whether that disagreement is expressed openly or otherwise. Many – not all – will change their views in the face of contrary data, but only very, very slowly.

      • Tom Scharf

        Do you really want to wade into the peer review morass? I don’t. We can pretend we had that debate and said the expected things and we can save ourselves 1000 words each.

        If you believe contesting the observation vs. models record, and having a negative view of climate model efficacy as the same level debate as not believing in evolution, I would have to disagree with this assertion, as would most climate scientists I suspect.

        I guess if all versions of a model came in too high, it should not make scientists suspicious as I understand from your previous comments on this subject. Curious.

        • DavidAppell

          No, contesting models is not the same level as denying evolution. But having a one-sided and unrealistic view of them can be, and more often as not it’s just denialism in another garb.

          Models aren’t perfect, and never will be. That hardly makes them useless. Blaming models for being unwilling to take action on climate change is an abuse of the science.

          Nor is it so clear the models are wrong. One side has made a lot of hay from the “pause,” but a better model of the data shows the pause isn’t much of one, and not even as much a slowdown as occurred in the 1990s. http://davidappell.blogspot.com/2014/03/the-lesser-of-two-pauses.html

          And those who claim a pause by pointing only to RSS LT data while ignoring all other datasets are intellectually dishonest and intentionally looking to mislead.

          Models don’t include volcanoes, either, and that seems in part why they have missed some cooling:
          http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/v7/n3/full/ngeo2098.html

          Observations were ahead of model projections in the 1990s, but now that’s conveniently forgotten. If/when observations run ahead of models, deniers will, of course, again claim that surface stations, et al, are not accurate, as they did all through the ’00s, though strangely now they were accurate enough to detect a pause.

          Nor do models do a good job of modeling ENSOs, which everyone admits, which can have a significant swing of a couple tengths of a degree on surface temperatures. Those claiming a “pause” aren’t using intervals representative of climate, but mostly of ENSOs (oceanic weather). ENSOs average out to zero in the long run, but not in the short run.

          As we don’t even need climate models to get an understanting of climate sensitivity — we just need to look at paleoclimate data.

          All this, and more, has to be considered when judging models. It isn’t nearly as one-sided as some people here are making it out to be, as if their failure to predict this little slowdown means they have “failed” and we can rule now out CO2 as a cause of climate change. (Maybe we should look more closely at phlogiston again?)

          Especially when there is no alternative to climate models. Steven Schneider said this decades ago, but models are always going to have uncertainities, and we will have to make decisions in spite of them. Just like we do in all other aspects of life. You wouldn’t quit smoking until you doctor could announce the exact month you’ll get lung cancer, would you?

          • Tom Scharf

            Questioning models is not an abuse of science to argue climate policy. It is a perfectly legitimate position. It is a serious and acknowledged weakness of climate science.

            It is the models that have determined that humans are 51% to 95% responsible for the recent warming.

            It is the models that estimate almost a 3x larger climate sensitivity than would be expected from first order effects due to CO2 alone. Sensitivity is the the biggest question out there.

            If the models have significant deficiencies, then the urgency for immediate action becomes much more questionable.

            Are they “significant” deficiencies? Too early to tell, but it is also too early to tell if they truly provide “actionable intelligence”.

            What to do in the meantime? Sounds like a valid debate to me.

            If the cost to solve AGW is zero or insignificant we are all on board. Frack away. Build more nuclear plants.

            Alternately if the cost to wait and see if the models are useful is zero or insignificant, we should all be on board to wait and see.

            The second part of this debate is “OK, what do you want to do about it?”. The first debate is many times a proxy for the second debate.

            Don’t fall into the “blank check syndrome”. Just because you may get agreement there is (unquantifiable) risk, you may also get vigorous disagreement on every proposed policy solution based on cost and how effective it would be.

            Many times these arguments are conflated. A policy is argued to be ineffective or too costly, so the other side must be denying the science.

            Policy incoherence is the second biggest weakness of climate science. The one thing I think everyone agrees on is R & D toward clean cheap abundant energy. A win win for everyone.

          • DavidAppell

            Guess what chapter is the longest chapter in the IPCC 5AR WG1?

            Ch9: “Evaluation of Climate Models” pp 741-866.

          • Tom Scharf

            Nothing will solve this debate but waiting and seeing how things continue to progress. Too bad that takes decades (seriously). A substantially working model of climate would be useful in many areas.

            When the models start showing some good progress, I’m sure we will hear about it.

          • DavidAppell

            Define “good progress.”
            Define how accurate a model must be in order to be useful.

          • DavidAppell

            And it won’t take decades. The understanding of the dangers of climate change have progressed steadily around the world even in the last 5 years, and certainly in the last 15. (Much to your chagrin, perhaps.) Governments around the world, including ours, now know and recognize there is a carbon problem — it can’t be dismissed or ignored any longer, and those politicans and scientists who do so look increasingly like fools and tools. People around the world are much more cognizant of the problem, including most Americans, and know it is going to affect their children’s and grandchildren’s lives. Ask Floridians. Ask Virginians. Ask Californians. Obama has taken some strong first steps to address the problem. The issue will only get more prominent as temperature records are broken and as ice keeps melting (and accelerating) and as seas keep rising. (These last two, by the way, indicates there is no global Pause, just some shifting around of heat from natural variabilty.)

          • DavidAppell

            My long reply to this never appeared. Not going to type it again.

          • DavidAppell

            Models in phase with ENSOs do a much better job of predicting warming slowdowns:

            http://davidappell.blogspot.com/2014/07/models-that-predict-pause.html

      • David Skurnick

        “scientists welcome free and open debate — sometimes even heated debate. That doesn’t mean they’re open to any and all ideas,” In other words, you can say whatever you want, as long as you agree with the group’s POV.

        • DavidAppell

          No, but scientists do expect other scientists to accept the basics of their science. You won’t be taken seriously if you deny evolution, or AGW, or quantum mechanics. Or if you make lots of errors, like Christy and Spencer have, and still maintain your same positions as before, viz if you seem immune to the evidence.

          You have to really be a genius to say “this is the way to do it, not the way the rest of you are doing it” – an Einstein or a Feynman or Heisenberg or Maxwell, and there are very few of those. The consensus position is usually right, and for good reasons. And there is consensus on huge tracts of science — Michael Crichton was wrong about that. (Though scientists usually don’t talk about consensus; they are doing it for climate science only because it has huge implications for society, and society has asked them to.)

          • David Skurnick

            The only climate consensuses are that:

            1. Man’s emission of CO2 is causing the percentage of CO2 in the atmosphere to increase,
            2. This increase in atmospheric CO2 contributes some positive amount to global warming.
            3. The earth has been generally warming since before 1800.
            However, people who support these consensuses are being attacked and censored for their skepticism. E.g.,

            1. Nigel Lawson was banned from the BBC because he correctly stated that there was little evidence that global warming had caused an increase in rainfall. (This is the official IPCC position)
            2. Judith Curry has been attacked for correctly pointing out that there is great uncertainty in many aspects of climate theory.
            3. Steve McIntyre has been attacked because he correctly pointed out that there were errors in Mann’s hockey stick calculation.

          • DavidAppell

            Boo hoo for Judith Curry. She does, and has done, plenty of attacking herself. That you’re apparently blind to that is very telling.

            Steve McIntyre was wrong. The hockey stick has been replicated and confirmed over a dozen times by now, some using completely different mathematics (Tingley & Huybers, Marcott et al, PAGES 2k, …). Meanwhile, no one has published a replication or confirmation of McIntyre’s claims.

            > 2. This increase in atmospheric CO2
            > contributes some positive amount to
            > global warming.

            It’s known this number is at least 1.5 C. No one seriously thinks it’s less. Most scientists tell me no one seriously thinks it is less than 2 C.

            > 3. The earth has been generally warming
            > since before 1800.
            > However, people who support these
            > consensuses are being attacked and
            > censored for their skepticism.

            Consensuses? Nope, sorry — your claim is fictive.

            Nigel Lawson is free to write and submit all the science papers he wants. Why isn’t he? No media organization is obligated to present anyone’s views, especially if they conclude it would create a false balance.

          • David Skurnick

            Yes, Prof. Curry has criticized Prof. Mann, for example. What’s your point? Do you disagree with my assertion that she supports the areas of consensus, but has been widely attacked nevertheless.
            If you think it’s known that climate sensitivity is at least 1.5 deg. C, then you know more than the IPCC. They say only that it’s very likely.
            BTW, if climate sensitivity is really 2, then we must have experienced a surprising period of natural cooling. Here’s why: Between 1960 and 2014, when greenhouse gases were becoming a factor, the atmosphere warmed by only 0.6 deg C. A sensitivity of 2 implies that the anthropogenic warming was 1.5 deg C. So, there must have been natural cooling of 0.9 deg. C.
            Yet, the earth has been warming naturally ever since the end of the Little Ice Age, that is, since before 1800. So, this implies that the natural warming suddenly reversed itself and became rapid natural cooling just when man’s activity started adding extra warming.
            If sensitivity were 3, that would imply that the natural cooling since 1960 was even more extreme — something like 1.7 deg. C. That would be a rate of natural cooling over 3 deg. C per century!
            Some people assert that man’s activity contributed most of the global warming. Presumably “most” means ‘more than half.’ But, are you really comfortable asserting that man’s activity contributed 285% of the warming?
            The National Academy of Science investigated Mann’s hockey stick. They supported McIntyre’s finding that Mann’s statistical approach could produce a hockey stick type output regardless of the input. Mann, who is not an expert in statistics, had monkeyed with a complex statistical formula and created his own version, which turned out to be flawed.

          • DavidAppell

            Lots of scientists have been “widely attacked.” Did you just notice (or care) when it was Curry?

            It’s not clear to me that she supports any consensus. She is clearly going out of her way to stir up trouble and to contradict, just, it looks, for the sake of stirring up trouble. It’s definiitely gotten her a lot of attention, she she wasn’t getting before. But in the process of being osbinate for its own sake she’s saying some not-so-smart things.

            “Very likely” is fine — scientists rarely say something is definite; they speak in terms of probabilities.

            Your little calculation is wrong — climate sensitivity is the temperature when the atmosphere comes to equilibrium, which will be quite a while. See also: transient climate response. Your other numbers (like for S=3 C) are, in the same way, wrong. Nor is the warming inherently linear.

            If you’re going to make huge criticisms of climate science, you ought to at least have some basic idea what you’re talking about.

            And there is a big negative forcing: sulphate aerosols. Look in the IPCC 5AR WG1 and you can compare its negative forcing to CO2 et al’s positive forcing — it’s about half and of the opposite sign.

            Mann’s method isn’t “flawed.” On the contrary, his result has been replicated by many different groups, some using independent mathematical techniques:

            http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/paleo/pubs/mann2008/mann2008.html

            “A Reconstruction of Regional and Global Temperature for the Past 11,300 Years,” Marcott et al, Science v339 n6124 pp 1198-1201, March 8, 2013
            http://www.sciencemag.org/content/339/6124/1198.abstract

            “Continental-scale temperature variability during the past two millennia,” PAGES 2k Consortium, Nature Geosciences, April 21, 2013
            http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/v6/n5/abs/ngeo1797.html

            A confirmation using a different statistical technique was Tingley and Huybers, which I wrote about here:

            “Novel Analysis Confirms Climate “Hockey Stick” Graph,” Scientific American, November 2009, pp 21-22.
            http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=still-hotter-than-ever

            .

          • Tom Scharf

            I don’t pay much attention to paleo any more (does anyone?) but I will say this:

            ANY reconstruction that takes low frequency – low resolution paleo data and appends high frequency – high resolution temperature record data and then proceeds to make a “finding” that the end of this reconstruction sure changes much faster than the rest of the reconstruction is not worth the paper it is written on.

            Go look at the raw tree ring tracings. There’s a reason Mann had to use “novel techniques” to get the answer he did, because standard techniques just give you crap, because the raw data is CRAP. This was data torture beyond belief.

            Is it important that a divergence immediately occurred in prediction mode with these same models?

            etc. etc. etc. This is a waste of time.

          • DavidAppell

            Lots of people pay attention to paleo; it’s one of the best ways to understand climate change. Did you somehow miss the big study last year with about 6 dozen authors?

            “Continental-scale temperature variability during the past two millennia,” PAGES 2k Consortium, Nature Geosciences, April 21, 2013
            http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/v6/n5/abs/ngeo1797.html

            But I’m sure you know better than all those people; they’re just experts who devote their entire careers to the subject. And you? Well, you’re an Internet commenter, and it’s well known they’re always right.

          • Tom Scharf

            McIntyre was absolutely positively 100% not wrong on the math. He lays out a very compelling case and has meticulously documented it the whole way. It was even “peer reviewed” for what that is worth.

            Many falsely interpret his work of having “disproved” the Hockey Stick. His work only showed the methods for that particular reconstruction was a worthless mathematical mess. A HS is one of many, many possible reconstructions that are all about equally valid, and equally invalid. Paleo data is an utter mess and it is like looking at the past through the lens of a Coke bottle.

            McIntyre doesn’t create his own constructions. The confirmation of McIntyre’s claims is called math. The fact that there are so many sycophants out there who can’t even admit this to this day is a shining example of what is wrong with climate science. In the end who cares, it bears little impact on future predictions.

          • DavidAppell

            No one has replicated or confirmed McIntyre’s claims? Why?

            Meanwhile, many other groups have replicated the hockey stick using the same paleodata. Explain.

  • Tom Scharf

    Ha ha…Salon points to Skeptical Science, Think Progress, and the Guardian to refute Christy’s views. Unbiased sources there to be sure.

    It is also noted Salon attacks the author in a very personal way. This is the MO for this ugly debate. The author is on notice, this is what happens when he trolls into this swamp, best to stay out.

    • CB

      The bias of Skeptical Science is in explaining why the things Climate Deniers say are incorrect. You may have heard Climate Deniers say Antarctic ice is increasing, for example. NASA says that’s false:

  • David Skurnick

    I’m not surprised Keith suggested that Christy’s view might be due to “political persuasion, ideology, or religion”, because IMHO the article subtly hinted that this might be the case.

    However, the article can be read to answer the question of why Christy holds the views he does. It quotes Christy as calling himself “data-driven” and includes Christy’s observation that the actual data has failed to match the climate models’ predictions.

  • FitzND

    I think it can be persuasively argued that the failure of climate models over the past 15 years has been incredibly under-reported, and perhaps that is the “news” value of the Christy piece.

    • DavidAppell
      • FitzND

        I haven’t the foggiest idea why that graph is pasted to me constantly like it solves the problem or is a trump card. In fact, it seems like it’s a “hey look at this squirrel” type defense where you are trying to change the subject.

        It is patently obvious that temperatures over the past few decades are rising. BY THAT SAME TOKEN, it is just as obvious that temperatures have been in stasis since about 2001 (which is the exact same year that the climate models start), or even 1998 if you want to cherry pick an El Nino year. That is a significant amount of time, and it grows month by month as the hiatus continues.

        The IPCC AR4 (and now AR5) climate modeled predictions for temperature have diverged from scientific observations since their inception. This is a statistical fact, one that those who purport to value the science ignore. Whether it is being brainwashed or not wanting to face reality, I don’t know.

        • DavidAppell

          “Since 2001″ is a ridiculous short-term thing to expect from a model, and of no relevance to the long-term issue.

          Cowtan & Way show 0.04 C of warming since 2001; so has UAH LT. Large one warming shows it’s down to natural variability.

        • DavidAppell

          The hiatus continues?? Ridiculous:

          “The combined average temperature over global land and ocean surfaces for June 2014 was the highest on record for the month, at 0.72°C (1.30°F) above the 20th century average of 15.5°C (59.9°F).”
          http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/global/

    • DavidAppell

      A paper out yesterday in Nature Climate Change shows that models in phase with ENSOs do a significantly better job of projecting slowdowns in warming:

      http://davidappell.blogspot.com/2014/07/models-that-predict-pause.html

      Viz, the pause is due to internal variabiity, as most have been suspecting all along, and of no consequence to long-term warning.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

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.

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »