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.