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.
In 2013, Jeff Goodell wrote a long piece in Rolling Stone explaining how rising seas would eventually drown the city of Miami, Florida. The money quote:
“Miami, as we know it today, is doomed,” says Harold Wanless, the chairman of the department of geological sciences at the University of Miami. “It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when.
Later in the story, Goodell is with Wanless in Miami Beach when the skies open up. They watch flood waters stall a Toyota driver on a main road:
“This is what global warming looks like,” he [Wanless] explained. “If you live in South Florida and you’re not building a boat, you’re not facing reality.”
Call me crazy, but this sounds a tad hyperbolic.
In May, Coral Davenport in the New York Times wrote a much less shouty story on South Florida’s climate change-challenged future. But like the Rolling Stone piece, her story emphasized the seeming inevitability of Miami’s demise and the culpability of Florida’s leading Republicans.
This weekend, a long feature by Robin McKie in the UK’s Observer, a sunday paper that shares a website with the Guardian, covered much the same territory.* It even features some of the same characters in both the Rolling Stone and NYT pieces. Here is McKie quoting Wanless: Read More
Some stories peddled on Twitter are beyond ridiculous.
Man’s tumor shrinks when he alters environment, shuns cancer treatments in favor of acts of kindness: http://t.co/79ua1XrLTP
— HealthRanger (@HealthRanger) July 11, 2014
This particular one, published at the website run by Mike Adams, the self-described consumer health advocate (who I have written about here and here), is also dangerous. There are people with cancer who are susceptible to charismatic quackery and claims of miracle cures.
Many are particularly drawn to mind over body stories. For example, you might remember or have heard of Norman Cousins, who wrote a best-selling book in 1979 (later made into a TV movie) about how laugher helped him beat a disease. Today, there is a “laughing cure” movement and even a laughing guru.
Birds lead hazardous lives. They are preyed on by cats. They fly into tall buildings, glass windows, airplanes, cell towers, and wind turbines. All of this happens mostly out of our sight. In New York City, where I live, people go about their business while pigeons flutter all around us, sometimes annoyingly, but largely ignored.
One of the great urban mysteries is how all these pigeons dodge cars at the last second. Except when they break the pact.
Last night, while playing with my 7 year-old son in our local school yard, the pigeons seemed unusually active. It was around 7pm. I watched several chase after each other. Maybe they were playing, too.
I went back to pitching the soccer ball to my son, who wanted to practice his kick ball game. He kicked a line drive to my left that I almost snared. I broke the ball’s momentum and it dribbled a few feet from me. I casually strolled over to snag it. As I bent down, a baseball ripped into the back of my right calf. At least that’s what I thought it was. But when I looked around the only other kids in the school yard were way over on the other side, playing soccer, oblivious to my pain.
I could barely stand up. I looked all around for the perp who I was sure whizzed a rock in my direction. Again, nobody in sight. Read More
Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) has vibrated the internet with a whacky speech he recently gave to an audience of climate skeptics. Here’s the bit that many are picking up on:
“I don’t know whether or not fluoridating the water helps people’s teeth become better or not,” said Rohrabacher, invoking his childhood memories. “I don’t know that,” he continued, “But I do know that in this country, we should be the ones who should be deciding what we put into our bodies one way or the other, not the federal government or the local government putting fluoride into our water!”
The water fluoridation screed elicited support from the crowd.
But back to the GOP congressman and his problem with fluoridated water. Wonkette asks:
What is it with Republicans and really fucked up ideas about drinking water, anyway?
How you can hate on the GOP for being creationist climate science deniers and then go on about how vaccines and fluoridation are poison?
— colin meloy (@colinmeloy) January 30, 2013
Earlier this year I explored how Monsanto, the world’s most successful agricultural biotech company, became the poster child for the anti-GMO movement. (The best book-length history of how this came to be remains “Lords of the Harvest,” by NPR’s Dan Charles.) What fascinates me–and undoubtedly infuriates anyone who works at Monsanto–is how hard it is for the company to shake its villainous public image.
Many people working in the global sustainability arena tend to be focused on one of two knotty issues: 1) climate change or 2) food security. The former is devilish because we have to figure out how to power the developing world while reducing our overall carbon footprint. The latter is also complex because we have to figure out how to feed billions more people in the coming decades while reducing our overall agricultural footprint.
As for agriculture, there’s a widely held belief that growing demand for food will require ever more cropland, resulting in devastating ecological consequences. But perhaps this future is not as certain as some think. Jon Fisher, a researcher at the Nature Conservancy, recently dug into a trove of agricultural data and was pleasantly surprised by what he found (his emphasis): Read More
Several years ago, I wrote about about an insurrection in the environmental movement. A new group of greens–called eco-pragmatists–had taken on the old nature-centric guard, which still held sway but also had rendered environmentalism anachronistic and ill-equipped to address complex 21st century challenges, such as climate change.
It was a battle between what I called the green modernists and the green traditionalists. The latter, I wrote:
has never had a sunny outlook. Forty years ago, he warned about a plundered planet. Twenty years ago, he warned of a sixth extinction. In recent years, he has warned about a baked planet. Now he is warning of a planet under severe ecological pressure. Make no mistake: These are all warnings that deserve to be taken seriously. The green traditionalist, since he first became a career pessimist, has followed the lead of scientists. Just because the eco-collapse narrative remains the same doesn’t mean it won’t eventually come true.
The problem for the green traditionalist is that this redundant message has lost its power. There have been too many red alerts, accompanied by too many vague, screechy calls to action.
If you think I’m exaggerating, read Yale historian Paul Sabin’s “The Bet,” which chronicles environmentalism’s incessant warnings of imminent doom since 1968. (I recently reviewed the book here.) Green modernists, I wrote in 2012, dared to remake environmentalism:
Strip it of outdated mythologies and dogmas, make it less apocalyptic and more optimistic, broaden its constituency. In this vision, the Anthropocene is not something to rail against, but to embrace.
This was heresy. For the Anthropocene, as I noted in a follow-up piece at Slate, had already been characterized by green thought leaders and earth scientists as an irredeemable disaster for the planet.
The future of environmental discourse, I argued, would turn on how the Anthropocene was ultimately defined:
Both [green] modernists and traditionalists agree that human activities since the Industrial Revolution have given the planet a global facelift. But the two camps differ on what the Anthropocene means and how it should be interpreted.
Fast forward to the furious debate playing out this week, kicked off by a recent talk by Andrew Revkin, which he discussed at his New York Times Dot Earth blog. The title of his talk is called “Paths to a ‘Good’ Anthropocene,” which, as he explains, has quotation marks “around the adjective ‘good’ to stress that values determine choices.”
A number of people took offense to the notion of a “good” Anthropocene. Read More