The Perils of Poor Science Journalism

By Mark Trodden | November 14, 2006 7:49 am

When I lived in England and when I go back to visit, I often treat myself to two newspapers — The Guardian, for reasonable reporting of the national and international news, and The Daily Telegraph, for its crossword, to which I am particularly partial. You’ll notice that I don’t mention the news content of the latter, because I generally feel that it has a right wing stance and as a result doesn’t represent the news in a fair way

Because the quality of science reporting in general is dropping precipitously in Britain (if the extent to which I am able to keep up with it over here provides a fair sample), and because of my already low opinion of the news content of The Daily Telegraph (and its sister publication, The Sunday Telegraph), I do not typically look to it to provide me with innovative descriptions of cutting edge science. However, it now appears that they are actively capable of publishing eye-poppingly awful claptrap that, predictably, seems to share their overall political bent.

I learned of this through George Monbiot’s science column in The Guardian, in which he delivers a bare-bottomed spanking to The Sunday Telegraph for its actions. He describes a two-part article published there, written by Viscount Monckton of Brenchley (otherwise known as Christopher Monckton), who appears to be one of our national aristocratic treasures, sharing the three traits (being underinformed, being overconfident, and being in possession of an outrageously disproportionate portion of the national wealth) that readers in the U.S. will have come to know and love through Prince Charles.

Monckton’s thesis is, as he describes near the beginning of his first installment, that

… the “climate-change” scare is less about saving the planet than, in Jacques Chirac’s chilling phrase, “creating world government”. This week and next, I’ll reveal how politicians, scientists and bureaucrats contrived a threat of Biblical floods, droughts, plagues, and extinctions …

He goes on to make outrageous and unsupported claims about global warming, selectively quoting (and sometimes misquoting) experts in the field and taking on the actual science in a way that is just plain embarrassing. He makes historical claims (like there are reliable reports from sailors that there was little or no arctic ice six hundred years ago) that Monbiot dismisses, and does a thoroughly dishonest job of representing James Hansen’s claims.

Now, I’m not a climate scientist, but I am a scientist and, as such, I can recognize when science is being blatantly misused. Monckton’s article does provide evidence of such behavior, but it is Monckton himself who is the culprit. Perhaps the cleanest example is the following. In discussing the use of the Stefan-Boltzmann law, and its important constant, in climate science, he claims

The bigger the value of lambda, the bigger the temperature increase the UN could predict. Using poor Ludwig Boltzmann’s law, lambda’s true value is just 0.22-0.3C per watt. In 2001, the UN effectively repealed the law, doubling lambda to 0.5C per watt. A recent paper by James Hansen says lambda should be 0.67, 0.75 or 1C: take your pick. Sir John Houghton, who chaired the UN’s scientific assessment working group until recently, tells me it now puts lambda at 0.8C: that’s 3C for a 3.7-watt doubling of airborne CO2. Most of the UN’s computer models have used 1C. Stern implies 1.9C.

Now here’s where you should smell a rat immediately. Could it really be the fact that an important ingredient in the frightening implications of climate models is that scientists from many institutions are deliberately violating the laws of physics to arrive at the conclusions they desire? Well, possibly, I guess. But you wouldn’t want to entertain such a far-fetched hypothesis until you’d done a rudimentary check of the actual methodology, accompanied by, oh I don’t know, a scientist perhaps.

Monbiot quotes such an expert – Gavin Schmidt, a well-known climate scientist, blogger, and all-round good guy to have a beer with.

His claims about the Stefan-Boltzmann equation have been addressed by someone who does know what he’s talking about, Dr Gavin Schmidt of Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. He begins by pointing out that Stefan-Boltzmann is a description of radiation from a “black body” – an idealized planet that absorbs all the electromagnetic radiation that reaches it. The Earth is not a black body. It reflects some of the radiation it receives back into space.

Schmidt points out that Monckton also forgets, in making his calculations, that “climate sensitivity is an equilibrium concept”: in other words that there is a time-lag of several decades between the release of carbon dioxide and the eventual temperature rise it causes. If you don’t take this into account, the climate’s sensitivity to carbon dioxide looks much smaller. This is about as fundamental a mistake as you can make in climate science.

And the howlers go on and on.

Climate science is a difficult topic, relying on modeling, computer simulation, extrapolation of laboratory results, and a geologic understanding of the planet’s climate history, among many other components. These are all imperfectly understood and practiced and no scientist worth his or her salt relies on any single result (for example, the hockey stick graph) to infer climate change. Nevertheless, a clear scientific consensus has emerged, particularly over the last decade, and it is rooted in data and not in a vast conspiracy. That an individual might not grasp this, or might be swayed by the well-funded, well-organized and well-motivated anti-climate change lobby, is entirely possible. However, what is dismaying is that a newspaper, which we trust to bring us a deeply-researched and impartial description of the situation, chooses to publish such an obviously biased, unscientific and worryingly-researched manifesto (seeing Michael Crichton’s novel State of Fear among the references is a bit of a red flag for me).

Part of the problem is clearly politically motivated reporting, but Monbiot thinks another factor plays a role

At a meeting of 150 senior journalists last year, who had gathered to discuss climate change, the chairman asked how many people in the audience had a science degree. Three of us raised our hands. Readers cannot expect a newspaper editor to possess a detailed understanding of atmospheric physics, but there should at least be someone who knows what science looks like whom the editor consults before running a piece.

A scientific paper is one published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. This means it has been subject to scrutiny by other experts in the field. This doesn’t suggest that it’s the last word on the subject, but it does mean it is worth discussing. For newspapers such as the Sunday Telegraph the test seems to be much simpler. If they don’t understand it, it must be science.

A true science journalist would have been able to tell The Sunday Telegraph that; but they are getting harder and harder to come by, and may be extinct by the end of the decade.

  • http://quasar9.blogspot.com/ Quasar9

    So you didn’t see last nights episode of Spooks

    Yep, that’s right – scientists uncover a conspiracy by the British & US Government to use military force and nuclear (WMD) threats to secure fossil fuel supplies for their economies. They recognise that Global warming is a real threat, that millions of people will inevitably die (as in the south east asia tsunami).

    The US & British economies are ‘sacred cows’ – especially the US economy, that cannot be compromised by seriously addressing the follow up to the Kyoto protocols.

    But Sean, this is only tv (even if BBC) and the Spooks’ job is to ensure the compromising document, where the government cold-bloodedly views the death of millions of people, are acceptable loses as long as they are indians, arabs and slant-eyes … does not get published (well Murdoch is unlikely to even if it were a scoop, and it would double his circulation)

    because it is shortermism
    and economic growth that is on the mind of Bush father, son of Bush, and Bush grandson? (damon) lol!
    -

  • http://www.mpe.mpg.de/~erwin/ Peter Erwin

    I’m kind of astonished to see the “Chinese squadron sailed right round the Arctic in 1421″ bit, since it’s such obviously bad history — any competent historian who reads the article is going to do a double take and start wondering (even if they’re scientifically illiterate and thus potentially easy prey for Monckton) if his “science” is as ludicrously wrong. Maybe the Telegraph assumes nobody in Britain knows history, either?

    (This is almost certainly a reference to Gavin Menzies’ 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, a bizarre work of fantasy disguised as “history” which starts with the genuinely real accomplishments of the 15th Century Chinese fleets — which did visit Arabia and East Africa — and spins out unsupported lunacy about Chinese visits to (and colonies in!) the Americas.)

  • http://snews.bnl.gov/popsci/contents.html Blake Stacey

    Coming right after the whole New Scientist EmDrive thing, this leaves me in a bit of a funk about science journalism.

  • s.y.

    I’m slightly worried by your depiction of the debate on global warming. You seem to describe the mainstream scientists (represented by Real Climate) as not just correct but also morally superior, and non-mainstream folks as not just incorrect but morally inferior. A cursory reading of Steve McIntyre’s blog (Climate Audit) has convinced me that there are individual cases where the mainstream guys are the bad guys and the non-mainstream folks are the relatively good guys.

    I’m also worried about the possibility that your sanguine approval of the mainstream view in climate science might be based on political and sociological, rather than purely scientific, considerations. What convinces you, purely scientifically, that the mainstream view is on the right track?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Sory to have worried you s.y. Could you point to where I am portraying either side as more moral thatn the other please?

    My approval is based on my reading of the science with a scientist’s eye. I have absolutely no political horse in the race. In fact, I’d love it if it was all nonsense, then I could finally buy that huge gas-guzzling muscle car I yearn for.

  • s.y.

    I was reacting to your phrase “the well-funded, well-organized and well-motivated anti-climate change lobby”, which I think suggests that the non-mainstream folks have hidden agenda. By the way, the last sentence in my last comment is a genuine question, from a non-scientist to a scientist.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Hi s.y. That phrase refers to the many people who are indeed well-funded, well-organized and well-motivated members of what I would call the “anti-climate change lobby”, meaning people with a vested interest in denying the evidence, such as those who were able to get government reports altered. This doesn’t refer to all people who don’t accept climate change, but to many.

    My response to the last question is really what I think. I’ve spent a reasonable amount of time reading reports, from both “sides”. It really doesn’t seem that there is a large debate here among genuine scientists.

  • s.y.

    I understand that there is virtually no debate on whether climate change is taking place or not, but there does seem to be some debate going on about the cause of the climate change, and some of the participants in the debate seem to me to be genuine scientists. Isn’t Freeman Dyson one of the skeptics? (Sorry, I’m not 100% sure.) Also, you can’t say that Lubos Motl is not a genuine scientist, however outrageous you find some of the political views he has expressed.

  • http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/blog/ Rob Knop

    If you are skeptical of the climate change evidence, think of it as insurance.

    When you buy health insurance, you include coverage for emergencies. Not because you want that to happen, nor necessarily because you even think it is going to happen, but because the consequences of not having the coverage if it does happen are severe.

    We’re in the situation where the overwhelming majority of credible climate scientists tell us that human-induced climate changes are happening, and that the consequences could be severe. (To be fair, we don’t know exactly what those changes will be, because climate science is hard, but it’s plausible, even probable, that those climate changes will include things very bad for modern civilization.)

    Some climate scientists are doubtful.

    It is not rational to cling to the few that are doubtful and say “we can’t do anything because it’s too expensive.” Unless the remedies proposed for climate change are actively harmful themselves, it is only rational to take those steps. Not doing that is like not buying health insurance because “I’m a good driver, I don’t get into accidents.”

    Go ahead and be doubtful if you must, but we need to be taking steps just in case the climate change case is at all right.

    This is the way in which I see some climate change doubters as morally inferior. Many argue that we shouldn’t be taking any steps at all just in case. If this were a pure scientific question without any immediate potential consequences to human civilization, then, yeah, no need for moral superiority or inferiority. However, this is a case where we need to be doing things right now to avoid severe consequences if the climate change scenarios are right. Shouldn’t we do that just in case? Especially given that it’s not just a few wild-haired whackos saying that the sky is falling, but a broad consensus of a wide range of climate scientists?

    If they’re wrong, in five decades we breathe a sigh of relief and make fun of them.

    If they’re right, but we do nothing on the basis that “there is a controversy,” in five decades the small remnants of human civilization kick themselves for not having listened.

    Why is the choice so hard?

    -Rob

  • http://www.mpe.mpg.de/~erwin/ Peter Erwin

    s.y. said
    I’m also worried about the possibility that your sanguine approval of the mainstream view in climate science might be based on political and sociological, rather than purely scientific, considerations. What convinces you, purely scientifically, that the mainstream view is on the right track?

    If I, as another scientist (though not a climate scientist), can take a crack at this:
    Having read a moderate amount of technical summaries, and at least some of the recent scientific papers, it’s clear to me that the “mainstream” view is the result of people doing science the way they should: trying to carefully account for anomalies, improving models and data sets when deficiencies are demonstrated by others, trying to get new and better data, taking into account all of the relevant data, and so forth.

    There’s also a more “circumstantial” argument, which is this: when a large group of scientists gradually come to agree on something, with preliminary results confirmed by subsequent studies, with improved models that correct the crude simplifications of older models, with newer and better and more diverse data sets agreeing with the earlier data — then what you’re seeing is science getting closer to the truth.

    There will, inevitably, be contrarians. The honest ones are people who started out arguing against the dominant view for what were (initially) valid reasons, and who for personal reasons cannot admit that they were wrong — perhaps because they’ve spent too much of their time and reputation making the same argument. (I think Fred Hoyle might be an example of that in cosmology, for example.)

  • http://www.mpe.mpg.de/~erwin/ Peter Erwin

    Ack… apologies for the double post! (The second was just a tweak to get around a “possible spam spotted” message; feel free to delete it.)

    s.y. also said
    Isn’t Freeman Dyson one of the skeptics? (Sorry, I’m not 100% sure.) Also, you can’t say that Lubos Motl is not a genuine scientist, however outrageous you find some of the political views he has expressed.

    But neither of them are climate scientists, by any stretch of the term. This means that it’s far less likely that they understand the details of the field, including which data sets are more reliable, what details models do and don’t need to include, which simplistic toy-model assumptions fail to work (and why), etc. Would you trust them to be more correct about the causes of, say, breast cancer than oncologists and other medical researchers?

    I haven’t seen anything specifically contrarian from Freeman Dyson; the few things I’ve seen from Lubos Motl suggest that he doesn’t understand atmospheric physics, for example (e.g., his discussion of CO2 absorption-line opacities).

  • Francois

    Mr. Mark,

    You seem to imply that beeing a non-scientific does not gives one the right to read/analyze and comment on a scientific subject.
    All Mr. Monckton is doing is just this: analysing science and sharing its conclusion. This is not science research but is still sound argumentation. And Mr. Monckton ask the reader to not take him for granted and follow the many link ( to peer-reviewed arcticle ) and make you own conclusion.

    You may not like what Mr. Monckton says but to discredit it’s document as being ‘A peril of Poor science’ and ‘science blatantly misued’ does not give you credit. Specially as you claim yourself as a scientist.

    That Mr. Monckton gave ‘the sailor to arctic’ as an ( maybe poor ) exemple or that he scratched a bit Mr Hanson does not invalidate the idea discussed in its document.

    I read the article of Mr Monckton and he clearly does not say that he takes the earth as a black-body. And the rest of the argumentation on the subject of the Lambda value is also sound scientific argumentation.
    Instead of discrediting one side or another, the best scientific way is to push for more argumentation on both sides. RealClimate is usually doing a good job at discussing its side of the story. And Mr. Monckton seems quite able too.

    Stop trying to silence anybody not on your side of the idea and let them debate.
    Poor science journalism is for me, more about silencing the other side of the debate than beeing against a supposed consensus.

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2006/11/cosmic-connection-to-climate.html Plato
  • spyder

    Well, if the Viscount is so rational and reasonable, and desires those of us who read his pieces to accept them as objective views, would he please then offer us a overview of his investment portfolio as well. One would hate to pass judgement on someone who makes the sorts of claims he does, without knowing just how his wealth is being accumulated. For it would be scathingly disingenuous of him to purport to hold his views if he were also increasing his assets through holdings in industries and technologies that benefit directly from promoting fossil fuel use. In the meantime i suggest some people need to begin to read: ClimateScienceWatch and Climate Progress.

    Then again, the US is doing a really splendid job of paying attention to those groups funded by ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco, BP, and Shell:

    ENVIRONMENT — UNITED STATES RANKED 53RD IN CLIMATE CHANGE PERFORMANCE: The United States comes in 53rd — edging out only China, Saudi Arabia, and Malaysia — in a new study ranking the climate change performance of the 56 top carbon dioxide-emitting nations. The study, released by Climate Action Network Europe at the U.N. Climate Conference in Nairobi this week, based its rankings on current emissions, emissions trends, and emissions policy. The Bush administration has consistently shirked serious action to reduce U.S. emissions, announcing a climate change plan without penalties or restrictions for polluters, refusing to sign the Kyoto Protocol, and covering up scientific research revealing the dangers and costs of global warming. The study points out that merely having high emissions, as the United States does, does not assure a low ranking. “If the USA, currently among the bottom five, were to exercise an international climate policy stance as progressive as the UK, it would move up more than 30 places,” says the study, “but because of their adverse position in national and international climate policies the United States blows this chance.”

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    To point out that someone is wrong is not to try to “silence” them. Nor is pointing out that wrong-headed people shouldn’t be given megaphones in media outlets that would like to be thought of as respectable.

    The truth is the opposite of any worry that climate “skeptics” are being silenced — in fact they are given a hugely disproportionate voice in the popular media, compared to their (negligible) representation among legitimate scientists working in the field. And the obvious reason why is that special interests with deep pockets are pushing the “skeptic” line as hard as they can. That doesn’t mean that there’s any real scientific controversy.

  • David

    Sean,
    Climate change scepticism is given negligible coverage compared to climate change hysteria.

    http://www.numberwatch.co.uk/warmlist.htm

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2006/11/cosmic-connection-to-climate.html Plato

    Lead by science.

    As layman who sees what science askes? “What is practical?”

    Yes. Being “practical” about the evidence, has it’s rewards? Some see where “this effect” of global warming has started?

    Adult mountain pine beetle, Dendroctonus ponderosae

    The research enlightening?

    Askes us to think deeper. Deeper, then what has been presented in terms of glaciers retreating. May of had some other effect?

  • Haludza

    ‘poor Ludwig Boltzmann’s law’

    These people are in absolutely no position to pity Ludwig Boltzmann! I pity them!

  • Mark

    The conspiracy contrarians really don’t understand science or scientists. Any climate scientist would be thrilled to find a genuine scientific basis to disprove anthropogenic global warming. It would make a career and give worldwide fame, not to mention the adulation of petrogiants and SUV drivers everywhere.

    Michael “Spoonbender” Crichton in the references? I guess that means I should read everything on this topic starting at the references. Then I would know what I could safely throw into the trash without reading the rest.

  • http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/blog/ Rob Knop

    …adulation of petrogiants…

    It reminds me of a line from Hamlet when Claudius is trying to recruit Rosencrantz & Guildenstern to spy on his nephew. “Your visitation shall receive such thanks as fit’s a king’s remembrance.”

    The climate scientist who legitimately proved that global warming would never fear for funding again.

    Some have managed to eat at that trough without legitimately proving that….

    -Rob

  • s.y.

    It would be great if you could give us a pointer to some tell-tale evidence that the current climate change is human-induced. Is there some evidence that could be presented to amateurs like me in understandable terms, like the bullet cluster in the case of the dark matter issue? (George Musser of Scientific American wrote a blog post a while ago in which he attempted to do exact that, and it was a very interesting and informative essay, but it wasn’t completely convincing because it didn’t contain bibliography, i.e. pointers to more detailed information.)

  • Mark

    There are plenty of sources of information about global warming. You could start at

    http://www.realclimate.org/

    Some other potential sites are

    http://illconsidered.blogspot.com/
    http://gristmill.grist.org/skeptics

    I haven’t checked out this site

    http://www.climateark.org/blog/

    You could also check here

    http://www.ipcc.ch/

    Use your favorite search engine. Stay away from any site that quotes Michael Crichton favorably. Crichton is distinctly unscientific. If you doubt this, Google Michael Crichton and spoon bending.

  • Yvette

    A true science journalist would have been able to tell The Sunday Telegraph that; but they are getting harder and harder to come by, and may be extinct by the end of the decade.

    I find this interesting because perhaps a third of the physics majors I know graduating nowadays have a true interest in doing science journalism/ science writing down the road. (I’m no exception, and am a science journalist for the Journal of Young Investigators, an exclusively undergraduate-run science publication.) I think the reason for this is because so many of us got into science because of someone like Carl Sagan. We subsequently got the impression that telling others about how awesome science is is part of the job description in being a scientist!

  • http://quthoughts.blogspot.com Joe Fitzsimons

    Mark, do you read the bad science column in the Gaurdian too? I’m guessing it would be right up your alley.

  • Pingback: Science Communication » The Perils of Poor Science Journalism()

  • Pingback: » Links for 15-11-2006 » Velcro City Tourist Board » Blog Archive()

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    I do indeed Joe Fitzsimons. I think it is generally very good, and have linked to it on a number of occasions.

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2006/11/discovering-quantum-universe.html Plato

    Hopefully all your reader’s understood that Crichton’s work “State of Fear” was indeed fictional? I am not sure what his qualifications were, but certainly not “spoon bender?”

    Scientists have a lot of imput nowadays into “fictional stories” and use them. Like Startrek, or other ideas, whilst fully undertanding the scientific position.


    “The cosmic ray theory has been used by people who want to deny human influence on global warming,” added Neu.

    Nobody on the Cloud team is claiming that cosmic rays alone determine the environment. “If there really is an effect then it would simply be part of the climate change cocktail,” says Kirkby.

    “What we want to understand is if, and by how much, this natural phenomenon contributes to the climate mix. We need to understand how clouds are affected to reduce the uncertainties from climate predictions.”

    Automatically one could have “put up a guard” without fully understanding the implications. “Environmental terriorism?”

    Only in the most capable scientific hands :)Lol

  • Haelfix

    I would say I am a climate skeptic, and last I checked I work in Academia. Does that mean I must misunderstand science?

    This article is frankly borderline insulting. Why must everything be some sort of vast conspiracy with oil companies funding all of the dissent. Is that truly what you guys believe in? Its ultimately some sort of bizarre leftish fantasy that the world works in that way.

    I suppose the National Academy of Science’s recent results must be 100% Exxon funded, how dare they debunk Mann et als math.

    Look, I doubt you’ll find many climate skeptics arguing against anthropogenic causes for global warming. The attack is fundamentally on the certainty and the error analysis associated with the so called IPCC consensus.

    What they have are hints of the dynamics in some portion/regime of our planets phase space. Hints from both ground and air experiments, as well as numerical simulations. Beyond that, they have almost no predictivity and they are required to truncate enormous amounts of degrees of freedom to even make their simplified models workable. Indeed the argument is somewhat specious ipso facto, many of the consensus climate scientists will more or less agree with this statement. So we are back to the precautionary principle, which surely is not that great of an argument, yes?

  • Aaron Bergman

    I suppose the National Academy of Science’s recent results must be 100% Exxon funded, how dare they debunk Mann et als math.

    Except that, well, they don’t.

    Generally, I find that a fixation on Mann et al indicates a fundamental unseriousness about the topic, but that’s just me.

  • Haelfix

    Are we both talking about the Wegmann reports funded by the NAS, they spend quite a length of time debunking those original hockey stick papers. And Mann et als reconstruction is just one potential problem in a series of somewhat problematic evidence. I won’t dwell on it, since its perfectly true its just one piece of evidence in a long line.

    The issue is ultimately the hasty conclusions one draws from such studies, not necessarily the veracity of the tests themselves. This hasty conclusion is often not made by the scientists themselves, but rather the media feeding frenzy when any such big paper comes out.

    Anyway, back to the science. No one disputes global warming, but the main indicator of anthropogenic causes comes from numerical simulations (approximately 80% agree with the premise last I checked). Its with these numerical simulations I have the most problems with, having spent quite some time getting my computer to return junk to me solving chaotic odes in various situations when I was early in grad school. Anyone with a modicum of expertise will tell you the same thing, its very easy to get the computer to return something you want to see if you spend enough time playing around with things. Much harder to actually get reality, particularly with these immensely complicated coupled forced nonlinear ODEs.

    There is virtually no analytic solution to fall back on, and the amount of ways things can go very wrong in atmospheric science is enormous. Thats why these simulations are never predictive, but rather postdictive. They look for such and such a driver as the primary cause, and indeed they tend to find agw as the main culprit. So yes, I have issues with the statistical certainty in these sorts of games, and the hockey stick fiasco was one example of how its kind off trivial to datamine for something that will give you what you want (in that case the controversy is partialy over Bristlecone data, where if one removes that piece one gets no hockey stick)

  • http://cosmiczoo.blogspot.com Matt

    On the topic of poor science journalism you just have to look at the state of the recent output from the BBCs flagship (and once informative and rather good) science program Horizon to see how bad things can be. A couple of recent examples are talked about here and here. The main aim of the program now seems to be to chop out all the boring science stuff and replace it with inane cut scenes and interviews with wackos. They still interview some reasonable scientists, but generally marginalise these bits. It’s all very well trying to liven things up a bit to capture the public’s attention, but that can’t be at the expense of the main aim, which should be conveying actual accurate science. Bad science journalism can badly damage the public’s perception of scientists if all that gets shown to them are the fringe elements, due to their suposedly more interesting or controversial ideas. It also will turn off people who actually are interested in the subject and want to learn something real.

  • boreds

    No no no no.

    You should be doing the Guardian crossword and reading the news and editorial in the Telegraph.

    Wait. Only one of those is true.

  • http://www.pieterkok.com/index.html PK

    I recently had the pleasure of attending a workshop on science communication, and saw three talks about science on TV (one by a Channel4 producer, one by a former head of another commercial British channel, and one by a Horizon producer). It became clear very early on that even though the individuals involved may be interested in communicating good science, these people typically do not have science degrees, and more importantly, the channels are interested only in juicy television. One speaker told us very clearly: TV channels do not have a science budget, they have a general education/information budget to cater for programmes that they are obliged to make (government regulation and all that). There may be the odd science programme, and some may even be good. But they are the exception to the rule that television is a very bad medium for science.

    I must add that this does not necessarily apply to nature documentaries and to some extent life sciences. If it is cute or has a face people watch it.

  • Mark P

    I should have added the “P” to distinguish myself from the other distinguished Mark.

    As to Michael Crichton and spoon bending – Crichton believes that some people have the power to bend spoons purely by mental force. Kind of like Uri Geller, the long-discredited Israeli mentalist. Crichton’s own Web site says it:

    http://www.crichton-official.com/features/spoonbending.html

  • G. Lestrade

    Since you like the leftist Guardian and dislike the rightist Daily Telegraph, I assume that you are a typical liberal academic. Unless you are bereft of reason, you must realize that The Guardian’s reporting provides encouragement and support for Islamic terrorists. Therefore, I can only hope that, if those terrorists ultimately triumph, you may be among the first to feel their power.

  • http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/blog/ Rob Knop

    What sold me on eliminating all doubt about human contribution to climate change is the CO2 plot. I saw this before I saw it in Gore’s movie, so you can’t accuse me of being an Al-brainwash.

    Plot CO2 concentrations vs. time, and you see some substantial variation. Plot temperature variation vs. time, and you see some substantial variation. The latter varies by 10^1 degrees C, and has involved ice ages and such; changes that would be catastrophic for our civilization. The CO2 changes correlate extremely well with the temperature changes.

    In recent decades, the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has shot WAY up; the difference between the current concentration and the mean is orders of magnitude bigger thant he changes we’ve seen in the past (which correlated with potentially-catastrophic climate changes).

    If that’s not a tipoff that big and bad things may be about to happen, I don’t know what is. Given that it’s just *now*, it’s hard to argue that it’s not human induced. But even if it isn’t… it’s a cause for alarm, and a cause to think that if we care about preventing catastrophic fall of civilization, we might want to try doing something.

    Very limited models in any of this. Yeah, if you want to predict details, there are complicated models. What I’ve just said is based entirely on the data, and the only models involved are what’s involved in getting the dating right.

    Unless there’s an explanation for this, I don’t see where it makes sense to hide behind the “oh, it’s all so complicated” defense.

    -Rob

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Here is the CO2 plot to which Rob refers (or one version, anyway). It seems pretty obvious to me, even without solving any ODE’s, that we are doing something dramatic to the atmosphere that might very well have catastrophic results. Arguably, however, I am bereft of reason.

  • Aaron Bergman

    Haeflix — there were two reports. The Wegman report as I remember it was the one commissioned by Barton and was basically a bit of a joke. The other report was the NRC report which said that, while there did seem to be some technical problems with the PCA analysis, other analytical techniques led to the same conclusion so they weren’t a big deal.

  • Mark P

    Well, as I and others have said before, even if you have some doubts about the existence of AGW or the effects of global warming, the CO2 chart and some basic physics indicate that we are performing a global experiment on the atmosphere, the results of which could be anything from beneficial to catastrophic. How could any sane person think such an experiment is a good idea?

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Perhaps the climate scientists should explain the basic arguments to the lay public better. Physicists are used to dealing with complex systems and explaining what they see in simulations using back of the envelope reasoning in seminars that everyone can understand.

    Take e.g. a BCS superconductor and the fact that the energy can be lowered if Cooper pairs are formed. That’s a simple to understand reasoning. If the argument was like: We’ve done simulations using a supercomputer (which are necessarily imperfect) and here are the results…, then that would be far less convincing.

    It shouldn’t be that difficult to let lay people understand that doubling the CO_2 concentration is going to have a significant influence on climate…

  • Mark P

    Scientists have explained the basic arguments to the public numerous times. AGW denialism is a lot like evolution denialism. There are those who obfuscate for their own motives, and there are those who simply don’t want to listen. I have seen lots of comments where someone says, “just give me something that explains it.” Why do they have to be led by the hand and then spoon fed when I have no trouble Googling the subject and finding all kinds of information? Is it because they aren’t really interested in finding legitimate information?

  • http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/blog/ Rob Knop

    Arguably, however, I am bereft of reason.

    I was at a PhD defense yestereday. It was an excellent defense, and (although I’m probably violating a million confidentiality conditions in saying this) one individual commented that it was one of the best theses he’d ever seen.

    A comment came up about submitting the thesis to some competition, which apparently usually cosmology theses win. Another person said it would be nice for a change to have some science in the thesis….

    On the one hand, you have the physicists who are barely aware of any astronomy other than cosmology. On the other hand, you have the people (like a certain very senior U. Chicago individual) who seem to maintain that cosmology is the only interesting astronomy. On the gripping hand, you have the astronomers still caught up in the “factor of 2 discrepancy in H0″ years who think that cosmology is all foo-faa.

    On the gripping hand, you’re bereft of reason, since you do cosmology.

    -Rob

  • http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/blog/ Rob Knop

    It shouldn’t be that difficult to let lay people understand that doubling the CO_2 concentration is going to have a significant influence on climate…

    What more would you do than Al Gore does in his movie? And I’m just talking about a 10-15 minute excerpt of the movie?

    (a) show the correlation in the historical record between CO2 concentration and temperature.

    (b) show that the current CO2 concentration is varying way above anything it’s done in the past, as per the link Sean gave above.

    What *else* do you need? How is this not making it clear that there is a potential significant effect??? The only way I can see it is that people are willfully not seeing it, because it’s become such a politicized issue. Those who are inclined not to want to believe that climate change could be happening never put themselves in a position where they might see this bit of evidence. If they do, they protest that there are all sorts of other scientists providing soundbytes that allow them to ignore this piece of evidence.

    -Rob

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2006/11/cosmic-connection-to-climate.html Plato

    While serving practicality again, and not to besmirched the distinguished Marks and spoon bending subject:)


    Due to limited historical records, they have not previously been recorded on the northeastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. This does not necessarily mean that they were absent, but rather demonstrates a lack of surveying. Currently, an abundance of mature pine trees as a result of many years of wildfire suppression and milder winters have combined to enable the expansion of mountain pine beetle into large tracts of pine forest. The mountain pine beetle has been able to survive winters farther north than previously seen.

    Layman wondering.

    IN what years were such temperatures conducive to bug infestations?

    It’s hard to ignore these issues when you walk through such a forest. But you know, there are natural circumstances that have appeared in the past(global temperatures?), and the forest has been rejuvenated through them, by fire.

    Some would revolt to nature taking such a stance but the fact is, “forests” are renewed this way.

    I understand how Peter Woit feels now. :)

    Mathematical models to computerized versions have sometimes taken on new perspective that we might not have known previously?

  • whywhy

    @Rob Knop: The C02 graph depends on knowing C02 levels before humans started recording them. How do we even know that ice cores are a valid way of measuring historical C02 levels. Is there any empirical experiment that demonstrates ice cores are valid. Furthermore isn’t there a big problem with graphing data from measurements obtained in completely different ways? Another question is what the resolution of the ice core data is. There might be a lot of variation on small time scales that is average away.

  • whywhy

    “Unless there’s an explanation for this, I don’t see where it makes sense to hide behind the “oh, it’s all so complicated” defense.”

    Explanation: Both temp and C02 graphs have on thing in common: the use proxies like tree rings or ice cores to produce historical data and use direct measurements for more recent data. So maybe all the recent big changes in the temp and C02 graphs are just due to that the proxy data having bad resolution so it tends to average away high frequency variations. Or maybe its because the proxy data are crap. Why do we trust the proxy data again? Anyways the explanation I have given is the simplest one that explains the recent large variations in the C02 and temp records. Occam’s razor applies.

  • http://www.pieterkok.com/index.html PK

    whywhy, I am not an expert on ice cores, but when they developed this technique they must have given some strong plausibility arguments (a.k.a. evidence) as to how the air in those bubbles must have a strong correlation to the atmosphere when the bubbles were formed.

  • http://www.mpe.mpg.de/~erwin/ Peter Erwin

    whywhy, I’m afraid you haven’t really given an “explanation,” let alone one that would qualify for Occam’s Razor. And you don’t seem to have tried looking to see if some of your alleged objections have answers or not.
    For example, papers on the ice core data discuss the time resolution. This summary concerning Law Dome ice core records notes a resolution of +/-2 years at 1805 AD and +/-10 years at 1350 AD (the data go back to about 1000 AD). In addition, the data extend up to the 1970s, which overlaps in time with the direct atmospheric measurements starting in 1957. So, yes, the ice-core CO2 measurements (which are direct measuremenst of CO2 content of bubbles in the ice; they’re not “proxies” the way, e.g., tree ring data are proxies for temperature) are valid.

    Similarly, proxies like tree-ring data overlap in time with direct historical temperature measurements (trees didn’t suddenly stop growing around 1850!), so these proxies are calibrated by matching them to the historical temperature record.

    It’s perfectly reasonable to wonder about these things. What’s not reasonable is to assume, “Wow, I’ll be none of the scientists involved in studying this have ever thought about this question, so it must be a valid objection and their data must be crap!” without doing some serious research in the scientific literature to find out the truth. (Or even googling for things like “ice core CO2 calibration,” like I just did.)

  • Mark P

    “Or maybe its because the proxy data are crap.”

    ” … without doing some serious research in the scientific literature to find out the truth. (Or even googling for things like ‘ice core CO2 calibration,’ like I just did.)”

    QED (my earlier comment).

  • s.y.

    It is indeed easy to find mainstream information by googling the net. But it’s also quite easy to find contrary information by the same means, and it is often not easy to find out why the mainstream view is to be favored over the contrarian one. I, for one, am in no way demanding to be spoonfed; IMHO, the problem, rather, is that many of the people who concur with the mainstream view are quite ignorant about what kinds of contrarian views exist out there. (For instance, some of the commentors here seem to be unaware of the fact that Monckton explicitly argues against the view that taking precautions, just in case, would be the responsible course.) Maybe those contrarian views simply do not deserve any attention, but it is not easy at least for a non-specialist to see why that is so. It is not enough to refer people to RealClimate and other mainstream sites, as there is a considerable amount of contrarian material out there that is not countered at those sites, and even some material that casts serious doubt on the credibility of some of those mainstream sites.

  • Mark P

    Actually, sites like Real Climate do, indeed, respond to the many, many complaints of the contrarians. Some of them even go as far as listing some of the more common ones and explaining why they are wrong. You do have to do some digging. Climate scientists, like evolutionary biologists, have seen lots of those same complaints so many times they are tired of responding every time someone brings them up them again.

  • http://www.mpe.mpg.de/~erwin/ Peter Erwin

    There’s also How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic (see especially the Guides by Category). As the writer explains, he’s not a climate scientist — but he does seem to be fairly well educated on the subject and to have his head screwed on straight. And the Guides by Category section has a lot of subsections addressing many of the various contrarian “arguments,” and often includes useful links to more detailed scientific sites and papers.

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Mark P, Rob,

    I agree that in the last few years we’ve seen more media exposure to the science of climate change. But I think this is too late. Politicians are only starting to act now, while you could see this problem coming in the 1980s.

  • greg

    Well everyone has moved on… to bad.

    I remeber when it was all doom and gloom becasue we were heading into a new ice age.

    mmmm.

    There lots of other examples.

    Don’t tell me what people think. Tell me what they can prove! Since there is corelation between CO2 and current warming does NOT make it casual. PERIOD. The number of pirates in the world is also correlated with current warmming… In god we trust, but the rest of you show me the data. Oh and CO2 has been higher in the past without humans driving SUV’s

    Scientist are influenced by popular ideas like everyone else. In a large nonlinear system it may be quite imposible to prove/disprove that we are the cause of warming. That is the question “Are we casuing gloabal warming?” could well be untestable. We know what some people here think about untestable hypothisis….

    Facts are the world changes. We can change with it, or we can deem that we are more important than that and do everything we can to keep everthing constant..and probably get chaos ;)

    Oh… Once i was a climate whatever you want to call it. Still work a bit on the simulation codes too. We really just don’t know.

    “I have determined that we will not be able to predict the weather untill we haved killed all the butterflys” –can’t remember

  • deconvoluter

    Rob Knop and others.
    Correlations are neither a good enough argument nor are they the main argument.

    Reasons for doubt: You could have
    1. CO2-> warming
    OR
    2. warming -> CO2
    OR
    3.
    warming -> CO2 -> more warming
    4. Coincidence
    5. Uncertainty in the records

    The most likely version is item 3. Your brief account leaves out about a hundred years of physics which provided the mechanism, made the predictions and motivated the observations (e.g for obtaining the graphs which you saw). You might try looking at

    http://www.trumpington.co.uk/green (NOT from Green party)

    You will find there a couple of essays devoted to the sort of question you ask and some alternative references.

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Greg:

    I remember when it was all doom and gloom becasue we were heading into a new ice age.

    There were some scientists who had mentioned the possibiliuy of an ice age, but there was never a broad scientific consensus about that.

    Since there is corelation between CO2 and current warming does NOT make it casual. PERIOD.

    It is causal, because CO_2 absorbs infrared radiation. The correlation just confirms the theory as pointed out by deconvoluter.

  • greg

    Count Iblis:

    Thats the type of science that reporters produce. I would need to be luckly to get that past a reviewer.

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Greg, try to publish your claim that CO_2 does not contribute to the greenhouse effect.

  • greg

    That was not my statement. Greenhouse effect is *1* part of climate. There is a lot more to that that.

  • Pingback: Celsias Blog » Debunking the Debunkers()

  • GP1

    Mark said:

    Climate science is a difficult topic, relying on modeling, computer simulation, extrapolation of laboratory results, and a geologic understanding of the planet’s climate history, among many other components. These are all imperfectly understood and practiced an no scientist worth his or her salt relies on any single result (for example, the hockey stick graph) to infer climate change.

    If you agree that the universe is more complicated than climate on earth I find it ironic that you call yourself a scientist. As a cosmologist you rely “on a single result” to infer the changes in the universe, the most complicated system ever known. If you think people who make outrageous claims about a simple system such as Earth’s climate from insufficent sample are not scientists, how can you claim to be a scientist while you build a cosmos from even a smaller sample?

  • Alex K

    Mark

    You criticise Christopher Monckton’s article for being biased and unscientific. And yet your article here is the epitomy of biased unscientific writing. You start off your article with an unsubstantiated rant against The Telegraph (which, incidentally, is considered one of the UK’s more objective papers, unlike the Guardian). You admit that your opiniion of The Telegraph is based on the opinions of George Mombiet. It is hardly surprising that George does not like the Telegraph. He is a leftwing fundamentalist environmentalist. The Telegraph has a right wing slant. So you are happy to blithely believe every word that George Mombiet says because he happens to be left wing, but believe that an article in The Telegraph is eye-poppingly awful claptrap because it has a right wing slant.

    I have actually read The Telegraph (though am not a regular reader) and I can assure you that its quality of journalism is very high. And, if you had read Monckton’s article, and the responses from many scientists. you would know that this article was not a load of claptrap but a serious attempt to deal with a difficult issue. And it was far more objective than anything ever written by you or George Mombiet.

    The only eye-poppingly awful claptrap (do you know what tautology is, btw?) I see is the rubbish written on your blog.

    You are a disgrace to objectivity and to science. Do everyone a favour, and write your bigotted and biased opinions down in a book, rather than publish them on the web, so that some unsuspecting surfer won’t have the misfortune of stumbling across them ont his risible site.

    Alex

  • Alex K

    Btw

    The Realclimate blog is not objective. It is one of the most biased blogs on the web – almost as biased indeed as this one. The Realclimate blog is authored by the same authors who came up with the debunked hockey stick graph. That graph made their reputation and probably paid their mortgages. If it was widely known that their graph is a nonsense, they would be made to look – and rightly so – complete idiots. It is little wonder that they defend their graph – and criticise those who question the maths behind the graph – with the vitriol and rage of a cornered snake. It is laughable that they promote themselves as the objective voice in the climate change debate.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

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

Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.

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 »