Rolling Stone Knows How to Spin

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | November 13, 2007 9:06 am

RS1038.jpgOkay, I like Rolling Stone. As a drummer, it’s kind of protocol. And James Lovelock is an interesting character – the very kind of fellow that I’d probably keep in good company were we of the same generation. I like those intelligent out-of-the-box types with big ideas. That said, I’m seriously not impressed with either in the November issue. Just check out the tagline of the Lovelock article:

“One of the most eminent scientists of our time says that global warming is irreversible — and that more than 6 billion people will perish by the end of the century.”

Sends a shiver down your spine and sucks you right in, no?

Now step back and say you wanna sell a couple million magazines or so… Here’s a novel idea:

mainimg_posterseason2.jpg1) Take a controversial figure who’s going to predict impending apocalypse.

2) Call him ‘The Prophet.’ It’s mystical and a little bit scary (esp if you haven’t already been keeping up with the latest from our buddy Eli).

3) Use illustrations about as creepy as the guy with the Tree tattoo on HBO’s canceled series ‘Carnivale’.

4) Include this kicker for the ending of the opening paragraph:

..the coming of the Four Horsemen — war, famine, pestilence and death — seems to perk him up. “It will be a dark time,” Lovelock admits. “But for those who survive, I suspect it will be rather exciting.”

[Quick, someone call Peter Jackson!]

More after the jump…

Now I can wax poetic on the faults of this approach, but I mean really Rolling Stone… are you kidding? Why promote him as the ‘Prophet’ of ‘The Coming Climate Disaster‘ on your cover? He’s certainly no Cassandra of Troy. Sure, he’s colorful, quirky, and has come up with all sorts of fascinating ideas… not to mention he’s positively charming in the photograph. loveluck.jpg But the way the article is framed paints such a dismal, depressing – and by the way unrealistic – portrayal of the future of life, that you’re sending the wrong message out loud and clear to be repeated around water coolers everywhere all month.

Rolling Stone has an enormous audience and I expect most aren’t picking up the scientific literature. We generally develop opinions and priorities based on the cultural portrayal of the state of things. A leading pop magazine has the capacity to do much good with far reaching influence and credibility. In the past, they’ve out some great articles on global warming and the environment so if they want to continue working to promote collective action toward a more promising future, I hope they’ll devote their pages to the real scoop… stories of hope from those on the ground engaged in conservation practice. Of course, I understand that may not necessarily sell as well.

We’re at a critical point in our planetary adolescence and must recognize there’s still a tremendous possibility to make things right. While entertaining, the Lovelock piece does more harm than good by suggesting it’s okay to give up. Eventually he does get around to admitting he may be wrong, but that’s easily lost in the story because articles are often not read in entirety. And what’s up with his claim that the loss of biodiversity on this planet has been overstated?! I’m not sure what planet is he’s thinking of, because Earth is losing species globally at an alarming rate.

Here’s what I am sure about. Lovelock’s opinion on the state of the planet – if he’s serious – is whimsical at best and completely absurd. He admits he likes science fiction and it sounds more like he’s been dreaming up his own outlandish ideas for contributing to that genre. The whole end-of-human-civilization theme would probably sell a lot of books…or magazines… hey, wait a second…

And so readers… just remember this is an entertainment publication and don’t believe the hype!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Media and Science

Comments (20)

  1. John

    Thanks for this Sheril. Rolling Stone got me seriously depressed when I read that and I needed this reminder that we should not be looking to money or ratings driven media “hype” mistaken for serious journalism. I should know better. You’re a refreshing reminder.

  2. Hank Roberts

    Excuse me, but it’s 2007 right now.

    Can anyone suggest any circumstance in which

    > more than 6 billion people will


    > perish by the end of the century.

    What? Of course we will. Even given that most of the six billion alive right now are toddlers, how many will live past age 93??? Not to mention the rest of us doddering elders. You were expecting immortality in your lifetime?

  3. Touché Hank. I could have been clearer in presenting Lovelock’s perspective:

    By 2100, Lovelock believes, the Earth’s population will be culled from today’s 6.6 billion to as few as 500 million, with most of the survivors living in the far latitudes — Canada, Iceland, Scandinavia, the Arctic Basin.

    Alarmism would be an understatement…

  4. Rolling Stone is prone to being credulous towards all sorts of bad science, fear-mongering, and pseudoscience. Remember a couple of years ago, when it, along with, were the publication venues through which Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. decided to publish his horrible article claiming that mercury in vaccines causes autism.

    Rolling Stone should stick to music and politics. When it ventures into science, it is uneven at best and horrible at worst.

  5. Linda

    Doom and gloom, doom and gloom… we seem to be force-fed this on a daily basis in one form or another. How depressing, even if you are adept enough to realize better. I agree with John, thank you.

  6. On the plus side, it’s not every day that climate scientists are told that they’re being sunny optimists…

  7. Jeff Goodell

    I’m the author of the Rolling Stone profile of Lovelock, and a big fan of this blog. Sheril, I find your read of the article to be surprisingly cynical. While the piece is certainly not a happy, uplifting story, the notion that we’re hyping disaster in order to sell magazines is just silly. Lovelock is not some half-cocked climate crank — he is an enormously respected scientist who has grave concerns about what’s in store for us on a superheated planet. Shouldn’t he be heard? I understand very well the importance of hope, etc, but Lovelock does not pretend to be Martin Luther King. And he emphatically does NOT believe (and the piece makes clear) that we should just party on while the planet burns. On the contrary. He believes we need to think much bigger — preparing for food shortages, droughts, resource wars, etc. He may be wrong about all this — and I hope he is — but to suggest that this is just fearmongering is to deny the reality of what we’re up against.

  8. Here’s a blog entry that takes a more realistic approach.

    He may be too optimistic, but Sy Garte doesn’t challenge the IPCC consensus. Instead, his view is that we are smart enough to solve or mitigate environmental problems technologically.

    Concerning the need to reduce CO2, he concurs it is a serious problem but we will use our technological ingenuity to produce sustainable energy sources, just as we are well on the way to solving the ozone hole problem.

    I’ll be going to a Thursday noon book signing at the University of Pittsburgh Book Center for the book Sy is touting in that blog entry, and then meeting him for lunch.

    If other Pittsburgh readers of Science Blogs are there, please introduce yourself. You can find my picture at my website (click my name).

  9. Hi Jeff,

    For the most part, I agree with you and do generally take an interest in Lovelock’s ideas. He’s notably a Heineken Laureate and has undeniably made incredible contributions in science and the world. What makes me uncomfortable about the article is the way it’s framed with allusions to a great impending and irreversible bottleneck. (And the illustration on the facing page of the magazine is spooky).

    As a leading popular magazine which I regularly read and enjoy, conveying this kind of frightening prediction from a prominent environmental scientist touted as ‘The Prophet’ casts a dismal and false portrayal of reality to the millions of readers looking to science in the media – what’s readily available, easily digestible, and entertaining – for answers.

    By no means do I deny what we’re up against, it’s rather that I recognize it’s surmountable. I do understand the politics, the science, and the big players involved. I’m not an idealist or denialist, but rather a non-partisan practical realist with a fair amount of social theory under my belt.

    Yes, we’re mucking up this home planet of ours, and sure, we may experience a great bottleneck if we don’t change our behavior… The thing is, the trajectory has not been set yet. Translation: We still have the time to act. That’s where I disagree with Lovelock. Scientists are part of the solution, as are politicians and the rest of us. Quite literally – on the cosmic scale – we’re all in this together. Mainstream media and pop culture have an enormous and vital role to play. Undeniably, Rolling Stone is a giant so my hope is that you will consider the influence and impact of such predictions in print and focus on reality rather than what I consider to be pop science fiction.

    Thank you for reading and commenting. I have long enjoyed the magazine. I like that Rolling Stone often does a tremendous job of informing folks about the environment and why we should care. There are a myriad of reasons that culture, music, science, and politics are interwoven and you’re at the forefront of conveying that. And of course, as this post began…

    I like Rolling Stone. As a drummer, it’s kind of protocol.

    Looking forward to the next issue.

  10. Jeff Goodell

    Thanks for the thoughtful clarifications, Sheril. But I want to say a word about what you call the article’s “dismal and false portrayal of reality” — well, dismal, for sure. I think we can pretty much get universal agreement on that. But how do you know it’s false? Why are you so certain that “the trajectory has not been set”? I’m all for the urgency of cutting emissions, etc, but what makes you so sure that, as Lovelock argues, it’s not too late?

    I was at a conference last week with many top climate scientists, and it was not a cheery gathering. Especially when you got them talking off the record. Acceleration of ice sheet melt, continuing rise in — even an acceleration of — CO2 emissions, etc. There was not a lot of confidence in this group about our future trajectory. I know that in public, many climate scientists adhere to the need for 80% cuts by 2050 line of argument. But in private, they are not so sanguine. In my view, Lovelock is just articulating in public what many others (surely not all) say in private.

    That said, I do think Lovelock seriously underestimates our capability for dramatic change (and said so in the piece). But I’m vary wary of the argument that if we all just change our lightbulbs and drive Priuses, everything will be okay. I know that’s a hopeful line of reasoning, but that doesn’t make it true.

  11. Now Jeff, personally I have never tried to coin the phrase ‘Drive A Prius, Save The World’ (though I’m still secretly hoping ‘It’s Hip To Be Geek’ takes off).

    So what can be done here and now? This is copied from my post yesterday on geoengineering:
    I wonder whether the scientists involved understand the big picture. We can’t expect to fix our global fever piecemeal when the underlying causes are being ignored. Since we don’t know enough about thresholds and complex systems interacting on multiple scales, it’s not good enough to start loading our environment with the ‘best guess’. Instead, let’s put our efforts into crafting better legislative policy. Too slow you suggest? Well, deforestation is an enormous contributing factor, so how about acting now to support efforts such as which will legitimately help us move toward carbon neutrality? Life isn’t like the movies and we’re not going to get a do-over if we miscalculate. We must address the real problem before we begin playing doctor with our planet.

    As for ‘a hopeful line of thinking’, if I honestly didn’t believe a better future is possible, I’d never have left my cozy radio gig. I braved Cap City and now work here in academia engaged in the science and policy process because I recognize that positive change is still achievable. I know I’m able to contribute and am certainly not alone in this line of thinking… and it sounds like you agree.

  12. Lance


    Lovelock is an “end times” prophet of the eco-left. Rolling Stone wants to sell magazines. His tales of eco-Armageddon titillate and horrify the self-absorbed, generation-x’ers that are the mainstay of that magazines sales. You want to advance your political goals by scaring people just enough to take the political actions you propose.

    I guess you can’t motivate people to your cause if they are convinced that the apocalypse is unavoidable. You like it when “Gaia’s Revenge” scares people, but not if it convinces them that your offer of salvation to our “dying planet” for our carbon sins goes unheeded.

    Luckily there is no impending doom upon us. Lovelock is in his late eighties so his impending doom IS upon him. It remains to be seen if your message about the “planet’s fever” will gain political traction in the next election cycle. So far polls put AGW well behind other reality based issues like the economy, health care and the war in Iraq.

  13. Lance writes:
    I guess you can’t motivate people to your cause if they are convinced that the apocalypse is unavoidable. You like it when “Gaia’s Revenge” scares people, but not if it convinces them that your offer of salvation to our “dying planet” for our carbon sins goes unheeded.

    Sheril, you don’t deserve that personal attack. You have consistently argued for intellectual honesty when discussing AGW.

    It’s one thing for Lance to consistently argue against accepting the IPCC consensus. That’s scientific skepticism–misguided in my view, but skepticism nonetheless.

    It’s quite another for him to attack you personally with words that suggest you are a political zealot rather than a concerned scientist.

    This is one of those posts by Lance where he displays troll-like behavior, even though he would call it sarcasm based on his history here. (Note to Lance: I’m not calling you a troll, just commenting on the troll-like tone and impact of your post.)

    I suggest we not take the bait.

  14. Steve Bloom

    Lance is a denialist, Fred, straight up. As the recent coral incident illustrated, he draws conclusions about the science *before* knowing what the evidence is. When he puts the clinate policy discussion in terms of competing politicial ideologies, as you’ll notice he just did above, I think we’ve learned everything we need to know about him.

    My take on Lovelock, in case anyone wants it, is that we need to listen to such messages about worst-case scenarios. In my unqualified opinion, the kind of scenario he promotes is a better match for 1000 ppm in 2100 than 384 ppm in 2006, but we should not fool ourselves that there isn’t a direct path available between those two states. At the moment, it’s the one we’re on.

  15. Lance

    Steve Bloom,

    How exactly did my recent posts on the “coral incident” prove anything except that I am open to new information and that I do not have an ideological axe to grind? I thanked Jimbo for pointing out some things I had not thought about and said that I would have to reconsider my position on the topic until I investigated it further.

    You on the other hand have deeply entrenched ideological preconceptions that lead you to level ad hominem attacks against anyone that threatens your political position.


    You, as usual, snipe at me indirectly rather than have the courage to adress me personally.

    As to my alleged disagreement with the IPCC consensus, I would point out that the “scariest” claim of Lovelock, Gore, Hansen etc. is the looming danger of a “20 meter” sea level rise. The IPCC “consensus” is that we can expect about 1/60 th of that amount, about a foot.

    But a one foot sea level rise won’t frighten folks into the policy changes Sheril is advocating. I strongly disagree with those policies and the evidence upon which they are justified.

    Sheril is no doubt a sincere person, as I have said on many occasions, but she is clearly a political advocate and it is no insult to identify her as such. So you boys can let her defend herself and if you have anything of substance to say about me then have the decency and courage to at least say it to me.

  16. Lance,

    I think you are capable of much better discussions when you avoid getting personal and keep your sarcasm under control.

    Reread your words that I quoted earlier. You went farther than disagreeing with Sheril’s political views. You were portraying her as intellectually dishonest.

    Now you are attacking me personally, claiming I didn’t address you directly. Did you miss the following?

    “(Note to Lance: I’m not calling you a troll, just commenting on the troll-like tone and impact of your post.)”

    Seems pretty direct to me!

  17. Lance


    I saw the note, but the main part of your criticism was not addressed to me. Why the need to refer to my behavior as “trollish”? While this skirts the ad hom sidelines it is little different than calling me a troll. If I say your posts are “idiotish” is that any different than calling you an idiot?

    Also nowhere did I imply that Sheril was a “political zealot”. She is however an advocate of political policy that seeks to radically change the energy use of the entire world based on claims of impending catastrophe.

    My sarcastic remarks, such as “planetary fever” are based on Sheril’s own scare tactic words. If they came across as overly shrill my apologies, but phrases like “planetary fever” and “save the planet” are hard for my sarcastic sense of humor to resist.

    While I had hope for Sheril when I read her remarks decrying Lovelock as being “alarmist” it soon became clear she only took issue with the irreversibility of his doomsday scenario.

    She doesn’t take issue with the bulk of Lovelock’s apocalyptic claims as is evidenced when she says, in her response to Goodell, “We still have the time to act. That’s where I disagree with Lovelock.”

    I am not saying she is a zealot or that she has no right to present her policy preferences, but I am not going to pretend she is not motivated by a political agenda, as we all are to a greater or lesser extent.

    Fred, have you forgotten that this blog is called the intersection precisely because of its dual role as a science and political blog?

  18. Lance, I’ll use your own words. Consider this constructive criticism.

    “You, as usual, snipe at me indirectly rather than have the courage to adress me personally.”

    Then, when it was pointed out that I did indeed “have the courage,” and addressed you personally, you tap dance around the point by saying:

    “I saw the note, but the main part of your criticism was not addressed to me.”

    Indeed, it was addressed to Sheril, saying that I did not appreciate that personal attack on her intellectual honesty. The parenthetical note was included explicitly so you and other readers would not conclude I was “sniping” at you.

    “Also nowhere did I imply that Sheril was a ‘political zealot’.”

    Then what does this mean? “You want to advance your political goals by scaring people just enough to take the political actions you propose.”

    I consider personal attacks and then denial that they were personal as classic trollish behavior.

    On the other hand, I have also seen you contribute to productive discussions. That is why this eruption from you was particularly disappointing to me.

    You can do better.

    You may have the last word. I hope it is not an insult.

  19. Lance


    If we spoke in person I’m sure you would see my intentions in their true light. After several years of exchanging posts and emails, I have grown to respect your insights and even regard you with a measure of affection.

    Out politics are 180 degrees apart but we are both physicists and try to match our policy preferences with empirical data points. Much as two scientists can differ on theory without harboring personal animosity I hope we can continue to discuss these “hot button” issues with civility and the utmost respect for the scientific method and each other.

    The intersection is designed for such exchanges, that is why I spend considerable time and effort posting here. Chris and Sheril are to be commended for presenting such a forum. My differences with them, both political and scientific, do not reflect any disrespect I have for them or their work.

    On the contrary I admire their dedication to their cause and the skill with which they present their views.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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