George Will, Freeman Dyson, and the State of Science Journalism

By Chris Mooney | April 6, 2009 9:01 am

Over at CJR, Curtis Brainard has a thoughtful piece on the George Will and Nicholas Dawidoff/Freeman Dyson controversies. Brainard is right that while Will is just out of control on global warming, Dawidoff needs to be handled with more subtlety. As he concludes about the Freeman Dyson profile:

Dawidoff’s profile strikes me as legitimate in conception, but flawed in execution. Petit is right—to “squelch” this article would have been a shame. While exploring the importance of honest and transparent skepticism (as opposed to the more duplicitous kind proffered by people like Will) to science overall, however, Dawidoff could have done more to challenge the idea that, in this particular instance, Dyson is doing more good than harm.

Yes, exactly. Nobody (I hope) would argue that Freeman Dyson shouldn’t be profiled. However, we are absolutely right to argue that he shouldn’t be profiled as a global warming skeptic by a journalist who can’t navigate (in Dawidoff’s own words) “a dense thicket of mitigating scientific indicators that all have the timbre of truth and the ring of potential plausibility.”

I have strong feelings about this case for many reasons. One is my great fear for the treatment of science in the media, which I consider to be in dangerous decline. Another, relatedly, is pride in my profession. After all, I understand the journalistic lure towards profiling the contrarian, the underdog…hey, wait a minute, that’s why the main character in my book Storm World is a global warming skeptic, Bill Gray, who is probably as distinguished in his own field (hurricane science) as Dyson is, who is of the same generation, and who is also a colorful, even admirable character!

But by God, that doesn’t mean I let Gray get away with the climate science skepticism in the way that Dyson does in Dawidoff’s profile. Of course not. I contextualized Gray’s arguments to show just how out of the mainstream they are, how his distrust of climate models is generational, and so on. I did not leave the reader with any sense that Gray’s arguments ought to be adopted or that they’re on the same footing with the robust scientific consensus on climate change.

But then, I’m a climate change journalist, and this was a balancing act I felt capable of executing–and indeed, scientists widely praised my book. And that’s precisely the point. It ought to be standard, in the media, that when some freelancer pitches a story that relates to a highly controversial scientific subject, a kind of vetting process ensues to be certain that it is going to be handled with the proper nuance and expertise. Unfortunately, this rarely happens; indeed, the “death of science journalism” that we’re seeing right now makes it less and less likely that sensitive science-related stories will be handled properly if they’re handled at all.

In sum, the George Will and Nicholas Dawidoff cases are extremely important because of what they say about science coverage at this time of incredible media industry transition and upheaval, a time when bloggers are turrning to Twitter even as we could lose the Boston Globe. My point is this: If you don’t like the kind of writing that Will and Dawidoff represent, then you had better stand up for science journalists at this critical time. Because without them, expect many, many more Will and Dawidoff controversies and scandals.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Global Warming, Media and Science

Comments (7)

  1. Michael

    Journalists aside, the evidence for global cooling, as most scientists predicted in the middle 70′s, is accumulating rapidly. The political appointees of the IPCC use a computer model which has insufficient data. This model has been very wrong in virtually every prediction, but because of political correctness and grant money, a lot of so-called scientists are still parroting the global warming scare talk. If the cooling is as quick and severe as a lot of climate scientists believe, civilization will be in for extreme stress. We need to look at the hard scientific facts and not at a very flawed computer model. There is no ‘concensus’ on global climate change.

  2. the evidence for global cooling, as most scientists predicted in the middle 70’s

    Wrong.

    is accumulating rapidly

    Wrong.

    The political appointees of the IPCC use a computer model which has insufficient data.

    The IPCC aggregates the primary scientific literature, which is itself apolitical. And it certainly doesn’t use a single model as evidence for any of its conclusions.

    This model has been very wrong in virtually every prediction, but because of political correctness and grant money, a lot of so-called scientists are still parroting the global warming scare talk.

    Current temperatures are within the ensemble spread (see here and here). You literally have no idea how the grant process works and are obviously, stunningly out of touch with a field that you feel the need to spout off at the mouth about.

    There is no ‘concensus’ on global climate change.

    The consensus among those actively working in the field is virtually unanimous.

  3. I still give Dyson credit for inventing the Dyson Sphere. It’s a shame he couldn’t build one.

  4. Science journalism, as practiced by most of main stream media, has indeed fallen on hard times. With neither the knowledge nor the resources to acquire the knowledge, media outlets too often take the position that their role is to “ask the questions” and then to allow multiple voices to give their answer. That puts all of the responsibility for judging fact vs. fiction on to the public and gives the impression that you can really have a difference of opinion as to what the facts are.

    If the news media does not have the resources to make that determination, how the hell are we supposed to?

    The exceptions to this are few and far between. Scott Pelley has done a credible job of explaining global warming on 60 Minutes. Brian Williams called clean coal an oxymoron. But those examples are not what most people see most of the time.

    So, we have a politicized discussion rather than a scientific discussion and as too often is the case, the public loses. If we turn to cable news, we are able to choose our bias, Hannity or Olbermann with no particular expertise other than that of the political game and so it continues.

    I long to see some of the mainstream media interview someone like Sen Inhofe and then to provide an immediate fact check of his statements. It won’t happen, though. I would love to see organizations like 350.org with the money to go ad for ad with the American Petroleum Institute. For anyone who watches the nightly news on the major networks, the API ads are all you see.

    Wes Rolley
    CoChair, EcoAction Committee, Green Party US.

  5. The Orion spaceship was also a very interesting idea. Jeremy Bernstein has a nice piece on it in “Physicists on Wall Street”

  6. The political appointees of the IPCC…

    Let me see if I can follow your logic:

    1) Political leaders devise a dastardly scheme to regulate carbon emissions. 2) So, they appoint sleeper scientists to trick the world into believing in global warming.
    3) At which point, they pass all sorts of oppressive regulations on the oil and gas industry.

    Why exactly did they need the middle man? Couldn’t they have just passed the legislation in the first place.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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