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.