New Point of Inquiry: Andrew Revkin on the Death of Science Journalism and the Future of Catastrophe

By Chris Mooney | March 12, 2010 1:30 pm

The show with Andy Revkin just went up! Here’s a sample from the write-up:

In this conversation with host Chris Mooney, Revkin discusses the uncertain future of his field, the perils of the science blogosphere, his battles with climate blogger Joe Romm, and what it’s like (no joke) to have Rush Limbaugh suggest that you kill yourself. Moving on to the topics he’s covered for over a decade, Revkin also addresses the problem of population growth, the long-range risks that our minds just aren’t trained to think about, and the likely worsening of earthquake and other catastrophes as more people pack into in vulnerable places.

I will have much more to say about the show soon enough–I’m proud of this one–but for now, listen and download here.

Comments (21)

  1. Sean McCorkle

    Another great show – your science & society interviews are really taking POI to new levels (and I’m not just saying that because I’m flattered you asked my question). Revkin is quite an interesting guy and is rightly concerned about the big problems that we should be worrying about more as a society, but aren’t – that itself being a problem to worry about.

    Maybe I got this wrong, but I didn’t get the sense he was offering any specific prescriptions for scientists or science communicators etc. to try in the face of all this, although he comes off as being optimistic about moving into the unknown and brave new world of the future.

    Looking forward to more shows …

  2. Chris Mooney

    Sean,
    He didn’t offer specific prescriptions for fixing science communication….although I also didn’t ask for them, so it is perhaps partly my fault. The most specific it got was when it came to the potential role of nonprofits. But I think that is okay…there may not be any specific solution for such a massive trend, one being driven by overwhelming technological and economic forces.

    Thanks so much for your question! I’m glad I got to use it.

  3. moptop

    I really don’t get it. Andy thinks there are too many people, so who goes? Andy or my grandchild yet unborn? Why is this question s0 abhorant?

  4. There is a huge difference between saying “There are too many people” and “massive population increase creates problems that need to be addressed before they spiral out of control”.

    As far as I can tell, Revkin supports the latter position.

  5. ChrisD

    @moptop 3:

    I really don’t get it. Andy thinks there are too many people, so who goes? Andy or my grandchild yet unborn? Why is this question s0 abhorant [sic]?

    Beats me. Earth’s resources are finite and can’t support an infinite population, so the question of what we can do to keep the planet from being overwhelmed is completely legitimate. If we don’t do something about it ourselves, and uncontrolled population growth continues, eventually the Earth will do something about it on our behalf, and in a very unpleasant manner.

    Unfortunately, some people equate raising the question with endorsing forced abortions and mass sterilization. Just ask John Holdren.

  6. and the likely worsening of earthquake and other catastrophes as more people pack into in vulnerable places.

    Umm … this and sudden proton disintegration are the least of our worries. If Revkin thinks earthquakes are a big problem, he is utterly ignorant of geology. Nearly all active plate boundaries are in the mid-ocean or are uninhabited. A tiny segment are active and anywhere near populated areas. Revkin is a tool.

  7. moptop

    Another approach to over population is the general increase in prosperity. Human population, under business as usual scenarios peaks in about 40 yrs, then begins to decline over time. As long as lefties don’t screw it up by ruining the global economy, and condemning huge populations to the kind of labor intensive, hand to mouth farming that all but demands large families. But think how much lower the carbon footprint would be?

    OMG, We are starting to throw around ‘[sic]‘, are we? lol ;p If you want an example of an infinite resource, it would have to be spelling errors on the intertubes. Knock yourself out Chris.

  8. ChrisD

    @moptop:

    Another approach to over population is the general increase in prosperity.

    The point, moptop, is that your original post didn’t make any sense. Revkin’s pointing out that the issue that’s really at the root of a lot of our problems is overpopulation appeared to be a problem for you, as if by noting the problem he’s positioning himself to be the arbiter of who lives and who dies. Or that any policy on overpopulation requires that somebody, somewhere is the decider on which individuals have the right to live or to be born. Or something. Maybe you can explain your point a little better.

  9. Gaythia

    Doug Watts, the active plate boundaries that matter when it comes to earthquakes are the ones where there is subduction or collision, not expansion. This is bad news for people who are packed into vulnerable places. And, tsunamis obviously can wreck havoc at distances far from the original quake, the site of which could be under the ocean. Of course, some places (Japan) cope with this vulnerability better than others (Haiti). While earthquakes have potentially very negative outcomes for people in vulnerable places, they are not an overall problem in terms of increasing global human populations the way that climate change or outstripping resources could be. If that is your argument, I would agree.

    Regarding the relationship of earthquakes and plate tectonics, see for example the following US Geological Survey website. (There is a very illustrative map at this site)

    http://earthquake.usgs.gov/learn/topics/plate_tectonics/rift_man.php

    “Plate tectonics confirms that there are four types of seismic zones. The first follows the line of midocean ridges. Activity is low, and it occurs at very shallow depths. …

    The second type of earthquake associated with plate tectonics is the shallow-focus event unaccompanied by volcanic activity. The San Andreas fault is a good example of this, so is the Anatolian fault in Northern Turkey. In these faults, two mature plates are scraping by one another. The friction between the plates can be so great that very large strains can build up before they are periodically relieved by large earthquakes. ..

    The third type of earthquake is related to the collision of oceanic and continental plates. One plate is thrust or subducted under the other plate so that a deep ocean trench is produced. In the Philippines, ocean trenches are associated with curved volcanic island arcs on the landward plate, for example the Java trench. Along the Peru – Chile trench, the Nazca plate is being subducted under the South American plate which responds by crumpling to form the Andes. …

    The fourth type of seismic zone occurs along the boundaries of continental plates. Typical of this is the broad swath of seismicity from Burma to the Mediterranean, crossing the Himalayas, Iran, Turkey, to Gilbraltar. Within this zone, shallow earthquakes are associated with high mountain ranges where intense compression is taking place. …”

  10. Nullius in Verba

    ChrisD,

    From the interview, it appears Revkin had proposed taxing children as a way of discouraging parenthood, as a thought experiment.

    I’m not sure what price you would have to put on a child to make a parent prefer to keep the money, but that’s another issue. The question is over whether it is moral to deny other people a life – with Revkin presumably arguing that it is OK before the person’s conception/birth. The contrary position would make contraception problematical, for example.

    But I think Moptop was arguing about those people denied existence not in their own right, but considered as his/her grandchildren. It’s a sort of regulatory sterilisation of those too poor to pay the tax, which infringes on the rights of the living, rather than those in potentia. And forced upon them for reasons they believe to be false or misguided, at the direction of others who haven’t been able to persuade with their arguments.

    It’s not a trivial question. Or maybe he/she meant something else…

  11. Dark Tent

    I think Michael Tobis has it right in Long Strange trip. Rather than fret about the “death of science journalism” ( which may have died at least partly at its own hand), better for scientists to ‘learn to write”.

    That eliminates the “middle man” entirely with all that entails: possible mis-communication and efforts to “balance” the science with what usually amounts to nonsense, anyway.

    Here’s Tobis:

    The solution is for trained scientists to learn to write, not for journalists to learn to explain science. They are culturally misaligned. They do not report the facts. They report people’s opinions about the facts. But the physical world is not swayed by clusters of opinion.

    I could not agree with Tobis more on this one. While there are certainly science journalists who actually take the time to understand and accurately represent the science, I have also seen a LOT of junk science.

    And the propensity of science journalists to “balance” the science against something (anything) that represents a “disagreement” (ie, alternative view) drives me as nuts as it drives Tobis. It’s just utter rubbish most of the time.

    Tobis has a perfect example at the top of his blog:

    Recently, a news crew from a television station in Denver came to speak with Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder.

    “They were interested in the role of El Niño in the cold weather we’ve been experiencing,” Trenberth said during a presentation today at NCAR to the CEJ’s environmental journalism fellows.
    So far, so good. But then after the interview was over, the reporter said that his superiors back at the station wanted to know “who was going to do the other side.”

    - via Tom Yulsman

  12. Nullius in Verba

    “But I must be permitted to observe that it is not the feeling sure of a doctrine (be it what it may) which I call an assumption of infallibility. It is the undertaking to decide that question for others, without allowing them to hear what can be said on the contrary side. And I denounce and reprobate this pretension not the less if it is put forth on the side of my most solemn convictions. However positive anyone’s persuasion may be, not only of the faculty but of the pernicious consequences, but (to adopt expressions which I altogether condemn) the immorality and impiety of opinion. – yet if, in pursuance of that private judgement, though backed by the public judgement of his country or contemporaries, he prevents the opinion from being heard in its defence, he assumes infallibility. And so far from the assumption being less objectionable or less dangerous because the opinion is called immoral or impious, this is the case of all others in which it is most fatal.”

    JS Mill, On Liberty.

  13. Dark Tent

    JS Mill was talking about “opinion”.

    Science deals with facts and logical structures based on those facts — not with “opinions”.

    or, as Michael Tobis has put “the physical world is not swayed by clusters of opinion.”

    For example: all the scientific evidence indicates that the earth is an oblate spheroid. That’s not opinion. It’s fact.

    Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity are examples of scientific logical structures meant to explain the facts. Such “scientific theories” are based on experimental evidence — not “opinion”.

    When scientists relay information about a particular scientific subject to the public, it’s not a matter of (scientists) “undertaking to decide that question for others”.

    Nature already made that decision. The scientists are simply summarizing what they have found.

    And in the case of science, arguing that people always need to “hear what can be said on the contrary side” [that the earth is flat or shaped like a banana*] would just be silly.

    Lots of things “can be said on the contrary side” — about special and general relativity, for example. In fact, lots of things are said (just do a google search on “Einstein disproved”).

    The vast majority of them are just goofy (both the ideas and the people peddling them) with no basis in reality whatsoever: with no experimental support or even logic.

    Does that mean that legitimate scientific results that conflict with relativity should never be reported on? Of course not.

    But what it does mean is that not every news story that is done on Einstein’s theories (or other well established scientific theories) needs to include the views of the “contrary side” for “balance” — as if to say “this one fellow has a conflicting ‘theory’ that should be placed on equal footing with Einstein’s theory (which has been subjected to countless experimental tests and is accepted by virtually every physicist who knows anything about it)”.

    Unfortunately, the latter propensity to give equal time to the outliers (sometimes even crackpots like Christopher Monckton) seems to be the operating assumption of much journalism today.

  14. Nullius in Verba

    Dark Trent,

    Mill was talking about how you go about better discovering the truth. It’s actually even more relevant to science than it is to ‘opinion’, and of course our current scientific understanding is never 100% certain, and is therefore very much ‘opinion’.

    Mill’s point was that humans being fallible and subconsciously biased, our best check that we’re not fooling ourselves is to examine the best arguments against our preferred theory. Arguments made in its favour are subject to confirmation bias, but arguments against, by the theory’s enemies, are the most effective check to see if there’s something wrong with an idea.

    Science derives from this philosophy the idea of falsificationism. When an idea is published, it is challenged and other scientists seek to discredit it. If they fail, in circumstances where they would reasonably be expected to have succeeded had the idea been false, then the idea gains scientific credibility.

    Mill’s argument was that by silencing opponents, one would undermined the best evidential support for one’s own doctrine, and the more important the doctrine the more catastrophic this sabotage would be.

    Now to take your examples – first, the shape of the Earth is not an oblate spheroid. It has mountains on it, for a start. The oblate spheroid is an approximation. Some people use the geoid as a better approximation. But in fact the shape of the Earth is an irregular fractal, and ever changing.

    This may at first seem a silly comment, but in fact it isn’t. The precise shape of the Earth is still undergoing measurement – there’s a research project called GOCE flying in an atmosphere-grazing orbit busy measuring it. Such things as tectonic movements are critical for very high accuracy geodesy, such as getting the GPS navigation system to work.

    Einstein’s general relativity is likewise under test by a satellite called Gravity Probe B. Cosmologists have proposed alternative models of gravity to try to explain things like galactic rotation curves. It is, in any case, known to be wrong since it conflicts at a very deep level with quantum mechanics.

    Scientists are constantly challenging such assumptions. If Newton could be overthrown after four hundred years, if Einstein is still being probed and challenged after a hundred, how much more so for AGW, many elements of which are only about a decade old?

    And while there are limits to how long a scientist will spend on it, most will answer even “silly” questions, like how do we know that the Earth isn’t flat. The aim is to provide the shortest and simplest test or argument by which it can be demonstrated, which is a useful exercise anyway. Often a scientific observation is initially discovered by a complicated argument, but the efforts to simplify it then lead to far more profound discoveries and deep connections with other areas of knowledge. And sometimes, as for example with the Mpemba effect, scientists taking such questions seriously can learn new things.

    The correct response to silly questions is not to prevent them being presented, but to make your own argument so simple, obvious, and clear that anybody would just look silly saying anything else. Your explanation teaches the audience enough about the subject to be able to spot the flaws in the contrary argument for themselves. Being able to do so is a sign of the strength of your own ideas, and inability to do so of their weakness.

    But the public understanding of science is held in such low regard that most advocates on scientific subjects don’t even try, but instead try to use something commonly called “scientific authority” – although the term itself is an oxymoron. It is basically an argument from authority, which being a basically political method, is vulnerable to political challenges from alternative authorities. And this is where we come to shutting out opponents, because authority only works if only your side has access to it.

    It’s especially difficult in the climate debate, because in fact in this case the facts and logical structures based on those facts are not generally on the side of CAGW, although many people continue to assert that they are. It’s not a simple either-or situation either. Some bits of the theory are correct, some bits are questionable, and others are simply false; but by concentrating on an over-simplified picture pieced together from the more-or-less correct bits and drawing attention away from the difficulties a more persuasive picture can be drawn.

    This is why journalists usually seek opposing views. (They don’t have to; but if they don’t, they can as well have an AGW-sceptic on without a challenger as a believer. The media does not arbitrate controversies in science.) If opponents cannot be found, or are obvious kooks, then it helps to support and confirm your statements. But if their arguments appear as good as yours, then you have some catching up to do, which thereby advances the state of knowledge.

    If you instead spend your time trying to prevent challenges being made it looks highly suspicious. People here have been wondering and asking where it all went wrong. Why are so many of the public turning away from AGW, and listening to the sceptics? What are we doing wrong in science communication? I think a large part of your answer is right there.

  15. Dark Tent

    Nullius

    Thanks for the response, but you are confusing what scientists do — in peer reviewed journals and at conferences — with the topic of this post: educating the public about science.

    Your argument that the earth is “not an oblate spheroid” actually highlights this confusion. Of course it has bumps (mountains) on it, but if the point is to educate the public (via science journalism) about the general shape of the earth and give them an idea that the earth is slightly “flattened” , “oblate spheroid” is a pretty good description.

    Your comments about GR indicate a similar confusion.

    Gravity probe B was about what scientists do: test theories. GPB tested (most of the analysis has been completed) fine predictions about GR (the frame dragging and geodetic effects) which, by all indications, the theory has passed to a high degree of precision.

    But the various predictions of GR have actually been tested many times before to varying degrees of precision. So far, the theroy passed all of those tests to within the experimental uncertainty. Is the theory “perfect” from the scientific standpoint? of course not. No theory is. Every theory is an approximation to reality (and as you indicated, GR is not consistent with QM).

    When it comes to science journalism, the key point is this: Until a theory comes along that better describes the way gravity works — ie, passes all the tests that GR has passed to better precision AND makes all the other confirmed predictions that GR has made (about black holes, bending of of starlight by massive objects, precession of mercury, etc), there is really no point in confusing the public with an ‘alternative” theory that may (or may not) even be as good as GR.

    the upshot is that what scientists do (in scientific journals) is not the same as what journalists do (in newspapers). Nor should it be.

    Most people have neither the knowledge, training, nor inclination to follow the details laid out in scientific journals — and any who do have the necessary background can actually go to the journals to satisfy themselves. Nothing is stopping the latter group from doing so.

    When one includes what are essentially ridiculous “contrary arguments” merely for the sake of “balance” (which occurs in science journalism), one is far more likely to confuse the public than inform them.

    Finally, Though I do not claim to be an expert, I was educated as a physicist and spent many years teaching high school so am not just pulling this stuff out of my arse.

    And I will let others decide whether JS Mills was talking about “opinion” when he used that very word (3 times).

  16. Dark Tent

    Incidentally,

    Orac (Respectful Insolence) expresses my views about the science journalism “balance” meme far better than i ever could ( in “Censorship.” You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”)

    time and time again, I myself have complained about the lazy “tell both sides” imperative so many journalists seem to consider absolutlely essential, an imperative that leads to journalistic atrocities in which for every story about vaccines, an anti-vaccine loon (often from Generation Rescue) has to be interviewed to give “the other side”) or for every story about teaching evolution in public school science classes, a creationist loon has to be interviewed to give “the other side.” The point, of course, is that, when it comes to certain manufactroversies, no matter how without a basis in science the crank side is, somehow journalists feel compelled to include a crank on equal footing with scientists, be it for controversy or to tug at the heartstrings with the case of a parent struggling to raise a severely autistic child and blaming vaccines for the child’s plight.

  17. Nullius in Verba

    “Thanks for the response, but you are confusing what scientists do — in peer reviewed journals and at conferences — with the topic of this post: educating the public about science.”

    What I’m talking about is the difference between telling the public that the Earth is an oblate spheroid, and telling the public how to tell whether it is an oblate spheroid, how to approach the question, what it means, why we use different levels of approximation, and which such level the story “the Earth is an oblate spheroid” actually is.

    My point is that if you do the latter, then when some crank comes along and points out that there are mountains on it, the people will recognise at once what they are doing, and where they made their mistake. If you just tell them it’s an “oblate spheroid” with no background, no evidence, no discussion (quite often without even telling them what ‘oblate’ means) – then somebody else can come along and say it is actually prolate, and they are clueless as to how to tell who’s telling the truth.
    (Note: this is an analogy.)

    If you rely upon authority to tell them it is oblate, they are vulnerable to alternative authorities telling them otherwise. Authorities have also lied to the public before – how can you stop that, if the authorities are allowed to control who gets a hearing? People know that, and are therefore very suspicious when one side isn’t allowed to speak. That’s why this reliance on authority has ultimately proved fatal.

    The point about getting the flat-Earthers on the show is to make sure you’re presenting a strong argument. If a flat-Earther can really present a case just as convincing as yours, then yours must be pretty damn poor. Do something about that – don’t moan about the flat-Earther being given the air time to expose your weaknesses.

    The problem is that scientists have made this separation between science, and what they do on the radio. The fact that they are separate tells you that what they do on the radio is not science. Little wonder, then, that it has resulted in failure.

  18. Dark Tent

    Nullius claims “The point about getting the flat-Earthers on the show is to make sure you’re presenting a strong argument.”

    By that logic, I need to have some Holocaust deniers on a show to make sure I am presenting a strong argument for the reality of the Holocaust.

  19. Nullius in Verba

    I believe the usual convention is that the first to trigger Godwin’s law automatically loses the argument. Thanks. An easy victory, and it makes your side look bad.

    But to answer your question – yes, if you have taught history correctly, then there is no harm whatsoever in putting Holocaust deniers on the show. If you can’t safely do so, then it demonstrates that you’ve failed in educating people, you’ve thereby left them vulnerable to conversion as soon as they do hear the Holocaust denier’s arguments, and you have handed them an enormous propaganda victory and tool, by demonstrating that your own arguments and evidence for the Holocaust having happened are unable and unwilling to stand up to scrutiny.

    You have also stood up for the denial of a human right, and for the illiberal denial of intellectual freedom. Do you really think that the evidence for the Holocaust having happened is insufficient to convince?

    When Mill said “And so far from the assumption being less objectionable or less dangerous because the opinion is called immoral or impious, this is the case of all others in which it is most fatal,” he was perfectly correct. Hiding the pitiful arguments of Holocaust deniers from the full glare of public examination is fatal, promoting the belief. And the very immorality of the idea you thereby promote is what makes this so disastrous. Mill was quite right. And so was Godwin.

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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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