"Keep a Distance From the Media"

By Chris Mooney | July 10, 2010 10:35 am

Andy Revkin has the scoop on a letter from the IPCC (very misguided, to my mind) advising its scientists against having media contacts. An IPCC scientist, Edward R. Carr, also thinks this is a very bad idea.

More specifically, IPCC chair Rajendra Pachauri wrote this to researchers:

I would also like to emphasize that enhanced media interest in the work of the IPCC would probably subject you to queries about your work and the IPCC. My sincere advice would be that you keep a distance from the media and should any questions be asked about the Working Group with which you are associated, please direct such media questions to the Co-chairs of your Working Group and for any questions regarding the IPCC to the secretariat of the IPCC.

What Pachauri’s letter should have said is the following:

I would also like to emphasize that enhanced media interest in the work of the IPCC would probably subject you to queries about your work and the IPCC. For this reason, the IPCC has developed a number of tip sheets, trainings, and other content to help scientists who may receive queries from the media. We also have several trained media consultants available at any time to answer your questions about the press, and to manage any journalistic contacts that you may have or help set up interviews. For more detail and to avail yourself of these resources, please see our new science in the media website….

Comments (42)

  1. Hitch

    It’s a two-edged sword really. Reminds me of the anti-vax situation. The problem is this. A scientist can present something that is valid, but given that people do not understand context and will read it in their own framing, a scientist who is not aware of the public context can do a lot of damage speaking to the public.

    While I think scientists should speak to the public, the fact that some topics are heavily politicized and quotes are not treated fairly but used for or against a cause, I think any scientist who engages in public discussion has the responsibility to understand the consequences of being quote-mined, cited out of context, etc.

    Without that understanding a decade of public discussion can flare doing untold damage to science funding, public image of science and so forth. And all for an innocent comment that in an academic context would be understood exactly as meant.

    In some highly contested areas I can indeed see that temporarly focusing public communication through people who are highly trained in the issue and the public perception are best to further the discourse. I’m in no position if this is such a case, but it’s clear that climategate was a disaster for science, for the field and for the money spend to fight it (and keep fighting it). People who wanted the wedge win no matter what, as long as the topic can be kept alive as controversial.

  2. laserboy

    My word, the world must have ended, because you finally posted a statement I agree with.

  3. GM

    For this reason, the IPCC has developed a number of tip sheets, trainings, and other content to help scientists who may receive queries from the media.

    What exactly would such tip sheets contain if it is not a secret?

    It is quite clear why the IPCC doesn’t want scientists to talk to the media. The question is where the problem is – is it what the scientists have to tell the media or is it what the media does with it?

    As a scientist I am trained to solve problem by trying to eliminate the root cause so for me the answer to the question above matters a lot.

  4. David

    GM:

    I would hazard a guess that the problem is more with the journalists than the scientists. In this world of ambush reporting, sound bites, and agenda promoting journalism, the scientists don’t have that much defense. They will equivocate on the things that are outside their exact area of expertise and things that they believe is true but cannot absolutely prove and the media pounces on it like a juicy morsel.

    Bluntly put, the journalists have decided to take on the roles of experts and policy leaders regardless of their qualifications. The whole idea of unbiased reporting is pretty much a thing of the past. It is a quaint, outdated idea that they snicker about when someone brings it up.

  5. GM

    Basically yes. So why is that some people are talking about how scientists have to be better at communicating all the time and never talk about how journalists need to display at least some basic scientific literacy? And as I will not get tired to repeat, by scientific literacy, I mean not just knowing facts, but thinking like a scientist (of course, if journalists were thinking more like scientists, it would greatly improve the quality of journalism in general, but they show no intention to change that, often even the ones who label themselves as science journalists)

  6. David

    GM:

    Most likely, they are more worried about people saying something that might be construed as not following the party line. The sad thing is that the instead of the science driving the policy, the politicians are at the wheel. The people who are on the political side of organizations such as the IPCC, and their opponents, are cherry picking the science (or filtering extraneous data, depending on your viewpoint) that supports their goals and saying that if you are not for their entire package, you are “Ignoring the Science”. Shrouding this filtering process in secrecy just makes it worse. People have lost faith not because of the science or their understanding of it. They have lost faith because the politicians and journalists have muddied the water.

    The biggest problem we now have is journalists just stirring the pot. Some is by putting their own “spin on the facts” to further what they believe the policies should be. Some is just tabloid reporting to garner audience. They actually have more impact than the politicians. We don’t hear from the politicians directly. We hear them through the filter of journalists.

    On the scientific side, the science reporters take everything that gets published as an established fact rather than part of the scientific process. Some things that get published are wrong. That doesn’t mean that the scientists have done anything untoward. They publish their results and it either gets validated or invalidated as knowledge increases. We hear some of the oddest reporting when some studies get published and then we rarely hear when the studies get repudiated. The medical reporting is probably the worst in this respect.

    I know that you think that it is ignorance of science on the public’s part. I have a different take. Nobody can keep up with all the research on every scientific topic regardless of interest or training. We have to rely on the journalists to keep us informed. I believe that the source of the problem is that the journalists are not performing their duties responsibly.

  7. Nullius in Verba

    “What exactly would such tip sheets contain if it is not a secret?”

    It’s not a secret. I did try to give a link, but it seems to have been spamfiltered.

    See Revkin’s story linked above and the update at the bottom. I was interested to note the advice about being positive.

    I suspect Pachauri’s advice is in light of Media comments about “voodoo science”…

  8. Hitch

    Journalists are biased in a very simple way. They want an exciting story printed to their name.

    This can have various consequences. I have seen articles on situations I know very well where the journalist tried to help and make the prose more flashy, but that still biased the content.

    In other cases the journalist is out for a scandal and will print a story that can be justified as a possible interpretation from the material collected. Typically people are not quoted at length but just a few lines. If one line or another gets elevated, can drastically change the main thrust of the article.

    In fact I had one case where I’m fairly sure that a journalist wanted to actively find a certain story and was looking for confirming evidence. He was actually wrong, but he kept interviewing and observing looking for tell-tale signs. Luckily nothing was ever printed. But those who were under suspicion tip-toed around the guy, not to hide anything, but not to say anything that would be misunderstood.

    A scientist who does not have experience with engaging with journalists can very easily fall into the trap.

    For example on a topic under contest in the public eye, if a scientist who is asked if there is dissent on the topic answers: “Yes there is dissent.” That can be elevated. A journalist can print: “Even the academic establishment is fully aware of the problems and acknowledge that the topic is by no means settled. Prof. QuoteMined of University of Whyland said that there is active dissent over the matter in the field.”

    The correct answer may actually have been “There is virtual consensus in the community, but there are a few dissenters. Out of X publications only y% show inconclusive data. Some see that as a sign that there is no effect but others indicate methodological problem. The broad consensus is that this does not question current status of the theory which is very well confirmed by extensive studies. A review article was recently published in Nature (citation) discussing this in detail.”

    In terms of answer these are the same, but the latter is careful to give the correct context and means for verification so it cannot be misconstrued.

    A journalist can still construct that there is dissent from this statement, but then the professor can come back and reissue his statement in a letter to the editor saying that this does not properly reflect his position and give the full quote again.

    A correction to the first statement will look like he’s trying to change the story, or hiding something.

    So simply communicating carelessly can do damage, especially if the public is already primed for dissent existing and having roughly equal weight to the supporting position.

  9. ChrisD

    @GM

    The question is where the problem is – is it what the scientists have to tell the media or is it what the media does with it?

    Well, that question’s pretty easy to answer.

    Phil Jones (paraphrased): “Since 1995 it has warmed at the rate of 0.2degC/decade, but that timeframe is really too short, so it just misses statistical significance at the 95% confidence level.”

    Daily Mail headline: “Climategate U-turn as scientist at centre of row admits: There has been no global warming since 1995″

    And there’s plenty more where that came from.

  10. ChrisD

    Most likely, they are more worried about people saying something that might be construed as not following the party line.

    I think you’re dead wrong. The problem isn’t scientists failing to follow “the party line,” it’s naive scientists saying perfectly correct things that can be misinterpreted or misquoted, whether intentionally or unintentionally, by the media.

    Ask Phil Jones how that works.

    I think the policy is misguided, but still I see no intent to muzzle the scientists due to fears that they might not “follow the party line.” It’s because scientists aren’t trained in dealing with the media, and what they say routinely gets twisted into something completely unrecognizable.

  11. ChrisD

    @GM

    So why is that some people are talking about how scientists have to be better at communicating all the time and never talk about how journalists need to display at least some basic scientific literacy?

    Amen to that.

  12. GM

    7. Nullius in Verba Says:
    July 11th, 2010 at 5:10 am
    “What exactly would such tip sheets contain if it is not a secret?”

    It’s not a secret. I did try to give a link, but it seems to have been spamfiltered.

    OK, so they did send such a list. Then what is Mooney complaining about?

    See Revkin’s story linked above and the update at the bottom. I was interested to note the advice about being positive.

    I didn’t like it at all. How are going to fix the problem with the scientific literacy of journalists if we never tell them that they are scientifically illiterate?

  13. GM

    ChrisD @ 9:

    Classic. I have a number of similar examples from my own field, but the subject matter of my field isn’t civilization collapse-threatening so they aren’t so tragically sad…

  14. GM

    Hitch @ 9:

    There is a very straightforward solution to the problem with reporting of science. It is taken away from journalists and handed to scientists. It is not as if scientists are terrible writers, quite the opposite, we spend most of our time writing stuff. And while it will add to the already heavy burden that the never-getting-smaller list of things to do imposes on us, writing a newspaper article is definitely much easier and less time-consuming than writing a scientific paper while the benefits to the scientific community are enormous.

    The problem is how you sell the idea to newspapers, although it is really in their interest too as it will result in at least some cost-cutting for them, as underpaid as journalists currently are.

  15. David

    ChrisD:

    “The problem isn’t scientists failing to follow “the party line,” it’s naive scientists saying perfectly correct things that can be misinterpreted or misquoted, whether intentionally or unintentionally, by the media.”

    These are two separate issues.

    As far as the scientists being naive, I say that is bunk. The scientists are not naive. They are highly educated in their field and they know the full implications of anything that they say regarding their specialized field. If they are not up to snuff in their field, they don’t last long. So as far as having to get things vetted through their “Working Group”, that is pure political spin and CYA.

    The second issue is more insidious. If the journalists are missing the facts or misrepresenting them, that is the journalists’ fault and not the scientists fault. If we have journalists that are that ignorant of the topics that they are reporting or that dishonest, they should be canned. Generally, the editorial staff that is accepting the stories of these journalists are totally ignorant of the topics that they cover and therefore there is no real editorial oversight. The science journalists get to make up their own rules and cover the stories however they choose.

    In general, the majority of journalists are selected for all the wrong reasons. Getting a job as a journalist is all about having the best connections, being in the best fraternities or sororities, having the best hair, or some other such high qualification. If they are reporting science, it is usually because they drew the short straw. The majority of journalists do not see science reporting as the important news. They see it as ranking barely above reporting a kitten stuck in a tree. They are seen by other journalists as the ones to call in when nobody else wants the story or they want to fill some dead time between “real” news stories.

  16. Nullius in Verba

    #9,

    But it was a U-turn, just not the one you seem to think it was. Up until that point, every time a sceptic said “there has been no detectable rise over the past 10 years” and even “global warming has stopped” the response was that the temperature was still rising – some even said it was accelerating – because if you drew a longer-term trend line (which of course relied on past data), the line would still go up.

    The point was to avoid acknowledging a perfectly true statement for fear that it would be misinterpreted as evidence that AGW was falsified (which it wasn’t) because global warming had stopped (which it had, depending on how you define it, although possibly only temporarily). The problem was, they had just sold the 15-year rise in the 80s and 90s as “evidence” of AGW (which it wasn’t) and were therefore rather stuck with the argument. If you had said the 80s/90s were evidence, how could you claim the 00s were not? Therefore, they claimed the trend line was more ‘real’ than the data itself.

    Thus, Jones’ admission was indeed a significant turnaround.

    But I agree, the subtlety might have been lost on the Daily Mail. The headline does slightly misrepresent what the sceptics were getting so excited about. Headlines often do.

    #12
    “OK, so they did send such a list. Then what is Mooney complaining about?”

    The problem is the separate advice from Pachauri to try to avoid talking to the media, which is no doubt based on the fallout from his famous “voodoo science” comment, and his experiences with Richard North digging into his corporate connections and financial interests.

    It’s a different matter entirely – talking about the science with the public is not the same as talking about IPCC rules and processes, whether they were followed, or what they think about Climategate and the sceptics. I don’t think Pachauri was suggesting they stop doing the former.

  17. ChrisD

    @Nullius 9

    But it was a U-turn

    Oh, please. The headline explicitly claimed that Jones admitted that “there has been no global warming since 1995″. That isn’t what he said, and you know it wasn’t.

  18. ChrisD

    @David 15

    As far as the scientists being naive, I say that is bunk. The scientists are not naive. They are highly educated in their field

    But not in communications. And especially not in talking to journalists who may or may not be up to speed on very basic science and math. The Jones quote in #9 is a classic example. His response was honest and accurate, but easily twisted, which is precisely what the Daily Mail did.

    He should have realized that the 15-year timeframe was deliberately chosen because it was the longest you could use without reaching statistical significance (as Lubos Motl, who came up with the question, cheerfully admits). Understanding this would have produced a much different answer, maybe: “No, but there hasn’t been any statistically significant warming since last Tuesday, either. The timeframe you’re asking about isn’t long enough for climate analysis, so it’s not a good question. Ask me about 20 years instead of 15. For that matter, ask me about 16 years instead of 15.”

    But that’s just not the way most scientists think. He got a direct question, and he gave a direct & honest answer, assuming that everyone would understand the implied caveats. Not everyone does, and apparently that includes the Daily Mail.

    No, if the media want scientists to be free and open with their answers, they should consider not twisting what scientists say into unrecognizable shape.

  19. Nullius in Verba

    “Oh, please. The headline explicitly claimed that Jones admitted that “there has been no global warming since 1995″. That isn’t what he said, and you know it wasn’t.”

    It depends on exactly what you mean by “global warming” – are you using it as code for the entire belief system of AGW science/effects/predictions, or simply to mean the warming of the globe?

    There is a distinction between “global warming” and “the contribution of anthropogenic CO2 to temperature trend”. “Global warming” simply means a “significant positive change in global mean surface temperature anomaly”. (If you don’t include the word “significant”, then it switches from warming to cooling and back again every few months. It’s cooling right now.) It happened to be convenient for climate scientists to conflate the two, because global warming (which was definitely happening) could thereby be easily misread as evidence for an anthropogenic contribution (which of course it isn’t). An excellent example of “framing”.

    (I’m not saying it was deliberate, by the way.)

    It is a perfectly true statement to say that there had been no global warming since 1995, and what Jones had actually said implied this quite clearly. You cannot deduce from this that the anthropogenic contribution tending to cause temperature to rise had stopped, but that wasn’t what the headline said. There’s no problem with the headline, the problem is with the way people are misinterpreting it. And as usual, the ones making the error want to blame somebody else.

    And yes, it’s quite likely that a lot of innocent people reading it did make that misinterpretation. “Global warming” had been falsely equated to “Anthropogenic global warming” for so long that it has entered the cultural background. As a matter of principle, I would correct the misapprehension whenever I can, but I also can’t help but see it as poetic justice: your own frame comes back to bite you.

    Headlines are brief by design and so necessarily leave most of the story out. That’s pretty much unavoidable.

  20. David

    ChrisD:

    “But that’s just not the way most scientists think. He got a direct question, and he gave a direct & honest answer, assuming that everyone would understand the implied caveats. Not everyone does, and apparently that includes the Daily Mail.”

    If you had said that before the rise of AGW in public consciousness I might have agreed. As a researcher in climate change, he would have had to be living off in a cave on a deserted island somewhere to not know what type of questions to expect and what the motivations of the interviewer were. He also must have known of the nature of the Daily Mail’s journalistic direction. It’s not as if he were being interviewed by a reporter from a heavy science publication.

    I think that the reporter was being a jerk and intentionally trying to trip him up so he would say something embarrassing. Just because someone sets a trap, doesn’t mean you have to put your foot in it. For such a world recognized researcher in the area, I think he made a pretty stupid mistake. You don’t go on the record with any implied caveats. I don’t have any idea of the people involved in this example but generally it is because someone thinks that they are too smart to be tripped up and think that they can just ad lib an interview. That is the same problem that makes people say that an attorney that represents himself has a fool for a client.

    As to the headline, well, I can only restate my belief that the science journalists do not have any real editorial oversight and the journalists make up their own rules.

  21. Nullius in Verba

    David,

    “He also must have known of the nature of the Daily Mail’s journalistic direction.”

    The interview was conducted by Roger Harrabin of the BBC, who is sympathetic to Jones and a firmly pro-AGW reporter. The aim of the interview was to demonstrate openness and honesty, by giving Jones the opportunity to answer his critics in a non-hostile setting, while at the same time the BBC showed that it was taking the criticisms seriously and not whitewashing them. At least, seriously enough to start asking the right questions.

    Roger Harrabin asked the sceptics to provide the questions, and they were provided to Phil Jones by email so that he could answer them without rushing – and no doubt with plenty of media-relations advice. I’m quite sure they knew where the questions were going, but at the time it was more important to establish a impression of truthfulness and an absence of spin. Trying to omit, dodge or spin any of the questions at that time would have been fatal, not just for Jones’ reputation but the BBC’s. It was supposed to say “look how open and honest we’re being – we’re even answering the question when it’s an obvious trap.”

    It was very professionally done, the first thing they got right in responding to the media crisis, and it was also the right thing to do. It did Jones’ reputation a lot of good, even amongst the sceptics.

    The Daily Mail (and dozens of other sources) simply read the BBC and reported on what they found most interesting about it.

  22. David

    Nullius in Verba:

    Well, that is interesting since the only discussion I read was presented as if he was ambushed with the questioning personally. I guess that this is just another example of the poor quality of science reporting in general.

    Unfortunately, the media seems to be more focused on promoting their importance as the “fourth estate” rather than actually keeping people informed. It is actually pretty ironic that the journalists often bring up how people are ignorant and ignore the fact that it is the journalists that have failed in their primary mission of alleviating that ignorance. I guess I should have stopped being surprised back when the journalists started interviewing and debating other journalists.

  23. ChrisD

    The Daily Mail (and dozens of other sources) simply read the BBC and reported on what they found most interesting about it.

    I would rephrase that as “The Daily Mail simply read the BBC and lied about what they could.”

  24. David

    Well, at least they didn’t say something unfounded like glaciers disappearing by 2035. I am not even picking on Pachauri. The media just reported what he said without any fact checking. There are not that many glaciation experts. A simple Google search and an email could have fixed it. They could have contacted Kotlyakov. Instead, they just blindly repeat whatever they are told because they believe the IPCC can say no wrong.

    The media are not fact checking on what comes out of the mouths of people that they perceive as being on “their side” or the “right side”. Then people wonder where Fox News and company find their ammunition to stir up things and promote their own agenda.

    Which leaves us with the basic question: Is it healthy for journalists to be promoting one side or another of an issue? They are not the experts of the science. They are the experts on writing and communicating. They are people and have a right to their own views, but should they be using the media to forward their own views rather than presenting facts and information? They seem to be overstepping their role.

  25. Publicola

    @Nullius in Verba, 21:

    “The Daily Mail (and dozens of other sources) simply read the BBC and reported on what they found most interesting about it.”

    No, the Daily Mail outright lied when they declared that Dr. Jones said “There has been no global warming since 1995″. Dr. Jones in fact said that there was global warming since 1995, at a significance level that is “quite close” to 95%.

    That type of misrepresentation and outright lying by the media is what Dr. Pachauri is concerned about, though I agree with CM that Pachauri ‘s memo is misguided.

  26. ChrisD

    @Nullius 19

    It depends on exactly what you mean by “global warming” – are you using it as code for the entire belief system of AGW science/effects/predictions, or simply to mean the warming of the globe?

    An earlier–and considerably more annoyed–post apparently got moderated into hyperspace. Probably for the best.

    Here is the question that the Beeb asked Jones:

    Do you agree that from 1995 to the present there has been no statistically-significant global warming

    Now, you tell me. Is this a question about temperature, or is it a question about the “entire belief system of AGW science/effects/predictions”?

  27. Nullius in Verba

    #26

    It’s a question about temperature.

    It was intended as a question about temperature, Phil Jones understood it to be about temperature (since he was already no doubt familiar with the exact point the sceptic was trying to make), and he answered it as a question about temperature. The question is whether the Daily Mail understood it to be a question about temperature. – I’ve no way of knowing what was in their minds, although as we’ve already noted, you can’t logically get from what Jones said to the demise of AGW theory. So I strongly suspect that they meant temperature, too.

    Sceptics have been arguing that “global warming” is not synonymous with the AGW belief system for years, now. Equating the two is one of those unfortunate media simplifications of the science that we’re all complaining about.

  28. Nullius in Verba

    #26,
    “An earlier–and considerably more annoyed–post apparently got moderated into hyperspace.”

    Hard to say. I just had a reply to Publicola vanish, as well, and it wasn’t even annoyed. I was just discussing definitions. I think the moderators might just be struggling with the increased load.

  29. ChrisD

    @Nullius 27

    This is really quite simple. Did Jones say “There has been no global warming since 1995,” or didn’t he?

    Of course he didn’t. He explicitly said that there was warming, and quantified it.

    Yet the Mail said he did. That’s a lie.

  30. Nullius in Verba

    ChrisD,

    “Of course he didn’t. He explicitly said that there was warming, and quantified it.”

    How literal do you want to get? His answer to the question about “global warming” was “yes, but only just.” He did not, in his answer, use the words “there was warming”; so to say that he did is a – what did you call it? – let’s just say a terminological inexactitude.

    What he then went on to quantify was a trend (strictly speaking, a least-squares estimate of the linear trend under an additive Gaussian AR(1) error model), which he said was positive, but not significant. The lack of significance is important. It means that the trend is not statistically distinguishable from zero, any signal here is not distinguishable from the noise, it’s just random weather variability such as one would expect if there was nothing going on. I.e. exactly what you would expect to see if there was no global warming. If you really wish to declare equivalent the terms “statistically insignificant but positive random noise in a calculated trend” with “global warming” then be my guest – it would give me a good laugh – but it’s not the normal and scientifically conventional usage of the term, and I think you’d be the first complain if I tried to define it in that way.

    If I was asked whether I had found homeopathy was medically beneficial and replied “not quite, I’ve observed a positive correlation with beneficial medical outcomes but it’s not statistically significant” would you insist that it was a lie to say that I had admitted homeopathy was not beneficial? I think not. This is grasping at straws.

    From the interview:
    “B – Do you agree that from 1995 to the present there has been no statistically-significant global warming

    Yes, but only just. I also calculated the trend for the period 1995 to 2009. This trend (0.12C per decade) is positive, but not significant at the 95% significance level.”

  31. ChrisD

    This is just pathetic.

    You simply cannot defend the logic that says these two statements are the same:

    1. “I am a bit less than 95% certain that A has attribute X”

    2. “A does not have attribute X”

    Jones said 1; the Mail said 2. You know it. I don’t understand what you’re trying to do here. It’s very, very trolly.

    Someone has given me a die that may be loaded. I roll it 10 times and I get 9 sixes and a four. I say, “The results are consistent with the die being loaded, but this isn’t very many rolls, so it does not quite reach significance at the 95% confidence level.”

    The Mail‘s headline the next day is, “ChrisD says die not loaded.”

    Now, is that what I actually said? Did I say it’s not loaded? Are you seriously going to defend the Mail for saying that? I mean, seriously?

    But however you try to weasel out of it, you have proved my original point, in spades (see #10). It is patently obvious that Jones did not intend to say or even imply that there was no warming. Yet, you are quite content to let the Mail‘s horrible reporting off the hook because he did not explicitly say the exact words, “There was warming” .

    Which was my point precisely. Scientists are not trained to deal with media. Here is a top scientist who had plenty time to work on his responses, and still he didn’t answer in a way that prevented the media from screwing it up and claiming that he said what he never said.

    Cased closed.

    If I was asked whether I had found homeopathy was medically beneficial and replied “not quite,[etc.]” … would you insist that it was a lie to say that I had admitted homeopathy was not beneficial? “

    Absolutely, I would insist that. And so should you. You should write to the editor, because you’ve been seriously misquoted. You didn’t say that it’s not beneficial, you said you can’t be quite sure that it is beneficial.

  32. Nullius in Verba

    “I roll it 10 times and I get 9 sixes and a four. […] so it does not quite reach significance at the 95% confidence level.”

    Ahhh! Is the problem here that you don’t actually know what significance levels are? That would certainly explain some of the confusion.

    In the example you give, the mathematics backs up the intuition. Common sense says that the die is almost certainly loaded, and the mathematics confirms it. The probability of 9 or more 6’s out of ten with a straight die is about 51/6^10 =0.0000008434 giving significance at the 99.9999156% level. That’s a lot stronger than a mere 95%, which you would exceed if you got two 6’s out of two. (That would give significance at the 97.2% level.)

    If you got double-six first go, would you immediately conclude the dice were loaded? Because that’s a stricter standard than you’re setting for the weather.

    I wouldn’t defend the logic that those two statements are the same, but neither of them is what Dr Jones said. That isn’t what significance levels mean. You say you don’t understand what I’m trying to do here – what I’m trying to do is to explain is that there is another way to interpret the statements that have been made. You have picked one way – whether that’s a valid way or not is not essential to my point – but there is another, quite widespread way of interpreting it that is a valid way of looking at it. Seen in that way, the headline wasn’t untrue.

    I was trying to get across the idea of global warming as an observation or outcome of measurement, with the scientific convention that to constitute an observation of an effect one requires statistical significance. I would classify an undetected effect smaller than the background random noise as “not beneficial” or “no effect”. I’m not clear on what your difficulty is with the idea – whether you’re still thinking of it as a hypothesised contributor to temperatures (in which case it might exist without being observed) or whether you’re classifying non-significant noise in the right direction as the effect in question. I don’t think it’s worth pursuing any further though.

    The problem is that the phrase has been re-used and misused so often that it is no longer clear what it means. That’s why scientists generally prefer to speak in the language of mathematics. But it’s not realistic to ask that of the Daily Mail, or its readers, so we are stuck with ambiguous and approximate terms. If I paint my back yard white, does it have any effect on the global heat balance, cooling the Earth? I’d be happy to say on TV that it would have “no effect”. I realise that technically, it does have a tiny effect, but it would confuse more than it would clarify to say so. And I’ll pay attention to demands for strict mathematical definitions in the popular media when the pro-AGW side stop making the same or worse errors.

  33. ChrisD

    The probability of 9 or more 6’s out of ten with a straight die is about 51/6^10 =0.0000008434 giving significance at the 99.9999156% level.

    There was no intention that these should be interpreted as real numbers or that the actual significance should be calculated. It was an analogy. Perhaps I should have explicitly stated this, although I thought it was pretty obvious.

    Is the problem here that you don’t actually know what significance levels are?

    I understand significance levels perfectly well, thank you, and that is not the problem here. The problem here is that Jones didn’t say that there was no warming, the Mail said that he did, and you won’t admit it. That’s the problem here.

  34. Nullius in Verba

    ChrisD,

    “There was no intention that these should be interpreted as real numbers or that the actual significance should be calculated. It was an analogy. Perhaps I should have explicitly stated this, although I thought it was pretty obvious.”

    This is heavily ironic. We’re having a conversation about how it is unacceptable to paraphrase somebody’s technical argument even slightly, and yet I’m supposed to figure out that when you said A you “obviously” meant B. I have no objection to that, but I would like to point it out.

    If I understand the point you was making, you wanted to give an example where an effect was very obviously and intuitively significant and equate it rhetorically to the under-95%-confidence case that wasn’t, but which you would like us to treat as if it were. You appear to be trying to give the impression that statistically non-significant results can still be very strong evidence. If I thought you knew it was wrong, I’d call it deliberately misleading. But I am being generous in offering an alternative.

    Here’s a better analogy. You toss a die three times, and it comes up 6 twice. That gives us a 92.6% confidence level that the die is loaded for 6s. The results are consistent with the die being loaded, but this isn’t very many rolls, so it does not quite reach significance at the 95% confidence level. The analogy now gives an accurate impression of exactly what 95% significance really means. And I have to say, I think most people in a casino who saw a die roll a 6, a 2, and a 6 wouldn’t immediately leap up and accuse the casino of cheating; that they are 92.6% certain of it. I don’t think anyone reasonable would violently object to saying the sequence 6, 2, 6 was not ‘biased’ in favour of 6s. Maybe I’m wrong – you could ask and see.

    “The problem here is that Jones didn’t say that there was no warming”

    Since quoting it with the wider context didn’t work last time, I’ll zoom in a little. “Do you agree that from 1995 to the present there has been no statistically-significant global warming?” – “Yes”

    Can you see it yet?

    Now try to see it like a tabloid headline writer would. Brevity is at a premium, you’re only supposed to report it if it’s news, and you know the level of your readers.

  35. Chris Mooney

    Dudes. Is it fair to say that this is not getting anywhere?

  36. Nullius in Verba

    #36,

    Yes, I’d say so.

    If somebody isn’t understanding a point then it might be because it wasn’t explained clearly, so it’s usually worth having a few more goes. (I thought it was here.) If ideology is getting in the way, then it’s a useful exercise (and also for anybody else watching) to use the irresolvable disagreement to refine the presentation of the points. It’s verbal sparring – it doesn’t have to get anywhere to serve a useful purpose.

    This subject constitutes a major split in society on an important policy decision, which is never going to be resolved if we don’t talk to one another. You have said it yourself on the subject of theists and atheists. You have to talk, and keep on communicating, even if it doesn’t appear to be getting anywhere. You can’t just give up when the other side doesn’t make an immediate conversion. It takes time.

  37. Nullius in Verba

    There is another point, and I hesitate to bring it up because I notice that comments tend to get deleted when the subject of ‘defamation’ is mentioned. (Hence the separate post.) We have had a number of comments above accusing the Daily Mail (and others) of lying, stated as fact rather than opinion.

    It is quite natural in partisan debate to see such accusations asymmetrically – on one side they’re fair comment, on the other an intolerable libel. And it is quite natural for those doing it to not even realise.

    I don’t believe such serious charges should all be allowed to stand unanswered. However, I wouldn’t want them banned or deleted, either. That’s counter-productive. I think the most productive method of dealing with these is to talk them through.

    I had hoped to help you all see that some of the intemperate things commonly said about sceptics can be legitimately questioned. Maybe it could reduce that asymmetry somewhat. I would hope that it would lead to a more civilised debate, in which we all listen more.

    Incidentally, some other blogs have a way of moderating in which the problematic comments are put up but the problem parts snipped out – with a visible indication that this has been done (and if necessary, why). This has a number of advantages. It means the commenter isn’t left wondering whether the message has simply got lost, they get feedback on exactly what the problem was so they can modify their behaviour, and others in the debate can see that the person replied but the reply was blocked; they didn’t simply run away. It’s based on the same sort of blog ethics as clearly marking updates and significant edits to a controversial post.

  38. ChrisD

    Dudes. Is it fair to say that this is not getting anywhere?

    Yup.

    On the upside, I now understand more fully what I was trying to deal with and why it’s pretty much a waste of time.

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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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