>Scientists and Journalists on ‘Lessons Learned’ (Pts. 1 & 2 – Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media)

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Scientists’ ‘Lessons Learned’

Scientists and Journalists on ‘Lessons Learned’ (Pt. 1)

November 18, 2010

By any account, it’s been a challenging 12 months for climate science, for climate scientists, and for the ever-changing face of journalism as its practitioners struggle, or not, to keep their audiences adequately informed and knowledgeable.

From the November 19, 2009, New York Times and Washington Post front-page initial news reports of hacked e-mails from the University of East Anglia (a place up until then unlikely to find itself on American newspaper’s front pages) … to subsequent findings of a silly factual mistake in the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment forecasting disappearing Himalayan glaciers just 25 years from now … to the disappointments of last December’s international negotiations in Copenhagen … to data pointing to growing uncertainty and confusion on the climate change issue in the minds of many Americans and their public officials ….

The list could go on, but why bother? It’s been a tough period, notwithstanding repeated subsequent independent investigations finding, by and large, no damage to the underlying science itself.

A tough year. And, no doubt, not the last one. An increasingly challenging political environment promises more interesting times ahead, both for the science and for the scientists who devote their lives to the subject. What’s more, who’s to say the hacked e-mails brouhaha (the term “climategate” only lends it a status and importance it really does not deserve) is the last controversy, or perhaps even the most serious one, to arise in the field?

So what have “they” learned from it all, those scientists who best know the climate change science disciplines and the reporters whose responsibility it is to share and help evaluate their findings? Will they, scientists and media alike, be better off next time for having had the learning experiences the past year has given them? Are they actually learning the lessons each field could and should learn from those experiences, and putting them to practice?

Those are questions Yale Forum Editor Bud Ward and regular contributor John Wihbey put to leading climate scientists and journalists covering the issue. Their responses are posted separately in a two-part series, dated November 18 and 23, 2010 (see Part 2).

What lessons has the climate science community learned from the experiences of the past year or so?

Anthony J. Broccoli – Professor, Department of Environmental Sciences. Director, Center for Environmental Prediction and Climate and Environmental Change Initiative, Rutgers University

The climate science community was reminded that the policy implications of climate science make it more than just an academic pursuit. As a consequence, higher profile climate scientists may find themselves subjected to a similar level of personal scrutiny as public figures receive. I worry that this will make some scientists more reluctant to interact with policymakers or publicly communicate their science.

Peter H. Gleick – President, Pacific Institute

… there is an improved realization of how impossible it is to keep the climate science questions and debates separate from the political and ideological debates. And I hope we’ve learned the importance of communicating accurately and constantly. Being passive in the face of political repression, ideological misuse of science, and policy ignorance moves us in the wrong direction. I would like to think the community has learned that depending on the “honesty” and “impartiality” of journalism is not enough … that without strong input from climate scientists, the wrong stories get reported, with bad information, and ideological bias.

Michael Oppenheimer – Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs, Princeton University

I imagine that my colleagues’ views on this are rather diverse, and those I hear from are not necessarily representative. But one conclusion that seems common is the realization that climate science and scientists operate in a fishbowl, whether they stick to basic research or venture into policy applications. Like it or not, we are always “on the record.”

A second conclusion, bizarre as it may seem, is that mistakes like the Himalayan glacier episode have the potential to resemble airplane crashes: in some circumstances, almost perfect is not good enough.

Both of these realizations could have the unfortunate consequence of causing scientists, particularly younger ones, to avoid areas of research, like climate change, which are associated with public controversy due to the political process which parallels the science; or to avoid interacting with government, media, or the general public at all, even to explain the significance of their own research. I have not seen compelling evidence of such a trend but the possibility worries me.

Kerry A. Emanuel – Professor of Atmospheric Science, MIT

I do not feel I have my “ear to the wall” enough to provide a meaningful answer to this question. I would guess that at the very least everyone will be much more cautious about what they say in e-mail correspondence with other scientists, and that they will be more reluctant to interact with journalists who have behaved on the whole rather badly.

Malcolm K Hughes – Regents’ Professor, The University of Arizona

A number of climate scientists have learned that simply trying to do a good, responsible, and honest job of climate research according to established standards of professional conduct can lead to their becoming objects of suspicion, derision, disdain, and even hate. Some have already been subject to this for several years.

Many climate scientists are also learning that this surging assault on their integrity and that of their field is not a coincidence, but is the consequence of organized campaigns of disinformation. These have been originated by ideological, political and economic interests, and amplified by the technique of inciting what can only be described as mob behavior on the Internet and over the airwaves.

As a clearly intended consequence of the organized campaigns of disinformation, this “climate science is a hoax” propaganda has spread widely in the political arena. So, more of us than before fall 2009 have learned that we must work in a very different environment than existed when nobody outside the field cared much about climate science.

Benjamin D. Santer – Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison, Lawrence Livermore, National Laboratory

In the past year, we have seen ample evidence of the activities of powerful “forces of unreason.”

These forces of unreason seek to establish the scientific equivalent of what were once called “no-go” areas in Northern Ireland. Their actions send a clear warning to the scientific community:

This is the new reality of climate science in the 21st century.

Donald J. Wuebbles – The Harry E. Preble Professor of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Illinois

1. Be careful with what you write in emails or say over the phone. We all have a tendency to say things that can be misconstrued.

2. We have learned that data access and archival of climate observation and modeling results needs to be better communicated and more transparent. This does not mean the scientists should have to provide every single piece of interim analysis products like the deniers are currently hassling the community for — that is aimed at harassment not science transparency.

3. We acknowledge that occasional mistakes will happen (we are human), but we should aim at eliminating errors from the assessments (not a big issue when one can only find one error of any real significance in almost 3,000 pages of an assessment).

4. We need to strengthen the communication of the science.

5. We should make the expression of uncertainties more transparent.

Richard C. J. Somerville – Distinguished Professor Emeritus and Research Professor, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego

The climate science community has learned that it is in the cross-hairs of a ruthless disinformation campaign. The campaign is run by economic, political, and ideological interests opposed to many proposed policies that might deal meaningfully with the threat of climate disruption. This disinformation campaign is professional, well-funded, and highly effective. Its purpose is to destroy the credibility of mainstream climate science.

Polling data show that this campaign has already been successful in many ways. The public is confused and distrustful of reputable climate scientists. The public thinks that the science is controversial and does not understand the degree to which the expert community is in agreement on the reality and seriousness of man-made climate change.

John M. Wallace – Professor, Atmospheric Sciences, University of Washington

We’ve witnessed the lengths to which political activists will go in an effort to manipulate public opinion. Yet it seems to me that for all its notoriety, “climategate” has had only a very limited impact on public opinion. It may have served to widen the divide between climate change believers and naysayers, but it doesn’t seem to me that it has caused many believers to switch sides.

What lessons should it learn?

Kerry Emanuel

In my somewhat pessimistic view, there is very little a small community of scientists can do when up against a much larger and far better funded disinformation campaign involving a curious, symbiotic relationship between agenda-driven interests and journalists. It is clear that any mis-step, however innocent, or any less-than-tightly-worded statement can and will be used against the climate science community or to further someone’s political agenda.

There are a few concrete steps that I think scientists can and should take:

1. Campaign vigorously and unceasingly to get governments around the world to treat government-funded environmental data as a public good. This used to be the case and is still the case in some civilized countries like the United States, but other countries with a less well developed sense of public interest, such as England and France, hold environmental data as proprietary. This has caused much grief and has tangibly slowed the progress of science. It also played a role in “climategate” by forcing East Anglia scientists to withhold certain data sets that they had acquired under Europe’s unjustified and labyrinth data distribution policies.

2. Recognize that just as certain European governments view themselves more as money-making enterprises than as entities that serve the public interest, journalists are in business to make money, not to serve the public interest. If scientists would learn to speak with journalists with this in mind, rather than treating them as fellow scientists interested primarily in advancing knowledge, then many evils could be avoided. Remember that controversy sells while consensus makes extremely dull copy. Always treat maverick scientists with respect while making it clear that they are indeed mavericks.

3. Recognize that the IPCC process may be reaching the end of its useful life and may even start being counterproductive. It is not likely that the uncertainty in climate projections will be much reduced by adhering to the current paradigm of running ever more complex global climate models, and the desire to have a consensus may be discouraging new approaches.

Anthony J. Broccoli

The community should recognize that having a public face carries additional responsibilities, including the need to not only act properly, but also avoid the appearance of improper behavior. Good scientists have been defamed by having off-the-cuff remarks publicly disclosed.

To avoid future problems of this kind, perhaps scientists who are involved in international assessments should be provided with staffing to help them perform this civic duty efficiently and judiciously without compromising their effectiveness as scientists.

Peter Gleick

Climate scientists must learn that there is a committed band (both organized and unorganized) of climate deniers, with diverse often unclear motivations, determined to do and say anything to confuse the public and policymakers about science in order to avoid the policy debates. Climate scientists must learn that sticking with science and ignoring policy, when the science says something bad is going to happen, does nothing to move policymakers — there MUST be coordinated, consistent, and ongoing communication from climate scientists to the public and policymakers.

I HOPE that the climate science community has learned that we must ensure that our science is good, transparent, adequately reviewed, open source, and not based on ideology. And, of course, I hope that every climate scientist (we’re supposed to be smart, eh?) has learned that e-mails must always be assumed to be completely public!

Michael Oppenheimer

For me, the key lessons of the episodes of the past year are: Healthy skepticism in the media and the general public toward experts is easily manipulated and blown out of proportion by narrow political interests and died-in-the-wool contrarians. That’s the sea we all swim in, so scientists working on important problems that bear implications for policy can’t avoid it.

The only effective weapon against this is for scientists to increase trust by increasing transparency, not only toward their colleagues but toward the general public. Institutions like IPCC need to continually learn from past experience and remake themselves to improve their degree of openness and their overall performance, even when the latter is already exceptional.

Malcolm K. Hughes

It is always vital to improve how we work and how we communicate data, methods, and results. The artificial scandal based on the theft of material from the University of East Anglia has no bearing on this. It is essential that we not be intimidated, seduced, or diverted from doing good science in a careful and deliberative manner.

To this end we need to learn to do a better job of communicating to the public how we actually work and the “rules of the game” under which we operate. Much has been written about data availability, but misapprehensions abound among academic colleagues as well as media professionals. I have been asked the question “why will you people not release your data?” when the data have been available in the public domain for years.

Finally, true friends of science are needed to develop ways of providing support, including legal and media advice, to colleagues under attack from ideological, political, or economic forces. Just as happened with other science unwelcome to powerful interests, the attacks will continue as long as the issues of society’s response to climate change remain unresolved, and we need to learn how to better the practice of science.

Ben Santer

As climate scientists, we have to decide how to deal with this new reality. We can ignore it, and hope that it eventually goes away. We can try to find some “place of refuge,” where (if we are lucky) we may be able to isolate and insulate ourselves from these forces of unreason, and concentrate on our own research. We can remain silent, and hope that our professional societies and funding agencies will defend us, and will defend our ability to conduct research in the public and national interest. We can hope that the media will recognize the crucial importance of “getting the science right,” and will show the same assiduousness in pursuing true understanding of complex climate science issues as they did in reporting on non-existent conspiracies to fool the global population.

Or we can recognize that we have to adapt to this new reality; we can recognize that:

Our responsibility to funding agencies and society does not end with the publication of X papers in the peer-reviewed literature;

We have a larger, open-ended responsibility to speak truth to power, and to tell the public and policymakers, in plain English, why they should care about the science of climate change, and what this science tells us;

We have a responsibility to debunk myths and misconceptions about climate science. We cannot ignore ignorance;

We have a responsibility to defend friends and colleagues who are unjustly accused of serious professional misbehaviour;

Our ability to do research in the public interest is a precious privilege, not an inalienable right. If we do not fight to retain and protect this privilege, it may be in jeopardy;

We do not have the luxury of remaining silent.

Richard Somerville

The climate science community should learn that it is poorly equipped to confront this disinformation campaign. It should recognize that excellent scientific researchers are often poor science communicators. Scientists should realize that IPCC assessments, National Academy of Science reports, and statements by scientific societies often are difficult for non-scientists to read and understand. Scientists should acknowledge that the research community taken as a whole generally lacks communications skills in dealing with media, with the political world, and with the public at large.

Improving this situation will not be easy or quick. The climate science community must understand that it needs to work closely with professionals in communications, media, public relations, and many other fields. It should understand that this close collaboration must be sustained and will be expensive. It should seek financial and political support for this effort.

John M. Wallace

Surviving “climategate” is not enough. Those of us in the scientific community need to learn how to reach across that wide divide to engage our friends and neighbors who are not now and perhaps never will become deeply concerned about climate change for its own sake and convince them to support progressive policies on energy, resources, fresh water, food security, and environmental protection.

And is it moving effectively to put those lessons-learned into practice?

Anthony J. Broccoli

That remains to be seen. Most of us became scientists out of a desire to understand how the world works — and that’s what we’re good at. We’re not always as good at engaging in public discourse.

John M. Wallace

I fear that as long as we continue to use climate change as the sole (or even the main) justification for policy decisions, we never will be able to reach out across that divide to bring many of our friends and neighbors on board. To move forward effectively, I think we need to have a broader discussion of the scientific issues that will have a bearing on national and international policy over the next few decades.

Don Wuebbles

Data access and archival is the subject of a lot of discussion. I have been working with the American Geological Union to see if there should be a special committee, perhaps jointly with other science societies, on this issue. Various government agencies in the U.S. (e.g., NOAA, Department of Energy) and Europe have also been discussing this.

[In addition,] IPCC is putting even stronger attempts into the AR5 assessment [Fifth Assessment Report] to try to prevent errors.

Communication has not only received a lot of discussion, but there is an ever increasing set of analyses on how to do this (e.g., two recent papers / reports on the psychology of climate science). Also, many new efforts and several new organizations are aimed at better communication, including faster better organized, responses to the “scandals”. Several professional organizations, e.g., the American Meteorological Society, AGU, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, are also taking this on as a special activity.

[Finally, there are] several recent papers/reports on representing confidence levels and uncertainties. I am in charge of the chapter for IPCC AR5 that will be considering how to respond for the next assessment.

Peter Gleick

I would love to see some serious effort to improve science reporting in the climate area. Even the best aren’t very good, or consistently good. But there is also growing confusion about what “reporting” actually is, and what venues for climate news still exist.

Michael Oppenheimer

Due to the relative ease of creating access to electronic data bases, a long term trend has been under way toward making data more available to colleagues since long before these episodes; and in several respects, IPCC has progressively “opened up” over time. In other ways, the jury is still out.

Malcolm K. Hughes

I’m aware of scattered efforts but I believe we need urgently to do a better job of preparing young scientists for the new conditions we face. This is a situation where powerful interests seek to discredit climate science and scientists, and where there is an internet mob ready to respond to every incitement.

We need more widespread and systematic training of young scientists on legal and ethical aspects of scientific work — intellectual property, privacy, ethics of authorship and of data exchange, and so on. There should also be widely available training in dealing with the media. Climate scientists in general do a very good job of sharing methods and data but get little credit for this. Somebody’s purported difficulties in getting data may be more newsworthy than the fact that huge volumes of data are freely available, including the great majority of those featured in the anti-climate science propaganda. A much better job needs to be done of making this known.

At the institutional level, IPCC continues to evolve to meet these challenges. One important aspect of the changes IPCC is making concerns the need to respond more flexibly and rapidly when issues of public controversy arise.

Kerry Emanuel

I have no idea.

Richard Somerville

While some individual scientists have clearly taken these lessons to heart, I see very little sign that attitudes in the broad climate science community have changed.

*   *   *

A Yale Forum Two-Part Special Feature:

Scientists and Journalists on ‘Lessons Learned’ (Pt. 2)

November 23, 2010

Climate science and climate scientists aren’t the only ones who have come under some withering scrutiny over the past 12 months. The controversies — or were they “pseudo-controversies”? — stemming from the hacked e-mails at a British university put the media also under the microscope for their handling of the breaking news and its aftermath. Why, some scientists wondered, were the media focusing on the “what” message of carefully cherry-picked “private” e-mail messages, and seemingly under-playing the “who” and “why” … as in who released the e-mails in the first place and why, if not to purposefully disrupt and derail last December’s Copenhagen climate negotiations?

For reporters, the slow and incremental ooze of the climate science news story overnight had become, with the first headlines of the e-mails release, a breaking news story. Widely criticized for injecting a “faux balance” standard in much of its earlier coverage of climate science, many news reports on climate science in recent years had moved away from that traditional news approach — too far away in the opinion of some. Climate science “skeptics,” by whatever name, had been garnering less and less of the science reporting news hole, as a critical mass of journalists increasingly came to accept basic aspects of climate science — Earth is indeed warming, and human activities play a significant part in that warming — as something approaching “settled” science. Pretty much along the lines that the sun rises in the east, tobacco smoking causes cancer, those sort of things.

For this second part of a Yale Forum special report on “lessons learned,” freelance writer John Wihbey asked respected science writers and journalism experts questions along the lines of those posed in Part I to leading climate science researchers: For the journalism community, what are the key “lessons learned” from the experiences and controversies of the past 12 months? What lessons should the media learn from those experiences? And are there any signs that those lessons learned are actually being put into practice in the newsroom?

What lessons has the climate journalism community learned from the experiences of the past year or so?

Richard Harris, NPR

We’re not really a community, but individually we strive to get to the bottom of the story — to get at the facts and present them to the public. We’ve learned that we have less and less influence on public discourse relating to climate change. The “climategate” story was not a product of journalism, but activism. The storyline was crafted by people with a desired objective; it was not an effort to weigh facts and reach a dispassionate conclusion. Many journalists made a serious effort to examine the facts and report what we found, but our voices were joined by many others who were not attempting to be dispassionate.

Curtis Brainard, Columbia Journalism Review

That’s a very difficult question to answer. I’d say that most journalists didn’t learn anything from the “climategate” and IPCC-errors pseudo-scandals. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Rather than providing a teaching moment for the climate journalism community, those events only served to confuse editors and reporters.

In the U.S., journalists didn’t seem to know what to make of the revelations, so they basically took a pass on trying to explain what was going on. When outlets such as The New York Times finally weighed in, their stories tended to confuse climate politics (the debate over what to do about GW) and climate science (that debate over what we know about the Earth and our influence upon it). That trend continued into the winter. When skeptics seized upon heavy snows in the eastern U.S. as a refutation of global warming, the Times attempted to rebut their arguments in a front-page article. Rather than quoting scientists to set the record straight, however, the story devolved into an unresolved argument between non-scientist political partisans. To its credit, the Times covered a string of reviews released in mid-summer that reaffirmed the integrity of the work of the IPCC and the scientists involved in the “climategate” affair, but most reporters ignored them, as they did the InterAcademy Council’s review of the IPCC, which was released a month or so later. The only real high point in climate journalism in the last year was the coverage of the summer’s extreme weather, including heat waves in the U.S., wildfires in Russia, and floods in Pakistan. The press actually produced quite a bit of nuanced coverage, which explained that while it’s impossible to peg any single weather event to climate change, many scientists felt that summer’s extremes would not have been possible without humanity’s influence on the climate system.

The trend seems to have been somewhat different in the U.K. press. It was British reporters that really led the charge vis-à-vis “climategate” and the IPCC-errors controversies. Clearly, reporters on the other side of the Atlantic learned not to put so much trust in scientists, which might be a somewhat valid lesson, if not for the fact that they got carried away with it. While they brought a few legitimate errors in the IPCC’s fourth assessment report to light — such as the overestimate of the melt rate of Himalayan glaciers — they often overplayed the significance of these errors and trumpeted other errors that weren’t errors at all. In July, for example, The Sunday Times was forced to retract an article that accused the IPCC of flubbing a statement about the Amazon rainforest’s sensitivity to climate change.

So, what has the climate journalism community learned from the events of the past year? Not much, unfortunately. I haven’t seen a marked improvement in the coverage. In fact, the amount of climate coverage has been in precipitous decline for the last year or so. One might be tempted to say that the events of the last year spooked editors and reporters, who are not unsure where to go with the climate story or what to make of the latest research. I’m sure that’s true to some extent, but other factors may have played a more important role. The global recession has, more than anything else, called attention away from global warming. In addition, political shortcomings such as the failure to produce an emissions-reduction treaty at COP15 in Copenhagen and the death of climate legislation in the U.S. Congress have both served to take the wind out of climate story’s sails.

Seth Borenstein, Associated Press

For science journalists — and that’s different from political and other journalists — the answer goes back to the old Russian proverb that Ronald Reagan made famous: Trust but verify. Starting with the hacked e-mails. Much of the initial coverage of the purloined e-mails was based on pre-digested e-mails leaked to the media and they looked sensational in and of themselves.

But context is key here. At the AP, we spent a week and five reporters pouring over one-million words to read them in context and found no grand conspiracy, but lots of cranky scientists (and ones who really could use a good editor themselves). On the flip side, we in the media have a tendency to read summaries and skim in a speedy manner through the main text. Some of the handful of errors in the IPCC reports, especially the Himalayan ones, on the face of them should have been noticed by reviewers and eagle-eyed science writers. In addition, reporters should have delved into the millions of details more and asked more questions. I fear the non-science journalists don’t look as much in the science details, don’t have the time or leadership that we have at AP, and thus didn’t learn the lessons that science journalists have.

Eric Pooley, Bloomberg Businessweek

Climate journalists have spent too much time preaching to the choir while there’s a riot going on outside the church. It’s important to report on, and debate, policies for mitigation, adaptation, and clean-energy acceleration, but these conversations occupy a parallel universe to the one in which the 2010 elections [were] unfolding, the elections where 19 of the top 20 Republican candidates for U.S. Senate are either climate skeptics or proud, aggressive deniers. Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina blames his loss in the Republican primary on his public assertions that climate change is real. Joe Manchin, a Senate candidate in West Virginia, has a TV spot in which he shoots a rifle bullet through a cap-and-trade bill — and he’s a Democrat. Can climate journalists do anything to counter this profoundly skeptical atmosphere?

We can try — and of course many of us have been trying. I saw some of my colleagues get a wake-up call last December in the big COP 15 media center in Copenhagen. I was talking with some climate journalists after Senator James Inhofe, the famously skeptical Oklahoman, came through the room. Some journalists began joking about Inhofe, so-called “climategate,” and the absurdity of those who claimed that the hacked e-mails were proof that climate scientists had cooked their data. The journalists were right — those claims were absurd — but they were also missing the point. Inhofe had just predicted that a U.S. climate bill was “not going to happen,” and he was right. While climate journalists in Copenhagen were studying the fine points of the latest REDD proposal, “climategate” was going viral on the internet and in the mainstream media. Soon CNN was hosting a debate on the validity of climate science, and I was pulling out my calendar to remind myself what year it was. Surely we couldn’t still be arguing the basic science in 2009 and 2010.

Andrew Revkin, “DotEarth“

I guess my first response is, what climate journalism community? There’s a variegated array of journalists and commentators who approached the developments of the past year or two with completely different responses and output. A batch of (mainly British) reporters and outlets did epic reportage on “climategate” that appeared to be stimulated in part out of a sense of betrayal, perhaps. Some of the overheated coverage got rolled back with corrections and apologies. American media covered the incident with far less intensity, perhaps better reflecting its marginal significance. Science blogs of all stripes dove deepest, but the incident, in the end, was notable mainly for reminding the public that science is — shocking news to some — an ugly process at times, particularly when its findings relate to very consequential issues facing society.

Media coverage of problems revealed in the workings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was similarly variegated, with some overheated accusations not holding up but a decent learning experience for everyone on the fallibility of such vast group exercises. My guess is there’ve been few lessons learned out of coverage of the international climate treaty negotiations and the domestic battle over climate legislation.

David Biello, Scientific American

I’m not sure the climate journalism community has learned any lessons. In my view, we all continually repeat the mistakes of the past, either because of turnover that is bringing many “new” to the beat into the coverage scheme who are trained in the classic he said/she said style. Or because us old-timers are set in our ways and continue to make the same mistakes over and over again. One example, from my own magazine, is a recent profile of Judith Curry.

Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker

I’m not sure there is a climate journalism community, so it’s hard for me to answer this question. There are a bunch of people who write fairly regularly about climate science and climate policy in the mainstream media, but as you point out there are many more writing about it in the blogosphere. I expect that ratio is only going to grow more lopsided as time goes on.

What lessons should it learn?

Andrew Revkin, “DotEarth”

If science media tried to sustain coverage of science (including climate science) as a process, including the ugly parts, the public might be less apt to be surprised by occasional revelations of conflict like those illuminated through the batch of hacked/liberated (pick your adjective depending on your worldview) e-mails and files.

Beware the lure of the front-page thought in gauging developments in complicated science pointing to a rising human influence on climate, lest you end up giving readers whiplash. Try rigorously to include context on the overall state of knowledge when framing stories on science around conflict, given that conflict is a constant in science.

Develop patience. The story of humanity’s entwined climate and energy challenges will outlive you. No single treaty, meeting, e-mail hack, IPCC report, or climate bill is a keystone.

Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker

The obvious lesson of faux scandals like “climategate” is that they tend to be created by groups or individuals with their own agendas, and journalists ought to be very wary about covering them. The notion that there is some huge scientific conspiracy going on, involving dozens of researchers at different institutions, is pretty implausible on its face. This goes for climate science as for all other scientific disciplines. I’m not saying it can’t happen; it’s just hard to imagine how it would work. Conversely, it’s very easy to imagine why an individual or a group with an economic or political interest would want to claim that such a conspiracy existed. The burden of proof ought to be very high. Instead, it seems the bar was placed ridiculously low.

Curtis Brainard, Columbia Journalism Review

First and foremost, reporters should have learned that they need to do a better job of delineating the various questions that climate science seeks to answer. There is a tendency to treat climate science as one monolithic question — are humans heating up the world or not — rather than as a series of questions, each with its own level certainty/uncertainty. When that happens, uncertainty related to the timing, scale, and geographic distribution of impacts (advanced science) tends to be reflected as uncertainty about whether or not the world is warming and whether or not human industry is driving that warming (basic science). Or, as we saw with “climategate” and the IPCC errors, minor flaws in the research and/or minor behavioral flaws in individual scientists cast aspersions on every other area of climate science. So, following these events, reporters should have learned that they must be very careful, in each and every story, to specify what which parts of the science they are addressing and which parts they aren’t addressing.

Along these lines, the other lesson is that reporters do, in fact, need to be more aggressive and skeptical. As the various reviews and investigations of “climategate” and the IPCC have shown, the fundamental conclusions of climate science remain untarnished. However, the IPCC did make a couple legitimate errors, and these reports also found that the IPCC and some individual climate scientists need to be more transparent and open to alternative viewpoints. Reporters need to actively ferret out these problems on a weekly basis rather than waiting until climate skeptics and blogs discover them and blow their significance out of proportion. If journalists wrote more stories about where uncertainty exists in the science, and if they were more aggressive about challenging scientists on transparency issues, we wouldn’t have these pseudo-scandals erupt every time a climate scientist missteps.

The corollary to this is that, at the same time, reporters must defend those scientists that need defending because many, such as Ben Santer, have had to endure unreasonable challenges to their credibility in addition to overt threats of violence.

Delineating the various questions of climate science and being more aggressive and skeptical will help with the third lesson: the need to separate climate science from climate politics. The narrative of climate change tends to get boiled down into one of two false generalizations: it is totally certain (we have five years to save the planet!) or totally uncertain (it’s all a hoax!). When that happens, it becomes very easy for political partisans to invoke scientific disagreements in support of their own policy objectives, just as they did in media coverage following the “climategate” and the IPCC-errors controversies. In reality, however, those events had no bearing whatsoever on political debate, and therein lies the lesson for journalists. Science cannot settle all arguments about how the world should respond to global warming, because the answer to that question involves values, varying perceptions of risk, and political ideology, in addition to what we know (and don’t know) about the climate system. So, if a reporter is simply trying to cover what scientists know, or don’t know, about the climate system, politicians should be excluded. Conversely, if a reporter is trying to cover climate politics, he or she must not let sources stake their claims on oversimplified reductions of climate science.

Eric Pooley, Bloomberg Businessweek

Now climate journalists are getting back to basics — connecting climate change to people’s lives and showing how it is already affecting our weather and our economy. Instead of getting hung up on whether a particular extreme weather event was ’caused’ by climate change — an unanswerable question — we’re explaining that extreme weather events are already happening more frequently, and that the scientists say we’ll be suffering through more of these events in a warmer world. We’re connecting the dots in a careful, responsible way. Some local coverage of the Nashville flood did this, for example. The magazine and website where I work, Bloomberg Businessweek, is doing this as well, through regular reporting on how business copes with climate risk (here’s one example). A website sponsored by Environment Canada connects the dots in a different but also effective way. There are many other angles on this story, and I hope news organizations will explore all of them.

Richard Harris, NPR

I think we still need to do our best to dig into the science — as well as into allegations of misconduct. It’s still important for us to present what we find to our audiences, even knowing that there are many competing voices. The “climategate” e-mails, for example, did not undercut the science of climate change, but it did lay bare some less than noble behavior on the part of certain scientists. It’s important to air that out. Likewise it’s important to set the record straight on broadly repeated misconceptions, such as the rate of demise of the Himalayan glaciers.

David Biello, Scientific American

The lesson that should be learned is two-fold: one, we must always retain our skepticism. Don’t trust anyone. Verify everything. In cases where you can’t verify, triangulate (i.e., use multiple sources to get closer to the truth). Two, sometimes smoke doesn’t mean fire. There is a lot of politicking going on in this area, both in the academic sense and in the broader social sense. That makes for a lot of smoke, which would seem to suggest a major conflagration. Such a fire does not exist, unless it’s the one embedded in the hundreds of coal plants around the world.

And is it moving effectively to put those lessons-learned into practice?

Eric Pooley, Bloomberg Businessweek

When the next climate scandalette comes along, some news organizations will surely play to hype and get carried away with their coverage — in effect, becoming a handy transmission belt for the professional deniers. That’s why serious climate journalists need to investigate charges rapidly and communicate their findings widely — explaining what’s real and what’s not, clarifying what the scandal does and doesn’t say about climate science, and fact-checking any false claims that may be in the air. Inevitably, the multiple investigations exonerating the climategate scientists got far less attention than the wild initial allegations against them. If more experienced climate journalists jump into the fray early, they could help tip the balance toward honest reporting and away from hype.

Richard Harris, NPR

Journalism still takes its role very seriously, but of course there are fewer of us out there every day. Those of us with big platforms and credibility with our audience are putting the lessons leaned into practice — that is, we are still reporting the stories carefully and thoroughly as they emerge. But it is naïve to think that crisis management, through even the best journalism, will overwhelm deliberate efforts to color the facts in order to achieve philosophical or economic objectives.

David Biello, Scientific American

… Old-timers seem to make the same mistakes over and over (including me, darnit). Newcomers fall into the same trap of “he said, she said” that they then must laboriously climb out of over years of on-the-job training.

Curtis Brainard, Columbia Journalism Review

No, I don’t see journalists putting the lessons learned into practice because I’m not sure if they really learned them in the first place. There are a few reassuring signs, however.

The Sunday Times retracted its fallacious “Amazongate” article. Another positive development was the American Geophysical Union’s decision to award its Excellence in Science Journalism award to Pallava Bagla, an Indian journalist who broke and unraveled the story about how the IPCC overestimated the melt-rate of Himalayan glaciers. So, to some extent, the bad journalism is being condemned and the good journalism is being recognized.

There have also been a couple other good articles recently. Shortly before the midterm election, The New York Times had a great front-page story about climate denial being an “article of faith” for the Tea Party, which made it clear that the group’s climate politics are not synonymous with climate science.

There was also a long feature in Scientific American about Judith Curry, who studies hurricanes at Georgia Tech and has ruffled the feathers of her fellow climate scientists by engaging with skeptics. A lot of climate scientists were really unhappy with the piece, arguing that Curry is wrong and that the media attention should have gone to somebody who is making real progress with their research. Personally, though, I thought it was an excellent attempt to be more aggressive and skeptical with scientists and show that climate science is (as Andrew Revkin once put it) a very “herky-jerky” process. I get the feeling that if more people were exposed to that type of journalism they would begin to understand the scientists and science are not infallible.

For the most part, though, I don’t think climate coverage, on the whole, has gotten any better or any worse in the last year. In fact, I think the “climategate” and IPCC-errors controversies has had far less of an impact on public opinion and on journalism than a lot of people have assumed. What’s really plaguing coverage are the same things that have been plaguing it for years: a declining number of specialized reporters in newsrooms, less time and fewer resources for reporting, and all the “noise” created by blogs and the 24/7 cable news.

Andrew Revkin, “DotEarth”

Too soon to tell.

Seth Borenstein, Associated Press

Any signs that they are moving to put those lessons-learned into practice? This is much like natural disasters. People who have lived through a major hurricane tend to prepare better for the next one and take it more seriously. Those who haven’t, don’t. Science journalists and others who well reported the issue this past year will do a better job, those who didn’t or just skimmed the surface or parroted ideologues won’t. The trouble is — much like in disasters — the people who really need to learn are usually the ones who don’t. And those who work hard to be even better prepared next time were not the problem cases to begin with.

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