It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Friday, October 16, 2009

In Defense of Revkin

A correspondent writes in support of Revkin's approach, and Revkin pounces of course. Nevertheless, food for thought for me and people like me who have been critical of Revkin.
Is there a way to show enough respect to the opposing argument to engage people so that the litany of skeptical arguments that are tossed about can be sequentially addressed and put respectively into the camps of “confirmed”, “need further research” and “debunked”?

You’ve made an attempt in the past to provide such an evenhanded approach through your journalism, and gotten significant scorching from the climate-campaigner side. But that approach allowed me, a former skeptic, to open myself up for a little cognitive dissonance, which when resolved resulted in a changed view. Am I the only one?

— Michael T. May

Andrew Revkin Boy, Michael, if my writing and blogging has allowed even one person (you) to step out of the fog of competing messages and obfuscated science in the climate arena, I feel it’s been worth the hassles (and all that “scorching” you refer to, which has come from folks on all sides of this issue at one point or another).
It's worth serious consideration. Revkin is still not off the hook for the Gore/Will fiasco as far as I am concerned, though.

Update: Oh forget it. A man who can write an article on E O Wilson and then wrap it up with a serious discussion of the philosophy of George Carlin and get away with it just has things too goddam easy.

Some schoolteacher should take a red pen to some of his garbage. "Andy, please try harder. These people's ideas are not comparable or related. Everybody knows you can do better than this. C-"

Update: Very thoughtful critiques of Revkin from Jeff Huggins: 25 27 36 41 57 . Credit to Revkin at least for running them. Some especially worthwhile stuff:
It is quite possible for the journalism community to continue awarding awards to its members, year after year, even as the public remains grossly under-informed, and even as we continue pouring CO2 into the atmosphere, and even as too many politicians remain deadlocked and ineffective, and even as the climate warms, and even as other species die, and even as large numbers of people are displaced from their homes, and so forth. Not a pretty picture! YET, unless journalism and the news media (including The Times and perhaps especially The Times) wake up, recommit to the ultimate aim of journalism and responsible news, shift their paradigms on how they cover these issues of central importance, raise the bar, find some courage, and so forth, that’s the path that we’ll continue to be on.
Have we (the public, politicians, corporations, etc.) taken responsible and timely and wise actions, of the sort that will most likely be effective, to address these problems (climate change, etc.) or to substantially begin addressing them?

Are we well along our way in doing so? Are we being wise, responsible, and timely?

Are we well prepared (in terms of inform-ed-ness, understanding and will) to continue doing so or, at the very least, to promptly do so beginning tomorrow morning?

Are we well prepared in terms of understanding? Do the public, key politicians, and other key leaders have sufficient understanding to face and address these problems? Do large and effective majorities of politicians and business leaders, in numbers more than sufficient to lead and implement effective solutions, feel the warranted and eager public pressure to do so?

Is the public well prepared and eager to make choices that will serve its own public good in a genuine and healthy way?

What is the state of public understanding?

And so forth.

I won’t bother to answer these questions or to try to quote polls and so forth, here. The answers aren’t good. In fact, given the stakes involved, they are downright dismal. They’re embarrassing. They are nothing to be proud of, speaking here of journalism and the news media generically and in general.

It also helps to keep in mind the dimension of time. For example, it was on April 3, 1980, that Walter Cronkite hosted a rather excellent segment on global warming on the CBS Evening News, no less, at a time when the CBS Evening News enjoyed higher viewership than the other network news programs and when cable news was barely being born.

That was over 29 years ago! And here we are, still, today!
Of course, a substantially under-informed, confused, and fragmented public in a modern scientific democracy, in today’s times, is not a safe and sustainable thing. Period. Public understanding and wisdom are not mere discretionary luxuries. Thomas Carlyle once observed, “I do not believe in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.” The media’s role is vital. The AIM is Vital. And Achieving It is Vital.


Lou Grinzo said...

I think we have to take this in two parts:

First, the Gore/Will debacle, which I agree is truly unforgivable from a journalistic standpoint.

Second, while I have no problem with being evenhanded, I do object to doing it endlessly. While we are still unsure of the answer to any given question, then "fair and balanced" does indeed mean evenhanded treatment. But once we know the answer, then putting climate science and a relative handful of deniers on an equal footing is not "fair and balanced", it's being a tool of the deniers.

When was the last time the HIV/AIDS deniers got evenhanded treatment by the major media? How about the "birthers" (the people pushing the idea that President Obama was not born in the US)? Or the "we really didn't land on the moon" people, or those who think smoking doesn't cause cancer? Eventually the climate change deniers will be relegated to that category, but in the short run they're still given a mystifying amount of credibility. And that delay in treating them appropriately is only hurting everyone, as it helps delay our response to the problem.

Anna Haynes said...

What little data we have (on Dot Earth's influence on doubters) isn't promising:

I was active in Dot Earth's comments section for a year or so - 2007-2008 - and my recollection from that time is that Michael May was the *only* commenter there who did in fact announce his views had changed.

(which isn't to say that it didn't help lurkers, or subsequent unnamed commenters - but I don't have this info.)

My recollection (perhaps faulty) is that I and others repeatedly suggested that the NYT collect data on readers/commenters' views, to measure how well they were reaching them, and offered to help with the project, but there was no discernible interest.

(Also, FYI, Andy at one point said he'd had an email exchange with Greg Craven - we begged him to feature Craven in a Dot Earth blog post, again - to my recollection - to no avail.)

(If anyone has better recollections than me, please provide them! I may be confusing wishes with actual communication, to some extent.)

Michael Tobis said...

Also "writing and blogging"?

Blogging isn't writing? A revealing turn of phrase.

Hank Roberts said...

Needed: annotation by Andy Revkin at Dot.Earth, with three little icons, indicating Andy Revkin's opinion about each of his regular readers' claimed-belief postings:

“need further research” and

Wait til their 10th wild claim first, don't embarrass anyone who's new or educable.

But after the Kth iteration of "the Arctic is cooling" -- iconize it.

Michael Tobis said...

Now that's a dot-earth firefox plugin I could get behind.

Realistically it's too much work for Revkin, but it could be crowd-sourced.

Arthur said...

I had several exchanges with Michael May early on, he was really a rarity among the "conservatives" who visited Dot Earth, but as I recall he was convinced of the reality of anthropogenic global warming already when that blog started, so if Revkin convinced him it must have been through previous writings.

The real unknown is the effect all those discussions had on lurkers...

One positive for me was it spurred me to write my little anti-Gerlich&Tscheuschner "proof of the greenhouse effect" paper which seems to have helped clarify things for a few other people too..

L. Carey said...

This is very impolite, but after suffering through one Revkin faux pas after another (the Will / Gore piece, the "global cooling" piece, the recent attention to Steve McIntyre's nonsense, etc.), I am inclined to view him as just a guy who likes to stir the pot periodically to try to drive his readership / comments numbers. He is supposed to be an uber expert on reporting the science in this field, and yet he continues to act like there's still a real dispute in the science, and that demonstrably false views (i.e., lies) are entitled to get equal time with the truth (if not more). I canceled my RSS feed to Dot Earth a while ago, since it was just so frustrating.