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

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Misleading Headline Again

I think nobody has ever been fired for a bad headline. The story is important and informative for the informed, though possibly a bit misleading for the uninformed. So it's also bad journalism for America, but not as bad as the headline. It's originally Agence France-Press I think, though the headline was clearly written by somebody who only read the first sentence. So maybe it wasn't bad journalism in the original. I don't doubt the French public could do a better job understanding this:

"Our findings will increase our knowledge on the climate system and increase our ability to predict the speed and final height of sea level rise," said Dorthe Dahl-Jensen, an ice expert at the University of Copenhagen and head of the project.

"If the Eemian was unstable, then the models of future change due to increased greenhouse effect are wrong as they cannot handle sudden changes," she told AFP by email from the site.

But many Americans are far more dauntless and brave than Frenchmen, and so are able to go from "models are wrong" to "therefore the sensitivity is zero" so quickly and with so much zeal and so little thought that it causes spinal injury. Certainly the rest of the context is likely reduced to invisibility.

Anyway, it's a good story. And it's the truth, what Dr. Dahl-Jensen says about the models: if they aren't accurate, then things are more likely to turn out much worse than the models say than to turn better than they say.

But these days, in the English-speaking world at least, you really have to spell something like that out. You have to say "worse than the models predict", which I suppose puts you in the terrain of advocate and not scientist! If you just say "models are wrong" you're pretty much guaranteed to be read as saying "no worries"!

Update 9/1/10: The original link has gone stale. Here is an exact copy. The headline was "Earth's climate future may be etched in Greenland bedrock" .

The inattentive reading by the editor seems to have been limited to the first paragraph, "Scientists hit Greenland bedrock this week after five years of drilling through 2.5 kilometres (1.6-mile) of solid ice, a 14-nation consortium announced Wednesday." Of course, they are interested in the ice, not the bedrock.


glacierchange said...

The models cannot be well tested against poorly constrained rapid changes of the past. They may not be able to handle a vastly different climate. They are designed and calibrated based on todays world. By the time they fail due to a sudden change, that is the last of our worries.

Kooiti MASUDA said...

The headline says now: "Earth's climate future may be etched in Greenland bedrock". It is obscure, but I do not think it particularly misleading. "Now" is noon UTC, 29 July 2010. Has the headline changed since you saw it?

Michael Tobis said...

Masuda-San, because the study investigates the ice and not the bedrock, I thought it was misleading. The bedrock is only mentioned because it means that the entire core is recovered.

We will, of course, not know the results for some time, but the field work is complete. But the fact that the field work is complete is the only thing that the bedrock is expected to tell us.

Kooiti MASUDA said...

I think that the pharse "future is etched" is scientifically meaningless, and people receive them just poetically. So, though I think it a kind of obscurantism, I do not think it misleads general audience to false scientific claims.

Surely It may mislead science-literate readers who knows that some information about past climate can be gained by reading glacial scars on the bedrock.

Rick said...

Michael: I'd like to hear your comments about this article.

Steve Bloom said...

I notice that the article also refers to the GIS as "continent-sized." Well, no. I guess "sub-continent-sized" just lacks the same ring.

What was most interesting in the article was Dahl-Jensen's remark that she expects preliminary results to be published by tyhe end of the year, meaning that she already knows what they are. I think her "models are wrong" comment should be interpreted in that light.

OTOH recent results from the WAIS also found rapid fluctuations that the models can't manage (IIRC), so if anything it would be surprising to see the GIS behaving differently. I don't think the WAIS results were for the Eemian, so perhaps Dahl-Jensen's team will be able to provide finer-grained ones that will be considered a little more relevant to the present.

A quick google finds this topical conference to be held in September, so we should see some interesting results reported then. OTOH: "AR5 – ice sheet model development is too slow to contribute to AR5, what
could we work on now to get these answers?" That movie seems to be serialized.

Rick, what part of the phrase "pure propaganda" are you unclear on?

rab said...

yes, it's irredeemable, but I wanted Tobis' reaction.

Michael Tobis said...


Steve Bloom said...

Of course Michael can speak for himself, but one might ask what you want him to react to? For a general reaction, you might try searching this blog for "Ken Green."

As for the premise, that science's reputation has suffered lately, a careful look at the data refutes it. That some journalists and even a few scientists have over-reacted to the "climate scandals" shouldn't be a surprise.

Science does have a communication problem in this country, but I would suggest that it has more to do with Fox News and the irredeemable core of evolution deniers.

As for "the science says we should" or equivalent phrases, so what? Children often resent getting similarly-phrased advice from their parents, which I suppose is just evidence for the idea that Green and his ilk are developmentally arrested.

rab said...

My daughter alerted me to it. This is how I responded.

1. Scientists are becoming more concerned, and they are expressing this concern to politicians in progressively stronger language as they see frustratingly that it's not having the desired effect. You see, scientists are only accustomed to relating to each other; when they do so, they take each other seriously. Now that there is more conversing with the general public, they find that their hard-won experimental results are treated as if they are opinions and not data.

2. Even so, scientists are NOT becoming authoritarian as claimed. Rather, if you look up phrases like "science tells us we must...", you will find they originate with politicians and journalists. A good example is . They even (parenthetically) admit this with "In other words, around the end of the 1980s, science (at least science reporting) took on a distinctly authoritarian tone".

3. So previously, for example with smoking, as far as a scientists was concerned, if people want to kill themselves with toxic inhalants, that's their business. But now, with the atmosphere changing to the extent that the planet is in peril, they worry that what everyone is doing is endangering them and especially their children. That's why they are concerned. It is like if your children are on a boat that no one but you, the mother, knows is sinking. Would you not do everything in your power to stop the sinking? James Hansen is labeled a "social activist", but I know that his only concern is for his grandchildren.

4. Their survey is a joke. You will notice the graph takes off just around the time the internet was born. Those phrases are ubiquitous. They even try to counter this argument with "Some of this may simply reflect the general growth of media output and the growth of new media, but if that were the case, we would expect all of the terms to have shown similar growth, which they do not." But they're wrong: all the curves look pretty much the same; one is just a another multiplied by some factor, and this just displays usage frequency like "should" is more frequent than "must".

5. Lastly, because I found the article so disingenuous, I looked up the American Enterprise Institute wondering whether there was an ideology behind it. There is. It's another think tank devoted to making sure the government is minimized and has no excuse to impose laws that limit freedom. IOW, it's a libertarian think tank. AEI's board is composed of top leaders from major business and financial firms, former ExxonMobil CEO Lee R. Raymond is the vice-chairman of AEI's board of trustees... and they chide scientists to be more objective? See .

Kooiti MASUDA said...

Though not apparent in the headline (so I objected), the interpretation of the phrase "models are wrong" is a real problem. I do not think that people directly translate "models are wrong" to "climate change will be small". They just distrust statements based on models. So the determining factor is what variety of other outlooks (which are apparently not based on models) they encounter.

Steve Bloom said...

FWIW, Kooiti, I'm sure the author was referring to several recent pubs purporting to demonstrate that the ice sheets can't collapse very quickly (papers by Pfeffer et al. and DeConto & Pollard come to mind).

I agree that she should have chosen her words a bit more carefully, but "wrong" is literally correct in this context. Also, this is just one obscure article, and presumably her team's published results will get much more attention. OTOH she'll have an opportunity to comment on the models once again when that happens, so maybe someone she'll listen to should send her a note suggesting alternative phrasing.