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

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Three Real Scandals about the Fake One

“What everyone has lost sight of is the spectacular failure of mainstream journalism
to keep the whole affair in perspective.”
- Myles Allen
Forgive me for adding my retrospective on the "climategate" noise. I wonder if there's much I can add to the brilliant summaries by Gareth Renowden: Part 1 Part 2 and especially Part 3. Stoat is also shaking his head sadly but not uninterestingly. And Steve has an interesting critique about the investigations themselves compellingly entitled "another tiresome exoneration".

Still, it's really time to press the point: the press is the point.

So here's my two cents:

Of course, "climategate" should have been a small story in the UEA campus press about some idiot breaking into an academic server. The end.

The First Scandal

A couple of weeks into it, it became clear that there was a much bigger scandal; the fact that a group of people was planning to make political hay out of the stolen emails to embarass the scientific community and set back public will to address the problem. The fact that the hacking itself almost certainly had political motivations. You would think that the immune systems of the civilized world would kick in. If we allow ordinary controversy to be successfully influenced by felonious activity, we will blur the line between politics and felony. Past history shows this to be a less than brilliant idea.

I thought it scandalous that they should try such a thing, and ludicrous that they thought they could get away with it. My dissatisfactions with the press were already severe, but I didn't imagine them to be that stupid, lazy, or irresponsible, or whatever combination, that would allow the illicitly obtained contents of ordinary, ambiguous emails among ordinary scientists to be inflated into a fake scandal. I expected the matter would either vanish entirely, or backfire.

Woe unto the one who expects a spine from modern journalism or modern politics.

The Second Scandal

The plan was a wild success. How many imitators lurk in the wings remains to be seen, but the precedent is about as ugly a one as can be imagined.

The roots of the fake scandal boiled down to the fact that the observational and millenial reconstruction guys loathe McIntyre and vice versa. The community is also perfectly aware that naysayer science is of marginal quantity and would like to keep material that is obviously at odds with existing science (lacking the extraordinary evidence that they lack) out of the journals.

(After all, how could these papers not be junk? There really is no longer any serious way to argue against the proposition that the radiative balance of the earth is shifting enough to disrupt climate. Might as well argue against, hmm, evolution for instance.)

The reader will recall that the naysayer squad decided that this was a good occasion for a huge push against IPCC as well as the climate reconstruction "team". This culminated in an actual real witch hunt (not the innocuous kind).

A bunch of nits were picked and embellished into decoration for the empty scandal. Every single one of them amounted to either a minor but much embellished embarassment, (the most celebrated of them originating in a typographical error!) or a complete and total fabrication. And in any case, almost all of them revolved around the working group II report, which is not produced by climate scientists.

Yet, to read the press coverage, you'd think some massive horrors about climate science lurk in the eccentric corners of Phil Jones' lair in East Anglia. The reader so inclined is offered plenty of room to imagine a hotbed of the evil global Stalinist windmill conspiracy in Norwich.

The press credulously reported the malicious and distorted explanations of who the CRU people and their associates are and what they do; they inflated a couple of small errors in IPCC WG II, a volume written by a totally different community, into corroborating evidence, and they tried to use this evidence to declare the "global warming" "scare" "dead". The second scandal is that this interpretation was taken seriously by the press.

The Vindication

Well, we've now had, what, five distinguished panels all saying roughly the same thing "Well, openness is a principle of science of course, blah, blah, but actually these chaps were basically doing their job which we all pay them to do about as well as it can be done." There's generally a bone thrown to the opposition to the effect that" they could have been a little more politic (in their private conversations!) and may have made an error of emphasis in one marginal case, so do carry on insulting and maligning them if you are so inclined". I'm not sure why any of this should rise to the level of general interest, but maybe the commissions are seeking some credibility among the people who loathe the climate reconstruction scientists.

(There's another bone they throw, "talk to statisticians more", but that presumes that statisticians will pick up the phone. I'll have more to say about that one later.)

Something like that is the result of every investigation into widespread and outraged accusations of hiding data, misrepresenting data, forging data, and outright fraud. In the end this amounted to precisely and exactly one bad cover art graphic to a report that likely was the work of a junior staffer at WMO.

Other than that, complete and total vindication on ethical grounds. The publications of the group may be right and they may be wrong, but they were produced in good faith according to standard practice in the field. Some expressions of stress under undue harassment were revealed. Nobody did anything seriously wrong. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Is the press's face red?

The Third Scandal

If nothing changes, the world's response to the relevant policy crisis looks to have been set back by years. So you'd think it would be time for the press to undergo some self-examination. Otherwise, when history looks back at this, it may be recorded as the most damaging failure of journalism in history. So far there is little sign of anything besides defensiveness from the press.

Instead, we see responses like total silence on the vindications, a tepid walk-back, or business as usual.

The Australian, a Murdoch outlet I believe, is simply ignoring the whole embarassing business. Deltoid has the story.

A good example of the tepid walk-back is Monbiot's. James gives him his due.

Revkin offers an incredibly disappointing bit of whiplash, starting off in a promising direction and then swinging around so quickly to offer a nice comfy puff piece to the egregious Pat Michaels that you don't know what hit you. Despite presenting a huge target, I don't know of anyone who has given Revkin his due on this latest disaster area of his. There has been so much crap flinging about this week that one hardly knows where to begin. It appears we can't keep up even with the major league press's blunders, never mind the naysayer blogs.

To be fair, the typical response of the Broderite press is the Wall Street Journal's, the yeah-but:

Report Backs Climate Data, Scolds Scientists

In some emails, the scientists discussed how to keep critics' papers out of prominent scientific journals. In one, the Climatic Research Unit's director, Phil Jones, talked of using a "trick" to hide a discrepancy in data that has been cited prominently as evidence of man-made climate change.

Wednesday's report, by a team of outside scientists appointed by the University of East Anglia, found that the East Anglia researchers' "rigor and honesty as scientists are not in doubt." It also found no "evidence of behavior that might undermine the conclusions of the IPCC assessments" that climate change is happening and is probably caused by humans.

But the report criticized the East Anglia climate scientists for "a consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness."

In particular, the report said, the researchers' responses to "reasonable requests for information" by outside scientists "were unhelpful and defensive."

It called an "iconic" chart the scientists constructed as evidence of man-made global warming "misleading," saying the chart didn't sufficiently explain the researchers' methods. And the report concluded that the East Anglia researchers may have deleted emails "in order to make them unavailable should a subsequent request be made for them."

Yes, all true, but basically spends the majority of the space on minor improprieties (a misleading chart) and stuff that sounds like an impropriety but is in fact perfectly proper (how to keep critics' papers out of prominent scientific journals when the fact is that the papers were lousy) and stuff that basically nobody has the least idea how to do (respond to "reasonable requests" ad infinitum). Absolutely nothing about how the whole matter was instigated by a crime, probably a felony; how it was blown up to represent a major scandal; how it has so far succeeded in contributing to derail the future of the earth.

The most egregious of all is Fred Pearce's at the Guardian, a piece apparently written before the latest exonerations hit, which is duly eviscerated by Things. Pearce's choice of representatives of the climate community is enough to drive a peaceful man to drink. I don't know what it drives a less peaceful man to, as I'm a peaceful man, but it can't be good.

Most of the press, though, is ignoring the role of the press in this fiasco. In fact, it seems they are desperately running away from considering it.

The closest thing to a remotely serious response in any general press outlet I have seen is an editorial call in the New York Times for self-examination, which apparently ran in the local edition.

Meanwhile the scientific community remains livid. Of the prominent mass press, not one outlet is allowing the scientific community to defend itself.

This is not a story about minor flaws in climate science.

This is a story about a spectacular failure of the press.

The Tragedy of the Uncommons

(the tragedy of the privates?)

The most tragic aspect of all is how the grotesque cynicism of the press feeds into the general slip into hostility and suspicion, cynicism and despair that the world has sunk to. The Bush administration effectively set back the world's ability to extend trust to one another by decades. Obama has not managed the clout to reverse the trend.

And climate change has not helped.

The odd thing is that it should. While one side of the polarity argues for the trivial costs of action and the enormous risks of inaction, the other argues exactly the opposite. In such a topsy-turvy argument there is little room for a middle ground. In fact there are risks and costs everywhere: this is a big problem we never adequately bargained for. There is no way it is good news in any way. (Watch the video; it's worth it.)

Except for one thing. It should not be driving us apart. It should be pulling us together.

It's possible that a well-defined common problem is what we need. Some measurable, defeatable problem we must face. Pulling against each other is something we can no longer afford as individuals, tribes or nations in a suddenly finite world. There are no lifeboats. We must all right the ship.

Update: Inbound link here from this interesting discussion kicked off by the Dutch report.


Tom said...

You get so many things wrong here that I'm not going to stick around and fight through your teammates to try and have a discussion on it.

Just remember, MT--you're part of the press. You're part of the problem.

Belette said...

Looks about right to me (thanks for the link). Except he is All*e*n.

Michael Tobis said...

Thanks, fixed along with a couple other glitches.

G-Man said...

Fuller's comment is as expected. He knows that journalists have sinned, and the best he can come up with is to try to taint mt with the same accusation of sinfulness.

Never mind Fuller is utterly wrong, and he's a big part of the problem.

Deech56 said...

Very good, Mike, and thanks for linking to Gareth's posts. The sniping from someone up to his eyeballs in this faux scandal and trying to make a buck out of it demonstrates the worth of your post.

Steve Bloom said...

Fuller should get back to helping Keith Kloor try to construct a marketable narrative.

Dan Olner said...

Re my own rag of choice in the UK, the Guardian: it's been particularly gobsmackingly awful watching Fred Pearce head up their 'analysis' of nothing-gate. I'm wondering if a carefully worded letter to them, laying out Pearce's basic factual errors, and why they're so important, might be a good idea.

Sadly I don't expect anything better from the rest of the UK press, save the Independent perhaps. I heard (on the Now Show for any radio 4 listeners) of a rash of stories with headlines that went:

"Muslims make grannies swim in the dark!"

... where the story transpired to actually be:

"Council replaces worn out fabric screen at pool with tinted glass at ground floor level, just like every other swimming pool in the country, after some muslims and non-muslims (i.e. people) complain. Council man says 'not everyone wants to be seen in their speedos.' "

Great coverage of this at tabloid watch. Note the common theme: journalists too lazy to do actual journalism.

The inescapable fact of the press is this: it's a feedback loop between sales and stories. So, cynically, what we're looking at with stories like "muslims plunge grannies into the dark" is a well-honed, evolved money-making machine that knows what sells from decades of watching sales go up and down in response to stories. The fact that we don't like what sells - and that decent climate coverage is a casualty of that - doesn't make it untrue.

I'm hoping that's all nonsense, but if it's not, it means having to accept the press is just a very large mirror of public opinion, and it's public opinion that needs addressing. Or, at least, it's no good solely targeting the press.

Slightly off-topic: the telegraph and mail have a particularly amusing anti-environmental streak: stories along the lines of:

"Electric cars are silent killers."

"Energy-saving lightbulbs kill grannies (in the time it takes them to warm up)" (long campaign that one)

"CFC-free fridges explode, destroying kitchens."

The theme of "green ideas will kill you" runs strong. I'd love to know how it got that way.

Dan Olner said...

My partner reminded me of the most recent example of "green things will kill you dead", again from the telegraph.:

"Bags for life could be a threat to shoppers' health because they harbour potentially deadly food poisoning bugs."

Absolute genius. Re-using bags will kill you* (* if you don't clean them.) Presumably that means re-useable cultery and crockery will also kill you. Unless you clean it.

These stories regularly appear in the two British newspapers most prone to ridiculous climate change headlines, the Mail and Telegraph. I really want to know if there was some smoke-filled room somewhere, where Serious Men plotted to undermine environmentalism by making out that all green ideas would kill you or your granny, even energy-saving light-bulbs. (Which happen to have the advantage of also being an evil European plot to kill your granny.)

Or do the writers and editors actually believe it? Or, do they just know stoking anti-environmentalism in any way sells papers to a certain demographic - in the same way that nasty stories about Dubya pushed the hate-buttons of Guardian readers like me?

Martin said...

Michael, you neglected to linkify Stalinist.

gravityloss said...

Dan, yes, that's just too excellent and so worthy of parody.

Reminds me a bit of straight PR work masquerading as journalism:

I don't remember where I read the link to that first, maybe here? Apologies for failing to give proper acknowledgement.

frank -- Decoding SwiftHack said...

Huffington Post sort of suggests, perhaps jokingly, that scientists should start writing a 'listicle' format piece (perhaps along the lines of "10 Things To Know About Climategate And Sex"?). I think I'm inclined to agree.