"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Times Gets All Meta

The Times appears to be entering a period of introspection. It seems to have something to do with a business model in transition, but the sense that people are unhappy with conventional journalism is finally sinking in. Of course, there may be many reasons people are unhappy with it.

Regarding global change, Andy Revkin takes the bull by the horns in a recent Dot Earth entitled "Does the Media Fail to Give Climate its Due?" where (as the best of a not especially great bunch) he naturally gets a bit defensive. However, my efforts to explain the nature of the problem might have been as confused and meandering as his defenses. Fortunately someone called Jeff Huggins came to the rescue. I can't recommend his comment #13 highly enough. In short:
when you consider the dismal (to pick one word) degree of understanding, on average, of global warming among the public, it’s hard to arrive at any conclusion other than that the media have dropped (and are dropping) a very big ball.
Bravissimo. Yes, that's it.

It's not the quantity of information. Its the coherence of the information. People know that something is happening, for the most part. They just have a very fuzzy idea of what that is.

The denialists, by proposing that there is a "global warming theory" to be falsified have succeeded in keeping everybody's eye off the ball. Said ball, large, blue green and white frosted with a chewy nougat center, is the world we live upon. We can't exactly call it fragile, having lived these many millennia, but the circumstances in which we place it nowadays are pretty much unprecedented. There isn't a true/false proposition to determine; there is a management strategy. If democracy is to work, people need to have some concept of the matters that are at stake. What we have, instead, is profound confusion.

An In It reader also provided some interesting context in linking to this discussion about the future of the times and the news media. It's a thorny problem. It would not be good for the democratization of the media to put all centralized discussion out of business altogether. The Times and its ilk perform an essential service. Given the tools to do it better, they nevertheless face an onslaught of business challenges from people like me who are willing to do a feeble enough version of it for free and for a few dozen readers. Both the opportunities and the pressures are coming from the same quarter. It's no coincidence, but it's awkward.

(Aside: I for one am very disappointed that microtransactions haven't taken off. Is there any hope for reviving this idea? It would really create a journalistic web with a less sharp distinction between well-known professionals and serious amateurs and the general public. It appears the tech is getting a work out among gamers in the far east, interestingly.)

There won't be a solution to the Very Big Problem as long as earth system science is cast as a left vs right controversy rather than a complex technical and social tangle, though. Even if readers are lazy journalists don't really have the right to be. Houston, we have a problem. People need to understand what is going on, quantitatively. They need to understand the distinctions between reservoirs and rates, multiple time scales, varying ranges of uncertainty.

Otherwise we'll get leading party presidential candidates espousing ignorant quackery. It doesn't matter whether or not someone like this "believes in global warming". Clearly such belief is not based in understanding. There is little hope for any decent outcome from governments this alienated from science. We don't have time for this kind of ignorance anymore.

Update: See also Jeff's comments #96, 97 and 102 to the aforementioned Dot Earth thread, continuing to make the case that journalism is due a share of the responsibility for our current maldaptive trajectory, and doing so very well indeed. I really appreciated the analogy about the bomb report, which I'll take the liberty of quoting:
Even as the public’s understanding of global warming is not all that good, often the media’s coverage, or the Times’ coverage, of global warming is a bit like a pea placed below twenty mattresses. You almost have to be a princess with very sensitive skin to even notice it. If the paper puts its occasional global warming article on page 10, much of the public will think that it’s a “page 10” problem, no matter what the article’s text says. (It feels silly even having to mention this to the New York Times.)

Consider: If you are walking down the street one morning, and if a person walks up to you calmly, in relaxed fashion, with a smile on his face, and tells you about last night’s game, and steroids in baseball, and then something about what someone said about McCain years ago, and then eventually says (still with a calm smile) that, by the way, a huge bomb just exploded and wiped out the next block, and then walks calmly past you, you might not believe him about the bomb part, or you’ll at least feel that you’re getting very “mixed signals” about the whole thing. Why was he so calm? Why was he smiling? Why was he apparently happy? Why did he tell you about steroids in baseball just now, before he even mentioned the bomb problem? Is the messenger crazy, you wonder? Does he have his priorities straight? Or, was he only joking about the bomb thing? Maybe you didn’t hear him correctly, after all? And, of course (I forgot to tell you this), you remember now that he also told you that “John says that a bomb went off, but Sally says it didn’t.” Now you get it: You assume that your calm messenger must believe Sally more than he believes John. Now, everything makes sense (except for the small problem that a bomb did go off.)

Also, Jeff pops up right here and now, in the comments to this thread with an interesting challenge for John Fleck. Welcome, Jeff! Y'all come back now, y'hear?

Update: Don't miss Joe Romm's Climate Progress article that kicked this all off.


John Fleck said...

There are two very different problems that undercut your analysis in two very different ways.

Number one: Do not mistake the Times "business model in transition" problem for a lack of reader interest. Thanks to the reach and accessibility provided by the Internet, more people read the New York Times today than ever before. If audience attention to the Times is a measure, they are more successful today than than they have ever been. The business model problem exists on the revenue side, not the readership side. The problem in my industry is not that too few people are reading us, but rather that Internet readership is far less valuable to advertisers than print readership, so despite this expanded reach, newspaper revenue is in decline.

Problem two: Huggins' point, which you apparently buy into, is a post hoc fallacy that ignores extensive research in the cognitive science-media studies community about the nature of community understanding that derives from news media presentations. The research suggests that the sort of widespread public understanding you seem to be calling for here just doesn't happen on any significant societal question. It's a unicorn.

It's ironic that climate scientists like yourself insist on science as the basis for discussions in your field, then ignore this body of media studies research that could be so helpful in moving your argument forward in the public sphere.

Michael Tobis said...

Regarding your second point, John, we'd better find something that passes for a unicorn, then.

I don't know if the public ever "understands" complex disciplines, but there needs to be an effective network of trust such that important people like McCain (or for that matter Inhofe) don't go around repeating things that aren't remotely supported by evidence.

I am of the impression that something like this used to exist in America. Something about an "establishment" point of view, pretty much determined by Harvard and Yale. Unfortunately the establishment was fallible.

That said I am interested in the research to which you refer. References, please?

Regarding your first point, I don't think I disagree so I don't feel undercut. The revenue model is at stake, which is why I think microtransactions are the way to go.

If people paid us a penny or two every time they read one of our articles, you'd probably still be making a decent living, and I'd at least be up a nice dinner out every week.

John Fleck said...

Michael -

On your first point, you should stop hoping for unicorns and start looking at real world models of successful communication on issues like this. Let's stop wishing that the world were different and start dealing with it as it is. That is the whole point of Matthew Nisbet's efforts, which have been so roundly criticized by many unicorn-hunting scientists.

On your second point, the micropayment model and many others have been tried and so far failed. The evolutionary innovation on the Internet over the last decade is such that any model you and I can think of, and a hundred we haven't thought of, has been tried. The lack of an alternative revenue model on the Internet as robust as that for print is not for lack of enormous and diverse creative attempts. The only models that have succeeded are those in which the print revenue model subsidizes information creation, which is then repurposed on line.

Anonymous said...


re: "ignores extensive research in the cognitive science-media studies community... research suggests that the sort of widespread public understanding you seem to be calling for... It's a unicorn." and "you should stop hoping for unicorns and start looking at real world models of successful communication on issues like this. Let's stop wishing that the world were different and start dealing with it as it is."

Is it hoping for a "unicorn" to even aspire that public can grasp the difference between a "stock" and "flow"? See Understanding Public Complacency About Climate Change: Adults' mental models of climate change violate conservation of matter, or consider the same stock vs. flow problem regarding issues such as peak oil, marine fisheries, the national debt, etc.

Really, if this is "hoping for a unicorn" from the media, then shame on us all.

Look, it's easy to point to evidence that all kinds of messages get "received" by too few... think obesity, diabetes, too much debt, low use of index funds, and on and on. Yeah, I get it, that's currently reality.

But you seem to suggest that "dumbing down the messaging/framing" is the solution. I think what Michael, Jeff and I would suggest is that is just as likely part of the problem.

I'm pragmatic. The magnitude and urgency of various challenges that we face aren't going to allow us the luxury of re-inventing democracy, economic thinking, education, mass communication or what have you, on the timelines required... regardless of their contribution to the problem. So we have to work with the tools we have available in the meantime. The principal communication devices we have at our disposal are the mainstream media, and the messaging from our political leaders. If you've got some promising techniques that can be put to use by either, great. I'd like some pointers/links as well. But in the meantime, I think it is valid to criticize both for aiming way, way too low.

W.r.t. Andy Revkin, who is doing a much better job than most, as Michael notes... He deos get defensive and points to all of his articles on various topics... Well, imho, he should be defensive if his articles elicit comments like this: "I enjoy Revkin’s blog because I do believe it’s a fair and balanced coverage of the warming issue. In very few places do I actually see fair and balanced reporting or admissions of the uncertainties in exactly what is global warming, whether it really is bad and how do we curb it... Testament to Revkin’s job on this blog, which I have been reading since the beginning, is that I actually have no idea how he feels about the subject.". Do you really honestly think that Joe Romm or Steve Forbes or George Monbiot or Rush Limbaugh would attract such a comment on their topics of choice? So why is that the NYTimes/Revkin does? Just bad luck?

I'm a big fan of Revkin's, but frankly I don't buy into any "it's not our fault... it's just the way things work". By the way, I enjoy your stuff too, John. And, like I said, I am interested in any links you think expand on your specific posts here... cheers!

Michael Tobis said...

I would like to say that I have no awareness of disagreeing with Nisbet.

Scientists need to understand that the way we communicate with each other should be very different from the way we communicate with the public. We need to establish trust and authority. The fact that what we are conveying is the real deal should allow us to do so.

But it only allows us to do so in a sufficiently intact social fabric. This is the other side of the coin.

We do have a failure of the social fabric to have the capacity of distinguishing between science and contentious bullshit. I'm old enough to remember a time when it just wasn't that way. If that's a subjective misimpression, which I suppose it might be, you'll have to show me cross-cultural or cross-generational studies that illustrate your point. Otherwise we have a real failure.

The 'framing' idea, I thought, is simply to alert the scientific community of the newfound existence of well-organized contentious bullshit, a far more malign species than traditional crackpottery and superstition.

This alert applies to journalists as well, but the framing question changes. Public communication from science must be expository rather than explanatory, yes, but it fails unless journalistic communication is expository rather than contentious.

The earth is a system, not an argument.

There are not two sides to its management. There are numerous switches and knobs and wheels, and by damn we have very little time left to learn how to steer the thing. If the public doesn't understand THAT, it's not solely for want of framing by scientists.

While the bulk of the blame goes to the purveyors of the rank obfuscations themselves, the culture of journalism is not blameless, and its core value of neutrality needs some very serious reassessment.

At present journalistic neutrality stands as a great obstacle to progress, because of its adamant refusal to allow for the emergence of facts. The whole idea of science is that it is possible for humanity to collectively learn facts.

The confusion of facts and opinions is going to kill all of us. I think alongside its neutrality journalism needs another prime belief, Moynihan's law. You're entitled to your own opinions, but you're not entitled to your own facts.

Anonymous said...

Dear Michael and others:

Michael, thanks very much for mentioning me in your post. As you probably know, I'm still in the middle of the debate, but as I see it, the facts are on the side that improved media coverage can improve public understanding, within limits of course. This "research" that people in the media sometimes refer to, I haven't seen it. I've requested to see it several times. What I've seen supports one narrow point or another, if that, or doesn't apply to the current issue being discussed (coverage of global warming). Much of it seems to make a major mistake: It seems to ignore the role of the media itself, by assuming that past coverage has been OK or fine or even good. Much of it is very old. And, in general, in my experience, I've seen a ton of poor research. For every one piece of good research, there are probably nine of poor research. So, that said, I can't criticize anything I haven't seen, so I'd ask anyone to send me a research study that they think strongly supports the notion that improved coverage can't improve public understanding. I can't read thirty different pieces of research (a large percentage of which is probably bad, relative to the claims being made), but, if someone can show me the study that they think best supports that view, or the two studies that best support the view, I'd be happy to read them in detail.

In any case, thanks much for mentioning me and for your great blog here. If anyone here thinks they have research that demonstrates their point, or a link to a detailed full report of such research, please ask them to post it over at Dot Earth on the "Does the Media Fail.." thread. Thanks. Cheers. Jeff Huggins.

Anonymous said...


If I'm not mistaken, Only In It For The Gold is now 10 cents in the black.

(Tipjoy appears to have come out of Paul Graham's Y Combinator incubator for startups.)

Anonymous said...

A relevant post for Jeff H -
"...National Academies senior staffers Jay Labov and Barbara Kline Pope describe the audience research that informed the writing, design, and promotion of the recent report Science, Evolution, and Creationism.
As [this] example of the evolution report makes clear, sometimes what we believe to be the most effective way to engage the public on an issue does not hold up under empirical investigation."

(from today's post on Framing Science)

Michael Tobis said...

Anna, an interesting story via Nisbet, yes, but that hardly justifies the way this business plays in the Times.

Reread tidal's comment. I didn't see the point at first. The point is Revkin's studied neutrality not about opinions but about facts.

If no journalist can dispute a fact that has been brought into question by a prominent group, then the functional distinction between facts and opinions is erased and progress becomes impossible. Recall this commentary by Prof. Edwin Hall.

This is not a small matter. It may be inadvertent but it essentially amounts to the complete destruction of the Jeffersonian ideal that the promulgators of this disaster claim to value so highly.

Anonymous said...

> "...that hardly justifies the way this business plays in the Times."

I agree.

Anonymous said...

Michael, see here for links to a conference expressing another view (a variety, really) of the role of journalists. Scientists are not let off the hook entirely, which brings to mind this CRED research that recommends trimming out as much uncertainty as possible when scientists communicate with the public about climate change ("Experience-Based and Description-Based Perceptions of Long Term Risk: Why Global Warming Does Not Scare Us (Yet)").

I notice that CRED was involved in yet another topical-sounding conference recently ("Decision Making Under Climate Uncertainty: Empirical Results"), so there could be some useful material there as well.

On the general topic, I have a couple of observations:

I think the the probably of excessive balance has greatly diminished in the last few years in the print media, leaving the broadcast media as a much greater problem. Even on NPR, the coverage by science shows (Science Friday and Tech Nation are the ones I know about) leaves much to be desired.

Like a few other "amateurs" you're familiar with, I spend a lot of time actually reading papers in order to acquire a broad sense of what is known to climate science. I have a hard time putting a lot of it into its proper context, but the general trend is that as I learn more I find myself in more and more of a blind panic. It's also clear that a lot of scientists have the same response for the same reasons. Looking at the print media coverage, it seems to me that had I instead relied solely on such sources I very likely would not have had the same response simply because so much of the science doesn't even get mentioned.

If I were to put this as question for John or Andy, I would ask whether one could look at their coverage in a given year and say that it provided a reasonable picture of the progress made by the science, and whether over the course of two or three years a reasonably complete picture of the science emerges. I suspect the answer is no. Is this an unfair standard?

(I should note that at the Times the issue is a bit different since Andy's coverage is "balanced" with that of Tierney and Broad, both of whom are problematic.)

Tenney Naumer said...

Please keep at it on the Times, you all -- eventually we will get there.

Tenney Naumer

Anonymous said...

Erratum (my previous comment): "I think the problem of excessive balance..."

EliRabett said...

Allow me to hop on my hobby unicorn. What the press does is set the range of the debate. The problem is that they see climate change as a political problem (how many reporters majored in science vs how many majored in poli sci or history??).

In a rational world a conference on climate sponsored by a political organization like the Heartland Institute would not get even a laugh.

Consider your audience