"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Thursday, March 12, 2009

How the "Climate Debate" Works

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Note, to make matters clear, the horizontal axis above refers to an unconstrained emissions ("business as usual") scenario. The vertical axis is roughly proportional to the probability of finding that an expert's opinion is matched at that point on the horizontal axis.

Since the general public likes to be reasonable, they distribute themselves roughly into the middle of the band proposed by the press.

Joe Romm had this exactly right:

And the MSM remains, well, mainstream. They follow. They don’t lead.

They aren't being deliberately misleading, they are just doing their job as they understand it, representing the positions viewed by the public as reasonable. A sort of vicious circle of inertia results, so that by now there are major oil companies that are actually more in favor of regulation than the general public or the press!

See also "Journalistic Balance as Global Warming Bias" from FAIR (2004).

Update: Also, in response to an offhand comment on RealClimate about how "anyone who starts off about how the lizard overlords of earth have impregnated our women to take over the universe are considered mad", Barton Paul Levenson responds

I consider myself a moderate on the lizard overlord issue. They are, of course, impregnating our women. But this is not done in order to rule the universe. It is simply part of their culture to impregnate females of other intelligent species.

There has been obfuscation and denial on both sides of this issue. It is not only the defenders of the reality orthodoxy who have been reviled and suppressed. Indeed, there has been much censorship and denigration directed at those of us who are skeptical of reality. Truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle.

Update: Revkin turns around and makes a liar out of me. Just this once anyway. Way to go, Andy! Much better. Please cover the whole spectrum from now on.

Update Ides of March 2009: More Jay Rosen, this via the Opinionator on NYTimes:
What is the adjective you have for someone excessively in love with the bipartisan dream? What is the term for the guy who attempts to balance an imbalanced situation? What do you call it when there is regression toward a phony mean? Is there a snippy, snooty, dismissive, reductive adjective–comparable to shrill–for the one who exits from a really tough situation with a “he said, she said” account? Is there one for over-the-top insider-ism? You don’t criticize those people, do you? You don’t even see them as people worth criticizing.


Arthur said...

Once again this reminds me of Jay Rosen's comments on the "spheres" of consensus, legitimate debate, and deviance. Mainstream media has one collection of "spheres", but they hardly at all overlap with the "spheres" understood by those most knowledgeable about the subject.

I wrote a bit about this a few weeks back in regards to the importance of having real scientists performing peer review - "As with any communications medium, the vast majority of communication in scientific journals is about issues that are “subject to legitimate debate”. Things that are already firmly established aren’t terribly interesting unless perhaps you are a textbook publisher or historian; reproducibility is one key element of science, but there is little publication of such reproduced results unless some new aspect, such as higher precision or different physical constraints, makes it of some legitimate interest. On the other hand, anything that contradicts firmly established results established in preceding decades has a very high burden to being considered believable by editors and referees - there must be either a logical synthesis of the new and the old in some fashion, or significant evidence for why the old results were wrong. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof”, as the saying goes. So the vast majority of what is published is in that middle ground between the well-known and the extraordinary, and being acutely aware of those boundaries is what makes a scientifically trained editor and a peer referee so valuable.

There is nothing comparable to the institutionalized peer review system anywhere in the blog world."

Or, in the worlds of journalism or politics, for that matter.

But I think being more explicit, in diagrams such as this one, would be a big help!

Michael Tobis said...

Interesting. I read that article before I had formed a mental node called "Jay Rosen".

I am increasingly feeling a tad guilty about listening to the guy. He is pretty much spelling out great swaths of the strategy for replacing conventional journalism. But he has institutional loyalties to the profession and wants to repair it!

Anyway I enjoy everything he says and it's a big part of my mental map these days. Whish is why, in a nutshell, I'll be at sxswi.

Anonymous said...

I think this is very illustrative but a bit dangerously simplifying at the same time.

People in the US have been so embedded in the two party system that it permeates all thinking somewhat.

I for example think that there has been some irresponsible counterfactual catastrophe reporting etc by the media (tho can't name offhand), in essence misrepresenting what some study says, or assigning too much weight on global warming for some catastrophe. It could be said that on this axis it ranks on the right side of the big hump.

So it is not true that things there, on the right side are not reported.

That is one big flaw with the picture.

Of course there's the whole balance vs truth issue as well - they are orthogonal dimensions and journalism doesn't often seem to recognize the latter's existence at all.

Michael Tobis said...

Point well taken, GL. I have made that complaint as well.

The point here, though, is that the insouciance of the public is driven by the ethics of the press, ethics which are suited for matters of taste and not for matters of fact.

Aaron said...

What your excellent plot does not include is the position of the politically appointed managers of federally organizations that allocated research funding over the last 8 years. Nor does it include the position of the congressional majority that ultimately controlled US climate research funding since 1994. I suggest that actions by Tom Delay, Newt Gingrich, and George Bush were critical to framing what the MSM reported. Newt Gingrich for example was critical to funding decisions that required the EPA to take a variety of climate documents off of their main website. Then, the people Bush appointed to the EPA did not push back.

The EPA did NOT issue press releases stating the correct science. By not endorsing good climate science the EPA pushed the reporting of the MSM to the left in your graph. The MSM assumed that if the positions to the right in your graph were good science, then the EPA would endorse them. The EPA was silent, and therefore the MSM did not consider those positions credible.

Anonymous said...

Michael, good post. However, I'd take minor issue with your praise to Andy Revkin for highlighting Schellnhuber's comments. Revkin (and the NYT) provided virtually no context for the comments. If you hadn't been following the U.K. coverage in the Guardian and the Independent (a dozen stories or more, I've lost count), most folks would have absolutely no context in which to place Schellnhuber's comments. And without context, the comments seem more like the ravings of a deranged misanthrope, rather than a fairly sober summary of the preceding discussion at the conference. Regards.

Anonymous said...

To follow up on my previous post, I will credit Andy Revkin for promptly responding to my complaint and stating that he's going to do his own follow-up with various Copenhagen conference participants (rather than relying solely on a link to post on Prometheus giving Mike Hume's rather jaded impressions). I'll be interested to see what comes out of that. Regards.

Michael Tobis said...

The wonder is how quickly Revkin's article followed on my complaint. I don't want to be paranoid, but though he has steadfastly refrained from mentioning this blog or commenting here, this isn't the first time I've gotten the idea that Revkin reads what I write.

More on questions of fame and notoriety as I ponder further. It stands to be a major theme for the next few days.

I fully agree with lg on the fact that Revkin's portrayal of Schellnhuber was not particularly sympathetic or compelling. He came across as a bit of a madman, rather than as the voice of reason. Whether this is Schellnhuber's fault or Revkin's is impossible for me to tell; I don't know anything about Schellnhuber. I'd never heard of him prior to this and am not left admiring him greatly.

Still, mention of such a position in the NYTimes at all might be the beginning of progress. We'll see if it is a rare anomaly or the beginnings of a more accurate portrayal of the community.

Or it might be a straw man strategy: admit that there are some extreme views out there but don;t take them seriously. (Schellnhuber may just be doubling Lovelock's constituency rather than being portrayed as serious.)

It's hard for me to believe that Revkin really doesn't want a successful carbon policy implemented. What his editors want is another question. What he is best at writing is another. In the end it becomes a moral decision for him, whether what he is doing is helping.

If it's worse than neutral, it has great consequences. I hate to turn into someone obsessed with a prominent person, but Revkin's role in our predicament really strikes me as important.

bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...

Meanwhile, the right-wing talking heads are lambasting Revkin for not covering the Heartland Institute's climate 'conference' in a 100% flattering way. Duh.

See this for example.

EliRabett said...

Which is why you need to work the refs.

C W Magee said...

bart paul levenson link is bad.

Michael Tobis said...

Link fixed. Thanks, Chuck.