"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Journalists, Advocates and Scientists

I am deeper into considering what it is I do here and why, and whether it is a sensible life's pursuit. As I make more connections among others doing similar things, I have come to the conclusion that there are very fundamental sociological and cultural differences that underly our wretched incapacity to make good collective decisions.

I came to some realizations today as I pondered my mixed feelings about Climate Progress. I'm not going to go through the complexities of my feelings about Joe Romm's approach, at least right now. Instead, consider my astonishment at how much more traffic his blog generates than does any of the old sci.env gang's blogs (Stoat, Rabett Run, Empty, Grumbine and your humble host) or those of simpatico types like Things Break, Tamino, Maribo, Chris Colose, etc., according to various blog metric services. All of those blogs strike me as less predictable than Romm's and consequently more interesting. (And of course, the fact that his primary competition among climate-focussed blogs is Watt's Up is even harder to take.)

That astonishment has abated. It appears that the similarity between Romm and the rest of us is coincidental. Romm (and Watt and to some extent Deltoid, but this is somewhat confused by the fact that he does everything upside-down) are part of a different community.

My first great burst of popularity was after Freeman Dyson got some press, and I was first off the mark in criticizing him. It was far from my best writing or my best ideas, but people were frantically casting about for something to throw at the peculiar mess Dyson had come up with, and I was the first to cook one up. I got topical, newsy.

Attention is good of course. Once people see that you are saying interesting things, some of them stick around. If enough of them stick around, eventually you get to quit your day job. Since I find myself intrigued by that concept, trying to be newsy seems attractive.

But in the end, if you capitulate too much to newsiness, you aren't representing the scientific way of thinking at all. In an essay on science blogging, Bora Zivkovic duly salutes the best of the science journalists. I'd mention John Fleck. Bora mentions the very highly rated Carl Zimmer. And in fact I like Carl Zimmer, but consider this blog entry of his.

Yes the article is partly another rehashing of the George Will fiasco, but Zimmer comes around to a paper by Swanson and Tsonis, along with the comment that "This story has been bouncing around a lot around the blogosphere." And at MSNBC, and at the Heritage Foundation.

Despite all the attention, the fact is that this is under the category of "yet another Tsonis paper". Now, it's not just that I want to be polite to Tsonis. He actually comes up with some interesting stuff. But frankly it doesn't take the climatology world by storm. The reasons for this are hard to explain in brief. The fact is that for practical purposes what he is doing is at best a crude qualitative model of the climate system, and that's being generous. It hasn't got any physics behind it. He is essentially a mathematician and not a climatologist, and comes up with interesting excursions into nonlinear dynamics, inspired by climate time series, but he could use just about any time series in the same way. It is, for the purposes of anything the press might have a legitimate interest in, completely and totally irrelevant.

Very few papers cause instant buzz in a real scientific community and this is not one of them.

So why is Tsonis getting press? Well, because, as Zimmer quotes Tsonis:
"If political organizations want to pick up what they like in order to pass their point and ignore the real science, there is nothing we can do."
In practice, what interests a scientist is hardly ever a single paper without the context of a dozen other papers, and various social contexts. This is also how a trained scientist writes. We don't seek a play-by-play of the hockey game, who has the puck, who has the man advantage. We seek to understand why there is hockey at all, a question irrelevant to who is on offense and whether they were offside on the latest play.

Journalists give even coverage to each team. Advocates root for one team or the other. Most people are far more familiar with these types of discourse and find scientists way of reasoning very peculiar.

In fact, the advantage of advocacy blogs or advocacy articles is the fact that they mostly work to reinforce the beliefs of their respective followers. You know which topics they are going to bring up and what they will say about them. They will rarely back down, or point to places which give them pause, or where their opposition may have a point. They are providing ammunition, not discourse. (Most such blogs do allow significant conversation in their comments. This at least is a great improvement over traditional magazines. But usually you just get flame wars, so what is the point?)

So the question of where scientists fit into the spectrum of science journalism is quite fraught. Of course, journalists are not feeling very happy these days for all sorts of reasons beyond their control. The fact that someone like me might be looking to break into their field at a time like this will strike them as both stupid and threatening. On the other hand, the world needs the sort of information which is cumulative and sound, not impulsive and jumpy and, well, sometimes clueless.

Now that I understand that people read news and advocacy, and do not read science, I at least have a better grasp of the compromises and issues required to increase traffic. The expectation of "news" is neutrality among competing parties, and of advocacy to choose one side regardless of evidence. Both are fundamentally lazy.

We, the public, the whole world, need to learn how to think, collectively. It's a tall order. I am not sure that either of the two types of nonfiction feature writer that get most of the attention are up to the task. Science blogging is important, even if nobody has noticed yet. And now, in the climate blogging community (and biology as well) we have an emergent category of advocacy science writing.

Advocacy science? What the hell does that mean? Advocacy that is based not on alliances and social constellations but on facts. Advocacy that is unreliable in alliances but reliable in sincerity and principles. Advocacy that dares to change its mind once in a while!

Which is what I'm trying to achieve here. It turns out to be a very interesting challenge in itself, and as far as I know one with little in the way of pre-blogospheric precedent. That's even before we talk about building enough of an audience to support such an activity at a professional level.

More very recent discussion on the topic of science blogging vs science journalism appears at Nature. See, I am up on the news, right?

Keep up with the latest, ladies and gents! You heard it here first! Watch my recommends and my twitter stream!

Extry! Extry! Read all about it!
All the news that's fit for a sustainability nerd to cogitate on!

Update: Excellent article on Bioephemera.

Update / apology: Let me make it clear that while I don't always agree with Joe Romm, and I do find the more sciencey flavored blogs more interesting for myself, 1) I fully understand that other people find more politically flavored reporting more interesting and 2) on the whole I think Climate Progress is a force for good in the world. 

This article is not intended as criticism of either the teams or the referees in the hockey analogy, neither in general or with regard to any specific person or group. It's just intended to stake out some territory that isn't part of the day to day political world at all, and to note that the audience for that territory, at present, seems unfortunately small.

Specific mention of Climate Progress in this article should only refer to its prominence in the blog statistics and to my newfound understanding of the origins of that popularity. 

I have changed some wording to make other interpretations less prominent. I don't want to start a feud with Joe nor to distract from the main message. While I reserve the right to disagree with Joe on specifics, it seems inappropriate to paint our disagreements in such broad strokes. 

If I am to raise my profile I will need to be more careful with my words.  I sincerely apologize to Joe for my clumsiness and thank him for his forbearance in our email conversation.


Dano said...

So mt posts a picture of one of the most talented hockey players (and a Red Wing, everyone. Red Wing.) just to get my attention, eh? ;o)

We definitely have cultural differences. And asymmetric learnin. And walking back from school this morning, watching all the grade schoolers play, one is reminded that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Or is it the seed don't fall far from th' mesquite?

We, the public, the whole world, need to learn how to think, collectively. It's a tall order. I am not sure that either of the two types of nonfiction feature writer that get most of the attention are up to the task.

Make it so!



tidal said...

Teemu Selanne is a Red Wing now? When did this happen?

More hockey, less sciencey stuff please! It might also help with ratings! 98% of climate science readers and bloggers are Canadian, after all... ;P

Good post. I am somewhat reminded of C.P. Snow's "The Two Cultures". But, then again, almost everything reminds of that.

Anonymous said...

I am a huge fan of climateprogress. First of all, it's very readable. Joe R does a fantastic job making sense of the science for those of us who aren't scientists, and he writes fluidly. Second, he does an excellent job of linking so that you can easily navigate to the original sources. He is also prolific, I check several times a day and always find something interesting. And lastly, it is easy to make comments and the people who comment are, by and large, very intelligent, and also, pleasant.

I have just found your blog and look forward to reading more!

Rich Puchalsky said...

Michael, you're starting to do the same kind of thing that you used to do back on sci.env. I criticized it then and I'm going to again now.

It's this presumption that there is something called an "advocate" and that they are basically interchangeable. Denialist advocate, doing-something-about-climate-change advocate -- pretty much the same thing. Well, that's silly. It's the same sort of Broderism that goes on about horrible angry bloggers and the left and right are just as bad, because really any kind of political conviction is bad. The bits about "advocacy to choose one side regardless of evidence. Both are fundamentally lazy" -- that's just Broderism. You're in an area where one of the sides that you're criticizing doesn't exist.

Scientists are going to need to do learn how to do politics. It's not some weird flaw in the system that people need to be convinced. Nor is it a flaw that non-scientists, once they accept that a scientific consensus exists, become "advocates" and don't really care to keep reexamining small shifts in the scientific field. Politics is work that needs to be done by everyone, and the concept that it's a special role suitable for generic unthinking people should be retired.

Anonymous said...

I've been reading your blog for quite a while and find it very informative and insightful. However, in this case you seem a bit off the mark, in my estimation. I read Climate Progress regularly, and the reason that I do so has nothing to do with Joe Romm's "advocacy" or his occasional (okay, semi-frequent) over-the-top venting. Rather, I'm a regular visitor there (and here) because I'm looking for an answer to the question "what the hell is really going on with climate disruption and why is the MSM doing such an appallingly awful job of covering this story". Despite his foibles, Joe Romm is actually a pretty good writer, does a great job of providing a lot of useful information, updates his site daily, actually links to the key sources, and attracts (mostly) thoughtful commenters. If someone, somewhere was actually running a similar, but more nuanced blog, I'd visit that, too (e.g., as far as I know Romm hasn't mentioned the recent studies indicating GIS and WAIS may be more stable than previously thought). Revkin sort of tries to do this, but usually mucks it up by giving a puzzling amount of deference to the tin foil hat crowd, presumably for "political" reasons within the NYT. But to boil down my comment - I will frequent blogs written by folks who know their subject, who are reporting on matters of relevance and who are providing value-added, reality-based commentary (not some hare-brained "advocates" like Watt who are apparently living in some parallel bizarro universe in thrall to conservative ideology and apparently wouldn't recognize real science if it walked up and bit them in the butt). I don't mind Romm's "advocacy" because it is in general reality-based and reflects what seems to be his sincere thoughts on the matter, but advocacy isn't the reason I visit. Lord knows, I'm getting rather tired of the back and forth from "advocates" on both sides who don't seem to have a firm grasp of the underlying science (particularly notable on the anti-AGW side)- it would please me greatly if it turned out the risk had been greatly over-estimated and we could all go back to doing something else with our time.

Marion Delgado said...

I was particularly proud of quickly refuting a denialist troll on a discussion of lomborg et al. I said they ignored all the scientists and data and just pushed market fundamentalism. The troll responded by saying, in effect, that marketing professor j. scott armstrong had refuted the entire IPCC.

One thing I said, though, was probably pointless on one level, I brought up how very unlikely it would be that even one real scientist, even a really great one, would be able to refute the work of thousands of scientists, experts all over the world. Especially in an observational and mixed discipline like climate science, vs. something like theoretical physics where paradigms change beliefs about hard to observe reality.

Okay, to ME. But this is an arena where that's not at all obvious. I think too many heart-warming (apparently) stories about the one genius refuting the scientific community are out there. It's exactly like basing your opinion of the economy on lottery winners.

I want to AT LEAST have people acknowledge that when they say "scientists believe" they mean a consensus. That they accept peer review as the main filter even if it's flawed. That they accept that a researcher is not fattening his wallet when he collects data. That they understand that all science does some modeling. Those are very bush-league minimums really, but we don't even get that.

Hank Roberts said...


Also reporting on Nature; brief excerpt follows:

By Janet Raloff
Web edition : 3:04 pm

“Independent science coverage is not just endangered, it’s dying,” according to the Wall Street Journal’s Robert Lee Hotz.

Increasingly, science news will be “ghettoized and available only to those who choose to seek it out,” argues Peter Dykstra, an executive producer of CNN’s science, technology and environment coverage — until his division was canned en masse last December.

These quotes are among the more provocative observations that Geoff Brumfiel has compiled in his news feature on evolutionary changes in science journalism. It appears in the March 19 Nature.

With the drying up of ad revenues — the money that subsidizes your TV news, daily paper and online magazine — media of all sizes and stripes are hurting. And laying off employees. Many of which include science reporters and editors....

David B. Benson said...

JOe Romm is up front about the need for rhetoric. He advocates with clear, sometimes funny, writing.

Which is certainly not nuanced, but instead blunt.

Also, he has experience and connections insdie the beltway; helps with the immediacy of many of his threads.

Michael Tobis said...

This is explicitly not an anti-Joe thread. I could argue the case of Joe either way; I'm certainly more favorably inclined to him than certain other climate science types I could name.

The issue is where he gets his traffic. The striking thing about the pattern Eli shows is that the blogs which have a strong commitment to controversy are more popular than those that emphasize a search for truth or for a policy that is suitable to all sides.

On this reading it is further evidence that the market for truth has indeed been marginalized. Yet the tools for identifying, collating and promulgating truth have dramatically improved. We just have to make the effort, and part of the effort is to sell the idea.

What is that idea? That idea is that a disagreement is an opportunity for learning, not an opportunity for viciousness and mutual contempt. That the world can get better. That "growth" may be over but that progress is not.

Michael Tobis said...

Rich, I very much don't think advocacies are interchangeable. I just think the idea that there are advocacy "team" positions and referee positions and nothing much else misses the whole point of discourse.

The "neutral" position and the "team" positions may have their place, I don't know. But we need people who can challenge their own assumptions and expectations.

We, the world, have options. We can't choose all of them, because they all have disadvantages and barriers. We mustn't choose none of them, because if we do we will be totally hosed.

We therefore have to make decisions, and we find ourselves in circumstances where the processes of democracy are crumbling under onslaughts of propaganda. That the batch of propaganda that is less alarming to me is temporarily in the ascendancy is no consolation.

As an example of what I mean, I am willing to bet that despite having had little interaction for over a decade, I can predict Rich Puchalsky's position on carbon capture and sequestration.

I can't, however, predict TB's or Eli's or Simon's. That's why I'd rather read what they have to say about it, and not so much what someone like Rich does. I would trust them to provide some information, not just an emotional security blanket and identity politics.

This attitude, more than anything, is what science bloggers have to sell, and I mean "have to sell" in both senses.

It's not a matter of credentials, it's a matter of intent. People whose highest loyalty is to truth are essential, and somehow in the insanity of the last thirty years have been marginalized.

Well, we do have one thing everybody else hasn't got: technical chops. So it's time to use the web to fix the tragic conceptual mess most people are in as a result of decades of mystification.

Rich Puchalsky said...

I still think that you're missing the point, Michael. This part, for example:

"As an example of what I mean, I am willing to bet that despite having had little interaction for over a decade, I can predict Rich Puchalsky's position on carbon capture and sequestration. "

That means that I was right earlier than the rest of you. Yes, I know, that sounds horrible and conceited. But I've heard all the same things about, let's say, the Iraq War. "Serious people consider the evidence; people who are just reflexive peaceniks all the time are unserious." But they were right, and the "serious" people were wrong. And the serious people are so interested in defending the process by which they make decisions that they'll never understand why they were wrong then and are likely still wrong.

"I can't, however, predict TB's or Eli's or Simon's. That's why I'd rather read what they have to say about it, and not so much what someone like Rich does. I would trust them to provide some information, not just an emotional security blanket and identity politics."

An emotional security blanket and identity politics? Really, I hate to type "lol", but... What you're calling "identity politics" is plain old politics. The reason that you're floundering is because you don't understand it. You write things like "That the batch of propaganda that is less alarming to me is temporarily in the ascendancy is no consolation." But it's not propaganda if it's true. Once again, you're equating all settled political positions as propaganda, whether those positions were arrived at by careful consideration of evidence or not.

King of the Road said...

Well, we do have one thing everybody else hasn't got: technical chops. So it's time to use the web to fix the tragic conceptual mess most people are in as a result of decades of mystification.

Well, as I sometimes say, good luck with that. I'm actually a voracious reader, I'm known to think now and again, I have a moderate background in science, math, logic, and critical thinking, I have nearly unlimited access to information, and I am willing to change my mind in the face of evidence. Yet look what I brought to your table.

I suspect I spend more time than you do with those who are making a living at relatively mundane jobs and trying to provide for their families. These people, with rare exception, are walking poster children for confirmation bias on any issue you'd care to name. They aren't stupid but they won't be convinced. You'll only convince them by convincing the people who convince the people that they believe. And what are the possibilities of that, given their agenda?

I would cite my own ramblings on the despair I feel over this, but the last time I did that I think I offended this site because people (including you) took it as being an insult directed at their beliefs and philosophy when that hadn't been my intention at all.

I ask this next question only because I want to know and don't; i.e., it's not rhetorical: what good do you hope to do?

Michael Tobis said...

KOTR, I'll ponder and reply.

But I don't recall taking offense at anything you have said.

All that said, it's been a bizarre month. Maybe I'm forgetting something. Remind me?

Michael Tobis said...

What you're calling "identity politics" is plain old politics.


The reason that you're floundering is because you don't understand it.

Right again.

But it's not propaganda if it's true.

It's not?

Wikipedia says: Propaganda is the dissemination of information aimed at influencing the opinions or behaviors of large numbers of people. As opposed to impartially providing information, propaganda in its most basic sense presents information in order to influence its audience. Propaganda often presents facts selectively (thus lying by omission) to encourage a particular synthesis, or gives loaded messages in order to produce an emotional rather than rational response to the information presented.

So it is about the way in which ideas are sold, by appeals to emotion and selective choice of evidence. On anthropogenic climate change, little selectivity is required by the side that accepts it. On carbon capture and sequestration, quite a bit more.

I am not entirely sure CCS is a good idea, but I am sure it is not nearly as slam dunk a bad an idea as it is made out to be by most of the people who take global warming as an issue to heart.

I would like to see some actual balance (as opposed to false balance which will stay at the 50 yard line no matter what you do) in writing on this question. If I could support myself as a journalist this is the first question I would take on. There are tremendous advantages to it if it workable.

Rich Puchalsky said...

Michael, all democratic politics involves "influencing the opinions or behaviors of large numbers of people." You're broadly defining any participation in politics as propaganda, as far as I can make out.

As for "selective choice of evidence" -- look, CCS doesn't exist. There's no evidence. There are various lab tests and speculative studies. But CCS *as a widespread social process* doesn't exist.

Let me go back to the Iraq War as an example, because it's pretty much as exact cognate. People said that we needed to go to war in Iraq because there was the danger of Saddam getting WMDs. Now, you didn't actually need to know much about WMDs to know that this was a bad idea. You only had to know how dicey the evidence was and how destructive wars of aggression are. The people who said the war, if done correctly, could have good effects, somehow never took into account that the war was going to be controlled by Bush, not by them.

Similarly, CCS is not really primarily a technical process. It's a political process. And who is going to be doing it? It makes no sense at all to say that if done well it would go fine. And it makes no sense to say that danger should cause us to replace a well-known, long-term solution (reducing generation of CO2) with a risky, fast one that sounds very similar to other big-time rolls of the dice that haven't turned out well (CCS).

And none of this really has much to do with the technical details, nor is it "selective presentation of evidence" to leave out those details. It's just an actual political position. If someone is interested in the details of various CCS proposals, that's fine, but there is no need whatsoever to be familiar with them in order to have a non-propagandistic political position.

Michael Tobis said...

"I suspect I spend more time than you do with those who are making a living at relatively mundane jobs and trying to provide for their families. These people, with rare exception, are walking poster children for confirmation bias on any issue you'd care to name. They aren't stupid but they won't be convinced. You'll only convince them by convincing the people who convince the people that they believe. And what are the possibilities of that, given their agenda?"

A very insightfully posed question. And I have the only possible answer: I intend to try to convince the people who convince the people who convince the people. Those people are not accessible to propaganda.

Take yourself. You showed up and asked to be convinced. I didn't get very far in chapter and verse, though I pointed you at the holy writ. I imagine it was our residual social connection that won you over more than the text did: you have some idea who I am and how I think. This is actually a very interesting fact. But you did show up openminded, and hopefully I at least haven't lost you altogether.

Lots of doctors and dentists and engineers are saying "enough of this crap, I'm going to go study the real facts" and falling into the trap of clever and even sometimes honest denial sites. Look up "global warming consensus" on Google, and harvest forty pages of mystification, diversion and/or outright lies for each one remotely in touch with the relevant science.

This needs fixing, and with the collapse of conventional journalism, for the first time a business model may be in sight. Meanwhile it is exactly the sort of thing I consider fun, and I'm tired of punishing myself with ugly software. So I'd best pounce on the opportunity while things are in chaos. It might not last long.

Does that make sense?

King of the Road said...

It does make sense but it doesn't leave me hopeful, at least in the sense of your "doing good." I do have some hope that it will enable you to find a more stimulating way to keep the wolf from the door.

Admittedly, pessimism and cynicism are my natural inclinations but as my partners say, "just because Rob thinks it won't work doesn't mean it will."

I hope I'm wrong. So much good would come from finding a way to get people to seek facts, think critically, and reason independently.

I'll risk a quote from my blog though and hopefully not be seen as too offensive:

"The problems facing our nation and our civilization are such that well-meaning and intelligent people can differ not only on appropriate policies but on what facts are important. These problems are incredibly complex and highly interrelated. They include, among others, humans' effect on the geophysical environment (climate, erosion, overfishing, pollution, resource depletion, you take it from here), overpopulation, arms proliferation, intolerance (racial, ethnic, religious) and others.

I happen to be watching a bowl game (Utah vs. Alabama) on FOX TV. A pure escapist waste of time to be sure. But during a commercial, there was a promo for the local news, it featured the death of John Travolta's 16 year old son and a guy who makes furniture from empty Budweiser cans. I'm not making this up. This was followed by a promo for another season of American Idol."

The point is that "people" seem to be actively running from the effort required to gather facts and reason from them and to face important issues.

All that said, my statement of "good luck with that" was heartfelt, if trite.

Anonymous said...

One of the biggest problems in these climate discussions is the pro-IPCC types gather in their heavily censored echo chambers like Climate Progress and Real Climate and swap complaints about the big-oil funded conspiracy that hindering progress on tackling the problem that they believe exists.
If you really believe that there is a serious problem and you really want to expand the message beyond the core base that already accepts your views then you need to get off your high horses and figure out the real reasons why people don't accept the IPCC claims as gospel. (hint: it has nothing to do with ideology or big oil).
In my case I went from accepting the science to being skeptic once I realized that the climate science community was willing to defend junk science like the hockey stick. I was not bothered so much by the fact that one or two scientists did some shoddy work - what bothers me is the willingness of other scientists to defend it. If those scientists are willing to to defend stuff which I have investigated enough to know is junk, how can I possibly trust their scientific opinion on any other topic such as the value of climate models?

Anonymous said...

Rich said:
"But I've heard all the same things about, let's say, the Iraq War. "Serious people consider the evidence; people who are just reflexive peaceniks all the time are unserious." But they were right, and the "serious" people were wrong. And the serious people are so interested in defending the process by which they make decisions that they'll never understand why they were wrong then and are likely still wrong."

This shows you don't understand what Michael just said. I expect you have been embedded in the US two party system for so long that it's natural to assume everything to be polarized like that. But it's not.

I assume the people who were pretending to be serious were just lying or fed false information. It's all just roles.

What we want is the truth. Whether it's left or right or green or black or blue. The reality. Not opinions.

The opinions and value judgements then come *after* we know the the facts.

If the evidence is faked, then *that* is the problem, faking evidence, and it should not go unpunished.

You can question the attack to Iraq as a whole, as a "reflexive peacenik". I don't say that's less serious than somehow binding the attack on whether Saddam has WMD:s or not - as if, if he had them, that would implicitly make an attack obvious and unquestionable. (It's a cunning strategy to divert discussion though, to make people feel as if they're being in the middle and making an informed decision on which way to go.)

Also, you can question the evidence of Saddam having WMD. And in this Iraq case you would have been proven right afterwards. This is a completely different thing than the above. You are now talking about facts, not values. Even when we really know very little of them.

Now, we want honest, not reflexive discussion of the facts.

I have been looking for info on carbon capture for years on the internet, and have found very little technical info. So please, if anyone has some physical and chemical facts on the plans, please please tell me or blog about or something.

EliRabett said...

Eli will add more later, but what Romm needs is an editor.

bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...


"the pro-IPCC types gather in their heavily censored echo chambers like Climate Progress and Real Climate"

You don't realize, do you, that your comment just provided the perfect counter-example to your own claim?

-- bi

Carl said...

Michael--I'm coming in a bit late to this conversation, but I just wanted to ask for a little clarification on your view of my own blog post, which you discuss. Were you arguing that I exhibiting some sort of symptoms of late-stage mainstream media ossification? You move from my blog post to a discussion of the death of the press, so I can only wonder.

If you are suggesting that I've committed some sort of sin of focusing on the latest paper in a field, I'd point out that this was not a standard news article, but rather a blog post showing how a scientific paper can get misrepresented. So by definition I had to focus on a single paper. I myself did not declare the Tsonis paper a revolution in the way we understand climate. That was not the focus of my post.

I agree that real scientific advances are bigger than just a single slender paper. And when I'm doing primary science reporting, I will read a stack of papers for a single article. Many of my colleagues do as well, but certainly not all of them.

But I'd also point out that there are other people who also direct a lot of focus on individual papers. These are some scientists and press information officers, who together craft press releases that bring attention to a single new paper. If scientists don't want this sort of coverage, it would only make sense for scientists not to help foster it.

Rich Puchalsky said...

"This shows you don't understand what Michael just said. I expect you have been embedded in the US two party system for so long that it's natural to assume everything to be polarized like that. But it's not. [...] What we want is the truth."

The problem is that you can't recognize the relevant parts of the truth. The truth is that the political system is indeed polarized like that.

Once again: CCS only secondarily a technical process. It is first and foremost a political process. Gathering technical details about it without using existing knowledge about how it will be implemented is worse than useless.

It's no good to be "proven right afterwards". Afterwards is too late. If people can't see the structure of the political system beforehand, they really are not trustworthy commenters on any political issue.

Michael Tobis said...

Carl, I don't think there's any sin in your article.

There is a sort of error of emphasis, focusing at length on a piece of relatively marginal work.

I guess my problem is the way your question went from "this has been politically interesting, is there anything to the science?" I'd really prefer if it were the other way around. You are focusing on the noise when there is plenty of signal to choose from.

Michael Tobis said...

Rich, you seem to be saying it would have no effect on your opinion about CCS whether it had the capacity to effectively sequester a significant amount of carbon or not. I find this position baffling.

If it turns out that Hansen and McKibben are right, and that 350 is the goal, we will have to put the carbon that is already out somewhere. Where? How? That is not primarily a political question but a technical one.

Rich Puchalsky said...

I'm equally baffled, Michael.

"If it turns out that Hansen and McKibben are right, and that 350 is the goal, we will have to put the carbon that is already out somewhere. Where? How? That is not primarily a political question but a technical one."

Who is "we"? How do we ensure that this actually happens, through changes in political administration?

You seem to keep wanting humanity to make decisions as a whole. But that's not how the system works. If we could make decisions as a whole in this disinterested fashion, we wouldn't need CCS, because we would have already started to lower CO2 emissions.

In fact, what you're saying is exactly like "But what if Saddam has WMDs? Then we'd have to get rid of him in the near term somehow. How?" You can phrase that as a technical question, but the only real answer is "through a war". It's a series of ostensibly technical questions that are guaranteed to lead to a risky intervention within a politically unworkable platform.

Look, here's another example from outside climate science: Social Security in the U.S. Every so often some eager technocrat points out that it's not very efficient, and would do better being means-tested and so on. But of course its designers knew this. It was designed to be resistant to being thrown out, and additional technical efficiency would have resulted in its loss of widespread support and therefore its nonexistence sometime during GOP dominance.

The main way to make climate change measures similarly resistant is to change infrastructure. Once coal plants are de-built and other power plants are built, entrenched interests lose funding, and unsympathetic later politicians would have to propose spending lots of money to switch infrastructure back. CCS doesn't do any of that. It's an add-on that can always be switched off.

So sure, maybe someone sometime will be profitably interested in CCS to reduce the CO2 already in the atmosphere. Maybe 50 years from now, perhaps. But it will do no good as long as the generated infrastructure is in place. And the people who can't see that are really just providing a big distraction.

Anonymous said...

Rich, let me formulate it this way in an example, and it is *just a hypothetical thought experiment example, I don't say things are actually like this, it is to demonstrate a mechanism of logic*:

If, say, CCS absolutely every time kills a baby for every ton it puts away CO2, then it is not sensible to keep expending effort on the lesser nuances of CCS.

In that sense you are right.

I *do* think CCS is used to motivate the "do nothing" thinking, and that is not good. But that's a problem of politics.

It's NOT the same as CCS being inherently "bad". It's not an inherent problem of the CCS technology itself.

There could still be a "do things" attitude and there *still* could exist CCS. That is, if the policy external to CCS is smart.

If you have deemed, non-factually, CCS to be absolutely non-workable, then you can't use it in the "do things" scenario either. You've thrown the baby with the bathwater.

In a sense, CCS is fundamentally neutral - but what it is used for is reprehensible.

Gah. I can't express the logic as quickly and as clearly as I want.

{As a disclaimer, I do think CCS is from a technical energy-entropy viewpoint very stupid in the next few decades, we should go immediately to less carbon producing energy generation and perhaps look at it later then.}

Anonymous said...


"You don't realize, do you, that your comment just provided the perfect counter-example to your own claim?"

Why? Because Micheal has not banned me for posting interpretations of the science which he does not agree with? That does not change the fact the Romm and RC go out of their way to censor people who do not follow the AGW party line.

But the censorship by AGW blogs is the least relevent part of my post. My point is you people have zero understanding about why people are sceptical and are completely in denial when it comes to the understanding the legimate issues with the science as presented by the IPCC.

Of course, you are free to sit in your echo chambers rambling about culture wars and big-oil induced conspiracies if that is what makes you feel more comfortable. However, if you really want the government to move forward substantial anti-Co2 policies then you would benefit by learning the real issues that make people sceptical of the IPCC claims.

Michael Tobis said...

Well, Raven, I think about your question a lot.

While we obviously hold the high ground of actual science, and we compete well enough in the mass market, it's the middle, people who think they are smart enough to figure things out for themselves, where we lose the battle. That is where we need to pay a great deal more attention. And that brings me back to my motivations.

Anonymous said...


You could start by accepting the fact that there are a lot of well educated people who are perfectly capable of understanding the issues who have looked at the data and come to a different conclusions.

I mentioned the hockey stick because it is something that really changed my opinion on the topic after carefully researching both sides of the argument. The only rational conclusion I can come is SteveMc is largely correct and the studies used by the IPCC are nothing but exercises in data mining designed to produce the desired result and that we do not know what was happened to global temperatures 1000 years ago.

Yet despite what I know to be obvious flaws in these studies the climate science community still insists that they are correct. Given that context how can I possibly trust the opinion of the climate science community on any other topic?

That is not a rhetorical question I would really like to get an answer.

Michael Tobis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Tobis said...

I am not especially interested in the hockey stick controversy. I find the obsession with it to be an interesting and revealing phenomenon.

I myself do not know enough about the work to defend it. I know enough about the community to have high confidence that the people producing the work mean well and have confidence in it. And surely the results are unsurprising. In other words, I'd reference it if I had occasion, but not without due caveats.

A couple of things here:

Perhaps as you say we don't know what happened to temperatures over the past 1000 years at all. If that is true it still doesn't refute the major conclusions of the community.

You say "climate science community insists" they are correct. I don't know that we have a means to do such insisting. This strikes me as a straw man.

You say you know about "obvious flaws". State them and maybe the conversation can continue.

You have stated that 1) climatologists insist that tree rings studies are valid and 2) they are not valid and 3) this is sufficient to refute climatology. I am unconvinced at every point of your argument. Feel free to defend these points, but please do not simply repeat them.

I would be interested to know if you feel the above is also sufficient to argue against carbon emissions
restraint, and if so why.

That said, I make no pretense that this site is open to all commenters on all topics. I only post things that I find make a positive contribution to the conversation. I particularly dislike comments that are both contentious and redundant.

Tree rings is not one of my own interests. I know another site where it is very much a welcome topic. Perhaps you would prefer to take it up over there.

Anonymous said...

Raven, I know several highly intelligent engineers and scientists, who are creationists. Sadly, scientific method is powerless against vocational precognition.

Let me ask you a question: "What evidence would change your view that climate change is not happening?"

Anonymous said...


I share your concerns about censorship at RC (I don't care for the other blog), about scientists being defensive and protective of each other, about conspircy theories and groupthink in general.
I think I've posted once or twice on RC but I've been censored. Gratuitous paranoid assumptions have been made about where I was coming from by obsessive zealots.

Yet I trust the basic science behind "AGW" (a meaningless concept as far as I'm concerned).
So please don't assume that you have to be a so-called skeptic to be censored. Disbelieving a scientist's statement seems to be enough.

Here's another non-rhetorical question: seeing that you can research this stuff and figure it out on your own, why do you care about the opinion of any group of scientists? The science doesn't stand on anyone's opinion.

I don't know why you think this "hockey stick" or temperatures 1000 years back are so important. It sounds like a peripheral controversy but I might be missing something. Is this case against "AGW" laid out coherently somewhere?

Sorry if that's too off-topic Micheal.

Michael Tobis said...

OK, I will experiment with my first Open Thread. Please place any and all climate related comments there that don't fit here or elsewhere; moderation will be very light on that thread.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Michael Tobis said...

Raven, please take this to the open thread if you want to discuss it further. Also I'd appreciate a correct spelling of "Michael", thanks.

Anonymous said...


I did not keep a copy of my post.

I am not sure I feel like typing it all over again. I would have appreciated if you had moved instead of deleting it.

Michael Tobis said...


Anonymous said...

I've been reading your site for a fair while, along with RC, Deltoid, Eli, Climate Progress, and many others.

You asked why Joe Romm gets more hits than you, and it comes down to the fact that he is more outspoken, more blunt and draws together both the science and the policy, as well as the media's coverage of the subject. He also posts more than most...and yes, he does occasionally need an editor.

He understands the way the politics and the media operate in a way that the vast majority of scientists do or will not. Its no accident that the most prominent climate change campaigner on my side of the Atlantic, George Monbiot, is a journalist (albeit with a scientific background) rather than a climate scientist. After seeing the way scientists handled the aftermath of the TGGWS programme (I was one of those who conplained to the broadcast authorities),I understood why.

That said, you have to realise that you all do slightly different things. I like the fact that you concentrate rather more on the science, as does Eli and RC, whereas Deltoid brings together various strands to the debate. Your all fighting the good fight.

On the other hand, I'm with Rich when he says that you do engage in a form of 'Broderism'. Don't be afraid to be angry, or put forward a position which goes beyond the pure science. This is not advocacy or even propaganda, its simply expressing what you believe should be done or understand from your role as a scientist. You 'have the technical chops', so don't be afraid to use them.

Science and politics are connected. You said that 'If it turns out that Hansen and McKibben are right, and that 350 is the goal, we will have to put the carbon that is already out somewhere. Where? How? That is not primarily a political question but a technical one.'

The fact is that its a technical problem that will only happen if the politicians make it possible. Therefore its a political problem. Don't worry about being political, we welcome ideas that stem from the science, not shy away from them. Keep up the good work, I'm grateful for all the work you all do..

David B. Benson said...

Putting the excess carbon away is not a technical problem; there are many already known solutions. Unfortunaterly, none of them are inexpensive. So it becomes a matter of being willing to spend the resources that way.

Give me control of 1% of GWP and I'll be able to halt excess carbon growth and have some left over to beginning removing some of the existing excess.

I suppose that makes it a political problem?

King of the Road said...

Hi Michael,

I'm finding it interesting to think about what causes particular posts of yours to generate dramatically longer comment chains than the mean.

I know you track site visits, do the posts (such as this) that generate the greatest quantity of comments also get the largest number of hits?

There are programs that analyze, for example, books and movies to determine whether they'll become big sellers. They're based on statistical analyses of content of previous big hits.

Such an analysis might be of value to someone looking to make a living as a blogger/journalist/essayist/commentator/editorialist.

Tom Yulsman said...


In your original post, you wrote, "The expectation of "news" is neutrality among competing parties, and of advocacy to choose one side regardless of evidence."

But there has long been a middle path: advocacy journalism of the kind practiced in places like The Atlantic and the New Yorker. In her stories about climate change, to offer one example, Elizabeth Kolbert was not even remotely neutral. In her own way, she was a passionate advocate of action. Yet she did not sacrifice evidence or accuracy. Quite the opposite.

As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel put it in their book, The Elements of Journalism, "If journalism starts with accuracy, a professional method or discipline of verification, and some unity of method to this process of verifying facts, then it can encompass a range of presentations."

Including advocacy.

And by the way, this approach is FAR more convincing than the predictable arm-waving employed by Joe Romm in some of his more outrageous posts. I get the sense that no amount of evidence whatsoever would ever give Romm even a scintilla of doubt, because any evidence that does not conform to his worldview he rejects out of hand as being false. Contrast his approach to that of Elizabeth Kolbert (and I might add, Andy Revkin). She is obviously open to the possibility that the evidence may force her onto a somewhat different path. And that's why her work is ultimately more convincing.

The key is not to be objective in some cartoon sense (of the kind given lip service by the clowns at Fox News), but to employ a systematic, objective process for seeking out and verifying information.

One of the fathers of modern journalism, Walter Lipmman, said that journalists should acquire more of "the scientific spirit . . . There is but one kind of unity possible in a work as diverse as ours. It is unity of method, rather than aim; the unity of disciplined experiment."

At their best, journalists have achieved that unity of method — one that bears some resemblance to the scientific method.

Keep that in mind as you move forward in your blog and you might just find more success than Joe Romm — perhaps not in sheer numbers but in influence and moral suasion.

Michael Tobis said...

Tom, to which I can only add a thanks for the reference and a heartfelt amen, brother!

Well, and a few other things besides...

I certainly wouldn't put the serious magazines and writers like Kolbert into the class I am complaining about. I am a great enthusiast of her work and much appreciative of it.

But it also seems clear to me that the economics of the existing publishing institutions pull for a political center rather than an evidence-driven one.

Where, for instance, is David Archer's complaint about how our behavior in the coming decades stands to affect the earth for hundreds of thousands of years? Is the enormity of this very plausible science so great that people can't even face it? Or is the pervasiveness of the economists' discount rate so profound that ethics are discounted at the same time scale?

Where is ocean acidification in the public discourse? Where is the ecological crisis? Where are the carbon and nitrogen cycles? Where is food sustainability?

Many of these things were on our lips thirty years ago. Where have they gone?

Maybe they just don't sell papers.

Anonymous said...

I have caught the "Micheal" bug for Raven apparently. Sorry for that.
Back on topic: I was struggling to put my reaction to your article into words.

It looks like there are two different things you are concerned about:
-lack of critical thinking in journalism and such
-lack of public interest in your pet topics
I'm wondering if you're conflating them. There's a relationship alright but it looks like you think there is or could be an audience for reporting that's reality-based, truthful, evidence-based or however you want to call it. Clearly, there's an audience for just about any topic out there. But do you want to read or listen to reality-based reporting on random topics? I guess not.

So you'd like more interest for your pet topics, some of which are also pet topics of mine. That's fine but I don't think that you're going to get it by getting people to see the truth or something.
There are many very serious problems in this world (desertification, organized crime, antibiotic resistance to name a few). For all the noise a few deniers make on a few of these issues such as climate change, people are generally convinced the problems are real to the extent that they're aware of them at all. Yet they're not flocking to blogs that report this stuff. Why would they?
There are different ways to get people interested such as touching them on an emotional level, telling them about the impact on their pocketboooks or showing them practical solutions.

But there's a particular way that get people interested in stuff that seems relevant to the topic at hand: politics. With politics comes groupthink. It's a shame but changing the way people deal with identities and conflicts is yet another tall order.
Clearly, a lot of people come to climate change through politics. I think this is one of the reasons denialism is so prevalent. And clearly, it's the solutions (CCS is an example) that get people's political minds in gear.
I don't like other people's political biases. In fact they often infuriate me. But I have biases of my own and I won't leave them at the door when discussing solutions or when choosing what blog I'm going to check out.
Yet I also have an interest in the truth. I don't see a contradiction there even though political biases can easily blind oneself to the truth. Worse: by being selctive in what one reads or listens to, one can easily miss important facts and arguments.
That's why I think reporters who're willing to take their sweet time before writing could do us all a valuable service by doing the excruciating works of casting aside their biases to hunt down and think through all the relevant information. This would require the reporter to be aware of her biases.
But I don't want information relevant to politics (such as climate change solutions) to be presented in a non-political manner or by someone who doesn't have a feel for politics in general and my politics in particular. My ideal reporter is clever, works hard, is objective... but shares my politics.
Academic science (paleclimates for instance) is something else: I don't want politics in there.

You also seem to want to address the intriguing issue of communication and governance at a global level (or was that hyperbole?) but this comment is already way too long.

Anonymous said...

A brief off-topic request for David B. Benson:
Do you have your 1% GWP laid out somewhere?
It sounds preposterous to me, a bit like fixing poverty with money but I try to keep an open mind.

Michael Tobis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robert Grumbine said...

For a serious look at some of the psychology involved around climate, take a look at the detailed discussion at http://www.psandman.com/col/climate.htm.

A somewhat different matter is what numbers you're looking at, to what end. Somewhere around 70% of the US seems to think that climate change is real and human activity is part of the story. Right off, that suggests that more articles about 'look, stuff really is happening and here is the nifty science involved' is not likely to advance your purposes. Since one of my major purposes is exactly talking about nifty science, or at least how not to do things (my recent notes on misleading yourself with graphs and the folks at co2scepts/climaterealists) that's a slightly different matter. My excuse being only that my nominal audience is younger, so not already well-acquainted with the science.

The 70% or so figure is more significant towards your goals than you might be thinking. The thing is, about 25% of the country is in the realm of not persuadable by evidence (c.f. young earth creationists). If it is indeed 70%, then over 90% of your potential audience is already persuaded on the science. More beating on that drum just gets noisy and boring. Even at 60% nationally, that's 80% of your potential audience.

So the real problem is not the science. And, for that matter, hasn't been for a long time. It's getting anyone to do anything. That's a very different matter than explaining how the greenhouse effect works or why Python is a better language than Fortran for climate modeling.

For large scale action, you need politics, and need to be thinking and acting politically. And, as Tip O'Neill observed, "All politics is local."

Michael Tobis said...

Penguin, I agree that the denialists are not especially interesting or important.

I think that nevertheless there are decisions to be made, and the more people understand them, the more likely we'll avoid being utterly stupid about it. Or should I say "continuing to be" utterly stupid about it?

Thanks for the article reference. Very interesting at first blush. I will try to find time to read it carefully.

Anonymous said...

Bob and Michael, it seems clear to me that there's now something like a consensus that greater emphasis needs to be placed on describing and communicating impacts. Consider e.g. Gore's AAAS speech and much of the discussion in Copenhagen. It appears that such a shift in emphasis is in fact happening, and there doesn't seem to be any impediment to plenty of science getting into the mix.

Michael, it seems to me that this ought to be somewhat helpful relative to the issues you raise. Is it?

Regarding Climate Progress, I don't think the comparison to Wussup is apt. Bearing in mind where it's hosted, I think its role is more to counter the memos that go out to opinion leaders from the likes of Pat Michaels and Myron Ebell. Joe's wide-ranging talents make it possible for him to do a credible job of this, although I suppose in the absence of someone like him CAP could have put together a team blog with a similar impact. Actually it is a team effort in a different sense, bearing in mind the other CAP blogs (in particular Science Progress). In any case I suspect it's the authoritative one-stop-shopping nature of CP that got it the "indispensable" accolade from Friedman.