"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Monday, March 15, 2010

Loose Cannon in the Press Office?

If there are temptations about to misrepresent science, it is the responsibility of scientists to stop them.

Looking at the matter from the point of view of the young career-seeker, apparently there are two career paths for "science writers"; one being science journalism and the other being the "PIO" or "Press Information Officer" for a scientific research institution.

The failures of the first have been crucial to our recent problems, but we should spare a moment to consider the second group. The ongoing fiasco with the development of yet another utterly baseless meme in the denialist canon is described fairly well on RC and on Deltoid. Unfortunately, the press did not have to work very hard to screw up this particular story: the misinterpretation was handed them on a platter by the press office of Boston University, in a release signed by Richard Taffe.

Neither the opening sentence of the release nor the closing three paragraphs are remotely supported by the study. The quotation apparently from Jose Marengo is surely a paraphrase. It seems that Sangram Ganguly, a coauthor, may be responsible for both the bizarre spin and the quotation of Dr. Marengo. Neither Marengo nor the first author Arindam Samanta seem quite aware of how the press is systematically mangling the story of climate science.

On the other hand, Richard Taffe, press officer at Boston University, is another matter. It seems he or Gangully or both must have known they were feeding the denial squad just the sort of red meat they want.

How did he come up with this spin? Is it really in the interests of his host institution? Did the first author even take the slightest notice of this process, never mind approve it?

The press itself accords far too much power to the press offices. As @j_timmer tweets:
PIO's product is being treated as science news by PhysOrg, etc. Public unaware of difference.
which allowed me to track down a couple of relevant and insightful articles which address the power of the press office when wielded in the interest of public information.

The Samanta case, though, is very remeniscent of the McLean et al fiasco, wherein a marginal and unsurprising paper on El Nino was spun into the "death knell of global warming" by some creative post-publication interpretation.

Make no mistake what this means. What this means is that there is a systematic process of turning ordinary science into denialist memes that bears precisely zero relationship to the actual substantive content of the publication.

In the present case a press officer was at least complicit if not responsible.

I don't know anything about the press officer, Richard Taffe. I don't know if he has pulled such stunts in the past. I am willing to presume he is a good neighbor and a stalwart friend and so on. I hate to do anything that might incline to make his life miserable the way so many other people's lives have been made miserable by the toxic environment around climate science these days. Let's just call it a mistake. But someone at BU needs to call Mr. Taffe to account.

Some may be tempted to accuse me of demanding an inquisition of Mr. Taffe for failing to toe the IPCC line. Lest that occur let me point out that I welcome any real evidence that calls IPCC into question, because the advance of truth is what matters.

In the present case, though, the press release demonstrably did not represent the published research in question. Mr. Taffe is entitled to his own extrapolations from the research, of course, as much as is anyone else. He is not, or at least should not be, entitled to present those extrapolations as the product of the scientific effort of his institution.

This event constitutes an institutional failure at the university in question and, likely, a common vulnerability elsewhere.

Update: It now looks like we won't find out how this mess occurred.

The first author, Dr. Mr. Samanta, has (apparently) stepped up on RC to try to dampen the furor. His statement, while woefully unconvincing, makes it unlikely that we'll be able to sort matters out in any detail. It also makes it certain that the denialist camp will continue to misuse the evidence. It still remains an instructive instance of how attacks on the IPCC are habitually spun out of nothing, and also illustrates how far actual scientists in the field are from being engaged in its politics. Unfortunately, Samanta's efforts to protect those around him and keep the controversy at bay will have costs for the world at large.

Here's the statement, copied from RC. I don't know that the authorship is authenticated.

The press release accompanying the GRL article disputed the following IPCC AR4 (2007) claim –

“Up to 40% of the Amazonian forests could react drastically to even a slight reduction in precipitation; this means that the tropical vegetation, hydrology and climate system in South America could change very rapidly to another steady state, not necessarily producing gradual changes between the current and the future situation (Rowell and Moore, 2000). It is more probable that forests will be replaced by ecosystems that have more resistance to multiple stresses caused by temperature increase, droughts and fires, such as tropical savannas.”

for two reasons: (1) this is presented as the consensus view by quoting Rowell and Moore, 2000. (2) There was more than a slight reduction in precipitation during the third quarter of 2005 and, most of the drought-impacted forest area for which we have uncorrupted satellite greenness data showed no enhanced or reduced greenness levels (third quarter average EVI values) as compared to non-drought years (between 2000 and 2008).

It is only in this context that the material in the press release and the GRL must be understood. We do not dispute any other results related to this theme in these two documents.

Arindam Samanta (on behalf of the authors of the GRL papers).

Update: Keith Kloor asks:
Here’s a fact: university press releases that tout scientific studies are routinely vetted by the principal researcher(s). And that’s the case here, as I confirmed this morning in a phone call with Richard Taffe, who wrote the Boston Universtiy release. So why are Tobis et al playing this disingenuous game of gotcha with the messenger? It strikes me as yet another example of misdirected anger.
Emphasis added.

I respond as follows:

Disingenuous is a bit strong. I was wrong, to some extent and Taffe is off the hook.

The press release is an awful misrepresentation of the import of a more or less sound and ordinary publication. That the PI is backing up the release means that responsibility must be allocated entirely to him.

Had it just been a matter of idly signing off on it without paying attention, the press office would be suspect. I remain inclined to believe that this is what occurred, but Dr. Samanta seems disinclined to admit it, thereby protecting Mr. Taffe.

As a comment on my blog entry shows, their motivations are not to represent the researcher, but to get the university’s work into the press, no matter how represented. Given this, researchers in areas plagued by public controversy cannot take the press office lightly.

Regardless of whether the press release is factual, it is certainly not based upon the publication that it claims to report.

Thus the press office has usurped the function of peer review by innovating scientific assertions without subjecting them to review, assertions which the rest of the press will feel comfortable repeating. If the principal investigator collaborates in this process, (as clearly happened in the McLean/deFreitas paper last fall and seems to have happened here) it does not legitimize it.

I stand by "complicit if not responsible" regarding Mr. Taffe's role. I think, though, that Dr. Samanta has accepted full responsibility and we need to take this up with him.

Update: Eli has a modest suggestion: Proposed outreach, so called "broader outcomes" have become an important part of grant applications and press releases are certainly an outreach.

Require all press releases to be included in any grant renewal request.

Let the reviewers at em.


Powelliphanta said...

In a reasonable world the university press office might be expected to be there to help researchers get their results out to the public media in the least mangled, most factually accurate way as a first priority, with the level of exposure gained perhaps as a second priority.

My experience has been rather the opposite - the first function above can be filled to some extent by talking directly to quality media organisations, but in contrast the university media office are all about raising the media profile of their institution and facts be damned if they get in the way of a good story.

I was recently an author on a climate-related publication in Science, who have a not-so-helpful policy of tipping off the media offices of contributing authors to imminent publications. After days of haggling over its wording with the press officer concerned the only way I was able to avoid a wildly misleading media release escaping into the wild from my own institution was to drag my feet for so long that it was simply too late to release it.

The press officer was not trying to spin a climate-sceptical viewpoint, she was simply trying to sex things up enough that mainstream media would bite at her media release, and could not find a way of doing so that I was prepared to consider as factually accurate with respect to the contents of our published research.

A depressing experience, but as a result I would be hesitant to hold any scientist to account for a press release issued by their host institution.

EliRabett said...

Eli was going to vent on this too, but the real point is NOT to let Samanta walk this back. He is either being duplicious or dumb and needs to be called on it.

Anonymous said...

What about senior author Myneni? According to the National Post's Terence Corcoran, Myneni called the IPCC Amazon statement "alarmist".

As well, Corcoran's article also goes well beyond the press release, which at least mentioned that Samanta et al undercut the earlier Science 2007 report of thriving "greening up" following the 2005 drought. Corcoran misleadingly characterizes the earlier research showing "greening up" as discussing "disturbance" of the Amazon rain forest.


Obviously, authors can not dispute every single misinterpretation of their work in the popular press. But in this case, the author granted an interview to a major media outlet that is a known purveyor of disinformation. Myneni has a duty to correct the record.

I would also say that if press releases are going to use the work to make sweeping generalizations, then those statements should be on the record from one of the authors as a direct quote. That would concentrate minds, wouldn't it?

Note also that the quote from Brazilian scientist Jose Marengo is now gone, presumably following his objection.

Stick with it ...

Michael Tobis said...

Thanks for the link, DC. That's a gem at the NP, a little sparkling perfect crystal of brazen dishonesty.

Unknown said...

Do you know Dr. Samanta is "he" or "she"? I do not dare ask directly (yet). I could not decide with the portrait photo at lab web page. On the other hand, I find Blogger profile page of a user "Arindam Samanta" which says that the gender is male. Also "Arindam is Sanskrit for the man who has won all his enemies" according to Wikipedia.

Michael Tobis said...

I was surprised to learn that Samanta is female from a correspondent who has been writing prominently on the matter.

Now I am unsure, and have checked with said correspondent.

I am surprised nobody in Boston has done any legwork to investigate this matter.

EliRabett said...

He is a guy. More concerning, a grad student who is fronting for the professor.