"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Sunday, April 3, 2011

For Eli and Keith, Among Others of their Ilks

Eli shakes his head in bewilderment over my efforts to maintain a civilized relationship with Keith Kloor. Let me begin by reminding Eli that my allegiance is split between the scientific and the journalistic community.

In thinking about what I am doing here and why, specifically in trying to keep the channel to Keith's empire open, a number of points have come to mind. Seventeen, to be exact.

1) I hope not to lose Eli's support altogether over my next article, wherein I say nice things about Roger! This will offend him far more than any buttering up of Keith I might have done today.

2) It's a human failing to focus on a peripheral statement rather than the core of an argument. I have been noticing this for years.

3) Journalists actually pride themselves on something akin to missing the speaker's point. Often it is some peripheral statement they find more interesting and revealing. When the speaker or writer is trying to get across some very serious point, these diversions can be infuriating. That doesn't make them intrinsically valueless, but they can subtract net value by failing to understand and propagate the more serious core argument.

4) If you write totally pedestrian stuff like most of the pablum on Climate Central, nobody will miss your point; that is not entirely because hardly anybody will read what you have to say but it sure figures in.

5) Therefore, the more interesting the stuff you write, the more likely it is that the journalist will derail your argument. This is not because they are pernicious, this is because it is their job to make NEW observations, just as it is with scientists.

6) Both scientists and journalists should get over it. We have serious problems to address. We can do this by identifying and highlighting the best things other people say, not by constantly striving for originality.

7) It is ridiculous to suggest that everyone who writes about a subject should be an expert on that subject. If nonexperts do not write about a subject, experts cannot identify the key misunderstandings and try to repair them. The more so when the Moranos of the world are out there promoting misunderstandings.

8) Asking good questions is a valuable and useful skill in itself. Keith and Andy Revkin are very good at this. I like to think I have this talent too.

9) The reluctance to go dig up answers is a sort of laziness, and the reluctance to stick by answers is a sort of cowardice. I am not saying anything bad about Keith in this thread, but I will say that Andy Revkin has shown signs of both of these. I have the first problem (but not the second); I hope to overcome it in my future work.

10) The reason John Fleck is a gem is that he established some turf and is actually digging up answers in it, some of them a bit disconcerting. He has shown both courage and discipline.

11) John thinks he is writing for the people of Albuquerque, because they pay him. In fact, John's writing on water issues is influential globally. But nobody has found a way to make that pay. Back when he still sort of liked me, John explained to me the attractions of the local newspaper as an information delivery package. But this model is broken in his case, because at least some of the principal beneficiaries don't contribute to paying him at all.

12) State research universities in America are broken in the same way. The beneficiaries of (non-profit or very-delayed-profit) research are global; the costs are regional. The parochial interests of each jurisdiction are toward free riding. The universities try to cover this embarrassing situation with bullshit, especially in meetings with state legislatures, where they try to cover up with ridiculous talk of "training the next generation of leaders" &c. But of course, research and training are not the same. This leads, through a convoluted path that any American academic will understand instantly, to cruel absurdities like undergraduate meteorology degrees.

13) The Tea Party types think they are being bullshitted even when they aren't. In this case they actually are being bullshitted.

14) But in this paranoid era, nobody wants to even begin to imagine a globally funded research system.

15) I think I learned this a long time ago from Stanislaw Lem, or maybe Lec Walensa, but I think some famous Polish dude anyway. The way to live is to live as if you already lived in a civilized society, even if you don't.

16) So we should find ways to give a fair share to our global journalists as well as to our global scientists, as if there were a world tax authority arranging for it.

17) But we journalists and scientists, in turn, should also act as if we were more civilized than we actually are. We should, (and here I regard myself as awkwardly on the margins of both groups but surely a member of the union of the two sets) in the present circumstances, recognize that there are more important things than our respective egos. Thus, when a rival says something valuable, we should spread it and encourage it rather than desperately seeking something wrong with it.

Summary: In short there is altogether too much sniping and not enough listening on almost everybody's part. This traces back to some extent to the stresses of previously successful and now unexpectedly broken business models. (There's also a peculiar atavistic obsession with respective kinds of thing thing called "papers" that no longer are made of paper in both camps which is sort of a weird coincidence.)

Anyway, I really do hope Keith livens up Climate Central. Of course if they really want to fix the thing they ought to be giving me a call.


Arthur said...

I don't think the "journalistic community" is exactly "Keith's empire" - one could engage with other journalists like Jay Rosen who actually seem to understand a lot of the issues we've talked about...

Your point 3 (missing the point is what journalists do - and related points 2, 5, 6) is insightful, but disturbing to me. Is this really journalism? It's entertainment - appealing to the controversy to draw audiences. Or opinion-making masking as objectivity. The exemplar of all this to me is the media treatment of Howard Dean's "scream". I mean - talk about missing the point to make disparaging and totally unwarranted implications about somebody.

Yes, I dream of a more civilized society, and I think your point about living as if that were the case is excellent. But in my more civilized society there would be no place for "Howard Dean scream"-style journalism at all: all people would frown on such missing of points as the phony opinion-mongering it is.

At least I have some hope - people seem to be tiring of Glenn Beck, who seems to have taken this sort of journalism as entertainment form to its ultimate extreme.

EliRabett said...

Well Michael, you will not lose any friendship, but you are confused if you think that Roger and Keith are your friends. They waste no time and spare no effort to stick a fork, if not a knife in you.

Remind Eli not to walk down nasty streets with you at his back tho. . .

Anonymous said...


There was a thread at Keith's not too long ago about a meeting between journalists and scientists about this subject. One of the more interesting things Keith mentioned was that Seth Borenstein, whom many people respect as a science journalist, said that he could write a story about 312 or so straight months of anomalous warmth, if there was a month that dipped below that mark, stopping the streak. To which, Kerry Emanuel (I believe), responded -- asking why not write about the story anyway? It's a long streak, right?

I think here is where a large portion of the problem is, and it relates to Dr. Tobis' point #6. Stories about what scientists expect to happen, or what they think are happening now, have no "hook". They are presumably uninteresting, and can't get a readership beyond those of us already interested in the subject. This makes it difficult to get past editors. You can see how this can influence the entire profession that is reporting on a slow moving scientific process to narrow gaps of issues that are already well understood.

Michael Tobis said...

Grypo, actually, there is a sense in which climate science really should not be in the general interest news at all. By now, people should have grasped the outlines of the problem and be working toward some sort of workable solution. Most of the "stories" that come out about climate science per se are counterproductive because they keep stirring a pot that has already cooked.

Maybe climate science will advance substantially, though in recent years it appears to me to have failed to do so. In the meanwhile, the established knowledge should be parsed out to the (much larger) policy and impacts communities. To some extent it has. But to read the press the battle is in climatology itself.

Climatology should go back to being an interesting fringe science, unless/until more precise constraints on the system's behavior emerge. Until that happens, the real "news" will be elsewhere.

It is the overwrought attacks on climatology that make it "news". Both science and journalism appear defenseless against this abuse. And it still seems to me (here is one of the places that I disagree most with Keith) that it is a direct consequence of this abuse and the lack of means to resist it that the outlines of the policy problem are so badly misunderstood.

Unknown said...

Grypo, there were two related posts I wrote about the AAAS sessions on climate science and communiciation. This is the first (57 comments):


Here's the second (208 comments):

And it was Peter Gleick (he was in the audience during the panel session that Emmanuel participated in) who took issue with Seth's point about needing a news hook for the 312 day story.

An amazing divide on the role and function of journalism was on vivid display during the panel that Borenstein and Emmanuel were part of.

Steve L said...

I once saw a talk on Deep Ecology by Arne Naess. A good, fun talk. During it he mentioned something he called verbal non-violence (if I remember correctly). I'm not sure if he was citing Gandhi. The idea is that we're committing acts of violence when we interpret the words of others uncharitably. When someone says/writes something, maybe beautiful ideas underly terrible prose, for example, and we should assume that's true and try to exhume those ideas.

Adhering to this principle can be as entertaining as following the more common and opposite tactic of focusing on the stupidest thing said and interpreting it in the least charitable way. But it can be a lot of work and is certainly more tiring, especially in certain company.

Marion Delgado said...

My contributions: First, Michael, do you ever correspond with or work with Chris Mooney? He's taken a systematic approach to solving our problems with communication, science, and journalism that's very objective and solution-oriented. The official science community HAS to turn 180 degrees from their attitude to science communication, as exemplified by their treatment of Carl Sagan.

Second, whether it's blog or print or radio or TV, there's no competition or choice if it's all simply the property of whatever unaccountable corporation wants to buy it. The need for publicy-funded and politically accountable public media has never been greater. On the internets, since you can't buy everything (but remember, the very last ip address just recently got allocated in our current system and we need new domain endings and they will need a new system and there probably will be a completely non-neutral internet soon) you simply drown out other voices, and money can buy that.

Marion Delgado said...

Also, I second what both Arthur and Eli said.

Anonymous said...

Well I'll echo what Steve L said. Treating interesting voices like Keith as an enemy is losing us Gilligans and gaining us cheerleaders. It's creating a cramped, stuffy, boring space. We need challenges. We need intelligent pushback. And Collide-a-scape is frankly a relief from our side's voluminous PR crap and too frequent, boring attack-dog behavior.

Padraig said...

MT why do you call meteorology degrees "cruel absurdities"? Is because a college student would be better served at the undergradate level by working for a degree in one of the engineering disciplines, or in Applied Physics. Some time in the next year I am going to have to make the choice for myself, so this isn't an idle question, although it may be off topic.

seamus said...

Gilligan says: "It’s a fact that environmental activism in the last decade has been a catastrophic failure"

Hmm. Blaming the messenger... sounds kind of familiar. That attitude studiously ignores another possible way to view things: attacks on climate science and environmental regulation have been hugely successful.

As a couple commenters over there pointed out, Kloor seems mostly interested in talking about talking about it. Yep, boring. Yep, promotes inactivism. Totally not worth paying the slightest attention to.

Kloor is too smug. And why shouldn't he be? Lots of words, but he hasn't said a damn thing. Semantics.

MLW said...

I apologise for harping on a minor point, I'd like to echo greysparkes regarding your comment on undergraduate meteorology degrees. While I did my degree in physics, I had a very positive impression of the meteorology program at my school. Have you written on this subject before?

Anonymous said...


A lot of what Michael does is talk about problems in communication.
Is Michael promoting inactivism?
Is he doubly promoting inactivism when he recommends that people listen to someone who (allegedly) promotes inactivism?
Is "promoting inactivism" being defined as activity which is not "promoting activism"... or something else?
Should we not ask questions that do not serve the ends of promoting activism?

adelady said...

"3) Journalists actually pride themselves on something akin to missing the speaker's point. .... but they can subtract net value by failing to understand and propagate the more serious core argument."

I read this differently. The bigger problem with writing about the speaker's point is that it requires better writing to flesh out the issue for the reader. Therefore, the writer needs more knowledge to deal with the topic, more time to think about it, more editing to polish it.

The journalism you're talking about is ye olde the-defendant-scowled-in-the-dock style. A brief glimpse of a human dimension in a squalid mess.

This is all very well for crime and for kitty rescued from a tree reporting. It isn't used in business reporting. It's used a lot less in the sports pages - where we who are interested in facts and statistics might note - there is *no* reluctance to go into arcane number records and other minutiae of obscure observations.

So it's all about time and skill - which comes down to publishers and edtors deciding where time and money will go. And reporters choosing the easier path - because that's the one the editors have laid for them.

Michael Tobis said...

Adelady, well said. The contrast between the level of expertise strived for in the sports section vs that in science related articles is something that has puzzled me in the past.