"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Friday, June 26, 2015

On Laden vs Revkin

I started taking blogging seriously in the first place when I realized how the New York Times, as personified by Andy Revkin, though better than most of the press was proving incapable of conveying the outlines of the climate change problem to the public.

I have thought quite a bit about Revkin since. I saw him as two-faced, and others have struggled with this as well. People who have met Revkin find it hard to entirely dislike him (I have since entered into that category), and people who have been interviewed by him especially so. There's an obvious sincerity and wit (not matched by musical talent, alas) that makes the two-facedness even harder to account for.

I have since decided that it's best to think of Revkin as the Larry King of the sustainability world. A good interviewer of the friendly sort - the type that brings out the best, most convincing, most coherent, in anyone he interviews. When he interviews somebody basically sound, the result is extremely helpful. When he interviews someone basically confused and/or ego-driven, or tries to address both "sides" of what ought to be a noncontroversy, the result is toxic. On the whole we end up with a few gems in a total contribution that is not helpful.

A key controversy is on the "stridency" question. Journalists face competing ethical pressures - to tell the truth as it exists and to be open to challenge. This is a tightrope act. As such, journalists are suspicious of advocates - those who only tell one side of the story. I sympathize.

In the end my position on all this is closed to Gavin Schmidt's. What we want from all this communication is for real conversation based on realistic assessments of evidence to replace all these idiotic proxy arguments we are having instead. But when the proxy arguments are hopelessly skewed away from reality, representing a success on the part of the advocates of policy paralysis, the best thing to do is not always the thing that looks to the confused public as the most balanced.

So a case in point arises in a recent kerfuffle between Greg Laden and Andy Revkin.

It begins with an article Greg writes that is heavily critical of Andy, suggesting that he is becoming an active agent of the forces of confusion and denial.

For what it's worth, I wouldn't have written it that way. I don't think Andy has changed much. As Greg points out, it's the evidence that has changed, and there's little sign that Andy has moved along with the evidence.

But of course, that misunderstands what his role in all this. He has always been a de facto agent of confusion and denial, because his kindness and essential neutrality combines with excellent interview skills to produce this mass of wonderful and terrible articles, the net effect of which is terrible. Andy Revkin, though I like him, is the embodiment of the problem I set out to solve when I started blogging.

True to form, Andy is open to criticisms of himself, but decides to put some focus on this paragraph of Greg's:
There is plenty of room for variation in policy approaches to climate change. But there is absolutely zero room for considering the reality of climate change or its severity. We can honestly argue about thresholds, and which decade will see what severe effects, but we can no longer argue about the existence or overall seriousness of the problem.
Revkin picks up on Olson's critique and in his response replies sarcastically
“Zero room.” That’s scientific.
and expands
It is on the severity question that his “zero room” for debate meme fails.
Randy "Don't be Such a Scientist" Olson (grrr...) runs with it:
By pinpointing the “zero room” comment, Andy got right to the heart of the problem, and even cued a more specific elaboration from Greg of “zero room for debate.”
There’s your problem. In just two words you’ve captured much of the core of the failed climate movement of the past decade. And it is failed, given that there was once climate legislation in the works and bipartisan support for action, but today there’s nothing.

In 2006 Gore’s movie gave rise to the misguided “there is no debate” communication strategy. It took Climategate and Jon Stewart ridiculing the climate science community to show that actually there very much is a debate if you use the broader public’s definition of the word “debate” (that half the public does not support climate action) rather than the academic community definition (all the data point one way).

“Zero room” captures the self-defeating arrogance and tone deafness that has characterized the American environmental community for decades. Thank you, Greg, for distilling it down to just two words.
I won't waste my breath on how much every word of that irritates me, but that's Olson for you. Maybe I will write a book for Olson called "Don't be Such a Media Whore". What's important is that this does seem to capture Revkin's point.

But look, it's obviously wrong. The question is what Greg meant by "zero debate" on the "severity question". Does it mean zero debate on HOW SEVERE, or zero debate on WHETHER IT US SEVERE. Because if it's the former, there's certainly room for criticism. But see, Greg already answered that for us. Since bits are free, I'll repeat it with emphasis:
There is plenty of room for variation in policy approaches to climate change. But there is absolutely zero room for considering the reality of climate change or its severity. We can honestly argue about thresholds, and which decade will see what severe effects, but we can no longer argue about the existence or overall seriousness of the problem.
Although the second sentence is open to criticism on one interpretation, it is immediately paraphrased in the third sentence. And that paraphrase makes clear that the zero debate question refers not to quantitative dickering but to the basic facts of the matter, facts which Revkin insists that he accepts.

In short, this particular line of attack is baseless and at best very sloppy.

Beyond that, I'll let Andy and Greg slug it out. I don't entirely agree with either of them on their characterizations of what Andy does (and what most of the rest of the American press does too).

In the large, Greg is wrong when he (implicitly) calls Andy a sell-out. (* UPDATE/NOTE - Greg says on Twitter that he wouldn't use that description.)

(It's perhaps unsurprising that Andy turns around and defensively calls Greg a zealot, and that's wrong too. I don't always agree with Greg, but I think we've learned that tiptoeing around the climate issue trying to sound like a proper scientist is not having the desired effect. Greg can be reasoned with - he's reasonable in that sense.)

The problem at root is a totally confused sci-comms ideology that has gripped the press, exemplified and championed by Dan Kahan. And the best illustration of it has been provided, ironically and apparently unwittingly, by Andy Revkin. Watch.

Sorry. A bit excruciating, I know.

But if you ever wanted to see what ideological blinkers really do to a person, listen to how Revkin ducks and weaves to avoid answering Gell-Mann's simple question. (Ironic, no?)

A real pity the camera is facing the wrong way because Gell-Mann is the interviewer. (A hat tip to Steve Bloom for the reminder.)

And this bizarre abdication of responsibility by the press leaves nobody willing to take responsibility for the public understanding the issue. And that's the problem. I'm hard pressed to see how we reach a point where the public "believes in" something it doesn't have any understanding of.


Unknown said...

Thanks for posting this. It's great watching Gell-Mann's face. At 1:30, 2:30, and 4:50 he looks so disappointed -- and I think not only in what he's hearing, but in the subtext about the messenger in front of him, who is not delivering exactly straight answers.

But I think that Andy Revkin isn't alone...not recognizing 800lb gorillas is part of mainstream American journalism. It is impolite to mention the underlying schism in the US that climate became part of, along with evolution. Or to mention the value of the schism to big industries, to Wall Street, and to what Paul Krugman would call the "serious people" with high IQ's and a preference for a status quo that leaves them in apparently secure positions.

Some of the JASON physicists of Gell-Mann's generation pushed the same fog for their own reasons. Because an unsustainable consumption based economy -- even when berserk and self-destructive -- is our god, and our god supplies individual freedom. Defiantly unregulated markets are the only thing that stands between us and Stalin.

So what's amazing is that we're managing to pass along a slow-motion civil war, stacked on top of a slow-motion nuclear war (in terms of climate impacts), to the next generation, who get to deal with both at once.

Michael Tobis said...

What perhaps amazes me most about this video is that it is Revkin's to post or remove.
It's interesting that in his world his behavior is nothing to be ashamed of. Presumably he's pleased with his own role in this conversation, and thinks it is Gell-Mann (and me) who is missing the point.

manuel moe g said...

Is there a variant of Jevons paradox ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jevons_paradox ) that shows that the technological "solution" favored by Revkin will never lead to carbon dioxide being removed from the atmosphere? It is easy to sketch out: the mania for economic growth will leave all tools for a drastic net removal of carbon dioxide to lay unused in laboratories.

Maybe that is the main point that proves Revkin irrelevant: the unspoken assumption of economic growth hides the problem that economic growth is devoted to self-perpetration with no will or way left over for sustainability.

Andrew Revkin said...

It's amazing how even the Murray Gell-Mann chat has a Rorschach quality - interpreted to mesh with any viewpoint. I'm not arguing with him, but trying to get him to understand the empirical work showing clearly that more information - even presented in artful graphs, even to audiences that understand the difference between variation and trend - won't dislodge people from positions that are more a function of their tribal affiliation than the data. See: http://www.law.yale.edu/news/19377.htm and Skeptical Science: http://www.skepticalscience.com/Kahan.html

I'm not defending the press, by the way. But the media have drawn those graphs for decades (see http://j.mp/rev1988 )

And I constantly test drive new variants. Here's just one of many examples: A Fresh Look at the Difference Between Climate Trends and Variations http://nyti.ms/NMnBwR Michael, I'm pretty disappointed in the level of vitriol here (de facto agent of confusion and denial, and you don't even like my music.. http://j.mp/libcarb .. I am in a funk..)

Anonymous said...

As much as Revkin can outrage me with the harm he causes by giving credibility to Anthony Watts simply by associating with that poltroon (to Andy's almost immediate regret), I must agree with him that it is Gell-Mann who is stubbornly missing the answer to his own question. The simplicity of the arithmetic that Gell-Mann keeps harping on is irrelevant to the difficulty of changing minds that are obdurate--by reason of ideology and world view--to the very notion of dangerous AGW.

Recent research has shown that the more one presents evidence contrary to an emotionally held view, the stronger the holder hangs on to that view. This is news Gell-Mann rather obviously chooses not to hear in the conversation, as he repeatedly interrupts Revkin's attempts to expand upon it.
Adam R.

Michael Tobis said...

Andy, I am frustrated by what you do and I am trying to explain why.

Gell-Mann identifies one of many simple concepts that the public doesn't understand, and suggests that it is the job of journalism to convey that simple concept. I agree.

I fully understand that there are all sorts of reasons people are stubborn and resist changing their beliefs about what sorts of behaviors to adopt or policies to support.

Gell-Mann is not asking for this. He is asking for clarity of concept. I agree. It would be nice if people understood what it is they choose to disbelieve. As things stand, most people choose sides on whether to "believe in global warming", but very few of them have any idea what it is they are deciding on.

Most of the commonly cited studies on "communication of scinece" are in my opinion wrongheaded for the question that interests me. I do not believe a society can make good decisions without sufficient understanding of what it is deciding on. And apparently that understanding is lacking.

What we should be studying is which techniques convey information, not which techniques sway opinion. Science communication should not be about opinion at all. It should be about conceptual understanding.

I remain convinced that if people had the conceptual understanding they would eventually act differently, and I find all the studies to the contrary woefully unconvincing.

Gell-Mann is focusing on an instance. There are cycles, random variation, and an underlying trend. It's a reasonable abstraction to consider these as additive components. Could most people articulate that? I doubt it. Does it enter into all the tiresome "global warming yes or no" arguments? Not usually. Andy refuses to even acknowledge the instance. Could most people understand it as presented? Sure. People understand football and baseball, which are much more complicated than that.

This constant deferral to cultural cognition misses the point, and in the interview, we see Andy refusing to even acknowledge that a point is being made. Ironically, he is demonstrating cultural cognition. That is, he has been trained to believe something that to my mind is fundamentally equivalent to claiming that journalism is useless. It's an odd thing for journalists to believe.

Why do they believe it so much that they use to to refuse to address specific instances of simple concepts that the public is missing? Because it lets them off the hook ethically for their role in our collective incompetence.

There's no identity issue with proposing that T = A + B + C, but it would greatly clarify the conversation if it were understood that at least that's a proposed approach.

Unknown said...

Re: what Gell-Mann is asking for -- Richard Alley does a pretty good job here -- it seems like it would have been possible for professional journalists to accomplish this a while back, too:

As for Cultural Cognition --

What actually matters is much closer to Kahan's nose, but there's a bit of a culturally cognitive block in figuring that out.

As for the failure of academics to learn from reality, Naomi Oreskes has a helpful take in "The Collapse of Western Civilization." Researchers are in their silos, and are not cross-disciplinary enough. Another way to put it: academia can be the death of common sense.

Because who could ever get published merely writing common sense? Like noticing for instance, if all our brightest students go to Wall Street, why on earth would Wall Street ever get reformed? And this is true even if the cost of leaving Wall Street unreformed is a consistent block on climate action, because the same pool of politicians opposed to financial regulation are opposed to climate regulation.

Ultimately, power corrupts, and sadly it corrupts meritocracies just like any other -ocracy. Except the outcome is much, much worse.

Sometimes insights leak though the filters:

Re: cultural cognition again -- interestingly, what's stopping the NYT from putting the tool.globalcalculator.org on the front page? There's no law against it, as far as I know. Nothing stopping Ivy League universities from making study of the tool a freshmen requirement either. That might even make the pope happy.

Michael Tobis said...

+1 "Because who could ever get published merely writing common sense?"

Yes. It's a problem. My next article will address this.

Thanks for the various thoughts & links, Unk.

Unknown said...

Special bonus tracks below, courtesy of Michael Lewis and Malcolm Gladwell. The $150M going to Yale is not likely to be spent on climate research, unfortunately.

Nor is the $400M going to Harvard:

Academics are daft, journalists are faking it, it looks like the .01% is voting, and we're screwed.

Tom said...

Obama is a denier, The Ecomodernists are pushing industrial Marxism and Revkin is a collaborator.

Yes, I'm sure you will write a post soon on climate communications.

Revkin is one of the best, of this or any era of journalism. Your criticism of him is unfounded, as was previous criticism if Lynas and Monbiot when they strayed from the path of purity.

Craven is a thuggish dolt and Robert is an assassin. Who are you?

Michael Tobis said...

Well. I'll respond to some of Tom's sniping.

Andy is a very nice man but he is not suited for the task that he has taken on. Other people equally or even more unsuited to the task are not so nice.

The ecomodernists have the right attitude but are not very good on details.

Lynas is probably right about nuclear power. I see nowhere that I have written about him in substantive disagreement, never mind disrespect. The closest is this, wherein I gather you'd be closer to my position than Lynas's.

Obama has more fish to fry than we know about, and in rescuing Wall Street from the Bush Collapse presumably he has some loyalty to it. I don't blame him even if this TPP business stinks. On the whole he's the best we've had in a long time.

I wonder whose stuff you are reading and thinking it is mine. Obviously it isn;t my stuff.


I am not interested in persuasion. I think the whole idea that this is about persuasion is wrong. I am about explanation. If people *understood* the balance of evidence they would act differently. Convincing people of a workable policy is largely premature, and that is why it is failing.

The video shows Revkin advancing the contrary position in a way that shows he does not understand the position Gell-Mann takes, which is not dissimilar from mine. Nor is he making any effort to understand it.


You refuse to treat me with charity; that is you refuse to start with a willingness to believe I am trying to say something honest and cogent. You refuse to umake any effort to understand my position, and tehn you turn around and strawman it beyond recognition. You continue to argue with someone who is not me whom you imagine I am.

Since it's not my beliefs you are attacking, please understand that I don't find them worth defending.


I am not interested in discussing whether I am a good person or a bad person in public. If you think that's worth discussing take it somewhere else, and do try to stay shy of actual libel thankyouverymuch.

Please don't make me turn premoderation back on. You have your own site, Tom; kindly misrepresent me over there rather than here if you must do so at all.

Followups along these lines will be trashed.

Tom said...

Feel free to delete if this doesn't meet your guidelines. I wasn't trying to pick on you this time. I know McKibben was the one who called Obama a denier, Rabett the one who accused Ecomodernists of advocating Marxist industrialism and Craven who imputed denialist equivalence to Revkin.

It just amused me that after that sequence of events y'all would talk about climate communications.

Tom said...

As you suggested, I took this to my own site. Sorry for contaminating yours.


Michael Tobis said...

Tom, well it seems dragging me into this pattern which you are perceiving is a stretch.

Of course if you lump everyone you disagree with together, they will say things you don't like.

I respond to the specific points at your blog.

willard said...

> The question is what Greg meant by "zero debate" on the "severity question".

I disagree. That's one question, but not the one Andy and Randy underline. Greg used the words "zero debate." It applies the settled science framing to the journalistic reality.

There are two points I can make about ze question.


The first is that journalists sell stories. To sell these stories, they need a hook. In a science story, the hook is the debate. No debate, no story, no journalism.

I don't think that Andy or Randy can accept that there's no story. There's always a story. Humans tell themselves stories. **Seinfeld** contains stories. Humans can even make a story out of **Waiting for Godot**.


The second is that once you claim that there's no debate, you make a debate move. This move can be questioned. If it does, the question becomes if there's a debate or not.

Do you really want to debate about that?

Let's hope not.

Then, what to do? Talk about what you want, e.g. the severity of AGW, what to do about AGW, how to fight the energy establishment, etc. To do that, you need to stop talking about what you don't want to talk about.

Saying "I don't want to talk about that" is one of the most suboptimal move in the ClimateBall playbook. The best way not to have a debate about a question is to stop talking about it.

There's no other way.


Now, why do you think Groundkeeper Willie keeps ripping off his shirt? Look at the concerns he's raising, and how raises these concerns. He's ready to become a cartoon character to sell his story and to debate his concerns instead of what matters to you.

I always thought this was kinda obvious. Perhaps my acquaintance of theater actors creates a bias.

Love your "Larry King" meme, BTW.


Full disclosure: Greg moderated me the only time I went on his blog, blocked me on Twitter, and decided that I belonged to his denialist list. If that only was for Greg, I would have done something else with this hour I'm taking to write this.

Don't be a lousy ClimateBall player like Greg.

Michael Tobis said...

"The best way not to have a debate about a question is to stop talking about it."

Well, yes and no. There's certainly a point to that: it avoids the false debate. But it leaves your position open to challenge as "argument from authority".

The point is of course that we are right about the evidence. As a consequence it is very clear that, on most ethical scales at least, policy action is decades overdue. Probably we are reaching the point where simple economics is lining up with the ethics.

That is, moral consequences far in excess of what the cost of avoiding them would have been are already inevitable. And we are reaching the point where even simpleminded financial calculations indicate that policy action is needed.

Those of us who understand it have to say that in the most credible way, even if we wish we could wander off and do something else.

Those who are directly threatened, along with those who have gotten it into their head to dislike or distrust, us will throw everything at us. It's not clear to me that we can avoid engaging on their terms to some extent, if only to point out why those are not the right terms.

I don't see that entirely ignoring challenges will work. I agree that we tend to get so swamped with battling off BS that we don't find time to tell the actual true story. It's a problem. We're outnumbered as I often point out. But I can't see that ignoring the opposition suffices.

Tom said...

'The point is that we are right about the evidence.' With the usual caveats, yes you are.

As you know, I accept that science tells us that the globe has warmed, that we have contributed mightily, that one of our significant contributions has been industrial levels of emissions of greenhouse gases, primarily CO2.

As you may or may not know, my own modest research at 3000 Quads indicates that our future emissions are of serious concern, primarily because more reputable organizations like the DOE and IEA have provided forecasts much lower than mine--and people are making decisions about infrastructure, mitigation and adaptation based on those lower forecasts. I believe energy consumption in the developing world is growing at 5% annually. Those more august institutions forecast growth at 2.4% per annum. It doesn't take many annums for the difference to become significant.

My fear is that if I am correct that the only fuel available to satisfy growing demand will be coal, as other fuel choices require infrastructure buildup.

The reason we are debating causes and consequences is not because of a rejection of science--it is absurd to say that Revkin denies the science, just as much as it is to say the same of the President. I just concluded a bazillion part interview with Monckton and I have to say he does not deny the science (although he is quite clever in how he uses it).

It is finally clear (if it wasn't before) what the term 'denial' refers to in climate conversations. The 'denial' has nothing at all to do with science. People are labeled 'denier' because they reject a limited set of policy proposals offered by people like Greg Laden and to an extent yourself. I guess it sounds sexier than 'opponent'.

I'm pleased that use of the term has now become ridiculous (if it wasn't before). Now when I am called a denialist I can just point out that the company I keep includes Barack Obama and Andrew Revkin and let logic do the rest.

Your tribe has been consciously inventing the game of ClimateBall in the blogosphere and using tainted tactics in the real world. Your inability to adapt to the changing environment is probably a metaphor for something.

It isn't something good.

Michael Tobis said...

We are using "denial" in the medical sense: "psychology : a condition in which someone will not admit that something sad, painful, etc., is true or real".


Whether the use of the word is appropriate or not depends on the case. I am not convinced McKibben was right in this instance. But right or wrong there's nothing foolish about it. His use of the word is perfectly sensible and coherent.

Michael Tobis said...

Oh and I consider Willard a friend and. though occasionally inscrutable, quite an insightful sort, but he would deny that he is part of my tribe and I would too.

(I don't think we're in denial about that either. Denying isn't intrinsically pathological; only when it's "denial" in the sense of denying something true and painful is it a problem.)

I think he would agree that ClimateBall was not invented, it was discovered.

Tom said...

"We are using "denial" in the medical sense"

Just like these people: http://www.populartechnology.net/2014/02/skeptics-smeared-as-holocaust-deniers.html

Small extract from that site:

"Let's just say that global warming deniers are now on a par with Holocaust deniers."

- Ellen Goodman, Boston Globe (2007)

"We have Holocaust deniers; we have climate change deniers. And to be honest, I don’t think there’s a great deal of difference."

- Bill McGuire, University College London (2006)

"The deniers of climate change are cut from the same cloth as Holocaust deniers. They’ve never been to the death camps, Auschwitz and Birkenau, so what they haven’t seen does not exist."

- Charles Larson, American University (2013)

Chris Mooney

"The obvious reductio ad absurdum is Holocaust deniers: Should their perspective be provided, for "balance," any time someone writes about the Holocaust?"

- Chris Mooney, The Intersection (2006)

Yes, that's clinical.

Michael Tobis said...

OK point taken.

That's not the sense I usually use it in anyway. I'm not responsible for everybody else.

I do think the people being wilfully dishonest are another story. Comparison to the worst villains in history may well turn out to be history's judgment. But while they are important I don't think there are many of them. For their case I use the word "denialist" rather than denier. Perhaps you think there are no such "denialists". I find that unlikely but that's a separate argument. We're discussing nomenclature here.

I try to resist naming names but I think I've slipped up on that policy a couple of times. A handful of individuals pop to mind easily.

Tom said...
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willard said...
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Tom said...
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willard said...

> We are using "denial" in the medical sense: [...]

Why do you fall for "yes, but denier" again, MT?

Michael Tobis said...
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Michael Tobis said...

You're right in this case, Willard.

willard said...
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Michael Tobis said...
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willard said...
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Michael Tobis said...

Thread is closed. Sigh.