I don't have any high hopes, but if anyone thinks that this collection of words might have some influence on either professional journalists or the lay public, feel free to contact me about having it published or even have me on a guest on a podcast or something. I think that what I've written below needs to be said and I'm only writing it because no one else seems to have done it first.
As always rational comments and links to are always warmly appreciated.)
“I don't care what the blind fools of the academy say! I know that I'm right! My research shows it!” Victor's eyes lit up. I couldn't tell if they shone with mental brilliance or mere insanity.
“But Victor, how can you be right and everyone else wrong?”
“Science progresses by such means. Don't you know about Galileo? Sentenced to house arrest for the crime of disagreeing with conventional wisdom? Or Christopher Columbus? People knew that the world was flat and that he would fall over the edge of the earth---until he proved Them wrong. Every theory that exists is only true until someone proves it wrong. After all, even Newton was proven wrong by Einstein, wasn't he?” Victor cast an arched eyebrow in my direction, he had me there.
“They wouldn't publish my experiments in their damned journals. 'Too wild.' 'Too speculative.' 'Where's the proof?' Well here in my laboratory you have the proof!”
And it's true, there upon the table lay the creature, proof that Victor was right and all the others had been terribly wrong----.
Look at most mainstream newspapers, magazines or websites; listen to 'professional' radio or pod casts; watch television news when it deals with scientific issues; and you will invariably see reports by journalists who have been influenced by the above clichéd vision of science. That understanding of the scientific method is profoundly flawed and badly distorts public discourse on a wide variety of issues, most particularly with regard to climate change.
This essay is an attempt to concisely explain to working reporters, editors, publishers, TV producers, and the general public why their preconceived notions about how science works are wrong and how this terribly distorts our collective conversation about how to deal with the existential crisis of climate change. I also hope to offer some suggestions so they can stop being part of the problem and become part of the solution.
The first thing that reporters get wrong about science reportage is how they view scientists. Often, they refuse to understand the very thing that makes them what they are, their credentials. When someone graduates with a Masters or a Doctorate there is a special ceremony that takes place, one that more than anything else looks like the medieval process of being knighted or being ordained as a priest. When I received my Master's degree, for example, I wore a special gown, went in front of the Chancellor of the University, kneeled on a special cushion, and had a hood drawn over my head. I also received a document that stated that I had been granted “the degree of Master of Arts with all its rights, privileges and obligations”. (My emphasis.)
In effect when anyone graduates from a program at a recognized University, they are recognized as having achieved a level of understanding that places them in a different class than the general public. That's why there is a ceremony---it attempts to make obvious that there is a very important right of passage taking place. It is also why the diploma says “rights, privileges and obligations”. It means that society expects something more from people who have graduated from this process and in exchange offers more to them.
Why does society do this?
Primarily, it is because the opinion of someone with a graduate degree is expected to have a certain degree of trust-worthiness with regard to specific subjects that the general public (or even undergraduates) does not. This means that if someone with a graduate degree is asked to give an opinion on the subject that they studied, it is expected that they will not lie and instead will restrict themselves to opinions based on evidence and logical inference. In other words, someone with a graduate degree is a professional.
A “professional” is someone who is paid to render expert opinions on a given subject. They are expected to live up to a specific code of ethics for their profession, and the trust that comes from that expectation is part of what they are paid for. Lawyers, doctors and accountants are paid to give expert opinion about specific things that they know a lot about. We have to trust what they tell us, or else it would cause chaos in their profession that they follow. In exchange, we usually listen to what they have to tell us.
So that is what the line “rights, privileges and obligations” on my diploma is all about. Someone with a graduate degree has earned the right and the privilege to be listened to when she makes a pronouncement about a subject in her area of expertise, and, in turn she has an obligation to not lie, exaggerate, or, speak authoritatively outside of it. The granting of a Masters or Doctorate degree recognizes this fact by being the basic requirement for being able to teach at the University level.
To be punk and plain, to get a graduate degree makes you a member of an elite. That's why granting the degree has similarities to being knighted. This rubs a lot of people, including reporters, the wrong way. Why should the opinion of someone with a graduate degree in climate science be more important than mine? Isn't this still a democracy?
Yes, it is still a democracy. And all people still (at least in theory) have equal rights before the law. But these rights are defined as rights of opportunity not rights of outcome. That is to say, anyone (at least theoretically) who can pass the entrance requirements and get the funding to attend a university program has the opportunity to work for years and years and, if they pass the tests, graduate with a Masters or Doctorate degree in a specific field. More importantly, it is almost impossible to get a graduate degree from a recognized institution through influence or money. The important points are doing the work and passing the tests.
The Hollywood trope of scientific research almost never gives any idea about how much mind-numbing, “scut work”1 is involved in doing academic research of any type. This involves doing extensive literature searches to read everything possible on the subject you are studying (this is much easier now with computer search capabilities than when I was a grad student, but still very time consuming.) In my case, for example, one semester as one of several tasks, I had to read 900 thesis abstracts on “joy indicators” research for a prof who had a contract with the UN to do quality of life indicators research. Grad work also involves learning the proper “finger exercises” necessary to be able to perform a technically demanding procedure consistently. For example, I once met a grad student at a party who said he'd gotten a new position to work on an experiment. His first order of business was to do 1,000 rat dissections in order to build up his surgical skill to the point where he could start the actual experiment. It also often involves having to learn an entirely new area of expertise. For example, many grad students have to teach themselves computer programming simply to be able to manipulate experimental data. Once the more exciting work of designing the experiment is done, then the student will often have to engage in the process of selling it to a granting agency in order to find the money needed to actually do it. And once this is done, the student often has to repeat it over and over again to create a large enough data set to be able to make any sort of broad generalization. Finally, once the experiment has been done, he will have to write it up in a form that will be acceptable to both his thesis advisors and the peer reviewed journal he wants to publish his findings.
Getting a graduate degree usually involves doing a huge amount of work that is often numbingly boring, but when someone graduates with that degree, they enter into a specific body of intellectuals who have all been recognized as being “peers” and who are qualified to authoritatively comment on their specific area of expertise. This small number of people who actually know enough to both understand an esoteric line of research and intelligently critique methods and claims made about it, are the only people who are qualified to make any sort of authoritative judgment about a specific statement made in that field of research. So when a scientist writes a paper and sends it in to a scholarly journal the editor submits it to a number of experts in the field, the “peers”, who then look at the design of the experiment, the evidence presented and the reasoning of its analysis, and then decide whether or not the paper is worthy of publishing in the journal. Once an article has been published in a peer reviewed journal, then it becomes part of the ever-expanding storehouse of human knowledge and other people use it as a building-block for doing their own research.
It drives people with graduate degrees to distraction the way reporters usually seem to totally misunderstand the importance of credentials when they write on issues like climate change. In pursuit of that strange journalistic artifact known as “balance”, they routinely cite quotations and print op-ed pieces by people who have no credentials at all in opposition to people who have busted their butts in order to get them. The only reason why that scientist is making a statement about climate change is because they have worked extremely hard to be able to be in the position where they have an informed opinion. So it is profoundly insulting for a journalist to let someone else----who hasn't put in a similar amount of work on the subject---simply swan in and offer an opposing opinion.
I have mentioned this fact to reporter friends and they have replied that it is not their job to ascertain the credentials of people who issue press releases and submit articles for publication. They simply go to a media event and report what is said. But this is totally disingenuous. The fact is that editors routinely make decisions about which events get reported and who does and doesn't get quoted in the media. That is why “balancing stories” never include quotes from janitors and why auto mechanics are never invited to write opposing op eds. Instead, editors seem to decide who gets to have a platform based on two main criteria.
First, editors will send reporters to record statements by powerful and important people. They will not send people to record the pronouncements of the janitor who cleans their washroom. But if a man makes a huge amount of money running a cleaning company, and then uses that money to create a phony organization and hire glib spokespersons with bogus credentials, then they have no problem at all reporting on their every utterance (think Fraser Institute.) The majority of reporters will not only not ask the people speaking what specific credentials empower them to speak authoritatively on the subject and whether the findings being cited had been published in a generally recognized, peer reviewed journal----they will usually get angry with anyone who suggests that that should be part of their job. Moreover, they will often get positively indignant if you suggest that if these people do not have relevant credentials that should be a prominent part of the story or even grounds for not reporting this event at all.
Secondly, editors solicit and publish op ed stories on the basis of the above criteria and also because of the ability of a person to predictably write concise, easily understood and witty pieces of a prescribed size. On television, the skill consists of producing short, easily understood “sound bites” on demand. The problem with this is that the ability to do this has absolutely nothing at all to do with whether or not the person writing actually knows a damn thing about what they are talking about! Indeed, part of the process of learning how to be a scientist involves learning how to write in a specific, technical manner that emphasizes accuracy over all other criteria. Moreover, in order to explain complex ideas it is often necessary to refer to procedures and use language that requires a lot more work to understand than the prescribed reading level that the mainstream media allows. This means that given the existing criteria that are used to select for people to write opinion pieces or act as pundits in the mainstream media, there is a very strong bias against anyone with proper credentials being allowed to participate.
In the last American presidential election, the contrasting predictions of statistician Nate Silvers and the existing “pundit class” showed this problem in stark detail. He was able to use scientific methods to accurately predict the outcome of the election months ahead of time. In contrast, the media pundits chosen by mainstream media editors and producers were left sputtering on election night with predictions that were all over the map. (Funny thing, though, none of them seem to have lost their jobs because of this fact.) The same thing happens all through the mainstream media where “rock star” commentators like David Frum and Margaret Wente blather on endlessly about subjects that they know damn near nothing about, while people with real credentials are almost never seen.
Editors and producers might argue that these two criteria are perfectly adequate. Rich and powerful people are, by definition, newsworthy simply because they are rich and powerful. Society is controlled by these folk, so people want to read what they have to say. The problem with this, however, is that science doesn't proceed on the basis of the relative wealth or political influence of the experimenter, but rather on the quality of their reasoning and the results of their experiments. And the stories that deal with science, such as climate change, directly turn on the issue of science, not wealth and power. Moreover, the stories that reporters present invariably frame scientific issues as if what is being reported is scientifically valid---even if the real reason why they are at the news event is because of the wealth and power of the people speaking.
Reporters have also told me that with regard to op eds, I am confusing “news” with “opinion”. That is to say, reporters are supposed to tell the “truth” when they write something for the first page, but this isn't expected on the editorial page. I find this distinction disturbing. All opinions should turn on an understanding of the world of facts or else we call them “hallucinations”, “delusions”, or “lies”. If we let people get away with writing op eds based on either ignorance or falsehoods, it profoundly distorts public debate. With regard to an existential social threat, like climate change, this cavalier attitude towards public debate seems totally irresponsible.
It is irresponsible because people actually read this stuff and a lot of them also believe what they read. I used to do some free lance journalism, have a graduate degree in philosophy (something that I have heard described as the “ultimate bullshit detector”) and am fully aware of how much stuff in the mainstream media is out-and-out baloney---and I routinely get sucked into believing stupid stuff. How in heaven's name can the editors and publishers who shovel this cornucopia of crap into the body politic possible believe that it is totally harmless? And need I remind anyone that in the case of climate change we are talking about the fate of the earth!
Hypothesis and Theory, or, Consensus in Science
I have had reporters counter that it would be wrong for them to pay too much attention to the pronouncements of establishment climate scientists because scientific “truths” are commonly disproved. Even if 98% of them say that climate change is real, there is always the chance that the 2% who disagree are right and the others wrong. Since all scientific pronouncements are ultimately provisional---a theory is only true until it is disproved by the next guy---what difference does it make if the reporter quotes someone without “establishment” credentials? This notion---which is appallingly common amongst reporters---has everything to do with Hollywood science and nothing at all to do with the real thing.
The first part of understanding this is to understand the difference between a “hypothesis” and a “theory”. People routinely confuse the two terms, and that confusion has tremendous implications.
The philosopher of science, Karl Popper, suggested that in the vast majority of cases it is far easier to prove something wrong than to prove another thing right. Primarily, this is because if your understanding of a situation is correct you can make predictions about what will happen. For example, because Pavlov consistently rang a bell while feeding his dogs, he believed that the dogs would eventually begin to salivate when he rang the bell whether or not food was presented. If he had not been able to show this result, it would have suggested that his understanding of how dog training works (what psychologists now call “operant conditioning”) was wrong. It might be that there were other reasons why the dogs salivated, which is why, strictly speaking, philosophers of science do not like to say that an experiment proves an understanding as being correct. But if the dogs had not salivated, it certainly would have shown that specific understanding of Pavlov was wrong.2
Please note that in the above paragraph I have been very careful to not use the words “hypothesis” or “theory” and instead have substituted “understanding” and “believed” instead. I've done this because most people confuse the two and that dramatically affects their view of science. In the case of Pavlov, his “hypothesis” was that if he trained his dogs in a certain way, they would begin to salivate when he rang his bell. The “theory” is the psychological understanding of “operant conditioning” that resulted from a large number of experiments that he and other psychologists performed. It is a consensus based upon the coalescing of the opinions of all the scientists who had the relevant credentials to be able to have useful opinions about the experiments that he had performed and his understanding that explained the results.
Let me reiterate, a “hypothesis” leads to a specific prediction that is based on an proposed understanding of a phenomenon. Pavlov's hypothesis was that when he rang the bell his dogs would salivate because of how he understood what happens when he trained them. The “theory” of operant conditioning is the collective understanding that has emerged from the work of all the scientists who have done similar experiments and come to similar conclusions.
Because people conflate “hypothesis” with “theory” they come to the conclusion that a theory is extremely provisional. Experiments are designed to see if a hypothesis can be proved wrong. And they often are. But a theory is an emerged consensus amongst the scientific community that is nowadays almost never proved wrong. Instead, theories are modified, expanded, or, limited.
I suspect that the reason why many people---and it seems, especially reporters---have problems with this idea is because they have a naïve understanding of the world that tells them that there is a very clear distinction between the two realms of “fact” and “opinion”. The problem is, however, that every step that society has made to gain a greater understanding of the world around us has undermined this point of view. Lots of things that are “obviously true” turned out to not be so. The earth looks “obviously flat”, but it's really round. The sun “obviously rises in the East”, but really the Earth rotates. Etc and etc. The obvious “facts” ended up being replaced with “opinions” that were based on a consensus amongst experts.
It is important to understand that what I am talking about is the development of a specific form of consensus amongst a specific set of people. There is a critical thinking fallacy called “argumentum ad populum” or “the appeal to the people”. This is the fallacious idea that the trust-worthiness of a statement can be arrived at simply by finding out if a majority of people believe in it. But the consensus building exercise that scientists use to develop a theory doesn't involve the general public. The people in question are people who have the relevant credentials. These are the people who have done all the nasty scut work at university and have really looked at the issue in question from a professional point of view (i.e. done the research.) This is totally different from hiring a polling agency to call a sample of ordinary citizens on the telephone.
Skepticism and Truth
Reporters are often described as “skeptical” people, but truth be told, scientists are the real skeptics. Reporters look for a sort of TRUTH that exists before human beings ever existed and has nothing at all to do with the fallible activity of human kind. This naïve epistemology3 means that they find it very odd when someone suggests that society should base public policy decisions on something as “soft” and “squishy” as the consensus of scientists from the relevant field of study. But the fact of the matter is that that is all humanity has to go on. It is what supports the technology of computers, space flight and everything else. Sadly, this divide in understanding is also what creates so much terrible opinion writing and commentary.
Scientists understand that what they are doing is having an extended conversation in order to build a consensus amongst themselves---one that is based on careful observation, experimentation and logical discourse between people who are doing the same sort of work. This means that they are not in the habit of making broad declarative statements or snappy “sound bites”. Instead, they like to be precise and careful in their language. But editors and producers don't like that mode of expression because it seems hesitant and boring, which they believe implies that someone doesn't really know what they are talking about. Sadly, the opposite is almost always the case, hence the prominence of people like Margaret Wente and David Frum. The people who sound the most sure of themselves are the ones that usually know the very least.
Change in Scientific Theories
In the above discussion I mentioned in passing that scientific theories (as opposed to hypotheses) do not get proven wrong, instead they get modified. People routinely fail to understand this distinction when they say, for example, that “Einstein proved Newton wrong” or “Gould's notion of stepped evolution proves that Darwin was wrong”. Then, based upon that misunderstanding of how science works, they go on to suggest that we shouldn't pay much attention to what scientific consensus says about issues of profound significance to the community, such as climate change. After all, that 2% of the scientific community that is quoted as denying climate change could be right----.
But the problem with this view is that Einstein didn't prove Newton wrong. Instead, he showed that Newtonian physics wasn't complete. That is to say that Newton's equations work very well in a given context, but do not in others---such as situations of extremely high gravity and speeds approaching that of light. Einstein's theories do not mean that you can no longer use Newtonian mechanics to describe the actions of billiard balls on a pool table with enough accuracy for pool “sharks” to be able to make a living. But they do explain some minor ways in which the actions of the solar system's planets interact with the world around them.
For example, based on Newton's theories, earlier scientists had hypothesized that because of gravity, light from stars would be bent around the sun in a way that would make them appear in a different place than where they “actually” are. (Think of the way water will create the illusion that a straight stick is bent when half of it is submerged.) Einstein's theory of relativity also hypothesized that the light would bend, but twice as much as Newton's theory suggested. Unfortunately, the sun is so bright that the light from any star that appears near it's edge will be overwhelmed, so both hypotheses are not testable under normal conditions. However, during a total lunar eclipse the moon passes in front of the sun (relative to an observer on earth.) This blocks the sun's light, making it possible to look at the stars who's light travels close to the sun's gravitational field. Einstein predicted that the stars would appear in a different place than where Newtonian mechanics would. This was tested during a total lunar eclipse in 1919 and the Newtonian prediction failed where Einstein's passed.4
This is an important point. Science proceeds not only by consensus but also by increments. In 1962, the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn wrote a book titled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that talked about the idea that science progresses through “paradigm shifts”. Unfortunately, this book has been tremendously influential in that broad swaths of the population now believe that science progresses through wild revolutionary changes. But in actual fact, even Kuhn admitted that in most cases science progresses through incremental improvements. And even when change happens very fast---as with the Newtonian revolution---there very rarely seems to be the sort of violent clashes that the general public associates with a “revolution”. Perhaps some people smacked themselves on the fore-heads and exclaimed loudly when they read Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy5), but bye-and-large Newton's work was acknowledged as brilliant and useful once it was first read and understood.
Unfortunately, one of the things that the media absolutely loves is conflict. The cliché from the newsroom is “if it bleeds, it leads”. The fact is that for evolutionary reasons people are “hard-wired” to instantly pay attention to sex and violence, so their hormones kick in and focus on any depiction possible. That's why newspapers will show totally irrelevant pictures of violence (if possible with a scantily-clad, vulnerable looking woman as the victim) on the front page. It is also why newscasts routinely put on “teasers” talking about a future violent car crash or robbery with “full details” later on in the newscast.
Unfortunately, real science doesn't give a lot of opportunities for conflict, simply because it proceeds through boring hard work, consensus and incremental advancement. But by golly, that doesn't stop editors and producers from working as hard as they can to produce conflict if they possibly can do it! If they cannot create a “debate” amongst people with credentials, then why not invite someone who doesn't have any to “stir the pot”? If someone complains, then you can toss around the old canard about “balance” being required to ensure “objectivity”.
Of course, the fact that the naïve general public is left with the impression that the most important public policy issue of their lifetime is part of a wild debate instead of a pretty clear consensus, seems to be irrelevant.
Anger at the Press
Recent surveys of public attitudes have shown that public trust of the media has declined quite dramatically during the past few decades.6 Consider, if you will, the following quote from a 2011 Pew research report:
The widely-shared belief that news stories are inaccurate cuts to the press’s core mission: Just 25% say that in general news organizations get the facts straight while 66% say stories are often inaccurate. As recently as four years ago, 39% said news organizations mostly get the facts straight and 53% said stories are often inaccurate.
Of course, there are a lot of reasons why people do not trust the media any more. It has fragmented, and there seems to be very obvious influence being exerted by wealthy interests in some reportage. At the same time, there are well-financed campaigns to create mistrust against the so-called “liberal media”. But I would suggest that at least a significant fraction of the distrust comes from the very things that reporters believe will gain them trust: their commitment to “balance” and “objectivity”.
One of the key rules of “responsible” journalism is to always balance one “controversial” point of view against another. The important point in this case is “controversial”. No one, for example, would expect a journalist mentioning the time of sunrise in a weather forecast to “balance” this statement with another opinion from someone who believes that the sun will not rise at all the next day. It is possible, therefore, to parse out all statements in news stories as belonging to either the class of “controversial statements” or “non-controversial” statements. The president of the United States is a man who's father was an African. This is a non-controversial statement and doesn't require a balancing rebuttal every time a journalist states it in either an article on the front page or an op-ed in the editorial section. In contrast, whether or not NATO should intervene in the affairs of a specific Eastern European country is controversial and there are usually a wide variety of arguments one way or another about it. In this case, it is right and proper for editors and producers to find a wide variety of sources and opinions to talk about all the different elements that should be considered.
Let me reiterate for emphasis: whether or not an issue ends up in one set or the other involves an implicit statement of fact. If someone decides that a point of view is so controversial that it requires “balance”, they are saying that there is no consensus yet about what the truth of the matter. So, in effect, when journalists say that a story talking about the existence of climate change requires “balance”, they are saying that there is no consensus in the scientific community about whether or not it is happening. As such, the fact that they have parsed this issue into the set of “controversial” issues that requires “balance” is in itself a statement of fact---one that is flat out wrong if not bordering on being a bald-faced lie. In effect, when editors and producers order reporters to find a “balancing” point of view they are fibbing about the issue at hand. I know that amongst many of my friends this is one of the things that gets me absolutely furious with professional journalists. We see it as evidence that “professional journalists” have nothing but contempt for the truth in an issue of tremendous importance to the public welfare.
Some journalists spend time trying to be “objective” in their reporting. The Wikipedia says the following about it “Journalistic objectivity is a significant principle of journalistic professionalism. Journalistic objectivity can refer to fairness, disinterestedness, factuality, and non-partisanship, but most often encompasses all of these qualities”.7
The first thing I'd like readers to recognize about this statement is that there can be a significant contradiction between these elements. For example, what if the facts fall all to one side in an intensely partisan discussion? Is an editor being “partisan” if he prints stories that show that one political party is flat-out wrong on a significant public policy debate? If he crosses his fingers and publishes statements that are demonstrably wrong on his Op-Ed page, then what is his commitment to “factuality”? What if he simply doesn't dig very hard because he knows that if he does he's probably going to find out that the important politician is lying? How “fair” is that to the other side?
I have read arguments that suggest that the way to deal with these problems is to simply give up on the principle of “objectivity” and just let journalists be as partisan as they want. If people don't like what they read, they can go to another news source. I've always felt that this is more than a little self-serving, though. Why can't we suggest that journalists should be factual first and let the other issues fall to the wayside?
Journalists will often complain to me that they are so over-worked that they just don't have the time to do all the research that I am suggesting that they need to do in order to write good stories about things like climate change. There is a significant amount of truth in this, but I would suggest that there are some things that they could do to dramatically increase their productivity while at the same time lowering their workload when it comes to dealing with science stories.
First of all, I'd suggest that journalists create the equivalent of a prostitute's “bad john list”. That is, they need to create a website where professional journalists can list potential sources who have been caught making statements that are significantly not true. These can include people who have been caught speaking outside of their area of expertise, making flat-out false statements, fudging their research, etc. Cite their names, their source of funding if relevant (it often is) and the reason that they have been nominated as being “bad johns”. In addition, this site should also cite bogus citizen's groups that have been created by disinformation campaigns, phony think tanks and non-peer reviewed journals devoted to publishing “junk science”.
This way when a journalist has a quote from someone that seems legitimate, she can then look the individual and citation up on the “bad john list”. If he is there, she can either decide to not use the quote, or, look into the reasons listed for the citation and decide either to dismiss them as not being correct (and hopefully add an addendum to the shit list stating why she did this) or, make the fraudulent credentials or disinformation in the quotation a significant part of her story.
Creating the journalistic “bad john list” would significantly change reporting because it would introduce an element of collegiality to the profession and allow it to begin to make incremental improvements in the store of social information. It used to be that journalists lived in a specific community and go to learn who could and couldn't be trusted to give an honest and informed quotation. Nowadays, they get transferred from place to place and often do not even live in the community they serve. This means that they rarely get the chance to create an informal network of trusted sources. Formalizing this previously informal process could serve as a useful correction to the cornucopia of crap that gets showered on them daily by self-serving BS artists, crack pots and public relations flacks.
In addition, journalists can do what many intelligent readers do when they read a story that doesn't smell right, they can go to Professor Google. I routinely do Google searches that say something like “problems with X” or “critiques of X”. I am amazed at how often stuff falls into my lap that dramatically undermines the “truthiness” of what I have just read. I am not saying that journalists should believe everything that they read on line, but if professor Google says something stinks, it should be followed up in order to truth test the quotations or statements in an Op Ed piece.
Also, news media need to make up their minds about factual issues and stop giving platforms for people who are making factually incorrect statements. To cite a precedent, the “Los Angeles Times” has a policy of refusing to publish letters that suggest that climate change is not taking place. The letters page editor, Paul Thornton, made his case very succinctly. “Simply put, I do my best to keep errors of fact off the letters page; when one does run, a correction is published. Saying 'there's no sign humans have caused climate change' is not stating an opinion, it's asserting a factual inaccuracy.”8 There is no reason at all why any news organization cannot make a similar decision about all parts of it's platform. It routinely does this sort of thing with regard to racism, sexism, crackpot ideas about the earth being flat and the moon being made of green cheese. Why not exclude equally loopy ideas about climate change? Think about how much easier it would be for journalists if they simply didn't have to report stuff that is crap without having to come up with reasons why it is crap every time someone makes a wild statement?
If someone argues that this sounds suspiciously like censorship, I will counter by asking if his news organization prints every single opinion and statement that comes its way? There is always a criteria used to filter out some stories. I am just suggesting that it be done in an open and honest way using something like a rational criteria. This will allow journalists the freedom to start asking questions like “Why is this person pushing this false narrative?” or “What is the best way to prevent the worst elements of climate change?” instead of endlessly perpetuating a “debate” that has been settled long ago by the people who actually know what they are talking about.
I mentioned above that graduates have an obligation to not “speak outside of their area of expertise”. It is tremendously important for journalists to understand exactly what this means. Just because someone has a graduate degree in one discipline doesn't mean that they are equipped to make expert pronouncements in any other field. No journalist would cite quotations from a 'Class A' auto mechanic with regard to heart surgery, yet they routinely give time to the prognostications by economists on climate science. Why is this?
Perhaps part of the reason is because journalists don't understand how much science is based on reliance of those “picky details” that were learned when those graduate students did all that “scut work” at university. To illustrate this point, consider the case of the “hockey stick graph controversy”.
In a grotesquely simplified nutshell, the “hockey stick” is a graph that shows how global temperature has slowly declined from about 1000 AD to the beginning of the industrial revolution, where it started to increase at a much faster rate than it had been declining. That's pretty much what one would expect to happen if climate change exists and it is being driven by industrial processes.9 The “controversy” comes from a concerted push by various climate change deniers who argue that the graph is a result of incompetence, malfeasance or a combination of both among professional climate scientists.
Now, let's look at one of the key pieces of “evidence” that is used to cast aspersions on the hockey stick.
In 2003 a retired mining executive with a Bachelor's in mathematics and some graduate work in economics, by the name of Stephen McIntyre; and an economics professor by the name of Ross McKitrick published a paper in a journal titled “Energy & Environment”. It was titled “Corrections to the Mann et. al. (1998) Proxy Data Base and Northern Hemispheric Average Temperature Series”. It was published in “Energy & Environment”.10 Later on, in 2005 there was a reference to their work published in “Geophysical Research Letters”.11
Now, there are several things about what I have written above that journalists have to understand if they are going to make sense of the science involved. First of all, McIntyre and McKitrick are not climate scientists. They have a background in economics. This should set off wild alarm bells in the minds of any journalist that gets a press release or op ed about climate science with their names on it. This is because they didn't do all the picky “scut work” involved in getting a post graduate degree in the subject of climate science. They are auto mechanics telling you how to do open heart surgery. McIntyre and McKitrick are commenting on a technical subject that is outside of their area of expertise, which is a total no-no.
Secondly, journalists should have taken a look at the two journals that I mentioned above, namely “Energy & Environment” and “Geophysical Research Letters”.
Also, McIntyre and McKitrick shopped around their paper to various journals who refused to publish it. Eventually, they sent it to “Energy & Environment”, which did. The thing to remember is that that journal is not listed as either a climate science journal or even a “hard” science journal at all. Academic librarians use various tools to keep track of academic journals in order to help researchers. One tool is the “Web of Knowledge” database. One of the things it does is assign a specific category to a journal, and “Energy & Environment” is not listed in its science database but rather it's social science category. So strictly speaking, McIntyre and McKitrick not only are not climate scientists, but their article wasn't printed in a journal of climate science, or physical science of any form.
If you look at “Energy & Environment”'s website you can see the following description of it's purpose.
Energy and Environment is an interdisciplinary journal aimed at natural scientists, technologists and the international social science and policy communities covering the direct and indirect environmental impacts of energy acquisition, transport, production and use. A particular objective is to cover the social, economic and political dimensions of such issues at local, national and international level. The technological and scientific aspects of energy and environment questions including energy conservation, and the interaction of energy forms and systems with the physical environment, are covered, including the relationship of such questions to wider economic and socio-political issues.12
Clearly, this is not a technical journal devoted to climate science, but rather something more concerned with social and economic issues. In publishing a technical analysis of the mathematics behind the Hockey Stick graph, it was stepping outside its area of expertise, which is a real no-no too.
Finally, journalists who write about science should understand that all academic journals are not created equally. Some are very prestigious, and some are totally ignored because they are either considered at best not terribly useful for future research or at worst, repositories of junk science. It is not a trivial task to find an objective criteria to do so, but there are systems that can be used. Two systems have been developed for measuring the importance of a journal are “Impact Factors”13 and the “Eigenfactor”14. Doing a search using the Web of Knowledge I sought out the highest ranked journal devoted to physical chemistry and the top scoring one is “Nature Materials” which has an Impact Factor score of 35.749 and an Eigenfactor score of 0.22815 . When I looked up “Energy & Environment” the Impact Factor was 0.319 and the Eigenfactor of 0.00045 .
OK. The authors were not experts and they published in a journal that has no expertise in selecting and refereeing complex articles about climate science. So what?
Well, this is so what.
An blog by the name of “Real Climate: Climate science from climate scientists” exists to try and sort things out for the interested lay person.15 It's statement of purpose is as follows:
RealClimate is a commentary site on climate science by working climate scientists for the interested public and journalists. We aim to provide a quick response to developing stories and provide the context sometimes missing in mainstream commentary. The discussion here is restricted to scientific topics and will not get involved in any political or economic implications of the science.16
“ReaClimate” has published extensively on the McIntyre/McKitrick paper. I will attempt to summarize what they say in the following. I am not an expert, and I make no claims about being one, but I suspect that unless I try to come up with something like what follows, some readers will simply dismiss what I have to say about McIntyre and McKitrick out of hand.
The gist of McIntyre and McKitrick's complaints against the hockey stick is that the temperature data that was used to create it came from ground-based weather stations that had been contaminated by localized heat coming from nearby economic activity. If a local temperature testing site is next to a city that has a lot of heat radiating from things like parking lots (the “heat island effect”), for example, that will skew the numbers in the direction of showing increased global temperatures.
The first problem that RealClimate cites is that McIntyre and McKitrick didn't acknowledge any data that had been added into the hockey stick analysis that came from sources that could not possibly be attributed to the heat island effect. This includes things like temperature data from satellites and the sea. The heat island effect certainly exists, but it cannot be used to explain increases of temperature measured in the middle of the tundra and North Atlantic.
Secondly, the computer software that they used made a fundamental error in estimating the area of land being sampled. In effect, it was found that the software calculated area based on radians and McKitrick entered the data in degrees. This is comparable to confusing gallons and litres of fuel when loading an airplane with jet fuel----and the results are just as catastrophic.
Finally, the author looked through the methodology that McIntyre and McKitrick used to analyze the data from ground-based temperature measurement and found that they did not use proper statistical procedures to manipulate their data. He then went on to test their results by re-running their own models using a standard test that others use, and found that when this was done, the results that the authors identified disappeared.17
I am aware that I am not doing this argument justice and may have balled things up. I have never studied statistics and am not a climate scientist. But the point I am trying to make is neither are the journalists who refuse to defer to expert opinion on climate change stories. We lay people simply do not know enough to be able to judge a statement on its own merits. And the opinions of experts about McIntyre and McKitrick is clear---they are at best a couple of buffoons who don't know what they are talking about, or, at worst con-men who are actively conspiring to sow confusion and doubt in the public in order to prevent any serious attempt to deal with climate change. Serious editors and producers should never quote, publish or interview anything at all that comes from their mouths. THEY HAVE ZERO CREDIBILITY.
Crappy academic journals exist and they publish rotten papers. And they are ignored by the scientific community and rarely cause any stir. But the difference with McIntyre and McKitrick's offering was that a very powerful public relations machine kicked into over-drive and promoted it to the mass media, business leaders and the political classes. And because the editors and producers who's job it is to ascertain the worth of a particular piece of news were totally asleep at the wheel, this piece of poisonous crude was allowed to set back public debate about an existential threat to the human race.
Let me repeat one more time for emphasis, journalists simply do not know enough about things like statistics and other aspects of science to adequately decide whether or not a statement is true or false. Sorry if that sounds elitist, but higher education and scientific research are elitist in nature. What journalists can do, however, is learn how to distinguish between sources that have adequate, relevant credentials and those that do not. That means when you are writing quotes, soliciting op eds, and so on about climate science, the only people you should be quoting are climate scientists with a relevant credentials who work for some sort of mainstream institution.
A Note About My Credentials
At this point no doubt some readers are thinking to themselves “he goes on and on about the necessity of credentials, what exactly are his?” Well, I am not a climate scientist. But I have a Master's degree in philosophy, something that probably almost no one reading this essay will know much about. So let me give you the short explanation about why I think I am qualified to write this essay.
Simply put, philosophy is training how to tell a good argument from a bad argument. Part of that includes the study of how science works. Another element is the study of how the human psyche influences how people differentiate between truth and falsity. Yet another is trying to understand how human culture influences the discovery and dissemination of knowledge. On a practical level, philosophy students also learn many of the academic “tricks of the trade”, primarily, how to use an academic library for research.
Finally, I do have a certain amount of experience writing for newspapers. I wrote a weekly column for my local daily for three years and sold a fair number of free lance opinion pieces before the market for free lancers dried-up in the late 20th century.
How Journalists Can do a Better Job Reporting Science
When an editor gets a press release or an op ed submitted to them the first thing that they need to do is think about the credentials of the person involved. Do they have the actual piece of paper that says that they know what they are talking about? If they don't, then the first thing they should do is ask the people involved what gives them the right to speak authoritatively on the subject. If the response is some sort of rhetorical tap dance about freedom and fairness, or, a blizzard of confusing statements that you don't know enough to evaluate or even understand, they should be shown the door.
Secondly, no matter who sends the story, the journalists need to have it vetted by an expert. There should be a list of experts on file that the news organization can trust. Universities are full of people, paid for by the tax payer, who are experts on given fields and who are often quite happy to help a reporter figure something out. Call them on the phone or send them an email. Forward what you have in hand and ask them if it passes the smell test. It might be a good idea to consult Professor Google to see if some expert doesn't have a blog where he has gone to great lengths to show some chicanery behind the slick press release.
Third, keep some sort of running tally for the entire journalist community. If some person or organization gets caught deliberately playing fast and loose with the truth, then put them on a “bad john list” and refuse to publish anything from them ever again. Bogus “think tanks” and “astro-turf” organizations shouldn't be able to constantly pitch stuff over and over again at journalists in order to see what they can get away with. All knowledge ultimately comes down to trust between individuals with specialized experience. Once we allow individuals to betray that trust, we imperil the entire edifice of information. Fool me once, shame on you---fool me twice, shame on me.
If you think that this is too much work and takes too much time, then think about how you can make the work you do on truth testing cumulative. In addition to the “bad john list”, have a central expert list that every reporter can use. That way reporters can benefit from the work of all the other reporters in the area or field. Also, make editorial decisions and stick to them. Take your thumbs out of your butts and make a statement that says “climate change exists, it is being caused by mankind” and simply state that you will no longer give a platform to anyone who says it isn't because they are either misinformed or lying. Period. With this decision, the reporters don't have to do any work trying to disprove every crackpot or public relations hack that darkens the door.
Finally, pay attention to the comments you receive when you publish a story. Sad to say, the overwhelming majority of comments on most stories are moronic.18 But fairly often someone will make a comment that shows that they really know what they are talking about, and they have found a huge mistake in a story. I almost never seen journalists acknowledge or fix an error, or use the comment to generate a follow-up story. Sad to say, more often, I've seen them delete a comment that makes them look foolish. Usually, they just ignore it. This is terrible practice and totally unprofessional. It is one of the things that infuriates the public about the media.