Salvaging Science Journalism

Yesterday, I felt depressed about the state of the world – as if we were walking blindly into heavy traffic without bothering to stop or even open our eyes. I think it was this Globe and Mail editorial that put me over the edge. It claimed that the original 2035 Himalayan glacier claim was “reported around the world“, that Rajendra Pachauri “shrugged it off“, and that the 40% Amazon reduction claim was “a mess” (just like Leake, this article doesn’t mention that the statistic itself was correct, it was just cited incorrectly).

And that’s just in the first few paragraphs. I could go on and on about the inaccuracies and unsubstantiated claims, especially once it gets going on ClimateGate. If the author had bothered to read the primary sources for the Amazon claim, to read the supposedly-nefarious emails in full context (as well as the results of the first inquiry), or to read the IPCC’s actual response to the Himalayan glacier screw-up, her proclamation of “scientific scandals” would have fallen apart.

We see this all the time, everywhere, and it’s doubtlessly gotten worse in the past few months. The line of attack has switched from the science to the scientists. It’s just as unsubstantiated as the claim that global warming stopped in 1998, but that doesn’t matter. Science journalism, as it pertains to climate change, doesn’t seem to care about the facts any more. Fox News is one thing, but really – the Globe and Mail?

So what do we do to fix it? I can’t just sit around anymore and wait for it to pass. Many of us reading this blog have largely given up on the mass media as a source for climate change information, passing it off as a lost cause. But most of the public doesn’t know that it’s a lost cause. I think fixing it is better than ignoring it.

I have a few preliminary ideas that I’d like to open up for discussion:

1) Good old letter writing campaigns. Once a week, say, we could choose an article that’s particularly devoid of accuracy and citations, but written by a generally responsible journalist (eg not Glenn Beck). We could each write a unique letter to the author/the paper/the editor of the paper expressing the problems with the article. We can rant a bit about the media’s responsibility to provide people with accurate journalism.

2) Lobby for a citation policy. I got some great responses from my last post about the importance of a comment policy to promote better discussion that doesn’t turn into a food fight. What if we pushed to enact a similar policy in mainstream media outlets? The policy would be different for each outlet, obviously, but the basic rule would be that all articles/letters to the editor that dealt with science had to include peer-reviewed citations when appropriate. Let’s stop treating science like opinion, and start getting people to back up their arguments before we give them space.

3) Volunteer ourselves as research tools. By the time most of us read articles about climate change in the mainstream media, we’ll have heard about the particular issue in question for several days, and we’ll be able to point to two or three credible sources pertaining to it. We could help journalists and newspapers do their research more quickly and accurately.

4) Become a part of the mass media. I know a lot of great science journalists, but none of them are regulars in the mainstream media. I know Michael Tobis, and Tim Lambert, and Coby Beck, and James Hrynyshyn. (Tamino and the RC folks are great too, but geared toward a more technical audience.) These guys back up every statement they make, provide citations, correct their mistakes, and follow the “means justify the ends” approach. As part of our outreach for accurate journalism, why don’t some of us try to get columns in the mainstream media outlets?

Let me know what you think.

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14 thoughts on “Salvaging Science Journalism

  1. > Yesterday, I felt depressed about the state of the world

    Yep. Think what Churchill would have done.

  2. @Kate,
    ” Lobby for a citation policy”
    In other words, you’re asking for some sense of scholarship in matters of fact. I think it’d be a good first step towards good science journalism.

  3. I saw this comment by “sailrick” (linked to below) on Climate progress the other day. I think an anti-denialist polemic is needed. We can’t seem to sway the growing irrational tide with calmly repeating the science, so maybe a movie of rhetoric and polemic based on science will work – rhetoric etc based on anti-science certainly enables Monckton to sway the public.

    The text of the comment is:

    “I would like to see a movie for TV made – a documentary on the climate change denial PR/disinformation industry. Featuring Joe Romm, James Hansen, the folks from Desmog blog and other quality blogs, Real Climate, Deep Climate, Open Mind, etc., and the authors of books, Rob Gelbspan, James Hogan, and others. Name names, debunk the lame arguments, pull no punches. The books are great, but the information needs to be taken to where people are, in front of their TVs.”

    comment on Climateprogress

  4. Although it takes quite a bit of time, one can set up Google Alerts with specific phrases related to misinformation and then post rebuttals on the hits that are returned. For example, one of my alerts is for the phrase “global cooling”. Pick and choose where to do battle – news sites and op eds are good but do not waste time on blogs that attract few visitors.

    To set up alerts go to: http://www.google.com/alerts

    BTW, I have noticed much fewer hits on that phrase in the past few months so it appears that the obvious lack of global cooling is starting to sink in and the denialists have moved on to other false memes.

  5. I think your idea is an excellent one. I’ve worked in TV and Radio for 30 years doing science and weather and a lot of the bad reporting is do to a deadline and a pile of work. In most cases your requests will be met with interest I think.

    There are some good sci. journalists on the national and international scene. Richard Black at the BBC for one. Some of the very best are online only and that should change.

    Dan

  6. I’ve been thoroughly depressed about the state of the world since the first revelation of the Travesty Now Known as Climategate first appeared, at which point I realised that Copenhagen was doomed to failure — it said to me that the forces allied in support of the status quo are clearly too strong to defeat.

    Political action depends not on facts but on the *belief* of the people.

    Deniers decry science (and now, as you say, scientists) as being faulty. The real problem is that our entire ‘democratic’ system is faulty, because it’s based on human belief. Nothing worthwhile can be achieved while the man (and woman) in the street can be manipulated by mistruth.

    Information dissemination is a costly exercise, and the deniers have access to a far larger pot of beer tokens. And beer tokens themselves are another flawed system (as proven by the ‘current economic climate’) — another system that is in the control of the vested interests.

    In short: I believe we’re screwed.

    Nevertheless, it’s heartening to hear that someone at least hasn’t given up the struggle and is trying to do something. Good for you! Keep up the good work.

    I do think your ideas as presented here have merit, especially the ‘citation policy’ idea. Here’s hoping you can find a way to run with them.

    P.S. Personally, I find text sprinkled with orange on white hard to read.

  7. >It’s just as unsubstantiated as the claim that global warming stopped in 1998

    Phil Jones told the BBC no statistically significant global warming since 1995. Apparently the error ranges are so high that on such short time frames you can’t say for sure. Since 1995 just misses the 95% threshold, according to Jones.

    [Michael Tobis just wrote a post about that quote, it’s worth a read. -Kate]

  8. Yep, there’s no statistically significant global warming since 1995. Or since last summer. Or since last week.

    …and it’s still cold inside my fridge ;-)

  9. “Since 1995 just misses the 95% threshold, according to Jones.”

    So perhaps only 90%, and assuming a normal distribution, equally likely (or unlikely) for a 0.24 C per decade trend as a zero trend.

    The statistical significance issue might have modest relevance if the HadCrut data product was all we had. I believe GISS/NCDC trends surpass 95% for that arbitrarily-chosen time period. Satellite records agree well with HadCrut. Global glacier depletion and rise in ocean heat content during this period further validate warming, as does probably the rate of sea level rise. It’s seems rather unlikely that all such independent measures would be off to the same statistical degree in the same direction.

    Speaking of which, and on the topic of this post, what an idiotic article by DailyMail. Do journalists have no shame or conscience?

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