Here’s an appalling article by Andy Revkin on dotEarth which epitomizes everything that is wrong with media coverage of climate change. Far from using his position to educate and influence the public by seeking the truth, journalists like Revkin now seem to have taken to just
making shit up, reporting what he reads in blogs as the truth, rather than investigating for himself what scientists actually do.
Revkin kicks off by citing a Harvard cognitive scientist found guilty of academic misconduct, and connecting it with “assertions that climate research suffered far too much from group think, protective tribalism and willingness to spin findings to suit an environmental agenda”. Note the juxtaposition. On the one hand, a story of a lone scientist who turned out to be corrupt (which is rare, but does happen from time to time). On the other hand, a set of insinuations about thousands of climate scientists, with no evidence whatsoever. Groupthink? Tribalism? Spin? Can Revkin substantiate these allegations? Does he even try? Of course not. He just repeats a lot of gossip from a bunch of politically motivated blogs, and demonstrates his own total ignorance of how scientists work.
He does offer two pieces of evidence to back up his assertion of bias. The first is the well-publicized mistake in the IPCC report on the retreat of the Himalayan glaciers. Unfortunately, the quotes from the IPCC authors in the very article Revkin points to, show it was the result of an honest mistake, despite an entire cadre of journalists and bloggers trying to spin it into some vast conspiracy theory. The second is about a paper on the connection between vanishing frogs and climate change, cited in the IPCC report. The IPCC report quite correctly cites the paper, and gives a one sentence summary of it. Somehow or other, Revkin seems to think this is bias or spin. It must have entirely escaped his notice that the IPCC report is supposed to summarize the literature in order to assess our current understanding of the science. Some of that literature is tentative, and some less so. Now, maybe Revkin has evidence that there is absolutely no connection between the vanishing frogs and climate change. If so, he completely fails to mention it. Which means that the IPCC is merely reporting on the best information we have on the subject. Come on Andy, if you want to demonstrate a pattern of bias in the IPCC reports, you’re gonna have to work damn harder than that. Oh, but I forgot. You’re just repeating a bunch of conspiracy theories to pretend you have something useful to say, rather than actually, say, investigating a story.
From here, Revkin weaves a picture of climate science as “done by very small tribes (sea ice folks, glacier folks, modelers, climate-ecologists, etc)”, and hence suggests they must therefore be guilty of groupthink and confirmation bias. Does he offer any evidence for this tribalism? No he does not, for there is none. He merely repeats the allegations of a bunch of people like Steve McIntyre, who working on the fringes of science, clearly do belong to a minor tribe, one that does not interact in any meaningful way with real climate scientists. So, I guess we’re meant to conclude that because McIntyre and a few others have formed a little insular tribe, that this must mean mainstream climate scientists are tribal too? Such reasoning would be laughable, if this wasn’t such a serious subject.
Revkin claims to have been “following the global warming saga – science and policy – for nearly a quarter century”. Unfortunately, in all that time, he doesn’t appear to have actually educated himself about how the science is done. If he’d spent any time in a climate science research institute, he’d know this allegation of tribalism is about as far from the truth as it’s possible to get. Oh, but of course, actually going and observing scientists in action would require some effort. That seems to be just a little too much to ask.
So, to educate Andy, and to save him the trouble of finding out for himself, let me explain. First, a little bit of history. The modern concern about the potential impacts of climate change probably dates back to the 1957 Revelle and Suess paper, in which they reported that the oceans absorb far less anthropogenic carbon emissions than was previously thought. Revelle was trained in geology and oceanography. Suess was a nuclear physicist, who studied the distribution of carbon-14 in the atmosphere. Their collaboration was inspired by discussions with Libby, a physical chemist famous for the development of radio-carbon dating. As head of the Scripps Institute, Revelle brought together oceanographers with atmospheric physicists (including initiating the Mauna Loa of the measurement of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere), atomic physicists studying dispersal of radioactive particles, and biologists studying the biological impacts of radiation. Tribalism? How about some truly remarkable inter-disciplinary research?
I suppose Revkin might argue that those were the old days, and maybe things have gone downhill since then. But again, the evidence says otherwise. In the 1970’s, the idea of earth system science began to emerge, and in the last decade, it has become central to the efforts to build climate simulation models to improve our understandings of the connections between the various earth subsystems: atmosphere, ocean, atmospheric chemistry, ocean biogeochemistry, biology, hydrology, glaciology and meteorology. If you visit any of the major climate research labs today, you’ll find a collection of scientists from many of these different disciplines working alongside one another, collaborating on the development of integrated models, and discussing the connections between the different earth subsystems. For example, when I visited the UK Met Office two years ago, I was struck by their use of cross-disciplinary teams to investigate specific problems in the simulation models. When I visited, they had just formed such a cross-disciplinary team to investigate how to improve the simulation of the Indian monsoons in their earth system models. This week, I’m just wrapping up a month long visit to the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, where I’ve also regularly sat in on meetings between scientists from the various disciplines, sharing ideas about, for example, the relationships between atmospheric radiative transfer and ocean plankton models.
The folks in Hamburg have been kind enough to allow me to sit in on their summer school this week, in which they’re training the next generation of earth science PhD students how to work with earth system models. The students are from a wide variety of disciplines: some study glaciers, some clouds, some oceanography, some biology, and so on. The set of experiments we’ve been given to try out the model include: changing the cloud top mass flux, altering the rate of decomposition in soils, changing the ocean mixing ratio, altering the ocean albedo, and changing the shape of the earth. Oh, and they’ve mixed up the students, so they have to work in pairs with people from another discipline. Tribalism? No, right from the get go, PhD training includes the encouragement of cross-disciplinary thinking and cross-disciplinary working.
Of course, if Revkin ever did wander into a climate science research institute he would see this for himself. But no, he prefers pontificating from the comfort of his armchair, repeating nonsense allegations he reads on the internet. And this is the standard that journalists hold for themselves? No wonder the general public is confused about climate change. Instead of trying to pick holes in a science they clearly don’t understand, maybe people like Revkin ought to do some soul searching and investigate the gaping holes in journalistic coverage of climate change. Then finally we might find out where the real biases lie.
So, here’s a challenge for Andy Revkin: Do not write another word about climate science until you have spent one whole month as a visitor in a climate research institute. Attend the seminars, talk to the PhD students, sit in on meetings, find out what actually goes on in these places. If you can’t be bothered to do that, then please STFU [about this whole bias, groupthink and tribalism meme].
Update: On reflection, I think I was too generous to Revkin when I accused him of making stuff up, so I deleted that bit. He’s really just parroting other people who make stuff up.
Update #2: Oh, did I mention that I’m a computer scientist? I’ve been welcomed into various climate research labs, invited to sit in on meetings and observe their working practices, and to spend my time hanging out with all sorts of scientists from all sorts of disciplines. Because obviously they’re a bunch of tribalists who are trying to hide what they do. NOT.
Update #3: I’ve added a clarifying rider to my last paragraph – I don’t mean to suggest Andy should shut up altogether, just specifically about these ridiculous memes about tribalism and so on.