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.

18 Comments

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention When did ignorance become a badge of honour for journalists? | Serendipity -- Topsy.com

  2. It’s OK Steve, most climate scientists know more about computer modelling than climate. You’re in good company.

    You quote Suess and Revelle 1957, but it’s interesting how the airborne fraction has remained virtually constant over 150 years despite big increases in anthropogenic emissions. Ergo, the oceans are absorbing a magnitude more CO2 than anticipated.

    [Well, you've just proved my point about ignorance. You don't know shit about what climate scientists do, but you're happy to pontificate about it. Oh, and by the way, the term 'ergo' is generally used to connect an antecedent with its consequent. It's not supposed to be used to glue random facts onto a falsehood. - Steve]

  3. I have followed Andy Revkin’s Dot Earth blog for a long time and there is little doubt in my mind that he tries to express all viewpoints on the climate change problem in as a coherent, rational way as possible. That is, he tries to present all arguments, from denier to alarmist, in the best and strongest possible way. (That he is imperfect he explicitly notes.)

    He also makes his own beliefs quite clear. In the blog post in which you suggest he shut up in the most vulgar possible way, he states: “Do I trust climate science? As a living body of intellectual inquiry exploring profoundly complex questions, yes. Do I trust all climate scientists, research institutions, funding sources, journals and others involved in this arena to convey the full context of findings and to avoid sometimes stepping beyond the data? I wouldn’t be a journalist if I answered yes.”

    So I find your rant completely baffling. Revkin is a journalist. You should calm down and offer an apology.

    Very few of us can spend a lot of time hanging out with climate scientists. And I have commented before on how much I appreciate your extensive, detailed posts on the various climate conferences you attend. And the thinking and attitudes you find at them.

    But you should never tell anyone to shut up or that they are too ignorant to say anything but parrot the views of others. Much less Andy Revkin in such vulgar terms. Why? It hardens attitudes instead of changing them. Just what the status quo wants. And I don’t want the status quo.

    [Expressing all viewpoints "in the best and strongest possible way" is downright irresponsible, when some of them are lies and smears. That's exactly the problem I'm calling out. It's called false balance, and it has to stop. - Steve]

  4. Any chance of getting McIntyre to go along and take part in a multidisciplinary workshop? I’d love to know how that went. Revkin could go along too and write it up.

  5. Steve, as I commented over at Dot Earth:

    Tribalism or not (I think not), seas are rising faster and faster so why keep dredging up these climategate-type stories? 3C-5C is coming on our current emission trajectory and these values are essentially society-busters. Stories like this one just fuel those that wish to delay action. One could easily wind back several decades and claim that there may be tribalism with all of those “smoking causes cancer” researchers. They are all saying the same thing so, heck, there MUST be a level of group think, right?

  6. The NYTimes does have s a new public editor.

    Question – the advice “you should go visit a research institute for a month” is great, but it’d be more effective if someone *at* such an institute publicly issued such an invitation.

    And is there an org that’d be willing to fund short-term fellowships like this? Knight Foundation perhaps?

  7. Anna: Good question. NCAR has a visitor program, and hosts hundreds of visitors each year. They offer funding for some of these (see http://ncar.ucar.edu/visitor-programs), although the funds are mainly directed at visiting scientists rather than journalists. Of course, it’s easier to set up if you have your own funding – I’m sure there must be sources of funding that journalists use for this kind of thing.
    Other labs also have similar visitor programs, and encourage people to come visit. The only constraint would be the time it takes for their staff to set up the visit and facilitate the interactions with the scientists (they’re busy people, after all). Some of my visits were set up just by cold-calling scientists who I thought might be interested in collaboration; others came about as a results of discussions at the AGU and EGU conferences.
    If Andy Revkin is interested in taking up my challenge, I can happily get him an invitation. But you’ve also got me thinking about a broader initiative for journalists and bloggers to spend some time embedded at climate research labs. I’ll ask around…

  8. A most excellent takedown! Thank you!

    This may be from left field, but the only time I ever heard Rush Limbaugh speak rationally was in 2005 when he had just gotten back from a trip to Afghanistan. People like him should be invited to see what really goes on at these research institutes — give them a three-day tour of activities.

  9. Steve,
    You’re normally so cordial and technical, I was surprised to see this post – but you’re right on target. Revkin has become adept at playing both sides – a few posts with decent information and discussion, paired with appalling posts like this one, which basically boils down to “Just how corrupt/incompetent are climate scientists, anyway? Discuss”. When confronted, he starts parsing words, while simply ignoring the valid complaints about the entire tenor and the basic assumptions implicit in the article. Thanks for pushing back.

  10. George (#2): “But you should never tell anyone to shut up [...] in such vulgar terms. Why? It hardens attitudes instead of changing them. Just what the status quo wants. And I don’t want the status quo.”

    Yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot about this. The status quo is completely unacceptable and has to change. But I disagree with you on what it will take. The most important thing that has to happen is that those who understand the big picture, who understand the risks of delaying strong action on mitigation policies, have to get a lot more passionate and a hell of a lot more “in-your-face”. We have to shift the Overton Window, and the only way to do that is to ramp up the action at the space beyond what is currently considered politically possible. We’re not going to get there by being polite and agreeable, when those who would delay action are busy using every machiavellian tactic they can think of.

    Oh, and the swearing? If there are delicate souls out there who can’t cope with a few swear words, how the hell are they going to cope when the shit really hits the fan with climate disruptions? The genteel won’t survive the collapse.

    My favourite link on this: Stephen Fry on Swearing

  11. > Expressing all viewpoints “in the best and strongest possible way” is
    > downright irresponsible, when some of them are lies and smears.
    > That’s exactly the problem I’m calling out. It’s called false balance …

    But, but, wasn’t RPJr recently saying that’s what ‘honest brokerage’ does?
    Oh, wait ….

  12. It’s music to my ears to hear the pathetic liars [...snip. That's quite enough of that!]

  13. Steve—I, too, was surprised about the tone of this post, but gladly surprised. It goes along the lines of McKibben’s call to action. He concludes:

    “We definitely need (…) disciplined, nonviolent, but very real anger.

    Mostly, we need to tell the truth, resolutely and constantly. Fossil fuel is wrecking the one earth we’ve got. It’s not going to go away because we ask politely.

    If we want a world that works, we’re going to have to raise our voices.”

    So thanks for writing this.

  14. Another one bites the dust. Remember George Monbiot? I hope Revkin has the humility to extricate himself from this and move on. Monbiot and The Guardian in general have been pretty pathetic since the stolen emails saga. More here: http://opinion-nation.blogspot.com/2010/03/fool-me-twice.html

  15. Steve (#9): “The most important thing that has to happen is that those who understand the big picture, who understand the risks of delaying strong action on mitigation policies, have to get a lot more passionate and a hell of a lot more ‘in-your-face’.”

    If a journalist or scientist were to make such a declaration, should not my opinion of their journalistic or scientific credibility and trustworthiness diminish? That is, would not the risk of bias increase?

    Anecdotally, I have known a lot of passionate people and in my experience their sense of conviction has nothing to do with reality. (To think otherwise means we need to make our climate model software more passionate!?)

    Emotion is a driving force, not a deciding force. A passionate call is a call to action. It is useless when trying to convince someone about scientific facts.

    So criticizing Revkin for not considering it his job as a journalist to “shift the Overton Window” is being very harsh on Revkin. Andy is trying to be informative — helping people to decide for themselves. IMHO, that’s what journalists ought to do.

    Is everyone who is not actively a strong mitigation policy advocate at risk of verbal abuse? Is decorum dead?

  16. @steve
    Total right on.

  17. George Crews :
    Andy is trying to be informative — helping people to decide for themselves. IMHO, that’s what journalists ought to do.

    Andy is also pretending there are two equally-balanced views – there are not.

  18. George Crews :
    [snip]
    If a journalist or scientist were to make such a declaration, should not my opinion of their journalistic or scientific credibility and trustworthiness diminish? That is, would not the risk of bias increase?
    [snip]

    Perhaps, but I politely suggest that you can tell the difference if you concentrate on the need to do so. Scientific credibility need not stay firmly bound to everything a scientist says. Something similar is true for journalists. Is it all that hard to tell when we step out of one role into another?

  19. I still use this quote from Revkin (in 2008) when I want to discuss a big picture.

    “Climate change is not the story of our time. Climate change is a subset of the story of our time, which is that we are coming of age on a finite planet and only just now recognizing that it is finite. [...continues]” (The source is here.)

    I hope that he (and others) will consistently report from this perspective, which will contribute to shifting the Overton window of the society nearer to this.

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