Like many people on the East Coast, I spent a lot of time last week shoveling snow. When I came inside, I then had to endure a secondary storm of nonsense about how the winter weather disproved global warming, humiliated Al Gore, et al. This was, in turn, much-commented-upon, most incisively by Grist’s Dave Roberts, who concludes that the inability of many journalists to point out the ridiculousness of snowstorm-climate change denialism is a symptom of the profound ills afflicting traditional journalism.

Well, yeah.

But what’s really going on here? It’s not just that the press is stupid, or timid. With the fracturing of the political and media landscape, there are no sources of universally-accepted authority any more in American life (except – Oprah?). This has driven political reporters ever deeper into a cocoon of their own construction, one with no objective reference points, because all of those are disputed by somebody, somewhere. So we end up with traditional journalistic “objectivity” with the actual objective realities edited out. It’s genius, really. Reporters privilege the political process itself over policy, over science, over common sense. Political advantage, or victory, is what matters. Everybody likes a winner, after all.

When climate doubters win, though, the results are objectively disastrous. It’s pretty clear the world is lurching toward environmental disaster, and temporizing over snowstorms isn’t helping. And the doubters won quite a lot over the past few months, as this Washington Post story details, with denials and doubters seizing on the “climategate” emails and lately on mistakes in the supposedly-bulletproof IPCC report.

It ought to be possible for media outlets to separate the genuine scientific issues here from the political ones. It doesn’t take that much effort.

In the case of Snowmageddon, for example: it’s impossible to attribute a single weather event to global warming, or to the supposed lack thereof. But as Bill McKibben notes in this piece, the amount of moisture in the atmosphere has risen 4 percent since 1970, which would tend to produce wetter weather in some areas. That’s useful information, even without a cause-and-effect relationship established.

In the case of the IPCC, how did mistakes and citations from interest groups creep into the IPCC report? Does this signal a broader “bias” problem? Does that appear merely in the shaping of the report and its language, in the way the authors interpret data and studies, or in the data and studies themselves? Is something truly “rotten in the state of the IPCC”? I’d guess not, because if you drill down almost all the evidence holds up. On the other hand, I don’t want my climate consensus document to contain any spin – give it to us straight! – so it’s not enough to say “move along, nothing to see here.”

But many of these questions and distinctions get lost when this moves into the field of politics and media coverage of politics. The Post itself is a living example of what happens when politics, and the protection of political interests by journalists, interferes with climate coverage. George Will has embarrassed the newspaper with his repeated twisting of climate data and his assertion that climate change is a scientific fad, like bell bottoms. This weekend, the Post featured both the McKibben piece and a column by Dana Milbank saying that because Gore and some unnamed environmental groups went overboard in attributing weather events to global warming, they deserved whatever they got from the other side. Never mind that the other side is wrong on the fundamentals.

These mixed messages are confusing. To an average reader, who may not care much about the details, the impression one gets is of science politicized and contested, with no true bottom line. This is corrosive to the debate over what to do about global warming. The Post can certainly entertain different voices on these issues. But in some ways it appears too deeply invested in the short-term political process and the conventions of political reporting, to consistently separate the real questions from the BS.

WASHINGTON - NOVEMBER 05:  Rep. Michele Bachma...

Rep. Bachmann poses with her recent research into unified field theory (via Daylife/Getty)

“WaPost Publishes Palin OpEd on Climate Science, Michele Bachmann Piece on Quantum Mechanics to Follow” – Firedoglake headline.

(With apologies to Sarah Palin and her ghostwriter.)

No Solace in the Quantum

By Michele Bachmann

When a piece of bread dropped by a swallow can stop the universe from being destroyed, the radical so-called “nuclear physicists” who tell us that nothing really exists appear to have hit a tipping point. The revelation that the Large Hadron Collider was shut down last month allows the American public to finally understand the concerns so many of us have articulated on this issue.

“Quantum-gate,” as this incident has become known, exposes a highly-politicized scientific circle at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) – the same circle whose work underlies efforts to foist a bizarre worldview on the public that reflects a socialistic view of the behavior of subatomic particles and cats and threatens lead us down a slippery slope toward fascism. The agenda-driven policies now showing up even in high school textbooks and popular movies won’t change the Newtonian conception of matter and energy, but they would change our society and our children’s minds for the worse.

The work of these “quantum mechanics” reveals that they have employed something called an “uncertainty principle” to manipulate data and since the 1930s have tried to silence their critics, including the great Albert Einstein, with their blasphemous assertion that God plays dice. What’s more, their work shows that there was no real consensus on the fundamental nature of reality even within the CERN crowd and in other organizations that make up the United Nations’ Ministry of Science, Regulation, Propaganda and Bureaucracy. Some scientists had strong doubts about the accuracy of estimates about wave-particle duality going back to an unspeakable ritual called the “double slit experiment.”

This scandal calls into question the U.S. government’s energy, environment, and health-related policies. If we supposedly cannot know with precision where something is or its momentum, it is a license for our government to do anything it wants. Quantum theory says that an observer can literally change reality. What is to stop the Obama White House from sending out teams of ACORN-trained “observers” to “change” our communities into whatever they want? We are now a fraction of a quantum away from tyranny.

I’ve alway believed that policy should be based on sound science, not politics. We must recognize that subatomic physics is still an unreliable and, frankly, somewhat creepy field not in keeping with our American traditions. Scientists are using money taken from the hard work of taxpayers for research into very tiny particles including quarks, muons and gluinos. Those names may be some kind of European-derived code for organizing a fifth column, but never mind that. These crypto-particles allegedly exist for just a few nanoseconds at very high energy states. How do we know they were ever there at all? To put it another way: you will never be able to convince me or my constituents that my cat is alive and dead at the same time. She looks pretty alive to me. Well, asleep. But definitely breathing. Trust me!

Perhaps these flaws can one day be addressed with bigger microscopes and better slide technologies. But for the moment, let me just say, we in Minnesota are sensible, bottom-line folk. Seeing is believing. If we can’t say with assurance what happens on scales smaller than the width of a hair, President Obama, we owe it to the American people to base our policies accordingly.

If you read only one thing today about climate change, take a pause from all the Copenhagen coverage (the conference lasts nearly two weeks, after all) and take a look at James Fallows’s post comparing the New York Times’s climate email hack story with that of the Washington Post. Fallows argues, compellingly, that the Times does a better job explaining the basics: that the hacked emails don’t cast doubt on the scientific consensus of climate change. If you want the story from the ground up, read the Times. The Post, he notes, casts this as a political story and temporizes a bit on its scientific importance or lack thereof:

In this case one big-time paper, the Post, sticks with “critics contend,” while the other presents a contrast between “decades of peer-reviewed science” and politically-motivated opposition. Moreover, the NYT presents the controversy as something that might get in the way of deliberations in Copenhagen; while the Post presents it as a scandal in which “wonky” emails may not constitute “proof” that climate change is a “lie or a swindle” but still justify introducing “lie” and “swindle” as possibilities.

Not to overdramatize, but: in a way the papers are betting their reputations with these articles. The Times, that climate change is simply a matter of science versus ignorance; the Post, that this is best treated as another “-Gate” style flap where it’s hard to get to the bottom of the story.

I think Fallows is a little unfair to the Washington Post reporters (one of whom, Juliet Eilperin, is a friend). The climate emails do “raise hard questions,” as the story says, about how some climate scientists have been operating, and they have set off a significant political fight. There’s nothing wrong with focusing a story on this. The problem is context. To cover the politics, first you must take pains to establish the scientific – and political – context, otherwise readers will never get the bottom line on what it all means. That is: The fundamentals here are not in serious dispute, though there are unresolved issues and thus fierce intra-academy disputes. The Post goes through the motions on this, quoting scientists on the consensus, but still seems curiously agnostic about what to make of the whole thing. We don’t get a sense of how serious the issues really are. (As a former newspaper reporter, I’ll tell you where I think the problem lies: the piece needed more/better editing, and didn’t get it.)

I’ve been avoiding the great climate email hack story because, on one level, there’s not much to say about it. Obviously the global scientific community is not nefariously conspiring to foist man-made global warming on an innocent world. The notion that there might be such a conspiracy is preposterous on its face: there are simply too many scientists, scientific institutions, and credible, time-tested scientific practices and traditions, dating back to the Enlightenment and beyond, to make such a mass conspiracy possible, especially on the most important scientific issue of our time (or at least the one with the most real-world implications). So, Jim Inhofe, George Will, et al, enjoy this controversy while you can. You’re ultimately going to have to keep looking if you want to discredit global warming science.

That, of course, doesn’t make this whole controversy meaningless. It is, sadly, significant. There’s a huge fight underway for public opinion and over government action, and it’s not going particularly well. While it’s abundantly clear humans are having a significant impact on climate, and bold action is needed soon to head off a lot of disastrous effects, according to the latest Pew survey only 44% of people in the United States (and the same percentage in Russia, and just 30% in China) say global warming is a serious problem.

And the scandal, in which internal emails apparently showed that scientists at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit massaged data and discussed how to foil freedom of information requests has handed a cudgel to opponents of action on climate change.

It’s amazing to watch. Climategate allows the political opponents of action on global warming to perform a brilliant bit of misdirection. For the moment, anyway, they don’t have to argue that anthropogenic climate change can’t be real (an increasingly difficult argument to make). Instead they can now argue – credibly – that scientists behaving badly must be investigated. (more…)

Via Dave Roberts, reporters at the Washington Post are pushing back against George Will’s series of mendacious columns about climate change. In an article noting continuing declines in Arctic sea ice, they note:

The new evidence — including satellite data showing that the average multiyear wintertime sea ice cover in the Arctic in 2005 and 2006 was nine feet thick, a significant decline from the 1980s — contradicts data cited in widely circulated reports by Washington Post columnist George F. Will that sea ice in the Arctic has not significantly declined since 1979.

As Dave notes, this is a clear rebuke not just from some reporters to Will, but from the Post’s newsroom to its editorial page. (Funny that we have to resort to Kremlinology – interpreting sentences buried in news stories for broader institutional significance – to see what’s going on, but that’s how newspapers work.) This pushback is overdue. Will took data on arctic sea ice out of context, making it seem like it meant something it did not. By doing publishing it on the Post’s op-ed page (and, via syndication, on op-ed pages across America), his editors undermined the paper’s credibility on issues of fact. That’s something no newsroom can afford to just let pass.

Still, it’s sad that it came to this point. The Post editorial page prizes a certain coldly contrarian approach toward the Washington conventional wisdom, and 10 or 15 years ago, this made it a good read. But its contrarianism, ironically, derives from a mix of both-sides-do-it Broderism and, on foreign affairs (with the exception of torture, which it has consistently and admirably opposed), neoconservatism. Events have overtaken this political sensibility, and today, what was once provocative has become curmudgeonly and predictable (cf. the hiring of Bill Kristol). And in the case of Will and climate change, objectively wrong.

There isn’t much to be gained by pointing out the contradictions of commentators and politicians, but sometimes they are revealing. George Will takes another bite out of the “global warming: not happening” apple today. Or does he?

Defending his previous column, Will reiterates the point that that media (including the New York Times) reported in the 1970s that we were entering an age of global cooling; he also argues his assertions regarding data on global sea ice were correct. (Andy Revkin, whom Will attacks in the piece, quotes a number of scientists knocking those arguments down.)

But read carefully, and you’ll observe that he subtly backs off the original column’s theme that climate science consists mainly of murky, contradictory findings that are selectively hyped by doomsayers:

Nowadays, however, scientists often find themselves enveloped in furies triggered by any expression of skepticism about the global warming consensus (which will prevail until a diametrically different consensus comes along; see the 1970s) in the media-environmental complex.

Note the last five words: Will is attacking environmentalists and the media, not the scientific community. He says nothing about the scientific consensus on the issue. But where does he stand on that? No idea. It’s not clear how you can make a serious argument against global warming hype while ignoring the underlying issue of whether climate change is happening. If the risks are overhyped, we’re being misled. But if it is happening, shouldn’t we be alarmed? Or, if it’s all just too complex to understand or predict, as Will also implies, what’s the point of studying the climate at all?

Instead, Will wants to question global warming by insinuation and suggestion, without denying it outright. In fact, the first column contains no explicit statement that climate change is hokum, but strongly implies the point by citing cases of dire environmental predictions that proved false. Will gives the skeptics what they want, but also retains plausible deniability when he’s criticized for attacking the science. Clever.

One last observation on George Will, the Washington Post and climate change. Beyond the scientific questions involved (is the aggregate area of polar ice decreasing due to climate change, what are the implications of that, etc.) the Will piece raises a broader issue: how much credence should media outlets give to columnists or others who deny anthropogenic climate change is occurring?

Obviously, the people who run the Post editorial pages should not lend their platform to discredited arguments (hold the snark, please). But this is a tougher question than it seems on the surface. Has man-made climate change now entered the realm of universal scientific acceptance, like evolution, quantum mechanics, or the notion that the earth orbits the sun and not vice-versa? Almost, but not exactly. There is an overwhelming consensus among scientists who have studied the issue. But that’s not the same as universal acceptance.

Also, since climate science involves computer modeling of very complex systems, it’s inexact. “Climate change” and “global warming” are themselves vague terms. The future – not just temperatures but sea levels, impacts on agriculture, changes in local living conditions and political stability – is very hard to predict. The policy options are numerous. This pocked terrain means there’s plenty of room for debate on the nature and impacts of climate change and the science used to assess those things. Some think the problem is overhyped by Al Gore and others, or that government-centric policy fixes such as carbon trading won’t work. Those arguments should be aired and grappled with.

But frankly, there isn’t much serious scientific debate on the existence of anthropogenic climate change itself. Given the preponderance of scientific opinion on the topic, media outlets should be very skeptical of pieces that deny it. Almost always, they’re based more attitude than science. This doesn’t mean you can’t argue that climate models are flawed — they are — but if you run with that, make sure it’s a serious, rigorous argument.

What you shouldn’t do, though, is what Will did: cherry-pick headlines that appear to fit an unsupported thesis and pretend you are making a serious argument. This has the effect of discrediting your own position, that of the media you’re working in, and, indirectly, the science you cite.

All of this underlines how important it is to communicate the science clearly, to distinguish the specious arguments from legitimate ones – or else the whole debate breaks down. (And we’ll never figure out how to address this issue as a society.) I’m sure George Will doesn’t have editors question his opinions very often. But some things are not just a matter of opinion, and his editors have an obligation to get this stuff right. It’s journalism 101. Which is why the Post’s apparent decision to ignore its own failings here is so baffling.

Update: TPM’s Zachary Roth reports that Will’s next column comes out swinging against his detractors. Which will probably have the effect of ginning up more faux-controversy over the substance here, which is really not in dispute. That’s what a columnist gets paid for, I suppose, but something is seriously amiss here.

The dust-up over George Will’s global warming denial column has morphed into a classic example of newspaper institutionalist failure. In its own small way, it shows why – on top of the Internet-driven collapse of media business models – many people are losing confidence in newspapers and other traditional media outlets.

After Will’s column calling global warming a media-driven fad, the Washington Post has declined to correct its errors and misrepresentations. The new ombudsman, Andy Alexander, sent out a note to those who wrote in complaining about the column, saying that the piece had undergone a thorough editing/fact checking process and that Will had committed no errors.

Hilzoy shows the superficiality and ultimate spuriousness of Alexander’s claim. Will’s principal disputed factoid has been contested by the source, the University of Illinois Arctic Climate Research Center. Alexander resorts to a semantic defense, saying that Will’s claim – that “global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979″ can be reconciled with the ACRC’s statement that polar ice levels are “near or slightly lower than those observed in late 1979.” Obviously, “equal” is not the same as “near or slightly lower than,” especially when we’re dealing with scientific evidence. So the semantic defense itself is weak.

But even if you call that one for Will, the ACRC takes pains to note what’s really going on: the measured declines in northern ice are partially made up for by increases in southern ice, a phenomenon that is itself linked to climate change. In other words, Will’s statement, which stretches the data, also misrepresents the underlying science, which tells a more complex story that doesn’t fit his thesis.

The Post editorial page and ombudsman get a lot of interest group-driven complaints, and the liberal blogosphere has been all over this one. But this isn’t just another firestorm on “the left” that can be safely dismissed as such. The Post, its editorial and op-ed pages included, has an obligation to present science correctly and not to distort it for ideological purposes. To dismiss these serious concerns with a semantic fig-leaf is irresponsible.

There’s a forest-for-the-trees absurdity here: The Washington Post has, apparently to avoid conceding error to critics it dislikes, closed ranks behind a piece denying what is a nearly universally-accepted scientific fact — one that is a very grave threat to humanity — and all-but explicitly backed the distortion of science. It’s crazy. Andy Alexander is new on the job. If he’s smart, he’ll take a second look at this one.

It’s been a few days since George Will’s column calling global warming a passing fad, like the short-lived 1970s-era media hype over global cooling. This has been extensively debunked elsewhere, including by one of Will’s sources, so I won’t revisit here. The Washington Post has yet to issue a correction on Will’s factual errors, but if this follows the pattern of past columnist snafus, one will likely be appended to a coming Will column. (As Dan Kennedy put it on Twitter, “Maybe he’ll offer a mea culpa. In a surly manner, insisting that his overall point was correct.”)

What’s hard to understand is the persistence of global warming denialism on the right, even among elite conservative opinion-makers such as Will who have both a large readership and a claim to intellectual integrity. Does Will really believe the scientific community has manufactured climate change out of its wish for more federal grants and environmental regulations? Or that climate science has made no advances since the 1970s? Or that a foolish 1980 bet by Paul Ehrlich (an entomologist by training) that overpopulation would quickly deplete resources has anything to do with global warming?

It’s true that environmentalists have sometimes raised dire scenarios that didn’t come to pass. And that Al Gore can be annoying. And that all kinds of new taxes and regulations that conservatives will object to may be proposed to combat climate change. But none of these are good reasons for denying a scientific reality, one that is a very great danger to the world, living standards, and, er, conservative values. If conservatives such as Will were serious, they would engage the serious issues raised by global warming and try to devise solutions they and their followers might find more palatable.

The science of global warming is improving all the time, but it still isn’t exact. How could it be? The atmosphere is an exceedingly complex system. Add in the oceans, ecosystems and human society, and predicting the course of likely outcomes with any precision becomes close to impossible. Still, we know what’s going on in general terms. The problem is, that usually isn’t good enough for the news media, which likes everything wrapped up in a neat package, preferably with a light and a siren on top.

That’s the basic argument that Vicky Pope, a top British climate scientist, makes in the Guardian:

News headlines vie for attention and it is easy for scientists to grab this attention by linking climate change to the latest extreme weather event or apocalyptic prediction. But in doing so, the public perception of climate change can be distorted. The reality is that extreme events arise when natural variations in the weather and climate combine with long-term climate change. This message is more difficult to get heard. Scientists and journalists need to find ways to help to make this clear without the wider audience switching off.

Recent headlines have proclaimed that Arctic summer sea ice has decreased so much in the past few years that it has reached a tipping point and will disappear very quickly. The truth is that there is little evidence to support this. Indeed, the record-breaking losses in the past couple of years could easily be due to natural fluctuations in the weather, with summer sea ice increasing again over the next few years. This diverts attention from the real, longer-term issues. For example, recent results from the Met Office do show that there is a detectable human impact in the long-term decline in sea ice over the past 30 years, and all the evidence points to a complete loss of summer sea ice much later this century.

But such misimpressions shape media coverage, political debates and policy, Pope goes on to say, and that means scientists spend an awful lot of time and energy correcting them. This is, of course, a chronic problem in science journalism, a fault line in the public’s shaky understanding of science. But I’m not sure, Fred Barnes notwithstanding, how big a problem it is on global warming. To put things in perspective: over the past few years, thanks in part to Al Gore, the media has more or less adopted the consensus view that manmade global warming is real, and dangerous, and demands action. Sometimes the alarms get loud, and get out of kilter with the scientific realities. But that’s far better than the “two sides disagree” approach we saw so often, in which the opinions of relatively small numbers of global warming skeptics were given weight equal to vastly larger numbers of those taking the threat seriously. That scientists now have to correct journalists for being too alarmist isn’t great, but it’s an obvious improvement. It’s also part of the job of science communication. Journalists should get a better grasp of the facts. But scientists should accept that the job of correcting errors or conveying nuances is ongoing, and ultimately helps public understanding.


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