The strange case of Andy Revkin

Former New York Times environment reporter Andrew C. Revkin was, once upon time, considered the leading light in that small community of professional journalists who have the luxury of devoting most of their working hours to climate change. Not so much anymore.


Since leaving the Times a few months back to assume the role of senior fellow for environmental understanding at Pace University, Revkin has maintained his quasi-journalistic role as the blogger behind the times Dot Earth blog. But the big change over the past year or so involves his reputation among other climate bloggers.

It’s not just the hyperbolic Joe Romm who takes offense at what Revkin’s up to — offering positive references to climate contrarians like Steven McIntyre and Roger Pielke Jr. and writing repeatedly about the flaws in the climatology community. Steve Easterbrook, for example, calls one of Revkin’s latest posts “appalling.” I have to admit I am baffled, too. What Revkin does is take the case of Marc Hauser, the Harvard researcher who did some very bad things, things that are known as academic misconduct, and extrapolates the transgressions of one individual to the entire field of climatology:

A prime problem with climate science — related to peer review — is that it is implicitly done by very small tribes (sea ice folks, glacier folks, modelers, climate-ecologists, etc) so real peer review — avoiding confirmation bias — is tough, for sure.

One other problem particular to climate research is that meaning only emerges when its tribes collaborate (sea level is not an oceanography question, but a glaciology question, etc.). Group think can emerge, and journals have been complicit.

He goes on to mention bias, sloppiness and poor peer-review. Easterbrook’s main problem is Revkin doesn’t seem to be familiar with just how much cross-disciplinary research is going on. I agree. I’ve had the good fortune to spend a few years working within a team of biologists and my recollection is pretty much in line with Easterbrook’s:

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 mode.

Coincidentally, this week saw the release of the InterAcademy Council review of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change procedures, which deals with many of the same issues that so bother Revkin. Curiously, the council didn’t find much of anything to complain about when it comes to the way scientists carry out their science. Instead, their recommendations focus on changes to the IPCC that would help improve its public reputation: a shorter term for the chair, faster response time to the identification of possible errors, and “more consistency in how the IPCC’s different working groups characterised uncertainties in climate science.”

In other words, the problem is not so much how climatologists are behaving, but how their work is perceived. Revkin, on the other hand, suspects something more troubling lurks behind the scenes. Perhaps his long history covering the subject has given him insight that the rest of us don’t have. I’d like to defer to Revkin, given how much good material he produced over the years. But it’s not easy.

(Mention Judith Curry, and similar doubts arise. She’s a scientist with a respectable record of producing solid science, but who has recently decided that the pseudoskeptics deserve a hearing. To say that that particular approach has ruffled some feathers among her peers would be an serious understatement.)

A common thread in the reaction to Revkin’s decline seems to be that journalists need to spend more time learning about the subjects they cover before they actually begin to cover the subject. I’ve come to that conclusion, too. If someone as experienced and talented as Revkin can still, at this late date, fall into the trap of providing unjustified “balance” by quoting discredited sources, journalism has a problem.

Comments

  1. #1 Gerard Harbison
    August 30, 2010

    Roger Pielke Jr. is not a ‘climate contrarian’.

  2. #2 L. Carey
    August 30, 2010

    Mr. Harbison is correct, Mr. Pielke is not a “climate contrarian”, he’s merely a “climate concern troll”. This distinction apparently makes it perfectly permissible for Mr. Revkin to quote him at length whenever possible.

  3. #3 CapitalClimate
    August 30, 2010

    “What Revkin does is take the case of Marc Hauser, the Harvard researcher who did some very bad things, things that are known as academic misconduct, and extrapolates the transgressions of one individual to the entire field of climatology . . .”

    I think you’re missing a major point here by not mentioning that Hauser has absolutely no connection to climate science. He’s a psychologist! This extrapolation is completely a figment of Revkin’s warped imagination.

  4. #4 Gerard Harbison
    August 30, 2010

    No, Roger is not a ‘climate concern troll’ either. His great sin is that while he accepts the reality of AGW, he sees what obvious to all but the trve believers; that continuing to drive for Kyoto-style decarbonization of western economies won’t substantially lessen the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. And he’s resisted the ultimately self-defeating attempt by some to blame current weather-related catastrophes on AGW, in the absence of sufficient supporting evidence.

    Revkin really doesn’t articulate very well in his blog-post the real issue; the pressure on scientists to generate ever more whiz-bang but also scientifically kosher results. It drives only a small minority to outright fraud, but it makes many more of us spin our results in ways that increase their visibility at the cost of misrepresenting their significance. And this phenomenon certainly seems to have been present in the climate science community, although I see it everywhere these days.

  5. #5 Fitz
    August 30, 2010

    @ Mr Harbison: Could you name a climate scientist who has committed “outright fraud”?

  6. #6 Gerard Harbison
    August 30, 2010

    Not of my direct knowledge, no, and I certainly wouldn’t make a fraud accusation on any other basis. Nor did I say any climate scientists had committed fraud. Nor did Mr. Revkin; nor, as far as I know, has Pielke.

    But in science, fraud is at one end of a continuum.

  7. #7 Eric
    August 30, 2010

    I would agree that this particular piece by Revkin misses the mark, but as a climate scientist I find it much more interesting to read his blog, as well as those of Pielke Jr. and Kloor and the comments of Hulme and Curry, than the other climate blogs. These are the only voices in the climate blogs searching for reasons to explain the current climate policy gridlock that go beyond the climate denial machine. As powerful a machine as it is, it is not clear to me that we wouldn’t continue to have climate policy gridlock even if RC and Class:M and the others finally did succeed in turning it off.

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    August 30, 2010

    Well, I was involved with several years with the Lake Research Center (LRC) and the related Quaternary Palaeoclimatology Graduate Program (IGERT) at UMN, and I can confirm from that perspective that there are no closed tribes that are internally reifying horrid biases and not checking on each other. I would venture to say that climatology and paleoclimatology (which are intertwined these days nearly 100%) are the most interdisciplinary scientific activities to have emerged to date in science.

    The LRC/QP programs involved something like a dozen academic departments across three colleges at the U and had ties to coordinate campuses and numerous other institutions. Every single week during the school year (and this still happens) a speaker, usually from another institution but sometimes within, gives a talk on his/her current research to this very interdisciplinary group and is roundly lit into by all. And that is only one vehicle of interaction, but a good example.

    Revkin is either willfully ignorant or embarrassingly out of touch.

  9. #9 David Lewis
    August 31, 2010

    Revkin doesn’t need to learn how science works. The problem, I think, is he can’t cope with what he knows. The darkness must have crept up on him over many years. He can’t face it anymore that the planet is being blithely destroyed the way a child rips the wings off a bug, so he finds ways to say that it isn’t happening. He’s got children, and he’s got a way of life he’s carved out for himself, that what he knows to be the truth can’t exist beside.

  10. #10 V. infernalis
    August 31, 2010

    In my (admittedly cynical) view, journalism stopped being about communicating the truth to the public and started becoming about selling the most papers (or getting the most page hits, or attracting the most viewers) a long time ago. Manufacturing “controversy” is part and parcel of this shift in focus.

    Publicly-funded news organizations (e.g., CBC, BBC) are somewhat resistant to this lowest-common denominator journalism, but sadly not immune.

  11. #11 David
    August 31, 2010

    Roger Pielke Jr. spends an inordinate amount of time “raising questions” about the credibility of scientists who tower above him. Yet, he seldom publishes in the peer-reviewed literature.

    Instead, he has done an end run around of the peer review process by blogging. But that’s not science.

  12. #12 James Hanley, or
    August 31, 2010

    I’m not a climate scientist of any sort, but a political scientist. So I make no comment on the state of climate science. But as a student of bureaucracy, I do have a comment on the defense of the IPCC report. Mr. Hrynyshyn states:

    Curiously, the council didn’t find much of anything to complain about when it comes to the way scientists carry out their science. Instead, their recommendations focus on changes to the IPCC that would help improve its public reputation:…In other words, the problem is not so much how climatologists are behaving, but how their work is perceived.

    Obviously the council could be correct. But the fact that their report makes this claim is far from evidence, simply because it is a common action for internal reviews to conclude “we’re doing great, we just need better PR.” While this review was not purely internal, it was by a very sympathetic set of reviewers.

    Please note that I am not claiming the report is flawed, or that the review is botched. I don’t have any evidence of that. I am only saying that Mr. Hrynyshyn should probably be wary of accepting the review fully at face value.

    Fair point. But I’m not saying that the InterAcademy review is beyond criticism. Just that, given that half a dozen other reviews of allegations of misconduct among climatologists have also failed to find any ethical breaches, serious or otherwise, I think it safe to say that Revkin’s suspicions are curiously out of sync with a growing body of evidence that the allegations of unfounded. — jh

  13. #13 John Kwok
    August 31, 2010

    Greg,

    Am new to this, so thanks for your post. I am especially puzzled with Revkin’s commentary, especially with regards to Marc Hauser (whom I might add has been a favorite scientist at the World Science Festival. I hope Brian Greene and Tracy Day – the festival’s co-founders and directors – have second thoughts before inviting him back).

    However, you are absolutely right in your assessment of interdisciplinary research teams, especially since these are becoming more the rule, rather the exception, in basic climate science research, and other sciences too.

  14. #14 John Kwok
    August 31, 2010

    I might add too, that there are notable universities like Columbia, which are actively pursuing interdisciplinary approaches that cut across not just science, but also relevant aspects of politcial and social sciences too:

    http://www.earthinstitute.columbia.edu/sections/view/9

  15. #15 film izle
    October 6, 2010

    (Mention Judith Curry, and similar doubts arise. She’s a scientist with a respectable record of producing solid science, but who has recently decided that the pseudoskeptics deserve a hearing. To say that that particular approach has ruffled some feathers among her peers would be an serious understatement.)

    A common thread in the reaction to Revkin’s decline seems to be that journalists need to spend more time learning about the subjects they cover before they actually begin to cover the subject. I’ve come to that conclusion, too. If someone as experienced and talented as Revkin can still, at this late date, fall into the trap of providing unjustified “balance” by quoting discredited sources, journalism has a problem.

  16. #16 film izle
    October 11, 2010

    “What Revkin does is take the case of Marc Hauser, the Harvard researcher who did some very bad things, things that are known as academic misconduct, and extrapolates the transgressions of one individual to the entire field of climatology . . .”

    I think you’re missing a major point here by not mentioning that Hauser has absolutely no connection to climate science. He’s a psychologist! This extrapolation is completely a figment of Revkin’s warped imagination.

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