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.