Framing Science

The NY Times’ Andrew Revkin details a study at Nature that finds that in the Caribbean there have been centuries where strong hurricanes occurred frequently even though ocean temperatures were cooler than those measured today. Revkin reports that although the new study does not necessarily conflict with other recent research connecting global warming to more intense hurricanes, it does show that factors other than ocean temperatures can shape trends in the power of storms.

Revkin quotes climate scientist Judith Curry, ending the article with an important focus on the policy implications of the global warming-hurricane debate. Here’s the deep background on why this news report is an important example of how journalists and scientists can work together to improve coverage of emerging science:

A big problem in the reporting of science is what Revkin dubs the “tyranny of the news peg.” The dilemma involves the overwhelming tendency to define what is news in science by the release of a new scientific study. Everyone benefits from the “new study” as the dominant information subsidy in science journalism. Scientists, universities, science agencies, and journals gain publicity and prestige via “media hits” while journalists have a convenient event to file a story around, alleviating the need to engage in more time consuming enterprise reporting.

Yet what’s often lost is important scientific context. As Revkin writes in The Field Guide for Science Writers (full text), the typical zig zag of “new study” reports can leave the public without the necessary background for making sense of an emerging area of research.

Moreover, defining science news around the release of a single study often fails to move coverage in the direction of focusing on the social, ethical, or policy implications of science. To date, this has been a big problem in coverage of the still uncertain linkages between global warming and more intense hurricanes. It’s a topic that Chris Mooney and I took on in this joint column for Skeptical Inquirer Online and a theme we feature in our Speaking Science 2.0 tour.

So how do you break the tyranny of the news peg? In other words, can you cover the release of important new studies but also feature social, ethical, and policy implications? As Mooney and I argue, scientists and journal editors can play a key role in working with journalists to improve coverage. Scientists can offer suggestions on what their emerging research might mean for the general policy debate while journal editors can commission peer-reviewed companion articles from experts in ethics or science policy. These companion articles would contextualize what a major new scientific study might actually mean politically, thereby lending an additional news peg for journalists to cover these “non-scientific” dimensions.

In fact, Revkin’s latest article features Judith Curry, a global warming-hurricane researcher who is willing to go beyond “just the facts of the science” to argue for a focus on policy. Without Curry’s willingness to frame the implications of the science, it would be difficult for Revkin to cover this important additional angle. Here’s the money quote from Curry that ends the report with an exclamation point:

“The bottom line is that we are in an unusually active period of hurricane activity, as a result of a combination of natural variability and global warming,” Dr. Curry said. “Analyses have been done, plans have been put on the table, but nothing seems to be happening.”