Mooney on Yoffe

Blogging over at The Huffington Post, my SciBling Chris Mooney has an excellent post up on the subject of global warming. He is responding to this op-ed from Emily Yoffe, a writer for Slate. Yoffe was trying to present herself as the calm, clear-thinking purveryor of common -sense against the blinkered alarmism of people like Al Gore. Mooney does an excellent job of showing she has little idea what she is talking about.

For example, Yoffe writes:

Thanks to all the heat-mongering, it's supposed to be a sign I'm in denial because I refuse to trust a weather prediction for August 2080, when no one can offer me one for August 2008 (or 2007 for that matter).

There is so much hubris in the certainty about the models of the future that I'm oddly reassured. We've seen how hubristic predictions about complicated, unpredictable events have a way of bringing the predictors low.

Regrettably, journalists lecturing others on subjects about which they know nothing all too rarely enjoy a similar fate. Mooney points out the obvious fallacy in this argument:

Sadly, though, Yoffe makes this point by messing up the science in much worse ways than alleged global warming “alarmists” do. In fact, she garbles the basic distinction between climate and weather--climate science 101, essentially.

After presenting Yoffe's quote, Mooney continues:

The precise weather in any given place and time is not predictable more than a week or perhaps two weeks in advance -- we know this. Chaos, butterflies, yada yada.

The climate, however, is the sum total of weather, and much of this is very predictable. Yoffe's example unintentionally shows this: We can in fact say a great deal about August of 2007 or 2008. We can't predict precise local temperatures, but we know the month on average is going to be hotter than December of 2007 or 2008 (in the Northern hemisphere, anyway). The seasons are predictable, as are many other things about the climate -- including the influence of the greenhouse effect upon it. Because of human enhancement of that effect, we know that the global average temperature is going to be hotter in the future.

After pointing out some further problems with Yoffe's piese, Mooney concludes with:

If I'm being a bit hard on Emily Yoffe, it's because there's a larger point here. Yoffe's piece strikes me as indicative of how some aspects of the Washington journalism culture treat scientific information. A lot of the time, what's prized in that world is the ability to make a clever argument -- to turn conventional wisdom on its head.

When you apply this approach to science, however, there's an utter mismatch. In science, “conventional wisdom” is a consensus perspective that has withstood repeated expert attempts to unseat it. In this context, being “counterintuitive” -- especially when one is doing so well outside of the traditional channels of scientific discourse -- usually amounts to little more than being just plain wrong.

Well said! I would suggest that two other unsavory tendencies of journalistic culture are at work here.

First, many liberal columnists suffer from a curious pathology in which they feel they must frequently bash their own side to gain intellectual credibility. Right-wing columnists suffer from no such pathology. Yoffe is saying, in effect, “I'm not one of those shrill, threatening liberals witth no sense of persepctive and a craving for attention. I'm one of those sensible liberals, the ones who are perfectly happy to concede some points to the other side and just want to bring a little common sense and light humor to difficult issues.”

Second, Yoffe was confronting the standard problem faced by columnists writing about scientific issues. If she simply writes a column agreeing that global warming is a real problem and that some lifestyle changes may be needed to address it, she will be open to the charge that she is just parroting the views of scientists. But by poking a thumb in the eye of scientists, by taking the faux-balanced view that global warming is a concern but maybe those smarty-pants scientists need a dose of horse sense, Yoffe makes herself look sensible and reasonable without having to actually know anything about the subject.

It's reminiscent of columnists who argue for teaching ID on the grounds of fairness and balance. That's an argument you can make without needing to know any science, and no one ever came off looking foolish arguing for basic fairness. When critics angrily point out that there's simply no comparison between the scientific merits of evolution on the one hand and ID on the other, the columnist can ignore the specifics and merely whine about how all he wanted was a little fairness, but the crazy dogmatists just won't give him a break. It's a common script.


More like this

The pathetic thing is that it's the same old tripe. Emily Yoffe writes "Gloom and Doom in A Sunny Day" and rehashes the same tired old anti-GW tripe. We start with the use of an idiotic example of misunderstanding climate change to mock global warming: It was a mild January evening, and people…
Below is a listing of all the articles to be found in the "How to Talk to a Climate Sceptic" guide, presented as a handy one-stop shop for all the material you should need to rebut the more common anti-global warming science arguments constantly echoed across the internet. In what I hope is an…
My first reaction to the papier du jour among climate communications activists was "meh." It's not that Chris Mooney's latest ruminations on the gap between what the public thinks about scientific issues and what scientists have to say isn't worth reading. It's just that we've been down this road…
About a month ago I asked if denialism is truly more frequent on the right or is it that the issues of the day are ones that are more likely to be targets of right wing denialism? After all, one can think of slightly more left wing sources of denialism like GMO paranoia, 9/11 conspiracies, altie-…

I thought her column was an incomprehensible mess but I didn't take away from it that she was bashing scientists. I took away from it that she was bashing celebrities and fear mongering. Climate change is the liberals terrorism. Like conservatives talking about the "war on terror" - liberals talk about climate change as the sky is falling (no pun intended) and everything will end tomorrow if we don't make massive changes to our lives.

I find it just plain common sense that paving the entire state of Arizona -will- have an effect on our climate and will cause us problems. The extent of those problems and what to do about them have been poorly communicated in the press (which I believe is your point). I know people who are convinced that Florida will be under water in 10 years. Common sense is missing from the debate.


Perhaps you're right. But I think the remark about the hubris involved in climate models and her overly facile dismissal of them (as shown in the first quote above) justify my comments.

Polar cities in the far distant future to house remnants of humankind
who survive the apocalypse of devastating global warming? The casual
reader might think I am an alarmist or a mere scare-monger, but I am
neither. I am a visionary.

Polar cities are proposed sustainable polar retreats designed to house
human beings in the future, in the event that global warming causes
the central and middle regions of the Earth to become uninhabitable
for a long period of time. Although they have not been built yet, some
futurists have been giving considerable thought to the concepts

I know, I know, the very thought of "polar cities" sounds like some
science-fiction movie you don't want to see. But it might be
instructive to think about such sustainable Artic and Antartic
communities for the future of humankind. If worse come to worse, and
things fall apart, perhaps by the year 2500 or the year 3000, we must
might need polar cities. And perhaps the time to start thinking about
them, and designing and planning them (and maybe even building, or
pre-building them), is now.

Here is more food for thought, from an entry in Wikipedia:
"High-population-density cities, to be built in the polar regions,
with sustainable energy and transportation infrastructures, will
require substantial nearby agriculture. Boreal soils are largely poor
in key nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, but nitrogen-fixing
plants (such as the various alders in the Artic region) with the
proper symbiotic microbes and mycorrhizal fungi can likely remedy such
poverty without the need for petroleum-derived fertilizers. Regional
probiotic soil improvement should perhaps rank high on any polar
cities priority list. James Lovelock's notion of a widely distributed
almanac of science knowledge and post-industrial survival skills also
appears to have value."

Oh, I know it's fashionable to mock global warming alarmists and doom
and gloom futurists with no credentials except a keyboard and a blog,
but there's a method to the madness of thinking about polar cities.
Maybe, just maybe, if enough people hear about the concept of polar
cities and realize how serious such a possibility is, maybe, just
maybe, they will get off their tuches and start thinking hard and fast
about how we humans are causing climate change by our lifestyles and
inventions and gadgets and need for cars and airplanes and trains and
ships and factories and coal-burning plants across the globe -- and
then maybe it won't be fashionable to mock global warming alarmists

The future does not look good. But we can do something now. No, not
building polar cities now. That's for the future to decide. What we
can do now is stop what we are doing now and start planning in a more
sane way for the future of the species. If we even care. I do. We must
stop all human acitivity that is responsible for emitting carbon
dioxide into the Earth's atmosphere. Now. It's getting later earlier
and earlier, I tell you.

"Climate change is the liberals terrorism. Like conservatives talking about the "war on terror" - liberals talk about climate change as the sky is falling (no pun intended) and everything will end tomorrow if we don't make massive changes to our lives."

Likewise, if any liberal were actually suggesting that we do absolutely nothing in response to genuine cases of terrorism against the U.S. or it's legitimate interests, they'd be equally crazy. There is a whole world of possible responses to a given occurrence between outright alarmism and head in the sand denialism.

I know people who are convinced that Florida will be under water in 10 years.

It was Al Gore and climate scientists that Yoffe specifically accused of alarmism. Not just some liberal on the street.
Neither climate Scientists nor Al Gore believe 'Florida will be under water in 10 years' .
That's where the dishonesty of her editorial shines through; she gives the impression that she is familiar with what Al Gore has said, and what climate scientists have said, and then pretends they an inescapable apocalypse.
If Yoffe had written 'The evidence does not support an apocalypse, does not support the idea that no global warming can be avoided, and does not support a climate catastrophe in the near future.' , she would have been entirely correct, and neither Mooney nor Rosenhouse would have written their replies.

Danny Bee, if you're going to go around promoting polar cities, you might at least want to learn to spell the names of those zones correctly: arctic and antarctic.

~David D.G.

By David D.G. (not verified) on 28 Jun 2007 #permalink

David DG,
Thanks. My keyboard didn't have a C this afternoon. Now it does. But thanks for correction. I am two finger hunt and peck typist, often do that. Didn't mean to. You are right. Thanks


Yoffe should stick to love advice. Gore is not an alarmist.

Everyone here should take another look at the disaster from multiple tropical cyclones in the north Indian ocean. The situation there is unprecedented. In all of modern history there has never been a string of tropical cyclones this intense.

The extremely high heat content of the ocean is supporting these tropical storms. The high oceanic heat content is caused by a combination of a weak La Nina and global warming.

I want to highlight something you said. A minor point in a way, but something I've been maniacal about at ScienceBlogs. It's Right Wing, Inc's technology again hidden in plain sight.

But by poking a thumb in the eye of scientists, by taking the faux-balanced view that global warming is a concern but maybe those smarty-pants scientists need a dose of horse sense . . .who argue for teaching ID on the grounds of fairness and balance . . .

Only reportage falls under the "fairness and balance" rubric. ScienceBloggers and audience calculate editorial content with the consideration and detail you show here. But to most readers, after putting the paper down, it's one big memory of "news". Reporters' political coverage has probably changed a relatively small amount over the last 20 years. Look at columnists over the same time period, however, I bet the change is obvious and dramatic.

This is a process manipulation by the far right. Somebody has carefully analyzed how the media works and devised ways to leverage that knowledge to slip by gatekeepers and audience. They've had their way spreading propaganda and lies as news media columnists, who aren't fact-bound like reporters. This type of process manipulation is well-researched, well thought-out, and expertly executed.

I've seen multiple mentions that via research they discovered book outlets the NYT polled for its bestseller listings. When their own franchisees were published, thousands of copies were purchased from these outlets very early after a title's release. This popped the book up in front of the nation, and the buzz took it from there.

Well-researched, well thought-out, and expertly executed. Just look at the global warming skeptics campaign.

By SkookumPlanet (not verified) on 02 Jul 2007 #permalink

If you want to reduce your carbon footprint become a vegan.

It's easy. Probably moral, and actually inexpensive.

And your farts will smell better.

Oli the Goose.

By Mystic Olly (not verified) on 02 Jul 2007 #permalink

This particular case is just one example of a multitude, and the fact that it deals with science is just happenstance. It's symptomatic of the real problem, which is that "journalists are, as a group, the most poorly educated of all professionals." The quote is from me, and I quote it because I say it every time some idiot journalist writes some idiotic piece about a subject about which that journalist knows nothing. And the range of subjects about which journalists know nothing is wide, indeed.