Upstream/Downstream: Why The NY Times Should Understand the Nature of Inconvenient Truths

My quick summary reaction to Bill Broad's provocative NY Times article surveying a few scientists and social scientists' opinions on Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth:

1) Just like in politics generally, science-related blogs can strongly shape the news agenda and framing of an issue, and Broad's article is a leading example. Roger Pielke and Kevin Vranes at UColorado's Prometheus site have been doing a great job in adding their expertise and views to the climate change discussion over the past few years. In the process, they have emerged as a valuable source for journalists trying to make sense of new studies, policy debates, or just trying to tap into what expert thinking might be. (See especially Vranes' insight here.)

Blogs are powerful because everyone's a cognitive miser, including journalists, policymakers, and even scientists. The availability and accessibility of a few key experts is often a primary influence on the interpretation of expert knowledge. Indeed, blogs create a desktop accessible convenience sample of expertise online.

2) From experience, Bill Broad and the science editors at the Times know all too well what kind of reactions popularized "inconvenient truths" can generate from scientists and policymakers alike. As sociologist Steve Hilgartner describes in a well cited paper from the early 1990s, as scientific information shifts from upstream contexts such as conference presentations and journal articles to downstream contexts such as blogs, press releases, news articles, and major motion pictures, distortion is inevitable. Indeed, there's a long history of scientists unhappy with outstanding science reporting at the NY Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and other elite news outlets.

In these cases, it's because scientists want to see the scientific topic described in news coverage or a documentary film as it is described in journal articles and conference presentations. The problem is that in popularized downstream contexts, neither the medium nor the audience allows for a technical portrayal, especially when you are talking about a heavily dramatized format such as film.

On this matter, what I perceive as the take home messages from the article are captured in quotes from NASA's James Hansen, a reaction from Gore, and from Princeton's Michael Oppenheimer:

--"We need to be more careful in describing the hurricane story than he is," Dr. Hansen said of Mr. Gore. "On the other hand," Dr. Hansen said, "he has the bottom line right: most storms, at least those driven by the latent heat of vaporization, will tend to be stronger, or have the potential to be stronger, in a warmer climate."

--In his e-mail message, Mr. Gore defended his work as fundamentally accurate. "Of course," he said, "there will always be questions around the edges of the science, and we have to rely upon the scientific community to continue to ask and to challenge and to answer those questions."

--Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton who advised Mr. Gore on the book and movie, said that reasonable scientists disagreed on the malaria issue and other points that the critics had raised. In general, he said, Mr. Gore had distinguished himself for integrity. "On balance, he did quite well -- a credible and entertaining job on a difficult subject," Dr. Oppenheimer said. "For that, he deserves a lot of credit. If you rake him over the coals, you're going to find people who disagree. But in terms of the big picture, he got it right."

3) What get's Gore in trouble, and a lot of environmentalists, is the continued heavy promotion of the Pandora's Box frame on global warming. Or as Ellen Goodman describes the narrative, "This is your earth. This is your earth on greenhouse gases." As I've written elsewhere, this framing device offers decreasing returns. It has activated and engaged a key demographic segment of the public, while a strong majority of the public tunes it out. In the process, the drama and urgency embedded in the narrative opens up people like Gore to claims of "alarmism." We need to move beyond the Pandora's box frame, and figure out how to package the old story of climate change in new ways. Remaining true to the science, while engaging new segments of the public.

Blog Roundup

--Over at the influential RealClimate, they refer to the Times piece as "Broadly misleading," over-relying on a handful of skeptics:

In this piece, Broad attempts to discredit Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" by exaggerating the legitimate, but minor, criticisms of his treatment of the science by experts on climate science, and presenting specious or unsubstantiated criticisms by a small number of the usual, well-known contrarians who wouldn't agree even if Gore read aloud from the latest IPCC report.

--End of Science author John Horgan notes a perceived contradiction between the reporting of the Tiimes' Andrew Revkin (I'm a major fan) and that of Bill Broad:

What fascinates me about Broad's stories is that they seemed to at least implicitly contradict the view of global warming purveyed by his Times colleague Andrew Revkin

--My friend and sometime co-author Chris Mooney weighs in with a preview of his criticism of Gore featured in his forthcoming Storm World, a book on the science and politics of hurricanes: question as a point of strategy has always been: Why include the 1 to 5 percent of more questionable stuff, and so leave onself open to this kind of attack? Given how incredibly smart and talented Al Gore is, didn't he see this coming?


More like this

Interesting, Matt, that what you dfirst called an "excellent article" is now a "provocative" one. When did that happen and why? Does this fall within the category of "typographical" and other chages that merit no editorial note?

Just curious about your policies so I know how seriously to take what you write.

Ugh..So which one of you guys is right! Talk about muddying the waters..

By Greg Kucharo (not verified) on 14 Mar 2007 #permalink

Matthew -

I agree that the parts of the article you cite were excellent. The comments from Hansen, Oppenheimer, Pielke and Vranes were useful.

My difficulty was that he failed to achieve what he suggested at the outset was his goal. He offers up the idea of "rank and file scientists" questioning the film, but then relied on a people who do not fit that label. I very much wanted to hear from these rank and file scientists. Carter, Peiser or Lindzen are of a particular stripe on this issue that I would not describe as "rank and file".

Sorry, but I'm afraid you'll have to clean your eyeglasses a bit if you really view Broad's quotes of Hansen and Oppenheimer as "the take home messages" from the article. Precisely to undermine the credibility of whatever Hansen and Oppenheimer might have to say, Broad has taken pains to show both as being important advisers to Gore, and thus interested in defending him (and themselves).

Broad cleverly takes this further by specifically noting that even these two advisers have criticisms of Gore - with the implication being that if these two "interested" scientists have criticisms, then they're barely scratching the surface - just think how much criticism scientists not partial to Gore would have!

Matt, it's interesting how you, John Fleck and Chris Mooney all screwed this up to some degree. First, there was passing over RP Jr.'s up-front absurd comment about Gore being polarizing *in the science community*. Then there was failing to take the excruciatingly obvious step of googling Broad's poster boy Don Easterbrook, who it turns out is a proponent of one of the wackier solar hypotheses (and so does indeed have a problem with Gore, but one that isn't especially distinguishable from his problem with the IPCC, the AGU, the AAAS, the NAS, etc. etc.). Note all the trouble to which Broad went to establish Easterbrook's bona fides (rank-and-file, not a Republican, not in the pay of the oil industry). On that last disclaimer, BTW, Pat Michaels taught me to be aware that the segment of the fossil fuel industry that has the most to lose is not the oil industry, so there's another red flag (although I have no particular reason to suspect that Easterbrook is in the pay of the coal industry).

By Steve Bloom (not verified) on 21 Mar 2007 #permalink