Romm on Boykoff on the Media on the “Controversy” Over Climage Change

I liked Joe Romm’s item on Max Boykoff’s presentation at the AAAS meeting in San Diego last week (Exaggerating Denialism: Media Representations of Outlier Views on Climate Change). In particular, I liked this graph of Boykoff’s, because I think it sums up a key problem with how the media has been covering this issue:


Despite the high-profile complaining about the Himalayan-glaciers misstatement, the IPCC’s estimates of the likely impacts of global warming apparently are viewed by most experts in the field as actually being fairly conservative. (In the scientific sense, not the political sense. I.e., the IPCC is tending to be cautious in predicting how severe the impacts of global warming are likely to be.) The main story I’ve been hearing from those who keep close tabs on the actual scientists is that they’ve been freaking out over the last few years because as they get more data, they’re finding that far from overstating the dangers we face, previous estimates look more and more like they have been understating the danger.

But you wouldn’t know that from reading mainstream media coverage. Business-as-usual reporting, as successfully gamed by the fossil-fuel industry and their minions among high-profile conservatives, has focused on the controversy between the deniers on the one hand, and the already-fudged-in-the-direction-of-less-dire-outcomes IPCC estimates. The implication of that reporting is, “There are two sides, two points of view. One side says A, the other says B; the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.”

But that’s not how science works. If you’re a reporter covering science, you need to focus on what the scientists are saying. And that’s a very different picture (as Boykoff’s graph shows) than the one you get from assuming that the truth must lie somewhere between James Inhofe and the IPCC.

4 Responses to “Romm on Boykoff on the Media on the “Controversy” Over Climage Change”

  1. knarlyknight Says:

    Nice graph.
    Meaning that confirms my belief on climate change reporting too.

    It’s true. I know it is, look how smooth and aesthetically asymetrical it is with its big bell curve and baby bell curve on the left. Well, hell yea smoothing is a perfectly acceptable statistical tool, but what about “caveat emptor” jbc?

    Got a sec for a few questions, because it is not clear from the material linked:

    Is the graph simply illustrative or is it acually a collection of varifiable data points that is now subject to a peer review processs as a consequence of this talk/presentation? ( I’m wondering if the graph is a real science based result or just fancy-Phd-big-city-folk talk masquerading as science.)

    Why are there no numbers on the y-axis? (I’m wondering how large was the data set used to construct the graph, assuming it wasn’t just a back of the envelope illustration done over at shcb’s house.)

    Why is the number of “frequently cited ‘contrarian scientists'” apparently zero? (I’m wondering if that means the press frequently cites no scientists as being contrarian, or whether he’s sayign there are no contrarian scientists, or whether he just had one too many Jack Daniels with shcb while making up the graph.)

    That said, it really is a nice graph and the referenced article does a nice job of critiquing the press.

    It’s a far cry from these old studies, my we’ve come a long way from the Asch experiments:

  2. jbc Says:

    I wondered the same thing about the frequently-cited contrarian scientists part of the graph being so low.

    I’ve only been able to find the abstract that I linked to. My guess is that the graph is not based on actual quantified data, but is, as you say, simply illustrative. It’s an interesting window, still, into what climate scientists are thinking and talking about as they grapple with the reality that the work they do, which has such important implications for large-scale policy decisions, is being so effectively misrepresented and manipulated by those with a short-term financial stake in denialism. You can see these scientists, who are used to analyzing complex and hard-to-characterize climate phenomena, applying the same sorts of tools to another complex and hard-to-characterize phenomenon: disinformation, media manipulation, and mass perception.

    My suspicion is that they (the climate scientists) are and will remain over their heads when it comes to dealing with the professional liars who are currently beating them up and taking their lunch money. Convincing the general public that a particular proposition is true is more about salesmanship than science.

  3. jlt Says:

    On the whole I agree; however, jbc, I don’t accept your last sentence: “Convincing the general public that a particular proposition is true is more about salesmanship than science” as I think it sells short our fellow citizens.

    People instinctively understand that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, and believers in anthropogenic global warming are asking everyone to undertake a project of tremendous disruption and cost. People are used to seeing expensive scientific projects result in tangible outcomes: a footprint on the Moon, medicines, photos of faraway galaxies, a large…round…thing… in Switzerland, even if they don’t really follow the science. It’s actually quite remarkable how willing taxpayers have been to support science to the degree that they do. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask that a project of this cost should at least have the appearance of unanimity in the scientific community, especially when many individuals don’t think they have personally seen any tangible AGW effects.

    Unfortunately, and here I totally agree with you, deniers have blown up the smallest defect or disagreement into the appearance of significant uncertainty and dissent. But how has this succeeded? There are moon-footprint deniers, but they are laughed at. Why are AGW deniers taken more seriously? It isn’t that The Press have decided to play up this controversy; The Press really are writing about what they find. They write about studies, and they write about reactions. There’s nothing they love more than unmasking professional liars, so they will. It doesn’t help that some scientists have behaved badly in emails they never thought would become public, but that is not enough to explain the doubt. Just as good scientific evidence is beginning to overwhelm even the loudest deniers of the anti-vaccination movement, it can overwhelm the AGW deniers, but in the mean time AGW believers have to realize that even though they feel the evidence is unquestionably sufficient… it simply is not yet sufficient to convince people to undertake a project of this magnitude. Climate scientists have to keep working, studying and publishing. I understand all the reasons for thinking we are near a tipping point, and it is frustrating not to have the necessary universal support, but it’s just going to take even more time and even more evidence. So it really is about the science; salesmanship helps but having more science is essential.

  4. shcb Says:

    But you see it’s not just what the emails say, it is what was done. It would be one thing if they said they would destroy the data before they would comply with Freedom of Information Acts and then produce the data after those requests were filed, but they stonewalled for two years and then “lost” some of the data! If a drug company went in front of Congress and said that the drug in question was safe because their scientists said it was safe but, oh yeah, we lost the data from those experiments, you’ll just have to trust us, would anyone?

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.