Pages Menu
Categories Menu

Posted by on Dec 6, 2009 in Media, Science & Technology | 58 comments

The Gray Lady’s Non-Defense of their Climategate Coverage

smokestacks.jpgThe New York Times’ Public Editor, Clark Hoyt, has published a much needed, but strangely unsatisfying and contradictory explanation of his newspaper’s coverage (or lack thereof) of the hacked climategate e-mails from the University of East Anglia. Much of his response focuses on answering charges that Times reporter Andrew Revkin was “too cozy” with some of the climate scientists in question when reporting on man’s influence on global warming trends. But in the course of making this argument, Hoyt highlights one tidbit from the emails which should have received a lot more attention.

I read all the messages involving Revkin, and I did not see anything to keep him off the story. If anything, there was an indication that the scientists whom some readers accused Revkin of being too cozy with were wary of his independence. One, Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University, warned a colleague, Phil Jones, director of the Climatic Research Unit at East Anglia, to be careful what he shared with “Andy” because, “He’s not as predictable as we’d like.”

The Public Editor is using this warning from Dr. Mann as an indication that Andrew Revkin isn’t as biased and partisan as some readers suggest, but isn’t there a larger story contained in those last seven words? A scientist pushing the man-made global warming storyline is worried about a New York Times science reporter not being “reliable” enough for them? What that shows me is a scientist who is less interested in publishing his facts and conclusions than he is in winning a political, public opinion battle and his group’s ability to manipulate the media. I’ve seen plenty of concerns about reporters not being “as predictable” as some may like, but they usually come from political operatives trying to win a spin war in the beltway. This smacks of potentially disingenuous media savvy far more than science.

Hoyt does get around to addressing the meta-question related to their coverage, though, in the following introspective paragraph:

The biggest question is what the messages amount to — an embarrassing revelation that scientists can be petty and defensive and even cheat around the edges, or a major scandal that undercuts the scientific premise for global warming. The former is a story. The latter is a huge story. And the answer is tied up in complex science that is difficult even for experts to understand, and in politics in which passionate sides have been taken, sometimes regardless of the facts.

So which type of story is it? On our radio show yesterday, Cindy and I were discussing this very thing and one conclusion seemed clear. When it comes to the scientific method, much as with politics, there is a parallel between this debate and, for example, the beginning of the war in Iraq. Massive intelligence failures there led to incorrect conclusions regarding the facts on the ground. So, if somebody uses that faulty information as a basis for their decisions, were they “lying” or were they just “wrong?”

If climate scientists use a faulty model, collect some bad data, or make errors in their conclusions which they then reveal and account for, they may have just been “wrong.” And there’s no crime in being wrong about something. We’re all human and mistakes happen. That would be, as Hoyt put it, “a story.” But if you’ve collected a body of data which seems to contradict what you’ve been saying all along and you knowingly decide to discard that data and destroy the original test results to hide it, you’re no longer “just wrong.” You’re lying. And that, to quote Hoyt’s criteria, is “a huge story.”

Just to be clear yet again, I don’t count myself in the camp of the so called “skeptics” who say that global warming is a “hoax” or that it’s not happening or man has no influence on the atmosphere and the environment. We affect our world with every action we perform and every breath we take. And I absolutely believe that the planet was going through a warming period in the last half of the 20th century. Perhaps now the Earth is entering a slight cooling period which may or may not continue. I really couldn’t say for sure.

The one thing I am skeptical about is people (on either side) who claim that they do absolutely know all that needs to be known about such a vast and staggeringly complex system as our biosphere. I tend to discount the opinions of those who claim that “the debate is over” or “the science is settled” or “we’ve proven everything,” whether they are claiming that anthropogenic global warming is driving us off the rails or that it’s all a massive ponzi scheme by Al Gore. I think we’re still working on understanding it, as we should be, but clearly we have a lot left to learn. I also want human beings to live as cleanly as possible and disrupt the environment as little as can be managed, while not bankrupting ourselves in the process. But what the climategate story really means to me is that we’ve had some agents in the scientific community who have not been playing by the rules when it comes to the scientific method, and they do no service to either us or themselves if they try to twist a vitally important scientific process into a political parlor game.