2011-07-23 09:01:09Faye Flam on the Challenge of Climate Reporting


Guest Post: Faye Flam on the Challenge of Climate Reporting

by Mark

Over the last few months I have had the pleasure of discussing science and science journalism with Faye Flam, who covers science for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Faye reports on all kinds of science, and a number of other topics, as you can read about on her web site. But most recently she has put a great deal of work into covering climate change; even interviewing Michael Mann, who will be visiting us at Penn for a physics colloquium in just a couple of weeks. And she has found it enough of a challenge that she has chosen to write about it as a (first of several, I hope) guest post.

This is a hot topic, as we all know, and I’m hoping we get a thoughtful and respectful discussion in the comments. Nevertheless, this might be a good place to remind people that we’ll generally delete comments that are off topic or offensive.

Now, here’s Faye.

There must be some redeeming lesson to come from covering the so-called climate gate scandal that’s dragged on over the last two months. Member of the public actually care about science. They’re even passionate about it. But when that happens it’s not always pretty.

Never in my 14 years as a newspaper science writer have I found myself on the receiving end of such a powerful stream of hate mail – searing bombs of name-calling that get fired into my personal and work inboxes, as well as screaming, profanity-laced screeds landing in my voice mail. There’s much gloating about the downfall of newspapers and speculation that soon I’ll perish on the streets, begging for pennies.

I even got my first death threat following this story. It was the first of three stories I wrote on this topic for the Philadelphia Inquirer after a cache of e-mail messages were stolen from some prominent climate scientists and picked over by their worst enemies for signs of malfeasance.

Many member of the public are raging at me for failing to point out what they see as an inexcusable case of scientific fraud. For them, there’s no distinction between committing fraud and being wrong. That might worry some members of the scientific community.

I wasn’t ordered to write anything on this issue. During the same period I also wrote a nice story about the Hubble Telescope, and one about heroic cancer researchers. I could easily have skipped this whole mess and written other nice stories – on Kepler, or maybe LHC. People always like stories about planets and particles.

But instead, I returned from Thanksgiving vacation to write this quick overview, followed by the more offbeat Q and A story linked above.

Then, in a fit of masochism, I decided to profile one of the scientists involved – Michael Mann – because he works nearby at Penn State University. That gave the whole thing a local angle.

Mann’s work has been scrutinized for years, after a researcher in Canada pointed out a possible statistical flaw in some climate reconstructions done in the 1990s. That eventually led to an investigation by a National Academy panel. They concluded that Mann’s initial papers weren’t perfect but the general conclusions held up, and there was no evidence of fraud.

In other areas of science, the public can be more tolerant. Back in the 1990s, people were in some disagreement about the age of the universe. When new information came in, some were shown to be off be a few billions years, give or take, but they didn’t get carted off to Siberia.

Others had wrong ideas about the shape and fate of the universe, since nobody back then thought it was accelerating. That’s the beauty of science. It’s self-correcting – though sometimes the corrections can take a while.

The other lesson here is that many people don’t understand the role of uncertainty in science. There is uncertainty over the way water vapor changes the situation, for example, with most experts saying it will create a positive feedback but a few arguing for a negative one.

And still, some people write to inform me that the science is “settled.” These critics are not sure what’s settled but they’ve heard this and seem to think it’s important to repeat.

Others recognize the uncertainty in climate science and find it appalling. That’s particularly true of engineers, who seem pretty well-represented among self-proclaimed global warming skeptics. It’s a level of uncertainty that would never fly in modeling systems for chemical refineries, or so they tell me.

One MIT-trained engineer said his own calculations prove that the climate models can’t work because, in short: “junk in equals junk out”. It would make for a great story if a local guy who worked for a chemical refinery took down the whole climate science establishment on the back of an envelope. Unfortunately, I have to consider the possibility that he hasn’t.

The global warming skeptics also love to use the term “AGW theory”. This proved a great strategy for debating because the scientists don’t really refer to anthropogenic global warming as a theory, and many aren’t sure what AGW theory means. That gives the critics the freedom to say it means that only humans can influence the climate – and that the climate never changed at all before humans hit the scene. Then they can point to this untenable position and say, “ha ha – aren’t these scientists dumb!”

Coming from the more liberal side of things, a reader suggested that even if some fatal flaw crops up in both the climate models and the climate reconstructions, and the world does plunge into a protracted global cold spell, the scientists who had done the original work shouldn’t necessarily be thrown in prison or burned at the stake.

It might seem strange, even insane, for the public to base views of the carbon cycle and water vapor feedbacks on politics. Is it a problem of science illiteracy? I don’t think so. We could all be better educated about basic physics and chemistry and this debate would still play out the same way.

It all makes more sense, though, in light of the way differing political philosophies tolerate uncertainty – whether they’re considering government-funded scientists delivering uncertainty or the prospect of policy changes based on uncertain science. How much should we know before we start conserving energy? Classify CO2 as a pollutant? Submitting to international regulations? The best we can do as scientists and science writers is respect those political differences, state what’s known as clearly as possible, and be honest about what’s not known. People will still hate us, of course. There’s no way to escape that.