Monday, November 08, 2010

Climate blogs, cable news and some inconvenient truths

There is a storm brewing in the climate change world. Climate policy efforts are in disarray. There’s a chance that the Congress, energized by new leadership that questions the scientific evidence for climate change, will hold hearings to investigate scientific practices. Climate scientists are preparing to defend their field.

Will the climate blogs help mediate this coming debate? Or amplify it?

I began thinking about this after seeing highlights from the Rally to Restore Sanity. If there is one forum that needs some sanity restoration, it is the climate blogs (science and political ones). Blogs highlight the extremes of the other side. Bloggers call each other names. Bloggers get grandiose and self-righteous.

Yes, absolutely, you can blame the medium. It is impersonal. It is easy to be extreme when the opponent is a collection of pixels and text rather than a living, breathing person. Plus, blogging only works if you have readers. And more controversy equals more page views.

But add it all up, and what do you get?

Cable news. Steve McIntrye as Bill O'Reilly? Joe Romm as Keith Olbermann? Anthony Watts as Glenn Beck? (plus a lot of folks hoping to be Jon Stewart?)

Just as political pundits focus on political maneuvering rather than actual policy debates, many bloggers focus on bashing each other rather than discussing the issues. We do so because it appears that shouting is the best way to get heard. So just as cable news channels have trended towards the extremes and trumped-up scandals to capture the dwindling audience and dwindling advertising dollars, many bloggers end up focusing on the controversies rather than the consensus in part just to stay afloat in a crowded online sea.

If you write nice, reasoned posts, you are less likely to get a gang of dedicated readers. If you insult the skeptics or question the scientists, the readers will come. Michael Tobis has been caught up recently; he wrote a very reasoned critique of misguided uncertainty discussion by another blogger – but it was the vitriol at the end that drew all the attention. The personalities become the subject. The medium becomes the... ok, a Canadian can never get far into a media conversation without quoting Marshall McLuhan. No particular person is to blame for the dynamic and no one is entirely immune. I’ve fallen in myself on a number of occasions.

The question we have to ask is this:

What do we hope to accomplish by blogging? Do we want to play “inside baseball”, or do we want more people to pay attention to the game? I may be wrong, but I’d guess that most of the science bloggers began their blog with an aim to educate people about climate change and to foster discussion on science and policy. Sure, there's some subconscious pleas for attention and what not at work, but I'll trust that bloggers of every stripe honestly believed their blog would improve the public discussion.

Is it working? I'd argue that the escalation of tone is not expanding the conservation conversation [thanks John!] on climate change. Everyone in the room is just shouting louder at each other. There’s no better way to alienate the broader public.

Behind the name calling and vitriol lies some neglected, one might even say inconvenient, truths.

You can think climate “skeptics” (or “alarmists”) are wrong, without thinking they are evil and/or in it for the money.

You can deconstruct an argument, without abusing the source.

You can trust the scientific consensus, but not be an alarmist.

You can agree with many of Joe Romm’s arguments, but disagree with his abrasive style.

You can disagree with Roger Pielke Jr. or Judith Curry most of the time, but agree with them sometimes.

You can know that the East Anglia e-mails have zero impact on the science of climate change and did not warrant one percent of the media coverage, but still be irritated with some of the scientists involved for the tone they used in a few of the messages.

You can agree with public statements by climate scientists about climate action, but think they are the wrong people to make such statements.

You can agree with the findings of a new study, but disagree that the findings are worthy of publicity.

You can trust the scientific consensus on climate change, but not believe that action is necessary. That may not be my personal judgment on the matter but I accept that the decision on climate action is about more than science.

And, yes, you can disagree with this post (and claim I've set up a straw blogger), but still give it some thought.

19 comments:

Kate said...

Great post, Simon. Something of which everyone needs reminding at times. I think I will use the power of Windows sticky notes to pin quotes from those last few paragraphs to my desktop.

ourchangingclimate said...

Excellent post, and I wholeheartedly agree.

Bart

AMac said...

Simon, you wrote --

"Michael Tobis has been caught up recently; he wrote a very reasoned critique of misguided uncertainty discussion by another blogger – but it was the vitriol at the end that drew all the attention."

I have italicized the passive constructions in that passage, and bolded the active ones.

What did Tobis do? He wrote a very reasoned critique.

What "just happened"? He was caught up; vitriol appeared; attention was drawn.

This is a pleasant account but not a particularly accurate one.

Tobis wrote the vitriol and snark -- note the active voice -- because that's what he wanted to write. He didn't apologize for this decision, he justified it, even to the extent of alluding to comparisons of his suffering to that of a noted religious figure.

Michael Tobis invited a reaction to his post, and he got it.

There was also much reasoned discussion of Curry's Italian Flag Analogy, most of it critical. That discussion was no thanks to Michael Tobis.

The kerfluffle was at OIIFTG, then at Collide-a-scape and Curry's blog; easily googled.

steven said...

Nice.

As I've said.

1. AGW is true and Mann made some mistakes.
2. AGW is true and it was wrong for Jones to ask Mann to delete mails.
3. AGW is true and it was inappropriate the hide the decline, especially when a reviwer asked that it be shown.
4. AGW is true and well you get the idea.

Finally, MT piece on Judith was neither well reasoned nor well written. "Judith Curry, born beyond the shark?" seriously, here argument was flawed and confusing, but she is not congenitally stupid

Simon D said...

Amac -

At issue in this post is the vitriol. The example is by no means a defense of the blogger. Rather it is pointing out that "snark" and personality analysis draws much attention. It is just one example of a loud, divisive online culture, there are many more.

The take home message is that given coming political battles over climate change, bloggers should be mindful of a further escalation in tone.

Christian Hunt said...

Simon -

Nice post and some good points. Do you have examples of blogs that you think work well for the purposes of advancing understanding and debate around this issue, and are also growing their audience successfully?

Simon D said...

Christian - I'd say people like Bob Grumbine seem to stay out of the cable news-ish blog wars. The extent to which they successful advance understanding is extremely difficult to gauge.

Who do you think has the most impact?

It is important to note that the problem here is the culture of blogging. A new blogger may start off the intention of discussing science, and over time get sucked into he said-she said shouting match. Some of the most bombastic blogs still do include some reasoned posts that help advance understanding. And some of the bloggers who try to focus on advancing understanding get drawn into the fray on occasion.

John Mashey said...

Good post.
One nit:
"I'd argue that the escalation of tone is not expanding the conservation on climate change."

I don't think you meant "conservation," but in an odd sense it might be true as well.

Neven said...

1. AGW is true and Mann made some mistakes.
2. AGW is true and it was wrong for Jones to ask Mann to delete mails.
3. AGW is true and it was inappropriate the hide the decline, especially when a reviwer asked that it be shown.


But you decided to write a book about the latter parts of 1, 2 and 3. Bravo. What's next? A biography of Michael Jackson's nose?

Go pull and delay legs somewhere else, Mr Mosher. Write a book about AGW being true.

----

On some days I totally agree with what you wrote, Simon. On other days - such as this one - the hypocrisy and lying becomes a bit too much. This is a serious issue, unlike evolution or big bang theory. Otherwise I'd agree with you every day.

Everyone has a role to play in this whole debate. You have the good cops (Bart Verheggen, Michael Tobis) and the bad cops (Eli Rabett, Tim Lambert). You have the smart fellers who can't stand too much BS (Tamino, Stoat) and you have guys who just keep pounding and firing (Romm).

On the other side you have serious skeptics (Zorita and Von Storch), and you have a lot of liars (Watts, Singer, Monckton) and hypocrites (Mosher, McIntyre).

Everyone plays his role. It has to be like that.

willard said...

Michael Tobis was not "alluding to comparisons of his suffering to that of a noted religious figure."

I was, for the sake of a pun, in the context of a published chat:

http://initforthegold.blogspot.com/2010/10/willard-on-curry.html

It's quite clear that Dr. Tobis believes that Dr. Curry has been acting irresponsibly, so he did something he thought he had to do.

It's also quite clear that Dr. Tobis showed regrets as soon as he wrote it. Here is a place among many where he publicly and explicitely says so:

> I am a bit uncomfortable with what I said; it’s certainly outside scientific or rhetorical norms. By moving beyond the merely technical issues and being frank and public with my honest and none too flattering impression, it seems I have uncorked a lot of frustration with Dr. Curry’s pattern of cavalier and unfounded assertions in matters both scientific and metascientific.

Source: http://www.collide-a-scape.com/2010/11/04/dueling-climate-narratives/comment-page-2/#comment-26012

(Also note Boris' comment in #60 and AMac's answer to it in #61.)

It is true that Dr. Tobis has not apologized. It is also true that Dr. Curry has yet to correct her formal model, allegedly based on evidential-based reasoning spiced up with some fuzzy logic.

That bloggers are not the only one who are amplifying stuff in blogs should not be far from the truth either.

Anonymous said...

Neven,

At FARK last night there was a discussion of a Texas execution -- the evidence they convicted the guy on and executed him on was a hair that DNA evidence later showed was not his.

They guy was definitely either the murderer or an accomplice. But the Prosecutor worked for years, until the prosecutor died actually, to keep the hair from being tested.

So lots of FARKers wrote their posts on:

1. The death penalty is wrong
2. The death penalty is unfairly applied
3. That the justice system works fairly, and with justice, not just due process for all is important.
4. That how scientists report their findings, and behave professionally, and treat the public is important, especially as they demand public funds, and lobby for large scale changes of societal behavior, and lobby for new taxes, and create new industries.

Other FARKers just said the guy who was executed by the state based on bad evidence and a bad process and a bad prosecutor was root(2)/2 murder and 100% bad guy, so they weren't going to worry about the technicalities.

HTH

Simon D said...

Neven - Absolutely, this is a serious issue. That's why we need to talk about it responsibly. I'll repeat again. It is possible to trust the scientific evidence but not conclude we need to take action. I don't take that view, but I recognize that is possible. It depends, upon other things, on how much a person discounts the future (because the impacts of today's activities will not be realized today).

By jamming "the science says we need to do X" down people's throats, we lead them to question the science if they are uncomfortable with X. It is much clearer to say "the science says X and in my judgment we need to take action to avoid X".

Steve Bloom said...

People who discount the future too much cross an ethical line.

Also, I am mystified as to how it's OK to be in any degree judgemental about private (stolen) emails that weren't meant for you. It's practically un-Canadian IMHO.

Simon D said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Simon D said...

Steve,

The point is these are all issues upon which there can be legitimate disagreement. Ethics and the discount rate vary between cultures. On the emails, absolutely, we have to condemn (thanks John!) the theft. But do people have a legitimate reason to be disappointed in the language used in some messages? Sure. A lot of us don't speak of people that way even in our private emails, - it would be un-Canadian, eh.

Reed Aronow said...

Very well said,

It is incredibly important that climate scientists and those working to slow down climate change maintain respect and not become ideological or bombastic, even if we have an enormous amount of evidence to back us up.

It is incredibly important that liberals working to promote climate and clean energy legislation be able to communicate with conservatives and moderates, because these are issues that effect all of it, and let's face it, conservation should be a Republican value.

Sincerely,
Reed Aronow
SustainUS U.S. Youth Delegate to COP16

Chris Winter said...

Simon Donner wrote (numbers added):

"Behind the name calling and vitriol lie some neglected, one might even say inconvenient, truths.

1. You can think climate “skeptics” (or “alarmists”) are wrong, without thinking they are evil and/or in it for the money.

2. You can deconstruct an argument, without abusing the source."


Both true.

"3. You can trust the scientific consensus, but not be an alarmist."

I'm not sure that's true. Certainly it's true that those who say they trust the scientific consensus will be called alarmists by some.

"4. You can agree with many of Joe Romm’s arguments, but disagree with his abrasive style."

I probably disagree with his arguments more often than I find his style too harsh. We disagree on nuclear power, for example.

"5. You can disagree with Roger Pielke Jr. or Judith Curry most of the time, but agree with them sometimes."

"6. You can know that the East Anglia e-mails have zero impact on the science of climate change and did not warrant one percent of the media coverage, but still be irritated with some of the scientists involved for the tone they used in a few of the messages."

"7. You can agree with public statements by climate scientists about climate action, but think they are the wrong people to make such statements."

"8. You can agree with the findings of a new study, but disagree that the findings are worthy of publicity."

Those four are true.

"9. You can trust the scientific consensus on climate change, but not believe that action is necessary. That may not be my personal judgment on the matter but I accept that the decision on climate action is about more than science."


If this means "no action at all," then I cannot accept it. As I often put it, "We don't need a crash program. We do need a program." We should be doing the easy things right now, like helping people weatherize their homes, like pushing appliance efficiency and CAFE standards upwards, like getting businesses to turn off their PCs overnight.

EliRabett said...

"2. You can deconstruct an argument, without abusing the source."

Well surely for an argument offered once, maybe even twice, but the evil just comes out for multiple repeat offenders. Indeed, this is the issue.

BTW, Eli does not think of himself as a bad cop, but more as a lovable bunny. Opinions differ

GreenHearted said...

I like you, Eli, and I've never even met you!

I think Eli makes a good point ... how long do we have to be nice to those who fabricate before the public will catch on to the fact that they're fabricating? Or that they just don't care about the future of our children? I think it takes a bit of vitriol to wake people up.

But as a fellow Canadian, I know that we cringe when someone "isn't nice" (even to someone who deserves it) - so even our vitriol has to be nice!

Anyway, in my blog, I've tried to stay focused on compassion for those who are most vulnerable to climate disruption, but sometimes I just have to rant. And I'm someone who's really nice! (Because nobody can really argue with compassion, the worst reaction I've received is that I'm an eco-weenie who cares too much. ;-)