Saturday, April 11, 2009

The media and scientific responsibility

Here are some long thoughts to chew on while Maribo's on hiatus the next few weeks. Comment moderation has been removed, so discuss away, and please play nice.

One of the challenges teaching about climate change is that the students are privilege to all the bad information available online and in other forms of media. Climate science is not unique in this sense; the 24-7 game of broken telephone known as the internet is a challenge for instructors of all sorts of scientific and non-scientific disciplines (just ask a psychology professor).

The science of climate change, however, unlike many but not all other subjects taught in universities, has been subject to organized and now well-documented disinformation campaigns by political groups, the oil and gas lobby, the coal industry, etc., what I call the skeptic industrial complex. It is hard for the uninformed reader to distinguish between the real science and the skeptics. Worse, it is hard for the uninformed reader to distinguish between reasonable and unreasonable skepticism - I'll come back to that.

The web of misinformation and disinformation poses a particular challenge when teaching about climate science and climate change to non-science students, as I do, because one cannot easily fall back on the scientific language of mathematics - the equations and the calculations best suited to check claims found in print and online. There's no one correct approach to this problem. Wary of leaving students hanging, wondering what they read online is reputable, and what is not, I try to make finding errors in the "climate news" a regular part of class.

There were no shortage of teachable moments the past few months, including the George Will fiasco at the Washington Post, the error-filled testimony by Will Happer before the US Congress, and the recent NY Times Magazine story about physicist Freeman Dyson's climate 'skepticism', many of which led to loud online debates. For the last assignment of this semester, my students critiqued one of Will's erroneous op-eds and a similar erroneous op-ed by the National Post's Lorne Gunter (for a little Canadian content). So the students did what anyone in a coffee shop with free wireless could do and what the editors of the two Posts did not do: they looked at the actual data and the original scientific reports.

Suffice to say, the students unanimously concluded that Will and Gunter's claims - that i) Arctic sea ice was not declining, ii) in the 1970s there were widespread scientific warnings about global cooling, and iii) global warming had "stopped" - were all wrong and should not have been published. The students also largely agreed with Chris Mooney's argument about the need to "learn to share some practices with scientists -- following up on sources, taking scientific knowledge seriously rather than cherry-picking misleading bits of information, and applying critical thinking to the weighing of evidence."

The point: Don't take skepticism sitting down. Use it.

Will's columns provided us with an amazing teachable moment. So much so, that I'd argue that reason and climate science have come out the winner despite his repeated the same erroneous claims not once, not twice, but three time. This is not to dismiss the serious problems of his obstinacy and his seeming immunity from any editorial process. But think about what has transpired. Letters and e-mails about Will's erroneous columns force the Washington Post's ombudsman to respond. The Post published Mooney's response and a letter from the head of the WMO. When Will struck again, the Post's own reporters specifically outlined out Will's mistakes. And now the Post has now published an editorial slap to Will's false claims about Arctic Sea ice.

Five years ago, ten years ago, no one writes the ombudsman, no one calls for editors to resign, no reporters speak ill of columnists, and no editorial page publishes an op-ed implicitly criticizing its own columnist. The grassroots response worked. And the editors, albeit slowly, are getting the message. Bad science reporting won't be tolerated.

Of course, the scientific community must also act responsibly. The lack of responsibility is the core problem evident from the coverage of Freeman Dyson and from Princeton physicist Will Happer's congressional testimony.

Scientists are given the title of PhD or professor for being an expert in some field or fields of study. With that title comes great responsibility. Only those of us with the particular field know the boundaries of that field. A theoretical physicist like Dyson knows he is not an expert in terrestrial carbon cycling [and qualified to claim that trees can soak up all the extra CO2]. A physicist that specializes in optics knows that he/she is not conducting research on atmospheric radiative transfer [so as to claim that CO2 will not result in further warming] . But members of the public, journalists, political leaders, etc. without the benefit of years of specialized training in theoretical physics or whatever discipline to know the boundaries of that discipline. So they trust the words of a revered physicist on a subject outside his/her domain.

Scientists have a platform, by virtue of their perceived expertise. Scientists must use that platform responsibly.

And, listen, we all screw up at times. After all, we are people. We have opinions on a wide range of issue just like everyone else. And many of those opinions and ideas are half-baked or poorly informed. We need to draw a line between what is said casually to family, friends and colleagues, when not speaking from particular expertise, and what is said to reporters and members of Congress, when our qualifications are all that matters.

The key is to keep one's arrogance in check. Look, Dyson and Happer are undoubtedly brilliant scientists. But it is, after all, rather arrogant to conclude that the entire comunity of highly qualified scientists is wrong about their area of expertise based on a few back of the envelope calculations.


John Mashey said...

Happer is also Chairman of the George C. Marshall Institute, following in the footsteps of Seitz, Jastrow, and Nierenberg. if you haven't see Naomi Oreskes' The American Denial of Global Warming, it's worth watching for good analysis of how this got going.

Put another way: Dyson has long been a bit whimsical & contrarian, and by now, he seems to have "gone emeritus" in some ways, especially the comments about models, especially when GFDL is a few miles away.

But GMI is one of the oldest {ideology trumps science} thinktanks, which I think puts Happer in a different class.

EliRabett said...

Enjoy your hiatus. Hopefully it is not proposal time.

You are right about the Will furor being a victory for rationality.