Monday, February 19, 2007

Guest Blog: Opinion Column in Science Times

The following is a guest posting:

The addition of conservative columnist John Tierney to the staff of the New York Times's Science Times section has to be one of the most bizarre--and irresponsible--editorial decisions in awhile. Tierney's new column, "Findings," runs on the front page of the section, mixed in with the standard-issue news and feature stories. And while particularly astute readers might pick up on the fact that Tierney is an opinion writer rather than a science reporter, it's a good bet that general readers won't make that distinction. So while the section's staff reporters and other contributors work hard to maintain some shred of objectivity in their stories, those stories are now running side-by-side with Tierney's politically charged commentaries--and the result is a serious blow to the whole section's credibility, and a public misled by opinion masquerading as fact.

Check out Tierney's column from this past Tuesday (Feb. 13). It uses Richard Branson's $25 million prize for a solution to global warming as a way to begin talking about Al Gore (the connection is tenuous). Tierney's real intent is to attack Gore and his film, "An Inconvenient Truth," which is old news at this point, since it's been out for almost a year. One senses Tierney's been rubbing his hands together for about that long trying to find an appropriate venue for his attack. He accuses Gore of "hype" and of extrapolating "a short-term trend into a disaster," and of various other crimes against science (and indirectly against humanity). To those with good working knowledge of climate change, Tierney sounds just half a step removed from right-wing fiction writer and global warming denialist Michael Crichton. But to the majority of readers, he sounds like he's reciting facts that call into question Gore's entire endeavor (which has been, for the most part, lauded by climate scientists).

Tierney also uses this column as a pulpit for a message he's been hammering for years: There's no point in trying to change people's habits, so the only solutions to environmental problems will be technological. "As far-fetched as it seems today," Tierney wrote on page one of the section, "removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere could turn out to be a lot more practical than the alternative: persuading six million people to stop putting it there." Of course, this statement is a lot more true if you are opposed, as Tierney clearly is, to any sort of federal or international environmental regulation. To run political commentary like this on the front page of the Science Times is to etch opinion into the minds of many readers as fact. Why more people haven't raised red flags is a mystery.


CEJ Admin said...

A few thoughts:

Would you find this as egregious if there were other opinionated columnists in Science Times, representing a greater diversity of views? And if they carried an 'eyebrow' above the headline featuring the word "Opinion"?

Concerning the content of Tierney's column, he certainly provides an unbalanced view, using only evidence that supports his view that climate change is not the looming catastrophe portrayed in "An Inconvenient Truth." But isn't that what columnists ordinarily do? Yes, the best opinion columnists acknowledge evidence contrary to their point of view, and then, show why they don't put much credence in that evidence. So in this regard, Tierney isn't as good as he might be. Because he stands less of a chance of convincing knowledgable folks who are disinclined at the outset to believe him.

In his column, Tierney refers to new findings indicating that the flow of two of the largest glaciers in Greeland slowed abruptly in 2006 to near the old rate. In 2004, the rate had doubled in less than a year, raising new concerns that the pace of sea level rise may quicken. The fact is that both the IPCC and the researchers on this study acknowledge that the future behavior of the Greenland ice sheet is uncertain. In its recent report, the IPCC was conservative in discussing the prospects for sea level rise by the year 2100.

What Tierney didn't say is that the researchers on the new study about Greenland's glaciers are cautious about drawing reassuring conclusions. In a press release from the University of Washington, Ian Howat, a post-doctoral fellow there (who works with Ted Scambos at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado) had this to say:

"While the rates of shrinking of these two glaciers have stabilized, we don't know whether they will remain stable, grow or continue to collapse in the near future . . . That's because the glaciers' shape changed greatly, becoming stretched and thinned.

"Our main point is that the behavior of these glaciers can change a lot from year to year, so we can't assume to know the future behavior from short records of recent changes," he says. "Future warming may lead to rapid pulses of retreat and increased discharge rather than a long, steady drawdown."

In other words, future warming could make things much worse — a possibility not mentioned by Tierney.

But is there something inherently wrong with a columnist highlighting one set of facts to make an argument, especially when those facts have not received widespread attention? If that's done in a news section without any indication that it's an opinion column, I agree with our guest blogger: No, it's not appropriate.

One other comment: The use of the term "climate change denialist" either intentionally or uninintentially draws a parallel between global warming skeptics and Holocaust deniers. As I've said in a previous post, being skeptical about the scientific basis for global warming is nowhere near on a par with Holocaust denial. Those of us who are concerned about climate change, and who wish to communicate about it effectively, should refrain from drawing this particular parallel.

-- Tom Yulsman

Anonymous said...

I certainly think it would be far less egregious if Tierney's column were not the only one of its kind in the section, or were clearly marked as opinion. The problem is that there appears to be no recent precedent for this sort of writing in the Science Times. The result is that readers of the section believe that they are reading the paper of record's objective reporting on matters of science--and that is the context within which they're digesting Tierney as well. That's why it's so dangerous: it's opinion masquerading as fact.

As to your point about "climate change deniers": I disagree that simply because one uses the word "denier" or "denialist" one is referencing the Holocaust. But perhaps it's time to coin a phrase without the baggage. In your previous post you suggest the term "global warming skeptic." This to me is misleading, as to be a "skeptic" is a good thing: it implies independent and critical thinking. To deny that the planet is warming because of humans' use of fossil fuels and other behaviors is more or less like denying gravity. Perhaps "naysayer" is better? Or "disputer" (though this implies there's still some sort of legitimate debate on the issue)?

Tom Yulsman said...

About "denialist" versus "skeptic": Many folks who use the former explicitly compare people like Michael Crichton to Holocaust deniers. Ellen Goodman did so in an otherwise decent column on climate change recently. (See my earlier post.) I don't think there is any question that many people are using the term in a deliberate attempt to draw the parallel. And some people are passionate that such a parallel exists. (I've even had one child of a Holocaust survivor yell at me — well, the equivalent of yelling online — that anyone who denies the reality of a looming climate catastrophe with associated human cataclysms is just as bad as a Holocaust denier.

The problem is that aside from people like James Inhofe and a tiny handful of other clownish extremists, very, very few people engaged in the debate deny that global warming is happening and that we are mostly to blame. Patrick Michaels is one skeptic who often is tagged as a "denialist." Here is what he had to say recently about the IPCC report:

"In summary, what's not new in today's IPCC report -- that humans are warming the planet -- will be treated as big news, while what is new -- that sea levels are not likely to rise as much as previously predicted -- will be ignored, at least by everyone except the extremist fringe."

I'm not sure what point he's trying to make about the 'extremist fringe' not ignoring the more conservative outlook for sea level rise. But he clearly accepts that humans are responsible for global warming. In his essay, he takes issue with projections of looming calamity. Whatever past position he and his like-minded associates may have advocated, today they mostly take issue with the degree and pace of change in coming decades. Tierney is firmly in this camp.

You may disagree with this position. But it is based at least in part on science. (Michaels, for example, offers scientific arguments for why future warming is likely to fall into the lower range of IPCC projections.) So their point of view is legitimate, even if the majority of scientists working on the issue disagree with it. And thus equating them with Holocaust deniers is odious.

This IS skepticism, and there is nothing wrong with it.

True denial of the reality of humankind's influence on the climate is a different matter. Even there, I don't think it equates to denial of the Holocaust, which was a singular event in the history of our species. Global warming may well be another singular event. But it's a different kind entirely.

-- T.Y.

John said...

I have "a good working knowledge of of climate change," and I think the accusation that Tierney's piece is "just a half step removed from ... Michael Crichton" is preposterous. In fact, Tierney's central themes are entirely consistent with Andrew Revkin's thoughtful and widely read piece earlier this year on the middle ground in climate science.

To the extent that science journalists have an obligation to stay close to the IPCC-style consensus on issues like climate change (and I believe we do), Gore in fact deserves the criticism Tierney offers up for Inconvenient Truth's treatment of hurricanes and sea level rise.

- John Fleck

Anonymous said...

From the post: There's no point in trying to change people's habits, so the only solutions to environmental problems will be technological.

Hmm...I wonder why this line is so offensive. After spending a day at Yale last week listening to Sir Nicholas Stern and a panel of high-profile colleagues, they also agree that technology is critical to stabilizing emissions. The various proposals before Congress are in effect boosting the economic incentives to make the technological changes needed to reduce our CO2 footprint. (Put another way, they raise the economic cost of not adopting more atmosphere-friendly technologies.) And several of the economists at the Yale gig suggested that carbo cap and seq will have to play a significant role if we're to stabilize at 550 ppm Co2, which I take to be the emerging target. People are willing to change their habits, even pay a bit extra to do it, if they see that alternatives are available (MIT survey -- yes, I know, a sample size of one survey -- from earlier this year). As for the mixing of what essentially is a weekly OPED on a news page, I'm a grizzled purist. Keep 'em off. But the NYT is hardly the only paper to mix opinion columns on news pages. Check out the front of the local section on the Boston Globe sometime, as one example. The WashPost does the same thing. And I suspect it's only going to get worse as we move more agressively from paper-sphere to web and blogosphere, with its heavy reader/page viewer interactions...sigh...

Mark said...

Some of us regulars from realclimate went over there and commented. Tierney posted them all, so that's good, but I agree, he has no business in science journalism as an opinion writer, and neither do other Libertarians like Cathy Young in the Boston Globe.

Mark said...

Pat Michaels, is a denialist on a payroll and thus a biased source. He's paid to deny and downplay the evidence. Real skepicism is good but false skepticism is not: it's falty logic.

Annie Jia said...

The columnist practically proclaims his lack of scientific reliability himself on his very own blog
"About TierneyLab: John Tierney always wanted to be a scientist but went into journalism because its peer-review process was a great deal easier to sneak through."

And speaking of going against the scientific consensus... "The Lab's work is guided by two founding principles: 1. Just because an idea appeals to a lot of people doesn't mean it's wrong. 2. But that's a good working theory."