Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Bill Broad to Al Gore: "cool the hype"

The blogosphere has been afire with criticism of William Broad’s story in Tuesday’s New York Times. ("From a Rapt Audience, a Call to Cool the Hype.") The story tried (and failed) to make the point that many scientists believe Al Gore not only exaggerated impacts of global warming but also got many aspects of the science wrong.

The blogofire started Monday with an item in the Drudge Report on a planned New York Times “hit on Gore.” After publication of the Times story, David Roberts at Grist weighed in, saying, “This may be the worst, sloppiest, most dishonest piece of reporting I’ve ever seen in the NYT. It’s got all the hallmarks of a vintage Gore hit piece: half-truths, outright falsehoods, unsubstantiated quotes, and a heaping dose of innuendo.”

At Deltoid, Tim Lambert wrote wrote that Broad’s article “gives global warming skeptics (who are ‘centrist’ according to Broad) free rein to say anything they want, without checking the accuracy of their claims. Worse he adds his own statement on the science that seriously misrepresent scientific reports.”

And over at Realclimate, Michael Mann and Gavin Schmidt eviscerated the scientific criticism leveled at Gore in Broad’s article. “The first rule when criticizing popular science presentations for inaccuracies should be to double check any 'facts' you use,” they wrote. “It is rather ironic then that William Broad's latest piece on Al Gore plays just as loose with them as he accuses Gore of doing.”

Not surprisingly, some bloggers are reaching exactly the opposite conclusions. Andrew Bolt, for example, writes this in his blog at the Herald Sun (an Australian newspaper):

“Far, far too late, but some journalists of the corporate left may at last be asking Al Gore some questions about his astonishing scaremongering . . . Yes, the New York Times piece airs many criticisms of Gore, but without painstakingly fact-checking each of his mendacious claims, as he deserves. But bottom line: even alarmists think he’s an alarmist.”

Don’t you just love that line! The trouble is that the people Broad quoted to suggest that Al Gore has misrepresented the science are anything but “climate alarmists.” Some actually don’t agree that human emissions of greenhouse gases are warming the planet. And at least one says there is no evidence that humans are causing climate change.

Broad writes that “geologists have documented age upon age of climate swings, and some charge Mr. Gore with ignoring such rhythms.” Then he quotes Robert Carter, a marine geologist at Australia’s James Cook University, as saying this:

“Nowhere does Mr. Gore tell his audience that all of the phenomena that he describes fall within the natural range of environmental change on our planet. Nor does he present any evidence that climate during the 20th century departed discernibly from its historical pattern of constant change.”

Well, nowhere does Broad tell his readers that Carter is a prominent skeptic of the role of carbon dioxide in global warming. He does not believe that atmospheric CO2 is a primary forcing agent of climate change. Nor does he believe that any signal of human impact on the climate has emerged from the noise of natural variability. Who knows? Maybe Carter is right and the vast majority of other climate scientists are wrong. But Broad’s readers certainly deserved to know that Carter is by no means a centrist on global warming.

Because other blogs have done a thorough job dissecting the scientific claims made in Broad’s article, I’ll say only one more thing about that — because I haven’t seen it mentioned elsewhere and it is so ridiculous that it can’t be passed over. Broad quotes this from a blog posting by Roy Spencer, a climatologist at the University of Alabama: the IPCC report shows “that all we really know is that we are warmer now than we were during the last 400 years.”

Oh really? That’s the only solid conclusion to be drawn from all 8,488 words and 21 pages of the IPCC report? Not that “paleoclimate information supports the interpretation that the warmth of the last half century is unusual in at least the previous 1300 years,” as stated in the IPCC? Or that “the last time the polar regions were significantly warmer than present for an extended period (about 125,000 years ago), reductions in polar ice volume led to 4 to 6 metres of sea level rise”?

Both of these findings, two of many described in the IPCC report, support points made by Gore — points that Broad’s sources say have no scientific backing.

What possible justification could there be for printing something so patently untrue and profoundly absurd? I can only conclude that Broad has a mission when writing about climate change: To correct what he perceives to be errors in the record and restore a sense of balance to journalistic coverage that he thinks has tilted too far in the direction of climate alarmism. Nothing wrong with trying to correct the record, maintaining journalistic skepticism, etc. But as Michael Mann and Gavin Schmidt point out in their Realclimate posting, if you’re going to do it, you’d better get your facts straight.

In the end, none of this is really about science per se. As Roger Pielke, Jr., my colleague here at the University of Colorado, told me today, “The debates about the science in the movie are yet another way to scientize political debates.”

It’s really all about politics, not science. And if some scientists are indeed uneasy about Al Gore — and I have no doubt that this is true, although not nearly to the degree that Broad claims — it’s not really because he has exaggerated the science and gotten some of it wrong. What uneasiness exists probably stems from a sense that they’ve lost control of their own science to a politician, that in the process much of the nuance and hedginess of what they do has been lost, and lastly, that Gore has cherry picked the data to make a strong case for action.

The HORROR! A political advocate is ADVOCATING!

-- Tom Yulsman


Steve Bloom said...

The Spencer quote referred not to the SPM but to the NRC report on the temp record. The argument is slightly different, but it's still the case that what Gore said is not contradicted by the latter (although not strongly supported by it either). Certainly the consistency is better with the stronger language in the SPM.

Also, are you really going to let Roger off the hook for that polarizing remark? He truly had no basis to say such a thing.

CEJ Admin said...

Many thanks for pointing out this error. You are absolutely right. My mistake. Even so, Spencer mischaracterizes what the NRC said, although this is not as egregious as saying that the IPCC adds up to so little.

As for Roger's quote, he says he was referring not to polarization among scientists over Gore's portrayal of the science per se but of a bigger issue: Losing control of their science to politicians and other advocates. Roger argues that it makes some very uneasy to see an advocate like Al Gore present their science in such a partisan way, whereas others are not so concerned because they feel he's doing a better job of popularizing than they could do.

-- Tom

Andrew Dessler said...

FYI, I blogged about this here.

I guess the problem I have with all of this is that there really is no evidence that scientists are uncomfortable with Gore.

Kevin Vranes' initial post contained no evidence, just Kevin's "sense" that there was "tension" in the scientific community. And the scientists quoted by Broad are not, in any sense, middle of the road. In fact, they are all quite extreme.

So I'd be more likely to take all this seriously if there was some evidence to back it up.


Steve Bloom said...

Hmm, so will Roger be asking for a correction? In any case, as Andrew points out there is little evidence in favor of the view that there's even nervousness about Gore acting as a front man for climate scientists. The only broad evidence that I'm aware of is the reception Gore got at the AGU in December. Add to that the fact that Broad was unable to come up with anybody willing to be substantially critical of Gore who is substantially in the climate science mainstream, and it becomes difficult for Roger to make a case.

Steve Bloom said...

Tom, I'm curious about your view of Broad's use of Don Easterbrook as a poster boy for mainstream nervousness about Gore. David Roberts and I had the exact same thought upon first reading the article: Who is Don Easterbrook, is he credible and (most importantly) what are his views on global warming? Much to our mutual surprise, about 3 minutes on Google Scholar turned up material showing that Easterbrook not only rejects the IPCC consensus as to the role of CO2 but endorses the long-discredited solar hypothesis. I cannot imagine that Broad was unaware of this, and yet he proceeded to present the "rank and file" Easterbrook as part of the scientific mainstream. Later in the article, he described an Easterbrook presentation to "hundreds" of scientists (IMO trying to imply that those scientists must endorse Easterbrook's views). Easterbrook's credibility is further enhanced when Broad quotes him as denying being in the pay of oil companies or even being a Republican. (On the oil company point, note that Pat Michaels happily makes the same denial since he's in the pay of the *coal* industry.)

CEJ Admin said...

As far as I can tell, Easterbrook is a well known geoscientist. He even has a Geological Society of America award named after him. True, it's because he endowed it. But the GSA would not have gone along with this if Easterbrook were not a credible scientist who is respected in his field.

I think the paper you are referring to must be the one he delivered at a GSA conference last year — "Causes of Abrupt Global Climate Changes and Global Warming: Predictions for the Coming Century." In it, he does seem to be arguing that solar cycles are more important than CO2 in influencing climate shifts during the 20th century, and he predicts a cooling from 2006 to 2035. That certainly puts him in a small minority of climate scientists.

Is he a credible scientist? It seems so. Are his ideas legitimate? Well, his peers seem to think so, since they accept his papers for presentation at conferences. Is he right? I'm not a scientist, so that's not for me to say. All I can say, as a journalist, is that his ideas on this subject seem to lie outside the mainstream of scientific thought at the moment.

But the real issue is how Broad used him in his story. And I will just reiterate what I've been saying all along, and what many other critics of the story have been saying: Broad misleads his readers into thinking that the sources he uses to debunk Gore's presentation are centrists on the climate change issue. Most if not all very clearly are not.

So a question for you: Under what circumstances would it be okay to quote a credible scientist like Easterbrook on climate change? A more pointed way of asking it: Should we journalists ignore scientists whose ideas fall outside the mainstream on a question like climate change?

My opinion: We should report credible, peer reviewed science that falls outside the consensus, because it is always possible that the consensus is wrong. On many scientific issues, it frequently has turned out to be wrong. I don't think that's going to be the case with the overall picture of climate change. But the devil is in the details, and many of those details are still the subject of great uncertainty.

We certainly should avoid falling victim to false balance in our stories. And we must make sure readers understand where our sources sit before we tell them where they stand. In other words, if a scientist sits with a small band of skeptics, that has to be clear.

Broad seems to be on a false balance campaign. And he misled his readers about where his sources sit.

-- Tom

John Fleck said...

Steve -

Your obsession with Roger's comment seems frankly a little bizarre, and a classic case study for the "Pielke watch" feature over at Inkstain.

I read him to be saying something that I find completely uncontroversial - that Al Gore has become a polarizing figure in this scientized debate.

Steve Bloom said...

John, recall that Roger's point is not that Gore is polarizing in general (which is what your characterization implies, and which I would agree is an uncontroversial observation) but "in the *science community*." The evidence on that would seem to be to the contrary.

This is just more of the same stuff that gets Roger in trouble with the self-same science community.

Steve Bloom said...

To answer your question, Tom, I think there was a perfectly reasonable story there about how the small band of denialist scientists didn't like AIT and how even the leaders of the climate science community think there were some minor problems. The theme of the story could have been the question of whether AIT would have been as effective if Gore and the producers had made sure to be completely reflective of the scientific uncertainties. They could have been asked that question directly, and who knows, Roger and Kevin might even have had something useful to contribute on that (IMHO) much more interesting albeit decidedly less "yellow" point.

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Seamas said...

Bolt is a smart guy but he is paid to write controversially in a conservative Melbourne paper. There's a broader agenda to his criticisms of Gore's film.

I was impressed by the case made in An Inconvenient Truth. The mounting evidence of melting polar ice caps and the projected images of coastal flooding was the most frightening aspect.

And Gore kept qualifying his warnings with statements like "even in a best case scenario..." He really slammed the climate change sceptics.

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quicksilver said...

HI Al Gore is certainly a good environmentalist but the theory that carbon dioxide is responsible for global warming is so stupid that it fails to hold water.

Carbon dioxide has the most important role in global warming but as the measurer or thermometer only.

As the world warms or cools the ability of carbon dioxide to rest in the water varies.

If you boil water, all gases are driven off. As the water gets cold so more and more gases get absorbed.

Carbon dioxide is a measure of what's happening but has nothing to do with the cause.

We are talking of extremely low levels of gas shifting up and down a few per cent either side of 0.03 percent of the total gas in the air.

As part of the carbon cycle it quickly gets "fixed" in any case.

The hype about carbon values or carbon bonds or whatever the current fashion is is just a new way of taxing "Jack in the Street".

Don't we alredy pay far too much for fuel anyway?

What happened to the nuclear technology that would make power too cheap to meter.

Todays lie is carbon dioxide causes global warming just as much as yesterdays lies about cheap power.

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Yep, let’s take back gore’s award for documentary and give him the award for best science fiction