Many climate journalists have come to accept that, given the scientific debate about climate, mere transmission of information is of little value without an accompanying interpretation. It is the lack of this analysis that makes Knickerbocker’s article deficient. While it is completely valid to explore dissenting opinions, journalists must do more than stand competing quotes next to one another; they must explain which one holds more currency and why. The second and third articles in the Monitor’s skeptics series do a better job of this.
The second article, which ran a week later under the headline, “Are sunspots prime suspects in global warming?” examines one alternative hypothesis in detail. The sun’s natural cycles, including its spots, which are associated with greater radiation and thus warming, are a cause célèbre among skeptics. While this is a theory that most scientists reject, in the Monitor article, reporter Peter N. Spotts (yes, that’s right) points out that, “some pesky correlations - such as the one between sunspot cycles and cloud cover - linger.” Spotts, who has written about skeptics before, is careful with the science, however, and delivers the interpretation that was missing in the series’ first installment: “No one doubts that the sun drives the Earth’s climate,” he writes up high in the piece. “The vast bulk of research, however, points to greenhouse gases.”
The third and most recent entry, published last Thursday under the headline, “Is the research too political?” explores the most pertinent question of the series thus far: in drafting its reports, does the IPCC suppress dissent? Few people, journalists included, understand even the basic structure of the IPCC, leading to confusion about whether it is a scientific or political organization, let alone finer mechanical points about how it reconciles rival opinions. In the Monitor, reporter Moises Velasquez-Manoff, chooses good sources - John Christy and S. Fred Singer on the skeptics’ side, and Gavin Schmidt and Kevin Trenberth on the believers’ side - to flesh out possible bias at the IPCC. Their comments are insightful and well-balanced, even if the article is not entirely conclusive about the degree to which politically-driven muffling in a problem. At the very least, the Monitor deserves credit for broaching this subject: the internal mechanics of the IPCC are woefully under-reported by the press.
At the end of each of the articles, the Monitor’s editors solicit reader feedback with the question: “Do you think climate change skeptics are raising persuasive points or ignoring strong scientific evidence?” The paper has received close to 150 letters since the series began, and has printed two batches so far. The responses can be broken down into three basic types, according to Lamb.
“The majority is saying, ‘Thank you for representing my views,’” he told me. “Then there are people who aren’t necessarily skeptics saying, ‘We appreciate your sense of balance. We want to know when our friends ask us about things like sunspots.’ And then there have been several letters from people who are upset with us, saying that the debate is long over and that the Monitor is wasting its resources when it needs to be moving on to solutions.”
The paper will publish a fourth installment of the skeptics series this Thursday, and a fifth one next week. At that point, Lamb said, “We’ll stop and reassess.” I asked him if such a project could mislead readers by indulging their misconceptions about science rather than educating them? And when it comes to asking readers if they think certain theories are persuasive, is it not the journalist’s responsibility provide such answers?
“That’s certainly a concern,” Lamb replied. “But in the end, this series is a relatively small piece in the large mosaic of our total coverage. So in that light hopefully we’re not distorting the debate.” He pointed to some of the Monitor’s other climate work, such as its coverage of the IPCC reports and a large multimedia series on adaptation and mitigation called “Surviving in a Warmer World”, which show that the paper’s reporting is firmly in line with scientific consensus.