The e-mails date back to an episode in 2003 in which a controversial paper arguing the twentieth century wasn’t the warmest in the last thousand years was published in the journal Climate Research. Five editors—including editor-in-chief Hans von Storch—resigned soon thereafter, citing a breakdown in the review process that failed to catch severe methodological flaws in the paper and inadequate steps to address those flaws after publication. The New York Times’s Andrew Revkin was one of only a few reporters to cover the resignations at the time. RealClimate.org and others have offered the story as evidence that the scientists in the e-mails were talking about restoring the integrity of the peer-review process rather than undermining it. Few articles have explained this side of the story, and fewer still have reported it further.
Only The Wall Street Journal seems to have interviewed von Storch, who told its reporters that while peer-review had indeed broken down in 2003, the “gatekeeping” discussed in the e-mails “violated a fundamental principle of science.” Journalists must be careful, however. The Journal article quoting von Storch reported that the e-mails showed the authors “sought” to block the publications of dissenting research. The past tense of that verb, which a few other outlets have employed, implies that they actually tried to carry out the plan. If that is the case, more detail is needed, but at this point, it seems they merely discussed it. Again, it is the job of journalists to find out and report exactly what did, and did not, happen.
There are probably other allegedly damning e-mails in the politics category, but I haven’t had enough time to thoroughly search them or other online conversations. Certainly, though, this is an area that the press should be fleshing out more aggressively.
Tribalism and Ideological Bias
What to make of all this? Again, there are many unanswered questions about these e-mails, and journalists could be doing more to answer them. But when it comes to tribalism, there are many in the press—from George Monbiot at the Guardian to Clive Crook at Atlantic.com—who quickly demanded formal investigations. And they got their wish. With White House science advisors being “grilled” over the issue, according to the Associated Press, this story is not going away.
When Goldberg wrote about “journalistic tribalism” for USA Today, however, he seemed to be discussing climate coverage writ large. So, are journalists guilty of ideological bias? Well, let’s start with veteran New York Times climate reporter Andrew Revkin, since Goldberg singled him out for squelching information by declining to publish the hacked e-mails. (This is a weak line of argument for a number of reasons: the size of the cache of e-mails makes publishing them in a coherent fashion difficult; Revkin provided clear links to places where they could be found; and he quoted most of the relevant—i.e., controversial—sections.)
Among the hacked e-mails was one from Michael Mann advising Phil Jones to “be a bit careful about what information you send to Andy and what emails you copy him in on. He’s not as predictable as we’d like.” That statement seems to offer strong evidence against ideological bias, as does the fact that Revkin has published many articles warning journalists against “yelling fire on a hot planet” and succumbing to the tyranny of the “front-page thought.” Nonetheless, in an interview on Wednesday, Revkin conceded that it is sometimes difficult to avoid bad habits. “It takes discipline to sustain the efforts that are necessary to avoid missteps,” he said.