That’s true, but it’s not a very helpful statement. As Roberts himself explained in a post in June about attributing wildfires to climate change, events have proximate (first-order) and distal (second-order, third-order, etc.) causes. The proximate cause of a fire is a spark. The proximate cause of Hurricane Sandy was an unusual confluence of different weather systems. In both cases, climate change was a distal cause, but as Roberts noted in his post, the real question is, how distal? That’s what scientists are arguing about. Yet Roberts dismisses the importance of the question as soon as he acknowledges it. He argues that saying “climate change caused” a given weather event isn’t “necessarily false or exaggerated,” even if climate change is only a minor factor—it’s just “confusing.”
The scolds don’t see it that way. They think it’s worth explaining why climate is a fairly distal factor in storms like Sandy. But that doesn’t mean, as Roberts alleges, that scolds are calling for lots of talk about “stochastic modeling, forensic attribution, and degrees of probability,” or that they they’re opposed to providing “a visceral, more-than-intellectual sense of what climate change means.”
“Revkin seems to think that his allegiance to the journalist tribe means that he can’t communicate like this, in simple language with political, economic, and social resonance,” Roberts wrote. “Worse, he seems to think that being a journalist means he has to spend his time patrolling other people’s attempts at communicate and calling them out on reductive scientific grounds.”
Those are cheap shots. Revkin talks as much as anybody about the limitations of science journalism and how it’s a “shrinking slice of the media and communications pie.” And scolds don’t think being a journalist means you can’t communicate in simple, resonant language. Most of them applaud good work as vigorously as they criticize bad work, but they do think it’s worth criticizing the bad—not only because “the other side” could use exaggerations about weather as ammo against campaigns to address climate change, but also because they worry that the exaggerations can nurture an insidious form of misunderstanding within the general public.
Its also seems like Roberts, a foe of those who deny the science behind climate change, is calling for a bit of a double standard wherein critics should call out distortions from the right (global warming stopped 15 years ago!) but not from the left (Sandy is evidence of the new normal!). Granted, the subtle embellishments on the left are nothing compared to the full-bore disinformation campaign on the right, but the embellishments still frustrate plenty of scientists. (Update: Some undoubtedly cringed when they saw Bloomberg Businessweek’s bold, red cover featuring a photo of a flooded New York street in the aftermath of Sandy with the words, “It’s Global Warming, Stupid,” above it.]
In fact, though, many journalists have, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, produced exactly the kind of work that scolds are calling for. Examples can be found at The Associated Press, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. These aren’t jargon-filled articles that dissuade readers from making any connections between the cyclone and climate change. They emphasize that the connections are complex, but they also convey that Sandy is a legitimate reason to be concerned about global warming despite the complexity.
It’s worth applauding this type of journalism, but it’s equally important to scold work that doesn’t live up to such high standards.