Making Space for Skeptics

Post, Times draw criticism for coverage questioning global warming

Washington Post columnist George Will was at it again on Thursday with his third column disparaging the scientific consensus behind man-made global warming in less than a month.

As usual, the blogosphere delivered a quick and thorough retort. Carl Zimmer, Chris Mooney, Joe Romm, Adam Siegel, and others all took a turn at rebutting Will’s column. The nut of their criticism revolved around the following paragraph:

Reducing carbon emissions supposedly will reverse warming, which is allegedly occurring even though, according to statistics published by the World Meteorological Organization, there has not been a warmer year on record than 1998.

This statement grossly mischaracterizes the significance of the WMO’s data. More troubling, however, is the fact that the Post allowed Will to recycle it despite being roundly and soundly criticized for using the exact same line a month ago. Indeed, just last Saturday, the paper ran a letter from the WMO itself, pointing out that:

It is a misinterpretation of the data and of scientific knowledge to point to one year as the warmest on record — as was done in a recent Post column [by Will] — and then to extrapolate that cooler subsequent years invalidate the reality of global warming and its effects.

Yet here we are again. As we explained in February, the Post relies upon “wiggly, lawyerly language” to argue that Will’s writing is factually correct, and that his controversial remarks qualify as inference rather than evidence. The Post’s editorial page editor, Fred Hiatt, also told me that Will is not obliged to acknowledge that his interpretation of the WMO data differs drastically from the WMO’s own interpretation. Climate Progress’s Joe Romm, who tends to be more scathing in his critiques than most critics, is now calling for Hiatt to be fired.

Yet the Post is not the only newspaper making room for skeptics who question the reality of global warming despite having only a cursory understanding of climate science. Much as it was in February, the latest episode of the Post affair is intimately related to similar controversies taking place at The New York Times.

The bulk of Will’s column this week is, as Carl Zimmer put it, “basically a cut-and-paste job” on a Times article from last week about faulty compact fluorescent light bulbs. The piece reported that, despite CFLs’ efficiency, efforts to drive down their cost have led to low-quality light bulbs entering the market. The article drew mild criticism from the usual suspects. They gave the article credit for trying to look out for consumers, but complained that it relied too heavily on anecdotal evidence and overstated the gravity of the problem.

A far more interesting and controversial article, however, was last Saturday’s New York Times Magazine cover-story profile of physicist/mathematician and “global warming heretic” Freeman Dyson. Three days before the magazine even appeared on subscribers’ doorsteps, the online edition was already causing a stir.

Dyson is a physicist at the Institute for Advanced Studies—”this country’s most rarefied community of scholars,” as the profile’s author, Nicholas Dawidoff, put it—and very well respected within the scientific community. He is also skeptical of global warming as the specter that most climate scientists believe it to be. While admitting that human industry is heating the oceans and atmosphere, Dyson thinks the impacts will be benign or beneficial, and that issues like war and poverty are the real problems. Yet he is admittedly not an expert on climate science. In fact, he has made a career out of mistrusting experts. Dyson, Dawidoff writes, believes they are “too often crippled by the conventional wisdom they create.” Dyson argues that global warming has become the “secular religion” or “party line,” and that such orthodoxy must be challenged.

At The Intersection, blog, Chris Mooney summed up the feeling of many critics by retorting that “Dyson’s fame and authority don’t buy him any special deference in this area; science does not work that way. Does Dyson publish top work in this field? That is a far more relevant question.” Mooney also argued that Dawidoff, with little science writing experience, was “out of his depth” too.

Unsurprisingly, Joe Romm had what was probably the most caustic reaction, calling Dyson a “crackpot” for suggesting that global warming is nothing to worry about. At DeSmogBlog, Jim Hoggan added that “It is somewhere between casually irresponsible and criminally reckless for a respected medium like the New York Times to undermine the quality of public discussion by putting so much focus on people who are so clearly out of their depth.”

Yet it is much easier to criticize a skeptic like Will than one like Dyson. Case in point is NASA’s James Hansen, one of the country’s revered climate scientists. In Dawidoff’s profile, Dyson calls Hansen a “propagandist” and Hansen, in return, dismisses Dyson as essentially clueless. Romm and other bloggers rushed to Hansen’s defense, demanding retribution for such “slander.”

The day the print edition of the story was mailed to subscribers, however, Hansen sent a letter (posted by Times reporter Andrew Revkin) to his e-mail list, apologizing to Dyson. It was not a total capitulation, of course—while acknowledging that Dyson deserves respect and that contrarian views are good for science, Hansen also wrote that “government needs to get its advice from the most authoritative sources, not from magazine articles.”

That may be true, but therein lays the rub. Very few critics share Dyson’s lack of concern for warming. On the other hand, many sympathize with his leeriness of the catastrophic rhetoric used by “authoritative sources” such as Hansen, who has referred to railroad cars carrying coal as “death trains.” They also see an important point to systematic, but honest, questioning of overly certain scientific predictions (climatic or otherwise). So whereas bloggers almost unanimously disapproved of the Post’s decision to run George Will’s columns, criticism of the Times’s editorial judgment has been, appropriately, much more nuanced. The Knight Science Journalism Tracker’s Charlie Petit, for instance, wrote that:

There have been some calls, most notably from ferocious climate blogger Joe Romm at Climate Progress, for condemnation of the Times for publishing an admiring portrait of a man he calls a “climate crackpot.” Romm is correct that the piece may provide some ammo for the climate change deniers (or whatever is the term of the day for skeptics). But to squelch such nuanced and engaging profiles as this - to prevent mischief by people with a tiny fraction of the brainpower of Mr. Dyson - would be a shame.

Likewise, the Center for Environmental Journalism’s Tom Yulsman felt that both Dyson and Dawidoff were “out of their league” on points of climate science, but found merit in the Times’s attempt to explore skepticism’s role as a “core value of science.” In a comment at the end of Yulsman’s post, however, NASA climate modeler and Real Climate blogger Gavin Schmidt added an important caveat to that argument:

Skepticism is the life blood of science - without it, no progress would ever have been made nor will be made in the future. But people indulging in pot shots against the ‘climate consensus’ based on no knowledge of the actual science are not ’skeptics’ in any real sense. It is very reminiscent of the Monty Python argument sketch - true argument is not simply contradiction. Joe Romm and others are not criticising Dyson because of his skepticism, they (rightly) criticise him because of his ill-informed ’skepticism’.

Feeling such trepidation about Dawidoff’s piece is perfectly legitimate and reasonable, especially with major climate legislation currently working its way through Congress. As American University communications professor Matthew Nisbet explained so well at his blog, Framing Science:

On one hand, the social scientist in me views Dawidoff’s journalistic narrative as a sociologically nuanced take on what happens when policy debates are simplistically reduced down to a matter of “sound science” and “inconvenient truths” rather than decisions involving values and trade-offs. On the other hand, the strategist in me worries that the sophisticated article and Dyson’s lone wolf views will be used as more fodder by conservatives committed to blocking climate action at any cost.

All arguments considered, Dawidoff’s profile strikes me as legitimate in conception, but flawed in execution. Petit is right—to “squelch” this article would have been a shame. While exploring the importance of honest and transparent skepticism (as opposed to the more duplicitous kind proffered by people like Will) to science overall, however, Dawidoff could have done more to challenge the idea that, in this particular instance, Dyson is doing more good than harm.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.