In the post, Revkin also included a quote from the Study of Environmental Arctic Change (or SEARCH) initiative, an interagency effort that funds seventy Arctic research projects. Given the nature of Revkin’s post, the SEARCH quote (essentially its mission statement) is somewhat ironic, but it reinforces the idea that reporting what is happening is often more constructive than trying to report what will happen:

“The intent is not to issue predictions, but rather to summarize all available information from ongoing observing and modeling efforts to provide the scientific community, stakeholders, and the public the best available information on the evolution of the arctic sea ice cover,” said the coordinators in a statement.

Given the inherent problems with long-range weather predictions, it is a scientifically reasonable and prudent statement. It also harkens to some of the admonitions directed toward hurricane forecasters in a spate of stories that marked the beginning of the Atlantic hurricane season in June. For years, the media has used the start of the storm season as story fodder, but 2008 saw a marked number of articles that questioned the accuracy and utility of predictions. The Associated Press compared meteorologists forecasting hurricanes to groundhogs forecasting winter.

Predictions are not that worthless, however. Coastal Floridians and others in the storm belt would obviously prefer to have a scientist’s best guess than nothing at all. Like all science journalism, though, reporters must be true to the data at hand and resist the temptation to stretch their conclusions. Along those lines, The Wall Street Journal’s Numbers Guy blog recently made a very intelligent call for forecasters and journalists alike to “embrace uncertainty”:

When climate forecasters estimate the number of hurricanes for the coming storm season before it’s even started, there’s a lot of uncertainty. Yet the news media sometimes reports these predictions with great confidence — then balks when a hurricane season defies forecasts. Now for the first time, two major forecasters are reporting what they don’t know along with what they do know.

Posts like this, and other articles that cast a skeptical eye on long-range hurricane forecasts, are a reassuring phenomenon. Journalists cannot ignore weather and climate predictions — after all, most of the arguments for addressing global warming are founded upon what is likely to happen if temperatures continue to climb — but they must respect the limitations of such efforts by describing them as probabilities rather than certainties.

 

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.