Still, one can’t help but feel that even the Times and AP articles combined do not do the story justice. It would be wonderful to see an American newspaper publish a multi-part series (in print or online) that really takes the time and space necessary to give readers the full context, in a semi-narrative fashion, of the IPCC’s recent woes. An example of what that would look like was the twelve-part series the Guardian published last week about so-called “ClimateGate” affair.
The first sentence in the series, by veteran science writer Fred Pearce, began by acknowledging that “many may think [the paper] should not publish for fear of wrecking the already battered cause of fighting climate change.” The Guardian was right to ignore those voices. They preach the same head-in-the-sand mentality that led FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting) to criticize The Observatory two weeks ago for calling for more coverage of the IPCC’s travails.
The only way that the public can possibly understand the full context of these issues is to report them at length. The Guardian covers a lot of well-trodden ground related to the batch of e-mails taken from the University of East Anglia last November, but claims to find “previously undisclosed evidence of slipshod use of data and apparent efforts to cover that up. It also finds persistent efforts to censor work by climatic skeptics regarded as hostile….”
In detailed, semi-narrative fashion, Pearce recounts the stories of long and ongoing battles between scientists and skeptics over the “hockey stick” temperature graph and data from sources such as Chinese weather stations and Siberian tree-rings. Pearce is intensely critical of the scientists at points, but he includes frequent disclaimers that, in every instance, the “slipshod use of data” did not “undermine climate science, despite what the skeptics say.” The headline of the second part in the series unambiguously states, “Claims based on email soundbites are demonstrably false – there is manifestly no evidence of clandestine data manipulation.” Pearce doesn’t pull any punches. He just methodically examines each point of criticism in turn, explaining which ones he thinks are legitimate, which ones “bogus,” and why.
Over the course of his analysis, Pearce describes the genesis and metamorphosis of the “war” between climate scientists and skeptics over the last ten to fifteen years. The detailed chronology gives readers a useful appreciation—lacking in shorter accounts—of the motivations and passions at play in the ongoing controversy. So, while Peace holds scientists to the fire for what he judged to be “systematic attempts to block [data and information] requests from skeptics” and “strenuous efforts to … ‘censor’ their critics,” he also explains why some of their reactions were “understandable.” The headline of the first part in the series notes that: “whether it was democracy in action, or defense against malicious attempts to disrupt research, climate scientists were driven to siege mentality by the persistence of skeptics.”
Ultimately, Pearce seems to conclude that the skeptics’ persistence was often more justifiable than the scientists’ siege mentality. But the series also leaves room for debate on that matter. For instance, in part six, Pearce charges that “the [e-mail] correspondence raises awkward questions about the effectiveness of peer-review - the supposed gold standard of scientific merit - and the operation of the UN’s top climate body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).” However, he then immediately acknowledges that: “The scientists involved disagree. They say they were engaged not in suppressing dissent but in upholding scientific standards by keeping bad science out of peer-reviewed journals.”
No only that, but they get a chance to say it right Pearce’s series in the form of online annotations to the text. An introduction to each article explains that (in what it calls a “unique experiment”) the Guardian “will allow web users to annotate the manuscript to help us in our aim of creating the definitive account of the controversy. This is an attempt at a collaborative route to getting at the truth.” The approach seems effective. In part six, for instance, NASA climate modeler Gavin Schmidt—who has made a number of annotations throughout series—mounts a convincing defense that his colleagues were, in fact, defending the integrity of peer review rather than straining it. Regardless of whether you agree with Pearce or Schmidt, the Guardian’s approach appropriately acknowledges that evidence leaves room for some degree of interpretation.