Upstream/Downstream: Why The NY Times Should Understand the Nature of Inconvenient Truths

My quick summary reaction to Bill Broad's provocative NY Times article surveying a few scientists and social scientists' opinions on Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth:

1) Just like in politics generally, science-related blogs can strongly shape the news agenda and framing of an issue, and Broad's article is a leading example. Roger Pielke and Kevin Vranes at UColorado's Prometheus site have been doing a great job in adding their expertise and views to the climate change discussion over the past few years. In the process, they have emerged as a valuable source for journalists trying to make sense of new studies, policy debates, or just trying to tap into what expert thinking might be. (See especially Vranes' insight here.)

Blogs are powerful because everyone's a cognitive miser, including journalists, policymakers, and even scientists. The availability and accessibility of a few key experts is often a primary influence on the interpretation of expert knowledge. Indeed, blogs create a desktop accessible convenience sample of expertise online.

2) From experience, Bill Broad and the science editors at the Times know all too well what kind of reactions popularized "inconvenient truths" can generate from scientists and policymakers alike. As sociologist Steve Hilgartner describes in a well cited paper from the early 1990s, as scientific information shifts from upstream contexts such as conference presentations and journal articles to downstream contexts such as blogs, press releases, news articles, and major motion pictures, distortion is inevitable. Indeed, there's a long history of scientists unhappy with outstanding science reporting at the NY Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and other elite news outlets.

In these cases, it's because scientists want to see the scientific topic described in news coverage or a documentary film as it is described in journal articles and conference presentations. The problem is that in popularized downstream contexts, neither the medium nor the audience allows for a technical portrayal, especially when you are talking about a heavily dramatized format such as film.

On this matter, what I perceive as the take home messages from the article are captured in quotes from NASA's James Hansen, a reaction from Gore, and from Princeton's Michael Oppenheimer:

--"We need to be more careful in describing the hurricane story than he is," Dr. Hansen said of Mr. Gore. "On the other hand," Dr. Hansen said, "he has the bottom line right: most storms, at least those driven by the latent heat of vaporization, will tend to be stronger, or have the potential to be stronger, in a warmer climate."

--In his e-mail message, Mr. Gore defended his work as fundamentally accurate. "Of course," he said, "there will always be questions around the edges of the science, and we have to rely upon the scientific community to continue to ask and to challenge and to answer those questions."

--Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton who advised Mr. Gore on the book and movie, said that reasonable scientists disagreed on the malaria issue and other points that the critics had raised. In general, he said, Mr. Gore had distinguished himself for integrity. "On balance, he did quite well -- a credible and entertaining job on a difficult subject," Dr. Oppenheimer said. "For that, he deserves a lot of credit. If you rake him over the coals, you're going to find people who disagree. But in terms of the big picture, he got it right."

3) What get's Gore in trouble, and a lot of environmentalists, is the continued heavy promotion of the Pandora's Box frame on global warming. Or as Ellen Goodman describes the narrative, "This is your earth. This is your earth on greenhouse gases." As I've written elsewhere, this framing device offers decreasing returns. It has activated and engaged a key demographic segment of the public, while a strong majority of the public tunes it out. In the process, the drama and urgency embedded in the narrative opens up people like Gore to claims of "alarmism." We need to move beyond the Pandora's box frame, and figure out how to package the old story of climate change in new ways. Remaining true to the science, while engaging new segments of the public.

Blog Roundup

--Over at the influential RealClimate, they refer to the Times piece as "Broadly misleading," over-relying on a handful of skeptics:

In this piece, Broad attempts to discredit Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" by exaggerating the legitimate, but minor, criticisms of his treatment of the science by experts on climate science, and presenting specious or unsubstantiated criticisms by a small number of the usual, well-known contrarians who wouldn't agree even if Gore read aloud from the latest IPCC report.

--End of Science author John Horgan notes a perceived contradiction between the reporting of the Tiimes' Andrew Revkin (I'm a major fan) and that of Bill Broad:

What fascinates me about Broad's stories is that they seemed to at least implicitly contradict the view of global warming purveyed by his Times colleague Andrew Revkin

--My friend and sometime co-author Chris Mooney weighs in with a preview of his criticism of Gore featured in his forthcoming Storm World, a book on the science and politics of hurricanes: question as a point of strategy has always been: Why include the 1 to 5 percent of more questionable stuff, and so leave onself open to this kind of attack? Given how incredibly smart and talented Al Gore is, didn't he see this coming?

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.