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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