Roger Pielke Jr.: Are Media Apologists Good for Climate Science?

Yesterday, Michael Lemonick asked of journalists at Climate Central, “should we tell the whole truth about climate change?” His answer is to ask “So where’s the right balance between telling the whole truth and being truthful in an effective way?” (have a look at the link title as well). For some journalists a desire for “effectiveness” trumps “truth.”

Journalists, like everyone else, have their biases and perspectives. And on the issue of climate change journalists are as prone as any of us to the seductive siren of tribalism, with good guys on one side and evil ones on the other. But does this framing actually serve the interests of the broader climate science community?  I think not.

Here is an example (and to be clear, it is one example that could be selected from many).In today’s New York Times, Justin Gillis (who has made clear on several occasions that he is no fan of mine) offers a favorable review of Michael Mann’s new book. That Gillis likes Mann’s book is not at all problematic. However, the fact that in his review Gillis includes a statement that is demonstrably false in his defense of Mann is problematic and arguably reinforces the polarization around the debate.

Gillis writes of the so-called “hockey stick” graph produced by Mann and highlighted by the IPCC in its 2001 report (emphasis added):

The graph of reconstructed temperatures is called a hockey stick because the right-hand side shows temperatures veering sharply upward in the last century. The paper and its graph, along with subsequent studies by Dr. Mann and several other scientists, suggest that this recent warming is anomalous, at least over the past millennium. Through no choice of Dr. Mann’s, the graph became a symbol of modern climate science when it was featured prominently in a 2001 report by a United Nations panel.

Now you don’t have to be a climate insider to know that Mann was in fact actively involved in promoting his own graph to be featured by the IPCC in its 2001 report. and that Gillis’ statement is flat out wrong. You don’t have to believe me (or Steve McIntyre, who Gillis denigrates but does not cite by name), but Mann himself. Mann was unequivocally a vigorous advocate within the IPCC promoting his own work. When the NYT gets such a basic fact wrong it not only makes them look bad, but has collateral damage for the climate science community.

The realities of the most intensely contested aspects of the climate debate are that there are human beings on both sides — complex, contradictory, red-blooded, imperfect human beings. When the media places scientists up on a pedestal and does so via the spinning  of untruths, they simply set the stage for a bigger fall when the scientists cannot live up to their adulatory press coverage. And besides, many of us know better. The media should cover science in three dimensions, and eschew the two-dimensional fiction of good vs. evil, even if that means exploring nuance and contradiction.

Roger Pielke Jr.

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