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« Delingpole on the state of the debate | Main | Sub Prime Subsidies - Josh 155 »

Questioning the scientists

Keith Kloor has an article at the Yale Climate Forum, looking at media reporting of science and climate change. In it, he quotes science journalist Ed Yong

Freelance science writer Ed Yong echoes this sentiment at his Discover magazine blog: “If we write something, and we put our names to it, the buck stops with us. If there is a mistake, it is our fault.” Yong sets the bar high for science journalists: “If the paper was rubbish, if the peer reviewers missed something, if the scientist lied, if the press release is distorted, it’s still our fault for producing something that is inaccurate or that fails to root out these problems.”

The idea that journalists should not be responsible for what they write is extraordinary, so Yong's comments are welcome. Unfortunately many science and almost all environment journalists do not see this as being part of their job. They see themselves as part of a movement and their job is not to question anything said by "the scientists".

Among all the reviews of Michael Mann's book published in recent weeks, can anyone recall one that challenged anything he said?

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Reader Comments (30)

"The idea that journalists should not be responsible for what they write is extraordinary," I perfectly agree.

Will the Bishop join me in admonishing Fraser Nelson to subject the works of Booker & Dellingpole to fact checkers and science editors beforehand ?

Mar 8, 2012 at 8:07 AM | Unregistered CommenterRussell

Why would these journalists challenge anything in manns book? It contains exactly what they want to read.


Mar 8, 2012 at 8:27 AM | Unregistered CommenterMailman

Challenge? Challenge? Who wants to be called a "denier" in the secret pay of Big Oil by the great Mann himself?

Mar 8, 2012 at 8:38 AM | Unregistered CommenterJack Savage

I think the UEA did try to question Delingpole's facts - they lost.

Mar 8, 2012 at 8:47 AM | Unregistered CommenterCaroline

Following Steve McIntyre’s recommendation to read Brandon Shollenberger‘s original comments on Lucia’s thread, rather than the review he later concocted, you find this:

“The book doesn’t really bother me in and of itself. I’ve become numb to Mann spouting off nonsense over the years. Unfortunately, I haven’t got past the annoyance/anger at people actually listening to him.”

This makes precisely Yong’s point. The scientist, acting as advocate, either for his science, or for the political action his science is supposed to further, is entitled to put a certain spin on his work. The job of the journalist is to separate truth from spin.
All environmental journalists, without exception, see their job as helping the scientist in his spinning. They are precisely like the travel journalists who fill the gaps between the ads on the holiday pages. Except the ads bring revenue to the paper, while the spun science brings only contempt.

Mar 8, 2012 at 8:47 AM | Unregistered Commentergeoffchambers

I think that this is an unrealistic expectation. Science journalists should not simply cut and paste press releases about the work of scientists but...... to expect them to subject every science paper to a full review? In every field? The balance lies somewhere in between. Ben Goldacre very sound on this subject , apart from his own uncritical acceptance of CAGW!
Frankly, I would settle for the present for science journalists who had SOME kind of background in science, who accurately reported the content of the research itself and who were not obviously pushing an agenda of some sort. It would be a good start and a major change in some media!

Mar 8, 2012 at 8:59 AM | Unregistered CommenterJack Savage

Tweet from hurricane researcher Ryan Maue:

Climate science "experts" continually bullsh*t their way on to pages of liberal media newspapers and blogs. Journos know this & lap it up.

Mar 8, 2012 at 9:09 AM | Registered CommenterPaul Matthews

admonishing Fraser Nelson . . .

To add to geoffchambers' perceptive point and assuming I've got your meaning right (the syntax is unclear), you are missing the point here. No-one apart from you is suggesting that independent-minded "environmental" journalists (if you'll forgive the oxymoron) should have a minder from, say, the Scottish Government's Commissariat for Truth ensuring that their copy meets official standards for "accuracy".

I'd have thought it reasonably obvious that the procedure you advocate would, far from making journalists responsible for what they write, absolve them of that responsibility. Typically, that's what censorship does.

Absent evidence of persistent inaccuracy, your gripe with Booker and Delingpole (the latter BTW is more a polemicist than a journalist) seems to be less that they are cavalier with facts and more that you just don't like their opinions. Neither do I a lot of the time but I don't think back-door censorship is the way to debate with them.

Given strong evidence from Climategate and elsewhere that prominent climate scientists have successfully censored critics for years, it's not a trivial point.

Mar 8, 2012 at 9:12 AM | Unregistered CommenterDaveB

Is it that science/environmental journalists have a self-image more akin to that of the missionary heading out to spread the good word and bring enlightenment to benighted peoples?

Mar 8, 2012 at 9:41 AM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Shade

These people are not science journalists. They are not even science advocates. An advocate would promote the wonder and the excitement of science to its readers. These people are profoundly negative in telling their tales. They reduced science to a scary headline. They have ensured that people now fear the consequences of scientific research. Science now has a huge downside due to the Revkin, Blacks and even Yongs of this world, and that should never be.

Mar 8, 2012 at 9:50 AM | Unregistered CommenterMac

Back at Real Science I've been saying to David Appell how useless it is to discuss anything with journalists like him, who only see themselves as parrots of press releases by scientists.

I think Ed Yong is the one and only science journo out there (David Whitehouse is a journo scientist...) who has gone beyond the old reverential attitude towards the scientists. But I won't hold my breath to read Ed on climate science 8-)

Mar 8, 2012 at 10:12 AM | Unregistered CommenterMaurizio Morabito

Jack Savage
I agree, "to expect them to subject every science paper to a full review? In every field? " is simply absurd. Who would these paragons of knowledge be?

Me. I'd settle for a lot less, just a basic level of good old fashioned journalistic cynicism would go a long was to improve things. For example instead of regurgitating a press release it would help if they gave some background, such as who released it and why.

Mar 8, 2012 at 10:38 AM | Unregistered CommenterEddy

If the Guardian reported politics the way they report climate change, Dubya would still be celebrated for Mission Accomplished and a small altar dedicated to St Tony Blair.

Mar 8, 2012 at 10:45 AM | Registered Commenteromnologos

"Among all the reviews of Michael Mann's book published in recent weeks, can anyone recall one that challenged anything he said?"

Try this one:

Mar 8, 2012 at 10:47 AM | Unregistered CommenterMr. Worthington

I suggest that environmental reporters should be no different from sports reporters. Their job is report what happens in the game, or in the club room or sometimes in the personal lives of the athletes. They might also editorialise on teams or games. They should not be advocates for a particular team. If they do, they are simply publicists. Why should reporters dealing with environmental issues.behave differently?

Mar 8, 2012 at 11:10 AM | Unregistered CommenterMorley Sutter

This statement is more applicable to an investigative journalist:
“If the paper was rubbish, if the peer reviewers missed something, if the scientist lied, if the press release is distorted, it’s still our fault for producing something that is inaccurate or that fails to root out these problems.”

If it was a news report, then the report should be worded so that this statement is not applicable! For example, the passive tense could be used. The reporter should not take responsibility for something they know little about.

A journalist should know that his job is to report and, on occasion, interpret. (Keeping these two separate does reduce the opportunity for spin.)

It is not to advocate. That is not acting as a journalist; that is what is not being understood here. Too many reporters are acting as advocates of the subjects on which they are reporting whether it is a report on a school closure or a planning application for a new school! They are there empathising, not reporting!

Reporters CANNOT be 'super experts' in all the fields on which they report, so they cannot be held responsible for seeing through every untruth in every report in every report they do. Though, having some basic knowledge of the subjects concerned would help them detect some of the spin - and that would be news itself!

They should therefore acknowledge their limitations, and this should be reflected in what they produce.

What they should be held responsible for is that they do their job: their job is reporting: follow all leads and report on them. It is not advocacy!

The Global Warming Delusion has arisen because, instead of reporting the differing sides of the argument, we have had the strong advocacy of one agenda, that has not been declared, and complicated by having many undigested assumptions from a wide variety of disciplines wrapped within it. On many programmes on the BBC, the exclusion of all other views has been total!

On the few occasions, where there has been a discussion, one side has had an impressive technically strong team and has been allowed to set the agenda, while the other has often been passionate (and correct!) but has not had the depth of knowledge to make any headway. It makes the discussion unbalanced and not very informative.

What we need to remember is what a reporter is there to do; the same is true for scientist, pressure group (we do need them, but where we can see them), academic journal, government, government minister and current affairs programme, to name but a few.

Mar 8, 2012 at 11:53 AM | Unregistered CommenterRobert Christopher

Mr. Worthington:
Alas, after reading the Sadar review you link to, I have to agree with Andrew, only Hu's and Brandon's reviews come close to assessing what Mann has written.
I am really hoping for a detailed review from Andrew, Steve or Ross.

Mar 8, 2012 at 12:40 PM | Unregistered CommenterBernie

Any journalist familiar with the methods of science is equipped to critically assess any study that crosses their desk. When Trenberth attempted to reverse the null hypothesis, and when the best reason to indict CO2 is because "we can't think of anything else", then anyone with a high school science background should be able to call foul.

I don't expect science journalists to re-run an analysis to verify a paper, but when their methods and/or reasoning fall outside the bounds of good logic, I expect them to call the scientists on it.

Mar 8, 2012 at 1:12 PM | Unregistered CommenterJonasM

I have not read the comments so I hope that I am not merely repeating what others have said.

I consider that this places the bar too high. The job of a journalist is to report not support.

The journalist should be objective and indeed even sceptical of what is being reported. Whereever possible, a balanced position should be adopted and thus contraian view points should also be mentioned. However, provided that it is made clear that the journalist is merely reporting what others have said, what others claim and where a claim is being rerported the journalist has carried out research to see whether there is at least prima facie justification for the claim, then I do not consider that you can expect more of a journalist. Journalists are not, nor should they be expected to be, peer reviewers. In the scientific field, that is letting other scientistists off the hook.

The problem is that all elements of MSM have a political viewpoint and this impacts upon what they report and how they report it.

Mar 8, 2012 at 1:24 PM | Unregistered Commenterrichard verney

What if the science has been predigested by the Science Media Centre to suit their view? One needs only to read Fiona Fox's statements to the Leveson Enquiry advocating more interference into science journalism to realise that journalists like Ed Yong, few and far between, have a battle ahead.

Mar 8, 2012 at 1:40 PM | Unregistered CommenterYvonne

richard verney - the "problem" is that AGW is seen as a public health issue, and when there's public health, there's always a totalitarian temptation. Check the actual original meaning of Robespierre's "Committee of Public Safety", it was "Committee of Public Health".

Mar 8, 2012 at 1:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterMaurizio Morabito

It's a pity Keith Kloor doesn't live up to his proclaimed standards. His treatment of David Whitehouse (who I agree with Mauritzio is the best science journalist in the country) is a shabby bit of gutter reporting.

Mar 8, 2012 at 1:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterMiriam

It is indicative of the sad state of science journalism in the UK and elsewhere that advocates like Kloor even think Ed Yong's points are worth remarking on. In the past they were taken as self-evident. I must say that having read back issues of the Yale Climate Forum (which seem to be Kloor's only outlet) that I've never read such pretentious twaddle in my life. David Whitehouse's Huffington Post article seems to me to be spot on but then Whitehouse, unlike Kloor and Yong has actually been a working journalist, not a blogger, press release writer or vanity publisher on their own website.

Mar 8, 2012 at 2:04 PM | Unregistered CommenterJ harcome

It would be a start if science journalists actually read the abstracts of the papers instead of just the press release put out by the "scientists".

Mar 8, 2012 at 2:43 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlex Heyworth

"If the Guardian reported politics the way they report climate change, Dubya would still be celebrated for Mission Accomplished and a small altar dedicated to St Tony Blair."

Au contraire. Like Dubya, many self-styled environmental journalists have embarked on a search for Weather of Mass Destruction in order to justify a broader agenda- in this case societal rather than regional intervention.

Actual skeptics of broad scientific literacy, while rare , do exist in journalism , but for every Ridley there are a half dozen Moncktons and a score of mercenary hacks muddying the waters.

Advertising happens.

Mar 8, 2012 at 5:10 PM | Unregistered CommenterRussell

I apologize for misposting this on the Delingpole thread. Of course in the assumption that it might be apropos here. Ah well...

I wonder if we might reasonably expect a journalist to ask a few questions unanswered in the book under review.

A recurring meme in the televised nightly news in the US is "questions are being asked" usually in association with the crash of an airliner driven by someone of dubious experience who had not slept in the 24 hours preceding the off-air port landing. What these questions might be is left to the imagination of the viewer. But to the point, someone has realized that there should be questions whether or not they are ever actually asked. At least a start.

I don't think this would be too much to expect of someone styling him/herself a scientific reporter. Such a question might be along the lines of "Author states but does not support with any observations, references, or logical development that pigs fly. My reading is that this assumption is the basis of much of his theory. The author's failure to more solidly establish this assertion seems to me to reneder all which follows unsupported."

Don't most of you (BH readers) dismiss a technical review which has no quibbles with the book reviewed? Quibbles provide insight into the clarity of the review.

Mar 8, 2012 at 5:24 PM | Unregistered Commenterj ferguson

Here is an interesting clip about Michael Mann and the Climate Wars, reported and produced by 'journalist' Suzanne Goldenberg:

Mar 8, 2012 at 7:09 PM | Unregistered Commenterharold

I agree with Maurizio

- the "problem" is that AGW is seen as a public health issue, and when there's public health, there's always a totalitarian temptation

You can also see it in the EU snus debate and the US EPA/clean air act.

Mar 8, 2012 at 9:23 PM | Unregistered Commenterharold

Thirty years ago in our chemistry department we used to hold a seminar each Thursday, where the honours students (including me) had to get practice at giving papers in seminars. The Prof sometimes would come around the week before and hand out journal articles, which we would then present on, with questions afterwards.

One Thursday all was going well when one victim gave his presentation on a certain paper. Afterwards Prof stood up and asked the first question: "Do you realise that this paper was found to be fraudulent and is the subject of the following two papers, which showed it erroneous?". Dead silence from victim, who was making like a salmon out of water. We all got the lesson.

Fortunately I wasn't the victim! If in a chemistry department 30 years ago we were being trained to have alert sh** detectors even then, why should not journalists and academics not likewise be careful now?

Academics gaming the system is not a new arising. But what is new is the vast amount of cash sloshing around looking for an ideologically correct home.

Mar 8, 2012 at 10:45 PM | Unregistered CommenterBruce of Newcastle

Bruce of Newcastle,
In an even earlier confrontation with a bad paper, friend was 3 years into a Doctorate at Cal Tech when the work on which he was basing his efforts was found to be erroneous. He was screwed.

They gave him a Masters, and suggested he go somewhere else. Somewhere else turned out to be Stanford where he got an MBA and went on to great success in a less technical environment.

it could have ended much worse. I don't worry so much that a lot of us are sceptical of the papers in the climateology field, but that the initiates seem not to be sceptical. But maybe they are and we just don't see much evidence of it.

Mar 9, 2012 at 1:20 AM | Unregistered Commenterj ferguson

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