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News & Perspective from the Center for Environmental Journalism
This item was posted on April 18, 2010, and it was categorized as CRU email controversy, Climate Change, Global Warming.
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Judith Curry, a forthright climate scientist at Georgia Tech, has some interesting things to say about the Oxburgh investigations into the Climatic Research Unit email imbroglio. Every journalist who covers climate should consider what she has to say.

Curry had her say in comments to a posting by my colleague Roger Pielke, Jr., and Roger then highlighted them in a new post.

Our job as journalists is not simply to report the news — in this case what the Oxburgh report says — but also the story about the news. That means we should provide context, explain the meaning and significance of the news, and delve into the broader story. And in this case, the broader story is that the Oxburgh investigations may not be the final word on the integrity of climate science.

Here’s the essence of Curry’s critique:

The primary frustration with these investigations is that they are dancing around the principal issue that people care about: the IPCC and its implications for policy. Focusing only on CRU activities (which was the charge of the Oxbourgh panel) is of interest mainly to UEA and possibly the politics of UK research funding (it will be interesting to see if the U.S. DOE sends any more $$ to CRU). Given their selection of CRU research publications to investigate (see Bishop Hill), the Oxbourgh investigation has little credibility in my opinion. However, I still think it unlikely that actual scientific malfeasance is present in any of these papers: there is no malfeasance associated with sloppy record keeping, making shaky assumptions, and using inappropriate statistical methods in a published scientific journal article.

The corruptions of the IPCC process, and the question of corruption (or at least inappropriate torquing) of the actual science by the IPCC process, is the key issue. The assessment process should filter out erroneous papers and provide a broader assessment of uncertainty; instead, we have seen evidence of IPCC lead authors pushing their own research results and writing papers to support an established narrative. I don’t see much hope for improving the IPCC process under its current leadership.

“Corruption” is a mighty strong word, and Gavin Schmidt over at RealClimate has already criticized it. But just because he takes exception to it does not mean that journalists should ignore what Curry has to say.

In any case, to prepare yourself for what’s in store in coming days as climate scientists, climate skeptics, journalists, bloggers — in short, the gantse megillah on climate change — weigh in on this, you absolutely must read “Some Spicy Curry” by Keith Kloor.

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One Comment

  1. paulina
    Posted April 19, 2010 at 12:05 am | Permalink

    The “story about the news”?

    Sounds great. Here’s some more background.

    ““The story behind that graph certainly didn’t show that global warming was a hoax or a fraud, as some skeptics proclaimed,” Tierney wrote, “but it did illustrate another of their arguments: that the evidence for global warming is not as unequivocal as many scientists claim.”” (Clark Hoyt)

    No, it did not illustrate that.

    The IPCC AR4 states that the “warming of the climate system is unequivocal.” The story behind the graph has no bearing on this claim.

    In fact, Tierney’s sentence is simply false and grossly misleading.

    This is just one example of how the New York Times has helped manufacture the impression that these emails should damage the public’s trust in climate science and climate scientists.

    Who’s going to cover *this* story about the news?

    The NYT immediately ran a front page article that claimed–based on pure fantasy–that the hacked material could “erode the overall argument,” the overall anthropogenic global warming argument. The article made this claim implicitly, by making the understatement of the year: the article said the material was “unlikely to erode the overall argument.” By writing “unlikely,” the NYT implied it was possible. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Yet no evidence for the possibility that a bunch of emails could do this was offered at all.

    Or consider the epitome of false balance, put forward by the Yale Forum on Climate Change and Media, of all things:

    “Take those who see this event as the end of days when it comes to anthropogenic climate change with a huge grain of salt. And take those dismissing it as much ado about nothing with an equal dose.”

    Once again we have the suggestion that the materials possibly could undermine the overall argument.

    You do not have to be a climate scientist to see that the burden of proof is on anyone who wants to suppose that the hacked material possibly could have the power to erode the overall argument.

    Instead of recognizing and honoring this burden of proof, the media ignored it and manufactured the possibility.

    Ironically, to their relative credit, less serious media and hate media at least acknowledge that endowing the materials with such fantastic powers is premised on a conspiracy fantasy.

    The media engaged in wishful rather than critical thinking and engaged in a sensationalistic approach. This is no one’s fault but their own. This massive media FAIL is what most desperately needs to be examined in order for there to be any lessons learned from the very unseemly business of reading other people’s mail.


    Mainstream science and environmental journalists got “the story” massively wrong.


    Perhaps Andy Revkin has part of the answer. In an essay on science writing he points out that, by the “metric of the media,” it’s the “reporter’s job” to be “irresponsible.” “Finding the one element that’s new and implies malfeasance [even if the "find" or "implication" proves mistaken] is the key to getting on the front page.”

    I think this irresponsibility, this carelessness–a smashing up of things and creatures–warrants a lot more “story about the news” coverage.

    You seem very interested in Dr. Curry. Why?

    Curry, of course, has made very strong claims, in the NYT and elsewhere, regarding the effect of the stolen CRU materials on “public trust.” But Dr. Curry had no data (and possibly no argument–I’ve tried over the course of the day to work out, with her, what her argument was, with no success, so far) to back up this assertion and neither did the NYT. Further, there’s been very little exploration of what the concept even means (for instance, Curry’s essay on the topic blurs normative and descriptive concepts, thereby leaving the issue *less* clear). And little distinction between potential damage done by the materials themselves, as a kind of proxy for the scientists, and potential damage done by misleading media coverage.

    I look forward to blow-by-blow coverage of media missteps from Nov 20 to the present.

    I also look forward to constructive, clear, focused exchanges on what lessons journalists need to learn from this and how the media can avoid making the same mistakes again. This is the time for some serious media introspection.

One Trackback

  1. Posted April 18, 2010 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    [...] My colleague Roger Pielke Jr. has the original scoop, and my other colleague Tom Yulsman takes a mini-scoop out of the original scoop to highlight the impending scoop explosion. I thought I’d grab a spoon for my own dollop off the mini-scoop, however, and unscoop some [...]

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