A Pitiful Poll and an Abused Article at Scientific American

credit: NASA

“Scientific American Jumps the Shark,” cries the title of Joe Romm’s post at Climate Progress, and although I think that particular sentiment is a severe overstatement (which is ironic, for reasons I’ll explain), I do sadly agree with some of his criticisms.

What draws Romm’s ire is the combination of Michael Lemonick’s feature profile of Judith Curry, called “Climate Heretic” (which I previously mentioned here and here), and a related online poll of readers’ attitudes toward climate-change science and proposed policies. Romm isn’t alone in looking askance at the poll; Andrew Leonard of Salon’s How the World Works doesn’t think much of its findings, either, and Jim Naureckas at FAIR.org seems to be echoing Romm’s sentiments.

Neither do I, unfortunately. Maybe I should begin by noting that I loathe nearly all multiple-choice polls on complex subjects. Even the most artfully written ones flirt with oversimplifying the issues being probed and the range of possible views; listed answers are often frustratingly vague or not mutually exclusive. Sometimes I’ve answered polls, looked back at my own answers and wondered whether I could ever recognize my own true positions in them. And online polls are worse still: they’re usually cobbled together hastily, with little to stop anyone from voting repeatedly or enlisting others from doing so—not to mention the problems with sampling error that hopelessly confound the question of what group the poll results are supposed to represent. No number of footnotes that such polls are not a scientific survey compensate for how misleading the results can be (not that I see such a warning on the SciAm results anyway).

And for SciAm to do an online poll about site visitors’ views on a contentious subject like global warming? Sheer folly. Nothing good could come of it. The likelihood that SciAm’s name would be associated with gamed results that nobody really believed but that would be trotted out embarrassingly hereafter would border on a dead certainty.

You can read Romm’s post for a more thorough dissection of how bad the poll is and how loopy the results are. I don’t have the heart to do it myself.

(By the way, in case anyone thinks some personal disclosures are in order, here they are: Though I am no longer on SciAm’s staff, I remain a contributing editor there and still do work for them on a regular basis. Moreover, many of the people there are not just colleagues but close friends—some for more than 20 years. I am, furthermore, extremely loyal to SciAm as an institution. I didn’t know anything about this article or poll ahead of their publication. Michael Lemonick wrote some articles for SciAm back in my days as its editor, and we know one another in the small world of science journalism. Joe Romm also published in SciAm twice while I was there, and I admire his zeal and integrity at Climate Progress in trying to inform people about how dire the scientifically supported threat from climate change may be. I have no axe to grind with any of them, and it brings me no joy to be their critic.)

However, I’ll differ with Romm over most of his criticisms of Lemonick’s Judith Curry profile. The one that seems best supported is his disapproval of the “Climate Heretic” title:

The title is just beyond the pale:  “Climate Heretic.”  The term carries a strong religious connotation, which is, of course, the frame of the anti-science crowd.  It’s the disinformers who accuse climate science of being a religion.  No scientific publication should accept that nonsensical spin.

People who disagree with the broad and deep understanding of climate science aren’t heretics.  They are just unscientific — unless of course they actually provide some scientific evidence that the broad and deep understanding is wrong, which, of course, they never do.  They usually just quibble with tangential bits and suggest that calls everything else into question.

I agree the use of “heretic” in the title is problematic and wrong for all those reasons. That said, as an editor, I can see the weak justification that headlines are supposed to draw readers into articles, and provocative language is one tool to that end. Editors want to be careful about using it to avoid slipping into sensationalism, but it’s not “beyond the pale” to do it. If I had been making the call in this case, I don’t know that I would have okayed “Climate Heretic,” but I might have. Of course, I also see the article itself as ameliorating the term, which Romm doesn’t. Personally, I’m more troubled by the cover line for the story, “Climate Critic: What Science Gets Wrong,” because I don’t see much evidence in the story that “science” is getting anything wrong, just refining its findings.

(If the title had been “Climate Traitor,” would Romm perceive the article differently, I wonder? Probably not. Most of the words related to betrayal or dissent imply some faith or loyalty among adherents that is not strictly rational, and Romm’s point is that the climate change issue is driven by the science alone. But a word like “Dissenter” is so bloodless that it doesn’t hint at the emotional reactions that Curry stirs up among many climate scientists, which is part of the article’s subject. Editorially, it’s a problem.)

Romm’s other attacks on the article’s body are more dubious. He summarizes his complaint about it by saying that “the article leave[s] the impression that there is no science on this at all, that it’s all a great mystery, that the belief of one semi-informed person matters.” Naureckas alleges the same thing, that it “seems to leave the impression that the truth on climate change is somewhere in the middle.”

But that’s an unfair and unsupportable reading of what Lemonick wrote and Scientific American published. The piece is unambiguous that the preponderance of science—including Curry’s own work—points to global warming as an inescapable reality, and that considerable care has gone into the conclusions that it represents a threat. It takes pains to say, for example:

Climate skeptics have seized on Curry’s statements to cast doubt on the basic science of climate change. So it is important to emphasize that nothing she encountered led her to question the science; she still has no doubt that the planet is warming, that human-generated greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, are in large part to blame, or that the plausible worst-case scenario could be catastrophic. She does not believe that the Climategate e-mails are evidence of fraud or that the IPCC is some kind of grand international conspiracy.

The “Climate Heretic” title seems to have poisoned Romm’s perception of the rest of the piece. He wonders, for instance, whether the article sets up the IPCC’s 2007 Fourth Assessment Report as an example of the “dogma” that Curry’s “heresy” is attacking. “Given that there are more than a half a dozen major studies on this subject in the last 3 years, I don’t even know why much time is wasted on the widely criticized SLR estimates in 2007 IPCC report, which stopped taking new science input over 4 years ago,” he writes.

But look again at the paragraph he cites. Lemonick mentions the IPCC’s 2007 Fourth Assessment Report because he’s making the point that, contrary to aspersions that IPCC climate scientists have been alarmist or blind to uncertainties about sea level rise from melting ice, the IPCC has if anything erred by being too conservative:

Rather than sweeping that uncertainty about ice sheets under the rug, as Curry’s overall critique might lead one to assume, the IPCC’s 2007 Fourth Assessment Report flags this uncertainty. Specifically, the report projects 0.18 to 0.59 meter of sea-level rise by the end of the century but explicitly excludes possible increases in ice flow. The reason, as the report explains, is that while such increases are likely, there was insufficient information at the time to estimate what they might be. Since the report came out, new research has given a better sense of what might happen with ice dynamics (although the authors caution that considerable uncertainty remains about the projections). It turns out that the original projections may have been too benign.

Romm also moans, “Won’t anybody cite science anymore?” in response to this next paragraph:

The same could be true for other aspects of climate. “The plausible worst-case scenario could be worse than anything we’re looking at right now,” Curry says. The rise in temperature from a doubling of CO2 “could be one degree. It could be 10 degrees. Let’s just put it out there and develop policy options for all the scenarios and do a cost-benefit analysis for all of them, and then you start to get the things that make sense.”

It bothers him—rightly—that people are still talking about a mere doubling of CO2 levels when, as he points out, “we are going to blow past 550 ppm (a doubling of CO2 concentrations) on our current emissions path.” And it’s certainly true that there’s a large body of published literature that tries to pin down what the expected global temperature increase might be far more precisely than Curry’s breezy “could be one degree, could be 10 degrees” statement might imply. But please, that’s Lemonick quoting Curry to capture her own views on the topic, not Lemonick characterizing the state of the science.

My impression is that Romm’s biggest complaint against the article is that it did not jump on every opportunity it could have found to refute her more forcefully. Perhaps that’s a lost opportunity, and in the context of the climate debates, perhaps it’s a lamentable one. But it would also have been a article with a very different purpose than the profile feature that that this one was meant to be. With all due respect, not every article can be hostage to Romm’s expectations—or anyone else’s.

And returning to the subject of climate “heresy” and “dogma”: Romm is right on the money when he observes that “Scientific understanding is the exact opposite of dogma” and that the body of work on anthropogenic climate change is constantly under scrutiny and revision, and that this makes its warnings only more trustworthy. The absence of any sacred dogma at the heart of climate science doesn’t stop the denialists and naysayers from accusing climate scientists of acting like a cult intolerant of dissent, however. And when Scientific American—which has a long history of presenting that science, arguing with deniers and advocating for action on global warming—elicits intemperate attacks that it has “jumped the shark” and is “running from science” for publishing an article that apparently doesn’t defend climate science emphatically enough, then that misplaced outrage feeds into the denialists’ framing at least as much as the word “heresy” in a headline does.

Update added shortly after publication: And now I see that SciAm’s editor in chief Mariette DiChristina has responded to the critics as well.

Further update, slightly later: Joe Romm has responded to me as well.

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