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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16 Responses to A Pitiful Poll and an Abused Article at Scientific American

  1. Ed Yong says:

    This is the poll I created in response to the Stephen Hawking story a few months back: http://edyong.posterous.com/stephen-hawking-poll

    It could be endlessly recycled.

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  2. Keith Kloor says:

    The article has been fodder for much interesting discussion, that’s for sure. I too thought the piece was well done and achieved its purpose:

    http://www.collide-a-scape.com/2010/10/23/the-judith-curry-phenomenon/

    But I’d be curious to hear what you think of Mike Lemonick’s related blog post, in which he seemed to go out of his way to to justify why this was a story worth doing. I felt that this colored people’s perceptions of the story, and can’t help wondering if Mike was responding or attempting to preempt the “attacks” from critics like Romm.

    If you read Romm regularly, as it appears you do (“…not every article can be hostage to Romm’s expectations—or anyone else’s.”) then you know that his “expectations” often take the form of fierce criticism. Be curious to hear what you made of Michael’s blog post and if you thought it was written, in part, in anticipation of those “expectations.”

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    • John Rennie says:

      Hi, Keith. Michael’s piece was interesting to me, although I think it only confirmed my impressions of what he had in mind in writing the piece rather than revising or coloring them. If anything, his blog post may only have verified that he has a more critical, less neutral position toward Curry’s views than some readers might think; so if anything, I’d think it should show people on the denialist/naysayer/whatever side that he went out of his way to be fair to her—not that I expect them to think so. And of course, to the extent that Joe Romm or anyone else critical of Curry draws that same conclusion, I think it may only infuriate them more, not less.

      We should probably just ask Michael what he had in mind rather than speculate, but I would guess that Michael did suspect many people reading his article would erroneously conclude he supported or accepted her position. Did he have Romm personally in mind? Eh, maybe. He may not personalize it that way. I wouldn’t have.

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  3. Pingback: Joe Romm responds | Retort

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  6. Keith Kloor says:

    John, thanks for your response. Indeed, “…that he [Lemonick] went out of his way to be fair to her…” is how I took it.

    As much as I agree that the science should be the focus in stories such as his, the criticism he sought to head off speaks to some of the meta issues that interest me about the climate debate–one of them being efforts by some to influence the larger story’s narrative, or to put another way, what should be emphasized in particular stories.

    On that note, I’m someone who’s been very critical of Romm for what I would consider his indiscriminate, scorched earth-style attacks on journalists and climate science journalism in general–because many stories, to his mind, don’t meet his “expectations,” as you diplomatically put it. I think it’s worth talking about what those “expectations” are, but that would be for another post.

    Thanks again, for the conversation.

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    • John Rennie says:

      I take your point, but my opinion is that it’s a mistake to single out any individual, even somebody as prominent as Joe Romm, as wanting to influence the debate’s narrative. The discussion has become tremendously volatile and baggage-laden; virtually everyone on all sides is trying to influence the narrative. (We could argue the cause and effect of that another time, too.) Even to say “Let’s depoliticize this discussion and just focus on the science” amounts to manipulating the narrative now. Given that, I think it’s only understandable and rather prudent for journalists like Lemonick to footnote their own writings to try (however vainly) to maintain some control over how they’re interpreted and used.

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  7. Pingback: FAIR Blog » Blog Archive » Scientific American Doesn't Doubt Climate Change--But It Acts As If It Does

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  10. Branding those who dissent on the issue of climate change as heretics or unscientific is a red herring designed to distract attention from the real issues, which are political. It is the response to the science that most of us have a problem with. Un-scientific policies such as the “precautionary principle” lead to a strong bias in government research funding, as well as the scope of possible responses.
    The science itself offers a range of possible outcomes from severe to marginal climate warming. This data is then used by political groups to promote their interests by touting the worst case scenario. Science should never become a lobbying effort for a “consensus view” – it will only destroy its credibility.

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    • Chris Winter says:

      Your comment leaves the impression that the only political groups with a position on climate change are those who use it “to promote their interests by touting the worst case scenario.” History, as documented in Merchants of Doubt and elsewhere, shows us that those supporting the status quo have persistently sought to minimize the conclusions of climate scientists. This follows on similar efforts to confuse the public on subjects including smoking, acid rain, and ozone depletion.

      You write that “Science should never become a lobbying effort for a ‘consensus view’ – it will only destroy its credibility.” When the consensus is a scientific one, supported by abundant empirical data, ignoring or disputing it is the sure destroyer of credibility.

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    • John Rennie says:

      “Those who dissent on climate change” covers quite a range of people. Those who dissent on how to respond to it may not be unscientific, but a great many of those who dissent on the reality of it are. I would have greater respect for the more reasonable and scientific people on that side of the argument if I saw them make more dedicated efforts to educate or stifle the unproductive, unscientific voices from their own side of the aisle.

      It is simply wrong to suggest that proposals for political responses to climate change are all predicated on worst case scenarios.

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  12. Pingback: Scientific American editors slam science deniers Patrick Michaels and George Gilder for misusing their unscientific online poll – SciAm “horrified” by “the co-opting of the poll” by users of “the well-known climate deni

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