Less than FAIR criticism?

Jim Naureckas at the FAIR blog was one of those who criticized the recent article by Michael Lemonick and the climate change polls on Scientific American‘s website, which I’ve previously discussed. He wrote a follow-up post commenting on editor Mariette DiChristina’s defense of that package. I felt compelled to leave a response to his post in comments; here’s a copy of what I wrote:

Jim, I think you make some valid points here, though I think any attentive reading of Michael Lemonick’s whole article—rather than just the unfortunate title and deck—shows that Scientific American is not in fact engaging in false balance. Lemonick’s article really leaves no doubt that anthropogenic climate change is real and perilous, for example.

As for what [commenter] Dana Franchitto calls the “rotting firewall between advertising and editorial content,” as someone who worked beside that wall for 15 years at SciAm, I can attest that it’s in far better repair than he and others may believe. All commercial publications wrestle with these problems (and have for decades), but the people on both the editorial and business sides of SciAm work with exceptional integrity to preserve that church-and-state separation. The Shell poll bugs me, too, but I suspect its deficiencies are the result of errors, not venality.

Finally, Jim, your final question about the oil article from last year seems a bit desperate. First, the article does mention climate prominently in its 6th paragraph: “Although oil and other fossil fuels pose risks for the climate and the environment, for now alternative energy sources cannot compete with their versatility, cost, and ease of transport and storage. As research into alternatives goes on, we will need to be sure that we use the oil we have responsibly.” Second, the article is less about “the future of oil” than it is about improving oilfield pumping technologies; hence the title “Squeezing More Oil from the Ground.” Even those of us who yearn for a quick transition away from fossil fuels can still recognize the oil recovery problem as important and worthy of discussion.

Scientific American publishes constantly both in print and online about the realities of climate change and the need for action to forestall it. It’s done so for years. Don’t take my word for it; go to www.scientificamerican.com and look. Even if it makes some mistakes, it deserves more of a benefit of a doubt than you’ve shown it here. It certainly deserves not to have you contrive some ominous trend by connecting problems with the current online package of content to an article from last year you seem to think should have been about something else.

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10 Responses to Less than FAIR criticism?

  1. And my response in the comments thread:

    I did overlook the one sentence of CYA in that piece, but honestly–does oil really “pose risks” to the climate? Or is “squeezing more oil from the ground” a recipe for destroying the ecosystem as we know it?

    If “climate is the issue of our time,” this is not the way to report on it.

    • John Rennie says:

      If the article in question were supposed to be reporting on climate, you’d have a point. It was reporting on how to pump oil more efficiently. We can’t just wish away the world economy’s need for oil, no matter how much we might want to, because it’s going to be decades before we can prepare alternative energy sources and associated technologies on that scale. Acknowledging that much isn’t a betrayal of the climate cause; it’s a reason for getting started on preparing those alternatives now. And if squeezing more oil from existing wells helps to reduce the economic pressures to dig new ones, it sounds more helpful than hurtful to the environmental cause.

  2. It was an article about how we can continue the oil-based economy for another century or so by using tar sands and the like. Of course, if we continue the oil-based economy for another century, the average global temperature is going to rise something like 9 degrees F. It’s the kind of article I would expect an oil executive to write, but I wouldn’t expect a science magazine to publish.

    • John Rennie says:

      No, it was an article about how much oil might still be left underground and about how improvements in oil recovery technology could improve the yield from wells from its current value of 35% to something closer to half. Maugeri offers the opinion that this could make oil wells productive for a century, but that is not the same as recommending the continuation of an oil-based economy for that long. It is particularly not the same thing as Scientific American arguing for such a continuation.

      I’ve previously pointed out that you overlooked the acknowledgment that climate was important in the 6th paragraph of the article. Here’s the crowning paragraph of the article, which it appears you also overlooked. Note the very last sentence (emphasis added):

      To be sure, by 2030 we will have consumed another 650 billion to 700 billion barrels of our reserves, for a total of around 1,600 billion barrels used up from the 4,500-billion to 5,000- billion figure. Yet if my estimates are correct, we will have oil for the rest of the 21st century. The real problem will be how to use the remaining oil without wasting it through unacceptable consumption habits and—above all—without endangering the environment and climate of our planet.

      Let’s also not lose track of why we’re talking about this article. You pointed to the current Lemonick article and its polls and you pointed to this oil article from a year ago, and on that basis accused Scientific American of going soft or selling out on climate change. Accusations like that should at least be based on strong pieces of evidence, not ones like this, which you seemingly haven’t read very closely but are trying to cram into a narrative of betrayal. Meanwhile, your accusation ignores that SciAm over this past year has continued to publish many articles about the fact of climate change and the need for cleaner, greener energy.

      You can connect any two dots that you like, but that doesn’t make the line that you draw real.

  3. If we follow Magueri’s advice, we are toast. I find that alarming and I am surprised you don’t find it alarming.

    Let me say once again that I do not think the folks at Scientific American are climate denialists. I think they are not taking seriously the consequences of the scientific reality.

    Say you think alcoholism is the issue of our time. Do you publish an article in your magazine about where people can go to buy the cheapest, tastiest tequila?

    If you want another data point, consider the September 2010 cover story, which compares “numerous climatologists” who forecast runaway global warming with Thomas Malthus and people who think the Mayans predicted that the world will end in 2012. That’s nuts.

  4. Welcome to the circular firing squad that is the progressive environmentalist movement. I’m as climate hawkish as they come and even I’m getting tired of this particular merry go round.

  5. John Rennie says:

    What Magueri wrote isn’t advice. It’s technical commentary about what can or cannot be done and in at least two places it specifically warns about not using oil without regard for the environment and climate. Apparently, we’re even: I’m surprised you don’t see the difference.

    You say that Scientific American is not taking seriously the consequences of the scientific reality, but to make that sweeping argument, you cherrypick a few published items of which you disapprove and ignore the far greater volume of content that unambiguously emphasizes that reality. If you want to fault individual articles that way, go ahead—I did when I railed against the polls, for example. But if you’re going to make a broader denunciation of SciAm by saying it’s “running away from the science,” be prepared to back it up with a greater, more compelling range of evidence than you’ve presented so far.

    By the way, I agree with you that the throwaway line in the Sept. issue was ill-considered. And yet I know better than to cancel my subscription over it, probably because I paid attention to other things in the magazine, too.

    Concerning your alcoholism hypothetical: You know, if consumption of cheap, tasty tequila were crucial to the global economy, and a sudden disruption in its availability would cause tremendous hardships around the world, and a good alternative to drinking cheap, tasty tequila would not be ready at scale for years, and the article in question said it was important that we temper our consumption of tequila out of concern for alcoholism? Then yes. Yes, I would probably publish that article. I gather you wouldn’t?

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