Revkin’s False Equivalence on Climate Message Machines

One can certainly debate how much the spread of misinformation on the science of global warming has hurt efforts to develop rational policy responses to climate change. Maybe the deep cultural issues on either side of the divide would always doom the discussion, as the work on cultural cognition argues. Or maybe the unscientific falsehoods spread by those opposing recognition of the problem have had a larger influence in locking up the political process over the issue. But surely we can all agree that misleading or sloppily written articles don’t help the situation.

Which brings me to an unfortunate post on Andy Revkin’s widely read Dot Earth blog this past Sunday, concerning “A Map of Organized Climate Change Denial.” As Keith Kloor of Collide-a-Scape remarked (in a post more supportive of Andy’s than I can be):

So two antagonists representing opposite ends of this debate fault Revkin for his interpretation of the chart. Make of that what you will.

What I make of it is that in an almost reflexive effort to seem journalistically objective and above the fray, Andy unnecessarily created a false equivalence between many of the people and organizations on either side of the climate dispute. As such, he’s stumbled into exactly the kind of bad “he said, she said” coverage of the topic that most science journalists and critics such as Jay Rosen have come to recognize as deficient. (Andy has seemed to speak out against it himself, too, so it’s all the more disappointing that he’s committed it here.)

Andy was writing about a diagram created by sociologists Riley E. Dunlap and Aaron M. McCright for their chapter, “Organized Climate Change Denial,” in The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society. There’s no mistaking that Dunlap and McCright see real denialism at work, and that it has been harmful to policymaking:

The actions of those who consistently seek to deny the seriousness of climate change make the terms “denial” and “denier” more accurate than “skepticism” and “skeptic,” particularly since all scientists tend to be skeptics.

Their illustration then shows interplay among the fossil fuel industry, corporate America, conservative foundations and think tanks, the media, astroturf groups and so on for promoting various denialist messages.

Agree with their view or disagree with it as you will. Very reasonably, Andy warns:

But it’s important to keep in mind that not everyone skeptical of worst-case predictions of human-driven climate disruption, or everyone opposed to certain climate policies, is part of this apparatus.

I had misgivings, though, about what followed:

And there’s plenty to chart on the other edge of the climate debate — those groups and outlets pursuing a traditional pollution-style approach to greenhouse gases.

On the one hand, yes, of course, a variety of entities—scientific organizations, NGOs, think tanks and so on, many of them with expressly liberal leanings—do work to put out messages about prioritizing CO2 reductions. Characterize that, too, as a machine if you like.

But what does the comparison actually mean? If it’s only pointing out that opposition exists, that there are people and organizations on the other side of the debate, then it’s so obvious as to be scarcely worth saying. Dunlap and McCright made the point that they were showing the workings of a disinformation propaganda machine, one that misrepresented science with a fixed goal of preventing policies contrary to corporate and rightwing interests. Was Andy implying that those on the climate activism side were an equivalent kind of propaganda machine, even though the case for the reality and gravity of climate change is much better validated by the scientific literature? It seemed unlikely, but he seemed to let his readers think so. (And, goodness, where is the equally important caveat that not everyone on the climate activism side is part of that machine?)

[Added (10:25 a.m.): It's perhaps also worth noting that the Matt Nisbet paper to which Andy linked documents the funding and coordination of climate activist efforts, but unless I missed something, it doesn't make a case for those efforts misrepresenting the science. The simple existence of an organized effort on that side is obvious, however, so I don't see what it accomplishes if that's the full extent of Andy's meaning.]

I chalked it up to an innocent ambiguity. On Monday, though, I noticed an update to Andy’s post:

[Oct. 3, 9:00 p.m. | Updated As it happens, the blogger behind Australian Climate Madness has posted a skeptics' map of "the climate alarmism machine." I think some, though by no means all, aspects of the map are not bad.]

Follow the link and take a look at that diagram. It apes the design of what Dunlap and McCright drew but whereas they only listed examples of the organizations that fit into each of the categories they named, the blogger insults them in keeping with his own biases.

Andy, just which aspects of this do you see as “not bad”?

National Governments Scientifically illiterate, and threatened by a rampant Green movement, national governments continue to pour billions of dollars into climate change research to appease the eco-extremists

United Nations Desire for world government and more regulation and power drives urge to control CO2 and therefore economic growth. Political motives for action outweigh any genuine scientific imperative

IPCC Established solely to find evidence of a pre-conceived conclusion that CO2 is a dangerous pollutant, its terms of reference require it to focus on human-induced climate change, with inevitable results

Academic research Drunk on a continual supply of research funding from governments, climate change research produces more and more apocalyptic predictions, which therefore attract yet more research funding from scientifically illiterate governments. Normal standards of scientific integrity disappear (Climategate) in an attempt to ensure nothing distracts from the constant flow of hysterical projections, and therefore secure further funding.

Corporates and fossil fuel industry Desperate to cash in on the “green economy” and appear politically correct at the same time, corporates allocate billions of dollars to pointless renewable energy schemes on the promise of enormous government subsidies, knowing that if they fail, someone else will pick up the bill

Environmental Advocacy Groups Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, WWF, Say Yes, GetUp! and other exreme-green [sic] and extreme-left political advocacy groups. Badger governments and individuals to take futile mitigation action on climate change, based on suspect science, in order to achieve their stated goals of global wealth redistribution and “social justice” at the expense of Western economic growth and prosperity.

I wouldn’t think that Andy endorses any of those descriptions, but his own presentation leaves readers free to guess whether he does. It seems most likely that his intention was to acknowledge the appearance of the “climate denial machine” diagram without seeming to take the side of the activists. But that unwillingness to engage meaningfully with the information and arguments isn’t doing his readers—or, heaven forbid, the truth—any favors.

Update (10/8): Andy has been on the jump this week and hasn’t had time to respond to this post, but in a postscript to his piece he mentions that he’ll try to respond to it soon, which I appreciate. He asks, though, if I missed the part where he characterized the Australian’s map as an “overdrawn, overblown caricature of reality.”

Nope, I didn’t. I just didn’t find it to be a particularly helpful caveat. In fact, it just reproduces in miniature the entire problem with false equivalence. Without any additional detail, readers can’t know which parts are caricatures and which points are more valid. In the contentious context of the climate debates, that practically invites readers to believe what they want. What makes false equivalence disreputable as commentary is that it allows journalists to surround themselves with an unearned aura of knowing criticism: from their perch above the contest, they can seem wiser than any of those silly people below who actually engage with the arguments.

One can picture Andy peering sagely over his glasses at his audience, nodding in judgment of these maps, but he’s not actually saying anything. It’s a shame because Andy is better than that.

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27 Responses to Revkin’s False Equivalence on Climate Message Machines

  1. I really don’t know anyone in this debate whose biases aren’t fairly transparent. I think Revkin has declared his before — but I can’t help but feel that they aren’t quite as he has stated. In general, I think the tendency toward false balance mostly provides succor to the increasingly tiny minority who still want to have this debate, instead of the real one: what the hell we’re supposed to do about this changing climate.

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    • John Rennie says:

      Right. But when actual policy proposals are on the table, as with the cap-and-trade and energy reform bills last year, the “legitimacy” of claims that the reality and seriousness of the problem are too much up in the air gives lots of politicians cover for maintaining the status quo.

      In Andy Revkin’s case, I think that his being able to say that the climate per se is too uncertain and contentious makes it easier for him to say, let’s just go on an Energy Quest instead. And I’m all for an Energy Quest! A better energy system may be the most that we’re realistically going to salvage out of these debates. But I’m not confident that the new energy system for which Andy would settle would do much during the critical window of the next few decades to head off serious climate problems to come, which is why I see it as a seriously flawed policy goal. And I’m also not convinced that the climate discussions are the big obstacle to making progress on better energy that the “climate pragmatists” make it out to be.

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      • I agree. It’s wishful thinking to imagine that this debate doesn’t matter. I just can’t believe we’re still having it. Meanwhile e.g. the Germans are making fun of us for our flat-earth thinking:

        http://www.grist.org/list/2011-10-04-german-state-minister-the-kochs-are-ruining-u.s.-renewables

        I hate to say it, but I think if you’re not confident in your understanding of the science, your tendency is to be dismissive of what you perceive as error bars. Whereas if you really grok the science, the only appropriate response is some version of “holy shit.”

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      • WCKWCK says:

        It is estimated that China will catch the USA in per capita CO2 emissions before 2020, which means a jump from 8GT to 25GT. China continues to erect new coal plants at a pace of 1 or 2 per week. Even if the US could lower emissions to zero without destroying its economy, it will do nothing to offset China.

        I think most people are realistic and now recognize that any US policy to reduce GHG is a useless endeavor which will yield no global results. Hindsight of the Kyoto Treaty has done grave harm to future emission reduction schemes as the ugly truth of the corruption and system gaming has rendered Kyoto costly and ineffective. I think the president has also come to this conclusion as the DOI has just released 487 arctic leases to drill for oil. The issue of GHG reduction via tax or cap & trade is a dead horse and beating it as a policy option is a waste of time and money.

        That is the reality you must start with in approaching a plan to reduce CO2 emissions IMO and any plan had better offer the US and China a way to reduce CO2 without harm to GDP. Good luck!

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        • James Gerard says:

          WCKWCK says “any plan had better offer the US and China a way to reduce CO2 without harm to GDP.” This indicates that he and perhaps many others have not yet thought about how much damage to the GDP (and civilization in general) a 20 to 30 foot rise in ocean level will do. If your (or China’s or the US’s) thinking and planning can’t go that far into the future, abut a hundred years or less at present rates of consumption, you haven’t even begun to grasp the enormity of the problems we face. And Ocean level rise is just one of the big problems. We need to start looking quite seriously at carbonate deposits large enough to offset ocean acidification, and ways to pelletize the material so it floats around while dissolving and neutralizing the Carbonic Acid that is already starting to reduce the thickness of shells.

          There is one lovely project underway in Arizona to build a wind-tower twice the height of the Empire State building that will generate a lot of electricity for a long time with no emissions at all beyond that consumed by construction materials and maintenance. China needs to start building these at the rate of two a week, and that needs to begin ASAP. Just one of the good things about this energy source is that it works best on arid land that is nearly worthless otherwise. China has a lot of that, and one of the big problems in China is that the arid zones are growing quickly.

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  2. Dave X says:

    I had to look at the chart to see if there was anything else there, but you’ve quoted all of it.

    The only testable/fact-checkable item on “the climate alarmism machine” is: “Normal standards of scientific integrity disappear (Climategate)”. I suppose if you consider “climategate” as the best slam-dunk example of poor scientific integrity, then the chart’s facts are 100% correct.

    To me, the chart looks like 5% misrepresentation with 95% unsubstantiated allegations, or 100% bull.

    I then had to look at the denialism machine chart to see if it was similarly baseless. I saw that it was similar in layout, but had many more testable items like “American Coalition for Clean Coal Energy (media and lobbying campaigns, forged letters to Congress.)” -> http://www.nytimes.com/gwire/2009/10/29/29greenwire-lobbyist-apologizes-to-house-climate-panel-for-89713.html

    Thank you for writing this.

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  3. John says:

    Enough of this either/or, you’re with us or against us.

    Climategate happened, Himalayagate happened, the IPCC took grey literature to say that North Africa grain (mostly wheat) yields would decline by 50% by 2020 due to drought, and so on, and so on.

    There are legitimate reasons for people, who normally are in the middle of the road, to suspect that the IPCC and the green movement is acting the same way that Big Industry has always acted — in the case of Big Green, manufacturing bogus studies, using every trick in the book to deny publication, or failing that, to denigrate bloggers and scientists who have actually contributed to our understanding, starting with McIntyre and McKittrick, and yes, Patrick Michaels.

    Big Science has to recognize that there are legitimate scientific views which people like Dr. Rennie are denying are legitimate. In so doing, Big Science is setting up a zero sum game, a game with an uncertain political outcome. Maybe it will work, but it isn’t the right way to go. Open up the books, have the Michael Manns of this world make underlying data and code available — as McKittrick and McIntyre routinely do,. Indeed, as McKittrick says, it is routine in submitting to economic journals to do so.

    Dr. Rennie, you are a distinguished scientist. Don’t follow the path of Joe Romm, who is nothing but a political hit man. It won’t do your reputation any good.

    Mankind’s actions are contributing, no question, to global warming: increasing CO2, methane, and black carbon, decreasing sulfate, deforestation (and consequent reduction of precipitation downwind), withdrawal of ground water, and so on.

    The prescription of exactly what the US should do going forward when CO2 emissions in the US have gone down about 10% in the last 3 years as a consequence of the recession and accompanying unemployment isn’t clear right now.

    China’s GHG emissions have escalated very sharply, and aren’t going to slow down any time soon. We have little leverage over this economic powerhouse, except possibly the power of persuasion in the case of black carbon, which is harmful to the Chinese people as much as it is to a warming planet.

    So look at the political and economic context, everyone. Tailor not just your behavior, but also your proposed solutions to the reality of widespread unemployment and jobs not coming back in the US. In case you aren’t aware of it, because it isn’t your field, increasing electricity prices create unemployment, something like 150,000 people for each 1% increase. And manufacturing jobs, once lost, don’t easily come back.

    Your scientific concerns, well justified in that temperatures are rising, and can’t do so indefinitely, are not the only ones to think about. You may have more success if you not only treat people you call “deniers” with greater respect, because many (but certainly not all) deserve it, but also if you understand the larger political and economic landscape, and the concerns of people who see no future for themselves and their families if they lose their jobs.

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    • John Rennie says:

      I appreciate the compliment but I’m not a distinguished scientist, or a scientist at all, or even a “Dr.” I’m just a “Mr.”

      Yes, people should fairly scrutinize the arguments and evidence of the science of global warming. If they do, they will see that notwithstanding some missteps along the way, the fundamental case for very significant warming and climate change caused by human activities remains unshaken.

      I’d be very happy if the debate on climate change were only straightforwardly about how to respond to the projected climate changes. The political and economic consequences of anything we do either way are profound. I think you’ll find few if any respected voices on the climate activist side who say they ought to be ignored in pursuit of some meaningless, impossible attempt to achieve environmental stasis—that’s a lampoon of their position at best. Unfortunately, we don’t get to have a discussion just about what would be the most prudent way to respond because it is inevitably hijacked by arguments that deny the basic science, cast ad hominems against the scientists and organizations involved, and misrepresenting what the goals of climate activism actually are.

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    • A. Jessen says:

      The only deniers/skeptics that might deserve “greater respect” are those who don’t employ manufactured controversy and outright distortion to prop up sagging cases. And although I agree that we need a global agreement on fossil carbon control, and/or eventually a tariff on non-compliant goods, China’s emissions remain lower than ours on a per-capita basis, and that’s with them being a coal-fired manufacturer for the West. If we were to use a temporary down-tick in American CO2 output (while facilitating the future expansion of carbon-intensive fuel projects) as a reason to sit on our arses, then I’m not sure we’d have the moral authority to point at China.

      Without comprehensive policy to accelerate top-down efficiency improvements and a transition to alternatives, this remains an issue of numerous, distributed emission drivers. There is no one super end-use that can be targeted for reductions. Nearly every sector of the economy must “do it’s part”. And that could be a larger source of employment if we got smart about it.

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    • JM says:

      “Climategate happened”? All that statement tells me is that, nearly two years later, you’re still falling for a bogus scandal.

      It would be easier to treat denialists with respect if they weren’t such transparent idiots.

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  4. yogi-one says:

    I quickly dropped being a regular reader of Dot Earth for exactly the kind of thing being pointed out here. Dot Earth was supposed to be a bold and enlightening foray into environmental issues by a huge media outlet (the NYT), that would tackle head-on the Big Issues of environmental impacts, climate change, and adaptive strategies for those problems. Alas, it has indeed retreated into much more watered down “I’m just reporting the sides of a story” type drool. And it isn’t just this one post either.

    How refreshing it would be for Andy to come out and say “this is what I think given the current state of things,” and then cogently and passionately argue his position.

    When you blog, you need to get out of ‘reporter mode’. On a blog, it fires up the discussion to have an opinion, and it raises the quality of the blog and the responses if you lay out a cogent, fact- and reality-based argument for your opinion.

    Andy fails to do this, and thus Dot Earth wanders into territory dangerously close to Voice of America, which has a blog that claims to post up environmental discussions, then spends 5 minutes playing CATO institute denialist videos instead of reporting anything.

    I’m personally sick of he-said she-said reporting, especially in areas where scientific research is concerned. Giving equal time to people who want a campaign donation by saying Climategate proved that scientists are crooks, or professing that the Bible stands on its own as a scientific authority, is neither fairness nor accuracy in reporting.

    And it certainly degrades a blog that presumes to host intelligent discussions about matters involving scientific research.

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  8. David Lewis says:

    Regarding your lament that “Andy is better than that”. He isn’t. He actually wrote what you are commenting on, and many more pieces besides.

    He’s a good writer, but what he writes is revolting at times, at least to those who care about the future of this planet.

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  9. Bob LaVelle says:

    Agreed. I’m done with Revkin. He’s a child playing both sides of the street. He trades in blog hits, obfuscation and titillation, not science reporting.

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  10. Roger says:

    After reading Andy, and hearing him speak, I’ve concluded that he doesn’t appreciate the seriousness of the situation. Why, I can’t fully explain.

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    • John Rennie says:

      My impression is a little different. I think Andy does generally recognize the seriousness of climate change, but he feels obligated always to emphasize the uncertainties in what the science can say. That’s only journalistically responsible, on the face of it. What creates problems is that Andy also shows a born centrist’s tendencies to distance himself from extreme voices and extreme conclusions. So even though the uncertainties in climate science suggest that warming and its consequences could be much worse than the standard projections, the ways that he writes about those uncertainties often seems to imply that he thinks less warming is more likely —even though he will rightly say that he never claimed that.

      Perhaps I’m wrong, but I think Andy has acknowledged that he thinks so many technological, economic and humanitarian factors are locking in the status quo on our CO2 production and anthropogenic global warming for the next few decades that most efforts at directly curbing it are really lost causes. That’s why he favors a quest for cleaner, cheaper energy technologies that would cut CO2 emissions as an incidental benefit. When he writes about climate hawks, I think he’s sympathetic to what they want but you can also tell he considers theirs to be a lost cause.

      I believe Andy has also characterized himself as someone very concerned about the environment more than someone very concerned about climate. That is, he recognizes the environment faces many challenges beyond those of climate, and he thinks it would be unfortunate if environmentalism somehow became so one-note that a variety of problems that might be more amenable to correction than climate change were lost in the tussle.

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  11. Kip Hansen says:

    It may just be that Mr. Rennie (not a scientist, by the way….though that begs the question of why he was ever editor of Scientific American magazine) and others critical of Andy Revkin’s blog posts just plain have trouble with someone willing to simply write the truth as they see it….without a lot of checking in with the Authorized Established Experts as to what they would rather see in print.
    I disagree with most everything he writes myself, but I do think that he writes it as he sees it.
    John Rennie on the other hand has been part and parcel of the problem of overblown hysterical catastrophism at Scientific American. You can bet he toed the line with the Authorized Established Experts, and probably got a AEE Gold Star rating for it, too.
    Take your pick which you’d rather read.

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    • John Rennie says:

      Hee hee. You’re silly.

      And if you read my post more carefully, you’ll see my complaint with Andy is that he isn’t writing the truth as he sees it. He’s kowtowing to an uninformative “on the one hand… on the other hand” standard of false equivalence that stops him from making a clear statement.

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      • Kip Hansen says:

        For a clearer statement by Andy Revkin, read his follow-up post at:
        http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/10/13/on-false-equivalence-and-false-inequivalence/

        You seem to forget that Revkin is not a journalist anymore–he’s an opinion writer–a columnist. You see the difference, I hope. As a journalist, he was required to write journalisticly, in which case, he might have been guilty, in some hypothetical situation, of what you have accused him of. As an opinion columnist, he is immune from such charges, he just writes it the way he sees it and lets the chips fall where they may. Your nattering about it just becomes grist for his column’s mill.

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        • John Rennie says:

          And again you miss the point. If it’s not his job to say what he thinks, why doesn’t he say what he really thinks?

          You’ll also note that in his follow-up post, he (in part) acknowledges that I was right.

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  12. Andy Revkin says:

    First time I had a moment to review this cogitation about my intention, style and goals. Happy to do a recorded Skype Q&A with John any time to build on the points I made in my reply post: http://j.mp/FauxEquiv

    The point you’re all missing is that the relevant science isn’t just the biogeophysical stuff, but also the behavioral and sociological work. The climate problem is indeed in our heads http://nyti.ms/rjEz2r and we do indeed have “An Inconvenient Mind” http://j.mp/InconvenientMind

    When I call for an energy quest and bolstering human intellectual infrastructure and capacity for resilience, it’s with that in mind. The treatment of uncertainty in climate outcomes is all aimed at getting the physical science right (both the knowns and unknowns).

    Climate sensitivity, rate of 21st-century sea-level rise, regional impacts of change, lack of understanding of greenhouse relationship to climate extremes are all important, and — with a couple exceptions — persistently uncertain.

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