Monday, March 07, 2011

Blaming the Other Guy While Copying from the Guy Who Buys the Drinks

Kloor, Randy Olson and to an extent Andy Revkin, but a whole lot of other people appear to think that scientists are lousy communicators, and indeed, a whole lot of scientists agree and there are workshops, meetings and even, shudder, blogs, devoted to self improvement, or not. This goes into the file under missing the point.

It's not that scientists are or are not lousy communicators (say that and Eli will lock you in a room with Richard Alley for example), but that journalists are lousy communicators. It's their fucking (emphasis added) job and they are screwing it up to a fare-thee-well. It ain't just climate either. What journalists produce often makes the average cut and paste student paper blush with modesty

As described in the Columbia Journalism Review, a new site lets you track down some of the mal mots.

Churnalism has been around a long while. Back in the 1920s Edward Bernays was writing about “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses” as an “important element in democratic society.” In the 1950s Vance Packard warned us about “the large scale efforts being made, often with impressive success, to channel our unthinking habits, our purchasing decisions and our thought processes,” typically “beneath our level of awareness.”

But its power and extent have grown. In the U.S. and U.K. there are now more PR people than journalists. The PR industries in these two countries are numbers one and two in the world in terms of size. In the U.K., PR accounts for over £6.5 billion in revenues. PR is, in the words of Trevor Morris and Simon Goldsworthy, “faster growing, better paid and better resourced” than journalism. “Like it or loathe it, PR has become a key ingredient in many of our lives.”

If you wondered why every piece of crazy gets its day in the headlines here is one answer, the churnalists walking, nay sitting on their butts and printing everything that is spoon fed to them without working (shudder) to figure out whether there is any there there. There are lovely examples recently, the collapsing arsenic eating microbe story, the even faster collapsing bacteria in a meteor story, the stuff about vaccines causing autism, which STILL ten years later, after being shown conclusively to be a fraud, endures., Turn It In for the scribbling generation.

But churnalism is not just copy and paste, it's churn for effect and to hell with understanding.

At root, churnalism is an abdication of responsibility and moral failing worn proudly by an entire profession.

The reply that the churnalists have earned, is do your effing job asshole.

Still, give them credit, some do try to do the job, John Fleck has turned to in depth blogging on water issues, Tom Yulsman has an interesting post on how CO2 concentrations are measured. Andy Revkin is trying to figure it out. Not everything they do, or Eli does, is perfect, but at least they try, which is more than the bunnies can say about most.


David B. Benson said...

Live Science and Science Daily do ok; often better than TNYT's Tuesday science section, but not always.

Anonymous said...

Here's a working link for .

Pete Dunkelberg

EliRabett said...

Tanks. corrected

willard said...

"Mal mots" is a mal mot. Intentional, I suppose.

silence said...

Sadly, only works for the UK

Sou said...

Scientists are great at communicating with other scientists. Alley is a good communicator and an example of a scientist who can communicate complex ideas to educated non-scientists.

I think most professionals who are good in their own field are not necessarily good at communicating ideas to those outside their field. Eg Engineers, accountants, lawyers, doctors to name a few. Some doctors such as general practitioners and others who mostly work directly with the public have learnt how to do it. Likewise some, but not all, university lecturers are good at communicating complex ideas to students.

That's why a lot of institutions have units dedicated to communication. Most universities, research institutes, government agencies, companies all have units that employ specialist communicators. Their job is to translate information between specialists and a particular audience, whether it be management, board, politicians, shareholders or the general public.

I've noticed that every time the topic comes up that scientists get all defensive. I wish they wouldn't. How often do scientists test the hypothesis that they are not as good at communicating as those trained in communication are?

Journalists who don't have a science background often aren't good at communicating complex ideas either. That's why it's advisable to use scientific communicators when possible. Unfortunately many media outlets have sacked their science communicators. We need more of them.

BTW - Kloor and Revkin (don't know Randy Olsen) have a different agenda. Kloor is a 'denier/delayer'; Revkin is a bumbler and at times borders on being a concern troll. I wouldn't let their fantasies take away from the important issue of scientific communication.

PS Rabetts are known to be excellent communicators :)

Anonymous said...

I never knew lagomorphs could cuss like that.

Presumably Prof. Rabett will acquaint Mr. Kloor with his views, upon which I daresay Mr. Kloor, having taken Prof. Rabett's points in the right spirit, will thence engage in a courteous but nonetheless spirited debate upon the parlous state of all things journalistic.

Or not, as the case may be.

The Anonybilby

Sou said...

Addendum: Scientists shouldn't have to be good communicators to the general public. They shouldn't get defensive about it and waste time going to classes and workshops.

A few years ago some people were saying that scientists should be marketers - the idea that scientists should all turn into journalists is similarly silly. Scientists are good at science - that's what they do. Use other people (scientific communicators) to do the communication (except to other scientists) and make sure they do the job properly.

IMO it's politicians and the media who are letting down the public in regard to communicating science and its implications.

Magnus said...

Watching this from Sweden and following some European media and us media briefly... I think it is obvious that the "situation" with US media is one of the biggest problems you have in communicating climate change...

one other thing could be your school system...

Jim Bouldin said...

"Kloor, Randy Olson and to an extent Andy Revkin, but a whole lot of other people appear to think that scientists are lousy communicators, and indeed, a whole lot of scientists agree..."

Don't know that I'd put Andy there, but would add Joe Romm for sure. And presented so confidently as a matter of fact! You can't pay the first heed to stuff like that, and Olson didn't much like it when I told him as much. It's not at all clear that they understand the difference between technical vs popular communication and who's primarily responsible for the two.

badger badger badger said...

Could you elaborate on what you see as the differences in media between Europe and the US?

badger badger badger said...

MT presents Jay Rosen as a good example (example of goodness), particularly in his analysis of the problem of journalism:

Chris Pella said...

I've given up on journalists with respect to science reporting. When I started following the climate issue with some interest I briefly read Revkin, but I find nothing he says makes me feel like I'm being informed and I end up getting frustrated with his vapourous meta-analysis. Even though I'm only moderately sophisticated about science (an undergraduate degree in molecular biology and working in computer science) I find I've learned more from the scientist blogs, like this one. And it's more entertaining.

Magnus said...

Take Sweden for example if mainstream media goes wrong you can hold them responsible and demand a correction for the most time (binding agreements if you want to be in the club)... and then we have big money sat aside for "state" TV (which is run independently but from a sort of "tax") which if they do wrong you can complain to an independent board (which actually have science people) so that they have to do a correction (to much is not good for career or trust).

However you don't have to use that usually because they really need to have peoples trust to stay in the game. And in opinion pull after opinion pull they score much higher then media that use populism on issues like science and politics. So the other media can't go to far astray... (we don't have fox news and we don't have other media adopting to fox news)

Now for this to work I guess you could need something like a small country without other strong authorities like a church saying a different thing.

ofc not all EU countries are i the same style but even england with their tabloids are doing ok. (for a bad example see Italy )

And i guess it helps that almost all people have gone in the same school system for 12 years and are fairly in the game after that... however the Swedish school have decreased in "quality" some what lately. Still you can't say stuff like dinosaurs and people walked the globe at the same time or similar stupid things without some one correcting you.

It would be impossible here for a politician to get away with repeatedly getting stuff wrong on fact based questions... without the media pointing it out and trying to hold them responsible...

sort of...

Anonymous said...

Indeed, Berlusconi has unprecedented control over Italian media. Besides his private TV empire, as Italian premier, he controls the three state channels. He owns newspapers, publishing companies and who knows what else.

But, despite this, there is a consistent, serious, vocal, tough media opposition in both TV, radio and the newspapers, to Italy's "Bush without bombs." In comparison, Italian opposition media reveals, as if necessary, that the US "media" can't credibly claim to amount to as much as a pimple on the ass of real media.

John Puma

Anonymous said...

With the near-total collapse of science journalism, scientists are being thrust into the role of public communicators. It's "not their job", they "shouldn't be asked to do it", they should "focus on science, not marketing", etc. are all perfectly reasonable and perfectly inadequate responses.

Our climate, energy, and overall sustainability challenges are so immense and carry such horrific consequences that someone must do the job of communicating, especially in the presence of such well financed, non-stop disinformation. (Everyone here has read Merchants of Doubt, right? Right???) If our first choice, journalists, are screwing up the job this badly -- and they are -- then someone else has to pick up the responsibility because not doing so carries such incalculable costs.

Some scientists are truly gifted and can do both science and outreach. Sagan was one, Alley another. (I could listen to Alley read a dictionary aloud.) But far too many scientists can't switch gears from communicating with peers to communicating with lay people. We either get more of them to do that unwanted job better, or we find someone else to do it. There are no other options.

John Fleck said...

Eli - I appreciate your kind words, but if I may have your permission to take a vicious whack at you anyway?

Yes, there is a significant amount of bad science journalism out there, and bad journalism in general. But your willingness to generalize from that to all journalism ("journalists are lousy communicators", not "some journalists") weakens your argument here. There also is good journalism, and one wonders why you chose one from which to generalize and not the other.

The cases you cite - autism/vaccines, arsenic-eating microbes and the bacteria-eating microbes - each started with *bad science*. But it would be no more appropriate for me to generalize from those cases - "scientists are lousy scientists" - than it would be for you to generalize from individual cases of bad journalism. You have to look at what happened next.

The vaccine-autism issue started with an atrociously bad bit of science endorsed by the Science Establishment (published in Nature!). The bad science got legs as a result of bad journalism. But for years the journalism on this subject has been dominated by good journalism - the debunking of the autism-vaccine link has been widespread and repeated in the mainstream press for years. There are, of course, exceptions, but as in generalizing from instances of bad science, it's important here not to generalize from instances of bad journalism.

The arsenic bacteria story similarly started with what one might characterize as bad science, abetted by the scientific establishment (NASA! A paper published in Science!) and science journalists. From the beginning, there were good scientists and good journalists who began whacking it down, and the tandem of good science and good journalism kicked into gear pretty quickly to deflate the claims. The robust science blogging world helped good journalists a great deal in that regard.

The bacteria-from-outer space one looked like bunk straight out of the gate, and all the science journalists I know, good ones, were in debunking mode from the beginning. (Revkin's an exception here. I saw his piece and said "WTF Andy?)

But the vaccine case in particular illustrates a problem. Despite widespread, repeated debunking of the vaccine-autism link in the mainstream press over many years, the bunk endures. This suggests the importance of an observation WC made over at his blog: "If the public wanted intelligently written journalism that actually explored issues carefully, they would get it." In fact, such intelligently written journalism is more available now than ever, thanks to the way the Interweb allows you to read whatever you want. Part of the blame here has to go to the reading public, which when faced with good solid debunking of the vaccine-autism link that conflicts with their world view (or good coverage of evolution or climate change), turns to Huffington Post instead.

EliRabett said...

John, tell your friends to get off the all scientists are lousy communicators and its their fault that the science is not being communicated kick and maybe we can talk.

There are a whole lot of journalists and politicians and political science types and economists out there pedaling the nonsense that it is fault of scientists that the science is not being communicated. That is the journalists' job.

Freely given there are lousy scientists and lousy publications. Just look at the Spencer farce, or some of the off even more off the wall publications we have been discussing lately.

EliRabett said...

Oh yeah, go read Kloor's blog and you will see what Eli is talking about.

Martin Vermeer said...

John, what you're missing is that there is no mechanism in journalism that assures that what citizens get to read is even minimally reality checked. Yes, there are journalists that take this part of their jobs seriously ands produce excellent writing; but it should not be the job of citizens to figure out on their own who those journalists are.

Contrast this with the situation in the science community: there, getting it right is not only the decisive criterion for separating good from bad, but the community has mechanisms, and takes it as its proper job, to make sure that the bad stuff doesn't get very far. Peer review is only the start: I have no difficulty to discern, even in a field far removed from my own, what's the science and what's the quackery by relying on the scientific literature. Trying to do so using journalistic output only would be a sick joke. Google vs. Google Scholar, if you get me.

As I argued before, I would happily trade in all of journalistic excellence for a minimal guarantee of reliable correctness.

rab said...

Eli, thanks for the straight talk. Puts my mind back on track. Kloor lately is trying to draw a parallel between Beck and scientists losing credibility (as both are alarmists), ignoring that Beck has no coherent story and climate scientists do. Here's the real problem: journalists like Kloor don't have even the minimal analytical ability to discern between coherent and incoherent. I as a scientist find it impossible to communicate with anyone who has such poor analytical skills. So yes, there is a communication problem.
(BTW, it's "peddling", not "pedaling.)

Greg said...

Speaking of Google Scholar, I think it was here (or maybe Tamino's or Tobis') that I learned that Google Scholar selects material that looks scholarly due to formatting, not through any sort of source evaluation (other than the standard Google page-rank approach, which is a measure of source popularity).

In other words, if AEI or CEI publishes a complete BS white paper, formatted like an academic journal article, and lots of WUWT types link to it, it will be highly ranked in Google Scholar.

So people still need their own BS-detectors and I'm pretty sure they don't teach BS detection in K-12 in this country.

EliRabett said...

Go ride a bike:), Eli will let no chance to pun unused.

John Fleck said...

Eli -

So this then is satire?

Which is to say, you don't really believe your own argument, and your critique of journalism intentionally repeats the logical flaw you see in the Kloor/Olson critique of scientists, satirizing its logical structure in order to lay bare its flaw? I once again have underestimated your talents. Bravo.

It would have been helpful had you telegraphed it better, with some sort of obvious wink, so that I wouldn't have wasted my time mistaking this for a serious discussion of journalism.

Martin -

Your "google v. google scholar" point is helpful and well taken. When I'm doing journalism, google scholar is my standard starting point, so I cannot help but admit that scientific literature is, in fact, of higher quality than that produced by the practitioners of my own field.

But I have to take issue with your assertion that we lack what you call a "mechanism". In fact, in the cases Eli cited, our mechanism is the same as yours, and very much depends on the success or failure of yours. As I discuss below, I think the explanation lies elsewhere.

Vaccines and arsenic-bacteria, in fact, show the "peer review" process in science working similarly, and in parallel, to the journalistic mechanisms. Both have formal and informal processes that tend to converge over time on something useful, and both have demonstrable flaws.

In both the vaccine-autism and arsenic-bacteria cases, the formal peer review process failed to catch bad science*, and the initial journalism as a result looks, in retrospect, like bad journalism. The bad journalism, in fact, happened precisely because journalists trusted the formal peer review process - which is a big part of our "mechanism", if you will, for assuring that what citizens get to read is minimally checked. Our mechanism is very much based on science's mechanism.

As the new science emerged post-publication pointing out the flaws in the initial papers (sadly slowly in the vaccine case, much more quickly with arsenic), both the scientific and journalistic processes self-corrected, largely in parallel. In the case of vaccines, the "sadly slowly" part is an agonizing problem, and caused a lot of soul-searching among journalists. We learned, I think, and our mechanisms have I hope improved. But again, our mechanisms closely followed science's mechanisms.

I will point out that the bulk of the coverage I read re the bacteria from space reflected journalists' use of this mechanism. My colleagues were saying things along the line of "It's being published in the Journal of WTF?" Followed by swift and aggressive debunking.

Back to your initial google v. google scholar point - As a journalist, I produce far more information units ("stories" in my case, "papers" in the scientists') than the typical scientist, so regardless of the mechanisms in our respective fields, it is a virtual certainty that the quality will be higher in theirs than in mine. I would love to live in a world that provided the economic support to create a newsroom 10 times as large at the Albuquerque Journal (20? 50 times as large? The numerical comparison is intriguing.) so I could spend the same amount of time on each story that my scientist friends get to spend on each paper. But the economics here are a fundamental constraint that's not going to change. The mechanisms can never be implemented as thoroughly in your world as in mine. People get the journalism they choose to consume and are willing to pay for.

* On the arsenic-bacteria case, I'm stipulating for purposes of discussion that it was bad science. I've done no reporting and little reading on it myself.

** A lurking friend points out the vaccine-autism paper was in Lancet, not Nature. My bad, sorry.

Jonathan Gilligan said...

Eli: I just posted something similar at Keith's, but I figure I may get more incisive criticism here: Why is it journalism's job to teach the public what we've all known for bloody certain for more than a decade.

There are lots of great books (and since I share your admiration for Richard Alley, I'll give a shout out to "Two Mile Time Machine") by scientists and journalists (of the latter: Mark Lynas's "Six Degrees" and Elizabeth Kolbert's "Field Notes from a Catastrophe" are just two of the really good ones), so why do we assume that deadline journalism is so much more important than books for getting accurate and clear information to the public?

Yes, there's bad journalism and there are bad books, but there are also excellent examples of both and if we can't trust the general public to figure out what's trustworthy, then it's game over for democracy regardless what we do for the environment.

Tom Yulsman said...

Eli: Many thanks for the kudos. After more than 30 years writing about this subject, my spirits and commitment are really flagging. So it's nice to get some encouragement, most especially from people who have been critical before.

Martin Vermeer said...


I suspected that much. Also, a giveaway is that they treat Energy & Environment as if it were a real journal. Still, I think there is value in what they do: it reduces the firehose of shit to a trickle, so even a lay person has a fighting chance of finding the good stuff. A bit like a spam filter... and I suspect that the techniques used are very similar. And yes, they can be beaten -- until the filter learns. This is a forever war.

Improving on this would require human intervention and be labour intensive. I appreciate what Google is doing and am not willing to criticise them for not setting aside even more money for doing this. They're on our side, the side of science.

John Fleck said...

Eli -

So this then is satire?

You were pointing out what you view as the flaws in the Kloor/Olson argument by doing the same thing yourself? And you'll stop the "all the journalists are lousy communicators" schtick as soon as Keith and Randy stop the "all the scientists are lousy communicators" schtick? Clever rabbit, thanks for clarifying, I'll bring the issue up at our next weekly coven.

Martin -

Your Google/Google Scholar comparison raises a great point, but your explanation for why it is so misses the mark.

We journalists do have QA mechanisms, and they are closely linked to those found in science. In two of the cases Eli mentions, science's mechanism (the initial peer review) failed, and journalism's failures followed, because our mechanism is to trust yours. In both cases, science's self-correction kicked into gear and journalism's followed. Sadly slowly in the Lancet-vaccine case (not Nature, sorry for earlier error), and I think journalists have learned a great deal from that experience.

In the case of bacteria from space, science journalists' common initial reaction was "It's being published in the Journal of WTF?" And the debunking pile-on began immediately. Again, it's because we leveraged science's mechanism.

The Google/Google Scholar quality difference has, I think, different roots. I write something like 150 to 200 stories per year. Compare that to the relative handful produced by a typical scientist. The quality control that can go into a science paper is vastly greater than the quality control that can go into a newspaper story, no matter how robust our relative mechanisms. I would love a world in which my newsroom was 10 (20? 50?) times larger, so we each could devote the same care to each publication that a scientist can. But readers are unwilling to pay to support a model like that.

There's a flip side to that. I regularly confront important societal questions for which there's no science done at all. In the same way society has been unwilling to fund the quality of journalism you desire, society has been unwilling to fund the science I desire. But I can turn to high quality journalists tackling these questions in a way that I find incredibly useful. There are many topics for which Google Scholar is no help whatsoever. In this case science's failings are journalism's successes.

Just as I would love to have a newsroom 10 times as large to ensure quality and relevant journalism, I would love to have a university down the street 10 times as large tackling the questions I think are important.

But society has decided to fund neither, and we must muddle along the best with the versions of the two institutions that we have.

Tom said...

Yawn. You got a website. You got an audience. Go for it.

Show me one statement about climate change that you think is important to the discussion that has not been featured on multiple websites or in multiple newspapers or on multiple television stations.


John Farley said...

The fossilized-bacteria-in-a-meteor story reminds me of a similar story ca. 1990, in which prominent chemist Richard Zare was part of a team that analyzed a meteorite the was scooped up from the ice in Antarctica. The meteorite had originally come from Mars (they knew that somehow, it was not disputed). The researchers found a tiny feature that might be a fossilized bacterium, or it might be a dried-up mud crack. The research team grabbed headlines, and Zare was interviewed by Ted Koppel himself (!!) on ABC Nightline. Alien life found in Martian meteorite! Everyone trembled with anticipation...

Later, isotopic analysis of the hydrocarbons in the meterorite revealed that the hydrocarbons had an isotopic ratio that matched the Earth, not Mars. So the hydrocarbons came from (for example) exhaust gas from the motorized vehicles that humans drove over the Antarctic ice to collect the Martian meteorite. Yes, the researcher SHOULD HAVE conducted isotopic analysis before calling in the media to brag.

It all ended, not with a bang, but with a whimper.

mike roddy said...

Eli, I think the problem is journalists' cowardice more than their skill level or science education. The hot breath of their publishers and editors is always present in the room, telling reporters that there are two sides to issues such as, for example, whether humans are screwing up the climate.

Reporters are being fired all over the country. Print media is shrinking, and CNN fired their entire environmental staff not long ago. Remaining reporters got the message, which is: don't piss off the advertisers. That means car and fuel companies above all, but timber rapists also never get called to account. I knew the world had changed when, instead of Mike Wallace shoving a mike in someone's face, we had Lesley Stahl doing a puff piece on the Alberta tar sands operation for 60 Minutes.

Rolling Stone is one of the few outlets left with any balls, and their audience is declining too. Social network navel gazing and mutual masturbation is more popular. Free content is the business model now, as Huffpost has shown.

This is an excellent blog, btw, but as much as I've slammed Revkin lately he does have a point. Scientists are only now starting to be forceful, direct, and fearless, but too many are reticent and equivocal. You're different than most, Eli, and fortunately you have a sense of humor, too. Let's hope that blogs like this one can replace everyone else's terrible performance here.

a_ray_in_dilbert_space said...

John Fleck,
Did it ever occur to you that perhaps the scientific method might not consider every peer-reviewed article published to be Gospel? Did it ever occur to you to contact, oh, say, five or six experts in the relevant field to get their opinion on the research before going off half cocked?

Did it ever occur to you that maybe it might be advantageous to understand how science works before you try to write on the subject? Did it ever occur to you that it might be more productive to present the research as it actually unfolded rather than try to fit it into a pat narrative?

Finally, did it ever occur to you to maybe take the above criticism to heart and see how you might be able to improve the product you deliver--namely popularized science? Becuase, right now, frankly, it sucks.

John Mashey said...

I'll try again, for some reason posts keep disappearing.
Who believes that 46 years after the 1964 Surgeon General report, that 20% of US adults still smoke because the medical researchers have been poor communicative?

(Most people below age 60 who smoke, started in age 12-18, after the SG report.)

Anonymous said...

"In other words, if AEI or CEI publishes a complete BS white paper, formatted like an academic journal article, and lots of WUWT types link to it, it will be highly ranked in Google Scholar."

Don't give them ideas.

David B. Benson said...

Why does anyone pay the slightest attention to Kieth Kloor?

I don't.

Jakerman said...

The quality control that can go into a science paper is vastly greater than the quality control that can go into a newspaper story, no matter how robust our relative mechanisms. I would love a world in which my newsroom was 10 (20? 50?) times larger, so we each could devote the same care to each publication that a scientist can. But readers are unwilling to pay to support a model like that.

The funding is getting worse with the current business model, and at the same time the number of PR employees is out pacing real journalists.

This discussion made me recall the very useful work of McChesney-And Nichols on the demise of journalism.

adelady said...

Jonathan Gilligan "... why do we assume that deadline journalism is so much more important than books for getting accurate and clear information to the public?"

Because people like you and me can be deeply shocked at some things about the population at large. 20+ years ago, I remember turning up to a fundraising event with an armful of books for that trading table - which was covered, stacked and completely full of Readers Digests, Women's Weeklies and the like, not even a National Geographic. The people running the stall referred to these as 'books'.

"Deadline journalism" and its radio and TV counterparts are the only possible avenue for a very large proportion of the population. Journalists have a heavy responsibility to present accurate information to people who won't, or can't, find things out for themselves.


EliRabett said...

Would that it were satire John, would that it were.

Recovering in the Florida Keys said...

Damn! I thought I was on my own blog for a moment. Nice to see you're are expanding your vocabulary. Eli, you have to admit some crap science gets into publications other than E-E. Also maybe one in ten groundbreaking papers in the better journals actually deserves the name. The problem is that retractions, corrections and corrigenda don't get the same publicity unless it is on someone's agenda.

Martin Vermeer said...

John Fleck, (too many Johns here)

Your point about tight deadlines and resource limitations is well taken, but, what you describe as "mechanisms", for journalism really aren't: they are work habits, and they only exist for good -- or should I say, non-judgmentally, 'John-Fleck-like' -- journalists that adopt them.

How is the average newspaper reader to know that, e.g., you can be trusted, and, e.g., Fred Pearce cannot? Is Pearce really an anomaly? How would you argue that?

Martin Vermeer said...

...and substitute Delingpole*) for Pearce; same questions.

For those of us 'in the know', Paul Nurse's takedown of Delingpole was appropriate and long overdue; ask the man in the street and Nurse becomes an intellectual bully thinking way too much of himself. Nobel, Schnobel.

If you really think that your approach to journalism is in some way typical, and deviations from it are anomalies that the public has any way of detecting, well, perhaps you need to get out more :-)

*) or David Rose, or Jonathan Leake, ...

John Fleck said...

Martin -

Your point about the distinction between "mechanisms" and "work habits" is well taken. There are formal mechanisms, involving layers of editing and questioning of reporters by editors which come closer to what you might be calling "mechanisms" that are intended to provide quality assurance. They are only as good as the good faith and talent of those implementing them - but that also applies to the formal mechanisms of peer review.

I'm not sure how to answer re how the average newspaper reader should know who to trust. It's a great question.

John Mashey said...

Trying again: anyone else having trouble posting here from Firefox?)

I suggested in What to do about poor science reporting:

"R1. The normal distribution applies as elsewhere: there are terrific
reporters, there are (mostly) average ones, and there are awful ones, either
for incompetence or malice, or both."

(Of course, perhaps lognormal, like
the blue line
might fit better: a few really terrific ones at right,
most at left, below average.  Id' guess software engineers are like that,

That also has a set of proactive things that people might do, at least on
local level.  Maybe others can post examples of things they've done to try
to help, i.e., doing a useful blog is one, working with local newspapers is
another, writing useful letters to editors can sometimes help, etc.

Scientists vary wildly in their communication skills, too (and the loss of
Steve Schneider really hurt; I've seen him speaking to wild varieties of
audiences, including the general public and he was utterly superb ... but
only a small percentage of people has the talent and then spends enough time
doing it to really get practiced).

But the real problem (of climate science) is *not* inability of scientists
to communicate.  My favorite parallel is tobacco.

It's now 46 years after the 1964 Surgeon general's report. ~20% of US adults
still smoke, and the vast majority started smoking after 1964, as children
(since most people need to start when 12-18 to "set" the addiction).  See US population.
[Roughly, people born in 1950 are ~60, so you could scratch off the rows
from 60-64 up on that chart, although I speculate there aren't a lot of 80+
smokers.]  From 55-59- down to 20-24 (adults), 20% smoke and started after

That must be because these medical researchers are really, really poor
communicators. It has nothing to do with the best marketeering in the world.

Of the various areas of science, most have to work to communicate, but
relatively few are directly opposed by well-funded, experienced PR/lobbyists
who know how to do PR, and doubt is always an easier sell.

Finally, I note that I will continue to read John Fleck's work and recommend
his book, as he is one of the good-guy journalists who tries hard to get it

John Fleck said...

Martin -

Thanks for the useful and thoughtful discussion.

As for the question of whether I think my approach to journalism is typical, and deviations are anomalies, I hope you'll forgive me for being a bit tired and frustrated by the anecdotal nature of the critique. The problem is that the discussion is invariably driven by the example of a particularly onerous journalist (Delingpole! George Will!), and yet what we're trying to get to is some general sense of how the system works as a whole. So a single bad journalist is no more help in coming up with a general picture than is a single good one.

For starters, let's throw out Delingpole (and Will! Can we please throw out Will?). He lives in the opinionsphere journalism world, where things are all fuzzy and grey and the norms and mechanisms are far murkier. That's a separate discussion, one where I have strong feelings about the failure of the sort of norms I'm discussing here. I'm talking here about the norms of straight news production, not the opinion page world. Leake should be fine for our purposes. But for every Jonathan Leake there's a Justin Gillis, right?

But if we can specify the question more carefully, and look at people who have actually tried to quantify this, the data would suggest that journalists across the major press publications in the area I deal with most closely - climate change - are doing a creditable job.

Max Boykoff, now at the University of Colorado, has done the most work on this. His most recent analysis of newspaper coverage of climate change found that the British tabloid press "significantly diverged from the scientific consensus that humans contribute to climate change," but that what Boykoff calls the "prestige press" (NY Times, Guardian, LA Times, Washington Post, etc.) pretty much gets the story right. Despite the widespread belief in a "false balance" problem, Boykoff's most recent data showed a steady decline in the problem, such that in 2006 (the most recent year for which he's got data, sadly), just 3 percent of the US and UK stories he surveyed did the "false balance" thing. (So in answer to your earlier "trust" question, perhaps "Read Boykoff and don't trust the tabloids?")

Boykoff also has looked at coverage of sea level rise and come to very similar conclusions - mainstream journalists are getting the science right.

Lacking more recent data from Boykoff, on a number of occasions in these discussions, when a press critic generalizes from a particularly egregious example to complain about how bad the media messes things up, I've tested the hypothesis by going out to Google News (or LexisNexis in the old days) and doing a sort of crude randomized sample of lots of coverage of the topic at hand. Invariably, I find that the vast majority of reporters do it well and get it right. It's not science, and your results might differ, but at least it's an approach that I hope moves the discussion closer to a general description of the situation than calling out anecdotes based on reporters we despise.

Magnus said...

One thing that almost is not mentioned is what the reporters do not do... they don't hold the politicians responsible for their idiotic and plain false statements on climate science... it seams...

William T said...

Isn't the elephant in the room (or donkey, take your pick) the fact that many media companies have a political "position" that influences their reporting? Whether it is the Murdoch press or the left-wing media, reporting on "issues" generally involves a degree of interpretation and thus opinion, which ultimately depends on the political position of the owners (or editors if the owners happen to be relatively passive). Scientific publications by and large don't have political positions - and the plurality of editors in most journals mitigates against that happening.

Anonymous said...

Dear Prof Rabett,

It pains me to have to say that you have got this completely wrong.

Poor communication from the journo's?? What planet are you on?

They have done an amazing job - look at the numbers of people who think that AGW is all a scam, the IPCC is a fraud, scientists have ignored natural climate variability etc etc. And all this with only very very minimal scientific raw material to work with. There are some real high achievers here in the communication stakes.

However, there is a subset within the communication area that seems to be a real problem - communicating our best scientific understanding of a complex and difficult reality (ie. our best approximation of the truth), one with potentially nasty consequences and implications that many won't like.

Now that is a real communication challenge and one that professionals in the feild (ie. journalists) might have been considered to be the ones that have the skills to rise to meet. Not only is this not the case, it seems that doing the opposite has no negative consequences in the professional sense, and may even be a smart career move if counting eyeballs is your game.

Anonymous Etc.

badger badger badger said...

John Fleck,

Part of the complaint, I think, is that there is an expectation (expressed recently by Kloor) that readers should understand the difference between opinion pieces, reporting and long-form (the canonical example being the NYT Magazine profile of Dyson). The implication is that it's up to consumers to reach out to the professional communicators, while scientists have to get their communication act together to reach out to consumers. A perverse double standard.

That said, I wonder how much of this is shadow boxing with Kloor (and I too wonder how much we should give a damn), to a lesser extent Revkin, and random trolls. In the wider public hard denialism seems confined mostly to the sort of dead enders who miss W*, most of the rest merely don't get how things are slouching towards emergency. A more important nut is probably the overall intransigence of the political class in the face of aggregate public opinion, but that's hardly confined to climate (viz single-payer, tax cuts, social security, etc etc etc)

* remember that 15% think the moon landings were hoaxed!

a_ray_in_dilbert_space said...

John Fleck,
With all due respect to Boykoff, his conclusions are simply flat wrong. Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists are convinced we are warming the planet, and there is not a single GCM that doesn't give significant warming when you increase CO2. To pay any attention to denialist scientists is to distort the picture. Christy, Spencer, Lindzen and Pielke have contributed precisely zero to our understanding of the planets climate. Why pay ANY attention to them at all--any more than you pay attention to Electric Universe fruitcakes?

It would be one thing if the failures in science journalism were all in sciences with serious political implications such as climate science. Instead, we also hear about nutjobs who claim the LHC will destroy the planet, that cell phones cause cancer.

The basic problem is that journalists covering science need to become a whole lot more savvy about how science works, and the public need to become a whole lot more savvy about consuming information in general. I hold out little hope of this. After all, when the best political journalism is being done by Comedy Central, that ought to tell us something. Perhaps I should start looking to The Onion for my science journalism.

Mark said...

@John (8/3/11 2:55 PM): Your memory is faulty. Zare was one scientist of a team, including NASA scientists. True, Zare was interviewed by Ted Koppel. (Full disclosure: Zare was my Ph.D. advisor) But he was always about the science. Also, you are wrong about the isotope studies. The carbon isotope ratios in the hydrocarbons were not consistent with earth-based sources. Also, depth profile studies of hydrocarbon concentrations were done. The concentration of hydrocarbons decreased as one moved away from the center of the meteorite. That is exactly the opposite of what you would expect if the hydrocarbons came from the exhaust of Antarctic exploration vehicles.

The weakest link in the publication was always the size of the "bacteria", which was much smaller than known earth bacteria.

Anonymous said...

How should the average newspaper reader know who to trust?

That's a great question indeed, one that I tried to tackle here, based on some common sense hints on how to assess complex information without having specialized knowledge.


Anonymous said...

Jonathan Fleck is making some excellent points in this thread.

Re Eli's remark:
"John, tell your friends to get off the all scientists are lousy communicators and its their fault that the science is not being communicated kick and maybe we can talk."

Yes, there's a point to that, but bear in mind that the same could be said with exchanging "scientists" with "journalists", which I believe one of John F's points to be.

Which gets us to what mt said over at CaS:

the real question isn’t “whose fault?” It’s “what now?”


Magnus said...

One other questions would be, what about radio and TV that probably have a bigger impact then newspapers?

Anonymous said...

Let X be the percentage of stories in professional media outlets over the last year, say, that employs false balance techniques when talking about the link between smoking and cancer or the link between HIV and AIDS.

Let Y be the percentage from above, but substituting "climate change is real, largely man made through the burning of fossil fuels, and a serious problem" for the topic of interest.

Why is X still less than Y, and when will that gap disappear? I would contend that the gap is narrowing, but much slower than would be optimal if we're to get enough support to act in our own collective interest. And as for the reason for the gap, I don't think it's merely a case of timing, i.e. CC is a newer topic, because it isn't. (Look into the report LBJ's science advisors wrote and what it said about CO2 and CC.)

We have a confluence of appropriately conservative scientists and a very well funded campaign of denial and delay. Have we ever seen anything like this denial effort, in terms of funding, scope, tactics, and longevity? I don't think even the tobacco companies can match what the FF companies are doing.

In other words, the entire system is broken; by pointing fingers at journalists or scientists or readers (and yes, they are partially responsible for this mess) and trying to assign all or even "most" of the blame we're taking on the role of the blind men examining an elephant.

EliRabett said...

We halt this discussion for a brief announcement. At least one of the lost posts was in the spam bucket, but it does appear that there are some problems posting from Firefox on W7. Is that the majic combo??

EliRabett said...

Shorter Magnus: One thing that almost is not mentioned is what the reporters do not do... they don't hold anyone responsible for their idiotic and plain false statements

EliRabett said...

You know, when you start kicking dirt down the Rabett hole, you get a ticked off bunny. While mt and andy are right, that there is enough blame to go around and a lot of it is structural, there has been a concerted effort to blame the science side for not doing what it is not talented to do, and a look over there, which goes WAY BACK when talking about the PR muscle on the anti-science side. That PR can only reach the public through the journalists which makes their behavior particularly crucial and points to widespread and serious problems in copy copying. It ain't just climate, and all three cultures need to change, science, journalism and the public (pay attention, it's your kid's future and your old age)

EliRabett said...


A lot of Eli's ill tempered language was specifically designed to piss Kloor and his stuffed toy off, AND to get the journalists, the Flecks and Yulsmans, of the world engaged. It is enraging (ain't you happy KeithO) when some clown of a churnalist says its the public's problem, or the science type's problem, but oh, you don't understand churnalism so don't look at us.

Anna Haynes said...

On Eurekalert yesterday:
Passive news reports may lead readers to feel they can't find the truth
"...people are more likely to doubt their own ability to determine the truth in politics after reading an article that simply lists competing claims without offering any idea of which side is right."

Hank Roberts said...

John said...


Let's return to the case of Richard Zare and the Martian Meteorite ALH84001.

Yes, Zare was part of a team, as I said in my original comment. The team staked their claim based on analysis of PAH's in the meterorite. (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons). They published in Science in 1996.

A later article in Science (Bada et al. 1998) analyzed the amino acids, and showed, based on handedness (L- or D-) that the amino acids were of terrestrial origin. [I misremembered that it was isotopic analysis.]

Original claim:
McKay, Gibson, Thomas-Zeprta, (and others) and Zare
Search for Past Life on Mars: Possible Relic Biogenic Activity in Martian Meteorite ALH84001. Science: 273. 924-930.
[Note weasel word "possible" in title]

Bada, J. et al. 1998. A Search for Endogenous Amino Acids in Martian Meteorite ALH84001. Science: 279. 362-365

What is the take-home lesson here? Peer review works reasonably well in knocking down unsupportable claims, among scientists. Even when the scientist is very distinguished (as Zare in fact is).

Global warming denial is a different story: the same tired old claims that have been circulating for decades are continually recycled. That's because important monied interests have created a network of deniers which gets a lot of amplification in publications that nonscientists read.

The flat-out denials have little impact on the scientific literature, but a lot of influence on the lay public.

Anonymous said...

As mentioned up thread, Bart V. is also covering this...interested bunnies really should hop over there and have a look.

My two cents:


The media have clearly failed to report on the science. The media and journos (some of them prominent) have failed on a number of ways:

1) Insisting on presenting false balance
2) Failing to do their research, consult experts and fact check– in doing so, they have become active participants in an orchestrated misinformation campaign i.e, FUD)
3) Failing to hold those in contempt of the science accountable, and failing to expose their lies and disinformation– now there is a juicy story or dozen.
4) Failing to engage scientists and facilitate in communicating the scope and seriousness of the problems expected with AGW
5) Over-hyping the consequences about AGW– catchy headlines sell, and sometimes they fall into the trap of over-hyping things– that too hurts the science in the long run
6) [added later] Journos stating (misguided, misinformed) opinion as fact.

I have said this many times before– the IPCC needs a professional and dedicated PR team whose members have some experience working in the sciences. They also needs a graphics team to generate cool flash movies etc to communicate the science to the public. Sadly, people are now suggesting cutting funds to the IPCC, one of the reason for some of their gaffs and inability to be good communicators has been a lack of resources and funds.

The scientists are finally coordinating to improve their communication skills, but ultimately this does not absolve the media for their truly horrific coverage of the AGW file and their failure to hold the disinformers and anti-science crowd to account.

This is a very sad time for science journalism, and that is not anyone else’s fault but the media outlets and that of the journos. It is I suppose also the public’s fault for not demanding better.

And to those who unequivocally trust McIntyre, Mosher and Montford et al., and buy into their orchestrated campaign of lies and slander, then they are just gullible fools who are deluding themselves. EOS."


Jakerman said...

John Fleck writes:

Max Boykoff, now at the University of Colorado, has done the most work on this. His most recent analysis of newspaper coverage of climate change found that the British tabloid press "significantly diverged from the scientific consensus that humans contribute to climate change," but that what Boykoff calls the "prestige press" (NY Times, Guardian, LA Times, Washington Post, etc.) pretty much gets the story right.

If Max had widened his analysis to Australia a different pattern may have been clearer. That is the difference between Murdoch press and few options of credible press.

Even Murdoch's flagship paper is Australia which pitches itself as one of the "prestige press" has an anti-science editorial agenda.

Monopolists activists like Murdoch create a bias in both employment opportunities and climate coverage. Thus its becomes easier (and for some even more rewarding career wise) to be sloppier in a direction favouring the interest of such olligarchs.

Jakerman said...

Eli nails it:

there has been a concerted effort to blame the science side for not doing what it is not talented to do, and a look over there, which goes WAY BACK when talking about the PR muscle on the anti-science side.

willard said...

> Why does anyone pay the slightest attention to [Keith] Kloor?

My own answer is because Jonathan Gilligan comments there.


My own take-home from this hurly-burly is this:

A journalist is responsible for what he writes; a scientist is responsible for what he mumbles; a reader is responsible for what he reads; if that is true, all this hurly-burly is tired and jejune.

The conclusion regarding to the blogger is left as an exercise to the reader.

Let the reader be aware that this case might prove difficult, more so if the reader is also a scientist and a journalist.

PS: Capcha is reding.

Sou said...

A lot of people are missing the point. Even if every single scientist whose work added to our understanding of climate change was an expert communicator, it would not make an ounce of difference while the media gatekeepers are shutting the gate on dispersing knowledge and don't allow scientists to speak to the public.

Politicians aren't sharing the knowledge to which they are privy. Heck, governments set up an entire mechanism to inform them about climate change and still they don't pass the information on to the public. Politicians have entire armies of media officers and the media publishes press releases verbatim. But these politicians don't use them to inform the public and many use them to disinform the public.

It's taken a huge multi-pronged effort over many years to get a decrease in cigarette smoking - including massive advertising campaigns and multiple government regulations. Even then there are people who still smoke. It will take a lot more than that to shift away from pouring waste greenhouse gases into the air.

The media and politicians get paid too much to disinform the public. As long as that remains the case, those having a vested interest in heating the planet will prevail. However, they will not convince the majority who do understand that global warming is happening (as evidenced by most polls on the topic).

John Mashey said...

This is third post.
Win7+Firefox: POST just cleared the input box.
Win7+I POST flipepd back to beginning, didn't post, but at least left the input there.
Unlike either of the others, this actually gave me a word verification.

John Mashey said...

This us the 4th post, from iPhone Safari.
3rd actually worked, Chrome.

John Mashey said...

Fifth post: Win7+Safari:
POST does nothing, just like IE.
PREVIEW gives:
"We're sorry, but we were unable to complete your request.
When reporting this error to Blogger Support or on the Blogger Help Group, please:

Describe what you were doing when you got this error.
Provide the following error code and additional information.


So, Win7+Chrome, or iPhone+Safari work.
Win7+ {Firefox, IE, Safari} fail.

0) No problems seen with any other blog so far (Firefox).

1) If anyone else is seeing this problem on Win7, then there's some generic odd interaction with the blog and Win7 environment.

2) If, not there's probably some broken DLL (on my system) that Firefox and IE use, that Chrome does not. It is leaner and less feature-full.

John Mashey said...

This is the 6th post.
The 5th showed as accepted from chrome, then on refresh disappeared.
Spam filter? Argh.

Recovering in the Florida Keys said...

Even though I would love for you to make a new post to bump that radio thing outta here, what exactly should the message be? Other than that guy is a butthole with big oil or big tobacco or big brother lining his pockets. Science speaks for itself. Quality science is a hell of an orator. Why bother defending the questionable stuff? Or in your mind, is there nothing questionable?

Martin Vermeer said...

> Boykoff's most recent data showed a steady decline in the problem, such
> that in 2006 (the most recent year for which he's got data, sadly),

Yep -- pre-Climategate, sigh. A credulous lot, journalists, including such "quality outlets" as the BBC. Also what he calls, and recognises as "prestige press", is not de facto mainstream journalism... he just likes to think so :-(

"Read Boykoff and don't trust the tabloids?"

Yep. Who's listening?

> Can we please throw out Will?

Seconded. Now get public to do same. Heck, even the BBC continues to use him. Now it might be that on matters that I am not somewhat well informed on, he actually has opinions to offer that are distinguishable from nonsense, but...

This is the problem isn't it? Journalists as a community not clearly speaking on the junk in their midst, so the public doesn't know what to make of it. As contrasted to the way scientists will put a conspicuous distance between them and their 'junky' colleagues. See the Climategate emails: what has been misrepresented as trying to keep 'dissent' out of the literature, was precisely that, community-internal quality assurance.

...and what is the least appropriate in this situation is blaming the victims, be they the scientists that get misrepresented or borderline libeled, or the public that gets misinformed. Hey, this is your profession.

adelady said...

Sou. I'm not so sure the tobacco thing is a good comparison for these purposes. It's very good in terms of the strategy of the denialistas but I'm not talking about that.

Think of all the serious, international science about negative effects of various things. Asbestos, leaded paint and petrol, CFCs, acid rain. Why are these different from tobacco and obesity?


Because they were dealt with at source. People, at least in advanced economies, don't have to decide against using CFC or lead based or asbestos products, they've been eliminated from the range of choices. Similarly, in cities of the advanced economies, we don't have the option of choosing to dig our own long-drop toilets in our backyards alongside our home dug wells a few yards from the neighbour's tannery. Our regulation of noxious industries, plumbing standards as well as sewage and other waste means that harming ourselves and our neighbours by choosing to be foolish is highly restricted.

No such luck with obesity and smoking.

As for climate issues. There's been a lot of effort put into making it look as though it's down to individuals riding bicycles and households installing solar PV. In my view, that's pretending the issue is like smoking, when it's really like asbestos. If you don't dig the stuff up in the first place, and you don't put it into the environment, individuals don't have to make good choices, any choices, about how to live with it or avoid it. It's just not there.

Anonymous said...


I had a one-line comment with one link in another thread here the other day. Everything completed: the message was accepted and was displayed for a moment, at least until I navigated away. It then disappeared by the time I'd come back (minutes probably) into the spam box, where Eli found it about 24 hours or more later.

Vista Business Version 6.0.6000 Build 6000 + Firefox 3.6.15.

I think the OS and browser are largely incidental to the problem, personally.

Cymraeg llygoden

Sou said...

Adelady, the difference between greenhouse gases and, say, asbestos in terms of media coverage is that asbestos is produced by a few, there are lots of other substitutes available and the media can get stuck into the big bad corporation and pull heartstrings for individual victims. Other corporations that don't produce asbestos aren't bothered and some benefit from eliminating asbestos, so there's no real opposition to phasing it out.

With greenhouse gases there are a lot more companies affected and everyone has to pay, unlike with asbestos.

The point I was making was that it will take a lot more concerted and deliberate information effort to get the facts accepted by the minority who so far reject the facts, and to get people to accept there will be a price to pay for doing something and an even bigger price to pay for doing nothing.

IMO it is probably only governments that have the wherewithall and the information to run the cohesive and intensive public education/awareness campaigns that are needed. Similar to what they have done with anti-smoking campaigns, and slip slop slap (skin cancer awareness) etc.

Horatio Algeranon said...

Professor Scott Mandia makes some interesting observations about "Journalism and the Mass Media" (and also about the organized well funded disinformation campaign meant to "confuse" the issue) in Global Warming Man or Myth? Three Major Reasons Why There is So Much Misinformation

Mandia notes the conclusions of Boykoff & Boykoff (2004) on the climate change issue, which "supports the hypothesis that journalistic balance can often lead to a form of informational bias."

Mandia also notes the conclusions of Boykoff (2008) [conducted before the "Climategate" email affair] that things seem to have improved some since their 2004 paper

"attribution of climate change to human activity has received accurate coverage recently in a number of sources, including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, USA Today, The Times (London), The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Independent and The Guardian."

but that

" overall trend of inadequate coverage by the mass media persists."

Of course, that was then (2008) ...and this is now.

The latest Boykoff research (published in 2008) did not include an analysis of media coverage of "Climategate."

As Real Climate's Gavin Schmidt noted in The Guardian Disappoints, even the Guardian, which is usually pretty good on science, fell down on that one.

And sometimes what journalists don't cover is as important as what they do cover.

Mandia investigated "Climategate Coverage", (which really is an acid test for good journalism in this case, in Horatio's humble opinion) and Mandia concluded that it has been largely "Unfair & Unbalanced" (Climategate Coverage: Unfair and Unbalanced)

Horatio Algeranon said...

Horatio can't resist.

The Scientist and the Journalist

Marion Delgado said...

What do you imagine a journalist's job is? As I was told, it's producing content at the cheapest cost to the company, bringing in the maximum ad dollars.

That means no money for science journalism, no money for investigative or depth journalism, no stories outside your region, etc.

As the public-funded alternative means of communication are wiped out - NPR is basically gone and useless now, for instance - you'll see more and more of this as societies become market fundamentalist theocracies.

Always remember journalists are EMPLOYEES. Not professionals.

Professionals get to pick their clients, are licensed by their peers, and are sanctioned by their peers.

Journalists show up, punch the clock, get their orders, do their job.

It's like being a McDonald's employee, not like being a lawyer or doctor or architect.

To reiterate - they ARE doing their job. See above*.

*I was once let go from a radio station and the manager said my problem was that quote my anti-corporate attitude unquote led me to believe that "we're in the news or sports or music business." Whereas "we are in the business of taking the consumer and feeding him to the producer. Period!"

Yes, they really talk like that.

Holly Stick said...

Anna Haynes linked above to a report on how different kinds of journalism affect the readers. DeSmogBlog discusses it:

Anonymous said...

John Fleck:
Thanks for your interesting comments. Re: Boykoff, Martin Vermeer has made the salient point -- it would be most interesting to see a Boykoffian analysis of climate reportage in 'prestige' and nonprestige media post 'Climatgate'. I *suspect* (the sort of anecdotal impression that I think is driving the current rage against false balance here) that he'd find an upsurge in false balance reportage, followed by a slow decline to wherever it is we are now...except of course in the lowest gutter press, where there's not so much 'false balance' as a huge imbalance weighted towards the 'skeptical' side.

-Steven Sullivan

John Mashey said...

While this us slightly orthogonal to Boykoff, Jon Krosnick's surveys are worth checking.
I've heard him speak a few times and he has useful, sometimes counterintuitive stuff to say.

John Fleck said...

Last anon and Martin - Re Boykoff post-climategate, I've asked him, and he'd love to do it, but doesn't have the money, having just moved to a new academic posting. My sense is similar to yours. Coverage of the CRU emails was atrocious, though moreso in Great Britain. There was some pretty solid debunking over here, especially Seth Borenstein and his colleagues at the AP and the group at McClatchy that reviewed the emails (the one my newspaper ran).

The closest thing we've got to a post-2006 analysis is Boykoff's sea level paper, which goes I think to 2009 (did I mention it here? I've been in too many threads on this) which found the issue being accurately reported. It doesn't directly go to the false balance issue, but did find, up to 2009, that climate change sea level estimates were being accurately reported. Not exactly on point, but it is another bit of data pointing to accuracy in science journalism.

Jakerman - I don't read the Australian press much, so my anecdotal sense is biased based on the atrocious things climate bloggers link to or my Australian friend sends me, but it sure looks like there's some wacked shit down under.

Martin - On the press's criticism of itself - you make an excellent point. We aren't sufficiently public about that, though there was wonderful fun in my favorite anecdotal exception, the take-downs of George Will's 2009 "global cooling" column. I did it in my own newspaper with glee, and the Washington Post news-side people actually wrote a news story correcting Will's errors made on the op-ed page. Plus the Times, and my favorite science writer Carl Zimmer piling on.

If I may, my favorite bit of business from that affair:

But that's an exception, and we should be better at that, and not just do it when it's Will.

Eli - It's pretty clear that you don't understand "churnalism", or don't seem to have clicked on the links you provided for the other bunnies. Because the examples you shared (Alan Boyle's debunking of the bacteria from space, or the discussion of journalists trying to get the arsenic bacteria authors to respond to their scientific critics) are kinda the opposite of what you seem to be claiming. It's good to see that you've learned the lessons of Watts etc., that a little bit of good bullshit, even if untrue, can stick quite nicely if it resonates with your target audience and foster a lively discussion that suits your interests. Well played. :-)

Magnus said...

Another example

The biggest difference I see is some TV and Radio channels and also it seams but i don't know... that politichians in the US can get away stating wrong facts much easier then in e.g. Sweden without the jornos chasing them down.

Anonymous said...

Beware the purveyors of false balance, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.

The problem is not science journalism per se (largely anyway) or most of its practitioners, it's those lupine staff in their murine garb that's the problem.

Cymraeg llygoden

Horatio Algeranon said...

Professor Scott Mandia makes some interesting observations about "Journalism and the Mass Media" (and also about the organized well funded disinformation campaign meant to "confuse the public and our policy-makers about the science of climate change") in Global Warming Man or Myth? Three Major Reasons Why There is So Much Misinformation

Mandia notes the conclusions of Boykoff & Boykoff (2004) on the climate change issue, which "supports the hypothesis that journalistic balance can often lead to a form of informational bias."

Mandia also notes the conclusions of Boykoff (2008) [before the "Climategate" email affair] that things seemed to have improved some since their 2004 paper

"attribution of climate change to human activity has received accurate coverage recently in a number of sources, including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, USA Today, The Times (London), The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Independent and The Guardian."

but that

" overall trend of inadequate coverage by the mass media persists."

Of course, that was then (2008, before Climategate) ...and this is now.

As Real Climate's Gavin Schmidt noted in The Guardian Disappoints, even the Guardian (which is usually pretty good on science reporting) fell down on that one.

...and sometimes what journalists don't cover is as important as what they do cover.

Scott Mandia investigated "Climategate Coverage", (which really is an acid test for good journalism in this case, in Horatio's humble opinion) and Mandia concluded that it has been largely "Unfair & Unbalanced" (Climategate Coverage: Unfair and Unbalanced)

Martin Vermeer said...


John, a great read. I remember Walter Sullivan mostly for "We Are Not Alone", newly relevant in connection with the meteorite bacteria flap...

Recovering in the Florida Keys said...

There is always the selective criticism of journalist's competence issue. I doubt you challenged the "science journalism" of the impact of CFL bulbs. Which if you consider the energy impact of proper use, disposal and evacuation procedures outlined by the EPA would more than negate the energy savings. :)

badger badger badger said...

You mean these procedures?

Recovering in the Florida Keys said...

Badger, Badger, Badger, That is the condensed version.

You have to go through all the links. Did you know that if you should encounter a broken CFL your contaminated clothing requires special disposal or decontamination?

You should change the snake on your blog to a CFL :)

badger badger badger said...

This one, then?

It says pretty much the same thing.

Recovering in the Florida Keys said...

That is a better link Badger. The one I provided, links to more information though. That link is applicable because CFLB's are "lamps" and contain more than 0.2 milligrams/liter of mercury (2 to 4 milligrams per bulb depending on manufacturer).

Recovering in the Florida Keys said...

That's interesting, Wikipedia has a 0.6 milligram mercury per bulb estimate and one of the EPA fact sheets list 4 Milligrams. If they can get it down to 0.2 and make the bulbs four times bigger, the problem will go away :)

a_ray_in_dilbert_space said...

Dallas and Badger-cubed, Part of the issue is that the technology is a moving target. The new CFLs are closer to the 0.6 mg level, or in some cases even below. Ultimately LEDs are a better option, but the price has to drop another factor of 2 or so.

Recovering in the Florida Keys said...

A ray in dilbert space,

Very true. I just hope the guys writing the regulations can keep up. And the manufacturers, the life span of CFLB's is dropping with the out sourced manufacture.

EliRabett said...

Eli Rabett on mercury

EliRabett said...

Oh yeah, ALL fluorescent lamps have a wee bit of mercury. They work by exciting a discharge in mercury which puts out a ton of UV light. The UV excites the powdery stuff on the glass walls which luminesces in the visible.

Eli is very disappointed in today's students. When discussing atomic spectra he always asks if anyone has broken one of the tubes to see what is inside and no one ever tells him the right answer.

a_ray_in_dilbert_space said...

In the dark and distant past when a_ray_in_dilbert_space was teaching physics in a small college, he stood up on a lab table to demonstate the awesome power of static electricity by holding onto a Van de Graaf generator. Indeed his hair stood out and reached toward the sky--or rather toward a bank of fluorescent lights. He was told later by his students that the bolt of lightning that shot from the lights and through his skull was particularly impressive. Sometime, ask him how he shut down a lab for an afternoon doing an demo with thermite.

Steve Bloom said...

"Sometime, ask him how he shut down a lab for an afternoon doing an demo with thermite."

Hey, I managed that as a mere student! :)

Horatio Algeranon said...

Did Ray get a "glowing review" by the students?

Horatio substituted once in a Tuscon high school where about a liter of mercury had been dumped in the hallway outside the chemistry classroom on the previous day.

Despite semi-successful efforts to clean it up, there were little beads of mercury all over the tile floor (and probably still are, some 20 years later).

But that was back in the olden days, before folks worried about mercury. ~@:>

Horatio has other fond memories of the same high school: firecrackers being blown off in class and a student who gave him a 6 inch knife as "collateral" for a pencil (and wanted the knife back at the end of class)

The high school's real claim to fame was that Linda Ronstadt had gone to school there.

The teachers liked to reminisce about how "wild" she was...

Obviously, she was not the only one.

Marion Delgado said...

The way I handle the head-banger re CO2 life out in the world is to compare it to excess weight, which is mostly fat. We don't care if some of that fat is being replaced when we say it's easy to put on but hard to take off - we say fat "stays there" without caring about whether there's exchange of fat burning and fat storing involved. I say CO2 in the atmosphere is sort of like that. Typically, it takes Mother Nature a couple hundred years at least to lose an extra pound of CO2.

badger badger badger said...

Back on topic, thingsbreak has a good summary comment at c-a-s:

willard said...

+1 Walter Sullivan's avatar.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes it's not actually about getting science communication out, but letting it in...

Some folk are just not receptive to such communication, no matter how simplified and comprehensible (to a reasonable person) the content is.

Bernard J. Hyphen-Anonymous XVII

EliRabett said...

Why does thingsbreak waste brilliance on churalist Kloor when Eli has a fine blog?

Anonymous said...

Holy guacamole -- a graphic from The Lives & Times of Archy and Mehitabel!

Toujours gai!

-- A Don Marquis fan

Anonymous said...

John Fleck, a question re: and similar offenses by George Will -- has he *ever* admitted or apologized for errors like this? Or does he subscribe to Gertrude Stein's dictum, 'never apologize, never explain'?
-Steven Sullivan

Steven Sullivan said...

Dallas, the NY Times just this week ran an article on the pushback (mostly conservative/Tea Party, surprise!) again CFL legislation. The issues of mercury and cost were clearly noted -- there's even a link to the EPA disposal document -- but as usual it ain't really about the science for these people.

-Steven Sullivan

susan said...

"He not busy being born is busy dieing"

How to get the public to engage with knowledge and understanding, not to mention the real world outside their doors and gas pumps, is quite a conundrum. I'm not sure taking away everyone's nifty portable internet devices wouldn't be a good start. But what luck with that? (starting with oneself, huh ...) We need Justin Bieber, Black Eyed Peas, (probably already have Lady Gaga, but is she on the case?), etc. etc., not a few excellent writers masquerading as stuffy reporters and bloggers.

Journalists have a conflict of interest, in that they need readers. But reality is calling.

badger badger badger said...

This supposed to work with US sources, haven't tried it:

via Skepchick

Marion Diabolito said...

Eli I have to dissent.

Several science blogs, including, unless my memory is failing me, this very blog put the most dishonest piece of crap I've ever seen on the internet in a highly prominent place. It was done by a business supply train masters recipient, pretending to be an MIT scientist. Everything it said about the Fukushima disaster was a tendentious lie. It claimed to be able to inform people about Fukushima more than "all the journalists on Earth put totgether. It blasted the media for its spot coverage of breaking news, when, in fact, the mainstream media reports on Fukushima were scrupulously accurate. The denialists in the insane nuke-boosting community - most of them former climate science deniers holding climate change science to a made-up criterion of seriousness - you won't challenge our pseudoscientific disinformation about nuclear and renewables or we'll go back to being the bottleneck on climate change - were totally wrong, and remain wrong. And very few scientist communicators have ever corrected that great wrong done to the public.

If people are going to bash the media, they DAMN WELL BETTER be willing to admit when they've disinformed the public like a pack of FOOLS.