Jun 18, 2010

Scientists & Science Journalists - Please Grow Up

The "screaming death spiral" scientist now admits he might have overstated the matter.

I'm fascinated by the way people talk about climate change - what words they choose, what they don't say, and whether their arguments are intellectually rigorous or emotionally manipulative. In this regard, the manner in which Arctic ice melt is presented by activist scientists and activist journalists would make a great case study. Below are a few quick observations.

In December 2007, Mark Serreze, described as a "senior scientist at the U.S. government's National Snow and Ice Data Center," gave the Associated Press an emotionally-charged quote:
The Arctic is screaming.
Yep, that's what this man who has been trained in the cautious, tentative, rigorous approach known as the scientific method told the media. The quote appeared in an article that began with this paragraph:
An already relentless melting of the Arctic greatly accelerated this summer, a warning sign that some scientists worry could mean global warming has passed an ominous tipping point. One even speculated that summer sea ice would be gone in five years. [bold added]
The journalist, science writer Seth Borenstein, deliberately chose to use the words "relentless" and "ominous" in his first sentence. He chose to say that melting had not merely accelerated but had done so "greatly" - and to add in the "tipping point" jargon for good measure. He then made another deliberate choice when he devoted the very next sentence to rank speculation.

A few paragraphs down we're introduced to activist scientist Jay Zwally. In point of fact, he says he thinks the Arctic Ocean "could be nearly ice-free" in five years. But not to worry, he has another zinger of a quote at the ready:
The Arctic is often cited as the canary in the coal mine for climate warming. Now as a sign of climate warming, the canary has died. It is time to start getting out of the coal mines. [bold added]
The Associated Press article is a long one - more than 1,200 words - and readers must wade through all sorts of emotionally-laden verbiage before they arrive at the final paragraph and the observation of a more cautious scientist, Cecilia Bitz, who thinks that although ice melt is trending in one direction, what's occurring at that moment should probably be characterized as a blip.

A version of the above news story - always including the screaming but sometimes with the even-tempered remarks at the end chopped off - was reproduced in all sorts of venues around the world. Among these were the Kuwait Times, New York Sun, Boston Globe, Tehran Times, the UK Daily Mail, a Canadian television news website, CBS News, MSNBC and FOXnews.

On the National Geographic website, the story appeared under the let's-not-be-accused-of-understatement headline "Arctic Sea Ice Gone in Summer Within Five Years?" Similarly, the Scotland Herald inaccurately pushed the envelope still further with the headline "Summer ice in Arctic 'will be gone in under five years'" [italics added].

Google Books and another source (see p. 63 of this 171-page PDF) both report that the screaming Arctic and dead canary parts of the article were later cited by Pulitzer-Prize winning author Thomas Friedman in his 2009 bestseller Hot, Flat and Crowded.

In August of 2008 Serreze, who provided the screaming quote, told Reuters that:
Arctic ice is in its death spiral
Fast forward a couple of years and the screaming death spiral scientist now admits he might have overstated the matter. In a piece published this week on Wired.com, Serreze acknowledges that Mother Nature is a complicated gal. "The sea ice system surprises us," he says. Here are a few paragraphs from the story:

In 2007, the extent of sea ice in the Arctic declined rapidly. The drop from the previous year was so precipitous that it garnered worldwide attention and media coverage. In the last couple of years, the extent of sea ice in the Arctic...has recovered. This series of events, which underscored the year-to-year variability of the measurement, has made researchers cautious about describing events in the Arctic. [bold added]

“In hindsight, probably too much was read into 2007, and I would take some blame for that,” Serreze said. “There were so many of us that were astounded by what happened, and maybe we read too much into it.” [bold added]

Maybe we read too much into it. The more I research the predictions that have been made by environmentalists and activist scientists in recent decades, the more these words seem to apply. Never mind that the Earth has been around for 4.5 billion years and that we've been recording temperatures, taking CO2 readings, and measuring ice thickness for a measly few hundred. If something happens that hasn't yet been recorded by humanity it's "record-breaking" and
"unprecedented" and therefore automatically ominous.

Never mind that geologists tell us polar ice has been present for less than 20 percent of Earth's history and that we live on a dynamic, ever-changing planet. Ice sheets and glaciers expand and contract. They've been behaving this way for millions of years. One could say it's what they do.

So why do so many scientists and science journalists - the very people who should know better - reject the dispassionate, sober perspective? Why do they remind us of emotionally volatile teenagers?


h/t Tom Nelson and Bishop Hill


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