Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Columbia Journalism Review on the IPCC Story

Curtis Brainard of the Columbia Journalism Review digs into the IPCC story:
A couple of America’s leading media outlets finally dug into the recent controversy surrounding the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last week. The Observatory first criticized U.S. news outlets two weeks ago for not paying more attention to the issue.
So far, so good.
Last Tuesday, The New York Times ran a front-page article by Elisabeth Rosenthal under the headline, “U.N. Panel and Its Chief Face a Siege on Their Credibility.” On Wednesday, the Associated Press ran one over the wire headlined, “Scientists seek better way to do climate report.” The difference between the two headlines—the Times focused on the panel’s faults, the AP on its attempts to address them—is important. Each tells half the story, but it is the latter that should lead.
What!? Lead with the soft peddled AP story!? Clearly, you want to provide editorial cover for scientists that may have committed fraud. Fortunately for the fraudsters, the statute of limitations ran out.
That focus would defy the media’s preference for a conflict narrative and the “front-page thought,” but the story here is not the fact that the IPCC and climate scientists have made mistakes. From the batch of e-mails taken from the University of East Anglia in November to more recent allegations of errors and poor sourcing in the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, these mistakes have done little to undermine the fundamental theory that human industry is contributing to global warming, or prove that the field of climate science is riddled with corruption. The story, properly told, is about whether or not the responsible parties are responding appropriately to flaws in the system (correcting the record where necessary and working to prevent the recurrence of past mistakes).
Brainard misrepresents the leak from East Anglia as being a "batch of e-mails" when the leak also included poorly written source code. Code that could drive the allocation of billions of dollars around the world. But how on earth can Brainard write "these mistakes have done little to... prove that the field of climate science is riddled with corruption"? In light of ClimateGate, GlacierGate, RainforestGate, HurricaneGate, and especially the corruption of the peer review process that statement sharpens the old saw: "there are none so blind as those that will not see." As for preventing "the recurrence of past mistakes", that's not really necessary—you can only lose your primary data once.
Bearing this in mind, it is easy to see why—as Climate Progress blogger Joe Romm first pointed out—Rosenthal buried her lede in the ninth paragraph, which reads:
The panel, in reviewing complaints about possible errors in its report, has so far found that one was justified and another was “baseless.” The general consensus among mainstream scientists is that the errors are in any case minor and do not undermine the report’s conclusions.
Consensus... ugh. Science is about gathering facts running them through the scientific method and establishing new, repeatable facts. Scientific consensus leads to error cascades.
That is something that needs to be mentioned in the first few paragraphs. From there, a reporter can explain that errors were nonetheless made, which should remind the world of three things: that the exact timing and scale of certain impacts of climate change are subject to a lot of uncertainty; that some scientists will behave defensively, even to the point of negligence, when they feel threatened; and that all quality control-systems sometimes fail. Thereafter, the question becomes: What is being done about these problems?
I think that Brainard is on target here and remains (mostly) on target to the end. The last few paragraphs of his article are particularly interesting:
...the Guardian “will allow web users to annotate the manuscript to help us in our aim of creating the definitive account of the controversy. This is an attempt at a collaborative route to getting at the truth.” The approach seems effective....

It is this kind of detailed, intellectually honest (even technologically innovative) reporting that news outlets like The New York Times should be striving for with their coverage of the recent controversies related to the IPCC. Coverage in the U.S. still feels like the proverbial tale of blind men examining different quarters of an elephant. Readers need the point-by-point master narrative. How exactly did this crisis in public confidence crystallize over the last month or so? How did various criticisms of the IPCC roll out? Which of those are legitimate? Which false? And what, if anything, can be done to improve the IPCC’s work?

It is not a story that can be told without a significant amount of context, but news outlets have a responsibility to get it right. If that means sacrificing the front-page thought and running a twelve-part series online instead, so be it.

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