Anti-science idealogues spin the NY Times public editor
UPDATE: With his latest story, one-time NYT science reporter Andrew Revkin embarks on a new career as drama critic — while utterly mocking Hoyt’s analysis. I’ll discuss it at the end.
If you think the NY Times public editor, Clark Hoyt, doesn’t have the whole story, doesn’t simply get a free pass from writing a balanced story, you should email him at email@example.com.
One thing is clear from the story known as ClimateGate — the anti-science ideologues are much better at “Working the Refs“ than the climate science realists.
On his blog, DotEarth, NYT climate reporter Andy Revkin has starting turning reader comments into primary text. Okay. Here’s our own Ken Levenson from a comment on today’s CP post, British PM attacks “anti-science, flat-earth climate sceptics” while UK Conservatives reaffirm climate science and need for “desperately urgent” Copenhagen deal:
What a breath of fresh air! Particularly after just ingesting Clark Hoyt’s pile of manure this morning.
The only good thing I can say about Hoyt’s treatment is that it unintentionally allows Andy Revkin to hang himself. Revkin is quoted at the end saying “Our coverage, looked at in toto, has never bought the catastrophe conclusion and always aimed to examine the potential for both overstatement and understatement,”
EARTH TO REVKIN: THE IPCC IS THE MIDDLE GROUND AND ITS MIDDLE GROUND IS CATASTROPHE.
That Revkin betrays his inclination for the horserace over “truth” is just another nail in the coffin for his pathetic coverage. Too bad Hoyt has gotten used in the process.
I agree that Hoyt’s piece, “Stolen E-Mail, Stoking the Climate Debate,” raises questions about his own bias — and Revkin’s independence to cover the story.
What’s shocking is that Hoyt, the supposed “readers’ representative” only quotes from those who think the Times has underplayed the story, which is hardly what the independent public editor should be doing:
AS world leaders prepare to meet tomorrow in Copenhagen to address global warming, skeptics are pointing to e-mail hacked from a computer server at a British university as evidence that the conference may be much ado about nothing. They say the e-mail messages show a conspiracy among scientists to overstate human influence on the climate — and some accuse The Times of mishandling the story.
Although The Times was among the first to report on the e-mail, in a front-page article late last month, and has continued to write about the issue almost daily in the paper or on its Web site, readers have raised a variety of complaints:
Some say Andrew Revkin, the veteran environmental reporter who is covering what skeptics have dubbed “Climategate,” has a conflict of interest because he wrote or is mentioned in some of the e-mail messages that the University of East Anglia says were stolen. Others wondered why The Times did not make the e-mail available on its Web site, and scoffed at an explanation by Revkin in a blog post that they contain “private information and statements that were never intended for the public eye.” What about the Pentagon Papers? they asked.
Others contended that The Times was playing down a story with global implications, coming as world leaders consider a treaty to limit the amount of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere from autos, power plants and other sources.
Luis Alvarez Jr. of Charlottesville, Va., was outraged that a front-page article on President Obama’s pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the United States had not a single mention of the e-mail, in which one scientist, for example, said he had used a “trick” to “hide” a recent decline in temperatures.
Richard Murphy of Fairfield, Conn., said, “Given that the hacked e-mails cast doubt on some of the critical research that underlies the entire global warming argument, I am astounded that The Times has treated the issue in such a cavalier fashion.”
Does Revkin have a conflict of interest, as Steven Milloy, the publisher of JunkScience.com, and others contended? Why didn’t The Times put the e-mail on its Web site? And, most important, is The Times being cavalier about a story that could change our understanding of global warming? Or, as The Times’s John Broder, who covers environmental issues in Washington, put it, “When does a story rise to three-alarm coverage?”
Is that really representative of NY Times readers??? Three straight quotes from those on one side, including the uber-extreme anti-science Milloy, of whom Source Watch writes:
In January 2006, Paul D. Thacker, a journalist who specializes in science, medicine and environmental topics, reported in The New Republic that Milloy has received thousands of dollars in payments from the Phillip Morris company since the early nineties, and that NGOs controlled by Milloy have received large payments from ExxonMobil . A spokesperson for Fox News stated, “Fox News was unaware of Milloy’s connection with Philip Morris. Any affiliation he had should have been disclosed.”
Hmm. I found that in 30 seconds using Google. If Fox News thinks references to Milloy need to include his affiliations, perhaps the public editor of the NY Times might to the same.
I’m gonna give Hoyt a pass on quoting at length from “John Tierney, a Times science columnist.” Yes, everybody who cares about science outside of the New York Times knows that he “makes up stuff, just like George Will” (see here). But you can’t expect the public editor of the NY Times to ever believe that the so-called paper of record would actually employ on their staff the country’s worst science writer, can you? But you might still point out the “hide the decline” nonsense is, well, nonsense.
Someone might also point out to Hoyt that the Times has been criticized for overplaying the story (see “Here’s what we know so far: CRU’s emails were hacked, the 2000s will easily be the hottest decade on record, and the planet keeps warming thanks to us! The NY Times blows the story“):
The NYT’s Revkin has a piece whose headline and lede, typically, misses the entire point, “Hacked E-Mails Fuel Climate Change Skeptics.” Note to Andy: Everything fuels the disinformers! And that includes studies and data that prove the exact opposite of what they assert.
Who cares that, as Revkin says in his opening (!) sentence, this is “causing a stir among global warming skeptics, who say they show that climate scientists conspired to overstate the case for a human influence on climate change”? This was a chance for Revkin to make up for his misinformation-filled post from September [see “NYT’s Revkin pushes global cooling myth (again!) and repeats outright misinformation“]. Even his most science-based sentence is hedged: “But the evidence pointing to a growing human contribution to global warming is so broad and deep that the hacked material is unlikely to erode the overall argument.” Unlikely? Ya think?
Revkin asserts in the so-called paper of record that “some of the comments might lend themselves to sinister interpretations.” So is this a news story or just a speculative opinion piece? Instead of saying what interpretation might be possible, why not actually talk to the authors of the emails and other scientists and report what they emails actually were meant to communicate? Oh, wait, later in the piece he notes “But several scientists whose names appear repeatedly in the e-mails said they merely revealed that scientists are human beings, and did nothing to undercut the body of research on global warming.” Duh.
The bigger question Hoyt and Levenson raised concerns the question “Does Revkin have a conflict of interest” covering the story?
Erica Goode, the environment editor, said that as soon as she learned that Revkin was mentioned in the scientists’ e-mail, she consulted with Philip Corbett, the standards editor. She said she read the roughly one dozen messages containing Revkin’s name and decided they showed a reporter asking for information for news articles, with “no particular close relationship with the scientists other than the fact that he knew them.” Goode and Corbett said they agreed that Revkin did not have a significant conflict and was good to go, with an acknowledgment in the article that he and other journalists were named in the e-mail.
I read all the messages involving Revkin, and I did not see anything to keep him off the story. If anything, there was an indication that the scientists whom some readers accused Revkin of being too cozy with were wary of his independence. One, Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University, warned a colleague, Phil Jones, director of the Climatic Research Unit at East Anglia, to be careful what he shared with “Andy” because, “He’s not as predictable as we’d like.”
Hmm. Well, it’s no shock to CP readers — or NPR listeners — that some scientists aren’t thrilled with Revkin’s unpredictably mistake-filled coverage of the science, especially the “global cooling” nonstory ]see “NYT’s Revkin pushes global cooling myth (again!) and repeats outright misinformation” and Revkin stunner on NPR: “I’ve made missteps. I’ve made probably more mistakes this year in my print stories than I had before”].
As for not posting the e-mail, Revkin said he should have used better language in his blog, Dot Earth, to explain the decision, which was driven by advice from a Times attorney. The lawyer, George Freeman, told me that there is a large legal distinction between government documents like the Pentagon Papers, which The Times published over the objections of the Nixon administ
ration, and e-mail between private individuals, even if they may receive some government money for their work. He said the Constitution protects the publication of leaked government information, as long as it is newsworthy and the media did not obtain it illegally. But the purloined e-mail, he said, was covered by copyright law in the United States and Britain.
I think that any notion that The Times was trying to avoid publishing the e-mail messages is a manufactured issue. On Freeman’s advice, the paper linked to them — on a skeptic’s Web site as it happens — and they were a click away for anyone who wanted to examine them.
Linking to anti-science skeptics. Awesome.
Revkin said last week on his blog that he was asking a variety of researchers if the e-mail changed our understanding of global warming. One, Roger Pielke Sr. of the University of Colorado, who has been critical of what he called “the climate oligarchy,” including some of the scientists involved in the e-mail, replied that it did not. Pielke has characterized some scientists in the field as inbred and wedded to their views, but he said that the temperature measurement by Jones’s group was only one of several showing a long-term warming trend, and that there was no doubt that carbon dioxide produced by humans was a major factor.
Yes, Hoyt quotes from yet another person representing the confused side of the story (see “Roger Pielke Sr. also doesn’t understand the science of global warming — or just chooses to willfully misrepresent it“).
Does the public editor simply get a free pass from even bothering to write a balanced story?
But Revkin and Tierney both told me that, after that broad understanding among scientists, there is sharp debate over how fast the earth is warming, how much human activity is contributing and how severe the impact will be.
“Our coverage, looked at in toto, has never bought the catastrophe conclusion and always aimed to examine the potential for both overstatement and understatement,” Revkin said.
Goode, his editor, said: “We here at The Times are not scientists. We don’t collect the data or analyze it, and so the best we can do is to give our readers a sense of what the prevailing scientific view is, based on interviews with scientists” and the expertise of reporters like Revkin.
Again, there really isn’t a sharp debate about how severe the impact will be — if we don’t take any action at all! I have now emailed Revkin twice on this — and both times he has published what I wrote, but still ignores the central point:
His scientific mistake is bigger. He fails to realize that listening to the conservative ideologues who claim the science if false and counsel inaction will essentially end the uncertainty about future impacts. Concentrations will rise to very high levels, in excess of 800 ppm, with catastrophic for consequences ocean acidification, sea level rise, species loss, desertification, etc.
I draw your attention to:
There isn’t any uncertainty about what happens if we keep doing nothing or very little. The people who are peddling the uncertainty myth are internalizing the notion that politicians are going to start deploying multiple wedges starting almost immediately. [“Wedges” comes from an assessment by two Princeton scientists of ways to get big CO2 emission reductions from particular sectors, like transportation and efficiency (see our 2006 graphic explaining some emission wedges). Mr. Romm’s posts provide good background on this thought experiment.]
This may well be my biggest disagreement with you. You understand this but you don’t convey this to your readers: Doing nothing or doing little eliminates the uncertainty.
Wedges discussion can be found here.
I challenge the Times to seriously do what Goode says: Interview the top 100 climate scientsts and asked them to describe the future impacts if we listen to those who counsel inaction. I dare say at least 95 would describe an unmitigated catastrophe — certainly the dozens I have interviewed in the past few years do. Is the NYT even aware of the 13-agency report on U.S. climate impacts from earlier this year (see “Our hellish future: Definitive NOAA-led report on U.S. climate impacts warns of scorching 9 to 11°F warming over most of inland U.S. by 2090 with Kansas above 90°F some 120 days a year — and that isn’t the worst case, it’s business as usual!“)
Indeed, a very significant fraction would describe the possibility of impacts beyond our imagination, see UK Met Office: Catastrophic climate change, 13-18°F over most of U.S. and 27°F in the Arctic, could happen in 50 years, but “we do have time to stop it if we cut greenhouse gas emissions soon.”
Again, it’s only in the “split the baby” coverage of Revkin and the NY Times that one gets left with the false impression that doing nothing or doing little might not drastically harm the health and well-being of billions and billions of people.
Some final points. First, I think that by writing the story this way, Hoyt has harmed his own credibility as an independent representative of NY Times readers.
Second, Hoyt has put Revkin in a no-win situation. Revkin is now officially on record as saying his coverage “has never bought the catastrophe conclusion,” in spite of the science to the contrary. How can he budge from that now, even as the science gets stronger and stronger that he is wrong:
- Science: CO2 levels haven’t been this high for 15 million years, when it was 5° to 10°F warmer and seas were 75 to 120 feet higher — “We have shown that this dramatic rise in sea level is associated with an increase in CO2 levels of about 100 ppm.”
- M.I.T. doubles its 2095 warming projection to 10°F — with 866 ppm and Arctic warming of 20°F
- Satellite data stunner: “Our data suggest that EAST Antarctica is losing mass…. Antarctica may soon be contributing significantly more to global sea-level rise.”
- Climate science statement from the Met Office, NERC and the Royal Society: It’s the hottest decade on record and “even since the 2007 IPCC Assessment the evidence for dangerous, long-term and potentially irreversible climate change has strengthened.”
Here’s the final line in Hoyt’s piece:
So far, I think The Times has handled Climategate appropriately — a story, not a three-alarm story.
Ironically, Hoyt got the right bottom line — this isn’t a “three alarm story.” But that wasn’t news. It didn’t deserve a story, particularly one as flawed as the one Hoyt wrote, that simply rehashed a bunch of anti-scientific talking points with no balance or rebuttal. Many other media outlets had already explained the story was overblown or largely irrelevant to our understanding of climate science, including the leading UK scientific journal Nature:
- Nature editorial: “Nothing in the e-mails undermines the scientific case that global warming is real — or that human activities are almost certainly the cause.”
- Washington Times: “stolen e-mails mean less than they seem”
- Reuters: “ANALYSIS-Hacked climate e-mails awkward, not game changer”; Hackergate contest
- Hacked climate e-mail rebutted by scientists
If you think the NY Times public editor, Clark Hoyt, doesn’t have the whole story, doesn’t simply get a free pass from even bothering to write a balanced story, you should email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
UPDATE: Making an utter fool of Hoyt and his ultimate conclusion that this is “not a three-alarm story,” NY Times editors publish another dreadful Revkin piece on the front page. Interestingly, the headline of the piece (coauthored by John Broder) is actually good — “In Face of Skeptics, Experts Affirm Climate Peril.” Too bad that isn’t quite how one-time NYT science reporter Andrew Revkin frames the piece as he embarks on a new career as drama critic
Let me quote from Levenson again in the comments — since he “broke” this story for CP:
THE NEW YORK TIMES JUMPS THE SHARK….with it’s coverage devolving into Birther/Flat-Earther/Intelligent Design entertainment. What a public service – NOT!
Good god – Revkin has an A1 story that concludes (in a perfect summary of this absurd article):
“Whichever view prevails, the questions will undoubtedly linger well after the negotiators who are trying to work out the complex issues that still stand in the way of an international climate treaty leave Copenhagen.”
Too bad there isn’t someone at the New York Times who, say, actually covers the science, reads the dozens of major papers that are published every year, talks to the leading climate scientists, actually visits the places around the world that are experiencing climate change, and then can explain to the public that the scientific view is the one that invariably prevails, rather than the anti-scientific one.
History will judge that there is only one “three alarm story” — global warming science itself, the grave threat posed to humanity by unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions, a story that the NY Times seems unwilling or unable to cover accurately. Indeed, if humanity keeps listening to the anti-scientific ideologues that Revkin listens to with undeserved credulity, then global warming will in fact be a literal million-fire-alarm story for decades to come.
Shame on the New York Times editors and reporters for not even being able to come to the same obvious conclusion as Hoyt did in his admittedly lame piece.