Note to media: Enough with the multiple hedges on climate science!
In an otherwise fascinating story on the growing “icebreaker gap” in the rapidly defrosting Arctic Ocean, NYT reporter Andy Revkin writes:
Even with the increasing summer retreats of sea ice, which many polar scientists say probably are being driven in part by global warming caused by humans, there will always be enough ice in certain parts of the Arctic to require icebreakers.
I do not view a quadruple-hedged climate impact attribution as acceptable for a major media outlet: “many” and “polar” and “probably” and “in part”!
It isn’t just “many polar scientists” who say this, it is pretty much “the overwhelming majority of climate scientists” — especially because he threw in two more hedges “probably are being driven in part.” Heck, with those two hedges, you could probably just drop “many polar” and say “which scientists say probably are being driven in part by global warming caused by humans.”
Second, “always” is forever, but ice isn’t, especially since on our current greenhouse gas emissions path, we may see more than 5Â°C global warming this century). Had Revkin said “there will always be enough ice in certain parts of the Arctic during some parts of the year,” that I think would be something many polar scientists would probably agree with (in part). But as is now written, I think not.
Note to media on hedging climate science:
I think it is a central role of the media to let the public know just how solid the overall scientific understanding of climate science is. I think matters of climate science should have two hedges at the very, very most — and only then if it is a relatively controversial matter and your editor refuses to let you use a single hedge.
I think well-established reporters on climate science, like Revkin, should have at most one hedge, especially for areas that are not especially controversial.
Using this story as an example, if my editor would let me, I’d have written:
Even with the increasing summer retreats of sea ice, which climate scientists say are being driven in large part by global warming caused by humans …
I think the very least that is acceptable would be:
Even with the increasing summer retreats of sea ice, which polar scientists say probably are being driven in large part by global warming caused by humans …
Though even there, I think “climate scientists” would be preferable.
I think one could also drop “in part” entirely, since the word “driven” has its own ambiguities. Thus the strongest version could read:
Even with the increasing summer retreats of sea ice, which climate scientists say are being driven by global warming caused by humans …
Yes, that is strong. But how many climate scientists could you find do disagree with that statment? In 10 or 20 years, historians and sciences and even the general public of the scratching their heads at how we could have been so wishy-washy reporting the obvious.
Note to Revkin: Going back to your original phrasing, can you even find three polar scientists who disagree with the claim that “the increasing summer retreats of sea ice … probably are being driven in part by global warming caused by humans”? Not with the words “in part” there. Heck, how many would disagree with the statement if it read “in large part.”
Bottom Line: I’m not certain how the public is going to understand the dire nature of our climate situation in time to avert calamity if the media keeps filling their climate science articles with multiple hedges.
Update: I really do not mean to single out Revkin. He just happens to be the gold standard — the most prolific and high profile climate journalist. That’s why I changed the post headline (though the slug remains unchanged since changing it screws up those with an RSS feed). I have complaints about many other major media outlets, for instance, Dateline NBC
That said, I view part of Revkin’s next comment as outrageous. He writes, “hardly any would say there’s sufficient evidence to characterize it as the dominant force up there.” Now the best spin on that remark is that he is referring just to the explanation for the full extent of the 2007 ice melt. The problem is, his article was about “the increasing summer retreats of sea ice.” That makes his comment simply untrue.