UPDATE:  I emailed MIT atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel about the smear that Richard Lindzen launched at him with the help of a credulous Boston Globe reporter stenographer.  His reply is below.

I’ve been bombarded with emails from folks stunned by a shamefully bad Globe article by Beth Daley, “A cooling trend.”  It certainly qualifies as one of the worst news articles ever published on global warming.

But is it the worst piece ever?  I’d love your thoughts.  The competition for that title is, unfortunately, very tough (see “And the 2009 “Citizen Kane” award for non-excellence in climate journalism goes to …“)

The piece does have the four horsemen of awful climate journalism:  Dreadful headline, grotesque imbalance (including a staggering choice for “tie-breaker”), a total lack of understanding or even interest in climate science, and a wholly unsubstantiated, near-libelous slur against a leading scientist.

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Also, it comes from a newspaper that has been highly regarded (though collapsing fast).  Certainly, one wouldn’t give the award for worst news article ever on climate to a newspaper that routinely prints crap on this subject, say the Wall Street Journal or almost any British newspaper.

This piece, however, has a combination of flaws that are unique, as this screen capture shows:

Boston Globe 5-10

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Where to begin?

Big problem #1 is that, as any reader can see even before getting to the headline, this is filed under “News/Science.” So while it is essentially a twin personality profile — a full-length he-said, she-said — you can’t simply dismiss it as, say, a grotesquely bad piece of non-science journalism, like, say, the NYT magazine profile of Freeman Dyson (see Media stunner: When asked “Does it matter, from a journalistic point of view, whether [Dyson is] right or whether he’s wrong?” his NYT profiler replies “Oh, absolutely not”).

No, the Globe is telling readers that this piece should be considered — and judged — as a science news piece.

Big problem #2 is the headline and subhed.  As I’ve noted many times, a lot of people don’t actually get far past the headline and subhed.  They are skimming the paper, they may not actually be following this issue closely or be very interested in it.  And, of course, in the internet age, the headline is what gets grabbed and repeated.

So a large fraction of readers are just going to see that this is another piece about global warming, how scientist can’t come to a consensus, and heck, maybe it is “cooling” just like the anti-science crowd says.  And that alone makes this piece unconscionable — without even considering the ironic timing (see NASA: Easily the hottest April — and hottest Jan-April — in temperature record:  Plus a new record 12-month global temperature, as predicted).

And yes, I’m quite aware that the person who wrote this headline was making a play on words about the relationship between Lindzen and Emanuel.  That doesn’t change the point about the misleading nature of the headline for casual readers.

Big problem #3 is the absurd false balance. Hurricane expert Kerry Emanuel remains highly respected in his field whereas Lindzen has been widely discredited and debunked:

Big problem #4 is the utter lack of understanding in climate science. The notion that the scientific debate is between “you should worry” and “you shouldn’t worry” is just patently absurd.  I’ve said it before many times and I’m sure I will keep saying it again and again:  The scientific literature doesn’t really leave much doubt that if we, say, listened to the people like Lindzen, then we are headed to very high concentrations (and yes catastrophic impacts) with high probability:

Since this egregious Boston Globe is supposedly about how MIT experts view the facts and how how hard climate consensus will be, let’s reprint this figure from a bunch of M.I.T. experts just to make clear what we’re talking about from a risk assessment or probabilistic perspective:


Even Emanuel, like many climate scientists, doesn’t quite understand this either.  Doing nothing sharply reduces the uncertainty of hypothesized catastrophic impacts (see here).

Big problem #5 is the utter lack of interest in climate science. You would never know from this piece that there is a vast array of climate scientists who share Emanuel’s view (or a more dire view), along with all the major scientific bodies in this country, as well as hundreds of peer-reviewed publications in every major scientific journal — but virtually none that support Lindzen’s.  You would never know that because Reporter Beth Daley never quotes a single one.  Not one!

Once again, bad timing on Daley’s part reveals just how uninformed she (and her editors) are:

And yes, it is absurd that Daley framed this “News/Science” story as supposedly being around “one of the world’s most acrimonious political debates” — rather than, say, “our incredibly well established understanding of climate science.”

http://grist.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/head_asplode.jpgWarning:  Please put your head in a vise before reading further.

Seriously, I mean it.  Get out the vise.  Or at least a really strong headband.

Okay, if you’re in a hurry, double up a rubber band.

Big problem #6 is the choice of “tie-breaker” in this he-said, she-said — and what the tie-breaker actually said. So the person Beth Daley picks to break the tie between Emanuel and Lindzen is none other than … wait for it … one of the other people besides Lindzen that Foreign Policy profiled in their “Guide to Climate Skeptics”!!!

The story of the scientists’ relationship is much more than a curiosity. The fact that these serious-minded colleagues and longtime friends disagree so vehemently highlights the immense difficulty of finding common ground on human-caused global warming. That’s because their disagreements are not just about interpretations of scientific data, but about how they assess the risks, amid the uncertainty over global warming’s future impact.

Their divide mirrors a much larger political split, as the US Senate begins to debate a climate bill written in large part by Massachusetts Senator John F. Kerry. All parties to the debate have the same evidence to draw on; their conclusions are another matter. Lindzen and Emanuel’s collision spotlights the ultimate sticking point: What steps should we take, and at what cost? That is: How much insurance against the possibility of catastrophe should a prudent planet buy?

“If these two guys can’t agree on the basic conclusions of the social significance of [climate change science], how can we expect 6.5 billion people to?’’ said Roger Pielke Jr., a University of Colorado at Boulder professor who writes a climate blog.

Well, actually, given how discredited Lindzen is, this story is mostly a curiosity.

Lindzen apparently doesn’t want any meaningful action at all — much like Pielke (see Finally, Roger Pielke admits he supports policies that will take us to 5-7°C warming or more).  Indeed, I didn’t realize until I read his profile in Foreign Policy’s climate skeptics guide how much Lindzen’s views matched that of the mainstream anti-science crowd (see “The real reason conservatives don’t believe in climate science“):

His own political leanings are clear (he sees climate advocates as wanting “to roll back industrial society” and an excuse “to redistribute global wealth”).

As an aside, that isn’t the agenda of any climate advocates I know.  On the other hand, if we listen to Lindzen (or Pielke) and fail to reverse greenhouse gas emissions trends rapidly, then global warming guarantees a massive redistribution of global wealth, from those who have money to those who desperately need to build levees, desalinate water, grow food, flee Dust-Bowlification and sea level rise, and on and on and on and on and on (NOAA stunner: Climate change “largely irreversible for 1000 years,” with permanen
t Dust Bowls in Southwest and around the globe

But Pielke’s quote is absurd.  Yes, I am aware that Pielke tried to cover himself by throwing in the phrase “the social significance of,” so he wouldn’t be directly equating the scientific conclusions of Emanuel and Lindzen.  But the quote is still absurd.

Since when do we have to wait until 6.5 billion people agree before we act on a global problem of massive social significance?  Somehow we managed to eradicate small pox without the entire planet adjudicating the risks.

More to the point, we managed to save the ozone layer without the entire planet agreeing on the basic conclusions of the social significance of [ozone science]. And yes, the climate change problem is a quantum leap difference in scale and difficulty than the ozone problem.  But the reason we have political leaders — and a key reason they created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — is precisely because it’s not possible for the world to wait for billions of people to become expert in every aspect of science and public health before we act.  As the letter from the 255 NAS scientists put it, “When someone says that society should wait until scientists are absolutely certain before taking any action, it is the same as saying society should never take action. For a problem as potentially catastrophic as climate change, taking no action poses a dangerous risk for our planet.”

As another aside, the “insurance” metaphor is the wrong one.  Insurance pays off when the catastrophe occurs.  We’re trying to minimize the chances of the catastrophe occurring in the first place.  The correct analogy is risk reduction.

Big problem #7 is the shameful near-libelous attack on Emanuel:

Lindzen watched his colleague become a media star with growing unease….

He began to see questionable motivations in Emanuel’s transformation into a scientist outspoken about the possible dangers from global warming.

Emanuel “would tell me that he really felt that it would be a mistake not to take advantage of the issue . . . there is funding . . . it could benefit the department,’’ Lindzen said in an interview. “I always took a more moralistic view. There has to be a foundation.’’

What had been an academic dispute was about to become personal.

Anyone who knows Emanuel — and I got to him a bit when I was interviewing hurricane experts for Hell and High Water — knows that this charge is absurd and utterly beyond the pale.

Really, has journalism sunk so low that a reporter for a major newspaper simply reprints any charge, no matter how outlandish, against a highly respected scientist like Emanuel, with not one single substantiating fact or independent quote?

Shame on Beth Daley and shame on the Boston Globe for running this piece.  They should quickly run an apology to Emanuel.

UPDATE:   Since I have interviewed Emanuel in the past, I sent him an e-mail requesting a quote for the record, responding to this outrageous charge by Lindzen that the Globe stenographer reprinted.  He answered:

“The only group that has really profited from the denial of global climate change is the media, who have a strong vested interest in keeping a debate going. You are correct that I never said to Lindzen or anyone else that we should take advantage of the situation for the benefit of the department; this is pure fabrication.”

One additional point using the Michael Tobis (and Stephen Ban) figure.


Lindzen is on the left hand side of “the ‘debate’ in the popular press” and Emanuel looks to be near where the IPCC is, maybe slightly to the right.  Reality, however, is moving ever rightward from Emanuel.

In a AAAS presentation this year, William R. Freudenburg of UC Santa Barbara discussed his research on “the Asymmetry of Scientific Challenge”:

New scientific findings are found to be more than twenty times as likely to indicate that global climate disruption is “worse than previously expected,” rather than “not as bad as previously expected”

Someday the status quo media will get this story right.  But not soon, apparently.