Science reporting: You're doing it wrong.


Hey, Huffington Post: I’m not one to tell you how to do your business — your budget for the time it takes me to write this sentence is bigger than Grist’s budget for the year, so you must be doing something right — but maybe it would be a good idea to hire a science editor who’s familiar with, like, science?

By way of background: One of the favorite games of evolution and climate deniers is to round up a group of scientists (or “scientists”) or members of some important-sounding organization who agree with their denialism, have them all sign on to a letter or document, and release it with great fanfare to show that “the science isn’t settled.” Each time the media obligingly makes a big fuss, and then later, when the public has stopped paying attention, scientists trudge along and thoroughly debunk said declaration. It’s a thankless task. The famed Oregon petition alone has been debunked four gazillion times, but since deniers don’t have to spend their time doing original science, they can devote themselves to stunts like this, so new declarations and petitions come along reliably about once a year. Anyone worth their salt in science media knows by now to ignore them.

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(The National Center for Science Education memorably mocked these efforts with its “Project Steve,” which is a letter reaffirming the science of evolution signed only by scientists named Steve. So far they have 1,200 signatories. Point being, it’s not that hard to round up a group of people who believe any old thing.)

Yesterday, the latest one popped up: a letter from a bunch of ex-NASA astronauts, engineers, and assorted employees that calls on NASA to stop saying carbon dioxide causes climate change. They call this — probably the most well-understood and firmly grounded fact in all of climate science — an “extreme position.”

Yeah, whatever. Yawn.

But then along comes David Freeman, Huffington Post’s science editor, who credulously repeats the charges and then, I kid you not, finishes with this:

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What do you think? Is NASA pushing “unsettled science” on global warming?

Uh. David. I mean no insult to Huffington Post readers when I say that they are probably not the best arbiters of this question. Instead, you might consult, oh, any science academy from any country in the world. Or the 2010 survey from the National Academy of Science that found that 98 percent of working climate scientists affirm anthropogenic climate change. Or the Climate Change Task Force. Or, I dunno, the entire published corpus of atmospheric science.

As you are a journalist, I feel confident that you could ferret out this information with, say, a Google search. Typically this is what journalists do: find out what’s happening and tell readers. They do not typically ask readers what the facts are, though I admit I may not understand “new media” in all its facets.

I don’t want to ruin the ending of what I’m sure will be an exciting journey of intellectual discovery for you, but [SPOILER ALERT]: Yes, carbon dioxide does cause global warming. My readers told me so.


UPDATE: Huffington Post has removed the question at the end of the post and replaced it with this:

Editor’s note: We believe it’s newsworthy when 49 former NASA scientists and astronauts pen a letter to the agency — or to anyone — about climate change. But what really raised temperatures is when we asked our readers to weigh in. We’ve removed the question because HuffPost is not agnostic on the matter. Along with the overwhelming majority of the scientific community (including 98% of working climate scientists), we recognize that climate change is real and agree with the agencies and experts who are concerned about the role of carbon dioxide.

Good for them. Let’s all move on.

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