Scientists Bang on with Analysis of Media Muddle

Sun, 2006-08-27 16:54Jim Hoggan
Jim Hoggan's picture

Scientists Bang on with Analysis of Media Muddle

It would be nice if we public relations and media types could comment on climate science with the same sense of intelligent self-assurance that climate scientists J.A. Curry, P.J. Webster and G.J. Holland bring to this analysis of the effects of politics and media on public debates about science.

These three scientists were among four authors (including H.R. Chang) of a 2005 Science magazine paper that argued this:

“The key inference from our study of relevance here is that storms like Katrina should not be regarded as a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ event in the coming decades, but may become more frequent. This suggests that risk assessment is needed for all coastal cities in the southern and southeastern U.S.… The southeastern U.S. needs to begin planning to manage the increased risk of category-5 hurricanes.”

The authors avoided a flat statement that “global warming is causing an increase in hurricane intensity,” in part because they couldn’t agree among themselves on how exactly to address this issue. And they didn’t want to devalue what they thought was an important scientific conclusion – and a timely warning – by overstating their hand. Accordingly, they said only that increased hurricane intensity is “consistent with that which would be expected from greenhouse warming.”

Regardless of this caution, the paper became a popular whipping post in the debate over climate change. It sounds, from the way that the authors speak now, like their conclusions were overstated by campaigners on one side of the climate change debate, and savaged by those on the other side.

The media battle proved particularly bruising and, the authors argue, particularly damaging - to the clairty of the public debate and to the quality of the scientific debate. That, in turn, inspired the new paper, entitled Mixing Politics and Science in Testing the Hypothesis That Greenhouse Warming Is Causing a Global Increase in Hurricane Intensity and published in the most recent Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

The paper begins by addressing the central criticisms of their earlier effort, and reasserting the conclusion in an even more forceful way: that climate is a likely contributor to the recent flurry of more-intense hurricanes and, accordingly, that we can expect more of the same. (I am, of course, taking the liberty of summing up the first 5,000 words of this paper in a single sentence; and I hope they will forgive any oversimplification.)

In a second section, the authors go on to their media analysis – the Case study: Mixing politics, climate science, the world wide web and the media.

In one of the most biting references, the authors lodge this complaint:

In the media debate on global warming and hurricanes, greenhouse-warming deniers (which, in addition to scientists, includes lawyers and others with at best minimal scientific credentials) are set side by side with scientists who have actually done the work and published papers on the subject.

You can almost hear the clearing-of-throat, spitting of phlegm that brackets the word “lawyers” in that sentence. As a whole, however, the authors have worked hard to stay even-handed and to carefully back up their analyses.

I recommend the whole paper for anyone interested in climate change or in the perversion of public debate. But the media analysis is so relevant to this blog’s purpose that we reprint that entire section below. We will follow up with further analysis in future posts.

CASE STUDY: MIXING POLITICS, CLIMATE SCIENCE, THE WORLD WIDE WEB, AND THE MEDIA.

A case study is presented of the recent experiences of the authors of WHCC (the original Science paper) with the media and the policy process. Our experience has not been unique; topics such as acid rain, nuclear winter, ozone depletion, and global warming have all engendered substantial media attention and policy debates, with some similar experiences for the scientists involved there with. However, there are several relative unique aspects to the case discussed here.

Once WHCC was accepted for publication and Georgia Institute of Technology, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) prepared to issue press releases, it became apparent that this research would receive some significant media attention. In our AAAS press release,given the recent devastation associated with Hurricane Katrina, the main public message that we wanted to communicate was

The key inference from our study of relevance here is that storms like Katrina should not be regarded as a “once-in-a-lifetime” event in the coming decades, but may become more frequent. This suggests that risk assessment is needed for all coastal cities in the southern and southeastern U.S.… The southeastern U.S. needs to begin planning to manage the increased risk of category-5 hurricanes.

WHCC did not address explicitly the issue of global warming or the cause of increase in SST of the global tropical oceans. We considered including something on this topic in the article, but at the time the manuscript was submitted the authors did not agree on what, if anything, should be included.

Hence, we adopted the fairly neutral stance of stating that the observed trend was “consistent with that which would be expected from greenhouse warming.”

However, during the week prior to publication of WHCC, it became apparent that the main issue of media interest and policy relevance associated with our research would be whether or not greenhouse warming was causing the increase in hurricane intensity; the catastrophe of Katrina had arguably focused public concern about global warming more than any other issue or event hitherto. For context, prior to the publication of WHCC none of the authors had previously made any public statements about greenhouse warming or other environmental issues. Substantial media attention ensued, and we were rapidly embroiled in the greenhouse-warming debate. We made the conscious decision to present any information from the peer-reviewed literature in our media interviews, although this often placed us at a considerable debating disadvantage.

Our recent experiences with the media and the policy process have caused us to reflect on the following issues:

  • the role of the media in promoting divisiveness among the scientists and legitimizing disinformation;
  • implications of the media, politics, and the World Wide Web for the scientific process; and
  • the value gap among climate scientists, policy makers, and reporters.
Boykoff and Boykoff (2004) demonstrated that superficial balance in coverage of global warming by the U.S.“prestige press” (e.g., New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal) can actually be a form of informational bias. Boykoff and Boykoff state that by giving equal time to opposing views, the major newspapers are significantly downplaying scientific understanding of the role humans play in global warming. Pitting what “some scientists have found” against what “skeptics contend” implies a roughly even division within the scientific community.

In the media debate on global warming and hurricanes, greenhouse-warming deniers (which, in addition to scientists, includes lawyers and others with at best minimal scientific credentials) are set side by side with scientists who have actually done the work and published papers on the subject. In addition to debate with greenhouse-warming deniers, considerable debate has also occurred among members of the meteorological community in a variety of venues, including the media.

In the beginning, we assumed that “we scientists” would collegially agree to disagree and continue with our research and see where it led, looking occasionally in amusement at the media as they tried to sensationalize this. That is not how it has played out. Acrimony generated by the media debate has contributed to disruption of legitimate debates sponsored by professional societies by the cancellation and removal of panel members. The media has played a significant role in inflaming this situation by reporters’ recitations of what people on the other side of the debate are allegedly saying. One reporter manufactured a personal conflict between the first author of this paper (including an egregious misquote) and a scientist on the other side of the debate who have had no personal contact in several years. This illustrates the role that the media can play in inflaming a scientific debate and the values gap between scientists and journalists.

While responsible journalists and respected scientists share some similarities in their “pursuit of truth,” they have different and sometimes incompatible goals, missions, and responsibilities. Journalists are not simply looking for information; they are looking to develop stories that are timely and relevant, are wide in scope, have a particular thematic angle, reflect conflict, and demonstrate human drama. Reporters have different backgrounds, different assignments (e.g., a science reporter versus a political reporter), and different deadline frameworks. As reported in the summary for the 2003 workshop on Journalists’/Scientists’ Science Communications and the News Media, “Some journalists complain that scientists sometimes see the media as an extension of their own scientific work, promoting rather than reporting on that work; and many scientists express concerns that journalists too often look for conflict or for an artificial or misleading balance in reporting on science issues.”

The best science journalists do an extremely careful job in researching their stories and work to develop a relationship of trust with the scientists (including protecting the reputation of the scientist) so that reporter can continue to use the scientist as a source in future stories. On the other hand, political reporters addressing a science story often work with much shorter deadlines, are highly motivated to have an article published on the front page of the prestige press, are less aware of the scientific culture, and are more likely to “burn” a scientific source that they are unlikely to use again. As pointed out by the 2003 workshop, the process of building trust between scientists and journalists proceeds “one person at a time.” However, the destruction of trust can happen much more rapidly, and one instance of a scientist getting burned by a reporter can have a widespread impact on the willingness of scientists, who are naturally concerned about being misquoted and quoted out of context, to communicate with reporters.

How can scientists avoid such pitfalls associated with the media? There are several sources of practical advice and useful information that are easily accessible by scientists. Many institutions offer some sort of media training for scientists to help them communicate to the public more effectively and avoid common pitfalls. One example of an excellent online source of practical advice for scientists can be found here.

Effectively working with the media requires conscious effort and attention, and few scientists and universities adequately invest in this activity (although many government research laboratories do make this effort) or are even aware of such a need. Our field could definitely benefit from such an investment.

Some of the most relevant scientific debate on this topic is not being undertaken at meetings sponsored by the relevant professional societies and government agencies, but rather in the media and via blogs, and only slowly in the professional scientific journals.

After reading The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century (Friedman 2005), we were prompted to reflect on how broadly the new technologies are influencing the scientific process on topics of high relevance. As the media debate proceeded, and certainly in the process of researching the material for this paper, we made extensive use of online media articles, blogs, Wikipedia.com, and other Web sites.

As pointed out by Friedman, the challenge is how to think about the new technologies and the associated changes that have irreversibly changed the intellectual commons and manage it to maximum effect. The new scientific process will eventually sort itself out among the new technologies, the need for the scientific review process, and the need for information by the public and policymakers. However, during this sorting-out period (which may end up being a period of continual evolution as new technologies emerge), the use of science to inform policy, particularly on issues of high relevance, will almost certainly become confused with the decentralization of scientific authority previously vested in scientists that have published on the subject in refereed journals. While this decentralization provides a better guarantee that the best possible information and analysis is out there somewhere, it becomes increasingly difficult to identify the best information and analysis in this new environment, providing more fodder for the politicization of science.

As aptly summarized by Engel-Cox and Hoff (2005), “Public acrimonious debate, the use of scientific results in a political fashion, and the feeling that the process is not rational, can dissuade scientists from participating directly in the policy process. Scientists (particularly young researchers) that join this process do so at their own risk.” For a scientist whose reputation is largely invested in peer-reviewed publications and the citations thereof, there is little professional payoff for getting involved in debates that mix science and politics. Scientists becoming involved in policy debates and with the media may put their scientific reputations at risk in this process.

Many scientists would rather remain above the fray and not get involved in this process, but a majority of scientists feel that they have a responsibility to communicate their research and its social and ethical implications to policy makers and the nonspecialist public (e.g., MORI 2001). Scientists also have varying skills and self-perceptions of their effectiveness at communicating science to the public. The case for scientists to be active in the public debate on climate change has been made eloquently by S. Schneider in his essay on “Mediarology”.

SUMMARY. The focus of this paper has been the scientific debate surrounding hurricanes and global warming, and the influence of the media and the World Wide Web on this debate and on the scientific process itself. Because of the high relevance of this topic, particularly in light of the North Atlantic hurricane activity in 2005, the intense media attention associated with the politicization of this issue has resulted in public confusion. A case study was presented of the recent experiences of the authors of WHCC, highlighting that even senior scientists are ill prepared for their first major experience with mixing politics, science, and the media. We hope that this chronicle of our experiences will help others navigate this minefield, and will help our community become more effective in educating the public and informing policy.

We presented an analysis of the scientific issues surrounding the Emanuel (2005) and WHCC papers in a manner designed to identify the most important critiques and focus the scientific debate. We formulated the central hypothesis that greenhouse warming is causing an increase in hurricane intensity as a causal chain consisting of three subhypotheses that are individually and collectively more easily evaluated than the central hypothesis. Assessing each of these subhypotheses against logically valid critiques has clarified the support for the hypotheses and the outstanding uncertainties. Progress on this topic requires multidisciplinary collaboration that includes hurricane researchers and forecasters, climate researchers and modelers, and oceanographers to address this complex scientific problem.

The debate has clearly shown that some of the most challenging issues in our field that are also of the highest policy relevance are at the interface of climate change and weather extremes. The operational and research communities need to work together on these issues, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the American Meteorological Society (AMS) can play a major role in facilitating this collaboration.

Previous Comments

This was an absolutely excellent paper which was dead on everything the authors dealt with.  A piece of required reading for all those interested in the climate change discussion.