A new journalistic fiction

by Bryan Walker on July 9, 2010

Of all the comments on Muir Russell’s climategate report the one that resonated most with me was that of Oxford physicist Myles Allen (pictured). “What everyone has lost sight of is the spectacular failure of mainstream journalism to keep the whole affair in perspective.” When the Guardian is part of that failure the word ‘spectacular’ is warranted.

Unfortunately Fred Pearce, presumably with the support of environment editor James Randerson, continues to treat the East Anglia scientists as if they have been guilty of serious offences. Here’s how he opens his ‘analysis’ of the Russell report:

Generally honest but frequently secretive; rigorous in their dealings with fellow scientists but often “unhelpful and defensive”, and sometimes downright “misleading”, when explaining themselves to the wider world.

On the report:

Many will find the report indulgent of reprehensible behaviour, particularly in peer review, where CRU researchers have been accused of misusing their seniority in climate science to block criticism.

Have been accused by whom? Why, by none other than Pearce himself. He presumably remains disgruntled that his suggestions of serious misconduct haven’t been upheld.

And there’s more in this vein.

Pearce appears determined to vindicate his own rush to judgment on the matter, and he seems to have editorial support. The Guardian editorial, although acknowledging that the main thrust of the Russell report is that the science of climate change is solid, goes out of its way to emphasise blameworthy behaviour from the scientists:

There was an attempt to restrict debate, denying access to raw data and peer-reviewed journals to outsiders and the unqualified. In a sense, climate change scientists began to ape the obsessive culture of their sceptical critics… One can understand why the scientists behaved as they did. But this does not make it right…

[The emails] show a closed and arrogant attitude on the part of some of those involved, protective of their data sets and dismissive of outsiders.

My dismay that the Guardian should give what seems to me disproportionate weight to the Russell report’s findings related to freedom of information was exacerbated when I opened our copy of the current Guardian Weekly yesterday to find that an article of Pearce’s written prior to the release of the report was given prominence. In it he consulted Mike Hulme, Judith Curry, Hans von Storch and Roger Peilke Jr amongst others to demonstrate that climategate has changed science “forever”. The thrust of the article is that scientists have heretofore been secretive with their data and have hidden the uncertainties of their science from public view, but they won’t be able to do that any more. Not being a scientist I have no knowledge of what secretiveness with data means, but in all the books and articles and reports I have now read by climate scientists or about climate science I have seen no sign at all of uncertainties being hidden. Quite the opposite. Pearce reports Curry as saying that as a result of climategate the outside world now sees that “the science of climate change is more complex and uncertain than they have been led to believe”. That’s a baseless and foolish comment. “Led to believe” implies that some kind of deliberate deception has been going on. Roger Pielke Jr of course doesn’t hesitate to speak of “the pathological politicisation of the climate science community.” Von Storch draws the conclusion that “People now find it conceivable that scientists cheat and manipulate, and…need societal supervision…” Mike Hulme is more circumspect, claiming only that a new tone has appeared in which researchers “are more upfront, open and explicit about their uncertainties.”

A new journalistic fiction is in the making..

Perhaps it’s inevitable that journalists like Pearce will remain determined to justify the significance they initially saw in the hacked emails (Gareth adds: especially if, like Pearce, they have a book to sell on the subject). If so, one can only hope that they will get it over with quickly. May Gareth’s “final fizzle” prove an apt description. At least Pearce and the Guardian do not deny the reality and seriousness of climate change.  But the whole issue has been a sidetrack from the main thoroughfare along which we might have made some progress in the months of virtual standstill. Myles Allen has got it right when he speaks of an absence of perspective. It has helped draw attention away from the looming threat ahead. It has also provided the forces of denial and delay with ammunition which they have used to maximum effect.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Dappledwater July 9, 2010 at 2:17 pm

Yes Bryan and while the deniers like Curry and Pielke Jnr equivocate, the world continues to get warmer and warmer. The last 12 months are the warmest ever recorded according to NASA, yet it doesn’t rate a mention in the mainstream media.

As far as that moron Fred Pearce is concerned, I’ve read New Scientist for decades, but cancelled my subscription after all Pearce’s nonsense kept appearing in the magazine. Like Muckintyre has a thing for Mike Mann, Pearce is obsessed by Prof Jones. Hardly surprising I guess, I remember reading his book The Last Generation, he seemed to fixate a lot on Wally Broecker.

bill July 9, 2010 at 2:37 pm

Snap: I too cancelled my subscription to NS because of Pearce! He was the in-house contrarian blowhard, and this was by no means confined to climate.

The groupthink at the Guardian is actually rather scary; I’m a regular listener to the Guardian science podcast – which frequently features Randerson – and while it’s generally a good show they have an in-house line on what happened in the various ‘gates’ that seems to be immune to the series of reports that simply say it ain’t so.

I personally think that many people base their thinking on how far they’re prepared to deviate from a ‘respectable’ mean, rather than evidence, and the Guardian has decided to set this mean at ‘equal fault on both sides in Climategate’ and thereby prove their ‘reasonableness’ to the world. The various exonerations have not fitted this narrative, so they’ve had to be spun accordingly…

FlatFish July 9, 2010 at 8:01 pm

Yes, I too have dumped my NS subscription because of Fred.
One biased rotten apple….
If the editor or journal continues to support & peddle this stuff then what does it say for the rest of the mag?
I use to use NS as a reference for what was happening in Science, their cred with me has now gone.
Dump Fred or get him to apologise and I will review, but for now – me no pay!

Josie July 10, 2010 at 3:40 am

The irony runs much deeper than you have said.

This is why: there are people who have hidden the uncertainties inherent in climate science. They are not the scientists, but they are Fred Pearce and George Monbiot.

Both of them have in the past pushed a kind of cartoon version of climate science, based on a picture where by we know for sure that there is a certain cut-off date or tipping point (they state or imply that we know where this point is, generally around 2 degrees) after which it will be ‘too late’, emissions will no longer matter and we enter some kind of ‘runaway’ end game.

Some of this stemmed from a rather odd character called David Wasdell who constantly accuses the IPCC of watering down the science and removing the bits that scream that we are all going to die tomorrow in a hail of blood and fire. I recommend reading this email: http://www.eastangliaemails.com/emails.php?eid=784&filename=11733.

Dappledwater July 10, 2010 at 2:42 pm

“David Wasdell who constantly accuses the IPCC of watering down the science and removing the bits that scream that we are all going to die tomorrow in a hail of blood and fire.” – Josie

I’m unaware of any peer reviewed scientific publication that makes such a claim. Citation?. As far as the IPCC is concerned, they certainly underestimated the loss of summer Arctic sea ice, Greenland & Antarctic ice sheet loss and global sea level rise. The fact that natural responses to warming are occurring ahead of schedule is not something to gloat about.

Josie July 10, 2010 at 6:52 pm

DappledWater:

Eh? Did you read what I wrote? I was criticising Fred Pearce for making such claims, not making them myself. How is that unclear?

Josie July 10, 2010 at 7:19 pm

Since it seems that what I said is so confusing, let me write a simplified version:

Monbiot and Pearce have been responsible for some alarmist over exaggerated reporting of climate science in the past, particularly Pearce. Because of this I find the behaviour of these journalists over the email business ironic.

Does that help?

P.S. Before you misunderstand again but on the other side, I’m not some kind of denier. Climate change is real and serious!

Dappledwater July 11, 2010 at 2:03 am

My bad, itchy trigger finger!. Now if you had been wearing a light blue helmet, I would not have mistaken ya.

Bryan Walker July 11, 2010 at 7:38 am

Josie, I don’t know what you may be thinking of in Monbiot’s writing that puts him in the category of unnecessarily alarmist. It’s a while since I read Heat, but I don’t recall anything extreme in his understanding of the science. Admittedly there has to be uncertainty about the feedbacks that occur with global warming, but it’s an uncertainty which works both ways and therefore hardly a comfort. Risks must be treated seriously. So far as I can see human societies are nowhere near as alarmed as sensible prudence indicates they should be. This is hardly the time to be concerned about alarmism.

Josie July 11, 2010 at 1:00 pm

Just to be clear: in general I am a great fan of Monbiot’s writing, and his speaking. I was really referring more to Pearce than Monbiot. The Pearce piece linked to was the crucial one.

Monbiot is a far, far better journalist. But since you mention Heat (which overall I like a lot) one example from Heat is where Monbiot says that the old UK government’s target of a 60% cut in CO2 by 2050 is ‘next to useless’. Next to useless? I agree that the target was insufficient, but to say that it is ‘next to useless’ seems to me to be alluding to a fatalistic picture in which there is a definite point that we know with high certainty that we are near and whose location we know with high confidence, where it is too late, we have blown it etc. He has also alluded to such things in his speeches at public meetings. Yes, I see that as rather unhelpful over-alarmism (unless it is true of course, but that is not my understanding of things. Feel free to correct me). It is in danger of encouraging people to give up, although I am sure that it was not his intention.

And it has occurred to me that the reaction of both journalists to the emails may be, in an ironic way, related to some of the naivety they had previously exhibited, which was displayed in things such as very fatalistic rhetoric along these lines. That is all.

But anyway, I shouldn’t have got involved in this discussion. I was just passing. Overall: no, alarmism is not my major concern.

Bryan Walker July 11, 2010 at 1:54 pm

One person’s “next to useless” is another person’s “better than nothing”? I normally incline to the latter, if only for the sake of my own need for hope, but at the same time recognise that hardier souls who pronounce the former may prove to have been the more realistic – if we insist on putting the matter to the test. I’m in no position to correct you, but I find Hansen’s 350 ppm as a safe level persuasive, and 60% reduction by 2050 from a developed country clearly won’t produce that. Even less will the NZ government’s 50%.

bill July 12, 2010 at 3:37 pm

David Adam, the Guardian’s environment editor, gives an interpretation of Muir-Russell and Climategate that’s pretty-well in sync with my own (and other ‘Warmists’ here) in the latest Guardian Science-Weekly podcast.

He says – I’m paraphrasing – that in the nature of these things the report had to hit CRU with something, so they chose to hit them with the FOI stuff, but this still ain’t as important as their being exonerated on all the serious charges.

The really interesting thing is the debate the Guardian has lined up for Wednesday Night on ClimateGate, featuring -

Trevor Davies
Bob Watson
Fred Pearce
Steve McIntyre
Doug Keenan

and chaired by George Monbiot.

This will then be podcast. Interesting times!

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