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Thursday September 27th 2012

Newsweek staff who play fast and loose with the facts are imperiling not just their profession but the planet. – How should scientists respond to the “he said, he said, he said, she said” media world we live in now that science journalism has died?

Another day, another major media outlet libels Michael Mann — and James Hansen.

In a new black eye for Newsweek, their lengthy attack on climate scientists has been exposed as relying on massaged data and tawdry innuendo.  While they have already corrected a number of mistakes (without telling readers), they left a bunch in, and decided not to change the overall theme of their now baseless story.  That would have meant gutting the sensationalistic headline and visuals they apparently believe they need to grab eyeballs for their ever-shrinking magazine.

But Newsweek needs to do more than simply change a few egregious mistakes in its piece.  They need to issue an apology to Mann and Hansen — and Al Gore — and a big-time retraction.

Right now, their credibility on the entire energy and climate issue is hanging by a rapidly melting icicle — see Media stunner: Newsweek partners with oil lobby to raise ad cash, host energy and climate events with lawmakers — while publishing the uber-greenwashing story, “Big Oil Goes Green for Real.” Indeed, their dubious partnership with Big Oil makes this climate story doubly problematic.

Memo to scientists:  You need to figure out  a new communications strategy in a world where much of the media places more weight on a few discredited anti-science disinformers repeating long-debunked falsehoods a hundred times than they do on two major exonerations by leading academics and the country’s top scientists.

Here’s the scoop.  Newsweek decides to do this big attack on climate scientists.  They gin up a clever headline (with visual to match) and a nasty subhed:

Iceberg Ahead

Climate scientists who play fast and loose with the facts are imperiling not just their profession but the planet.

But who are these “Climate scientists who play fast and loose with the facts” that are defamed but unnamed in the subhed?

Newsweek first built their entire case mainly around an attack on Dr. Michael Mann — even though they knew that Mann and his work have been completely vindicated by two major reviews (which is what makes the attacks libelous).

Needless to say, when you’ve been as vindicated as much as Mann has, the only way you can be attacked this way is with a bunch of long-debunked talking points from the anti-science crowd.  Fortunately, before full publication, they were called out in many of their mistakes and changed some of them.  But they left key smears behind.

It is getting quite tiresome to have to debunk this crap for the umpteenth time, but what else can we do if big-time media outlets insist on shilling disinformation for the disinformers?  I’m not going to go through every point in detail because Newsweek is in the process of fixing the most egregious errors online (without apparently telling readers just how many errors the piece had).  The print edition will apparently still have a number of mistakes.

If Newsweek eliminated every mistake in the piece and every baseless smear, they wouldn’t have a story left. Indeed, they jump the shark right from the very first paragraph:

One of the most impressive visuals in Al Gore’s now famous slide show on global warming is a graph known as the “hockey stick.” It shows temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere rising slowly for most of the last thousand years and turning steeply upward in the last half of the 20th century. As evidence of the alarming rate of global warming, it tells a simple and compelling story. That’s one reason the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change included the graph in the summary of its 2001 report. But is it true?

The question occurred to Steven McIntyre when he opened his newspaper one morning in 2002 and there it was—the hockey stick. It was published with an article on the debate over whether Canada should ratify the Kyoto agreement to curb greenhouse-gas emissions. McIntyre had little knowledge of the intricate science of climate change; he didn’t even have a Ph.D. He did have a passion for numbers, however. He also had some experience in the minerals business, where, he says, people tend to use hockey-stick graphs when they are trying to pull one over on you. “Reality usually isn’t so tidy.”

As every climate scientist must know by now, McIntyre’s skepticism of the hockey stick launched him on a midlife career change: he has become the granddaddy of the global warming “denial” movement. McIntyre asserted that the data of Michael Mann, head of Penn State’s Earth System Science Center, did not support his conclusions….

This is grotesquely unprofessional.

Newsweek knows (and later writes) that Mann’s hockey stick was in fact vindicated by the National Academy of Sciences review years after McIntyre started pushing his disinformation.  Newsweek apparently has no clue that the hockey stick has been replicated and strengthened by numerous independent researchers.  My favorite recent study is from Science last year — see Human-caused Arctic warming overtakes 2,000 years of natural cooling, “seminal” study finds.

But here’s the more grotesque unprofessionalism.  Al Gore does not use Mann’s graph!  And Newsweek never even bothered to interview Gore!!

In fact, if Newsweek had bothered to even look at Gore’s book, An Inconvenient Truth (pages 60 – 65), they’d learn that Gore uses the slide from Dr. Lonnie Thompson, noting of Mann’s work, “but in fact, scientists have confirmed the same basic conclusions in multiple ways — with Thompson’s ice core record as one of the most definitive.”

Here’s even more grotesque unprofessionalism.  The reports and editors take at face value every single thing McIntyre says — even though he has been widely debunked again and again (see, for instance, the entire category on him at Deltoid) — whereas they simply repeat every utterly debunked smear they can find against Mann — even though they know they are false charges.

Even after fixing the most egregious mistakes, here is what Newsweek says of Mann’s methods:

It also required some massaging of the data. This is not to say Mann was conspiring to deceive; the National Academy of Sciences gave this work a thumbs-up in a 2006 review. The troubles started after the results were published, when McIntyre began asking Mann for his data. McIntyre says Mann gave him raw data, but not the meta-data needed to make sense of them. Mann insists that he handed over all the data it was in his power to divulge. Some of the most damning passages in the climate­gate ­e-mails, however, involve some of the scientists discussing ways of fending off requests from McIntyre and other bloggers. Penn State recently cleared Mann of wrongdoing.

Massaging of the data?

Here’s what Penn State found (see “Penn State inquiry finds no evidence for allegations against Michael Mann“).

After careful consideration of all the evidence and relevant materials, the inquiry committee finding is that there exists no credible evidence that Dr. Mann had or has ever engaged in, or participated in, directly or indirectly, any actions with an intent to suppress or to falsify data. While a perception has been created in the weeks after the CRU emails were made public that Dr. Mann has engaged in the suppression or falsification of data, there is no credible evidence that he ever did so, and certainly not while at Penn State.

But Newsweek still floats the notion of “conspiring to deceive” if only to say that that isn’t what they are saying.  Hmm, perhaps I should write of Newsweek’s article, “this is not to say that Newsweek was conspiring to deceive its readers.”  As experts on communication know, people don’t register negatives strongly so, as George Lakoff says, when someone says “don’t think of an elephant,” an elephant immediately pops to mind.

Note how the author cleverly sticks in the part about “the most damning passages in the climate­gate ­e-mails, however, involve some of the scientists discussing ways of fending off requests from McIntyre and other bloggers.”  Except, of course, Mann was exonerated of wrongdoing on this issue.

Note also how Newsweek cleverly places the phrase “the troubles started” after The National Academy review and vindication, when in fact their own story makes clear the Academy vindication came years after McIntyre started (see NAS Report and here).  The news story in the journal Nature (subs. req’d) on the NAS panel was headlined:  “Academy affirms hockey-stick graph“!

This is not to say that Newsweek was conspiring to deceive its readers.  After all, why take he word of an exhaustive analysis by our most prestigious scientific panel and his university’s academic review when a widely discredited disinformer keeps saying over and over and over and over again that something is wrong?

In fact, all of Mann’s data has been online since 2000 — and here is all the climate data anyone could want.  But nothing satisfies the anti-science crowd and their ideological allies, who just keep attacking and making stuff up, hoping that somebody in the media will be gullible enough to reprint their falsehoods unchallenged (see “Independent” critique of Hockey Stick revealed as fatally flawed right-wing anti-science set up).

So Mann is not an example of “Climate scientists who play fast and loose with the facts” and Newsweek knew it when they published the piece.  So if not Mann, who are these “Climate scientists”:

The first thing to fix is the institution that has borne the brunt of the recent public-relations disaster: the IPCC itself. Recently there have been several minor revelations of sloppiness. A line in the group’s 2007 report stating that glaciers in the Himalayas will melt entirely by 2035 turns out to have come not from the peer-reviewed literature, but from a 1999 article in New Scientist, a popular magazine in the U.K.

Well, “minor revelations of sloppiness” certainly doesn’t equate with “Climate scientists who play fast and loose with the facts,” so Newsweek has thankfully exonerated the IPCC.

More damaging, IPCC chairman Pachauri has been acting as a consultant to financial institutions, including Deutsche Bank and Pegasus, an investment firm. Although he says he has donated the proceeds to the nonprofit organization he founded in Delhi to promote charitable programs in sustainability, many people have wondered whether the head of a scientific organization that calls itself “policy neutral” should be consulting with banks. Some have called for his resignation.

Pachauri isn’t climate scientist and in any case these are not accusations of playing fast and loose with the facts.  Moreover, as climatologist Ken Caldeira emailed me when the NY Times published similar charges, “For a man with a $49,000 salary, donating all of his consulting fees to nonprofit organizations would ordinarily be seen as a sign of professional integrity and dedication.”

And here’s where Newsweek really implodes:

Other scientists have gone further than Pachauri in casting aside the appearance of impartiality. James Hansen—head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and adjunct professor in the department of earth and environmental sciences at Columbia University—has unimpeachable scientific credentials. He was a pioneer in building computer simulations of climate and piecing together the temperature record. But in recent years he’s become an unabashed advocate for draconian cuts in greenhouse gases, coming out against cap-and-trade—the preferred mechanism of the IPCC and its parent, the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, to limit greenhouse–gas emissions by setting a ceiling and allowing countries to trade emissions credits. He has also gotten himself arrested while protesting mountaintop coal mining in West Virginia last summer. Has his and his colleagues’ advocacy come at the expense of their scientific reputations? “Absolutely,” says Hansen. “But what are we supposed to do? Tell our grandchildren to buzz off, that we don’t give a darn about them?”

That paragraph boggles the mind.  In an article whose primary aim is to identify “Climate scientists who play fast and loose with the facts,” the climate scientist Newsweek devotes the second most amount of ink attacking is the country’s top climatologist — and the only thing they can criticize him for is having the courage of his convictions.

Apparently Newsweek believes climate scientists should be seen and not heard.   So if a scientist with impeccable credentials who has been researching this for decades determines that unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions would have devastating consequences for billions of people, he or she must just shut up about that for fear of “casting aside the appearance of impartiality.”

It’s like saying your doctor can diagnose you with diabetes and warn that your health is at grave risk, but if he or she actually offers a treatment, they are immediately discredited.

Newsweek tosses in this piece of editorial nonsense:

The hockey-stick saga is an example of why advocacy and hubris may have been the wrong reaction to the assault of McIntyre & Co.

Huh?  The “advocacy” wasn’t a response to the anti-science crowd, it was a response to the science, which shows catastrophic consequences on our current emissions path — and perhaps to the dreadful media reporting which has failed to explain that to the public and policymakers.  And all the hockey-stick saga shows is that no matter how many times research is vindicated or replicated, the media will continue to be suckered into a criticizing it as long as a bunch of disinformers keep questioning it.  But I digress.

So, again, who exactly are these climate scientists playing fast and loose with the truth?  The entire charge boils down to this virtually unintelligible final paragraph:

Twenty years ago, before anybody outside a small circle of meteorologists cared about climate, Phil Jones completed a study that reads like a parody of dull science. Called “Assessment of Urbanization Effects in Time Series of Surface Air Temperature Over Land,” it was essentially a look at thermometers around the world. Even Al Gore probably gave it a miss. For the past few months, however, tabloid headlines (climategate chaos and how climategate boss broke rules by hiding key data) have screamed at Jones for missing documents that don’t have an impact on the study’s results, among other indiscretions. Last week Jones told Nature that his team’s handling of the missing documents from the 1990 study was “not acceptable.” It was a welcome moment of contrition from one of the world’s eminent scientists. If we’re lucky, it will mark a turning point.

The highlighted sentence doesn’t make bloody much sense, but the point seems to be that Jones’s missing documents aren’t consequential.  Duh.  In fact, as Nature itself reported, Jones said what he did was sloppy and “not best practice,” but not intentional and again not consequential:

Jones says that he did not know that the weather stations’ locations were questionable when they were included in the paper, but as the study’s lead author he acknowledges his responsibility for ensuring the quality of the data. So will he submit a correction to Nature? “I will give that some thought. It’s worthy of consideration,” he says.

“The science still holds up” though, he adds. A follow-up study verified the original conclusions for the Chinese data for the period 1954–1983, showing that the precise location of weather stations was unimportant. “They are trying to pick out minor things in the data and blow them out of all proportion,” says Jones of his critics.

Like a true scientist, Jones takes responsibility for unintentional mistakes and failing to follow best practice, even if it has no bearing on the scientific conclusions.

[Note:  Unlike Newsweek online, Nature online points out that it has corrected an earlier version of its story with egregious mistakes.]

So this is all Newsweek has to justify its own tabloid headlines.  The magazine can’t identify any actual consequential mistakes and doesn’t identify any evidence a single scientist was “playing fast and loose with the truth” — which is to say, recklessly and knowingly trying to deceive.  Newsweek’s authors and editors, on the other hand, have made a number of consequential mistakes here, and recklessly focus on Mann in their attack piece even though they know he has been twice vindicated.  And I still can’t figure out how they possibly justify including Hansen in this piece.

This is not to say that Newsweek was conspiring to deceive its readers.  But they need to issue an apology to Mann and Hansen — and Al Gore — and a big-time retraction of the whole damn piece.

Finally, the Newsweek article is by Fred Guterl With Daniel Stone and Craig Simons.  But there’s no way an article like this doesn’t get signed off on by senior editors — particularly given the potential libel involved and how little new material the editors have to review in the ever shrinking newsweekly.

It’d be very welcome to see a moment of contrition from one of the eminent journalists running the magazine.  And if we’re lucky, this dreadful piece will mark a turning point, but right now it’s just another reminder that scientists are going to have to figure out a new strategy for communicating to the public, one that I think will require them to bypass the status quo media.

This piece has gotten too long, so I’ll offer up suggestions in a future piece, but I welcome any ideas you have for how scientists should deal with the “asymmetric” standard skeptics are held to, as Steven Chu put it.

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This article was originally posted on Climate Progress