“Anyone who isn’t confused really doesn’t understand the situation.”
Edward R. Murrow
Back in 2013 the UK’s Parliamentary Science and Technology Select Committee could be found holding an enquiry into the communication of climate science. Now, I admit I’m a little late in bringing this to your attention, but topicality is not my purpose here. On the contrary, what interests me more is how the British press reported upon the enquiry at the time. In particular, my interest was piqued by the following observation made in a leading broadsheet:1
“ MPs on the committee are trying to get to the bottom of why the public is still confused about climate science when the core science has been pretty clear for years.”
I suggest that the apparent paradox that causes the politicians and journalists to wring their hands in agonised bemusement has a starkly simple solution; they just have to entertain the possibility that they could be wrong. But, since such an idea is unconscionable to those who were placed on this earth to enlighten the confused, I’m not anticipating a mass epiphany any time soon. Cocooned in their own certainty, such people are unlikely to suspect that their lack of confusion betrays an unhealthy hubris. For example, a journalist who boasts “strong story verification skills” in his professional profile will not demur when it comes to offering advice. Far from it, as the article proceeds, we find the gentleman concerned more than eager to use his clarity of vision to show how the media could better “communicate the science”. Ironically, first on his list of commandments is: “Don’t confer scientific expertise on people who do not deserve it.”
I presume that the person who wrote this edict didn’t have himself in mind for disqualification, otherwise his audience would have had little motivation for reading any further. But is such an exemption really justified? Alfred Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe, the newspaper magnate who founded the UK’s Daily Mail and Daily Mirror, once defined journalism as “a profession whose business it is to explain to others what it personally does not understand”. So just what are the credentials that underpin the wall-to-wall sermons that science journalists issue so freely?
Trust Me, I Own a Laptop
To be precise, I have a laptop and a science degree that covers a subject I didn’t pursue as a career. Does this mean I am qualified to arbitrate upon climate science? Of course not! But it does mean I am every bit as qualified as the average science journalist, since it is rare indeed to find one who writes about climate science after having first qualified in it. So it strikes me as breathtaking hypocrisy that such individuals should be so quick to denigrate anyone who has the audacity to comment upon climate science whilst not being a climatologist or a member of the IPCC.2 Poor old Nigel Lawson, Baron of Blaby, seems to be a particular favourite for such sceptic baiting. For example, I’ve just finished reading an online newspaper article3 berating the BBC for giving Baron Lawson airtime. The point is, apparently, that he should not be treated as “an authority on matters that he has no experience, expertise or insight on”. So was this admonishment written by such an authority? No. It was written by a professional neuroscientist who fancies himself as a stand-up comedian. I do not deny this person the right to call-out Nigel Lawson on his lack of qualifications, but clearly he can’t do so whilst preaching that “the science on this matter is settled, there is no meaningful debate to be had, and the evidence is there for all to see should they choose to go and look for it”. Regrettably, this sort of blindness to one’s own limitations is all too common amongst those who have no difficulty seeing the limitations of others.
Actually, by giving a voice to the likes of Nigel Lawson, the BBC were attempting to strike a balance, but if we return to our mentor’s advice on how to better “communicate the science”, we see that by doing so they were falling foul of commandment number two: “Avoid false balance.”
Remember the Ninety-Seven
False balance, we are told by the journalists, is a failure to take into account that 97% of peer-reviewed publications “support the mainstream position” – whatever that means. Consequently, allocating anything more than 3% copy to the fringe view would actually be a false balance.
It seems extraordinary to me that journalists who pride themselves in exposing the truth behind the headlines can be so blasé when it comes to accepting this infamous statistic. For example, it doesn’t seem to bother them that its provenance is a single, somewhat questionable analysis of published climate papers conducted by John Cook et al. (2013).4
In fact, what the Cook et al. study seemed to be claiming was that 97% of those published papers that had been examined, and had expressed an opinion, endorsed the view that man-made greenhouse gasses were the main cause of the current warming. But looking into this claim more thoroughly, one discovers that nowhere near that percentage of papers made an explicit, quantified assertion to that effect. The vast majority were labelled either, ‘explicit, unquantified endorsement’ or simply, ‘implicit endorsement’. Strictly speaking, only 1.6% of the papers that had expressed an opinion were sufficiently explicit in making a quantified claim.5
As it happens, it is actually quite difficult to discern the significance of the 97% statistic, because the Cook et al. paper is infuriatingly inconsistent in stating its central proposition. The best that can be said, I suspect, is that 97% of the papers were at least consistent with the view that Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) is making a nontrivial contribution to the recent rise in temperatures. As such, this is quite an unremarkable result. Certainly, there is nothing in the Cook et al. analysis to suggest that 97% of climate scientists agree that AGW will be catastrophic, although this is often how the journalists portray the consensus.
Now, it didn’t take me that long to discover these inconvenient details. All it needed was a bit of, dare I say, journalistic curiosity. So what was a journalist who prides himself on his “strong story verification skills” doing to earn his money? Nothing much, I might say. Instead, he seems satisfied to have aligned himself with the multitude of science journalists who likewise think that their investigative responsibilities are fulfilled simply by noting and repeating the 97% statistic ad nausea. Besides which, if the science journalists understood the relative importance of evidence and scientific consensus, the 97% statistic would not form the centre of their argument.
It is beyond the power of polite language to express what I think of such journalistic sloppiness, so before I choke on my righteous indignation, let us move on to commandment number three: “Make clear where scientific uncertainty lies and where it does not.”
Don’t Talk to Me About Uncertainty
One’s view of climate science uncertainty is bound to be central to one’s overall position. If you are a CAGW protagonist, then you will argue that sceptics are exaggerating the uncertainties and using them as an excuse for inaction. If you are a sceptic, it is likely that you are concerned that the uncertainties are misunderstood or, worse still, they are being deliberately downplayed. I am in the latter group, and I am happy to hear what anyone has to say on the issue because I do believe it to be pivotal. However, I am heartily sick of being lectured to by journalists who, through their prose, demonstrate an egregiously poor understanding of the very concept of uncertainty. They will confidently proclaim that the science behind the CAGW position is beyond debate, and all that is left to discuss are uncertainties relating to the scale and timing of impact, but what they cannot do, however, is convince me that they have even a basic understanding of the taxonomy, philosophy or mathematics of uncertainty. If they lack such a basic understanding, I fail to see how they can confidently hold forth upon any aspect of uncertainty analysis.
I found a particularly annoying example of this problem the other day, in an article bemoaning that communication of uncertainty is hindering climate change action. The author begins: “For fans of probability, confidence intervals and margins of error, climate change is a dream come true.” Having dazzled his readers with such a facile insight into the calculation of uncertainty, the author goes on to warn:
“Spreading doubt, playing down the scientific consensus, and focusing obsessively on uncertainties has been the central strategy of climate sceptics, following the helpful example of the tobacco industry before them. Clearly, there is much that could be done to improve the communication of uncertainty.”
Yes, there is much that can be done to help, but not by someone whose degree turns out to be in psychology. If there is a scientific discipline whose practitioners’ malpractice has done more to demonstrate the harm that can be done through the abuse of statistics and the failure to grasp the basics of uncertainty analysis, then I have yet to hear of it. So, instead of admonishing me for my ‘obsession’ with uncertainties, perhaps this author might instead take some time out to explain the hazards of relying upon a standardized p-value whilst paying insufficient regard to the a priori likelihood of a hypothesis. Maybe then he might begin to explain why a ‘Reproducibility Project’, undertaken by the journal Science, found that only 39% of the results of experimental and correlation studies published in three prominent psychology journals could be replicated.6 The remaining 61%, despite the average psychologist’s understanding of how uncertainty should be measured, turned out to be false positive results published as fact.7
It may also be of interest to you to learn that our psychologist friend is a prominent member of Climate Outreach, an organization that aims at “communicating about climate change more effectively”. As such, they refer to themselves as “Europe’s leading climate change communicators”. I have looked on their website to find out more about their staff. Regrettably, I found no one who I could trust to enlighten me on the potential for applying Dempster-Shafer Theory to the analysis of climate model uncertainty, so I moved on.
Although an extreme example, the article referred to above is a member of a very large set that scoffs at the sceptics’ preoccupation with uncertainty, whilst leaning lazily upon the ‘evidence’ of the 97% consensus to justify their own confidence. I think somebody needs to explain to these journalists that the concerns regarding climate model uncertainties are not just quibbles over the timing and scale of impact, but have much more to do with model structure, parameterization, hypothesizing after the results are known, and the possibility that probabilistic techniques are being misapplied in the calculation of epistemic uncertainty. If the science journalists would make a concerted effort to investigate these issues, rather than just peddling their half-baked warnings of ‘bogus uncertainty’, I might start to take them seriously. As it is, we must leave them in quiet self-satisfaction, polishing their ‘Science Journalist of the Year’ awards.
Bright and Shiny Things
By this stage in proceedings you are probably beginning to suspect that I do not have a particularly high opinion of science journalists. Well, this isn’t exactly true. The problem is that they have too high an opinion of themselves and, perhaps more often than not, too low an opinion of their readers. He who has such “strong story verification skills” advises that science journalism requires more than just ”putting across complex science to a lay readership whose attention must be grabbed from the numerous other shiny news stories on offer”. Indeed, he would wish you to know that the “science journalists’ stock in trade is making unfamiliar ideas intelligible, compelling, relevant and entertaining”.
Not only is this tremendously patronizing (I am not so easily entranced by shiny things), it also betrays an arrogance that seems to be built into the journalistic psyche. We are invited to believe that the journalists are not only capable of understanding ‘complex science’ but also consummately capable of knowing just how much to dumb it down for the consumption of the ‘confused’ masses. I wouldn’t mind, but in climate science the IPCC has already done that job for them. The IPCC’s executive summaries are rendered simplistic specifically for the benefit of the journalists and politicians. Once the science has been simplified to that extent, it doesn’t really need any further simplification for my benefit.
Which leaves one wondering just what the real job is for the science journalist when it comes to climate science. To answer this question, I think a clue was offered by the late Alexander Cockburn7, when he said, “The First Law of Journalism: to confirm prejudice, rather than contradict it”. If this really is the first law, then we can begin to see our mentor’s three commandments in their true light: Only journalists are allowed to profess knowledge in areas for which they have no expert authority; do not allow fringe views to be heard; and suppress uncertainty at all costs. Whilst science journalists may see themselves as educators rather than authority figures engaged in suppressing dissent, anyone who has been through an education system will tell you there is a fine line to be drawn between the two. As someone once said:
“What we’ve got here is… failure to communicate. Some men you just can’t reach.”
Yes Boss, still shaking the tree Boss.
1 Okay, I’ll come clean – it was the Guardian. But this is the last time I’m going to give you a clue. I will not be naming names in this essay because my argument is with a profession, not any specific individual or individuals.
2 Not that all members of the IPCC are climate scientists, by any stretch of the imagination.
3 Okay, I’ll admit it – it’s the Guardian again. But this really is the very last time you get a clue.
4 Cook J., D. Nuccitelli, S.A. Green, M. Richardson, B. Winkler, R. Painting, R. Way, P. Jacobs, and A. Skuce, 2013, “Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature”, Environ. Res. Lett. 8: 024024 (7 pp), doi: 0.1088/1748-9326/8/2/024024.
5 Christopher Monckton of Brenchley, “Quantifying the consensus on global warming in the literature: a comment”, guest essay posted on WUWT, June 24, 2013.
6 Nosek B, et al. “Estimating the Reproducibility of Psychological Science”, Science 28 Aug 2015: Vol. 349, Issue 6251, aac4716, doi: 10.1126/science.aac4716.
7 You might think it unfair of me to have brought up p-values when the article referred instead to confidence intervals. Unfortunately, on the subject of confidence intervals, things don’t get any better for the psychologists. In a study published in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review (“Robust misinterpretation of confidence intervals”, DOI 10.3758/s13423-013-0572-3), Rink Hoekstra of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands demonstrated that: “Both researchers and students in psychology have no reliable knowledge about the correct interpretation of confidence intervals …researchers hardly outperformed the students, even though the students had not received any education on statistical inference whatsoever.”
8 Alexander Cockburn was one of that rarest of species: left-wing journalist, passionate environmentalist and CAGW sceptic.