Archive for February, 2010

British Journalism and Libel

Saturday, February 27th, 2010

Can someone explain this?

RealClimate has posted 5 discussions in the last two weeks on British journalistic handling of climate change, e.g.,

Daily Mangle It begins:

Yesterday, the Daily Mail of the UK published a predictably inaccurate article entitled “Climategate U-turn as scientist at centre of row admits: There has been no global warming since 1995?.

The Guardian Disappoints It begins

Over the last few weeks or so the UK Guardian (who occasionally reprint our posts) has published a 12-part series about the stolen CRU emails by Fred Pearce that are well below the normal Guardian standards of reporting. We delineate some of the errors and misrepresentations below. While this has to be seen on a backdrop of an almost complete collapse in reporting standards across the UK media on the issue of climate change, it can’t be excused on the basis that the Mail or the Times is just as bad.

Whatevergate It begins:

It won’t have escaped many of our readers’ notice that there has been what can only be described as a media frenzy (mostly in the UK) with regards to climate change in recent weeks. The coverage has contained more bad reporting, misrepresentation and confusion on the subject than we have seen in such a short time anywhere. While the UK newspaper scene is uniquely competitive (especially compared to the US with over half a dozen national dailies selling in the same market), and historically there have been equally frenzied bouts of mis-reporting in the past on topics as diverse as pit bulls, vaccines and child abductions, there is something new in this mess that is worth discussing.

Contrast that with the treatment of Simon Singh, a science writer with a PhD in physics, author of Fermat’s Last Theorem and Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe.

Simon Singh is in the midst of a libel suit he is expected to lose. His crime is a science book, Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial.

From a NY Times blog (with links):

He wrote, “The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.”

The BCA asked for a retraction and an apology. Singh refused. The Guardian offered the BCA the opportunity to print a clarification and write a response, so they could lay out evidence supporting their claims. The BCA refused. The libel case is the result. (Note that the case is peculiar in that it has been brought against Singh personally, not against the newspaper that published the article, as is more usual.)

Dr. Simon Singh
Dr. Simon Singh

Singh is being sued for writing a book on the inadequate justification for some medical treatments. If the climatologists, and groups like IPCC, being maligned by the British media had jillions of dollars and unlimited time, could they also sue? If libel laws are so draconian in the UK (and in many parts of the US, laws are being passed to protect Americans from British law), why do journalists there engage in smear campaigns?

Which Sources Do We Trust, and Why?

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

Greg Craven in What’s the worst that could happen? explains how he decides which sources he depends on. I am offering my own explanation after sending someone a list of some of the sources I depend on. He said, yes, he relied on the same sources, and then forwarded a report from a group of a very different kind. So, it’s an interesting question. My criteria differ from Craven’s, and yours differ from both of ours. How do you decide which sources you trust, and why?

First, some definitions:
Sources are the original reports of data, analysis, or meta-analysis (combining data from multiple sources, as in the uber-reports from groups like IPCC)
Peer-review is the process of review by elites in the same field (hence, “peers” of the researcher or theorist submitting the report.) In the science or policy community, peer-review is the first step toward publication or use of the data. These communities are usually careful to avoid relying on or citing data that has not been subjected to peer review.
Channels pass on information. I aspire to be a channel, try to avoid being a source, i.e., adding mistakes. The NY Times is another example of a channel.

Besides peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed work, there is a category called gray literature, described in RealClimate’s IPCC errors: facts and spin. This category includes major organizations such as International Energy Agency, World Bank, United Nations Environmental Programme, government statistics offices, and more. Groups like World Wildlife Fund are also included, but their information needs to be even more carefully checked. Generally, it is more useful to cite the original source WWF depends on and avoid citing WWF.

So my criteria for passing along information on scientific and policy topics: Is it
• peer-reviewed, e.g., published in peer-reviewed journals
• respected by the scientific or policy expert community, as shown by its inclusion in major reports such as National Academy of Sciences of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
• accepted over time, surviving or correcting any criticism that may arise (e.g., no disagreement appears in Science or Nature magazines).

I’m pretty conservative, and rarely use information/analysis in my presentations before it reaches major report status.

Everything I’ve described depends on writing rather than personal statements. People can be respected or not in their field of expertise, but few speak for the science community. Election to head American Association for the Advancement of Science is one of the ways scientists communicate that the person is trusted to report scientific understanding, including nuance.

I have heard a number of people and organizations willing to accept the reports of IPCC on science and impacts, but ignore IPCC’s policy analysis. If this describes you, perhaps you can explain how you choose your sources. Whatever your answers, please share!

Addendum The reason I use this method is because when I started looking into energy and environmental issues, I discovered I had misunderstandings both in facts and interpretation. Scientists and policy makers make mistake—those errors on Himalayan glaciers made it into my presentation. But the number of errors has declined markedly in recent years.

Climate Change Activist Group: More Details

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

This group was first discussed here, now some more details.

We will meet bi-monthly from the end of March to early June, resuming in the fall. Some of us will meet in person while others will participate through videoconferencing. Two different kinds of meetings will occur each month: one, a class on concepts and practices of effective climate activism; the other, a time to plan, revise and carry out individual or group projects. For the activist portion, we will apply three “vital behaviors” addressed in the class sessions. Leave a comment (saying “do not publish”) to sign up for the group.

A tentative list of topics offers a starting point for discussion, revisable as we go along:
Sources of information Which sources can I count on, and why? How do I choose between conflicting sources? Which communicate to people like me/different from me? What do IPCC and the sources they rely on say that makes me uncomfortable? How do I respond to this discomfort?

Education Which facts and images are most likely to push the public to consider changing behavior (e.g., polar bears, changes in precipitation, higher temperature, health effects)? Experiences may be more persuasive than data, but data matter. How can we combine these to communicate effectively?

Communication strategies Some work, some don’t. How do I tailor messages to people like myself vs. people who are different; what about cultural barriers; resistance to/distrust of data?

Confusions about solutions What makes a real difference? How can we shift focus from small-impact solutions (eg, recycling and avoiding hair spray) to large-impact solutions aimed primarily at climate change? How do we evaluate and explain to others which solutions are worth working on?

Handling emotions How do we help people perceive the urgency of the problem, then prevent despair once they do? What are the emotions (e.g., denial, fear) that lie behind refusal to talk about climate change, insistence that it isn’t happening, or insistence on certain solutions? How do we balance our ideals with desires for “the good life”?

Envisioning the future Our message is not about how things are going to get better—because they won’t. Suppose the best we can do is to get worse less fast? How can we use thinking about the future to galvanize action rather than mire us in defeat?

Targeting influencers Given the limits of our own personal influence, whom can we reach to change their message? (e.g., politicians, environmental groups, news media, on-line groups.)

Burning Issues What are the current policy debates an activist should prepare for? E.g., do we have technology today to address climate change or do we need to invest in future technologies? Cap and trade vs tax – both or which, and why? Aid for green solutions in other nations? Revised codes for architecture? Other laws?

Muir Woods
Muir Woods—We all have pictures in our mind of the beauty of Earth. What are yours?

NOAA’s Climate Service

Monday, February 8th, 2010

NOAA has set up a new site:

Climate Watch magazine, includes Arctic Air Ushers in Chilly December and January too, it’s due to Arctic Oscillation, with the Arctic currently at higher than average air pressure. The Arctic is much warmer than usual.

Data and Services, including Climate and You

Understanding Climate, including Annual State of the Climate report.

Videos, including Climate Forecasts Improve Humanitarian Decision Making in West Africa

Education, including Teaching Resources

Climate trends available at
Climate trends available at—doesn’t look like temperatures have stabilized to me.

Climate Change Activism Group Forming

Sunday, February 7th, 2010

The new group will meet over 6 months, beginning in late March. Some will meet together in person, others to participate through videoconferencing.

The Forecast: Climatologists are warning that the temperature increase over pre-industrial times could reach 4°C (>7°F) by 2060. Many more areas would see decreased precipitation; others with increased precipitation would still have drier soil, causing floods and famine; the hottest day of the year in northeastern North America could be 18-22°F hotter than ever before. Yet the numbers of Americans seeing climate change as serious, or caused by what we do, declined significantly in the last year and a half.

The Invitation: Become a Climate Change Activist. Join the support and learning group described below to give your activism focus and impact. For instance, an effective climate change activist engages in a few vital behaviors:

• Teaching climate change science and impacts to others and hold them emotionally during the process. Those who don’t take climate change seriously are often in emotional denial. Denial is also seen in the solutions people choose.

• Reducing your own greenhouse gas emissions in the coming year, and working with others to reduce theirs. This gives the activist a realistic sense of what helps and what blocks voluntary behavior change, which is a necessary part of the solution.

• Finding a solution that Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says is necessary and important, ideally one that makes you uncomfortable. Learn why policy analysts say it’s necessary, and advocate for it. The goal is to move away from choosing solutions we want, to working for solutions that are recognized as essential.

• Accessing the spiritual wellsprings that support and nurture us in selfless activism. We will keep a process log or journal that includes reflections on where and how we seek guidance and draw strength for the struggle, as well as honestly naming our doubts, concerns and questions about what is being asked of us.

The Format for Group Support and Study: meet twice monthly for six months.
• one session/month to study what is known about teaching and working on climate change, update our current information and evaluate sources.
• one session/month to work on vital behaviors above, and evaluate impact of your actions. The group may unite to work on one project, or support one another on a range of projects.

Prerequisites: Besides commitment to the group and its aims, a general agreement on sources (IPCC and the sources IPCC sees as valid) is important. There are sources that tell us that IPCC is wrong, but they are rarely peer-reviewed (a minimum requirement) and feed into our prejudices rather than provide a much-needed guide to what’s real.

I’ve heard this question so many times: what can I do that will be effective? Perhaps this group can help you answer that question.

Holding the Earth
photo credit

Leave a comment (with a “do not publish”) if you are interested in joining this group. We’ll begin in late March, and take a summer vacation. Young people also welcome. The hope is to meet together in Berkeley and online at the same time.

This addendum adds details.

Share with others who might be interested.