BEST of Times, Worst of Times

THE MEDIA TAKE SOME BAIT, HO-HUM

The Tubosphere has been all aglow over recent reports from the BEST team, massive public claims from Richard Muller to the effect that, thanks to his efforts, global warming is now proven. A remarkable lack of grace from Tony Watts adds a touch of irony.

SheWonk has about as good an account as there is out there, with links to plenty more. So if it’s Schadenfreude over Watts’ misfortunes and self-inflicted embarrassment you are looking for, look there.

We are considering adding a separate section to the site in which we look at the excesses of the denialati with some pleasure. We could also join in letting the cat out of the bag; Lord Monckton is himself a hoax, another hilarious character created by Sacha Baron Cohen.

PLANET3.0 PROVIDES THE MISSING NUTRIENT IN YOUR DAILY READING DIET

Call it vitamin S, for “sustainability”.

Our front page is about what is missing from your other front pages.

You can read for hours a day on other sites and the conventional print media, and not even get an inkling that our long term trajectory is broken and that we have the responsibility to fix it, sooner rather than later. But that’s, um, kind of important.

People missing sustainability news are intellectually malnourished, getting a deeply skewed vision of what is going on in the world. Once, due to bad planning, I found myself  reading some sort of prognosis of the 21st century by some famed international relations pundit from Newsweek. Not a word appeared in the whole book about climate change, food security, resource constraints. (At least he touched on energy.) If you read such stuff all the time, if you can seriously write such stuff, the media are not serving you well.

No other news site offers this much concentrated sustainability news on a daily basis as the front page of Planet3.0. Check in here on a regular basis, and you will get a clearer idea of where the planet is heading and what we may need to do about it. That’s the goal of the front page – to fill in the gaps left at the rest of the press. If you stop in here, our goal is that you’ll find all important news the New York Times deemed unfit to print.

The goal of the rest of the site is to build a community and a business model to provide the front page news and a decent income for those contributing to it. At present, we are amateurs; our gross income is zero, our net slightly less. We won’t have the resources we would like to have for some time. But we hope you understand that our way to help the world get a grip is to make sure that Justin Gillis and Elizabeth Kolbert aren’t the only two decent journalists making a living on this beat.

BEST IS CELEBRITY NEWS NOT SUSTAINABILITY NEWS

The BEST story provides an excellent case in point.

The story is all over the place. Andy Revkin blogged it, the Beeb has it.  The Economist is on it. And the Wall Street Journal gave Muller free rein for an op-ed of self-congratulation bordering on self-adulation. (This last gives reasonable people everywhere the unusual oportunity to be somewhat in agreement with the Egregious Dellingpole.) In other words, for climate, it is Big News. But is it front page material for P3?

Well, what happened?

What happened is that the existing data for recent global mean temperatures were confirmed. How Richard Muller convinced people of the importance of his own opinion on this matter has some peculiar history to it. But if we were doing science and not politics, it would be of no real consequence. Which means that when we pay attention to it, we are paying attention mostly to politics masquerading as science. And one of the few things that both the real science camp and the cynics’ camp agree to is that controversy leads to politics masquerading as science, which in turn interferes with policy.

This means, in turn, that while it may deserve play among the cognoscenti, it doesn’t belong in the major media.

Although the new methods they use are a worthy addition to the arsenal, and it’s generally conceded that the team did serious and diligent work, the results (confirming previous results) as opposed to the new methods, are barely worth reporting in a specialist journal. This is not news. It is in the Wall Street Journal and on the BBC because of politics, not because it delivers any new information. The science has not changed a whit – no serious scientist cares very much that the record has been confirmed yet again. Under ordinary circumstances this paper would have trouble getting published. This is not a red-letter day in scientific history. No new information is on the table. It’s posturing.

A COUNTEREXAMPLE

Compare it, for example, with other news of this week: according to Nina Chestney at Reuters, a UK report has claimed that “the challenges of human migration due to climate change have been underestimated as millions of people will either move into or be trapped in areas of risk by 2060”.

“We have assumed mass migration away from affected areas, but millions of people will also migrate into vulnerable areas and there will also be those who cannot migrate out,” John Beddington, chief scientific adviser to the British government, told reporters.

“They pose different challenges to the international community,” he added.

The United Nations estimates there were 210 million international migrants in 2010. A further 740 million were internal migrants in 2009.

An average 25 million people a year have been displaced due to weather-related events since 2008, which will likely rise as such events become more extreme and frequent, Beddington said.

The report estimates there will be between 154 and 179 million people living in rural coastal floodplains by 2060 who will be unable to move away due to poverty.

These trapped communities will need to be made more resilient to environmental events.

Up to 192 million people will also move into urban coastal floodplains in Africa and Asia by 2060 in search of work and a better economic situation.

The report suggests that most of these people will eventually be forced out again, and that the world is unprepared for this sort of international migratory pressure.

Now, let’s be fair. This is just one report. And whatever the difficulties of climate science as a physical science, the difficulties of projecting impacts are wtill greater. There’s little doubt that there is room for criticizing this report. If we are lucky, it will turn out to be excessively pessimistic. People have turned out to be excessively pessimistic in the past, after all.

Still, this is a prestigious report and it’s at least not obvious to them to say their results are excessive. Shouldn’t THAT be on the table?

And shouldn’t reporting on the question say here’s the report, and here’s here’s the executive summary and here’s the supporting evidence?

WHY IS THE PRESS SO DISTRACTIBLE?

So, which is more important? Somebody claiming some sort of special glory for replicating a well-studied result? Or evidence that hundreds of millions of desperately poor refugees will face disaster in the lifetimes of many of our readers? Well, let’s not guess from column-inches.

Here’s one question that you might wonder. Should Beddington have waited with his report to see what Muller’s team would say? After all, if there is no global warming, there’s nothing to worry about, is there? Clearly Beddington didn’t think Muller would be important. I’m not sure I understand why the rest of us should. People are making out that Muller is some kind of a hero, which is silly, and somehow missing the point about 350 million poor people flooded out not only of their homes but of their home provinces.

For sure? No, not for sure at all. Prediction is difficult, especially about the future, as the wise Yogi Berra is often quoted as saying.

But if it’s serious enough for a publicly commissioned report, it seems like it belongs on the front page. Maybe it should bump self-promoting glory hogs with nothing new to say off the front page?

Thanks to Tenney Naumer for the idea of how best to report on BEST.

 

Comments:

  1. MT: There’s little doubt that there is room for criticizing this report.

    Not 'alf! Scant references, at least one discredited scientist on the panel of experts, and a discredited Chief Scientific Officer signing the thing off.

    I've spent only half an hour looking at it (thanks for the links) but it's already obvious that the paucity of footnoted references is the report's main weakness. With so much unsupported assertion, you either spend weeks analyzing the various detailed claims so that you can form a view of the trustworthiness of its headline claims, or you accept its conclusions as gospel because they come from a 'prestigious' report, or you dismiss the whole thing as inadequate and move on.

    I'm in the third camp. I'm fed up of my govt making insupportable claims about climate change, so forgive me if I just assume that its newest claims would turn out to be insupportable if I spent the necessary weeks looking at them in detail.

    Plus the Beddington migration report did get some coverage in the press. It wasn't ignored.

    Should it have had more coverage than Muller's BEST report?

    On the one hand, there's a much-trumpeted exercise in 'auditing' whose outcome is, for good reasons or bad, eagerly awaited; on the other, there's yet another long, long, unscientific and destined-to-be-unread govt report saying that we're all doomed.

    So no. It shouldn't.

    (OT: Is there an established emoticon for the Stern Review yet?)

  2. I'm not so sure that the BEST story was not news worth reporting, Michael. To be sure, the scientific results were no surprise to you, me or most of your readers but for many fake skeptics, this study must come as quite a blow. Scientifically, it's not news, but politically it is. As you know as well as anyone, we're fighting a political war here, in which false and anti-scientific arguments are used as weapons. Well, the enemy just got one of their big guns spiked, and by someone they thought was on their side. That's news.

    Certainly, Richard Muller's opening lines in the WSJ were fatuous. And, I confess, I can't help indulging in a little Schadenfreude when I read the desperate denialist commentary on WUWT or Bishop Hill, trying to claim that they never questioned the temperature record, just the cause of the warming. Or maybe there's something wrong with the stats, Nature tells us Steve McIntyre's working on it. Ha! But none of that's really news.

    http://www.nature.com/news/2011/111020/full/news.2011.607.html

  3. As I said, we do plan to have an "inside baseball" section where we look at this sort of thing in great detail. Responding to the manipulation of the conversation is no joke.

    But the front page is intended to be part of regular people's regular media intake. Tom Fuller kept taunting me with "if you know so much about what the media should do, why not go ahead and do it?" Well, that's been my intention for some time now, and here I am trying to do it.

    BEST is on the front page only as an example of what we don't want on the front page, which is ersatz news set up as reporter bait. Google learns how not to be manipulated by slimy SEO types all the time. Why can't the press learn the same?

    So in short, yes, P3 will cover this kind of material, but no, not on the front page.

  4. I am very tired of this word "unscientific", a word which I take to be almost completely meaningless in the way it is cast about as a criticism of serious approaches to difficult questions.

    Different spheres of experience require different approaches. The rational approach is to use all the available information as best as it can be used.

    Not everything can be as perfectly attuned to the schoolchild's picture of "how science is done", which is like a drug trial, a set of experiments, and a convenient significance test out the other side to pass to the drug licensing agency.

    Indeed, it's exactly the difficult questions that we are trying to achieve here. We would like to come up with ways of thinking about the big fuzzy picture wrapped around the cold, hard facts of climate disruption.

    Presuming business as usual, there will be a significant coastal population at the time when sea level rise really starts to bite. (This is already the case to a small extent; it's already biting on various Pacific island nations, which are over-represented in the United Nations but have little population.)

    So how many people is that, at peak, and when does that peak occur? That is a perfectly legitimate question.

    It is hard to know. But we can sit some smart people down and ask them. And they come up with some three hundred million give or take 50%. And around 2060.

    Is it not useful to have a preliminary estimate? Is Vinny's estimate zero people plus or minus zero people inconvenienced by anthropogenic sea level rise ever? If so, what "scientific" basis is there for that estimate? If not, what estimate does he propose as a working hypothesis, and why?

    These are the sorts of questions to which we need the best possible answers, crude though they might be.

  5. Pingback: What I’m Reading Saturday, October 22, 2011 | Rationally Thinking Out Loud

  6. I agree that the BEST story is not new news and it shouldn't be getting front-page attention, except in that the subject matter of the work itself is and always should be front-page news.

    I've long been of the opinion that serious news output should always start with the important news, not just lead with the new stuff. It's all too easy to forget that the world is warming, the climate is changing and it is overwhelmingly probable that we are causing this. A quick reminder of this before we get to the new details that add, in most cases very marginally, to our understanding of the issues seems responsible.

  7. I pretty much agree with mt, not so much with Vinny this time. How many footnotes do you need to know that as sea lever rises, the oceans cover more land?

    A general clue: for human purposes, interpret the plus or minus not in the units given, but in years. In so many years plus or minus a few, the problem will this big.

    But this may be big: the WSJ says

    "There were good reasons for doubt, until now."

    Scientifically this is silly. But some on the right may well be looking for ways to walk away from their denier position. Voila!

  8. Muller and Rohde will present their results on November 1 at the Third Santa Fe Conference on Global and Regional Climate Change. The conference is sponsored by Los Alamos National Laboratory. The program committee chair is Petr Chylek of LANL, who thinks the CRUhack emails revealed an intent to manipulate the temperature record. Also on the conference program are R. Lindzen, D. Easterbrook, C. Monckton, F. Singer, J. Curry, and other known deniers skeptics. How they receive the BEST results may be newsworthy, even if the results themselves are not.

  9. Regardless of the precision of the migration report it makes an important point that many people have missed (I certainly did): People aren't completely rational and, even if they were, most won't have anywhere near enough information to make 'good' decisions.

    The typical idea people espouse is of mass groups calmly identifying their problem and migrating to places where they notice the effects of climate change are less harsh.

    However, the reality will be large numbers of people making desperate choices to overcome short-term hardship (e.g. moving from farmland to coastal urban areas), which may exacerbate, rather than alleviate, problems that come with climate change.

  10. "Prediction is difficult, especially about the future, as the wise Yogi Berra is often quoted as saying."

    No, that was Niels Bohr.

    "We are considering adding a separate section to the site in which we look at the excesses of the denialati with some pleasure"

    Why don't you add a section on reviews of cookbooks and perhaps another one on optimal sports betting strategies while you're at it. I'm sure those must somehow also fall under you're all encompassing umbrella of what "sustainability" involves, somehow or other.


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