The Problem with the Press

I like Andy Revkin as a person, and I appreciate his kind words about this site, giving us a bit of a leg up, but Holy Missing the Point, Batman…

My response was:

Andy, you don’t seem to hear what Gell-Mann is saying.

You seem to think there’s single complex statement which must be taken on faith or rejected. But people do not understand a few basic facts. Whether people choose to believe them or not is a matter for social scientists to address ONLY AFTER PEOPLE KNOW WHAT THEY ARE.

I would have had a similar conversation about CUMULATIVE NATURE of the CO2 problem. People don’t deny this nor accept it. They HAVEN’T HEARD IT YET!


  1. Two people talking past each other -- that was exactly my initial reaction, as well.

    But the more I think about it after a couple of viewings, the more inclined I am to say that both men failed in this exchange, since neither seemed able to reach across the conceptual divide. This is NOT my attempt to be a militant middlegrounder and spread blame evenly; given their backgrounds and professions, I would lay most of the fault on Revkin simply because it's his job to build bridges between lay people and expert knowledge. Instead of doing that, he was stuck on this trivially obvious point about how predisposed people are to not understanding inconvenient truths.

    Gell-Mann seemed unable to grasp the difficulty people have in thinking in abstract terms. (I have no idea if this is how he sees the world, but it came across that way.) This is understandable, as scientists are so deeply trained in washing away surface details to reveal underlying and sometimes abstract relationships that I suspect many have a hard time remembering that other people aren't similarly talented. To me, this is what makes Richard Alley such a joy for lay people (like me): He has a remarkable talent for bridging that gap in colorful and memorable ways. His Congressional testimony in which he used his own head as globe and a Congressman as the sun is an almost too perfect example.

  2. At the end of the video, Revkin discusses, what he terms as, a way around [the knowledge deficit]", which is to focus all attention on "energy" because this is not a point of argument among the populous (US). If this is the case, then why is the House of Representatives filled with 1) people who are voting to prevent light bulb efficiency or 2) people who once voted for light bulb efficiency are now voting against it? Why is there a political party whose energy plans are all built around drilling and mining and pipelining fossil fuels ? I believe that this new fanciful media myth about how to convey the information, no matter well intentioned, isn't really effective.

    Or perhaps the other media myth, that fossil fuel money and lobbying isn't a real problem, is just flat wrong. Perhaps, if so, it let's the media off the hook for public's knowledge deficit problem, but then let's move on to the next problem. Why isn't the media screaming about it? Is it not the public's business to be notified of this corruption of our legislative system?

  3. Or that the nastiest consequences will be changes in circulation, not increasing temperature.

    Or that the paleo record makes quite clear what sort of long-term changes we're in for.

    Or that biosphere can't handle this rate of change very well.


  4. Pingback: The Climate Change Debate Thread - Page 1093

  5. I was intrigued by "secular" which means something different in science; we also have a lot of trouble with the term "belief". It's as if you were trying to get someone who only speaks Chinese to talk to someone who refuses to even try to learn Chinese, and vice versa, and they both want somebody to blame, so they blame what is being communicated about instead of trying to find an interpreter.

    We also have the problem that Andy, while charming, seems to have succumbed to the idea of his own charm, without questioning his own assertions. You could, of course, say we each have our self-images with which we are wedded, but not all of us have the platform that Andy has used with such effectiveness up until about three years ago.

  6. I share Mister Gell-Mann's frustration. It ought to be literally impossible for someone to not understand the point that he is making. If the public does not understand that an underlying long term non period trend can be masked by random variations and periodic variations then it is because no one is taking the time and effort to explain the point. I work as a math tutor. I know that when a new concept is introduced to a student it is never enough to just tell'em once. A lot of work is often needed, but with a lot of work comes undertanding and the occasional ah-ha moment.

    It seems clear that Gell-Mann understands that this is a subject with multiple aspects. To persuade it is necessary for a common ground of concepts to exist. This idea multiple concurrent trends is one of them.

  7. Really, if there is a clearer example on YouTube of two people talking past each other I'd almost hate to see it.

    And I don't see any blame at all accruing to Gell-Mann. He asks Andy whether a certain rather simple and essential piece of information cannot be conveyed. Andy persists in saying "it wouldn't matter if we tried".

    I get this from Keith Kloor all the time. My answer remains the same as Gell-Mann. Why not put it to the test and actually try? And not just once, but persistently, for a couple of years, until people actually get the message?

    And the answer is this bizarre ducking of responsibility nuder the guise of social science. It's absolutely mindboggling, the faith that American science journalism puts into this into this one vague consequence of a few modest studies. Forgive me, but I am more interested in solving the problem than in ducking the blame.


  8. Well, they say "can't" because editors and publishers simply won't. That sort of repetition is in their view the opposite of drawing eyeballs and selling papers. It's interesting how such a failing of the whole journalistic enterprise is then treated as an externality for which journalists have no responsibility.

    And was that a look of contempt I saw on G-M's face when Andy pitched his energy pony idea? Maybe just exasperation.

    Speaking of the energy pony, don't miss the takedown of BTI just republished by Joe Romm.

  9. I'm not sure I would say this was two people talking past each other, rather one person talking past the other. As Steve says the look of contempt on Gell-Mann's face towards the end, and another earlier on about half way through, was very telling. It would be interesting to have seen Revkin's face during the interview.

  10. I'm sympathetic to Revkin here. There are a lot of simple messages that people get but that do not change behaviour sufficiently:

    -smoking gives you cancer;
    -too much food makes you fat;
    -not saving enough means you'll be poor when you retire.

    It's not ignorance of simple facts that is preventing action on climate change--many of the more influential "skeptics" are quite well informed-- but, rather, it's denial of the severity of the long-term consequences unless we accept some short-term pain.

  11. But isn't that the point, that people genuinely are not aware of some of the basic facts of climate change. There is virtually no-one who doesn't believe in the connection between smoking and cancer, at one level at least. The message has been hammered in to them and continues to be hammered in every time they buy a packet of cigarettes. They may choose to deny it to themselves in one way or another, which would be equivalent to the behaviour of many of the 'sceptics' who engage in the debate about climate change, but they know the evidence is solid.

    However, for most people climate change still barely impinges on their consciousness. There is, I think, a degree of denial involved in that they are choosing not to look at the evidence in depth because they don't want to find what they fear they will. But there is enough doubt being peddled to allow someone who already has plenty of concerns in their life to skim over the evidence and conclude that there may well not be much to worry about. Problem solved.

    I think it is ignorance of the simple facts that is preventing action on climate change. There is denial as well, some active denial as you describe but a much more passive form of denial is the bigger problem.

  12. What's missing in a few of these responses is an awareness of the massive and multi-tentacled phony skeptic leadership. All of it is so professional, and until you get into the thickets it is hard to imagine how big and how well organized it is.

    Once you've had a few of your ideas about how to communicate stolen and twisted to support the "other side" you will realize that no stone goes unturned.

    While I can sympathize with Andy's exhaustion over this war, he knows enough to be able to do better. He has become wedded to a group of concepts, and perhaps since his stroke his thinking has become narrower. He also enables a group of commenters who carry weight with him because they are extremely loyal. This group is pretty toxic and a lot of us either leave or take long vacations because it is so difficult, and at times nasty.

  13. Susan, when was the stroke? It's news to me. In any case his views had clearly gelled in the current mold by at least ~five years ago, when he wrote that fawning "middle" piece about RP Jr. (as a news article, not a blog post, BTW).

    One other thing to bear in mind is that his views would have seemed a lot more reasonable based on the state of the science ~ten years ago. Recall what Max Planck had to say about this syndrome.

  14. OPatrick:

    I overstated my case. Of course education on climate change is necessary and there's plenty of room for improvement(I invest a lot of my spare time contributing at Skeptical Science). My intended argument was that increasing public knowledge of the basic facts of climate change is far from sufficient.

    In the evolution of my personal views on climate change, I accepted the basic science long before I fully appreciated that climate change poses a serious threat that requires urgent political action. Overcoming people's optimism biases or their struthiantendencies is going to be the hard part in changing minds sufficiently to get the change we need.

    In the context of my three points in my original post, it's probably worth noting that I'm overweight and managed to quit smoking only six years ago. I won't retire poor but that's more down to simple good luck than the result of thrift or wise financial planning.

  15. I am puzzled by Revkin's proposal. He doesn't seem to recognize that it has already been tried by Obama, and isn't gaining much traction among the public. As part of the stimulus program he has proposed investment in Green Energy initiatives. This has been bitterly attacked by the Republicans, and has not been embraced by the public or even many in the Democratic Party. Where has Revkin been during this time?

    At least the EU public appears to accept the theory that humans are causing damaging climate change and action is required to slow it or stop it. Its' people don't seem to have the cognition problem that Gell-Mann is complaining about. I would like to know how Revkin explains that.

  16. Steve Bloom, sorry I've been busy elsewhere. I thought the changeover was around 2008 (how time flies), but he still occasionally weighs in against some of the more prolific conservadumdum muck with excellent ripostes. Surprise surprise, doesn't get anywhere. Also, we have an all or nothing attitude in the circular firing squad that excludes even the mildest trace of "apostasy" which can be unhelpful.

    The stroke, apparently with pretty much full recovery, was covered here:
    and subsequent posts.

  17. Speaking of Revkin, he just retweeted my tweet on the Irish Times opinion piece that just rakes the press over the coals. Go figure.

    My take is that the press, like fundamentalist Christians, will calmly and politely countenance evidence that ought to completely demolish their position, but somehow not actually manage to re-evaluate their behavior. Journalism constitutes a faith in the position of not taking a position.

  18. As a longtime DotEarth commenter, I can attest to Andy's inconsistency. In the last year, he once said he was a "recovering denier". I think a good bit of what he reports is sound, it's just the insistent drumbeat of middle ground that is so consistently understating the problem and crediting the fake middle.

    I was hoping he'd report on the Morano-Hayhoe-Kerry Emanuel's wife persecution, but apparently that's outside his remit. Pity ... pretty unequivocally wrong, and would help for people to see how phony the phonies are when it comes to respect for individuality and real skepticism.

  19. I believe the press is now (last few years) involved in a lot of "glass half full" reporting, such as Revkin's new piece, How Humans Spread Both Ecological Disruption and Diversity.

    I'd just like to point out it isn't 1973 and the purpose to being a reporter isn't to persuade people to disregard old environmental beliefs that no one cares about anyway. Is this what we are reduced to? Is this the opposite to the chicken little syndrome? I understand there's nothing wrong with these particular pieces, but what's the point of them? What's the narrative? To make me think mankind aint all bad for the environment? I feel there is an attempt to manipulate people by inundating them with 'don't worry be happy' stories. Like not worrying about the arctic biodiversity. I feel like I'm watching a slow motion propaganda film about how much I should love my job at corporation X! It's just getting a bit weird.

  20. What's the point? I'm guessing that the reporters are doing these stories in an effort to show just how 'nuanced' and 'sophisticated' they are, even if that's complete bollocks.

    And speaking of which, why do certain reporters have this weird idea that they have a better feel of the scientific state of the art than, um, scientists themselves? It's as if they're trying to 'synthesize' the findings of scientists -- synthesize something which is, in a way, already synthesized.

    -- frank

  21. I made a comment there last night that never made it through moderation. Basically I called foul on the fact that Revkin and Chameides used useless 200 year old useless platitudes to discuss the policy implications of our inability to extract a human signal from hurricane data. This was fairly egregious considering Revkin actually used a paper that discussed the policy implications on those timescales, but, for whatever reason, didn't use this information, but instead focused on 2 murky quotes from dead people. Is it any wonder why people are so unwilling to weigh in seriously on these problems when the media keeps them mostly clueless? Anyway, here is the part of the Emanual paper that should have been, at least, mentioned, if not focused on, at the end of the Revkin piece.

    "We caution that the question of when a statistically robust trend can be detected in damage time series should not be confused with the question of when climateinduced changes in damage become a significant consideration.
    Policies and other actions that address U.S.
    hurricane damage on the time scale of decades would
    surely distinguish the probabilistic outcome represented by, say, the 25-yr probability density of a warming climate given in Fig. 6a from that of the steady climate at the same lead time. Thus, if climate change effects are anticipated, or detected in basin-wide storm statistics, sensible policy decisions should depend on the projected
    overall shift in the probability of damage rather than on a high-threshold criterion for trend emergence. This is particularly important in view of evidence that suggests that an anthropogenic climate change signal has already emerged in Atlantic hurricane records (Mann and Emanuel 2006)."

    So readers of this DotEarth piece are likely to have no idea why basing policy implications on the criteria for extracting signals is not a good idea. Instead, they are left to decide whether they want “the better part of valor is discretion” or “an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure”.

    At least Chameides, in his piece at the end, warned us a little, "in the case of global warming the world will have to live with it for decades"

  22. fwiw DotEarth comments can take a long time to appear. Andy does his own and it's the weekend. When I'm overcommenting here or elsewhere I hope the blog owner feels free to moderate (golly, found 3 meanings to moderate when I thought about it!).

  23. Thanks grypo; this is very much an instance of the use of frequentist reasoning where Bayesian reasoning would be preferred. But something very odd has happened to the word "Bayesian", wherein it becomes something of a claim of a philosophical position, rather than a pragmatic description of probabilistic thinking.

    This seems to originate among groups of people who treat "statistical significance" as a sort of a fetish. It certainly is inapplicable in single subject experimentation, e.g., medical applications regarding a specific patient. And one thing you can say about climatology is that we don't have N=1000 to play around with.

  24. I've been perusing the Dot Earth blog lately and I think the problem is even worse than I had thought at first. It seems all the posts are about scientists who agree with Revkin's communication strategy where you only tell the reader about positive things (whether or not the post actually supports the notion is whole 'nother story). Getting back to the invasive species post with Erle Ellis:
    Ellis' analysis doesn't seem to fit the positive narrative unless you really think that destroying global ecosystems is worth it because of increasing local plant species. There is no plan make this work to help the overall problem, which he admits in a video. And then we get to the problem in a comment that Ellis left, "In preventing climate change and other global changes, doomsday disaster talk has led nowhere so far and offers no promise to accomplish change in the future. Studies of how human behavior can be influenced and changed tend to show that positive messaging is more successful than negative."

    And there we have it.

    I'd like to think that mass positive messaging would work, and I think in some ways it can, but applying it this way, where the negative outcomes are either dismissed or downplayed, is ultimately doomed to fail based on lacking a motivational aspect.

    I'm looking through the literature now, and by no means do the studies suggest avoiding discussing poor outcomes, or even fear-related messaging. What is needed, according to what I've read so far, is messaging that is positive toward well defined "solutions". Basically, beat your opponents with positive messages about the solutions, avoid wishy-washy statements about the future and use fear only along with these solution statements.

    From reading the media, I get the impression that everything is fine, scientists and tech experts are working on it, and mitigation solutions are not possible because of time scales and policy makers. Positive outcomes based on business as usual behavior, both in terms of emissions and overall sustainability is helpful in creating a deluded audience, but I can see nothing that would motivate behavior, which is what is important.

  25. I don't really see contempt there. Gell-Mann is just too nice a person to have contempt for Andy. But I do think I see first his puzzlement that Andy cannot get the point across to the public, then a sort of resignation that perhaps his time has been wasted trying to get Andy to see how simple it is. And the thing is that Gell-Mann is speaking in good faith, little knowing that Andy's modus operandi is decidedly not to get the point across.

    Andy's persistence in his own idea that he can play no role in getting any message out to his readers, or rather that the purpose of his blog is not to move the discussion forward in order to arrive at efforts at solving the problem, is the most mysterious thing about him.

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