by Judith Curry
In principle, yes of course. In practice, many journalists, scientists and government officials are not so certain as to how to balance telling the whole truth and being truthful in an “effective” way.
The title for this post comes from an article by Michael Lemonik posted at Climate Central. Some excerpts:
So that brings me to climate change. The essential and utterly valid message, based on the best available science, is that the Earth is warming; it’s largely due to us; it’s going to keep warming unless we do something, and there’s a significant chance that the consequences will be disastrous.
But is that the whole truth in every detail? No. Some of the details are yet to be settled. So should the overall message be that nobody knows anything? I don’t think so. We would never want to pretend the uncertainty isn’t there, since that would be dishonest. But featuring it prominently is dishonest, too, just as trumpeting uncertainty in the smoking-cancer connection would have been.
So does it make us intellectually dishonest not to be trumpeting this potential challenge to conventional ideas? Not really: it would be dishonest to suppress this argument, but since it’s a long way from being even weakly established, and because abandoning the idea of human-influenced climate change would mean abandoning an awful lot that has been firmly established, the most honest thing to do is not to go into a tizzy about a very preliminary result.
There’s a flipside to keeping the message simple, though. . . . all sorts of natural climate variations operate to slow the warming down for a while, or speed it up.
So where’s the right balance between telling the whole truth and being truthful in an effective way? At this point, a columnist is supposed to offer a tidy prescription. Sadly, I don’t have one. But NPR does: the network just updated its guidelines to reflect a commitment to fairness and truthfulness in reporting. That doesn’t mean telling the whole truth in every last detail. It does mean giving readers and listeners an honest take on critical issues.
Roger Pielke Jr’s comments
Roger Pielke Jr. has a post on this, some excerpts:
Yesterday, Michael Lemonick asked of journalists at Climate Central, “should we tell the whole truth about climate change?” His answer is to ask “So where’s the right balance between telling the whole truth and being truthful in an effective way?” (have a look at the link title as well). For some journalists a desire for “effectiveness” trumps “truth.”
Journalists, like everyone else, have their biases and perspectives. And on the issue of climate change journalists are as prone as any of us to the seductive siren of tribalism, with good guys on one side and evil ones on the other. But does this framing actually serve the interests of the broader climate science community? I think not.
The realities of the most intensely contested aspects of the climate debate are that there are human beings on both sides — complex, contradictory, red-blooded, imperfect human beings. When the media places scientists up on a pedestal and does so via the spinning of untruths, they simply set the stage for a bigger fall when the scientists cannot live up to their adulatory press coverage. And besides, many of us know better. The media should cover science in three dimensions, and eschew the two-dimensional fiction of good vs. evil, even if that means exploring nuance and contradiction.
NPR fairness and truthfulness guidelines
The U.S. National Public Radio (NPR)’s new ethics handbook provides some sage advice to journalists. The guiding principles are accuracy, fairness, completeness, honesty, independence, independence, impartiality, transparency, accountability, respect, and excellence.
From the paragraph putting principles into practice:
We will fulfill the high standard we owe the public if we hold true to our principles. Doing so requires that we embrace complexity and continually think through difficult decisions. While these principles reinforce each other, they also are often in tension. In all situations, we balance them against one another, striving to honor our mission. This statement is intended not only to serve as a guide, but also to provoke ongoing discussion and deliberation – the keys to any ethical decision-making process. It should both test and strengthen the moral compass that guides each of us in our work. It aims to foster a culture that compels and empowers us to exercise our consciences each day. We believe it is our shared responsibility to live up to these principles.
Jay Rosen at Press Think comments on the NPR guidelines:
In my view the most important changes are these passages:
“In all our stories, especially matters of controversy, we strive to consider the strongest arguments we can find on all sides, seeking to deliver both nuance and clarity. Our goal is not to please those whom we report on or to produce stories that create the appearance of balance, but to seek the truth.
At all times, we report for our readers and listeners, not our sources. So our primary consideration when presenting the news is that we are fair to the truth. If our sources try to mislead us or put a false spin on the information they give us, we tell our audience. If the balance of evidence in a matter of controversy weighs heavily on one side, we acknowledge it in our reports. We strive to give our audience confidence that all sides have been considered and represented fairly.”
Scientists communicating climate change
Journalists aren’t the only ones struggling with the issue of communicating about climate change. Roger Pielke Jr’s post reminds us of John Houghton’s 2001 statements upon the release of the IPCC TAR: Human effect on climate ‘beyond doubt’. “Climate change is the biggest environmental threat.” In recent years, we have certainly heard this kind of hyperbole from Rachendra Pachauri, as well as from many climate scientists.
On a recent thread, Dan Hughes provided a very interesting example of climate scientists explicitly choosing not to tell the whole truth, in an apparent effort to keep the story simple and not confuse the public, in effect to be “effective”.
Here’s the text from Dan’s comment:
Simon Shackley, James Risbey, Peter Stone And Brian Wynne,ADJUSTING TO POLICY EXPECTATIONS IN CLIMATE CHANGE MODELING: An Interdisciplinary Study of Flux Adjustments in Coupled Atmosphere-Ocean General Circulation Models, Climatic Change, Vol. 43, pp. 413–454, 1999.
From the Abstract:
In particular, many of our respondents expressed a preference for keeping discussion of the issue of flux adjustments within the climate modeling community, apparently fearing that climate contrarians would exploit the issue in the public domain.
And this in Footnote 53
53. A discussion took place over an early draft of the Executive Summary of Section B of the IPCC 1992 report which contained two possible versions. Both versions explicitly stated that the models: ‘Continue to display the same overall strengths and weaknesses identified in the first  assessment’ and that ‘continuing validation tests indicate a slow but steady upward trend in the confidence which we can attach to their results’. Inserted between these two statements in version 2, however, was the following addition: ‘Among the major weaknesses is the need for substantial corrections to the air-sea fluxes in order to reproduce the present climate. The impacts of these corrections on the ability to model GHG-induced climate change cannot be assessed a priori’ (stress added). Although neither version was eventually used intact, the caveats of version 2 were not included in the 1992 report. Revealingly, a reviewer commented about version 2 that it was ‘too defensive – not much [has] changed in validation [since IPCC 1990]’. The advisory scientists were perhaps thinking strategically about the significance of representing quite legitimate scientific reservations about flux adjustment upon the credibility to a range of political, policy and media audiences of the IPCC reports (and especially the Executive Summary) and process (e.g., a consistent relation with the IPCC 1990 report was preferred). They may also have been thinking about how the scientific peer community itself would respond to such flagging of flux adjustments given that little new validation work had been conducted since the earlier report.
I’m sure such examples abound in the preparation of IPCC Assessment Reports, but rarely are these documented. This is why the CRU emails were of such substantial interest to many people.
The latest issue of Nature has an editorial Frozen Out, with the subtitle Canada’s government should free its scientists to speak to the press, as its US counterpart has. Excerpt:
Over the same period, Canada has moved in the opposite direction. Since Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party won power in 2006, there has been a gradual tightening of media protocols for federal scientists and other government workers. Researchers who once would have felt comfortable responding freely and promptly to journalists are now required to direct inquiries to a media-relations office, which demands written questions in advance, and might not permit scientists to speak. Canadian journalists have documented several instances in which prominent researchers have been prevented from discussing published, peer-reviewed literature. Policy directives and e-mails obtained from the government through freedom of information reveal a confused and Byzantine approach to the press, prioritizing message control and showing little understanding of the importance of the free flow of scientific knowledge.
The Harper government’s poor record on openness has been raised by this publication before (see K. O’HaraNature 467, 501; 2010), and Nature’s news reporters, who have an obvious interest in access to scientific information and expert opinion, have experienced directly the cumbersome approval process that stalls or prevents meaningful contact with Canada’s publicly funded scientists. Little has changed in the past two years: rather than address the matter, the Canadian government seems inclined to stick with its restrictive course and ride out all objections.
JC note: climate change was not called out specifically in the Nature editorial.
JC comments: The complexity of the wicked climate change problem makes it exceeding difficult to communicate to the public. Journalists have taken the shortcut of portraying this as the good guys against the bad guys, with the definition of good vs bad varying among journalists. Many scientists (including the IPCC) are oversimplifying the problem, in the interests of being “effective”; effective presumably in motivating action for UNFCCC policies. And depending on which political party is in power, scientists working on politically sensitive topics may be muzzled.
Since this has been going on in the context of the climate change problem for 20+ years, we’ve seen that simplicity doesn’t work, and the “good guys” often behave badly (whichever side you define to be “good”; Peter Gleick is the most recent example). In fact when oversimplification is uncovered (e.g. hiding the decline is a case in point), there can be very substantial backlash and loss of trust in the scientists.
The only way that I see out of this gridlock is get all the information (data, models, etc) out there in a form that is easily accessible to the public, and let it be discussed in extended peer communities and by policy makers and their technical advisors. This approach is ill-suited to traditional mainstream journalism, but well suited to online social media.