Posted on | January 21, 2007 | 26 Comments
David Roberts, who has gotten a lot of leftie blogosphere traction with his dirty hippie post, is at it again.
Here’s David, describing the point he made on a conservative talk show (“one of the B-list Limbaughs”) yesterday:
The IPCC is one of the most rigorous scientific processes ever developed, and its new report pegs it at greater than 90% confidence that humanity is driving recent warming.
Here’s David a couple of weeks back defending his willingness to abandon the consensus:
Yes, we have to leave science to the scientists. But science is not a priesthood that can or should impose quietude on the rest of us. Our informed gut feelings about how things will turn out are legitimate. People make statements beyond what’s strictly supported by the peer-reviewed evidence all the time. For some reason, internet wonks seem to hold public advocacy on global warming to a strangely prudish set of standards. We don’t impose these kinds of strictures in other areas.
Hey, what if my gut tells me that the effect of solar variability is greater than the climate models suggest, or that land use changes are really a bigger player than acknowledged (both of which, like hurricanes, are areas where the major consensus documents acknowledge significant uncertainties)?
As soon as one endorses one’s “gut feelings about how things will turn out,” then Katy bar the door. The entire nature of the scientized public debate on these questions (climate change, genetically modified foods, radiation risks) is that public advocates follow their gut rather than the scientific consensus. As Dan Sarewitz explains, that’s to be expected, and is what creates gridlock on these issues.
But Roberts, as a journalist, has a different obligation than ordinary advocates – even more because of the sort of advocacy journalism he does. Grist as a whole has a tendency to feed its audience’s biases, but that is precisely what Roberts should not do on questions like this. This is one of those climate science questions where reasonable scientists have a genuine disagreement, and for Roberts to pick sides is to ignore his obligation to explain to Grist readers the nature of that genuine disagreement and its implications.
As I’ve written elsewhere about journalists’ obligations:
Here’s what you should expect from us, as a smart consumer of news, but also as an attentive citizen. You should expect us to explain what’s reasonable about your opponents’ arguments. You already know your own arguments. You don’t need us to help you there. You need us to help you listen to the people on the other side of the debate. (And of course, you should expect us to present your arguments well to the other side.) And people who aren’t on either side should expect to get an explanation of both sides’ positions.
I don’t expect Roberts to do the same thing at Grist that I do in a mainstream newspaper. But I what I also don’t expect of him is to, in his words, “ally ourselves with respected scientists like Kerry Emanuel and Tom Wigley who believe there is a strong connection between hurricanes and climate change” without also explaining to Grist readers why equally respected scientists on the opposite side of the hurricane issue have come to different conclusions.
If all Roberts is doing as a journalist is feeding his readers’ biases, and his own, there’s frankly not much point. He’s obviously talented and passionate, and he has a terrific audience that would be better served by good science journalism than cheap advocacy, which is why I expect better.