- Climate Experts Tussle Over Details. Public Gets Whiplash.
By Andrew C. Revkin
Though the article is mostly about the presentation of climate change and health issues, the points raised are more generally applicable. Kimberly Thompson, an associate professor of risk analysis and decision science at Harvard, is quoted with
“Words that we as scientists use to express uncertainty routinely get dropped out to make stories have more punch and be stronger,” she said, adding that those words are important to include because “they convey meaning to readers not only in the story at hand, but more generally about science being less precise than is typically conveyed.”
but she also points out that “scientists themselves sometimes fail to carefully discriminate between what is well understood and what remains uncertain,” indicating that the communication problem is two-sided, and that small inaccuracies can have large backlashes because “the flow of scientific findings from laboratory to journal to news report is fraught with 'reinforcing loops' that can amplify small distortions.”
I agree with these assessments. As I have previously said (eg in my post Fact or Fiction?) uncertainties are part of science. Especially if reports are about very recent research, uncertainties can be high. Uncertainties need to be documented accordingly, even if that lowers the entertainment value. There is no place in science for inaccuracies. I understand the need to make popular writing more accessible, but on no account should it be outright wrong. Leaving out details clarifying under which circumstances which conclusion applies to what certainty can kick a statement from being vague to being wrong. And that doesn't even take into account the distortion of media reports in echos of original articles on the internet.
As David Malone wrote very aptly in the New Scientist, Aug 2007
“We are faced with all kinds of questions to which we would like unequivocal answers […] There is a huge pressure on scientists to provide concrete answers […] But the temptation to frame these debates in terms of certainty is fraught with danger. Certainty is an unforgiving taskmaker. […] If we are honest and say the scientists conclusions aren’t certain, we may find this being used as justification for doing nothing, or even to allow wiggle room for the supernatural to creep back in again. If we pretend we’re certain when we are not, we risk being unmasked as liars.”
In a similar spirit, the author of the NYT article, Andrew Revkin, writes on his blog in a posting about Media Mania and Front Page Thoughts:
“[O]ne danger in this kind of coverage — not accounting for the full range of uncertainty or understanding in dealing with very important environmental questions — is that it ends up providing ammunition to critics charging the media with an alarmist bias.”
I am afraid 'alarming' is exactly the reason for such headlines — it's a way to get attention. Revkin ends his article with an optimistic quote by Morris Ward, the editor of yaleclimatemediaforum.org (a forum on Climate Change and the Media with focus on improving media coverage)
“Ward [...] says that it will be up to the public to choose to be better informed on momentous issues that do not fit the normal template for news or clash with their ingrained worldviews. 'At some point,' he said, 'the public at large has to step up to the plate in terms of scientific and policy literacy, in terms of commitment to education and strong and effective political leadership, and in terms of their own general self-improvement.'”