Saturday, October 16, 2021

Journalists, scientists should cover climate science truthfully

The goal of science is to gain enough understanding of causal interconnections so that we can make deliberate changes in those connections to produce desirable outcomes for our lives. Climate science, however, has evidenced a toxic quality in the climategate and glaciergate scandals that have undermined its credibility and distorted the journalism reporting climate change.

The disaster for science and public confidence occurs when the scientists themselves cannot agree on the “facts,” when data are manipulated to support theories and, more fundamentally, when the data themselves are withheld from scrutiny. So some explicit and transparent rules for conduct by climate scientists are necessary to produce both quality science and to restore the public confidence in such science if it is to underlay public policy decisions.

First, data, especially raw data, must always be shared and open to public inspection. In fact, both those who believe in human-caused global warming and those who most deny it should come together to inspect these data in order to best expose shortcomings and agree on the appropriate measures of climate change.

Second, all attempts to alter the peer reviewed journal process that validates scientific research as competent must be stopped. The peer review process depends on the anonymity of the researcher to the reviewers and the anonymity of the reviewers to the researchers. It is obvious from the East Anglia climategate scandal that both researchers and reviewers compromised this process, resulting in the appearance, if not the reality of, a major breach in the process meant to validate the competence of climate-change research.

Third, scientists who may have hidden data (climategate) to buttress some research hypothesis or misrepresented it for political purposes (glaciergate) should be appropriately disciplined. The special problem with such behavior in climate science is that the public policy stakes are very, very high. Climate change legislation and regulation should never be made on the basis of poor or biased science.

Moreover, the journalists who have been reporting climate science also need to consider the implications of these scandals for their own conduct.

Most fundamentally, if the peer review process has been compromised in the climate science journals, then the only scientific basis on which journalists have chosen climate science sources to interpret research has also been compromised. Journalists need to make sure that journals employ proper peer review procedures for validating the research of scientists they choose to interview.

But even with properly validated climate science research, journalists need to look to the science rather than to the scientists for the basis for their reporting. First, “consensus” among scientists is no more a valid route to what’s true than consensus in any other area. Second, reporters should look more than they do to the science itself. Scientific work identifies hypotheses whose predictions enable assessment of the goodness of climate change models, and the conclusions sections of studies identify shortcomings as well as successes in this effort. Journalists must be familiar enough with actual studies to probe scientists more carefully not just on the implications of their work, but also on the limitations of their work.

Related to this, journalists need to realize that science sources, like other sources, can and will spin what they tell journalists, especially when their money and prestige are at stake. Certainly, the East Anglia e-mails indicate the creators of the climate change models privately had more doubt about the precision and reliability of those models than they publicly expressed. And the glacier gate scandal illuminates deliberate attempts to influence publicity and opinion. The admission of blatantly political motives to influence opinion on the part of the scientist involved in glaciergate should give any journalist pause.

Finally, journalists need to remember to “follow the money” as part of their effort to find out what climate science targets. The grants in climate science are as much on the side of affirming man-made climate change as is the money on the opposing side of the debate. Reporters correctly have been concerned about “industry” money biasing science; that concern must be balanced when it comes to the “government” money on the other side.

Both science and journalism seek to better understand reality. Science must take a skeptical view of theories in order to make them better at knowing and explaining that reality. Journalism would better inform citizens by restoring its skepticism in reporting the climate change debate.

Fred Fico

MSU journalism professor

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