'Uncertain Science' ... Certainly Uncertain

Newsweek Overseas Edition Column: When Blogs Turn a Drizzle to a Deluge

A Newsweek column dismissing the established body of evidence on anthropogenic climate change for some time had scientists going critical on how best and whether to respond to the naive perspective.

At the same time, the column by Newsweek European economics editor Stefan Theil had a prominent conservative climate contrarian boasting that the magazine had flipped on the climate change issue … and a prolific liberal climate blogger decrying “the error-riddled, un-fact-checked article.”

News Analysis

It turns out that the offending “Uncertain Science” column, which ran only in Newsweek‘s overseas or international edition distributed throughout Europe, Asia, does not speak for the magazine at all — it was an individual column and not the editor’s or magazine’s editorial — and it has been dismissed by a knowledgeable Newsweek insider as “widely viewed as uninformed, silly.”

No sooner had the May 28 international edition been published than aggressive and prolific contrarian blogger Marc Morano distributed an e-mail celebrating what he hoped to portray as a major reversal, a “shocker” — “Newsweek: Giving up on global warming?” He did not mention that the piece was a column and not an editorial, nor that it did not appear in the U.S. version of Newsweek.

From the opposite side of the climate science and political spectrum, liberal and also prolific blogger Joe Romm, on his climateprogress.org site, blasted the Newsweek column as “another staggering journalistic lapse in climate science reporting at a once-great media outlet.” Again not mentioning that it was published only in the overseas edition, Romm quoted Drexel University Professor Robert J. Brulle, an environmental communications specialist, as saying the Theil “article is basically a condensed version of the climate denier viewpoint.”

As published in the overseas edition, the Theil piece was not identified as an opinion column and not a news article, and many of those commenting on it, both critically and favorably, also made no such distinction.

The fairly brief piece itself was published as part of a 12-page environment section (8 1/2 pages of stories). Those generally are known in the field as “ad-driven sections,” usually the result of a major advertiser’s having approached a publication with its desire to advertise in such a specialized section. (Sometimes, but less often, the publisher approaches the advertisers.)

In that week’s 60-page issue, a right-hand “divider” page introducing the new section carried the headline “Climate Change.” For some unexplained reason, that page was illustrated with an image of an empty swimming pool in Nice, France.

The section itself consisted of some original reporting and paid placements by Shell Oil Company and by the World Wildlife Fund. Shell’s ad was headlined “Let’s help to keep the skies blue.” Subheads pointed to a focus on science and on sustainability and sustainable urban development. In one article, former Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and China expert Orville Schell wrote about melting glaciers.

Asking not to be identified by name, a Newsweek insider familiar with the questionable and unlabeled Theil column pointed to some “rampant confusion with people thinking this was a Newsweek editorial.” Describing the column itself as “naive,” this individual said the piece “clearly was reflecting a point of view out there” and said it appeared to be written and edited by individuals “who know neither the history nor the substance of this field.”

The Rabbit and Tortoise Side of Climate Communications

While admirers and detractors of the Theil essay pounced quickly and without bureaucracy via their online posts to lambaste or praise the perspective, a number of climatologists clearly distraught over the column appeared to wrap themselves in circles trying how, whether, who, and when to respond to the column. The case illustrated the communications loops some in the issue have to surmount while others can gain an early lead with their shoot-from-the-hip pronouncements.

So what were the points in Theil’s column that made it so offensive to many scientists? One might start with the very headline, “Uncertain Science,” as if some uncertainty were not inevitable in most scientific efforts … in fact a virtue. From there, a few examples of what got the goats of scientists:

  • Theil pointed to “another freezing winter,” (remember, he was not in the eastern or southeastern U.S.) … as if any responsible climate science has indicated that a warming world means we have seen our last “freezing winter.”
  • He wrote of “the cascade of scandals” coming from IPCC, but gave no count or enumeration. Scandals? Yes A “cascade”? Probably not.
  • He wrote that “many once celebrated climate researchers” have become “the used-car salesmen of the science world,” again offering no count or estimate to justify the “many.”
  • He wrote that “another researcher is under investigation,” an apparent reference to the Virginia Attorney General’s legal case against Penn State climatologist Michael Mann, but he offered no elaboration, did not comment on the alleged ideological and political nature of the case, and did not report that the University of Virginia, a defendant in the case, and a host of scientific organizations have sought to have the case dismissed.
  • He reported that controversy in the science community “cuts through the profession itself” and is not a fight between “objective scientists and crazed flat-earthers.” He reported widespread agreement on a link between CO2 and warming, but said “one crucial point of contention is climate ‘sensitivity.’” Many climate scientists find no such major controversies on those issues.
  • He reported that scientists “are not sure how to explain a slowdown in global temperatures that began about a decade ago.”
  • He reported that “some of the IPCC’s most-quoted data and recommendations were taken straight out of unchecked activist brochures, newspaper articles, and corporate reports,” clearly a mischaracterization of the number and prominence of such instances.

In the end, it appeared that the counsel of some climate scientists to keep their collective powder dry, or to reply to the column individually rather than as a group, may have carried the day. Given that the domestic edition of the thinned-down Newsweek no longer carries letters to the editor, and given that the Theil colunn has limited U.S. distribution, that approach might work best.  Why, after all, they might reason, risk bringing more visibility to the flawed column?

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail: bud@yaleclimateconnections.org).
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