Georgia Tech’s Judith Curry … heretic, dupe, peacemaker? All? None?

When it comes to coverage of climate change, everyone’s a media critic.

Reporters covering environment know full-well that few other subjects generate as much fan mail – make that, hate mail – as global warming.

So it’s no surprise that a veteran science writer’s recent profile of Georgia Tech scientist Judith Curry elicited a fury of reactions, in particular, of course, across the blogosphere.

Media Analysis

The controversy over veteran science reporter Michael Lemonick’s Scientific American piece started with the first two words of the headline, “Climate Heretic,” with its religious overtones. It carried all the way through to the final paragraph — 31 generally long paragraphs later. That’s where Lemonick returned to his opening and competing story lines — Curry as peacemaker between warring climate scientists and climate science doubters? Or as a dupe, “someone whose well-meaning efforts have only poured fuel on the fire”?

Lemonick’s conclusion, lame to some observers perhaps only too eager to pick a fight — in a sense “both true.”

Curry … the Friend of My Enemy?

The lure of Curry as a news story is unmistakable. Think only of the proverb that the enemy of my friend is my enemy. Curry’s recent and ongoing courtship with widely recognized climate science contrarians — primarily by engaging them on their own blogs and websites — is seen by some as giving comfort to the enemy. Better to shun and shrug them off altogether, this logic goes, rather than deign to acknowledge their existence.

Not so with Curry, Lemonick reported, saying Curry considers Canadian statistician Steve McIntyre’s her “blog of choice,” providing her exchanges with something other than “the choir.” Lemonick reported also that Curry “reserves her harshest criticism” for IPCC, which she accuses of “corruption” inducing what she disdains as “groupthink.” No hedging there.

Acknowledging “a lot of crankology” from many skeptics, Curry told Lemonick, a former Time magazine writer now on the staff of Climate Central, that “If only 1 percent of it or 10 percent of what the skeptics say is right, that is time well spent because we have just been too encumbered by groupthink.”

Curry from ‘High Priestess’ to … Exactly What? Science ‘Treason’?

A 2005 paper Curry co-authored in Science linked an increased frequency in strong tropical cyclones to the changing climate. Contrarians bashed her work as much as climate activists lauded it, and the criticisms of the work eventually led her into the contrarians’ web dens, where, she told Lemonick, she found the exchanges stimulating and informative.

While clearly no climate skeptic herself — certainly not along the lines that that term is usually applied to the most widely quoted of the ilk — Curry nonetheless is now widely seen as having traversed some imaginary, but inviolable, no-man’s (or woman’s or real scientist’s) land. Lemonick summed-up that “many climate scientists” find many of Curry’s comments, generalizations, and complaints simply “unfair,” complicating their already complicated communication challenges and leaving her opinions prone to strategic cherry picking for partisan and non-scientific reasons.

“There is no question Curry has caused a stir,” Lemonick summarized at one point. No kidding. With the attention-getting “power to do damage to a consensus on climate change that has been building for 20 years,” he wrote, “the damage comes not from the skeptics’ critiques themselves, most of which are questionable, but from the scientific community’s responses to them.”

“For not maintaining the fatwa [against talking to outsiders],” Lemonick quoted McIntyre as saying of Curry’s outcast situation.

In the politically charged dialog on climate change, Lemonick concluded, “what Curry has tried to do naturally feels like treason.” But Curry and climate skeptics see themselves being “lumped together as crackpots, no matter how worthy their arguments.”

And then it hit the proverbial fan.

Lemonick Blogs on ‘Why I Wrote about Curry’

“Is she right? Does she raise valid points?” Those are questions Lemonick wanted his Scientific American piece to address, he wrote in a blog after the Sci Am piece was published.

“When she does raise valid points, they’re often points the climate-science community already agrees with,” leaving those same scientists “scratching their heads at the implication that she’s uncovered some dark secret …. She gives credence to some outsiders (also known as ‘climate skeptics’)” who “aren’t qualified to offer an expert opinion.”

If Lemonick’s original article didn’t have the stuff to prompt strong reactions, his first-person “back story” certainly did.

Now Add In Sci Am‘s ‘Unscientific’ Online Poll

But there’s more. More that got the goat of the Scientific American article’s critics, that is.

It came in the form of an ill-conceived and poorly executed online survey or poll of the magazine’s readers. In addition to posing simplistic and unanswerable black-vs.-white multiple choice questions on issues better characterized by hues of grey, the magazine conducted an online popularity contest of whether Curry is best viewed as a dupe or as a peacemaker or both.

How unscientific can this flavor of unScientific American be?, Liberal blogger Joe Romm vented at With his typical take-no-prisoners biting wit and acerbic pen, Romm suggested that the magazine apologize to Curry and also to its readers for its “inane” poll.  Others piled on. That the poll results suggested a heavy hand by climate skeptics only intensified Romm’s objections and those of others similarly inclined … and of some just convinced that such simplistic online polls are fundamentally unworthy.

Judith Curry … as Seen Through Eyes of Judith Curry

Among those most critical of both the story and of the poll was none other than Curry herself.

In a “Heresy and the creation of monsters” blog posting, the blog-active Curry confessed to having her own “Alice down the rabbit hole” moment.

Decrying the “Climate Heretic” headline (likely written by an editor and not by Lemonick) as “rather astonishing,” Curry went on to write that the ink and bytes could have been better used to report on “how and why the IPCC became dogma” than on her.

Perhaps ignoring the journalistic approach of trying to personalize a story, she said she is unclear why she should be “singled out” given “far more critical statements about the IPCC and climate science” by individuals such as Richard Lindzen of MIT and climatologist Roger Pielke, Sr. It all must stem from her being seen as a “high priestess of global warming,” she wrote.

Pointing to her own early awareness of the hacked e-mails controversies involving the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, Curry wrote that her initial instinct was to anticipate “that this could bring down the IPCC” and damage the entire scientific field.

Over time, “a big part of my visceral reaction” involved her growing concern “that I had been duped into supporting the IPCC, and substituting their judgment for my own.” That’s not the kind of “dupe” Lemonick had in mind, she blogged.

In words certain to get under the skin of her fellow scientists, Curry rhetorically asked, “So how are things going for you lately?” She seemed almost to revel that what she called the climate “establishment” is no longer “on top of the world, masters of the universe.”

With an unmistakable in-your-face tone, she challenged: “You may not like it, and my actions may turn out to be ineffective, futile, or counterproductive in the short or long run …. But this is my carefully considered choice on what it means to be a scientist and to behave with personal and professional integrity.”

Her pre-election forecast told her science colleagues to anticipate “the specter of hearings on the integrity of climate science” and funding cuts for climate research.

Blaming “skeptics and the oil companies,” Curry continued, is mistaken: “No, you lost.” she wrote. For the climate science community, “This means abandoning this religious adherence to consensus dogma,” she concluded. She promised to soon be back online with her thoughts on climate uncertainty.

There’s more. Much more. A simple online search of files containing the names Judith Curry and Lemonick in early November turned up more than 160,000 hits. Not surprisingly, some make for meaningful and meaty reading … most do not.

All of which, one might hope, can ultimately better inform the public and its policy leaders as they continue working their way through the climate change conundrum. But with all that writing about Lemonick’s writing about Curry, and all the time spent reading about the writing about … some may not be so surprised that more progress isn’t made on actual climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts.

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