How not to report science
I was disappointed to see this article by Gayathri Vaidyanathan in Scientific American: How to Misinterpret Climate Change Research. It's an attempt to defang the recent surge of interest in Bjørn Stevens' aerosol forcing estimates. To some people, those estimates imply a lower estimate of ECS, and a reduced likelihood of the more extreme future warming scenarios (Stevens agrees with the latter point.)
The article is not just deeply biased – it's structurally biased.
1. It purports to debunk the implications climate scientist Nic Lewis draws from the new estimates, but does not link to his essay.
2. It does however link to Bjørn Stevens' extremely short press release where he disagrees with unspecified lower estimates of ECS that people have been making based on his new aerosol estimates.
3. The author interviewed and liberally quotes Stevens, but never quotes Lewis. The author gives no indication that she even attempted to speak to or interview Lewis. The whole thing is structurally biased against one view and in favor of the other – only interview one side, only link to one side.
4. The SciAm article suggests that Stevens debunked Lewis: "Soon after, he took the unusual step, for a climate scientist, of issuing a press release to correct the misconceptions. Lewis had used an extremely rudimentary, some would even say flawed, climate model to derive his estimates, Stevens said."
In reality, Stevens never mentioned Lewis in his press release. Moreover, he never said anything about any models or methods. He only said that he disagreed with some of the implications people are drawing, but he doesn't elaborate. And what's with "some would say"? Who? Did Stevens say that some would say that Lewis used a flawed climate model? This is weaselly Rolling Stone style journalism.
The above SciAm passage clearly implies that Stevens said these things in his press release. Unless Vaidyanathan based the above passage on an interview with Stevens, it's a fabrication. And if she did get this from an interview, the passage needs to corrected so as not to imply that Stevens said these things in his press release. None of that fixes the structural bias of the article, and the lack of engagement with the scientific issue the article purports to cover.
The article doesn't have anything to say about Lewis' purportedly flawed model. It just asserts that it's flawed, and that Stevens said it was. That's all it has to say.
If climate sensitivity turns out to be low, in the Lewis range, this politically-biased garbage is going to be an exhibit in future post-mortems on how human-caused warming was exaggerated and the public deceived by awful science journalism. The article is a hurried, slapdash effort to knock down any suggestion that warming isn't a crisis.
Which brings us to a broader issue. Scientific American is consistently politically biased, in a way that compromises its integrity. In general, they don't cover peer-reviewed scientific articles that offer lower estimates of warming, sensitivity, or impacts. They didn't cover Fyfe, et al's Nature article. They didn't cover Lewis and Curry's recent paper in Climate Dynamics (and Vaidyanathan never tells the reader that Lewis just published a peer-reviewed journal article on the very issue of reduced estimates of ECS.) They didn't cover any of the recent work that reported that parts of the ocean were cooling – but they were sure to cover papers showing that (other) parts of the ocean were warming.
They only covered Stevens' new paper because it's gotten lots of attention among skeptics for its reduced-warming implications, and they only covered it in an attempt to attack those implications.
Whenever Scientific American reports on scientific issues that have political implications, it only reports them from a left-wing perspective. Over many years, I have never seen Scientific American report any science that bolstered a conservative or libertarian position, and there are lots of bodies of scientific evidence that could bolster such positions (the effects of having children out of wedlock, the psychological costs of abortion, the invalidity of gun control studies that include criminal households, anything about the benefits of gun ownership, anything about the harms of government intervention, race differences, the dangers of believing scientific consensuses pushed by governments, like on cholesterol, and now apparently, secondhand smoke.)
I've always found it strange that they publish lots of political writers – people who inject political positions in their reporting on science. Every one of them has had a left-wing orientation. In short, you're simply not going to get balanced coverage from Scientific American on any issue that has political implications within the crude left-right landscape – you'll get a lot of cherry-picked coverage that invariably supports left-wing positions. You definitely won't get balanced coverage of climate science – if you rely on Scientific American, you'll never know about lots of major papers that give lower estimates of warming, even those in top journals.
It's extremely disappointing. They've compromised their standing and integrity as a source of science journalism.
At this point, they've gone a step further – they've abandoned basic standards of professional journalism as such, publishing structurally biased, rigged articles that deceive the public. Their writer here apparently knows nothing about the topic, and is just trafficking lazy, vague claims that x is true, and y is false, without saying much more than x is true, and y is false, and rigs an entire story to block one side from view. There's no science here.
UPDATE: Nic Lewis has an update on the SciAm article. It only looks worse. Scientific American needs to employ writers who know the science they're covering.
4/23/2015 07:50:21 am
4/23/2015 02:15:42 pm
Calling SciAm a "scientific journal" is a stretch and too kind.
4/23/2015 08:21:47 pm
Gayathri is a woman.
4/24/2015 12:04:16 am
Hell hath no fury like a warmist scorned!
4/23/2015 08:57:21 pm
"Scientific American is consistently politically biased" yes that is rather old news.
4/24/2015 04:07:26 am
Nic Lewis, email from Bjorn Stevens:
4/24/2015 04:08:41 am
Ah, never mind - you saw it first.
4/24/2015 03:57:32 pm
As a former Sci Am subscriber, I can attest to the downfall of SciAm as a true science journal as it caught the disease of leftwing advocacy. What got me was their celebration of stem cell research (with no mention of the cases of scientific fraud in those areas), and then the fawning interview with Rep Waxman.
4/29/2015 10:59:28 am
SciAm seems to have corrected the article somewhat.
5/8/2015 12:27:39 pm
I independently came to similar conclusions summarized in the 7 points below. IMO the article falls far short of the best standards of scientific, intellectual, rational or journalistic reporting. It's more an political editorial or bit of social commentary than it is quality scientific communication.
7/31/2022 08:15:15 pm
Great blog you havee
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José L. Duarte
Social Psychology, Scientific Validity, and Research Methods.