Eli Rabett railed on journalists recently, and particularly (the bulk of) science journalists, for practicing "churnalism" - just writing stuff that's almost copy-paste, without even thinking about it, without seeming to put any effort in. Another part of the problem is what Jay Rosen has termed the view from nowhere - the attempt by the establishment press to appear neutral and claim objectivity, when in fact what they are doing is a form of unrecognized ideology in itself (that "both sides are equal", and all that follows).
John Broder has occasionally written some excellent pieces on the interaction between science and politics for the New York Times (though I've just been browsing their archives and haven't found a good example from the last year. Hmm. A large number of the ones I thought good turned out to have required corrections after initial publication. Oops.). In this latest piece however, he provides the perfect exemplification of both Rabett and Rosen's complaints. This has got to be one of the laziest, most egregious false-balance stories I have ever come across in the national press. The central point of Broder's piece is that "both sides" claim to be standing for science. Broder bases this on his claim that:
Democrats rounded up five eminent academic climatologists who defended the scientific consensus that the planet is warming and that human activities like the burning of fossil fuels are largely responsible. [...]
Republicans countered with two scientific witnesses who said that while there was strong evidence of a rise in global surface temperatures, the reasons were murky and any response could have adverse unintended effects.
I watched most of the hearing yesterday, and I was very surprised at Broder's claim that 5 of the witnesses were called by Democrats, and only 2 by Republicans. The Republican congressmen, in questioning, almost universally queried 3, not 2 of the witnesses, looking for favorable responses (some of them also tried to get responses on very loaded questions from Richard Somerville, called by the Democrats). Why would Broder think that only 2 of the witnesses were called by Republicans, when in fact 3 were? As Joe Romm pointed out in this piece, John Christy and Roger Pielke Sr. have been called upon to testify by Republicans before, so those two weren't exactly a surprise. The DDT-advocate was a bit of a surprise, but clearly there for the Republican "side".
Now, it's possible Broder simply lost count of the scientists on the Democratic side, and didn't consider the DDT-advocate as one of the two "scientific witnesses" the Republicans countered with. But if you watched the hearing you would have heard very clearly Roger Pielke Sr. agreed that human-emitted carbon dioxide was causing warming and needed to be addressed (but he was also concerned about addressing other causes of regional climate change). So when I read Broder's piece it sure sounded like he was counting Pielke among the 5 Democratic witnesses. Despite Broder talking about sides, he simply can't tell the two sides apart. There in fact is very little difference between them on the basic science. Even John Christy (quoted by Inslee from his testimony in a court case) agreed in the hearing that humans are causing warming - but he presented some very odd data that claimed the warming was less than models predicted by a factor of 3 (models predicted 0.26/decade while he was finding 0.09/decade warming). Neither of those numbers correspond to anything I've seen recently - in fact UAH's warming of about 0.15 degrees/decade agrees fairly well with everybody else (and all are slightly below model predictions of about 0.2 degrees for the last decade) - see this excellent recent review from Tamino.
Another thing I found funny about Christy's testimony was his reliance on a paper or two from Roy Spencer, who we've discussed here recently, to argue that climate feedbacks are negative. Spencer and Christy have worked together for a long time, so it's not surprising Christy trusts Spencer. He probably shouldn't - but I may try to look more closely at the specific papers Christy cited in his testimony, to try to understand the issues there.
To me the most interesting things about the hearing were the statements from the Republican congressmen themselves, some of which Broder quotes, and some of the highly alarming things the scientists on the panel actually did say about changes from warming. There was interesting interaction there from at least one Republican congressman who seemed at first to think warming was good for food crops, and Dr. Christopher Field, who described research showing dramatic declines in response to warming, with specific threshold temperatures that cause trouble. Aside from the standard "skeptic" talking points about Mars or CO2 lagging temperature, the one common thread that seemed to run through many of the Republican representatives comments was fear of their constituents. After the House passed the Waxman-Markey bill, they heard outrage from their constituents, people up in arms. They asked pointed questions about the economic effects of regulating CO2 - would energy prices rise dramatically? Would people go back to 18th century life styles (Christy answered "yes"). Those are certainly interesting questions, but they are about economics and policy, not science, and none of the witnesses had the requisite expertise to respond. The scientists (aside from Christy) mostly acquiesced or refused to speculate on them, which was rather unfortunate.
The other thing I wonder is how Broder could know that "the handful of members from both parties who attended the hearing left with the views they arrived with". Pretty clearly the subcommittee chair, Whitfield, had no change of heart, but it looked like some of the other representatives present did actually learn something. There was at least a bit of listening and communication going on. And some of them seemed particularly surprised by Pielke's refusal to say CO2 was not a problem. Not grounds for a lot of cheering, but it was actually a lot more interesting than Broder indicates.
Michael Tobis has some commentary and quotes from the hearing itself - I wonder if Broder was the reporter named by Kintisch here:
Eli Kintisch: A very prominent reporter I won't name is playing Hearts in the press table...