10 May 2010

Revkin, Gleick and Olson on the Gang Who Couldn't Shoot Straight

[Update #3: The image above is the one originally published by Science and since removed, as discussed in Update #2. Peter Gleick's response is discussed here.]

[Update #2: Peter Gleick doesn't get it. In a new essay at Huffington Posthe writes:

Here is the logic of the climate deniers: the photo is manipulated, therefore we can claim the science of climate change to be manipulated and we won't have to challenge the actual content of the letter.

Nice try, but no. This focus on the art the editors chose to accompany the letter is an attempt by climate deniers to divert public attention once again from the facts of climate change. This is exactly what the scientists are talking about in the letter. Instead of challenging the science with better science, the vocal deniers are grasping at any straw to muddy the waters and confuse the public about the real climate threats we face. Mistakes found in the IPCC assessment of climate? Oh, then all climate science must be mistaken.

There are real mistakes in the IPCC and real problems in the institutions of climate science. They are not excused by a need to counter the most extreme voices opposed to action.]

Randy Olson has some blunt things to say about this episode:
In response to my making hay of this blunder, many scientists will say, “So what. The editors made a trivial mistake, there’s no need to call further attention to it. The point is the climate attacks need to be stopped.” They will label me as the enemy for even engaging in criticism of the science community. . . it matters if you publish a letter of outrage, complaining about being smeared as dishonest, and yet your article is accompanied by a photograph that is tainted by the word “Photoshop” which virtually EVERYONE in today’s society knows symbolizes one big thing — WE DON’T CARE ABOUT THE TRUTH.
Also, Science magazine has removed the image, which they chose (not the letter's authors), and brought the letter out from behind their paywall.]

At DotEarth, Andy Revkin provides a thoughtful discussion of the issues associated with the use of a photoshopped image (shown above) to accompany a sign-on letter on climate policy published in Science last week. The comments of Peter Gleick, lead author of the letter, and Randy Olson, a close observer of scientific communication, are worth a read and are excerpted below.

Revkin explains the situation:

A photograph of a polar bear standing balefully on a small ice floe was used to illustrate the letter from 255 members of the National Academy of Sciences decrying attacks on climate research and pressing for swift action to blunt global warming. As some professional opponents of climate action almost instantly noticed, the caption provided by the photo agency said it was a montage of several images — what the agency called “a Photoshop design.”

You could say, well, it’s just a piece of art, not even a factual error. Nothing about the glitch undercuts the content of the letter, and the authors weren’t even involved in illustrating their missive.

The problem, as Randy Olson has emphasized, is that imagery and appearance matter — particularly in an information landscape where passionate Web trollers questioning warming are so seamlessly tied in with professional partisans fighting restrictions on greenhouse gases through the amplifier of conservative talk radio and columnists.

The incident illustrates the importance of sweating the details if your goal is to build societal support for the grand challenge of getting out of our fossil-fueled comfort zone and de-carbonizing the fast-growing global energy system. Hard-won progress in conveying the basics of the energy and climate challenge can be undermined, glitch by glitch, without care.
In a response to Revkin, Peter Gleick illustrates what is all too common among scientists who call for action on climate change -- he seems to suggest that those who point out inaccuracies are the problem, not those who commit the original errors:
It is too bad that the editors picked a bad piece of art to accompany our letter but the focus of the climate deniers on the art is an effort to divert public attention once again from the facts of climate change. This is exactly what we’re talking about in the letter. A few vocal deniers will grasp at any straw to muddy the public’s attention and understanding of the real climate threats we face.
Gleick's response is precisely how the mainstream climate science community has responded to most any criticism of the details of climate science -- from Steve McIntyre's efforts to critique the "hockey stick" of historical temperature patterns to my own efforts to get the science right on disasters and climate change. What Gleick call's "muddying the public's attention" is what many people would simply call "getting the facts right."

Randy Olson shows up in the comments at DotEarth and offers what would seem to be plain vanilla common sense advice:
For those of you who routinely watch Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, you know what his general attitude is towards the Democrats. He is obviously a Democrat, but they show such ineptitude that often he just throws his hands up and has to engage in a certain amount of ridiculing of them just to be honest. He did the same thing with the climate science community on December 2 last fall in response to Climategate, saying that we (the public) put our trust in the science community and this is the best they can do? I feel the same way with this photo issue.

I awoke yesterday morning to an email from Marc Morano chuckling about the photo. I told him that if true, I was stunned. He replied by citing Pat Michaels line from my movie, "Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy," in which Michaels says, "It's like shooting fish in a barrel."

I look forward to the day when Morano and Michaels are in forced retreat due to both the reality of climate change AND the public perception of climate change -- where both are so loud and obvious that anti-science efforts are no longer able to gain traction. But that's certainly not the situation at present. From Al Gore to these guys with their well intended letter that they forgot to tell Science, "By the way, please don't accompany it with any dishonest imagery," the climate science community is truly the gang that couldn't shoot straight when it comes to communication.
Olson promises more discussion of this topic on his site later today.

The general lesson here should be that no matter the virtues of the "cause" it does not justify cutting corners or fudging the facts. When errors are found, the proper response is not to shoot the messenger or ask people to ignore mistakes in the context of larger truths, but rather, to just get things right.

Climate policy can survive complexity and uncertainties. By contrast, efforts to downplay complexity and uncertainties will damage climate science.