Between Scientists & Citizens

explaining the impact of climategate

with 3 comments

On the same Canadian news show that I mentioned yesterday, Joe Romm offers an alternative view. Should climategate and the recently discussed IPCC errors change what citizens believe, or how reporters handle the matter?

There’s no question that in this 3000 page report, the IPCC report, there were one or two relatively trivial mistakes, as the Washington Post put it.  But they have been used as an excuse by some in the media to question the entire science.  The analogy I use is: every major newspaper publishes corrections every single day and yet they expect the public to come back and believe what’s in the newspaper (ca. 4:00).

The analogy is a good one, although it goes against the point Romm is trying to make.

Let’s say we were approaching the newspaper like investigators, coming to a conclusion about the overall state of affairs based on the mountain of observations we make.  It’s true that if one or two pebbles on that mountain went missing, our overall conclusions would likely not be affected.

But wait a second–do we read the newspaper like investigators?  Most of us (aside from my friends and colleagues in media studies) don’t “observe” items in the paper.  We don’t think we’re getting our information direct–we know we’re getting it through someone–through the in-between people, the “media.”  When we find errors, our key question is not whether two or three revised bits of information change our overall view, but whether two or three errors decrease our trust in these in-betweeners.

Romm said:  “every major newspaper publishes corrections every single day and yet they expect the public to come back and believe what’s in the newspaper.”

The more accurate way to put this would be: “every major newspaper publishes corrections every single day and so they expect the public to come back and believe what’s in the newspaper.”

The fact that newspapers have elaborate correction mechanisms makes them more trustworthy.  Their willingness to undertake daily and very public self-mortifications, admitting their mistakes, gives us evidence of how much they care about getting it right.

Does the IPCC have an established mechanism for correcting mistakes?  Has it, or its leaders, shown a willingness to undertake frequent and very public self-mortifications, admitting its mistakes?

Written by jeangoodwin

March 19, 2010 at 9:39 am

3 Responses

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  1. Given the hyperpoliticized nature of climate science, I suspect that open corrections would be seized by the deniers and publicized widely.

    Corrections work with newspapers because, for the most part, policies are not simply linked to their reporting.

    I don’t see any simple solution until we really decouple science from specific policies.


    April 5, 2010 at 3:24 pm

  2. Hi, Praj: You’re right–no single correction is going to persuade many people. In fact, what’s most likely to happen is exactly what you say: advocates will take the correction as an admission of error, and use it for more IPCC-bashing. To fight back, it will be very tempting for the scientists involved in the IPCC to start acting like advocates themselves, and make victory over their opponents their main goal.

    But the idea of the IPCC issuing corrections isn’t a short-range strategy. Over the long term, if an institution patiently and public corrects itself–if it demonstrates that its primary interest is not in victory but in sound information–then that institution can earn the public’s trust. Maybe.


    April 5, 2010 at 7:31 pm

    • Jean,

      If the science isn’t self-correcting, the IPCC isn’t the place to start worrying about corrections. Science that refuses to adopt normal quality control measures is not trustworthy. Scientists who refuse transparency and accountability are not trustworthy. Science that cannot be audited or replicated is not trustworthy. Scientists who refuse the assistance of genuine experts in statistics, computer software, forecasting and modeling cannot expect to have their work trusted.

      Corrections should be just a small part of a complete process of quality, transparency and accountability. Climate scientists have steadfastly refused to cooperate in any effort to begin such a process. And now they wonder why so few people trust them.

      Climategate just exposed some particularly rotten aspects of a process that was already thoroughly rotten.


      July 17, 2011 at 2:37 pm

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