Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Dumb Journalists Like Me

There are many reasons I am no longer a journalist, and glad to be so. But here’s the biggie:

I’m dumb.

Dumb as a rock. I have a major failing in me that cripples my ability to work as a journalist, and that is I trust people. Yes, I know the first rule of journalism is “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.” I get it. But I’m still dumb.

Not as dumb as others, however.

This “Climategate” thing just keeps getting worse. The New York Times finally chimed in on the matter in an intelligent fashion – I don’t mind that it took a week and a half; I’m pleased that someone is looking at this stuff without a knee-jerk reaction. But what John Tierney writes in the Times really speaks to me not as a skeptic (because I’m not) but as a former journalist. Here, he’s speaking of the famous “hockey stick” graph purporting to show a marked increase in global temperatures in the last portion of the 20th century (emphasis mine):

Most of the graph was based on analyses of tree rings and other “proxy” records like ice cores and lake sediments. These indirect measurements indicated that temperatures declined in the middle of the millennium and then rose in the first half of the 20th century, which jibes with other records. But the tree-ring analyses don’t reveal a sharp warming in the late 20th century — in fact, they show a decline in temperatures, contradicting what has been directly measured with thermometers.

Because they considered that recent decline to be spurious, Dr. Jones and his colleagues removed it from part of the graph and used direct thermometer readings instead. In a statement last week, Dr. Jones said there was nothing nefarious in what they had done, because the problems with the tree-ring data had been openly identified earlier and were known to experts.

But the graph adorned the cover of a report intended for policy makers and journalists. The nonexperts wouldn’t have realized that the scariest part of that graph — the recent temperatures soaring far above anything in the previous millennium — was based on a completely different measurement from the earlier portion. It looked like one smooth, continuous line leading straight upward to certain doom.

The story behind that graph certainly didn’t show that global warming was a hoax or a fraud, as some skeptics proclaimed, but it did illustrate another of their arguments: that the evidence for global warming is not as unequivocal as many scientists claim.
So, enter the dumb journalist in me. I’m rather like Dave Barry: Maybe I’d like to go out there and, as a journalist, fight corruption. But I have no idea how to find any. And if the so-called experts – who are much more knowledgeable than I – say this graph and the data behind it is good, so be it.

So I’m no longer a journalist. I’m too dumb. As Dogbert is fond of saying, a journalist in this kind of situation can take the report, consider it, talk to other experts, work really hard and maybe, after several months, find the problem. Or he can just write up what the expert says and be done with it. Either way, it pays the same.

Nobody ought to be cooking the books or spinning the data this way. There’s plenty of umbrage on the greener side of the spectrum concerning the spin behind nuclear energy, clean coal, climate change skeptology, that you’d think those on the side of righteousness would be extra scrupulous in making sure their data was good, comparing apples to apples. Compariing apples to pomegranates to make the situation look worse, or, as Tierney says, making it appear unequivocal, is dumber than a dumb journalist parroting that information to the masses.

CRU hacker/whistleblower, thank you, whoever you are. I’d like to see one side of this debate present honest work. Still waiting. In the meantime, I can enjoy this:

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