3 may 2016

Scientists Critiquing Media Climate Reports

A coterie of climate scientists turn to media criticism to laud or pan news reports and opinion columns.

By Bruce Lieberman, Yale Climate Connections, May 3, 2016

A group of loosely organized climate scientists now have a website through which they can evaluate the scientific accuracy of media news and opinion columns addressing climate change science.

Take as an example the recent U.S. Global Change Research Program update on how continued climate change is expected to affect human health.

Two days after release of that report on April 4, Danish political scientist and author Bjorn Lomborg wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal titled: “An Overheated Climate Alarm.”

The USGCRP report, Lomborg wrote, “reads as a political sledgehammer that hypes the bad and skips over the good. It also ignores inconvenient evidence – like the fact that cold kills many more people than heat.”

Within a week, Climate Feedback, headquartered at the University of California at Merced, released a systematic review of Lomborg’s op-ed by 10 scientists.

The site organized the scientists’ analyses into a “Summary,” “Overall Feedback” statements, an annotated review of the op-ed, and “Key Take-Aways.”

Among the critiques:

“While it’s true that cold may kill more people today than heat, Lomborg’s assertion that climate change will result in fewer overall deaths in the U.S. this century from extreme temperatures is not supported by available evidence.” Aaron Bernstein, Associate Director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment, Boston Children’s Hospital, Harvard University.

“The interpretation provided in the article is misleading, as our study is meant to provide evidence on past/current relationships between temperature and health, and not to assess changes in the future.” Antonio Gasparrini, Senior Lecturer, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (one of the authors of the health assessment update)

“This is cherry picking – even if it were true. Climate change is much more than just temperature. It also affects precipitation and the lack thereof – with consequences such as floods, mud slides, droughts, and wildfires.” Rasmus Benestad, senior scientist at The Norwegian Meteorological Institute

And this, from Philip Staddon, associate professor at Xi-an Jiaotong-Liverpool University:

“Lomborg is using scientific ‘language’ to suggest that climate change will have insignificant health impacts; this goes against a vast body of evidence. The notion that benefits from warmer winters could be more important than risks from hotter summers in terms of human health is plain wrong. For once, the U.S. administration is taking health impacts of climate change seriously, and it is particularly unhelpful to attempt to confuse the public on this issue.”

The Lomborg critique is one of about 25 assessments of news articles, op-eds, and other statements on climate change over about the past year and a half.

Sharing scientists’ views with readers and media

UC-Merced climate scientist Emmanuel Vincent launched Climate Feedback in late 2014 along with a handful of colleagues at UC-Merced and a core group of early reviewers mostly from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he had been studying the role of tropical cyclones in mixing the oceans and transferring heat to impact global climate.

After moving from MIT to UC-Merced’s Center for Climate Communication, and feeling growing frustration with media coverage of climate change, Vincent said, “I wanted to develop an effective and scalable way for scientists to share what they know with readers and journalists.”

Vincent said in an interview that he found non-scientist friends and colleagues “often genuinely confused by contradictory stories on climate change, for instance when one outlet says polar ice is melting and another says it isn’t. . . . If my friends are confused, I’m sure there are plenty of others who could benefit from a thorough analysis by those knowledgeable on the topic.”

Climate Feedback sample report card

Climate Feedback doesn’t just offer a hodgepodge of article comments from scientists. It methodically analyzes pieces using an annotation platform called Hypothesis, and it assigns each piece it reviews a “credibility rating.”

Vincent explains the approach at the Climate Feedback website. Here are a few highlights:

Articles are first selected for assessment, a call is sent to Climate Feedback’s community of more than 100 scientists who participate in reviews, and the article is then annotated with comments from those who participate.

Articles are then evaluated for scientific accuracy, logic and reasoning, fairness and objectivity, and precision. The articles then are assigned a scientific credibility rating based on the following scale:

+2 = Very High: no inaccuracies, fairly represents the state of scientific knowledge, well argumented [sic] and documented, references are provided for key elements. The article provides insights to the reader about climate change mechanisms and implications.
+1 = High: the article does not contain major scientific inaccuracies and its conclusion follows from the evidences.
0 = Neutral: no major inaccuracies, but no important insight either that would have helped the reader understand the implications of the science.
-1 = Low: the article contains significant scientific inaccuracies or misleading statements.
-2 = Very Low: the article contains major scientific inaccuracies for key facts supporting his argumentation and/or omits to mention important information and/or presents logical flaws in using information to reach his conclusion.
n/a = Not Applicable: the article does not build on verifiable information (e.g., it is purely about politics).

(Using this scale, the reviewing scientists gave Lomborg’s op-ed column in the Wall Street Journal a scientific credibility rating of -1.3.)

Full reviews are organized with a summary statement, overall feedback statements, and key take-aways.

100-plus scientists share burdens of offering reviews

Alexis Berg, who studies land-atmosphere interactions related to the West African Monsoon at Columbia University, said he joined Climate Feedback as a reviewer partly because of the collaborative nature of the reviews. “Scientists don’t have to react to the whole article; they can just comment on some specific bits, and it all adds up,” he said.

Like Vincent, Berg said he is frustrated with what he sees as scientific inaccuracies in climate articles, and he says he was motivated to help fight misinformation. “I think for climate change, as for a lot of other topics, the Internet allows people to go and get the information that confirms their (pre-existing) views,” Berg said. “It was already the case with left-leaning or right-leaning journals, or TV channels, but surely the Internet has amplified this. So people get more entrenched in their views, especially on the skeptic side.”

Climate Feedback has offered positive reviews of works by Justin Gillis of the New York Times, Chris Mooney of the Washington Post, and Andrew Freedman of Mashable. On Gillis’s February 22 front-page piece on rising seas, “Seas Are Rising at Fastest Rate in Last 28 Centuries,” for instance, Climate Feedback scientists gave a credibility rating of +1.7. Andrea Dutton, an assistant professor at the University of Florida, called that article “an accurate and insightful summary of the recently published research on this topic.”

The site’s contributors have found little to praise in op-ed columns by Lomborg, climate scientist Pat Michaels, or Forbes Inc. contributor James Taylor, each of whom frequently are at odds with what many consider to be the “mainstream” climate science. Few may find it surprising that the site’s writers generally support the dominant climate science and are highly critical of pieces by those often challenging that perspective.

Some analyses go beyond media reports

The site focuses its assessments on reports and op-eds from mainstream news outlets. But it does make exceptions, as when it assessed Pope Francis’ 2015 Encyclical Laudato Si, which received a favorable review.

And this past November, the site offered an informal critique of then-presidential candidates’ understanding of climate science. The review graded the candidates at that time on their demonstrated understanding of climate science. Hillary Clinton earned 90/100; Ted Cruz earned 0/100; John Kasich earned 56/100; Bernie Sanders earned 88/100; and Donald Trump earned 1/100.

At the request of the Associated Press, Climate Feedback contributors also critiqued candidates’ statements on climate change – without knowing who made those statements.

Vincent says he does not want Climate Feedback to be perceived as favoring one candidate over another – only to objectively evaluate the accuracy of their statements on the science of climate change. “I think it matters that scientists take a stand and state clearly ‘This is based on science, or this is not based on science’ – also for presidential candidates,” Vincent said.

He says his goal for Climate Feedback is that it become sustainable for the long-term. In late April, it launched a $30,000 fund-raising campaign and after about a week had raised nearly $15,000. Vincent says the funds will help support a project core staff and lead to producing one feedback every week, about twice the current output.

Vincent has said that one early trend emerging from the work on the project is that mainline journalists appear to consistently generate higher-quality climate articles than do non-journalism columnists and op-ed contributors. But whether reviewing a news article, an op-ed, or comments by a presidential candidate, Vincent said, Climate Feedback aims to shine a bright light on distortions and manipulations of climate science, and give credit to those who get it right.

“That’s really the motivation for Climate Feedback. It’s to say, if you want to say something that’s completely wrong, maybe you can say it, but don’t pretend you are science-based.”

Recent reports on Climate Feedback:

Climate scientists are now grading climate journalism

Coalition Of scientists takes novel approach to grading accuracy of climate change coverage

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