Friday, July 28, 2006

Setting the Facts Straight

(woohoo, it's my last day of being a blog of note.)

There is an editorial, in yesterday's New York Times, by Peter Doran, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In the editorial, he chronicles how a 2002 Nature paper, for which he was the lead author, that showed a cooling trend for parts of Antartica has been repeatedly misused and distorted by the media and climate warming doubters.

"...many news and opinion writers linked our study with another bit of polar research published that month, in Science, showing that part of Antarctica's ice sheet had been thickening and erroneously concluded that the earth was not warming at all. "Scientific findings run counter to theory of global warming,"” said a headline on an editorial in The San Diego Union-Tribune. ...

"In a rebuttal... the lead author of the Science paper and I explained that our studies offered no evidence that the earth was cooling. But the misinterpretation had already become legend, and in the four and half years since, it has only grown.

"Our results have been misused as "evidence" against global warming by Michael Crichton in his novel "State of Fear" and by Ann Coulter in her latest book, "Godless: The Church of Liberalism."” Search my name on the Web, and you will find pages of links to everything from climate discussion groups to Senate policy committee documents - all citing my 2002 study as reason to doubt that the earth is warming. ...

Our study did find that 58 percent of Antarctica cooled from 1966 to 2000. But during that period, the rest of the continent was warming. And climate models created since our paper was published have suggested a link between the lack of significant warming in Antarctica and the ozone hole over that continent. These models, conspicuously missing from the warming-skeptic literature, suggest that as the ozone hole heals - thanks to worldwide bans on ozone-destroying chemicals -— all of Antarctica is likely to warm with the rest of the planet. An inconvenient truth?...

In the meantime, I would like to remove my name from the list of scientists who dispute global warming. I know my coauthors would as well." [bold emphasis added]

This seems like a good example of the challenges that scientists face in communicating their results to the public. Journalists may take a particular result and pull it out of context of the rest of the paper and the rest of our accumulated knowledge on the subject. Commentators (opinionators) may distort the findings even further. And what's a scientist to do when this happens? Write a New York Times editorial, I guess. But somehow I doubt that those who misrepresented (unintentionally or deliberately) Doran's original findings, will pay much attention now.

20 comments:

Imani said...

Man do I wish that all those people running around citing those 2 right wing spokesfreaks would read your blog. The sad truth is that they won't and words are like Pandora's Box. Its a sad day in our history, as an independent nation, to be so manipulated by a group of people that we have to moniter what we say in hopes of preventing disinformation. Is it possible to get the group of miscited scientists together, elect a spokesperson, and take your message national? You'd have to get exposure on the programs that these people watch. Maybe not Bill O'Reilly, but perhaps Oprah would have a good audience cross section. Just a thought. Thank you for taking the time to speak out.

skookumchick said...

I wonder what kind of data the skeptics would believe, as disappearing glaciers, increasing invasive species, etc. aren't convincing enough. The consensus of the entire scientific establishment isn't enough. So, what would be enough?

I read that editorial in the Times yesterday, and thought it really good too. I can't imagine being the person whose research is twisted in a way to contradict their personal convictions. I worry my work might end up like that... it's enough to give one pause.

mineguruji said...

The journalist are not very adept at interpreting hard technical data, moreover there are very strong lobbies which are against or in favour of a particular contention and this results in a fact value dichotomy.

UB said...

very nice blog ! keep up the good work !
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turtlebella said...

Ooh, I don't really know what a fact value dichotomy is in truth but I like what mineguruji says. Is science journalism just quite bad overall? Or is a factor of everyone wanting there to be a black/white "answer" to everything? Subtlties not allowed.

Money Miss said...

Um, I think there are quite a few people (like me) who bookmarked your blog, 'cause it was a blog of note...

Holly said...

Having had numerous conversations with my newspaper editor husband about the misrepresentation of science by journalists, I can say that one thing that could help improve the accuracy of science reporting would be to change the way reporters are 'trained.' Almost everyone in journalism goes to 'J-school' at some point and while there learns (sometimes) how to write and ask questions. Virtually no one comes away educated about science and the scientific method nor do they learn critical thinking skills. I think newspapers should hire recent grads with liberal arts degrees who are analytically minded with a good background in science and math.

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Kalpana Sharma said...

I agree with Holly. The majority of journalists are illiterate when it comes to science. And these days, newspapers are not investing in getting trained science reporters. As a result, you get misinterpretation and inaccuracy. The problem is accentuated by the fact that even those on the desk, who could check this, don't know enough about the subject. I write this with some feeling as I'm a journo interested in environment and science and have to break my head convincing my colleagues that you need to follow these subjects over time to get a hang of what's going on.

Andy said...

Hmmm ... whilst an editorial might seem a good place to set the record straight, personally I think the best approach might be to take it to court. I hate the lawyer-state that has swept America and which appears to be taking root across the "civilised" world, but taking people to court for slander and liable from mis-representing your research would quickly cause them to take notice. And get it right.

slskenyon said...

It's amazing how the media, as well as the government unfortunately, color what we consider to be "facts." "Facts," come to find out, are far more objective than we are taught to understand in school. Here, you see how one piece of information gets used as a "fact" out of context to bolster someone else's argument to the contrary. This doesn't really come as a surprise to me to see folks like Ann Coulter using weapons for arguments that she doesn't understand. I like the fact that this was addressed by the source, though, rather than let to languish in misinterpreted obscurity.

Dorid Lovely said...

It's rather sad that people are misrepresenting scientific findings by taking information out of context, but no surprise at all. People in general will twist and mutilate facts in any way they see fit to "prove" what they want to. Most people are not educated in openmindedness and rational thought, they just pick and chose what they want to see and hear.

Of course the worst of this bunch, in my opinion, are the right wingers who do it with thier faith, then try to do it with science as well... just look at the garbage put out on evolution/ creationism!

Pitch Black said...

Your post indicated that there is problem of global warming yet I may like to bring to your notice a few other facts...

CO2 levels 400,000 years ago in artic ice were 7 times larger than levels of CO2 today...
Earth weather cycles takes thousands of years as a period, so may be we are in such cycle only...
As per Lizden, mean temperature rise over century is only 0.6 degree celcius higher...
If temperature rises then so will be the ability of oceans to support more life. When oceans are eating up more than half of CO2 today, with increase in aquatic life CO2 levels in future will decrease only...


I'll like to know your view points over global warming...

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Chez Bez said...

Thanks for sharing that. Such a shame that short-sighted greed is responsible for battling a cause to extend and enrich life on this earth.

Be well.

Huma said...

Found this blog by accident, pleased to find other female science PhuD's :-)

Mel said...

It's not just the media. Nearly every scientist I know has at least one study which is consistently misinterpreted by other scientists, sometimes wildly. And it's not that they were unclear--I've read the papers, and they were perfectly clear.

Giving more journalists scientific training helps; dedicated science writers tend to make fewer errors and understand the scientific method better than j-school journalists covering science stories. But it's improbable to expect journalists to do better than other scientists.

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