Thursday, July 17, 2008

Global warming and a tangle of information labors -- journalism, computer modeling, and Google searching

An article in my local newspaper got me angry today and set me to writing a response. I think the episode actually represents an interesting set of issues dealing with information seeking and evaluation of evidence -- on several levels -- so I'm reprinting my letter to the editor here:
While I take no issue with my local newspaper presenting a news analysis on those engaged in "dismissing global warming," the supposed "In Depth" article on this topic in the July 17 2008 Wisconsin State Journal was actually rather shallow. The article, reprinted from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, only briefly described the belief of "Colorado State University storm prognosticator" William Gray that, in his words, "global warming has been grossly exaggerated." It offered no explanation, context or counter-claims for Gray's opinion. If the State Journal is going to simply reprint mediocre news reports on this issue, rather than doing its own reporting and consulting with the many University of Wisconsin climate experts who work here in our own state, perhaps instead of purchasing the 500-word Sun-Sentinel article it should have purchased (or at least consulted) the 7,500-word May 28 2006 Washington Post article by Joel Achenbach entitled "The tempest" which detailed that Gray believes computer climate modeling to be useless, stating, in his words, "They sit in this ivory tower, playing around, and they don't tell us if this is going to be a hot summer coming up. Why not? Because the models are no damn good!" Or perhaps the State Journal might have followed up on other articles by Ken Kaye on Gray's own track record of predictions, such as Kaye's April 09 2008 article in the Sun-Sentinel entitled "Long-range hurricane forecasts: Public service or worthless?" which reports that Gray himself actually "overestimated the 2006 and 2007 [hurricane] seasons and severely underestimated the chaotic 2005 season; in April of that year, they called for seven hurricanes to emerge — and 15 eventually formed." No matter what you think about the risk and reality of global warming, clearly there is much more "depth" to this issue than the flimsy half-page article in Thursday's Wisconsin State Journal would lead one to believe. I expect better from my city's last remaining daily print newspaper.

Greg Downey
Madison, WI

Now, I don't see myself as any sort of serious media watchdog by any means. But given a bit of background knowledge about the global warming debate, access to Google, the online presence of previously-published newspaper articles from around the nation, and an email account, I was able to quickly make an assertion of journalistic quality and communicate this opinion to my local newspaper editor. That's kind of cool. It's also kind of depressing that it was necessary, given that those same tools are available to my local newspaper editor as well.

Here are the original articles in question, if anyone is interested:

Dismissing global warming (as first published in the Sun-Sentinel, later reprinted in the Wisconsin State Journal)
The tempest (Washington Post)
Long-range hurricane forecasts: Public service or worthless? (Sun-Sentinel)

As a postscript, today my department of Journalism & Mass Communication sent out a press release entitled "SCIENTISTS SEE BRIGHT SIDE OF WORKING WITH MEDIA." Food for thought.

Further postscript: A few hours after I emailed my letter, a WSJ managing editor got back to me with a polite acknowledgement, which was much appreciated.

And yet another postscript: Coincidentally, on Tuesday, July 29, 2008, UW-Madison Professor of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences Jonathan Martin will be speaking in a series on "emerging technologies at the intersection of science, policy, and media" sponsored by the Department of Life Science Communications. Martin's topic: "Talking about the weather: Shaping public perception of science." The talk will be from 7-8pm, in 1100 Grainger Hall.

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