Demolition job on climate science

By Huffington Post. Wow, this one’s a doozy. Oh, and by the way, guys, congrats on your Pulitzer!

What it takes to win Pulitzers, most of the time, is big budgets, smart reporters, and weighty topics of national import. But most of the stories that shape our national debates, and thereby our future, are nothing like this sort of award bait. Most of those stories are more like “NASA Global Warming Stance Blasted By 49 Astronauts, Scientists Who Once Worked At Agency,” a short piece in the Huffington Post last week.

This article recycled a press release announcing that a bunch of former NASA employees, including some astronauts and scientists but no climate experts, had taken issue with the agency over its work on global warming. Findings that “man-made carbon dioxide is having a catastrophic impact on global climate change are not substantiated,” the retirees charged. The article — written not by one of HuffPo’s famously uncompensated bloggers, but by its science editor, David Freeman — didn’t offer a single fact in rebuttal of the letter. But at the end, it asked: “What do you think? Is NASA pushing ‘unsettled science’ on global warming?”

It was a ludicrous postscript, one that abdicated the very purpose of science coverage. Journalists who specialize in science are our proxies to help us figure out what’s trustworthy in realms where we lack detailed expertise ourselves and don’t have time to acquire it. Asking for opinions online can be entertaining — but the climate debate isn’t the same thing as, say, weighing in on whether “The Hunger Games” movie did justice to the book.

Recognizing the boneheadedness of its move, and responding tosearing criticism from folks like Grist’s David Roberts, HuffPo soon withdrew its query. It turned out that, in fact, the editors already had their own answer. They disagreed with the letter-signers! They do have a “reality meter” on this subject; it must’ve just been switched off during the preparation of the original post.

We’ve removed the question because HuffPost is not agnostic on the matter. Along with the overwhelming majority of the scientific community (including 98% of working climate scientists), we recognize that climate change is real and agree with the agencies and experts who are concerned about the role of carbon dioxide.

This was the right thing to do, and it placated the critics. “Let’s all move on,” Roberts wrote.

I’m afraid I’m not quite ready to do that — because this little dustup offers precious insight into a much more significant and widespread phenomenon in climate coverage. The NASA letter is a perfect case study in what press critic Jay Rosen has called “verification in reverse.”

Here’s Rosen, with whom I chatted about this issue on Friday (here’s afull transcript):

Verification is taking something that might be true, and trying to nail it down with facts. In reverse verification you take something that’s been nailed down and try to introduce doubt about it. “Was Obama born in the United States?” is the clearest example. The phenomenon of “verification in reverse” poses a special problem for journalists. On the one hand, they are supposed to report what people are saying. They are supposed to bring us the news of controversies, protests, disagreements. “Conflict makes news,” and all that. On the other hand, verification is their business. If they cannot support that, they cannot support themselves or their users. They are socially useless, in fact, if they cannot stand up for verification.

Rosen’s “verification in reverse” helps us understand the game that’s being played by climate-change denialists. They are manufacturing events that seem to play by the rules of reported journalism, yet are essentially fraudulent.

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