Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Do Most Of NYT's Science Staff Doubt The Dangers of Global Warming? That's What One Prominent Science Journalist Claims.

"Two sources at the Science Times section of the New York Times have told me that a majority of the section's editorial staff doubts that human-induced global warming represents a serious threat to humanity."

That sentence was buried in the ninth paragraph of a guest blog post on the Scientific American website yesterday, by the prominent science journalist John Horgan -- where he was making the point that "not all global-warming skeptics are ignorant, irrational idiots."

Horgan, the author of the 1996 book "The End of Science," has written for numerous science publications, as well as the NYT, Time and Newsweek. His work has frequently appeared in The Best American Science and Nature Writing.

His statement is striking, given a hotly-debated perception that the NYT might have downplayed stories last fall about a series of stolen emails -- high-level correspondence among researchers that suggested, to some, a conspiracy to falsely promote theories about human influence on climate change.

At the time, the NYT's environment editor, Erica Goode, defended her staff's objectivity on the topic in an interview with public editor Clark Hoyt.

“We here at The Times are not scientists," Goode told Hoyt. "We don’t collect the data or analyze it, and so the best we can do is to give our readers a sense of what the prevailing scientific view is, based on interviews with scientists.”

But Horgan has come away from private conversations with NYT science staffers with a different point of view -- one suggesting the majority of that staff has "doubts" that global warming poses a "serious threat."

The NYTPicker contacted Horgan yesterday to ask him for further details about his conversations. In an email, he confirmed and expanded on his blog post:

Here's what I can tell you: I had dinner with a Science Times reporter a few years ago and he told me that a majority of the staff had doubts about human-induced global warming. He hadn't done a poll. This was just his impression based on conversations with colleagues. Later I ran this by a second Times reporter. He thought for a moment and then said he agreed with A's assessment. Before writing my blog post, I checked with the second reporter, and he said he stood by his statement about the staff's attitude toward global warming. Surprising, isn't it?

This isn't the first time NYT science reporters have hinted publicly at their own skepticism. In interviews with Hoyt at the time of the so-called "Climategate" email leaks, both Science Times columnist John Tierney and environment reporter Andrew C. Revkin addressed the issue:

But Revkin and Tierney both told me that, after that broad understanding among scientists, there is sharp debate over how fast the earth is warming, how much human activity is contributing and how severe the impact will be.

“Our coverage, looked at in toto, has never bought the catastrophe conclusion and always aimed to examine the potential for both overstatement and understatement,” Revkin said.

But Horgan's declarative statement -- that a majority of NYT science staffers doubt the "serious threat to humanity" of global warming -- could alter the perception that the NYT's coverage isn't shaped by the biases of its own reporters and editors.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with reporters having a subjective view of the stories they cover. NYT reporters vote in elections, and political reporters are allowed to cast a vote for -- or against -- a candidate they cover. Even the NYT's own ethics policy states that " this topic defies firm rules," though it states that "it is essential that we preserve professional detachment, free of any hint of bias."

How that's achieved, on a story as rife with conflict as global warming, is going to become an increasingly difficult and highly-charged matter in the years to come.


Anonymous said...

So journalists are actually skeptical? I thought skepticism was at the core of all journalism. Why should global warming be any different? I would rather have a skeptical journalist who probes with the right penetrating questions than an evangelist who pretends to be a journalist. I get enough of that on the BBC, thank you very much.

Oh, and I am not in the least skeptical about the dangers of AGW. I just expect journalists and scientists to be skeptical for me. That is how it should be.

Anonymous said...

P.S., Now, I'm actually worried about the NYT's science staff who have no doubts about global warming.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous is correct. Global warming is hard enough for the researchers to understand and that makes it even harder for the journalists to write about. Then the poor journalists get it from either side because nothing is conclusive. The Al Gore acolytes accuse the journalists of being on the payroll of big oil and the everything-is-fine ostriches complain when the journalists give the story any ink.

I've seen plenty of good, old fashioned skepticism from John Tierney and Andrew Revkin. But I've also seen a willingness to ask the right questions. Revkin covered the decline of the polar ice caps, the biggest proof to me of global warming. Shoot. I think he actually flew up there back when newspapers had a travel budget.

There is no answer to this one yet and so we can't know whether the coverage is good or bad yet.

Anonymous said...

Thanks heavens the times reporters aren't scientists.

Anonymous said...

Any comment on Alessandra Stanley's double whammy errors:

Frolic said...

"Any comment on Alessandra Stanley's double whammy errors:"

Is this the story on "Tiny Specs of Earth"? What happened?

Your link doesn't work. It shows up on a list of Stanley's pieces, but that link is also dead:

Looks like the NYT pulled the story.

Anonymous said...

The link to the Stanley article has been fixed. This is a technical problem The Times has recently been having with many articles. The Stanley link was broken last Friday and fixed at that time. It seems to be working at the moment, but it may break again before I can hit SEND.

I wish I could confirm that this was a great conspiracy and coverup. It would make for a much better story. EXCLUSIVE! NYT Plots and Schemes to Cover Up 2 of Its 4,000 Yearly Errors!

(That's an approximate number in case someone starts to count them in the archives and request a correction of this comment.)

Best regards,
Greg Brock
Senior Editor/Standards
(and overseer of corrections.)

Anonymous said...

decline of the polar ice caps, the biggest proof to me of global warming.

So it doesn't bother you, even just a little, that the polar ice largely disappeared ~100 years ago, perhaps even to a greater extent than now? Just flushed down the memory hole with that, eh?

Anonymous said...

Crying wolf by suggesting there's shadow cyber voodoo stick going on rather than assume responsibility and terminate cyber-leakers only adds to typical american mccarthite paranoia. Poor polar bear.

Anonymous said...

Well, it's not fair, and it's not about believing in the scientific consensus. Tierney for example has been a vocal advocate of foreign investment in Iraq, so even mention of the environment, or ethical concerns compicates that interest. It's the idea that a merchant class can be expanded, provided the ground conditions are safe, and being bothered by ecological degradation, and so forth is just too much science and not enough business, ok? So, get in step and adjust, there is no Toyota conspiracy.

Anonymous said...

To out someone for private conversations they had off the record is bad for morale, especially if it's an image-altering bit about a very popular colleague.

Anonymous said...

At least the science section doesn't have to post a correction to this one:

Anonymous said...

too much "nit" and too little "picking"