This summer’s high profile debate over how much and where oil remains in the Gulf of Mexico seemed to set off a wave of scientists and media observers venting their wrath at science writers who they say fail to grasp the incremental, self-correcting nature of science and instead perpetuate misinformation in pursuit of headlines and readers in today’s online media rat race. There’s a rare lull in the critical deluge today, since even the most high-minded of observers have been forced to turn their attention to that vile video that shall remain nameless. So, I’m going to take this opportunity to offer a rebuttal in the form of a great piece of science writing that demonstrates journalism’s ability to be incremental and self-correcting, too.
It’s a post by Michael Lemonick that first appeared on ClimateCentral a little over a week ago, then got re-posted on Onearth. Lemonick takes on the complex issue of what might have been responsible for a pause in global warming around the middle of the 20th century. As Lemonick explains, the three or so decades of stable temperatures have generally been attributed to air pollution which would reflect sunlight before it had a chance to reach (and warm) the Earth’s surface. But a paper published recently in the top-tier journal Nature put a new idea on the table, suggesting that a drop in ocean temperatures in the North Atlantic could have been partly responsible (see here for a synopsis and some background that doesn’t require a subscription). The reason behind the ocean cooling remains unclear.
Lemonick says much of the initial media coverage of the finding was a bit sensational.
… news outlets, including the BBC, USA Today and Reuters jumped on the story as if the textbooks now have to be thrown out. But over at DotEarth, Andy Revkin took a step back and looked at whether this is as big a deal as it’s being made to seem. The climate scientists he polled weren’t entirely convinced. One in particular, Carl Wunsch of MIT, questioned the whole idea of reporting on each new paper as though it were somehow definitive.
So Lemonick called up Wunsch and got him talking about the broader issue of accuracy in science journalism and why certain discoveries get media coverage that is so disproportionate to their scientific impact. Interestingly, Wunsch pins part of the blame on high-profile scientific journals, like Science and Nature, who he says are playing a bit of the headlines game, as well. That means journalists can’t just rely on prestigious publishers to vet discoveries for them, they (we, I) need to do their own homework and decide what’s important to cover.
Part science explainer, part journalism critique, Lemonick’s piece puts both the ocean cooling theory and the media coverage into perspective.