Sunday 23 July 2017

Is nitpicking a climate doomsday warning allowed?

Journalist and amateur mass-psychic David Wallace-Wells published an article in the New York Magazine titled: "The Uninhabitable Earth - Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak — sooner than you think."

Michael Mann responded on Facebook as one of the first scientists. He disliked the "doomist framing" and noted several obvious inaccuracies at the top of the article that all exaggerated the problem.

Some days later seventeen climate scientists of Climate Feedback (including me) reviewed the NY Mag article.

In my previous blog post I argued that this is a difficult, but important topic to talk about. The dangers of unfettered climate change are huge. Also if we do not act faster than we did in the past we are taking serious risks with our civilisation and existence. We should seriously consider that the situation can become worse than what we expect on average. Such cases are a big part of the total risk.

While the danger is there and should be discussed, the article contained many inaccuracies, which typically exaggerated the problem. Thus I have rated the article as having "low scientific credibility", which was the most selected rating of the other scientists as well.

Both the critique of Mann and of Climate Feedback produced quite some controversy. This was exceptional; normally the people who see climate change as an important problem trust the scientists who told them about the problem.

Like other climate scientists I correct both sides when I see something and have enough expertise. Although it is much rarer to have to correct people who see climate change as a problem (let's call them the "concerned"). I guess the real problem is big enough, there is not much need to exaggerate it. The overwhelming amount of nonsense comes from people playing down the problem. Normally the deniers really dislike contrary evidence, but the concerned are mostly happy to be corrected and to be able see the problem more clearly.

It is interesting that this time the corrections were much more controversial. Why was it different this time? Was our "nitpicking" a case of the science police striking again? Could Climate Feedback give more useful ratings?

Doomsday scenarios are as harmful as climate change denial

Michael Mann followed up his Facebook post with an article in the Washington Post together with communication expert Susan Joy Hassol that "doomsday scenarios are as harmful as climate change denial". The key argument was:
Some seem to think that people need to be shocked and frightened to get them to engage with climate change. But research shows that the most motivating emotions are worry, interest and hope. Importantly, fear does not motivate, and appealing to it is often counter-productive as it tends to distance people from the problem, leading them to disengage, doubt and even dismiss it.
This is an argument climate activists who want to be effective need to be aware of. The well-known groups already tend to stick to the science. Climate change is bad enough as it is and they rightly value their credibility.

The argument makes me uncomfortable, however, when connected to science. The situation is what it is. Also if that provokes fear, scientists should stick to the evidence and not tone it down to be "effective". It is the job of an activist to be effective. It is our job is to be honest.

If the population would have to fear we are not honest, that would produce additional uncertainty and give more room for the prophets of doom. Thus toning it down fearing fear can also produce fear.

David Wallace-Wells uses the fear that scientists hide the severity to make his story more scary. He is claiming throughout that article that scientists are not giving it straight: scientist are technocrats who are too optimistic that the problem can be solved, "climate denialism has made scientists even more cautious", he talked to many scientists, but does not name most in the original article, thus suggesting they are only willing to tell the truth anonymously, "the many sober-minded scientists I interviewed over the past several months ... have quietly reached an apocalyptic conclusion", "Pollyannaish plant physiologists", "Climatologists are very careful when talking about Syria", "But climate scientists have a strange kind of faith: We will find a way to forestall radical warming, they say, because we must."

This framing may have made the article more attractive to readers who expect scientists not to be honest and to understate the problems. This in turn may have provoked a more allergic reaction to the Climate Feedback critique than an article mostly read by people who love and respect science.

That the audience matters is also suggested by clear difference in the responses on Reddit sceptic and Reddit Collapse. The people on the Reddit of the real sceptics (not the fake climate "sceptics") were interested, while the people preparing for the collapse of civilisation were more often unhappy about Climate Feedback.

In the Climate Feedback reviews the doomist tone is often not appreciated, but if you look at the details, at the annotations of the scientists, it is clear that the problem is that the NY Mag article contains errors that exaggerate the problem, not the bad news that is accurate. In the summaries spreading doom and exaggerating were sometimes used interchangeably. So let me say clearly: I have never talked to a scientists who was more worried in private than in public.

While scientists say what they think, they do tend to be careful in what they claim. The more careful the claim, the more confident a scientist can be that the evidence is sufficient to support it. We like strong and thus careful claims. This is justified when it comes to the question whether there is a problem. You do not want to cry wolf too often when there is none. However, as I have argued on this blog before we should not be careful about the size of the wolf. Saying the wolf is a Chihuahua is not good advice to the public.

My advice to the public would be to expect problems to be somewhat worse than the scientific mainstream claims, but not to go to prophets of doom and especially to avoid sources with a history of inaccurate information. (At least for mature problems, in case of fresh problem it can go both ways.)


Looking at the high risk tails is uncomfortable for everyone, also for scientists. That provokes more critical reading and an unfortunate claim in such a story will get more comments than a similar one hidden in a middle of the road most accurate story.

However, unfortunately the article also often made statements are clearly inaccurate, wrong or are missing important context. The biggest error in the article — from my perspective as someone who works on how accurately we know how much the Earth is warming — was this line:
there are alarming stories every day, like last month’s satellite data showing the globe warming, since 1998, more than twice as fast as scientists had thought.
This has been updated by David Wallace-Wells to now read:
there are alarming stories in the news every day, like those, last month, that seemed to suggest satellite data showed the globe warming since 1998 more than twice as fast as scientists had thought (in fact, the underlying story was considerably less alarming than the headlines).
This was a report on a satellite upper air dataset that was the favourite of the climate "sceptics" because it showed the laast warming. Scientists have always warmed that that dataset was unreliable. Now an update has brought it in line with the other temperature datasets. The "twice as fast" is just for a cherry picked period. That is about as bad as mitigation sceptical claiming that global warming has stopped by cherry picking a specific period.

The scientific assessment for the actual warming did not change, certainly not become twice as much. If anything we now understand the problem better, which would mean less risk. The change is also not that much compared to the warming we had over the last century.

Because the actual scientific assessment did not change one could also argue that the mistake is inconsequential for the main argument of the story and the comment thus nitpicking. At least for me it matters. I hope more people feel this way.

There were many more mistakes like this and cases where missing context will give the reader the wrong impression. I do not want to go through them all in this already long post; you can read the annotations.

There were also cases which were also nitpicking from a scientific viewpoint. Where these comments were mine, I included them for completeness. They also did not influence my rating much.

Apparently I have to add that parts of the text without annotations are not automatically accurate. Especially for such a long article annotating is a lot of work. At a certain moment there are enough annotations to make an assessment. In addition even with 17 scientists it will happen that none of the scientists has relevant expertise for specific claims.

Climate Feedback rating system

We may want to have another look at the rating system used by Climate Feedback; see below. Normally finding a grade is quite straight forward. In this case I had to think long and was still not really satisfied.

Suggested guidelines for the overall scientific credibility rating
Remember that we do not evaluate the opinion of the author, but instead the scientific accuracy of facts contained within the text, and the scientific quality of reasoning used.
  • +2 = Very High: No inaccuracies, fairly represents the state of scientific knowledge, well argumented and documented, references are provided for key elements. The article provides insights to the reader about climate change mechanisms and implications.
  • +1 = High: The article does not contain major scientific inaccuracies and its conclusion follows from the evidence provided.
  • 0 = Neutral: No major inaccuracies, but no important insight to better explain implications of the science.
  • -1 = Low: The article contains significant scientific inaccuracies or misleading statements.
  • -2 = Very Low: The article contains major scientific inaccuracies for key facts supporting the author’s argumentation and/or omits to mention important information and/or presents logical flaws in using information to reach his or her conclusion.
  • n/a = Not Applicable: The article does not build on scientifically verifiable information (e.g., it is mostly about politics or opinions).

The scale is not symmetrical in the sense that if you get X facts wrong and X facts right you are in the middle. It might be that some people expect that. I would argue that getting only 50% right is pretty bad for a science article.

A problem in this case was that we can only give integer grades. So I gave a -1. I thought about neutral, but decided against it because that would mean "no major inaccuracies" and there were. For the part I could judge I found several mistakes and cases of missing important context (that is the description of -1). Had it been possible, I would have given the article a -0.5., because the tag "low scientific credibility" sounds a bit too harsh.

The rating of the article and the summary is made independently by all scientists and most made the same consideration. Had I been able to see the other "low" rating, I might have opted for "neutral" for balance. (We can see the annotations of the other scientists and can also respond to them. Sometimes when I am one of the first to make annotations, I wait with my rating to see what problems the others find.)

The relativity of wrong is very important. This same week Climate Feedback reviewed a Breitbart story about the accuracy of the instrumental warming estimate (my blog post on it). That was a complete con job and got "very low" rating. Giving the New York Magazine piece half the Breitbart rating does nor feel right. A scale from 0 to 4 may work better than one from -2 to 2. A zero sounds a lot worse than one and "low" would not be half of "very low".

The actual problem may be only -2 means inaccuracies influencing the main line of the story. It is more a scale for a science nerd looking for a high quality article than a scale for a citizen wanting to know how reliable the main line of the story is. Up to now that was mostly correlated, for this piece is was not, which made grading hard.

The more concrete a claim is, the more objective it can be assessed. Thus I would personally prefer to keep it a scale for science nerds and not go to a more vague and subjective assessment whether the main line is accurate.

A previous Feedback on a climate nightmare article by climate journalist Eric Holthaus got plus and minus ones. That shows that such an article can get positive ratings. That the article was never rated "neural" suggests that we may have to reconsider its description. That it states "no important insight" may make neutral almost worse than -1. It sounds like the famous quote: "not even wrong."

Based on the above discussion of the NY Mag review my suggestion for a new rating system would be the one below. It should be seen if it also fits well to other articles. I changed the numbers, the short descriptions and the long description for neutral.

Suggested guidelines for the overall scientific credibility rating
Remember that we do not evaluate the opinion of the author, but instead the scientific accuracy of facts contained within the text, and the scientific quality of reasoning used.
  • 4 = Excellent science reporting: No inaccuracies, fairly represents the state of scientific knowledge, well argumented and documented, references are provided for key elements. The article provides insights to the reader about climate change mechanisms and implications.
  • 3 = Very good science reporting: The article does not contain major scientific inaccuracies and its conclusion follows from the evidence provided.
  • 2 = Good science reporting: Mostly accurate statements and only minor inaccurate ones.
  • 1 = Some problems: The article contains significant scientific inaccuracies or misleading statements.
  • 0 = Major errors: The article contains major scientific inaccuracies for key facts supporting the author’s argumentation and/or omits to mention important information and/or presents logical flaws in using information to reach his or her conclusion.
  • n/a = Not Applicable: The article does not build on scientifically verifiable information (e.g., it is mostly about politics or opinions).

Why climate feedback?

There were people asking why we, Climate Feedback, were doing this. This could be interpreted in two ways:
1) Why do you nitpick this article I feel is an important wake-up call?
2) Why do you do this at all?

First of all, we do not know in advance what the outcome will be. Many articles on climate change are also very good and get great ratings. That is the kind of feedback journalists appreciate and which may help them in their careers and stimulate them to write better articles. Some journalists have even asked for reviews of important pieces to showcase the quality of their work.

We had a few authors who updated their article. David Wallace-Wells also did so and added more sources and transcripts. As far as I know such updates have only happened on the side that accepts the science. Also in that way our work improves science journalism, although such updates will come too late for most readers.

Most people will likely only get a general impression of how reliable news sources are when it comes to climate change. When we have enough reviews Climate Feedback will also make "official" assessments of the reliability of media sources. For more prolific writers also their individual credibility starts to become clear.

The reviews have already made clear that people who accept that climate change is real typically write accurate articles, while writers who do not want to solve the problem typically write error-ridden and misleading articles. That is good to know.

Only criticising the climate "sceptics" is not in the nature and in the training of good scientists. More utilitarian: solving climate change is a marathon, the energy transition will not be completed before 2050. Adaptation to limit the consequences of climate change will also be a job for generations to come. It is thus important that scientists are seen as trustworthy and only picking on one group would damage our reputation.

There are people who want to understand the details and when they meet misinformation being able to explain what is wrong with it. On reddit these people gather in /r/skeptic/. They normally accept climate change is real and like details/nitpicking, quality arguments and a rational world.

I do worry that there is also a downside to science policing in that people are less comfortable speaking about climate change fearing to be corrected. That is one reason to let minor cases slip and in bigger cases be gracious when it is the first time making a mistake. David Wallace-Wells responded graciously to the critiques, it were others that objected.

Making a mistake is completely different from the industrial production of nonsense on WUWT & Co.

It would be progress if scientists had a smaller role in this weird US "debate". It was forced on us by a continual stream of misinformation on the science from climate "sceptics". There should be a debate what to do about it and that is a debate for everyone. If you would see less scientists in US debates around climate change that would probably mean that the important questions are finally being addressed.

It would also be progress because scientists are typically not very good communicators. Partially that is because most scientists are introverted. Partially that is the nature of the problem, some things are simply not true, some arguments are simply not valid and there is little room for negotiation and graciousness.

On the other hand, science communication works pretty well in countries without the systemic corruption in Washington and the US media. So I do not think scientists are the main problem.

Related reading

Part I of this blog series: "How to talk about climate doomsday scenarios."

The updated New York Magazine piece By David Wallace-Wells: The Uninhabitable Earth - Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak — sooner than you think. (The reviewed original, the version with annotations.)

The Climate Feedback Feedback: Scientists explain what New York Magazine article on “The Uninhabitable Earth” gets wrong.

New York Magazine now also published extended interviews with the scientists interviewed for the piece: James Hansen, Peter Ward, Walley Broker, Michael Mann, and Michael Oppenheimer.

Introduction to Climate Feedback: Climate scientists are now grading climate journalism


  1. Very good follow-up post on this subject. The proposed revision to the rating scale is simple and very sensible. I'll speculate that the -2 to +2 scale was adopted by the scientists behind Climate Feedback without input from less technically-minded individuals.

  2. I speculate the scale was not developed based on months of science communication lab experiments documented in a scientific article.

    As far as I know it just started with one guy with a good idea, doing the best he could to implement it.

  3. I was one of those who felt the criticism of DWW was overdone and ungenerous.

    Kevin Anderson has noted that scientists are more inclned to agree with his pessimistic viewpoint (although he does not like his views to be characterized that way) in private, while disagreeing publicly.

    Naomi Oreskes has noted that scientists tend to err on the side of least drama. This may be done for worthy, long-established professional reasons, but in conveying all possible outcomes fairly to policy makers and the public, an extra balancing effort need to be made. In fairness, many scientists have tried to do this in thei popular articles, but the bias persists in formal pieces.

    Oreskes has also remarked upon the lack of passion in scientists' presentations that talk about dire consequences in dispassionate tones. To the audience this sounds like a disconnect and they may be swayed more by the calm tone than theory technical discussion. (Sorry, I can't find the reference to this. It was a lecture rather than a paper, if I recall correctly.)

    I believe that the headline to the Carbon Brief article was added by an editor, not by the original author. It was nevertheless DWW's job to check this, but it was not his original exaggeration.

    I suggest re-reading Mike Mann's interview and his formal commentary. Both are excellent, but the tone of the interview is more closely aligned with the spirt of DWW's piece

    Despite the errors (which I acknowledge) the DWW article was an important counterpoint to much climate change commentary, which I believe is often biased towards the positive. In the formal criticism, some babies were thrown our with the bathwater.

  4. Judith Curry also claims scientists in secret agree with her. I find that just as hard to believe as the claim of Kevin Anderson beyond scientists not being confrontational people and being friendly in person.

    I do not know what is positive about the climate change impacts scientists talk about. They seem pretty devastating to me.

    It could be that scientists are more optimistic than the population about solving the problem, at least I am. The DWW article was not, however, about whether we would solve this perfectly solvable problem, but about the consequences of not solving it.

  5. VV I think you have thought carefully about expanding the scale to include more nuance
    Some of the rubbish, we read daily in denial sources, is so far wide of any science as to be intentional lies.
    A wider scale would allow your group to differentiate between the outright rubbish and the well intention yet not entirely correct on both sides.

    We don't need people pushing Venus runaway scenarios and the like that are not physically possible. We do need journalist being able to explore the fat tail of consequence. The audience that needs to be reached is not those of us who are science geeks or involved in the debate.We need Non science journalist that are not fully informed to carry part of the message. Such sources will make honest mistakes or not quite get detail. They need to be encouraged to learn gently rather than be tared with the same brush as some of the extreme propagandists.

    The Agreement to hold warming to 1.5C is an example of downplaying risk.

    If we reduced emissions and halted the keeling curves growth today we will probably still pass 1.5C from preindustrial this century.
    Yet we are building coal plants that have a 50 year life and drilling for oil.
    It will take a lot more effort to turn around our trajectory than is presently talked about by western governments.


  6. To perceive something as a risk is to fear it, otherwise it is not a risk. Whether the risk is something you can deal with is another question.

  7. Griff., my scale would have one nonsense for bullshit, two for somewhat wrong pieces and two for good articles. Would you suggest to have a better differentiation of the nonsense?

    For WUWT, Breitbart and Daily Mail we can guess intentions. For the individual articles reviewed by Climate Feedback that is normally not possible.

    I do not think the 1.5°C was mentioned in the Paris agreement as something that will be reached. But is was reachable when we started this process and crossing this 1.5°C limit thus puts a responsibility on the people who caused the problem to help the people they are hurting. (Or as a true libertarian would say, the people whose property rights are violated should at least be compensated for the damages, especially from the time we knew we were violating their property rights.)

  8. Eli, also if you do not fear it, traffic is pretty dangerous. People living below a hydro power plant, next to a volcano or below the sea level are probably (at least partially) blind to the risk. The risk still exists.

    Perception is naturally important for the question whether the risk is acceptable. Also whether you voluntarily take the risk or whether it is forced onto you by others.

  9. Victor,

    For most people fear is motivating, risk is nebulous. Don't be such a scientist.

  10. "For WUWT, Breitbart and Daily Mail we can guess intentions."

    I have to say a word on behalf of other crap organs that will likely feel slighted by this short list, including Daily Caller (utterly unscrupulous), Blaze, WSJ editorial page, New York Post, Fox, Fox Business News, and other Murdoch-owned media. All characterizations MHO.


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