The Times appears to be entering a period of introspection. It seems to have something to do with a business model in transition, but the sense that people are unhappy with conventional journalism is finally sinking in. Of course, there may be many reasons people are unhappy with it.
Regarding global change, Andy Revkin takes the bull by the horns in a recent Dot Earth entitled “Does the Media Fail to Give Climate its Due
?” where (as the best of a not especially great bunch) he naturally gets a bit defensive. However, my efforts to explain the nature of the problem might have been as confused and meandering as his defenses. Fortunately someone called Jeff Huggins came to the rescue. I can’t recommend his comment #13 highly enough. In short:
when you consider the dismal (to pick one word) degree of understanding, on average, of global warming among the public, it’s hard to arrive at any conclusion other than that the media have dropped (and are dropping) a very big ball.
Bravissimo. Yes, that’s it.
It’s not the quantity of information. Its the coherence of the information. People know that something is happening, for the most part. They just have a very fuzzy idea of what that is.
The denialists, by proposing that there is a “global warming theory” to be falsified have succeeded in keeping everybody’s eye off the ball. Said ball, large, blue green and white frosted with a chewy nougat center, is the world we live upon. We can’t exactly call it fragile, having lived these many millennia, but the circumstances in which we place it nowadays are pretty much unprecedented. There isn’t a true/false proposition to determine; there is a management strategy. If democracy is to work, people need to have some concept of the matters that are at stake. What we have, instead, is profound confusion.
An In It reader also provided some interesting context in linking to this discussion
about the future of the times and the news media. It’s a thorny problem. It would not be good for the democratization of the media to put all centralized discussion out of business altogether. The Times and its ilk perform an essential service. Given the tools to do it better, they nevertheless face an onslaught of business challenges from people like me who are willing to do a feeble enough version of it for free and for a few dozen readers. Both the opportunities and the pressures are coming from the same quarter. It’s no coincidence, but it’s awkward.
(Aside: I for one am very disappointed that microtransactions
haven’t taken off. Is there any hope for reviving this idea? It would really create a journalistic web with a less sharp distinction between well-known professionals and serious amateurs and the general public. It appears the tech is getting a work out among gamers in the far east, interestingly.)
There won’t be a solution to the Very Big Problem as long as earth system science is cast as a left vs right controversy rather than a complex technical and social tangle, though. Even if readers are lazy journalists don’t really have the right to be. Houston, we have a problem. People need to understand what is going on, quantitatively. They need to understand the distinctions between reservoirs and rates, multiple time scales, varying ranges of uncertainty.
Otherwise we’ll get leading party presidential candidates espousing ignorant quackery
. It doesn’t matter whether or not someone like this “believes in global warming”. Clearly such belief is not based in understanding. There is little hope for any decent outcome from governments this alienated from science. We don’t have time for this kind of ignorance anymore.
See also Jeff’s comments #96, 97 and 102 to the aforementioned Dot Earth thread, continuing to make the case that journalism is due a share of the responsibility for our current maldaptive trajectory, and doing so very well indeed. I really appreciated the analogy about the bomb report, which I’ll take the liberty of quoting:
Even as the public’s understanding of global warming is not all that good, often the media’s coverage, or the Times’ coverage, of global warming is a bit like a pea placed below twenty mattresses. You almost have to be a princess with very sensitive skin to even notice it. If the paper puts its occasional global warming article on page 10, much of the public will think that it’s a “page 10” problem, no matter what the article’s text says. (It feels silly even having to mention this to the New York Times.)
Consider: If you are walking down the street one morning, and if a person walks up to you calmly, in relaxed fashion, with a smile on his face, and tells you about last night’s game, and steroids in baseball, and then something about what someone said about McCain years ago, and then eventually says (still with a calm smile) that, by the way, a huge bomb just exploded and wiped out the next block, and then walks calmly past you, you might not believe him about the bomb part, or you’ll at least feel that you’re getting very “mixed signals” about the whole thing. Why was he so calm? Why was he smiling? Why was he apparently happy? Why did he tell you about steroids in baseball just now, before he even mentioned the bomb problem? Is the messenger crazy, you wonder? Does he have his priorities straight? Or, was he only joking about the bomb thing? Maybe you didn’t hear him correctly, after all? And, of course (I forgot to tell you this), you remember now that he also told you that “John says that a bomb went off, but Sally says it didn’t.” Now you get it: You assume that your calm messenger must believe Sally more than he believes John. Now, everything makes sense (except for the small problem that a bomb did go off.)
Also, Jeff pops up right here and now, in the comments to this thread with an interesting challenge for John Fleck. Welcome, Jeff! Y’all come back now, y’hear?
Update: Don’t miss Joe Romm’s Climate Progress article that kicked this all off.