Who Do You ‘Outsource’ to on Climate Science?

A journalist who ‘outsources’ her opinion on climate change causes a stir.

In a recent post explaining why she believes global warming is real, Atlantic senior editor Megan McArdle admitted that she relied on others who were more informed about climate science than her.

So far, so good. After all, don’t we all do the same with complex subjects that we don’t have the time or inclination to study up on?

McArdle next listed her go-to sources on climate change science:

I’ve basically outsourced my opinion on the science to people like Jonathan Adler, Ron Bailey, and Pat Michaels of Cato — all of whom concede that anthropogenic global warming is real, though they may contest the likely extent, or desired remedies.

[Editor's Note: Adler is a former environmental official with the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., now on the faculty at Case Western Reserve University; Bailey is a libertarian columnist and science writer for Reason magazine and reason.com, products of the Reason Foundation, and a former journalist in residence at CEI; Michaels, a former University of Virginia faculty member and at one time the state's climatologist, is founding editor of the World Climate Report, underwritten by the Greening Earth Society, Western Fuels Association.]

Commentary
This list (especially the inclusion of Michaels) was met with incredulity by numerous climate commentators. Joe Romm called it “the most jaw-dropping admission on climate I’ve seen in years from a journalist.” Jeremy Hance, writing in Mongabay.com, similarly regarded it as a “startling admission,” in an essay titled, “Climate Journalism Gone Awry.”

I’ll get to the specific objections from critics in a minute. First let’s take a look at McArdle’s explanation for why she “outsources” her opinion to others:

I cannot be an expert on everything. I don’t know what the speed limit should be, how we should redesign the military to counter 21st century threats, or the best way to allocate scarce water resources between competing claims, even though I recognize that in a modern society, these are all the proper concerns of the government; even though I think that these questions are important, I am willing to leave them to experts on traffic patterns, national defense, and water rights. So with global warming. Time spent brushing up on the science is time spent not reading up on things where I have greater comparative advantage, like tax policy or the budget.

This seems entirely practical. Even Hance, in his Mongabay piece, is understanding. “I sympathize with McArdle: it’s frustrating to write about things on which your own knowledge is only superficial, and so that’s exactly why we seek out expert opinions — and either quote or paraphrase them.”

The problem, he says, is that McArdle hasn’t based her opinion on recognized experts, “but to a legal professor with an environmental blog (Jonathan Adler), a science editor for a libertarian magazine (Ron Bailey), and a well-known climate change skeptic scientist from the Cato Institute (Pat Michaels), which has been criticized for pushing climate denialism and bad science.”

This is a reasonable criticism. Evidently, the positions and views of America’s leading scientific organizations, or those of the world’s scientific bodies and institutions do not count as much as the scientific views of Mssrs. Adler, Bailey, and Michaels, only one of whom is actually a scientist in the first place. So why does she turn to them? Well, they happen to share a particular worldview, which seems to make them credible in her eyes, as she infers here:

If they [Adler, Bailey, and Michaels] say the planet is warming, then I trust that this is very likely to be true — not just because I like them, but because if you’ve convinced leading libertarians that humans are contributing to global warming, you’ve convinced me.

In other words, she is convinced not because of their knowledge of climate science, but because they are libertarians. Now that seems entirely wrong-headed, especially for a journalist. But it is consistent with how most people make judgments, be it about global warming, nuclear power, or genetically modified foods: It is often our cultural or political worldview that most influences our thinking on any given issue. For news and opinion, we all turn to sources that share our worldviews. That’s why conservatives watch Bill O’Reilly on Fox News, and liberals watch Rachel Maddow on MSNBC.

In their news writing, however, journalists are expected to seek out diverse sources of information, not those that are aligned with their own political orientation.

McArdle, perhaps, sees herself in a different light. At least she is upfront about her means of selection. Evidently, McArdle is a journalist with libertarian leanings, for she outsources her views on climate change to libertarians she finds trustworthy.

Of course, in our increasingly fragmented media landscape, consumers can easily stay cocooned in a customized universe that reinforces their own biases and views of the world. We would all be better served, however, if journalists stepped out of their own cocoons while on the job.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.
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18 Responses to Who Do You ‘Outsource’ to on Climate Science?

  1. RickA says:

    The problem with climate change scientists is that most of the “recognized experts”, at least the lead authors of the IPCC chapters on climate change, appear to be massaging the body of work, picking and choosing, and editing, in order to advocate for a particular course of action (take action now, we cannot afford to wait). So most of the recognized experts appear to be biased, or suffering from a bad case of confirmation bias.

    The climategate emails show the maneuvering behind the scenes to keep certain authors out of the literature, rush counterpoint articles into press just for the purpose of including them in the latest IPCC report, and act as gatekeepers for the climate journals.

    So the classic appeal to authority kind of falls flat on its face when you cannot trust the experts.

    Who can you trust in the field of climate science? I am afraid the answer is nobody.

    That is why more and more technical people, such as myself, have to look at the data for ourselves, and judge the credibility of what forecasts and predictions climate scientists have made based on the underlying climate data. Unfortunately, this tends to make the climate scientists look even worse.

    That is why more and more people are taking a wait and see attitude on where the climate is heading.

    I certainly am.

    The estimate for climate sensitivity (CS) has been falling for the last 20 years, as have the predictions for sea level rise (SLR).

    There is nothing wrong with continuing to gather data, and try to get better predictions before making decisions which will cost trillions of dollars and potentially harming poor people, by driving up energy costs and food costs unnecessarily.

    • RickA

      I must congratulate you for being so eloquent in your attack on the credibility of the wolrd’s leading climate scientists and the scientific conventions and institutions to which they are a party. Normally people with your particular viewpoint shriek loudly “It’s a scam! Look at them thar emails! Al Gore just wants to get richer by taxing us all!” You are essentially taking the same position, but it would appear, at least in the language you use, that you are more intelligent than the usual run of the mill denier. Well done! But the fact still remains, you ARE trotting out a line of assertions based on your own ignorant line of thinking. Lets review your criticisms.

      1. The IPCC lead authors aren’t experts.
      2. They are cherrypicking to support a particular view.
      3. Climategate exposes the corruption.
      4. Climate sensitivity is falling.
      5. Sealevel rise is slowing down.

      All you have done, is demonstrate your lack of understanding of how the IPCC system and peer review works. I don’t need to break any of this down as it has been done many many times before in so many forums.

      What I find amusing is your basic admission to being a google gallileo and that is refreshing. It is the more intelligent among the deniers that will do this. My question to you is do you actually believe you are able to analyse all that raw data with the same level of expertise as the experts you so flippantly disregard and accuse of bias? If so, when can we expect to see your paper? Oh, thats right, it will never get published because of the gatekeepers.

  2. You’ve misunderstood what I was saying. The libertarians were basically the last holdouts on global warming. If the credible experts on that side have conceded the point, then I think that the argument is over.

    I’ve now explained this over and over, on twitter and I believe also in the comments to that post. You also could have emailed me to ask what I meant rather than writing a long post based on your incorrect interpretation.

    Best,

    Megan

    • No Megan, there is a pig farmer down the road from my place who now admits that global warming is real. He was until last year the most strident opposer of what he called the “the biggest scam in the history of man” until a freak storm caused a branch to fall of a tree and damage his favourite tractor. “It was that global warmin what done it.” You may as well have sought advice from him.

    • George Monbiot make a great point “”This is the point at which libertarianism smacks into the wall of gritty reality and crumples like a Coke can. Any honest and thorough application of this philosophy would run counter to its aim: which is to allow the owners of capital to expand their interests [pollute] without taxation, regulation or recognition of the rights of other people. Libertarianism becomes self-defeating as soon as it recognises the existence of environmental issues. So they must be denied.” http://www.monbiot.com/2012/01/06/why-libertarians-must-deny-climate-change/

    • Tony Duncan says:

      RickA

      I read the paper and it makes some very good points. If you notice it ONLY concerns itself with the climate-gate emails and with the use of ad Hominem attacks by those scientists.It in no way addresses the entire political conflict that they are a part of.While I agree with most of what the authors conclude, they do not give general support to any of your contentions. remember these are over a thousand emails and he picked out the most egregious ones relating to attacks. He makes the point that under ideal conditions these attacks and behavior patterns exhibited would not occur and that they are against accepted scientific behavior as espoused by Merton. And I agree that the refusal of FOI requests was wrong, as were many of the specific quotes he brought up regarding the attitude toward MacIntyre, McIttrick, etc.
      But if anything it is quite clear from the emails that there was no fraud or conspiracy in the actual science being discussed. Even the infighting among some of the scientists where they attacked each others work in no way caused them to adjust their conclusions about the science of Climate change.
      As such,it seems to me that you might disrespect some of their actions and attitudes, but be quite confident in the science that they were involved in.

  3. harrywr2 says:

    Evidently, McArdle is a journalist with libertarian leanings, for she outsources her views on climate change to libertarians she finds trustworthy.

    They are Doubting Thomas’s. If the Doubting Thomas is convinced something is true then it most likely is true.

  4. willard says:

    > If the credible experts on that side have conceded the point, then I think that the argument is over.

    Indeed. And citing credible experts on that side would have been a great idea.

  5. keith Kloor says:

    Megan,

    Thanks for stopping by and for the clarification. I understand what you now mean, based on our twitter exchange and via some of your comments in the thread of your post.

    That said, I do think you could have been more specific in your post, since you simply said that you outsourced your opinion on climate science to three particular individuals (who happen to be libertarians). There was no context for this statement. Perhaps an update on the original post would be helpful.

  6. biff33 says:

    In my understanding, the scientific debate is over this axis: sensitivity – feedbacks — models. That is, what is the sensitivity of global mean temperature to increased atmospheric CO2 – the answer to which depends entirely on what the net feedbacks are — which we at present have no way of knowing, other than perhaps through modeling. So the key issue is: Are the models trustworthy? If she focussed on that, she would not conclude that the matter is settled.

    McArdle gives no indication of seeing it that way. She says that even the libertarians agree the world is warming, and that humans play some role, so the matter is settled: we should act to ward off catastrophe. But that is a non-sequitur.

    So her limitation is not that she isn’t an expert, but that she isn’t clear what the issue is.

    • Biff33: You write “That is, what is the sensitivity of global mean temperature to increased atmospheric CO2 – the answer to which depends entirely on what the net feedbacks are — which we at present have no way of knowing, other than perhaps through modeling.” This is not an accurate assessment of the state of knowledge based on measurements, record, and analysis. I would refer you to Richard Pauli’s excellent post/point below and share his recommendation of the AIP link.

  7. Tony Duncan says:

    Megan,

    I took your point to possible be what you clarified in your comment. yet, I am not clear whether you did NOT get your information from the hundreds of other scientists that have more expertise on the subject than any of those you mentioned. It would be very easy to find any number of qualified scientist on a range of issues who are not connected to the well known scientists that are public advocates of strong government policy to reduce CO2. I can understand your getting the libertarian side of the issue, but it seems irresponsible to NOT get the side of the people in the trenches.

  8. Lewis Deane says:

    Keith, I don’t think your being your usual, gracious self in this article. I read Megan McArdle’s piece and I immediately noted it as a sample of good sense during what was a pretty hysteric couple of weeks. (I posted about it on Ben Piles blog then). Where you honed in on her offhand comment about ‘outsourcing’, I heard her say that she was no expert in this field and would not try to ‘second guess’ such expertise, that she defers to them and from them gathers that there is a problem and she thinks that the possible answer is a ‘carbon tax’, very much in line with you. I don’t think she needs to update anything. I think, sometimes, like me, too,(but I’m no blogger!) you like to be ‘contrary’ and, more, you feel the ‘middle ground’ is your distinctive territory, so much so that when you sense (Roger Pielke Jnr, par example) someone ‘encroaching’ you have to ‘re-assert’ yourself and your ground. No matter. It’s amusing. I just hope Megan understands (another woman I have added to my Pantheon, along with J Curry and she of ‘rankexploits’ whose name escapes for the moment! – And our Queen!!)

  9. Lewis Deane says:

    It reminds me of a conversation I had the other day – someone asked me why I am so ‘uncertain’ in my ideas, why I contradict myself, why I doubt myself and question myself, at such an age? But ideas are and must be uncertain. One must always distinguish between ideas and action, the ‘certainty’ of action (an ‘action’ is a fact as soon as it is enacted and is, therefore, as it were irrevocable – it cannot be gainsaid). That is to say, in all honesty and as decent human beings, our minds are never ‘right’ or certain but we act upon them and must decide how to act upon them, nevertheless. And with others help and that includes so called ‘experts’, too. Our world is meant to be uncertain – it is our freedom and our burden – but our actions, however hesitant, become indelible. Megan McArdle makes a rational, modest choice, without certainty, and we should commend her for it. Down with all dogmatists!

  10. Martin Lack says:

    Nice piece. Well said. We cannot all be experts about everything. The marketplace of ideas is a dangerous fallacy:
    See All that is wrong with the marketplace of ideas (16 August 2011).

    In his book, ”Bad Science”, Ben Goldacre says that proponents of pseudoscience have succeeded in making people think science is impenetrable. However, the truth may be even more insidious because, by awakening people to the fact that they are regularly being lied to, these peddlers of pseudoscience have in fact contributed to – if not caused – a much more widespread distrust of science and all scientific authority. Therefore, I would humlby suggest that claiming that humanity is not the cause of climate change is even more stupid – and even more dangerous – than claiming (as did Thabo Mbeki for a long time) that HIV is not the cause of AIDS:
    See How to be a climate change “sceptic” (7 September 2011).

  11. Matt Skaggs says:

    Keith, dude, you are so twelve hours ago! She set everyone straight, like, a hundred tweets ago! Actually, this exchange is inadvertently hilarious, arguing about why one should trust the viewpoints of libertarians. The word “libertarian” was invented to sanitize the self-focused politics of narcissists. Does McArdle seriously believe that these libertarians finally came around because they felt empathy for future victims of climate change? Isn’t that the implication? Perhaps I have misunderstood as well. Here is my perspective: if the Cato Institute wants you to think that global warming is a real danger, it is because one or more of their rich benefactors stands to gain from it. That is why they exist.

  12. Megan and all journalists might want specific sources:

    There is great information in government agencies – http://www.globalchange.gov/
    Or FEMA or NOAA or NASA

    And if you want to talk with a climate scientist directly – try http://www.climaterapidresponse.org/
    “The Climate Science Rapid Response Team is a match-making service to connect climate scientists with lawmakers and the media. The group is committed to providing rapid, high-quality information to media and government officials”

    And if you need a grounding in climate science try the respected text by Spencer Weart’s The Discovery of Global Warming. at http://www.aip.org/history/climate/index.htm#contents
    It has no math and no chemistry.. just explanations and descriptions of history of the science