What do we know about global warming?

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Aug. 15 2008 5:12 PM

A Rising Tide Swamps All Coasts

What do we know about global warming?

Last week, Ron Rosenbaum published a call for greater journalistic coverage of scientific dissent on global warming. Journalists covering climate change find an overwhelming consensus among the scientific community that mankind's release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over the last century will cause dramatic changes in the Earth's climate. If true, this consensus seems to call for a substantial policy response. To Rosenbaum, the scale of the costs attendant upon dealing with global warming justifies granting a heightened profile to those who dispute the factual basis for the scientific consensus.

Most of our readers found Rosenbaum's argument unpersuasive. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a majority of Fraysters support marginalizing the fringe voices in the climate-change debate. Many posters wonder along with brucewhite where to draw the line between legitimate dissent and crackpot theory:

I admire Ron Rosenbaum as a writer but wonder if this matter is as simple as he paints it. There are sceptics everywhere but do we want to relitigate everything all the time unless serious new evidence comes to light? Evolution? Alien visitors? The intervention of demonic forces? Holocaust denial?

I'm not arguing that there is no possibility of a good case to be made against anthropogenic global warming but most of the scepticism one reads is pretty low level and not much of it emanates from climate scientists. If we are to inhabit a world shaped to such a degree by the fruits of science we need to give scientists some credit when they present us with inconvenient truths. In fact we rely on a huge amount of consensus for our global society to function—this doesn't mean that other voices shouldn't be heard, but journalists do have the right not to accord them all equal respect.

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New York Times science writer, Andrew Revkin, writes in to challenge Ron Rosenbaum's use of his blogroll to bolster a climate-change skeptic's credibility:

I wish Ron Rosenbaum had explored my Dot Earth posts and Times articles on how best to cover climate science as well as my blogroll. Then he might have realized that Nick Lemann's admonition to "find the argument" is only one of the vital steps required to effectively communicate a complex subject.

An equally important step is to place the areas of ongoing scientific dispute within the broader context of what is not in dispute. If that step is not taken in a story, the lure of conflict can mask the broader reality, and perpetuate policy stasis.

So, yes, "find the argument." But then also "find the agreement" as well. It's not as sexy, but it may be the only way journalism can help society absorb that climate science has a herky-jerky trajectory, that some uncertainty is normal, but that a growing human influence on the planet's thermostat is not in dispute.

Another step is to discriminate between scientific and policy arguments. High-profile skeptics on climate have a hodegepodge of views on the science, but are bound by a common stance that restricting greenhouse gases is a waste of resources. On a science development, I don't seek input from policy advocates, whether from Greenpeace or the Cato Institute. On a policy story, everyone's invited.

To auros, debating the factual basis for believing in global warming is a sideshow to the policy argument we should be having.

I understand the CJR author's point, while disagreeing with some of her methods. I think Ron gets it too, as he recognizes that if the consensus is right, and global warming poses a serious peril to civilization, then anything that tells the voters that such peril doesn't exist will tend to slow down action to address it. Personally, I think of the situation more as deciding how much insurance to buy. You don't buy homeowner's insurance because you believe your house is definitely going to burn down. You buy insurance because it might burn down. If the best available science says there's a 1% chance of catastrophic climate change, the kind that sinks New York, Miami, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Boston under several meters of seawater—well, how much are you willing to pay for insurance against that risk? Is 0.1% of GDP unreasonable? 1%? 10%?

Given that there are also a bunch of non-global-warming-related disadvantages to our current energy system, I'd vote for devoting a significant chunk of GDP to dealing with this situation. Maybe not 10%, at least not immediately—trying to transition the economy that fast would cause a lot of dislocation and unnecessary pain. But a percentage point or two? Sure.

One of the most interesting replies came from Arlington, who sees parallels between our reaction to the bad news of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and today's response to global warming:

There are parallels to instruct us. When Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, she was attacked by debunkers who sounded like those now objecting to the global warming consensus. Some of it was very personal and mean, impugning her sanity and her sexuality, if you can believe it. Fortunately, most honest scientists recognized Carson was calling attention to a real crisis, something that was actually happening and could be documented, even though they realized Carson's appeal was largely emotional and scientifically flawed. The result was the DDT ban, which saved the bald eagle, among many other species, from extinction.

But Carson's detractors are sore losers. Now that the bald eagle is no longer threatened with extinction, the debunkers say the whole thing was a manufactured crisis in the first place and would have taken care of itself. There was no reason to ban DDT, they claim, and doing so promoted worldwide famine and caused malaria deaths by the millions. Carson was the devil.

And journalists hopped on the bandwagon. They reproduced accusations that Carson was responsible for more deaths than Hitler. They researched their articles by lifting quotes from authors who contribute to organizations like junkscience.com and others who insist that science should direct itself at the goal of making life easier, safer and more comfortable for a consumerist society. This was all very convenient, since Carson was long dead and the problem she identified had been effectively addressed by regulation and enforcement. And it sold newspapers.

This is the point of the CJR article. Go ahead and promote your byline. Sell your papers. Advance your career. Just don't forget you owe your readers something of the truth. Journalistic ethics require discriminating between various sources of information. Some sources should be used with skepticism and some should not be used at all. It's difficult to determine the difference, particularly when the writer doesn't have the scientific background to draw a clear line. Conveying the truth involves more than presented the reader with John said this and Mary said that. Who is John? Who is Mary? Where do they get their funding and support? What do their peers say about them? Not everyone who challenges scientific consensus is a martyr.

There are many more great posts in the Spectator Fray. Check them out and share your thoughts. GA2:18 p.m. PDT

Friday, August 8,  2008

A very welcome development this week,

Is the landline telephone going the way of the dinosaur? Readers are surprisingly hung up on the possibility of its extinction, as forecast by Daniel Gross in this July 25 article that made a mysterious reappearance yesterday on Slate's "most e-mailed" list.

Perhaps accounting for its renewed popularity is an improbable but vocal minority of land-line defenders who helped reactivate the debate in "Moneybox" Fray. Their many reasons for staying hard-wired include:

  1. Social-life management: i.e., giving out the home number knowing you will hardly ever be there to actually answer it (camiwa).
  2. Retro-chic appeal, particularly if it involves a rotary-dial telephone (NickD).
  3. Paranoia: access to emergency services in the event of blackouts, earthquakes, terrorist attacks, or other acts of God (VEH, NewYorkDave). Plus, the advantage of Enhanced 911, which automatically relays your street location to the operator (Tonyw1538).
  4. Coverage gaps in rural areas like western Wisconsin, where "you can be driving down major interstates and not have any bars for a good hour or two" (Chasmosaur).
  5. Potential health benefits: avoiding both the radiation emitted from cell phones and the "permanent crick … from trying to hold a tiny sliver of metal on my ear" (sugar_k).
  6. Fax machines and international calling, especially for mothers with children "scattered around the continent" (Herbie2).
  7. Peace, quiet, and simplification: "Now, when my under 30 husband and myself … are out, we can enjoy our time without the cellular leash" (trudycatsmom).

This type of age-conscious declaration was recurrent in the Fray and may have to do with a nerve that Gross unintentionally plucked, by equating land-line usage with the over-thirtysomething crowd.

It's never fun to be painted with such a broad brush, or worse yet, to feel obsolete. Hence the strident response of Atmos2, a 40-year-old proud to proclaim his exclusive reliance on cell phones.

Of course, one can always find some reason to cling to technology of the past. "Why Don't I Own a Horse and Buggy?" chidesFaxMeBeer, "I mean, I suppose we could all have continued to use our horses to take us on short trips to the store."

Before we grow too dismissive of land-line users, let us acknowledge that the beauty of the Fray lies in its ability to inspire volumes to be collectively written on some of the least likely topics such as this.

In general, reader proclivities have been tending toward the quirky this week, such as Jody Rosen's exposure of a serial plagiarist and a "Culturebox" piece about the 10 oddest travel guides ever written.  Be sure to check them all out. AC1:08 p.m. PDT

Saturday, July 30,  2008

A very welcome development this week, after the article in "Medical Examiner" on hospitals' E.R. problems produced a monster response from readers—more than 400 top-posts. The Fray team's job is to read as many of these as possible and then try to summarize the reactions as helpfully as possible for other readers. But in this case, one of the authors of the piece—Jesse M. Pines, who co-wrote with Zachary F. Meisel—bravely read a very high number of the posts and wrote in the Fray about them for us. He identified five different sets of responses, including:

1) Complaints from angry health care providers who felt they'd been insulted. Answer—no such criticism intended.

2) Patients giving experiences of the system, good and bad.

3) Congratulatory messages from those who agreed with the article.

4) Posts from nurses who commented on the "bed-hiding" issue. Answer: "The point was not to say that anyone is lazy—you are just as overloaded as we are in the ER."

The fifth group was from providers who talked about other problems in the health care system that contribute to crowding, and our author had this to say:

While I'm glad that you used this forum to discuss these issues because all are important, the article was about the hospital practice of boarding admitted patients in the ER. And how in some communities with high Medicaid and uninsured populations where hospitals are capacity-constrained (where demand for services exceeds supply on both the ER side and inpatient side), boarding is the profit-maximizing strategy. While Zack and I thought we explained it in the article, I am sorry if this was unclear to some.

He argued his case with more details and references before concluding:

I thank you again for your interest in this important topic that affects all Americans. Because sooner or later, you and your loved ones will all need to go to the ER. This needs to be discussed in public forums by people who understand the issues and can provide suggestions to hospital administrators and policymakers who have the power to eliminate boarding through objective measurement and accountability for this crisis.

Anyone interested in the issue should read the post in full here. And Mr. Pines is most welcome to come and help us in the Fray any time.  MR ... 5:30 p.m. GMT

Tuesday, July 22,  2008

Prized Fray regular wmccomninel watched Generation Kill, read the review in "Culturebox", and started a great thread which led to his laying this thought on the line:

My own life was negatively affected by serving in both wars in Iraq, that much is certain. And yes, even if you just drove to the mall, when America went to war so did every American citizen, happily or not.

His top-post thoughts on the program were fascinating, worth quoting at length:

War is not just another slice-of-life experience. It tends to be thoroughly atypical in many dimensions simultaneously which makes its only points of reference internal to the experience of war itself. In other words it gets a little bit crazy when viewed from an external, normal frame of reference. When one goes home again and things are normal there is no way to translate the war experience into non-war terms. There simply are not enough common reference points upon which to draw for you to align the two different experiences in ways which are even vaguely accurate. The parallels to gang wars which the reviewer suggests that the producers have brought with them from their work on The Wire are perhaps as close as one could aspire to in such an effort. They are still woefully inadequate to the task however.

Crime within a society has a certain business-as-usual flavor (rare bizarre incidents excepted). That is why there are so many police shows, it is just too easy make another new one. War on the other hand defies all boundaries. It is the complete absence of normal law and order, hence the absurdity of trying to define 'war crimes' as if there were a proper way to conduct day-to-day war operations as we do with the goods and services of the civilian economy. Indeed I find the mix-up stems entirely from the way that so many people view war as being just 'business by other means' and not the last resort of a sovereign nation at severe risk of its own dissolution.

Geo140 had experience in the Marines and watched the original program with interest:

I don't know that I look at Generation Kill as a slap in the face to anyone who served in the military, or in the war. I simply see it as a pretty good story with some accurate details and a harsh exterior. If you're looking to this show to find a reason to hate the Marines or the military, or support an archaic view of what a soldier is, then you were lost before this show even aired. And if you're watching this show just to get a glimpse of what war could be, and what the men and women who fight those Wars might face, you may be better off--but only slightly.

Some of the arguments the program and article produced were very angry –just the list of thread titles would tell you that: Among the repeatable are "You're an idiot," "Same old tired story," and "Generation Wuss." The post featured above was called "ACME War Services, the musical"—you'll have to read it to find out why. MR...4 p.m. GMT

Thursday, July 17,  2008

Fray poster Expectator had a way to solve the whole New Yorker cover controversy:

Put the same drawing on a TV screen with the Fox emblem in the corner and a pair of couch potatoes parked in front of it--put that on your cover, and you've got satire.

And howlless was equally clear:

Any satire that can be easily used to further the viewpoint it's trying to satirize, is, by definition, a failure. The New Yorker cover fails abysmally.

Readers read the articles—in "Press Box" and "XX Factor" and "Politics"—and came to have their say. These are Slate readers: Whatever their politics, 95 percent of them know that they are against racism, stereotypes, and dirty tricks. But where exactly did this cover come on the spectrum? And what else did they know?

Many knew they were uneasy with the cover but found it hard to define the reason. Quietbelow was unusually exact and put it well:

Satire is usually framed around the actual person or institution being satirized…Obviously the point here, assuming there's nothing sinister going on, is to satirize false information. But it's an extremely awkward proposition to satirize false information about a given person by actually depicting that person. There's a cognitive disjoint, because historically the satire should depict the subject of satire, but here it's Obama, who, again, assuming the best, is actually not the target.

S/he then went on to say,

I think it was a silly decision to publish it because it could be so easily misused and was so awkward in its general execution…Awful, horribly offensive? Of course not. Stupid? Yes. Though I have a feeling that the editorial staff on the magazine would fear the latter designation more than the former.

Some readers had philosophical concerns—this is tubbs, who knows a good reason to leave the whole issue be:

Our minds are truly the last private places on earth; particularly today in our wiretapping, war on terror, war on drugs, MySpace, You Tube, helicopter parents, constant surveillance, always "on" society. Moving to punish others for their innermost fears or castigating others for potentially stoking these innermost fears is an invasion of privacy of the highest order.

And wayhey1 knows:

The New Yorker better get away with this, because if they don't, then we know democracy is already dead.

Pani has an explanation for the worries about that fist jab: What do Americans know of cricket?

The reason Americans think the fist jab is a terrorist innovation could well be that they don't play cricket. Indian cricketers have, when batting, been using the fist jab at least for a couple of decades if not more. It works so much better for their gloved fists than the high fives.

Meanwhile, KenR1029 has a serious concern:

Little did I know that all those years trading fist bumps after a great play on the court during noon basketball games at the Y has probably compromised my ability to ever run for public office.

So, that's what we know: why there's never been a basketball-playing (or cricketing) president. MR   3 p.m. GMT

Monday, July 07,  2008

A group of females: Girls can choose one to identify with, and it could be Samantha. In the light of the new movie, is it all about the story or all about the outfits? Is it empowering to women or does it teach them the wrong lesson? Does the thinking feminist love them or hate them? We've been here before, and not that long ago, but this time it's not Sex and the City, it's American Girl (AG) dolls, discussed in a recent "IM" article.

We have mentioned that Slate's Fray team divides up the work very easily and casually, but American Girl was always going to be mine. This one is personal: I'm an even-handed defender of Barbies in Slate, but still, my daughter learned to read with a Samantha book because it was the only way to make me buy her the doll. On a recent trip to Manhattan, we spent an unplanned morning entirely at American Girl Place. I finally said that I would buy her—she's now 16—something for old time's sake. But the only thing she wanted was the (free) catalog—and that's going to resonate with the Fray posters because it featured in so many reminiscences: poring over the catalog comes up over and over.

Nancyh posted a good analysis of ways to empower your daughters and resist consumerism, and it would take a mean-minded cynic to smile when she revealed that her daughter is all of 5 years old. Oh the years lie ahead, Nancy. Revrick posed a question: "Does such a thing as responsible consumerism exist … ? Consumerism, by its very nature, it seems to me, bulldozes right through such prudent concepts [as saving and budgeting]." He was roundly told off by alittlesense:

Yes, Heaven forfend! Buying a doll, the gateway to vice of all sorts. The only bulldozing I see is the idea that everyone except the posters here at the Fray are weak-minded fools who can't be trusted with a burnt-out match, much less money, dietary habits, voting habits, fireworks, the internet ... the list goes on and on and becomes more dreary with every issue of Slate.

Treefitz was one of many who wanted to share her memories with other readers, in this case of how the whole family got involved: "AG dolls are not just about little girls ... they are about mothers and daughters, grandmothers and granddaughters. They are about shaping human culture." Rather sadly, Fridhem wrote back to say:

You seem to be under a misconception of today's mother. Most of us aren't able to have all that time to spend making and creating the trunks, clothes, etc. ... in today's economy, most of us have to work just to make ends meet ... barely meet. I'm happy for you that your family sounds as though it was well off enough for you to have that extra time. Rare few do these days. … We are still shaping, just in a different way, dealing with the constraints we are given.

Jmv told us about a craze for customizing dolls:

More compelling is the DIY crowd that seeks to rebrand dolls to their own taste, or create special OOAK (one of a kind) editions, at times with completely home-made clothes. … Just search for OOAK. ... and you'll see a unique universe of personal creations.

Frankly I can't recommend this—looking at a page of these creations made me jump back in my seat in horror. But in terms of creativity, it's surprising the AG magazine wasn't mentioned more: It is a wonderful thing, completely unlike any other magazine for young girls. It has sensible advice, features about high-achieving girls, and terrific ideas for low-cost items to make, and cheap and easy ways to entertain.

Bookmama had her own money-saving idea:

They are dolls. Children have imaginations. Why not buy just one and a set of clothes from different eras? Why can't a Samantha doll dress up in Depression Era clothes?

—and she also says that the dolls do help children learn about history and women's rights.

For amhuy, "It was all about the story. Like others who posted here, I was also obsessed with any story containing any independent girl fighting for it: Anne of Green Gables, Heidi, Secret Garden. …" A related point came from RW99:

The lasting appeal of the dolls went beyond the cute outfits and accessories, it was directly related to the stories told in their books, the ways in which these girls faced problems and challenges and overcame them with the help of their family and friends. Besides my everlasting idol, Laura Ingalls, they were the only female role models who stood out for me at that age (I'm talking 8-10 years old) as more than just the typical "helpless girl," who usually had a brother who got to do all the cool stuff.

We know all about that in my house. My son, aged about 6, once complained that his sister had hit him with her doll. It sounded so funny that we laughed, at which he said, "Yes but Samantha is very solid." That became a family joke, but hey, maybe there's something to it.  MR3:30 p.m. GMT

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