03 April 2012

An Interview with an Activist Journalist

The Columbia Journalism Review has an informative and eye-opening interview with Justin Gillis, who covers climate change for the New York Times. I have been fairly critical of Gillis' reporting on this blog on several occasions (even awarding one of his stories the worst climate story ever in the NYT for its uncritical reporting of the NOAA billion-dollar disaster nonsense). It is of course perfectly understandable that Gillis hasn't much appreciated my critiques, but it goes with being a reporter at one of the most prominent media outlets in the world. He won't like this post either.

In the CJR interview, Gillis is remarkably candid and in doing so he provides a clear sense of where he is coming from -- the perspective that he brings is not plain vanilla journalism that you might expect from the paper of record, but journalism colored with a heavy tinge of yellow.

Gillis explains to CJR how he came to work on the climate beat while on a fellowship at MIT and Harvard:
I started taking classes and the more I learned, the more I thought to myself, “This is the biggest problem we have—bigger than global poverty. Why am I not working on it?” From there, the question was, how do I get myself into a position to work on the problem?
The notion of "working on the problem" is a fine ambition, but is clearly much more aligned with advocacy for action rather than reporting a beat. Rather than informing his readers Gillis is in the business of making an argument.

On the East Anglia emails that were released in 2009 Gillis makes a strong statement:
One was forced to read the e-mails and ask, “Do they suggest any sort of scientific misconduct?” As we studied them, it became clear to me that they didn’t, so we asked ourselves, “How do we respond in this situation when the evidence is all pointing in the same direction?”
Good guys, bad guys. All the evidence. One direction. That explains the lack of nuance in the NYT reporting of climate change science and politics.

How does he handle the perspectives of so-called "skeptics" in his reporting (emphasis added)?
Even when, in the context of a 4,000-word story, I quote skeptics for three or four paragraphs and then drop them and move on, I can reliably count on some sort of attack from somebody saying I shouldn’t have done that. I think these people are just being a little—what’s the right word—ditzy.
If one is covering evolution these days, one can afford to ignore the anti-evolutionists most of the time because they are completely scientifically discredited and, more importantly, sort of spent as a social force. Unfortunately, we just are not at that point with climate science.

However discredited the scientific case questioning climate science may be, it is influencing half the Congress and a substantial fraction of the population. So this is almost like if you’d been in Tennessee in 1925 getting ready to cover the Scopes Monkey Trial. The anti-evolutionists were already scientifically discredited by then, but as a journalist, you could not have avoided quoting them in order to put the whole thing in its political context. I’m sad to say that in 2012, that’s still where we are with climate science.
I'm not surprised to hear such a dismissive perspective from Gillis on points of view that he disagrees with.

Last year, when we still were engaging by email I sent him a link to this post on food prices and their impact. That post was based on a paper from a scholar at the International Food Policy Research Institute that discussed the many complexities of assessing "food insecurity."  The paper and other analyses raised a host of questions ignored in Gillis' article on food prices, which emphasized climate change.  I concluded in that post with:
One of the frustrations of practicing policy analysis is that you are reminded on a daily basis that we are never as smart as we think we are, and things that we thought we knew for sure, sometimes just ain't so.
Gillis responded to my post by outright dismissing the research that I had discussed, suggesting that the experts that he had chosen to report on were the ones who were correct (actually, several of the experts that he cited said the opposite of what he reported, but I digress).

I responded to Gillis by encouraging him to consider that there are complexities that he might not have considered:
It is not implausible that there are other causes for the riots, e.g., see Bahrain.  It is also not implausible that people have enough food to eat but don't like high prices anyway ... the point in his paper [discussed on my blog] is not that prices did not get higher, it is that food insecurity did not grow as conventional wisdom suggests.

I try not to dismiss detailed and rigorous quantitative policy analyses out of hand because they do not conform to my preconceptions ;-)
After another curt and dismissive email from Gillis (he has not granted me permission to publish them, unfortunately), I responded a final time:
I admire the speed and certainty that you bring to deciding what academic perspectives have merit and which do not, I can only surmise where my own 20 years of work falls out ;-)
 Where is Gillis going next?  Why, extreme events of course:
One thing I’m seeing—and I see it in our own paper as well as many other news outlets—is that people are covering the crazy weather we’re having and, more often than not, dodging the subject of whether there’s any relationship to climate change. TV weathermen are dodging that subject. Print reporters are dodging the subject. And it’s not so easy to cover because science does not have particularly good answers for us. The concept that I wrote about last week—that we’re in the middle of a sort of weather “weirding”—isn’t really a scientific concept for which you can build a weird index and figure out where we are on that index, but there are some things that scientists can say about weather extremes. Some of the extremes are very consistent with what is expected and what has long been predicted, and we’re seeing very clear trends in certain extremes like heat waves and heavy precipitation events. Reporters are not going to be able to be definitive, in real time, about whether this particular event was or wasn’t connected to climate change, but it’s a bit of a scandal that there’s not enough connecting the dots for people.
All this dodging of extremes -- It is too bad that the IPCC hasn't taken up the issue of extreme events, especially high impact events like floods, tornadoes and hurricanes around the world. If they did, I'm sure that the NYT would be all over it. ;-)

Both advocacy and journalism are fundamental to a healthy democracy, but when they are mixed together, especially on the news pages of the NYT, neither is served particularly well. Please count me among those who prefers to get news from plain vanilla journalism, not the yellow kind.


  1. Advocates are good at filtering out information that challenges preconceptions. The research is by 'deniers' or is corrupted by financial interests, or is bad or wrong. How do they know this? Well, because it is inconsistent with what they already believe.

  2. Justin Gillis doing the right thing. You are wrong here, Roger. Danny Bloom, 1949-2032, The Polar Cities Research Institute, Taiwan

  3. Gillis has a confidence that only follows from knowing, rather than inferring or forecasting, the past and future. He implicitly claims access to physical evidence and skills which simply do not exist. We have only limited, circumstantial, and correlative evidence from which we can infer past events (i.e. discrete). We have only a chaotic system which describes and circumscribes future behavior. How is it possible that a mere mortal is capable of such extraordinary omniscience?

  4. Roger, can you relay the below to Gillis (and leave it posted here):
    subject: Help me find information

    I saw your interview in the The Columbia Journalism Review and think you might be able to answer a question that has eluded my finding an answer for several years:

    What is the actual evidence that man's CO2 is causing (or will cause) dangerous warming.

    (We both know that unusual weather is NOT evidence of its cause, melting ice is NOT evidence of its cause, and correlation is NOT evidence of causation.)

    Please help me find the actual, real evidence that man’s CO2 is (or will) cause dangerous warming.

    jjkarlock at gmail.com

  5. When it comes to climate, the MSM is a totally corrupted institution.



  6. Revkin could sure do nuance well. Provided he saw and understood it. It is the last where he most often fell down, I think.

    Gillis merely expands on misunderstanding and mis-communicating - apparently, on principle!

  7. "How do we respond in this situation when the evidence is all pointing in the same direction?”

    When you're lost in the intellectual wilderness, all directions are likely to be wrong.

  8. The Honest Broker concerned itself with scientists. But it seems to be one could do a similar breakdown for journalists, putting them on a scale from dispassionate reporters of the facts, all the way to advocates/ opinion writers. Historically, there has been a binary division between news and opinion in journalism, but it's been blurring. The result of that blurring has been a polarization of the news. I, and most conservatives/liberatarians, reflexively distrust NPR, the alphabet networks, and the New York Times on a score of issues (climate, anything racially charged, any to do with partisan politics...) Those on the left distrust even more intensely anything in a Murdoch-owned news outlet.

    It used to be, as has been attributed to DP Moynihan, that one was entitled to one's own opinions, but not one's own facts. Now we all have our own facts to back up our own opinions.

    One other thing; the evolution analogy is flawed. The question whether evolution in its modern synthesis is the source for the diversity of species on earth is one with a simple yes/no answer. It comes down to whether you think supernatural intervention in some form was involved in the process. But one's opinions on climate science is more a continuum, all the way from 'disbelieve the greenhouse effect' to large climate sensitivity to CO2 spiced with a few tipping points. For example, I often am called a 'climate denialist', yet I believe in AGW, with moderate sensitivity.

    Also, as a very perceptive friend pointed out, it's really an issue of consilience. If evolution turned out to be wrong, the entire intellectual edifice of modern biology would fall. The threads of our various subfields of biological knowledge are so interwoven that in is pretty inconceivable one could weave an alternative theory with any significant explanatory value. On the other hand, if sensitivity to CO2 turned out to be considerably lower than most climate scientists currently think,all that would happen is the models would have to be tweaked. There's no fundamental significance to AGW.

  9. How did Gillis get accepted to MIT or Harvard? affirmative action? I do understand why he is employed by the NY Times - they are all nuts.
    AGW has not been proved, in fact the evidence is contrary to its existence in any significant form. His admission that he could not see any problem with the Climategate emails shows how one-dimensional he is.

  10. And 'BOOM!' there it is again. 'Climate Weirding' is definitely the new agreed upon meme amongst the CAGW crowd. Do they get a memo, or is it just like Sheldrake's morphic resonance nonsense; they all wake up one morning thinking the same thought?

  11. RWPL

    The traditional advice for obtaining the most truthful information of which you are not witness is multiple, independent sources. This advice remains prescient today.

    As for evolution, it is necessary to distinguish between a description of origin and evolutionary principles. The former, for most species, and certainly human beings, can neither be proven nor disproven. The available physical evidence is limited and circumstantial. It is widely accepted because it is a construct which fits the prevailing pattern. While the latter can be directly observed in simpler species, especially those with short life cycles, but even to an extent in complex species, including human beings. There is an active philosophical debate concerning the former, while the latter is without dispute and uncontroversial. Actually, the only controversy surrounds the cause of the underlying order in our universe. Some people attribute it to an entity which exists outside our universe (e.g. God), while others are satisfied to describe its development as spontaneous.

    Finally, the principle concern about AGW should be that we end scientific discovery prematurely, and pursue adaptation which is unsuitable to the known boundary of the system's behavior. The system can only be described as chaotic and with good reason. It is incompletely and, apparently, insufficiently, characterized and is also unwieldy. If we assume a certain stability in the system (including subterranean, terrestrial, atmospheric, extraterrestrial, etc. influences), then we can legitimately describe behavioral limits and adapt accordingly. The alternative does not address the established parameters of our system, and could even prove to be detrimental to certain populations which are subject to extreme climate patterns, especially colder temperatures. Then there is the matter of addressing the evident corruption in both the political and industrial spheres. We should not impetuously pursue mitigation strategies through involuntary exploitation (e.g. redistribution) without good cause.

  12. RP: I have worked with many journalists and Justin Gillis is on the very short list of those that I think are the best.

    It is a shame that you feel the need to step on others to build yourself up. In this case, you stepped on a giant but now appear even lower in the eyes of many.

    I say to Justin: It is a badge of courage to be smeared by Pielke Jr, Monckton, Watts, Singer, etc. Wear it with pride.

  13. -7-profmandia

    Thanks for your comment. I'd welcome your substantiation of the allegation of a "smear" in this post. I appreciate that you may disagree, which is fine of course, but is there anything factually incorrect in the piece?

  14. Eli, of course, starts at the beginning

    It was a direct consequence of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship I did during 2004-2005 academic year, where you take classes at MIT and Harvard. I was covering genetics and biotechnology for The Washington Post at the time, so I was thinking I was going to study biology and educate myself in the field I was covering. But when I got there, no one could talk about anything but climate and energy. So I started taking classes and the more I learned, the more I thought to myself, “This is the biggest problem we have—bigger than global poverty. Why am I not working on it?”


    Now being a bunny, Eli is foolish enough to believe that taking classes at MIT and Harvard are good ways to learn about a subject, even science, but of course, Roger disagrees.

    And having taken courses and learned about a subject, the average person, not of course the Honest Broker, would perhaps be able to separate the wheat from the chaff, but the Honest Broker is in the business of selling chaff.

  15. NewsBusters: NYTimes Climate Reporter Justin Gillis Compares Global-Warming Skeptics to Opponents of Evolution

  16. Then, of course, Roger says

    On the East Anglia emails that were released in 2009 Gillis makes a strong statement:

    One was forced to read the e-mails and ask, “Do they suggest any sort of scientific misconduct?” As we studied them, it became clear to me that they didn’t, so we asked ourselves, “How do we respond in this situation when the evidence is all pointing in the same direction?”


    but to save space undoubtedly omits the next couple of lines


    Points of contention exist within the science, as they should, but not about the basics of whether we have a problem. So, we asked ourselves, “What can we do to take readers back to square one, and can we better explain the underpinnings for this claim that we have a problem?” That’s when we decided to launch the series.


    So Roger asks where he slimed Justin, well, ripping a couple of sentences out of context is not what a real Honest Broker would do, but an Issue Advocate sure would (and by the way, the question was not about Climategate, but part of the response was in explaining the motivation for Gillis' Temperature Rising series.

  17. -16-EliRabbett

    Thanks .. a few replies ...

    1. Was there any sort of "scientific misconduct" to be found in the UEA emails?

    Hint: F O I

    Gillis is objectively wrong here on this point, even as people can come to different judgments about other issues like peer review, hide the decline, etc.

    2. The existence of a human influence on the climate system is a different issue than whether or not it is considered a problem, and if so what kind of problem it is. Judgments about problems are political judgments. Trying to explain or convince people that we have a problem is advocacy not journalism. (It'd be a lot like trying to convince people that Saddam Hussein is a threat on the pages of the NYT.)

    3. And BTW, I am an unabashed issue advocate, it is in plain black and white in TCF.

    Thanks! ;-)

  18. Presuming that "profmandia" is Scott Mandia, it is worth pointing out that he is a founder of "The Rapid Response Team" and a the founder of a "legal defense fund" aimed at defending Michael Mann against what he considers political attacks. The political nature of his efforts can be seen in this quote from the LA Times.

    "This group feels strongly that science and politics can't be divorced and that we need to take bold measures to not only communicate science but also to aggressively engage the denialists and politicians who attack climate science and its scientists," said Scott Mandia, professor of physical sciences at Suffolk County Community College in New York.


    So we have a clearly politically motivated advocate defending a journalist against charges of activism, and his only argument amounts to activist number 1 thinks activist number 2 is a good guy.

    And these guys wonder why they have trouble making their case?

  19. As for evolution, it is necessary to distinguish between a description of origin and evolutionary principles. The former, for most species, and certainly human beings, can neither be proven nor disproven.

    Sorry, but that's nonsense. Proof, at least to the standard of proof that science ordinarily demands, is available in bucketloads. For humans, in addition to the fossil evidence, there is now a vast store of genomic evidence. We have sequences for Humans, Neanderthals, all the great apes, and several other primates, as well as mitochondrial sequences for Denisovans. They are consistent with the elocutionary model for these species.

  20. Now being a bunny, Eli is foolish enough to believe that taking classes at MIT and Harvard are good ways to learn about a subject, even science, but of course, Roger disagrees.

    I'm not a bunny, but I have taken classes at both institutions, and I'm not so sure!

    I see both Eli and Scott Mandia start right in with personal attacks. Telling.

  21. If the man wasn't doing the bidding of his employer, he wouldn't keep his job. Given what we know about his employer, would we expect anything different?

  22. RWP:

    We are not arguing from the same position. For that reason, there will be no resolution.

  23. 12. profmandia said...
    RP: I have worked with many journalists and Justin Gillis is on the very short list of those that I think are the best.

    Well of course you think she is the best, as she pretty much agrees with you on everything.

    More telling, is that is your measure of a good journalist. Agreement is everything.

    The bulk of the world use a different measure for "best". We use it to mean those that do their job well. Irrespective of the result, but respective of their integrity.

    I vote Left. But there are people I admire on the Right. I am atheist, but there are religious people I admire deeply. I don't believe in AGW, but there are people who do whose views I respect, and whose blogs I visit. For example, Roger's.

    Everything I have ever seen from you suggests you are incapable of respecting your opponents, certainly on environmental issues. Any disagreement is a "smear" or "denial".

    Show us how you measure the "best" journalism, so that we can see how Gillis measures up. Give us an example of a good journalist or blogger who disagrees with you on the majority of positions (not just once or twice). You are pretty vociferous, so I'm sure you can find some past evidence of you defending someone who is not on your team!

  24. RWP:

    I have decided to elaborate on my position. It is defined as distinguishing between philosophy and science, distinguishing between inference and observation.

    The available evidence from which we infer conditions surrounding our origin is limited, circumstantial, and discrete. There is no capacity to demonstrate continuity. There is no capacity to demonstrate original principles. There is no hypothesis of origin which can be either tested or reproduced; other than within the limited frame of reference within which we exist. The same is not universally applicable to the associated principles.

    One other hint. I am not arguing in support of an alternative description of origin, including the most popular which is described as creation by an entity which exists outside our known physical realm and is exempt from our known physical constraints. That is something else which can only be accepted on faith.

    That said, what purpose do you perceive a philosophical argument about the conditions of our origin to serve? Note that I do not consider either evolutionary principles or biological development to be controversial. I do wonder about the nature of consciousness, and whether it is a phenomenon that originates or is expressed through our corporeal body. I do wonder about the nature and integration of perception. I do wonder about how morphogenesis is actually processed (perhaps when we understand this, then we will finally cure cancer). I recognize there are somethings which are unknown and are likely to remain so. This seems to be a limitation imposed upon us as we attempt to characterize the system within which we exist.

  25. n.n. Almost all the limitations you list on a theory of origins are limitations on almost any science. They are of interest to the epistemologist and perhaps the mathematician, but not the scientist. Science does not seek ironclad logic, merely the best explanation that fits the data.

    You'll have to be more specific about 'origin'. Origin of humans, of life, of the universe?

  26. This appears to have been eaten by Blogger, from Albatross:

    "Why Roger you smear Gillis in the title of the post when you refer to him as an "activist", that is perjorative language, especially to libertarian folks. You then allege that his work is "journalism colored with a heavy tinge of yellow". More smear by you.

    I'm curious as to who your alleged sources of "plain vanilla journalism" are Roger. Some examples please.

    Regardless, your actions here do a disservice to the term "honest broker" and this post is just more evidence that you are being disingenuous when you elect to continue referring to yourself and presenting yourself as an "honest broker". You won't like that of course, but that is the truth.

    You will probably be pleased to know that Marc Morano has picked up on your post (that reminds me, your dad now seems to consider Morano a source of reliable information in additon to FoS, GWPF and WUWT) and links to it as well as providing Justin's email. So Justin can now probably expect a torrent of abusive emails...the `skeptic`echo chamber is working just fine."