Friday, October 7, 2011

Journalism, science and rising sea level, part II

Some weeks ago, we discussed here on klimazwiebel a spiegel-online article by Alex Bojanowski (here the English version). This article has made an astonishing career and is published now in a new version in nature geoscience (unfortunately hidden behind a paywall). The main message of the article, which is based on a choice of scientific literature, is that there is no scientific consensus on the question of sea level rise. Quite the contrary, he says,  there are huge differences in the estimates. According to Mr. Bojanowski, a group of 18 scientists from 10 different countries is commissioned by the IPCC  "to decide which prognoses will be considered in the next United Nations (UN) climate report."
In my opinion, there are two major points of interest, one concerning the (change of) content, and the other one concerning the specific journalistic perspective. Both are closely interrelated, which makes things really interesting. The articles give a great insight into the blurring boundaries between science, media and the public.

Concerning the changes from the previous (English) spiegel-online version to the one in nature geoscience, the following paragraph i of special interest:

spiegel online:
The last IPCC report, which was issued in 2007, forecast an ocean level rise of up to 59 centimeters by the end of the century. Now, the UN experts must once again sift through hundreds of reports, and the haggling over their findings is not unlike the bargaining for the best price at the bazaar. On the one hand, researchers have published forecasts that are far higher than the result reported in the last IPCC report. On the other, sea level measurements have yet to prove any meaningful rise though there is agreement that they are, on global average, rising.
nature geoscience:
In 2007, the latest IPCC report predicted sea-level rise of up to 59 cm by the end of the century — plus a potential contribution of unknown magnitude from poorly understood ice dynamics in Greenland and Antarctica. Since then, researchers have published alarming sea-level projections that far exceed the range of the 2007 report (for example, Geophys. Res. Lett. 37, L07703; 2010). However, actual measurements of sea level do not back up these projections. So far, scientists have neither observed an extreme rise nor reached a consensus on the question of whether sea level has been going up more quickly in recent years. There is only one certainty: in global average terms, the water is rising
"A potential contribution" was added to the 59cm; the bazaar disappeared; a scientific reference was added, forecasts have turned into projections.

Another noteworthy difference is the complete disappearance of Stefan Rahmstorf in the new nature geoscience version. In the spiegel article, he played the role of the extreme sea-level-rise advocate; in the new one, James Hansen is left alone with a blank 5 meter rise until the end of the century (Hansen's statement was expressed with more caution in the spiegel article).

[On the funny side we can note that our Eduardo Zorita in the first version still correctly worked at the Helmholtz Zentrum; now he is put back to work at the more familiar GKSS  -:)]

I am sure that the expert will discover more interesting changes or corrections. As his climate reporting colleagues at spiegel-online, Bojanowski  is well read and knows the difference between journalism and science; he added references and tempered his expressive vocabulary (bazaar); on the other hand, the lively discussions on the extended peer-review platforms in the blogosphere (maybe including klimazwiebel?) and discussions at the journalism-science interface such as workshops or conferences (where spiegel journalists quite frequently show up), may have left their traces in the new version.

But for me the even more exciting contribution is a comment by Alex Bojanowski in nature geoscience about "The journalist's take", which is added in an extra box. Here he reflects on his own role and the relation between media, science and the public. After stating that "Climate research is a difficult subject for a journalist", and that the topic usually tends to "generate vigorous debate", he positions himself as a journalist:
And the difficulties don’t end there. On some key questions, such as future sea-level rise, the scientists just do not know the answer. The worried public expects reliable prognoses nevertheless. The politicization of climate change does not help either. Open public debate of new research is often seriously hampered: for fear of being pigeonholed as ‘sceptics’ or ‘alarmists’, journalists as much as scientists often do not air their criticisms. But of course, asking critical questions is not a sign of malice. From a reporter’s point of view, it is essential to challenge what you hear: it marks the boundary between advertising and journalism.
From here, he names the three basics each student of media studies knows by heart:
• Relevance: sea-level rise is directly important to many people, not only for coast dwellers but also for everyone whose taxes will be spent on coastal protection.
• Bad news makes ‘good’ news: people want know when danger is looming.
• Status: the UN, the world’s most senior international organization, addresses the question. 

So far, so good. I think Alex Bojanowski does here a great job in easily transcending the borders between journalism and science. He reads and quotes relevant scientific literature, while keeping an outsider status at the same time. His narrative frame is the IPCC group of 18 scientists from 10 countries, who will have to make a decision; I admittedly cannot judge how much of this is just made-up for illustration or if this is really the case - isn't the IPCC decision making process more complex in reality? Anyway, the courageous journalist goes into the lion's den, and one can hear almost the grunting of the lions who fight for telling their piece of truth or else....
The blurring of the boundaries takes place from both sides, of course. Scientists have long discovered the role of narrative strategies, too - many of them are omnipresent in the media. Furthermore, the scientific debate is for sure influenced by the public debate, which is channeled by journalists such as Bojanowski.


Anonymous said...

And which journalistic principle implied the use of "bazaar" in SPIEGEL? Good enough for readers of SPIEGEL, good for SPIEGEL's circulation but of course left out in serious discussion in Nature Geoscience.


Anonymous said...

Any discussion on sea level changes is inadequate unless it addresses known causes of land movement.

It is well known for example that in areas that are affected by coal mining, there is land subsidence. Similarly, water extraction can cause subsidence. On the other hand, tectonic movements can cause either subsidence or emergence (rebound after glaciers melt, volcanic activity).

Sea level change measurements vary over a wide range around the world, and local land rise and fall is surely a factor. However, for some reason, the scientists addressing sea level change seem to neglect this important issue.

Vinny Burgoo said...

'However, for some reason, the scientists addressing sea level change seem to neglect this important issue.'

No, Anonymous, they don't.

(There's scope for a profitable study of the use of the phrase 'this important issue'. How often does it signify [redacted])

Anonymous said...

thanks for posting

nice issue

both articles are different (NG / spiegel)

would be interesting why

different audience maybe

more interesting seems to be "the journalist`s take" here

we use to neglect the inside view of the media most of the time it seems


stan said...

I'm curious. How much has Rahmstorf's reputation suffered as a result of the "worse than we thought" travesty? And after he was exposed for amateurish incompetence in statistics, has there been any movement among climate scientists toward getting help from people with some expertise in stats?

Werner Krauss said...

Stan, maybe Rahmstorf's reputation didn't suffer at all? Without any background knowledge - I assume that Rahmstorf doesn't appear in the NG version, because maybe he intervened, and as a consequence, Bojanowski corrected his first spiegel-version. We don't know about the reasons.

I am not a natural scientist, so my competence in these questions is limited. But I don't like assumptions like "travesty", "amateurish incompetence" etc. This kind of accusations easily falls back on the one who makes them. Bad education kills good arguments.

Anonymous said...

Dear Werner Krauss,

I'm curious about another thing, but can't check it for myself because of the paywall (32$ is rather breathtaking):

In SPIEGEL Bojanowski gave some hints, that the acceleration of sea level rise might be an artefact, caused by a switch from tide gauge data to satellite altimetry. A strange assertion I've heard only from the "sceptical camp" before.

In his Nature Geoscience contribution Bojanowski gives a reference, Merrifield, M. A., S. T. Merrifield, G. T. Mitchum, 2009: An Anomalous Recent Acceleration of Global Sea Level Rise. J. Climate, 22, 5772–5781.
doi: 10.1175/2009JCLI2985.1
, who wrote in the abstract:

"The average global sea level trend for the time segments centered on 1962–90 is 1.5 ± 0.5 mm yr−1 (standard error), in agreement with previous estimates of late twentieth-century sea level rise. After 1990, the global trend increases to the most recent rate of 3.2 ± 0.4 mm yr−1, matching estimates obtained from satellite altimetry." in contradiction to Bojanowski's hint.

Please could you check if Bojanowski changed this part of his text? Maybe you could cite this part?


Werner Krauss said...

Dear Andreas,

In NG, he writes:

"Until 1993, the data were based only on readings from in situ tide gauges. Since 1993, satellites have also been used to measure the oceans. These have registered a rise of as much as three millimetres per year. Some studies see a recent acceleration in the rise in sea level (for example, J. Climate 22, 5772–5781; 2009)."

I think this replaces the following paragraph from spiegel online:

"Rahmstorf is not alone in his belief that the sea level rise has accelerated. Data up until 1993, based on coastal measurements, show an annual rise of 1.7 millimeters. Since then, however, satellite measurements have indicated a rise of three millimeters per year."

In NG, he goes on with Church, as in spiegel:

"But deciding what constitutes an acceleration is not so simple, as John Church of Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation and head of the IPCC Sea Level Working Group points out: “The rate of rise has increased from the nineteenth to the twentieth century and during the twentieth century.” The rate of rise in recent years is larger than the twentieth century average, but whether or not this is a further acceleration is not yet clear, says Church."

Hope this helps!

Anonymous said...

@ Werner Krauß

Vielen Dank für ihre Bemühungen, ja, es hat mir sehr geholfen. Ich möchte mich revanchieren und kurz meine Ergebnisse zusammenfassen, möglicherweise finden Sie daran auch Interesse. Im SPIEGEL-Artikel stand:

"Bis 1993 schwollen die Meere pro Jahr um durchschnittlich 1,7 Millimeter an - die Daten beruhten bis dahin auf Küstenpegeln. Seit 1993 jedoch vermessen Satelliten die Ozeane. Sie stellten einen Anstieg von gut drei Millimetern pro Jahr fest. Eine Beschleunigung also?

Ein Laie wird diesen Abschnitt vermutlich so deuten, dass es gut möglich sei, dass die jüngere gemessene Beschleunigung des Meeresspiegelanstiegs ein Artefakt sein könnte, hervorgerufen durch die Umstellung der Messmethode. Absicht oder einfach unglücklich formuliert?

Jetzt heißt es in NG:

"Until 1993, the data were based only on readings from in situ tide gauges. Since 1993, satellites have also been used to measure the oceans. These have registered a rise of as much as three millimetres per year. Some studies see a recent acceleration in the rise in sea level (for example, J. Climate 22, 5772–5781; 2009)."

Um Längen besser, man beachte das Schlüsselwort "also". Es wäre sogar perfekt, wenn aus dem neuen letzten Satz hervorginge, dass die "some studies" sich eben nicht auf Satellitenmessungen, sondern auf Pegelmessungen nach 1993 beziehen. Die angegebene Referenz hatte ich in meinem letzten Kommentar schon zitiert, dort wird ausgesagt, dass die Pegelmessungen in Übereinstimmungen mit den Satellitendaten liegen.

Ich schließe mit einer Zusammenfassung meiner Eindrücke ab, basierend auf den vorliegenden Fragmenten aus dem NG-Artikel:

Ich hatte damals im Thread zum SPIEGEL-Artikel ausgedrückt, dass bei allem Lob zur Recherchearbeit Bojanowskis dieser spezielle Subtext geärgert hat. Z.B. hat das Wort "Basar" eine bestimmte Konnotation, am meisten störte mich die oben zitierte Passage.

All das, was mich damals geärgert hat, ist nun verschwunden, die jetzt vorliegenden Textstücke empfinde ich als ausgezeichnet.

Sehr bedauerlich, dass die SPIEGEL-Leser nur die zweitbeste Version bekommen habe, man fragt sich warum?

- Hat Bojanowski weiter recherchiert, hat er Rückmeldungen aufgenommen?

- Hat Nature Geoscience einfach ein anderes Niveau, dem man Rechnung getragen wurde?

- Oder was ich mich am meisten frage:
Ist diese Geschichte möglicherweise ein exemplarisches Lehrstück dafür, wie Journalismus heute funktioniert?
Vielleicht reicht gute Recherche nicht, die Leserschaft verlangt mehr, z.B. die Aufladung des Textes durch Emotionen und kontroverse Thesen.

Oben wurde kurz diskutiert, warum Rahmstorf nicht mehr auftaucht. Passend zu meiner letzten Hypothese vermute ich mal, dies war der speziell deutschen Diskussion geschuldet. In deutschen Skeptikerkreisen sind Rahmstorf und Schellnhuber die ultimativen Reizfiguren. Es war abzusehen, dass alleine die Nennung von Rahmstorf neben den anderen Spitzen (z.B. "Basar") zu einer heftigen Diskussion im Kommentarforum führen wird, zahlreiche Klicks und Kommentare sind sicher. Ich weiß nicht, wie Online-Journalismus funktioniert und kann daher auch nicht beurteilen, ob an Klicks und Kommentaren der Erfolg eines Beitrags gemessen wird, ich kann es aber auch nicht ausschließen.

Viele Grüße

Werner Krauss said...

Thanks for the interesting observations, Andreas. Only Alex Bojanowski can answer your questions about the change he made, I guess. Maybe he read your previous comments here on klimazwiebel? Some clues about his method you find in the box about the journalist's take, where he highlights "relevance", "good news, bad news", and status (UN).
I think "bazaar" is an interesting term. Doesn't it fit well? When differences are so great, and pressure is high to publish an estimate, there necessarily have to be negotiations - and on a Basar, you negotiate the prices. Nothing wrong about that.
all in all, I think there is a new quality in climate reporting as presented by Bojanwski, Traufetter or others. Of course, they are provocative, but they are well informed.
Finding Bojanowski in GN shows how relevant their reporting is; the interface between science and media is blurring more and more. Not at least with journals as Nature, which promote this blurring in selling science a news.

Anonymous said...

I understood at once Bojanowski's "bazaar". He tried to express that sea level rise is a very complex issue far away from any kind of consensus. But the scientists are fighting with arguments, that's the important difference. I admit not having a better metaphor, but Bojanowski is showing himself in GN how to do better.

I agree, it's a great success and honour for Bojanowski being published in GN. And of course, I like well informed journalist, please more.

Maybe without B.'s fondness of provocations (sort of "Curry-style") I would really enjoy his work. So I appreciate more Guardian's George Monbiot. Hope, you can understand now a little better, why Bojanowski's remarks on sea level rise were really annoying me. Yes, these few sentences were provoking, and they provoked some harsh reactions. Both is not surprising.

Best regards