Investigative report: Climate science e-mails ugly, science is correct; “skeptics'” response even uglier

December 14, 2009

Associate Press put a team of five reporters on the e-mails purloined from the Hadley climate science group in England.  AP sought advice on interpreting the messages from other scientists involved in ethical science issues.

To the best of my knowledge, this is the only group that has gone through the entire mass to see what is really shown — more than a million words, the AP story estimated.

Veteran climate issue reporter Seth Borenstein wrote up the story:  Scientists in the heat of research and interpretation, on deadline with government policy makers, often attacked unfairly — one received death threats for his work on climate change.  Under those conditions, one might understand that the scientists were defensive and rude, in private, about their critics.  One of the critics harassed scientists with repeated FOI requests, then didn’t use the data.  In one case, a critic published a paper based on bad data — what the critics accused the scientists of doing.

But in the end, there was no pattern of data fixing.   Independent reviews today confirm that independently-generated studies confirm the warming the scientists wrote about.

Of course, that doesn’t stop the hecklers of the scientists from complaining, either about the science or the way it’s reported.  Rather than deal with the material AP reported, for example, warming blogger Anthony Watts attacked the reporter who wrote the story, complaining that he is “too close” to the story, since he seems to have been covering the story long enough that his e-mail appears in the purloined e-mails.

‘You can’t report the news because you know too much,’ is Watts’s complaint.

In the e-mail cited, Seth Borenstein wrote to some of the world’s best scientists in the field and asked their opinions about a paper making some contrary claims.

To Watts, seeking information from the experts is beyond the pale.  He calls it an ethical infraction.

Watts is unbound by such ethical rules, however, and so can make up stuff like this with abandon.  Watts’ charge is hooey, foul play, and stupid.  In the headline to his post, Watts wrote, “AP’s Seth Borenstein is just too damn cozy with the people he covers – time for AP to do something about it.”

That’s right, AP — it’s time Borenstein got a promotion for doing the legwork, honestly, that critics of the science have refused to do.  Borenstein’s reporting is important.  The story goes beyond mere repeating of press releases, beyond the mere “he-said/he-said” norm.  Borenstein, in unemotional, clear and cool terms, indicted the critics of warming, by factually reporting the events.  Give that man and his team a Pulitzer Prize.

Why shouldn’t reporters go to the experts?  Why shouldn’t they ask the opinions of all sides in a science debate?

Think about it for a moment:  Watts’s complaint is that Borenstein sought fairness in reporting on Watts’s side’s claim.  Because Borenstein refused to show the bias Watts wants, Watts went after Borenstein.

Could there be a more clear and dramatic illustration of why the scientists’ ire is raised by such silly criticism?

Watts quotes at length from the Associated Press Statement of News Values and Principles, slyly implying by doing so that Borenstein violated the rules somewhere.  Not so.

Watts worries about “getting too cozy with sources.”  Read his blog.  Watts prefers to be the source — but he also reports on the debate.

Watts would do well to read that AP ethical statement again, and take it to heart.

His charges are groundless, scurrilous in the light of the AP team’s going to great lengths to be fair to all sides.  Watts and other critics bank on people being shocked that scientists get angry.   Watts and his colleagues have campaigned across the web, on television and in print, to have these scientists tarred and feathered, and their science dismissed — though there is not handful of feathers to weigh against the mountains of evidence the scientists accumulated and published over the past 50 years.

Do not take my word for it.  Read the AP storyRead Watts’s rant.  Read the e-mails, if you wish (you can find them from my opinionated take on the flap).  Check with the scientists you know and trust on their views of the science done and reported.

I won a couple of minor investigative journalism awards in college.  I have been a member of the Society of Professional Journalists off and on since 1974 (not much since I quit doing that stuff full time).  I have worked with some of the best investigative journalists and Congressional investigators in my duties with the Senate.  I’ve been a member of the FOIA committees in Utah and Maryland.  I’ve lobbied in three states for freedom of information.  I know a little bit about investigative reporting and fairness.  And yes, IAAL.

Borenstein’s piece is solid and good.  In light of the firestorm Watts hopes to bring down on it, Borenstein’s article is a shining example of high ethics in journalism.  It deserves your reading.

If the critics had data denying warming, or denying human causation of warming, why are they hiding it so well?  If they have the data to prove the scientists are in error, why not publish it, instead of sniping at a wire service reporter who merely tells the story?

Critics don’t have the data to contest the hard work of the scientists.  They don’t have the data to make a case against either warming or human causation.  And now we all know.

Post Script:  Um, and , you know, it’s not like Borenstein hasn’t done some stuff over the years to make it look like he’s been on Watts’s side:  Stoat, Mooney’s Intersection, Island of Doubt.  Watts’ fit may put a gloss on Borenstein’s work that wasn’t there to begin with.

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Associated Press claims to own Thomas Jefferson’s words

August 3, 2009

Update:  See comment from Mr. Higginbotham; AP claims machine error and not arrogance.

Potential collisions are delicious:  Associated Press versus the Library of Congress’s “Thomas” legislation tracker;  Associated Press versus the Supreme Court for quoting the Declaration of Independence.

Associated Press versus the Southern Baptist Convention and Holy See for quoting the Bible, in phrases Jefferson used in his mashup of the New Testament.

Sotomayor either doesn’t know what she’s in for, or she saw this coming and is going to relish the ride.

James Grimmelman at The Laboratorium has been tracking AP’s attempts to wring pennies out of penniless bloggers and scholars for using AP product.  On the one hand, AP certainly deserves credit and payment for the great work it does reporting the news.

On the other hand, AP policies don’t seem much concerned with reporting news or creating new product that can make money for the organization, but instead seem bent on punishing people who read Associated Press stories.  (Full disclosure:  I make it a point to avoid AP stories and images on topics of my interest just to avoid the conflict — oddly, I’ve found that this actually does shift my news sources on major stories.)

Grimmelman caught AP red-handed in what must be a much embarrassing gaffe:  He asked permission from AP to quote from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson which AP had not published.

Sure enough, AP told him he owed them $12 to quote the letter, and AP offered to restrict the uses of the letter.

Grimmelman said:

The Associated Press has become so deranged, so disconnected from reality, that it will sell you a “license” to quote words it didn’t write and doesn’t own. Here, check it out:

Screen capture of Associated Presss charging for a Thomas Jefferson letter in the public domain - The LaboratoriumScreen capture of Associated Presss charging for a Thomas Jefferson letter in the public domain – The Laboratorium

These things threaten to put hoax makers out of business. Who could think of something so absurd? Grimmelman said:

I paid $12 for this “license.” Those words don’t even come from the article they charged me 46 cents a word to quote from (and that’s with the educational discount). No, they’re from Thomas Jefferson’s letter to Isaac McPherson, in which Jefferson argues that copyright has no basis in natural law.

(A commenter notes that Jefferson was actually writing about patents, but close is good enough in hand grenades and freedom of the press and freedom of thought.)

Grimmelman has more thoughts (and links to his earlier work on the issue)Boing-Boing did a cover of Grimmelman’s piece.

James Grimmelman pwns AP instead.

Tip of the old scrub brush to Dr. Pamela Bumsted.

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