Elizabeth Kolbert Confronts Climategate

The New Yorker website has a weekly podcast called The Political Scene. I’ve listened to almost all of them. This week’s was unlike any other.

The brief description is “Elizabeth Kolbert and Peter J. Boyer discuss recent attacks on climate science.” Never before have the discussants been so far apart. They should have replaced discuss with debate. Boyer hasn’t written a word about climate science — or even science. He moved from the New York Times to The New Yorker after he wrote an (excellent) book about television. Recently he’s covered politics. Kolbert has written dozens of articles and a book about climate science. In spite of this, the moderator (Dorothy Wickenden, executive editor of the magazine), asked Boyer to describe the Climategate emails and their significance. They showed, he said, “an intolerance [by the scientists] of skepticism of their narrative . .  this was a real shock to the system and a real shock to the global warming consensus.” I think any unbiased observer would agree.

Then Wickenden asked Kolbert what she thought:

KOLBERT  I don’t agree with him [Boyer] . . . One of the things that comes out in these emails is the climate scientists’ frustration with having to deal with people who use the data in all sorts of irresponsible ways. . . I’m not aware of any instances where people have had to go back and had to say “you’re right and the conclusion we drew was wrong.”

BOYER Perhaps we could say that language was used in these communications that would allow for an interpretation that perhaps there was fudging or something going on that needed to be obscured. There was a whole tone of intolerance of questioning of their data or — and this was what was so disturbing to hear from scientists — any questioning of what sounded an awful lot like their mission.

Boyer went on and on — as if he were the expert. (And he clearly knew what he was talking about.) Then Wickenden turned to the United Nations IPCC report and asked Kolbert what she thought of recent criticism (which Wickenden learned about from the NY Times).

KOLBERT . . . [The error was in Part 2.] In [Part 2 of] this report, which was literally 986 pages long, there were a couple of things inserted that weren’t from the peer-reviewed literature. . . .

BOYER Well, Betsy, I’m sorry, these aren’t just 986 pages of Scripture, and then a couple of little awkward errant notations on the side. The IPCC isn’t an inconsequential body. Al Gore and Mr. Pachauri shared the Nobel Prize. They are granted a level of authority when they speak. These reports were certainly granted authority. . .

KOLBERT [interrupting] I guess I should ask you: What is your point? . . .

BOYER . . . The consensus about the consensus has begun to crack. That’s just the political reality . . . There is a crack in the consensus.

Kolbert has published hundreds of thousands of words about global warming in the most prestigious magazine in the world. That she is unable to see or at least say this basic truth but must have someone else say it is another sign of problems with her reporting.

Until now, all speakers on The Political Scene have sounded calm and confident. On rare occasions they disagree, but never like this. And the conversation always has a relaxed tone. Not this time. Boyer sounded calm and confident but I thought Kolbert sounded nervous and upset. With good reason: It struck me as a huge and public rebuke from her employer. She’s been the expert. Now someone with no credentials has been allowed to say she’s wrong — has been brought on the program, apparently, in order to disagree with her. As if it’s no longer clear she’s right. And her dismissal of the Climategate emails, as if they taught her nothing, didn’t help her. The debate with Boyer was preceded and followed by softball questions by Wickenden to Kolbert. They struck me as attempts to soften the blow, as did a comment at the end by Boyer about a Super Bowl commercial.

7 Replies to “Elizabeth Kolbert Confronts Climategate”

  1. Seth:

    It makes sense to me that a political writer will focus on the politics (for example, Boyer’s statement, “That’s just the political reality . . . There is a crack in the consensus.”), while a science writer will focus on the science.

  2. Andrew, that’s an interesting point. Kolbert is not a science write in the usual sense. The only science she writes about is climate science. Before writing about climate science, she wrote about politics. I suppose she got permission to write about global warming by telling her bosses that the science was settled, the news in the coming years will be about the translation of science into action, which is basically politics. Now that the science turns out not to be settled, she is in a difficult position.

  3. Andrew, that’s a great post you link to, but doesn’t suggest anything is settled. The comments provide a number of interesting critiques of the post which aren’t convincingly refuted. I’m an agnostic on the extent and signicance of anthropogenic influence on the climate.

    Most interesting to me is how difficult it seems for people to remove their emotions from the debate. Informed, intelligent people take positions on either side and seem frustrated by, angry at, irritated with or hostile toward people who don’t share their opinions.

  4. Andrew, yes, you and I differ greatly on how much we (the scientific community) actually know about this. Phil thinks the science is settled, so do you, but I think the science (e.g., Hansen) is far less certain than claimed. I also believe its overstatedness will eventually become clear. (This post is about one small example of that.) Phil says, “how could 90% of the experts be wrong?” I say: Lots of people move into the “wrong” column when there is money, attention, and status to be made by such a move. Especially when the fact that you’re wrong is hard for the general public to realize. (E.g., dermatologists claiming that acne isn’t caused by diet. An example where >90% of the experts are wrong.) I wish there was a prediction market where I could put money on my belief.

  5. Thanks, Will. I suppose he was saying that he wasn’t in the least shocked by the Climategate emails. If he didn’t learn something from the emails, he’s not too bright. If he thinks others didn’t learn from them, he’s wrong.

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