Old Science Caught in New Media Whirlwind

The right-leaning Drudge Report made it a habit in November and December to trumpet any and all headlines relating to the “Climategate” controversy — the story involving UK scientist Phil Jones, the head of the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit, whose emails attacking critics of global warming found their way onto the Internet after his account was hacked.

Those emails raised suspicions among global warming deniers that Jones was part of a conspiracy to hide or destroy climate data that would help make their case. However, a House of Commons inquiry on Tuesday cleared Jones of any possible wrongdoing.

“Within our limited inquiry and the evidence we took, the reputation of Professor Jones and the CRU remains intact,” the House Science and Technology Committee announced in its 60-page report. “We have found no reason in this unfortunate episode to challenge the scientific consensus that global warming is happening and is induced by human activity.”

As of early Wednesday afternoon Pacific time, that particular headine was no where to be found on the Drudge Report. It remains to be seen whether any of the mainstream media outlets that jumped on what they deemed a sufficiently scandalous story — one that was tagged with the now-familar “-gate” suffix — will publish or broadcast any follow-ups that mention Jones’ exoneration.

There’s no denying the Web’s role in inflating this story to cable-channel-worthy proportions. The initial reports traveled around the world at light-speed thanks to the blogosphere, emails and social network links — with a heavy assist from talk radio — and it was only a matter of time before traditional media outlets found room on their front pages and broadcast rundowns. The scientific community, more used to slow, painstaking research that can take years to produce — and years more to get published — may be unprepared to defend itself in the age of social media.

A Media Set on Medium

The original claims of falsified information propping up a wide-ranging hoax regarding climate change played right into the modern media’s need to focus on just one aspect of a complex issue, rather than attempt to tell the larger story, said David Domke, chairman of the University of Washington’s department of communications and author of The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America. The advent of new media has only exacerbated that trend.

“It’s always been the case but in the new media environment, there’s not even the desire for the context, for the nuance,” Domke told TechNewsWorld. “At least in the mainstream media, they have a desire to do that. They may fail — often miserably — but they feel it in their bones that they should be able to tell you the whole story. The new media is interested, by and large, in promoting a certain meme or certain tidbit and going with it, and it circulates so quickly and so widely and just gets pounded into the networks, on the right or on the left.”

There’s no denying the game-changing role of the Internet and its ability to help scientists disclose their data and the methods they used to acquire it, said Michael Halpern, manager of the scientific integrity program for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

However, the scientific community’s culture — which has long preferred addressing contentious science topics through reasoned debate and measured challenges — can put researchers at a disadvantage in what Halpern calls the “assymetric warfare” enabled by the Web.

“Scientists do need to get a step ahead, and when it comes to the Internet, turning the other cheek doesn’t always suffice,” Halpern told TechNewsWorld. “Scientists find themselves increasingly under attack, and need to become more savvy to defend not only the scientific process but also explain their work to the public.”

Answering Requests for Data

The House of Commons committee did take Jones and the University of East Anglia to task for not acceding to Freedom of Information requests for climate data. The numerous requests were made by climate change skeptics whose only purpose was to throw roadblocks in the path of his department’s research, Jones argued.

Jones and his group would have run into problems no matter which path they chose to take, said John M. Wallace, a professor in the department of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, who has reviewed research from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and is familiar with the political landmines surrounding this issue.

“If they had acceded to all these requests, there was no end to them, and the resources they had to just handle the volume of requests were limited,” Wallace told TechNewsWorld. “There were also legitimate questions as to whether they were allowed to give out data from other countries that was given to them with strings attached as to how they could be used.”

There needs to be a formal process in place that states what obligations researchers have in sharing data with outside interests, acknowledged Wallace, but he doesn’t see a need for the scientific community to get more aggressive with media relations tactics because of “Climategate.”

“I guess I personally don’t think all that much damage has been done,” he said. “I hear lots of loud clamors and cries from those who have a vested interest in this, but I”m not sure that the American public or world public has been engrossed in this as some people seem to think. Personally, I feel we’ve got better things to do [than be] preoccupied with these very vitriolic exchanges.”

The universities that employ scientists such as Jones should ride to their defense, commented the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Halpern. “The institutions that represent scientists, whether universities or societies, really need to step up into the void and defend both the processes and the individual scientists themselves.”


  • George_Brewer is completely wrong. Good science has needed defending since the time of Galileo. Whenever good science has proven something that contradicts religious or conservative dogma, it has been slandered. For example despite the mountains of proof offered, the majority of Americans still doubt evolution. Care to guess why? It doesn’t matter what kind of solid evidence you have, if someone does not want your claims to be true they will find an excuse to tear you down and conceal the truth. Fox News pundit, O’reily even called teaching science in science class fascist because it will lead students to question and seek out evidence and not just believe thing because they’re told.

    There are people still acting like the hacked and quote mined emails in "climategate" are accurate. These are also the people who think the Acorn videos on Drudge were unedited (another lie perpetuated by the right wing media). The Drudge was also shy on informing its viewers how members of the GOP in Kentucky were convicted of manipulating the electronic voting results for the past decade.

    When it comes down to it good science will need to develop better ways to inform people because those who would suppress it for their own reasons will always be better funded and lacking in morals.

  • Why would scientists need to learn new media tricks? Good science needs no defense. Bad science uses tricks to hide the faulty supposition, bad experimentation, and/or contradictory results. Unfortunately, we are unable to experiment on the climate. We can run simulations, gather data and draw correlations, but experiment?

    No offense to the House of Commons, but what are their qualifications, other than legislative body to examine the evidence and render a judgement? Opinion, yes. Judgement? No!

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