On science blogs this week: Lightning

CLIMATE CHANGE IS CLOUDY AND NOT FAIR. The biggest (or at least the most explosive) science story of the week, no argument, has got to be that cloudy denialist climate change paper and its striking aftermath, which involved a self-immolating editor as sacrificial lamb. But a number of the blog posts about it are inside baseball, assuming deep previous knowledge of climate debates and debaters. If, like me, climate matters have not been your specialty, you are likely to find yourself without a scorecard. So here I will link mostly to general posts that fill in the background pretty adequately.

Cloud-to-ground lightning. Credit: John R. Southern

Charlie Petit did a swell brief summary at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, emphasizing last week's resignation of the editor of the journal, Wolfgang Wagner, that published the paper several weeks ago, Remote Sensing, Petit also links back to his original discussion of that paper, authored by Roy Spencer and William Braswell at the University of Alabama. Petit provides many links to news stories and blog posts, and even summarizes the hot discussion on the National Association of Science Writers listserv.

At the American Geophysical Union blog Dan's Wild Wild Science Journal, meteorologist Dan Satterfield samples headlines and tweets and reprints the editor's mea culpa in toto. At ScienceInsider, Richard Kerr interviews Wagner, who blames the paper on a flawed reviewing process.

Wagner's resignation, more than the vexed question of whether the paper was accurate or not, figured in many discussions. Was it appropriate (or necessary) to resign, or should he simply have retracted the paper? At On Research, Earle Holland concluded

This was misplaced nobility, suicide by ethics, and no real gain resulted.

It remains to be seen whether his resignation was Wagner's suicide or even misplaced nobility. But it is wrong to say no real gain resulted. His resignation made these events into a story, a story that bestowed a much higher profile, and much wider circulation, not just on critiques of the original paper, but on critiques of the way the media handled that paper when it was published — uncritically, mostly.

These days it's quite hard to get news or magazine editors interested in climate controversy stories; so many have crossed their desks over the years that they are jaded and bored. But somebody resigning on principle doesn't happen every day; it is a fresh and juicy angle that will get even a bored editor on board. The fact that so much has been written about this topic in the last few days, taking off from the editor's resignation, proves the point. (I see that Keith Kloor, writing at the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media, agrees.) If the editor wanted to do what he could to undercut a paper he's now sorry he published, then resigning was an excellent choice. (Let me add hastily that of course I have no way of knowing whether that's what he intended. But intended or not, that's what he achieved.)

At Reason Hit & Run, Ronald Bailey also summarizes, discussing newly published critiques of the paper, including one by Andrew Dessler of Texas A&M, charging that Spencer and Braswell ran 14 climate models but used data only from the six that supported their contentions. Bailey reprints Dessler's persuasive graphics.

Other noteworthy blog posts include one from Stoat, who wants to know the identity of the reviewers of the paper and if it's true they were selected from among climate skeptics.

Among the strongest defenders of the paper is Anthony Watts, who has posted several items on his blog Watts Up With That. These are among those that tend to assume familiarity with the players in climate change debates. Watts is particularly irritated by the new Dessler critique, regarding the fact that it was published only six weeks after the original paper with deep suspicion. His take:

If anyone needs a clear, concise, and irrefutable example of how peer review in climate science is biased for the consensus and against skeptics, this is it.

Not that I agree that speed of rebuttal is unseemly, especially for analyses of controversial scientific claims. Indeed, let us hope it is a trend. Since these days even the most staid scientific journals are eager to see their names in print, they will be motivated to publish what gets them there. That may mean faster rebuttals. Alas, that pressure to raise a journal's profile might result in more iffy science too.

The original credulous media performance on the paper is blasted by Chris Mooney at the Intersection, who argues that real science journalists wouldn't have accepted the paper's claims without consulting other experts. But of course — Petit made this same point — there are few real science journalists these days.

OPEN UP THE OPEN NOTEBOOK. If you write about science and haven't yet made the acquaintance of The Open Notebook ("The story behind the best science stories"), check it out asap. A project by science writers Siri Carpenter and Jeanne Erdmann, the blog quizzes science writers (and sometimes their editors) about how they put together a specific story. This is a nuts-and-bolts practical way of sharing nuts-and-bolts practical information on craft, but it's something nobody's done before. The practical information includes pitch letters and edited drafts for study.

Take, for example, the most recent post, which is an interview with Michelle Nijhuis about a feature she did for Smithsonian on white-nose syndrome, a fungus ravaging bat populations. Open Notebook makes clear to infant science writers that a hard slog is characteristic of fine science-writing. In this case Nijhuis had to wait a year to accompany her tame scientist on a research trip. It's a little disheartening too, because the interview makes oh so clear how crucial it is to be able to travel for a story. Which is something few of us can find the resources to do these days — and there's no prospect that situation will change, either. Nijhuis was able to do it only because she had some fellowship money.

Speaking of which, Carpenter and Erdmann recently got a grant from NASW for the Open Notebook project and are using a lot of it to pay other writers for pieces, bless their hearts. And they have other plans too. In an email they say:

In the next few weeks, we're starting to expand the site's scope in a few ways. We'll be starting to run some topical stories on aspects of the craft (e.g., finding structure; sharpening ideas; researching historical scientific material). We've also begun using multimedia in some interviews ... [and] we are building a database of successful magazine pitches, which we hope to launch soon.

THE UPCOMING TENTH ANNIVERSARY OF 9-11 MEANS 9-11 BLOGGING. But there's not much science or even health blogging about the 9-11 anniversary Sunday. Which I guess is perfectly appropriate, since science had next to nothing to do with that stunning event, and even the health consequences haven't been as bad as forecast. Some brief links:

At NPR's Shots health blog, we learn that health and rescue personnel who worked at Ground Zero have a lower death rate than those who didn't. Nancy Shute reports on the puzzles. OTOH, Katherine Hobson at the Wall St Journal Health blog reports that firefighters who worked at Ground Zero are more likely to develop cancer than those who didn't. But Shirley Wang says most people who survived exposure to the attacks have not developed post-traumatic stress or any other mental disorder.

At SciAm's Cross-Check, John Horgan explores how 9-11 drove us to overreact to the threat of terrorism. Except for being struck by lightning (which, metaphorically speaking, I guess 9-11 was), a terrorist attack is statistically the least likely cause of premature death there is. We are, he believes, headed toward a less terrifying world.

From his lips to God's ear.

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