Kudos to Justin Gillis

I’ve been meaning for a while to mention how impressed I am with the new climate science reporter at the New York Times, Justin Gillis. Now, I can’t put it off any longer, since he’s just written a profile of Lonnie Thompson, the protagonist in my first book. Justin did an excellent job, considering how difficult it is to fit as rich a life as Lonnie’s into 3,000 words. He hit just the right tones in his brief encapsulations of the various incidents and scientific matters. I was lucky to have more room when I wrote my book. (Some might argue too much!)

I first noticed a sea-change in the climate science reporting at the Times about two years ago in Justin’s first in-depth piece on climate, a story about the connection between the chaotic weather we’ve been experiencing for the past few years and global warming. The story was wonderfully clear, and reflected current scientific knowledge and uncertainty quite accurately, in my opinion. Justin took a rational approach. He went to the best scientists, used his own intelligence to understand the data and the crux of the matter, and reported his findings simply and straightforwardly. The previous reporter on this beat at the Times (I’m afraid that would be Andy Revkin) had approached the subject as if it were a political issue and he was an investigative reporter. He wasn’t particularly interested in getting to the bottom of scientific issues himself. Instead, he would go out of his way to get the “other side” of the story, which meant that he treated people with little scientific expertise, a history of intellectual dishonesty, or some very obvious bias–propagandists basically–as if they were experts on a par with the world’s leading scientists. As a result, as insightful as his articles could sometimes be, they were generally garbled and delivered mixed and misleading messages. I saw this as a sort of intellectual laziness and shirking of responsibility. Not so with Justin. I know how hard he worked on the Lonnie profile, for example, because he talked with me about it, off and on, for about six months.

I recommend all of Justin’s pieces, and especially his profile of Charles David Keeling. You can find most of them here and here.

And, Justin, please keep up the good work. We need it. It’s helpful.

2 thoughts on “Kudos to Justin Gillis

  1. I agree that Justin’s piece on Lonnie is a tour de force of profile writing. But I have to take issue with your attacks on my climate reporting.

    You’ve perhaps conflated my hundreds of pieces, over 25 years, focused on the science pointing to human-driven climate change with those focused on the policy fight over responses to climate change — which involves many factions, far more layers of wicked complexity, and inevitably a prismatic approach. (Among other coverage, you probably missed my 1994 magazine piece on retreating glaciers, featuring Lonnie. Give it a read, and a grade.)

    Justin’s piece, while a beautiful profile, (surely for space reasons and to keep it oriented to a human-interest audience) glosses over significant and legitimate scientific debate over Kilimanjaro conclusions and doesn’t get into Lonnie’s shift into advocacy (akin to the one you chronicled in your book on Jim Hansen) — which also comes with more complications and legitimate room for disagreement.

    My hope is that Lonnie’s new heart gives him the power to climb new mountains and old ones (and also provides many more years for Lonnie and Ellen to enjoy together). My hope for you is that you can learn to avoid oversimplified distillations of what is, and isn’t, responsible journalism.

    • Well, Andy, one person’s prism seems to be another’s hall of mirrors. Yes, you wrote some fine science articles back in the day. I read dozens if not hundreds of them, and used many as I wrote my books. Thank you. Starting in 2003 or 4, though, you began mixing so many other topics and so much, shall we say, artistic nuance in with the science that lesser mortals like myself couldn’t figure out what you were talking about half the time. I began to agree with a few of the top scientists that I was in touch with, including Jim Hansen, John Holdren, Dan Schrag, and Steve Schneider, that you were creating more confusion than clarity, and that you didn’t understand the science and probably didn’t care to. Or, who knows? Maybe you were a legitimate global warming skeptic. Maybe you still are. I don’t know. I don’t read your blog anymore. I don’t find it informative. One thing I have noticed on the rare occasion that I do drop in, however, is how easily you overlay your opinions on those of your interview subjects, how frequently you mention your own work, in short, how much you talk about yourself.

      I can think of three things in particular that you published back then that pushed me in this direction. One, interestingly enough, was the article about Kilimanjaro that you mention above. You indicate that the article was about a scientific debate. But it was also about media coverage, it had rather an ironic take on environmentalism, and it questioned the reality of global warming in general. One of the experts you chose to trot out was Pat Michaels, an open anti-global warming propogandist, whose newsletter was funded by coal companies from its inception and who had blatantly falsified a scientific paper by Jim Hansen in some testimony he had given to Congress. (That’s what I mean by intellectual dishonesty.) There was Michaels on a par with Lonnie Thompson. You were teaching the controversy, Andy, just as Michaels and his wealthy backers would have wanted you to. I remember giving your article to my girlfriend to read. She’s quite intelligent, but she wasn’t up on the science or the subtleties of the public relations war. When she finished reading, she said, “Oh, so global warming probably isn’t happening, right?”

      As for the debate about whether warming has anything to do with the melting of the Snows of Kilimanjaro, I have a long endnote about that in Thin Ice. To me Kaser’s analysis has always seemed simplistic, and, as Lonnie says, untested. It’s more-or-less pure conjecture. And I find the interpretation of Doug Hardy’s weather station data somewhat ludicrous. I suspect there are surface effects close to the snow, which his sensors, located a meter or two above it, miss. Doug’s overall understanding might have benefited from a look around while he was setting up his weather station. (Simple observation, properly recorded, constitutes perfectly valid scientific data.) He was standing on slushy snow, he had walked around large puddles on the surface of the glacier to get there, and he was filling his water bottles and cooking his meals with meltwater from the glacier. A huge waterfall issued from its surface about a hundred yards from our campsite. Yet he agrees with Kaser that the snow is subliming away, not melting. I was there when Doug and Matthias set up the weather station. I watched and heard that glacier melt away all day every day for about four weeks. I flatly disbelieve the sublimation argument. But even if sublimation is the main culprit, as Doug’s former thesis advisor and the lead author of the sublimation paper, Ray Bradley, once said to me, “Look. There’s no way on Earth that every glacier in the world outside of Scandinavia is disappearing as a result of global warming; and here’s this glacier in the tropics that is somehow disappearing, but it’s not related to global warming. Give me a break.”

      In 2006, when the IPCC report and Al Gore’s movie, “An Inconvenient Truth” came out, some media outlets, such as Time, ABC News, and 60 Minutes finally began reporting that global warming was real and was actually happening–a few years too late. At that point you made an interesting move that I still see as an attempt at media one-upsmanship. You and your august publication scrambled for the high journalistic ground. You retreated into a lofty (dare we say arrogant?) skepticism and accused the other media outlets of having forsaken their senses, more-or-less. By that time, the scientific case for global warming was undeniable. Yet in this video, you asserted that climate scientists didn’t know much of anything at all. Your closing line was “What do we really know?”

      I think climate scientists know a lot, Andy, and that it’s the responsibility of some journalists–not yourself evidently–to make that knowledge clear. Meanwhile, I wish you all the fun in the world expressing your opinions, cherishing your nuance, teaching your controversy, and entertaining oh so sophisticated friends in your ever-expanding hall of mirrors.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *