Two weeks ago, I posted a piece here anticipating king tides over the holidays, suggesting they might offer a glimpse at the future of climate change and rising sea levels.
I heard back – not in the online comments, but in calls and emails from friends and scientists and even my grandson, an oceanography student who tactfully confided that he disagreed with the premise.
The problem, I learned, was suggesting that the Pacific Northwest coast might be less susceptible to rising sea levels than other regions. This, I was told, may be somewhat true of the outer coast, but not so in Puget Sound.
Mother Nature promptly added an exclamation point – ominous flooding from South Park to the Port Townsend waterfront, attributable to higher-than-normal king tides, high winds and, arguably, sea level rise.
My critics wagged their fingers specifically at my primary source – University of Washington meteorologist Cliff Mass, whom they described as a “climate change denier” and “outlier.”
While I’ve never met Mass, I do call him occasionally because (a.) he is a very smart meteorologist who literally wrote the book on Pacific Northwest weather, and (b) he returns my phone calls. For a journalist, that’s a powerful combination.
He does not deny climate change, but he is most certainly an outlier, which I suppose is one of the reasons I called him.
All this left me rethinking a chronic professional dilemma – the tenuous and sometimes rocky relationship between science and journalism. It’s a problem that crops up when journalists like me (a C in college biology) wade into complex scientific questions. Or when scientists like Mass wade into journalism. Either adventure can turn into a minefield.
Most scientists are deeply suspicious of reporters. They believe we misunderstand their work and tend to fracture it in the reporting. Reporters are equally wary of scientists, whom we suspect go to graduate school to learn how to torture the English language.
At a fundamental level, serious journalists and scientists have the same basic objective: We both seek Truth, to increase our collective understanding of the world. But we begin with different questions. Scientists ask: “What is this and how does it work?” Journalists ask: “So what? Why does this matter?”
Our brains work differently. Scientists are specialists who know a lot about a few things. Journalists are generalists who know a little about a lot of things.
To scientists, truth derives from repeated experiments. Their bible is the scientific method, an orderly process that requires precision and caution. Their findings are tentative and qualified; there is no last word on anything, presumedly including climate change.
The journalist’s scripture is the First Amendment. We value a free-for-all exchange of ideas that has little to do with precision. Truth will emerge from conflict — a concept that baffles most scientists.
Most important, journalists are communicators. We believe knowledge and ideas are valuable only to the extent they are communicated. To do that, we resort to unscientific storytelling and anecdotal evidence. The science can get lost in the retelling.
Most scientists work alone or in small groups, conduct their experiments, and eventually submit their findings to other scientists for review – usually in terms unintelligible to the rest of us.
Which takes me back to Cliff Mass, the outlier who has never been accused of being shy about communication. His 2008 book, Weather of the Pacific Northwest, is a best-seller at the UW Press, and thousands of readers follow his blog. For years, his deep, resonant voice drew more thousands to his weekly public radio weather commentaries – until he was dropped precipitously a few years ago.
Mass attributes his unorthodox style in part to his college mentor, the astronomer Carl Sagan made famous by his “billions-of-stars” TV documentaries. “I remember Sagan telling me: If you want to communicate effectively, you have to go direct, do it yourself,” Mass recalls.
So he did. He has been blogging since 2008. His weather observations are widely followed and respected.
But he occasionally ruffles feathers when he wanders afield from meteorology. Public radio dropped him in part because he took issue with new approaches to teaching math. Early in the pandemic, he opined that Covid “is far less apocalyptic than some suggest.” Others took issue when he questioned the findings of a study on mountain snowpacks.
These days, the issue is usually his approach to climate change, which Mass insists is a “terrible” term. “Global warming is better, because it allows for the debate over how much warming is natural and how much is human-caused.”
Among scientists and reporters alike, Mass remains an iconoclast and contrarian, inclined to use his megaphone to challenge conventional wisdoms and tilt the occasional windmill.
Then again, so were Galileo, Darwin and Einstein. Even, in a stylistic sense, Carl Sagan.
“The debate is influenced by jealousies and ill will,” Mass says. “Carl Sagan was hugely successful, but he was denied honors he should have had. Scientists are human beings, prone to human failings, the desire for celebrity and notoriety.”
It was Sagan’s celebrity, not his ideas, that rankled his peers. But there lies another common denominator between scientists and journalists: We are complicated creatures prone to bias and idiosyncrasy. But neither discipline can afford to impose intellectual orthodoxy on its practitioners.
So I will continue to follow the Cliff Mass blog. I want to reread his book. If he strays into math education or epidemiology, so be it. But he remains my go-to source for Pacific Northwest weather.
As for sea level rise? I’m not a scientist, but it only makes sense to err on the conservative side. Try to limit my CO2 production and support leaders who feel the same, while keeping my aging mind, eyes and ears open to people who see different truths.
Insightful piece, Ross, with much truth about the different approaches off scientists and journalists. But what Mass says of scientists is also true of journalists, who too “are human beings, prone to human failings, the desire for celebrity and notoriety.” The persistent pursuit of journalism prizes is proof of that.
Yep, we wretches are at least equally susceptible to these and other human frailties. But prizes? In 30 years at the Seattle Times, I had the good fortune to work with countless reporters and editors and artists on an array of stories, some of which eventually won prizes. But I don’t recall a single instance where the possibility of a prize was even mentioned, and certainly not as an incentive to try to get it right. Was I the outlier?
More to the point is the journalism offered every day here on Post Alley, excellent work by some 30 serious professionals for whom there is no prospect of being paid, let alone winning prizes. I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with people who understand that good journalism is its own reward.
Some believe that increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are the root cause of Anthropogenic Global Warming (to the extent that AGW exists). However, I could as easily suggest that changes to ‘land use’ over the course of my lifetime might be a causative agent. More paved surfaces, more rooftops, and less green space are reasonably plausible variables. Science is never settled!
Prizes never an incentive? There were many great courageous investigations that named names and stirred readers, but what about those turgid investigations and “computer-assisted” projects that produced oceans of copy no one read, except the intended audience, contest judges? ( Dave Berry had that right.). And those sidebars urging readers to lobby Congress or the Governor (since “impact” was a prize criteria)? Oh Ross, you are such a romantic, which is but one reason I’ve loved your company and admired your big-hearted journalism.
Right on, Ross. I, too, don’t remember ever any persistent pursuit of prizes. Nice if they came, but getting the story and getting it right was more the reward. In the old days, we had an editor who insisted we submit stories for awards; it was more of a “prize” for the paper than the reporter and something of a nuisance preparing the entry.
Such a pleasure to hear your voice, Ross.
So glad you are still asking questions and explaining things.
I don’t know if it matters to your point, but science is all about communication and the exchange (and conflict) of ideas, not much different if at all from layman journalism. It just isn’t accessible to people outside the science discipline in question – someone without the background won’t be able to follow the science process all the way through to a particular conclusion.
So a certain amount has to be taken on faith, and it’s easy for someone with credentials to play on that, say things people want to hear, poke the establishment in the eye, whatever motivation may be.
“Through the ages verily man has held fast to facts, while facts yet through those same ages have in turn held man, an unsteady and ever-changing, at times one-sided embrace, science and “objectivity” notwithstanding, amidst constant finger-pointing and flawed circumspections. For truly, WHOMST AMONG US HAS NOT QUOTED A CLIMATE CHANGE DENIER?? Hast thou not been spellbound heard his mellifluous baritone on the radiogram?”
bro, just say you fucked up.
Ross, your piece and my comment inspired some thoughtful reactions, which is one of the primary goals of journalism — or at least it should be. On the prize issue, I once had coffee with a top Times editor and asked him if they ever chose, wrote or packaged stories with contest judges in mind. He looked around the room to see who might be listening and said in a hushed voice, “Of course we do.” Columbia Journalism Review used to compile an annual catalog of available media prizes that was pored over in newsrooms nationwide. Journalists who deny that prizes weren’t at least in the back of their minds are being disingenuous. The champagne-doused celebrations when Pulitzers are announced ate testament to that. And the hours-long banquets where local and regional journalism prizes are announced provide further proof. (Casey Corr is spot on in his comment above.) But maybe I’m just grumpy because I never won a Pulitzer, although I was nominated once (thanks, Jim King). Or maybe, like Cliff Mass, I’ve just always been an outlier, iconoclast and contrarian. But that’s what made my 50+ years in and around journalism so darned much fun!