Thursday, January 29, 2015

In this Age of Climate Denial, How Do You Tell a Reliable Blog from an Unreliable Blog?

In this age of near-universal online access to information, it seems everyone has an opinion. Whereas plumbers, brain surgeons, and scientists once had to communicate on a technical level solely with other plumbers, brain surgeons, and scientists, now they have to communicate directly with the public. In general this is a good thing. People of all backgrounds can find information on the internet about pretty much anything they find of interest. On the other hand, as the authors of the book Unscientific America note, “[t]he problem with the internet is obvious to anyone who has ever used it; There’s tons of information available, but much of it is crap.”

As anyone who has spent any time "discussing" climate science on Facebook and other social networking sites knows, invariably someone will start linking to blogs. Science isn't actually done on blogs - science happens in peer-reviewed publications, at scientific conferences, and in other scientific venues - but in this online age it makes sense that science is brought to the public through online blogs.

It can be a challenge for the public to determine which blogs offer reliable information and which ones are denialist blogs whose intention is to misinform. And yet, it's actually easier than you might think to weed out the "crap." In the future I'll compile links to specific blogs that can be helpful to a public honestly interested in learning about the science of man-made climate change, but for this post I'll focus on some simple questions to help you tell the reliable from the unreliable blogs.

Before doing that, let me briefly note that the obvious best source for discussions about the science are the scientific sources directly. All of the key climate science organizations - NASA, NOAA, Climatic Research Unit, Japanese Meteorological Agency, World Meteorological Organization, IPCC, National Snow and Ice Data Center and many others - now have online blogs and information services. These sites provide updates ranging from easy-to-understand primers to highly technical analyses. Some individual climate scientists also have blogs where they try to answer questions about their research, clarify the science, and rebut falsehoods coming from denialists.

Outside of these direct scientific sources there are many blogs that delve into the subject of climate science. To determine which offer reliable scientific discussion and which are merely conspiracy ranting or lobbyist-funded misinformation, ask yourself these basic questions:

1) Who runs the site and writes the blog posts?

Reliable blogs are often written by actual climate scientists. A good example of this is RealClimate, which was launched in 2004 by a group of active climate scientists who today have combined for thousands of peer-reviewed climate science publications. There are other reliable blogs that may not be written by climate scientists, but the scientists who write these usually check with climate scientists to make sure they understand the data correctly.

Unreliable blogs are usually written by non-scientists, often posting anonymously or with fake names to hide their identity. Many of the posts are written by lobbyists or political spokespeople or simply hacks that like the attention. The occasional scientist usually is in an unrelated field with no climate expertise, or if an actual climate scientist (which is rare) posts, it's always one associated with a climate denial lobbying group. WUWT is a good example of this kind of unreliable blog.

2) Does the blog cite the science in context?

Reliable blogs discuss the science with all of the data considered. If examining a single study they compare it to other relevant studies and the state of the knowledge of the topic being discussed. They examine how this one piece of the puzzle fits, or doesn't fit, into the bigger picture. The Skeptical Science (SkS) blog is a good example of a reliable blog. SkS evaluates the claims of denialists and discusses the relevant science in order to communicate an accurate picture. They link directly to the relevant studies being discussed.

Unreliable blogs cherry pick data and ignore the context. They don't look at how a study fits or doesn't fit the bigger picture; often they draw a conclusion completely divorced from logic. For example, a blog is unreliable if it commonly makes statements like claiming since 2014 was not the hottest year (a false premise), therefore, global warming isn't happening (also false, and additionally a false conclusion that doesn't even logically follow from their own initial premise). Unreliable blogs generally cite other unreliable blogger's opinions rather than linking directly to the actual study.

3) Does the blog accurately communicate the science?

This may be a little harder for the public to determine, but basically if NASA, NOAA, and other climate research organizations state a conclusion after evaluating the sum total of their research, and a given blog claims something different from, or opposite of, what the scientific organization is saying, then the blog is unreliable. [See next point]

4) Is the science being discussed published in peer-reviewed journals?

It must be remembered that scientists at NASA, NOAA, etc. all conduct scientific research and publish that research in peer-reviewed journals. The science is done by doing the study, publishing the methods + results + analysis + conclusions, and undergoing scientific scrutiny by other scientists who understand the technical details. Science is not done in a blog. If any blogger wants to contradict the published science, he must conduct research and publish through the peer-review process. "Cuz I said so on my blog" is not science.

So reliable blogs are those that rely on peer-reviewed scientific studies, accurately relayed, and with conclusions consistent with the data presented.

Unreliable blogs are those that rely on something someone did on their laptop computer one morning and then faked up a graph with false conclusions. Usually when you see a lot of "conclusion" information on a graph (along with obvious denialist tip-offs like "Climate for Dummies") you know you're dealing with a blogger more interested in pushing his opinion than actual science.

Another type of unreliable blog is the kind that intentionally deceives the public with what looks on the surface to be a summary of a peer-reviewed paper. These are usually professional denier lobbyist blogs. What they do is create a false "summary" that intentionally misrepresents the findings of an actual published study, i.e., the blog cherry picks portions of the study, fabricates a new story line about the study findings, and posts "conclusions" that are often opposite to the study being cited. These lobbyist blogs often have deceptive names and intentionally try to confuse the public. CO2 Science (an industry blog run by paid lobbyists) is such a deceptive denier blog.

There are other ways to tell which blogs are reliable, accurate, and honest versus unreliable, intentionally not accurate, and dishonest, but I'll save those for another post.

It's important for the public to learn which specific blogs can be relied upon for an honest discussion of the science, and which specific blogs are never reliable. And yes, it does come down to a blog being reliable versus unreliable (or honest vs dishonest, if you will).

Basically there are three types of blogs out there:

1) Direct scientific organizations (e.g., NASA, NOAA, etc.): These blogs are always reliable.

2) Science-oriented blogs e.g., (RealClimate, Skeptical Science): These blogs are always reliable.

3) Denialist blogs (e.g., WUWT, CO2 Science): These blogs are always NOT reliable.

If you want to learn about the science honestly, stick to #1 and #2. Honest discussions of the science can be done on these blogs.

In contrast, nothing on #3 will be honestly presented. Ever.

I'll post a list of reliable blogs in a future post.