I’m a fan of Bill McKibben’s 350.org, but let’s face it, in the end, everything is driven by conflict. They are bringing a commando/military/activist mentality to the climate problem, which is nice, but it’s also conflict-driven.

THE PEOPLE’S ARMY OF THE CLIMATE. Look at the artwork for the latest activity of the populist climate group 350.org. Is that a Black Power fist? Power to the People, right on. Some things never change.



What has always bugged me about the American environmental movement, and bugs a lot of right wingers as well (like P.J. O’Rourke who has written brilliantly on it), is the self-righteous air of virtuousness that environmentalism tends to bring with it.

I’m a fan of a clean healthy environment and I know that all these various cause groups are a necessary part of the process, but at the end of the day, I think it’s also important to keep an eye on the humility factor.

I loved earlier this year when it was pointed out by two academics that the “doubt casting” strategy of today’s climate skeptics, so widely vilified, was also practiced by the goddess of all American environmentalism, Rachael Carson.



I feel the same way about things like 350.org. It’s very cool what they are accomplishing (and I have far, far more respect for them than all the NGOs who raise bundles of money off climate fears), but keep in mind they are drawing on a conflict-based rallying-the-troops mentality, no different than assembling an army to fight a neighboring country. They have their enemy (the hated polluters), they have their fearless leader (Bill McKibben), they have their latest mission (GPS – Global Power Shift), they have their training camps (one in Turkey next June) and they will eventually assemble on their next battlefield.

The point is to once again see the power of storytelling and narrative structure. They are appealing to the same age old basic human elements, which is fine. Just realize the universality of the approach. Everything, in the end, is a conflict. It’s what draws humans in.

Every high school student in America should be required to view Spielberg’s “Lincoln” and Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor” side by side. Then the instructors should say, “Spielberg, good, Michael Bay, baaaaad.”





Thank goodness for Steven Spielberg. I went to a screening of “Lincoln” yesterday at the Directors Guild in Hollywood, which features perfect projection plus they have very nice guide books they hand out with the movie — listing all the amazing cast in the various contexts.

What a tremendous movie. I hope it sweeps the Oscars. There are times when you feel like movie making just isn’t what it used to be, but I honestly think this is perhaps the greatest historical movie ever made. It has such a powerful voice. It’s not just a telling of events. It is an historical essay, loudly and forcefully told, as it should be. Truly amazing.

From start to finish, it’s gripping, efficient, and a perfect combination of substance and style (tons of substance, with filmmaking style that never gets in the way of the story). If you want to see an example of the wrong combination of those elements — all style, no substance — dig up Michael Bay’s abomination, “Pearl Harbor,” of 2001 (in fact, I bet Ben Affleck is feeling like his bold movie this year, “Argo” is at last his ablution for having starred in that shocking piece of Michael Bay effluvia).

Some days I think of Mike Judge’s brilliant, “Idiocracy,” and think it’s not a joke — it really is humanity’s destiny. But then you see a movie like, “Lincoln,” and you think maybe not. And especially in the light of Obama’s re-election. It’s an incredibly timely movie. He could have ended the movie with something similar to the end of, “The Last Emperor” (which was Bertolucci’s epic of China that was comparable to Spielberg’s work).

That movie had a wonderful and powerful time transition shot at the end that went from the Emperor’s Palace in the 1940’s immediately up to the Palace today as a tourist attraction. Given the ubiquity of African Americans through “Lincoln,” Spielberg could have ended with a fade from Lincoln back then giving a speech to Obama today giving a speech — the extrapolation of one event to the other — absolutely connected. Obviously they didn’t want to editorialize that bluntly, but the message is woven throughout the movie (and actually is a little too blunt in the beginning when an African American Union soldier talks assertively to Lincoln — as this excellent article in the KC Star notes, there’s no way that would have ever happened, but who cares).



One thing to point out from a storytelling perspective (and btw, “Lincoln” is proof that the true art of storytelling in the movies is not at all dead — let’s hope other filmmakers can aspire to do what Spielberg does). They (meaning Spielberg and Daniel Day Lewis) do an absolutely stunning job of bringing Lincoln to life in three dimensions (without having to resort to the brainlessness gimmick of 3-D technology!). You know how they do it … through humor.

It’s priceless. They have Abe telling jokes and stories, all the way through. Some of the jokes and stories aren’t that funny, which is also funny. It’s so wonderful, and  it’s why Spielberg will go down in history as the most beloved filmmaker. His movies have so much humor mixed in with the emotion.

The result of the warm portrait of Abe they create is that when Lincoln dies at the end of the movie (yes, major spoiler, sorry, some guy shoots him), you actually feel it. You really do. You feel how it must have just wrenched the guts out of everyone in the poor war torn country. You get it, not intellectually, you feel it in your heart. Which is the ultimate goal of good storytelling.



One last note. There are wonderful scenes of Abe, late at night in the White House, talking quietly and thinking. Which you know went on back then. Back when nobody was checking their email and iPhone and Facebook and Twitter and Linked In and Instagram and Spotify and … It’s not the same world today. People don’t think and feel as deeply as they used to. But fortunately there is still Spielberg who is able to create at least the illusions of a thoughtful world that we still wish for.

Give Spielberg all the Oscars. Rename the Motion Picture Academy for him. This is the greatest historical movie since … “Schindler’s List,” which was directed by … him. Everybody else in the business is a bunch of pygmies by comparison. Even Zemeckis (as proven by his mediocre “Flight” this year). Spielberg Uber Alles (wait, there’s something wrong with that, roops!).

Great article by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker about Obama’s ad men. Bottom line: A single ad that told a powerful STORY about Romney’s heartlessness appears to have had a huge impact on voters. That’s the power of storytelling.

OUT OF THE BLUE ONE DAY … MITT ROMNEY LOST. Just listen to how the spot begins — “Out of the blue one day …” — same as “Once upon a time …” It’s called storytelling mode.



Jane Mayer was on MSNBC’s “Hardball” last night talking about her piece in this week’s New Yorker about a single Obama campaign commercial that appears to have had a devastating effect on Romney in some key areas. The ad was pretty simple — just a man describing how at his company they were ordered to build a stage for a big speech, only to find out that the speech revealed they were all losing their jobs because of Bain’s takeover, with Romney in charge of Bain.

The ad ran in several key states. Polling shows a several percentage point difference in attitudes in regions that did run the ad versus those that didn’t. Jane Mayer said, “In places that it showed, the trustworthiness of Romney was 11 points behind that of Obama.  In places that it didn’t show it was just 5 points behind.  It was a killer ad.”



So take a look and listen to their spokesman and ask yourself whether average folks are likely to trust and like him (the two key elements for an effective voice according to Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman). For goodness sake, the guy’s name is Mike EARNEST! Hope that’s not his stage name. But seriously, listen to the guy. If you were a factory worker in Ohio, would you listen to him? Would you trust him? Would you like him? Yes. More than likely. He just seems like the sort of humble, down home factory worker you can trust. Great work by the makers of this ad. They found the right spokesperson, and they kicked ass with him.

Imagine if global warming had somehow in 2006 been communicated to the American public by voices like Mike Earnest.

Fear sells. There’s a great (and scary) article in this month’s Atlantic about the President’s DNA. Who knew the Secret Service now cleans up EVERYTHING the President touches, for fear of anyone getting his DNA. Riveting article, but the fear-seeking of the authors is what I found most fascinating.

CAN’T TOUCH THIS.   How would you like to have terrorists wanting your DNA?



Yikes. What a world. If I were a Hollywood action movie screenwriter I’d be all over the article in this month’s Atlantic titled, “Hacking the President’s DNA.” It’s a gold mine of fear.

I found it fascinating, and I’m not making fun of it when I say that their pursuit of fear is relentless. The basic tone of the article is, “Check this out, and if you think that’s not scary, consider this, and even if we address it, there’s still this, and this, and this …” Ahhhhh!

They begin by painting a nightmare scenario where terrorists manage to obtain the President’s DNA, then bioengineer a virus that is harmless to everyone except the President — for him it’s lethal. They introduce it into the population, it quickly spreads by sneezes and handshakes until it finally makes it to the POTUS himself and zappo, bio-assassination.

far out


After telling their little horror fantasy, they launch into the actual science of today to show it’s not so far fetched. They say, “The surreptitious collection of world leaders’ genetic material has already begun.” In response to this they quote Ronald Kessler’s 2009 book, “In the President’s Secret Service,” who says, “Navy stewards gather bed sheets, drinking glasses and other objects the President has touched — they are later destroyed in an effort to keep would be malefactors from obtaining his genetic material.”

They quote from a 2011 Senate report saying by 2013 a terrorist WMD attack is probable and it is likely to be biological in nature. They also say that one of the companies producing some of the most powerful biological agents (which could be disastrous in the wrong hands) doesn’t pay it’s employees very well, so one of them may eventually jump ship. Nice.

Here’s my favorite scary line from the article, “No amount of Secret Service vigilance can ever fully secure the President’s DNA.” Maybe Romney shouldn’t be so bummed out after all.

It’s a great movie and has my vote for Best Picture so far, but seriously … “a spirit of truth”?

TRUE ENOUGH. Ben Affleck made a great movie about the 6 American hostages in Iran rescued by the Canadians.

argo f**k yourself


Finally saw “Argo” last weekend. Great movie. Really well done, but come on … how many creative ways can Hollywood address the subject of accuracy in historical movies. It’s just comical. It’s not enraging. Just pretty silly these days how irrelevant accuracy and honesty are.

On the Wikipedia page for the movie, Ben Affleck, addressing all the inaccuracies of the movie, replied that the movie has, “a spirit of truth.” Ha, ha, hee, hee, ho, ho, yaaaaah. Let’s hear it for the spirit of the truth. Sounds like something that Scrooge encountered.

This relates to my post last week on the Jonah Lehrer nose dive. Our society is getting absolutely obsessed with storytelling, at all costs. Aaron Sorkin kinda hit a high (or low) point on this issue in 2010 in response to criticism of his movie “The Social Network,” being famously quoted saying, “What is the big deal about accuracy purely for accuracy’s sake?” Yeah. What a waste of time. Accuracy. Pffttt.

lolz accuracy


I think it’s a byproduct of the information era. Accuracy has become a quaint concept from the distant past, no longer of much relevance. Or at least that seems to be what Jonah Lehrer was thinking.

“Argo” is an excellent movie. They take a lot of dramatic liberties. I kinda sensed this during the movie as they’re staging car chases in Tehran that feel like a James Bond movie, and end up with an airport scene that Tom Cruise and Daniel Craig would have fit right into.

It’s a dilemma. It’s a HUGE dilemma. Virtually NOBODY in America a couple of months ago could have told you about the six American hostages that were rescued by Canada (and according to the wikipedia page it was indeed mostly Canada who did the rescuing). Ben Affleck has done a great job of educating the American public on this. Which is amazing. But it definitely came at the expense of accuracy.

Is that a bad thing? I’ll let you decide for yourself.

So many people were desperate to scream out, “IT’S HERE!” “It” being the idea that we caused the hurricane or made it worse. But wasn’t anything learned from Katrina? “It” wasn’t here then (the 5 hurricanes of 2005 were followed by almost no hurricanes). “It” isn’t here now. The bottom line is that nature is extremely variable, making it difficult to pull a signal out of so much natural noise. However there is still that natural urge to say “it” is happening. This relates to what Andy Revkin labeled, “Whiplash Journalism” — the panicked response to the events of the moment. It’s a good time to keep that term in mind. And something else to keep in mind: Miami, 1926

WHIPLASH AVOIDER. In a world of frantic assertions, one man keeps his calm — NY Times blogger Andy Revkin.

too soon?


In a maelstrom of panic last week, I found the voice of Andy Revkin to be a source of calm. He did a great job of hosting a detailed debate over whether Hurricane Sandy was caused and/or made more severe by what we’ve done to the atmosphere. In one of his best posts, he quoted Mayor Bloomberg who stated the situation clearly and accurately when he said:

“Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it may be — given the devastation it is wreaking — should be enough to compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”

It’s the “may or may not” thing. I’m not saying that the +5 degree elevation of sea surface temperatures contributing to the strength of Sandy was irrelevant, but I am saying let’s be really certain we know the “credibility damage” of shouting out “It’s here!” before we do it again. Why?

never too soon


Do you recall what the left leaning members of the general public did in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005? They had a mass media panic attack that centered around a movie that was VERY hastily assembled (released before the next hurricane season) trying to make the case for global warming that “IT’S HERE!” (it was subtitled, “By far the most terrifying film you will ever see!”).

But guess what followed the year of 5 hurricanes. Not much. There were no more catastrophic years until now, 7 years later. The bar had been set high by the “it’s here” proclamation. During that time, the public’s concern about global warming sagged while the level of climate skepticism grew. The bottom line is that the events turned into pretty much of a “crying wolf” situation. (btw, I no longer mention the title of the movie because some enviros have gotten so sensitive they equate film criticism to climate skepticism)

why are you reading these?


Andy Revkin, in 2008, published an excellent article about (as the Columbia Journalism Review put it in an article that praised him), “the ways in which reporters’ tendency to bounce from one often-contradictory climate study to another confuses the public. ”

There are three aspects of Andy’s background that give him significant credibility in the climate discussion. The first is that he is a long timer — he’s been around this stuff for decades (he published a global warming book 20 years ago). As a result of so much experience, his mind is filled with shock absorbers. With every major development in the news, he’s thinking, “This seems similar to several past situations.”

Second, he doesn’t need attention (this is huge). He’s at the New York Times. By definition he automatically gets attention by being there. He’s not some upstart blogger who’s trying to “attract eyeballs” (which happens A LOT in the blogging world). He doesn’t need to. He has the luxury of being able to solely seek the truth.

Third, when you read the comments on his blogposts and listen to opinions of him in both the climate science and climate skeptic community, you hear a fairly even balance of dismissal from both ends of the spectrum. Climate skeptics call him a “warmist,” some climate science folks try to label him a climate skeptic. It cancels out and to me signifies someone genuinely searching for the truth. Which is rare.

thank you for doing so


I have dealt with the frustration of natural variation myself when I was a marine ecologist. I remember a situation in Australia when people had photos of agricultural runoff killing individual corals on the Great Barrier Reef, but because the distribution of corals is naturally so variable, their transect data were unable to show an effect. This is very frustrating, but it’s the way it works in the real world. And speaking of natural variation …

In the late 80’s, when I was a postdoc at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Ft. Pierce, Florida, the Miami Herald ran a rather amazing feature article on the hurricane of 1926. It hurt my brain to read it. They were asking the reader to try and envision today what happened then, starting with the idea of a 10 foot deep storm surge that swept over the ENTIRE Biscayne Island. Today the island has over 12,000 residents. When that hurricane comes again, the devastation is going to be staggering. It will probably look like the Indonesian tsunami in places.

It happened before, it will happen again. It’s going to leave a gigantic scar on the American psyche. But even then, there may not be enough data to overcome natural variation, meaning it may still not yet be time to shout, “It’s here.”

DROWNED BISCAYNE – this is a map of the flooding from the 1926 hurricane at it’s worst point. Note the entirety of Biscayne Island on the right is submerged. Whoa.

Miami Beach after the 1926 hurricane.  Try to picture this today.  Yikes.

#243) The Mess that is Science?

November 1st, 2012

Is the decline that affected science journalist Jonah Lehrer symptomatic of science today? There’s trouble in River City. Steven Jay Gould said it long ago — that scientists are only human. He should have said it for science journalists as well. Nowadays it’s being said more explicitly in terms of everyone’s addiction to positives, even if they are false. Once again, in the end, it all tracks back to storytelling. You want to understand a lot about humanity, start with how we are obsessed with stories. More importantly, this is SUCH a good article by Boris Kachka on Jonah Lehrer in New York magazine, and with even better comments!

JONAH LEHRER done made a heap o’ trouble. He was a bright, articulate skyrocketing science journalist who fell victim to over-reaching. He plagiarized, he fabricated, and everyone loved it. As much as everyone loves a good story (photo from Kachka’s New York article)

bad boy


A friend of mine watched the discussion I took part in last week on “The Point” (the last post here) and noted I said that Obama is a lousy orator. She said someone should have stopped me right there to say no, he’s not. I went on to clarify (sort of) what I meant — that he’s not a very good storyteller — but she’s right — he’s a good orator and someone should have stopped me. But they didn’t. Why not?

At another point I mentioned that scientists are “the designated drivers of the information world” — stuck with having to try to maintain 100% accuracy of information in our world. But even they fall victim to the poor programming of the human mind — specifically our vulnerability to good stories (positive patterns). And it turns out science journalists and their eager audience can be even more vulnerable. Ugh.

naughty boy


Last spring I was about a third of the way through Jonah Lehrer’s book, “How We Decide,” deeply impressed with his ability to write when a sort of stench began to emerge from the pages. It was caused by a number of troubling articles about his bad habits as a journalist — that with his third book, “Imagine,” suddenly it was being realized there were major problems with his writing. MAJOR problems. So major that the publishers pulled back the entire book. And with that, the formerly glorious writing career of Jonah Lehrer began to collapse like a house of cards as all of his previous work came into question.

Now Boris Kachka has written a fairly ruthless article for New York magazine (which has even better comments!). As one commenter said, “This is juicy!” It is. Unfortunately.

(By the way, just about the time I think that blog comments are an utterly useless waste of human effort — like I love Andy Revkin’s blog, but unfortunately he’s plagued by armies of morons who post comments from both ends of the enviro/anti-enviro spectrum — I look at the comments on this Kachka article and they are indeed really, really good — almost better reading than the article itself. why can’t other venues feature such good comments — there must be a very smart editor at work there)

The article is worth reading — every single word of it. There’s an overall nastiness — throwing barbs at everything from TED talks (definitely read, in the comments section, the rather terse defense of that institution by Tom Reilly of TED!) to “neurobabble” of today’s pop psychology writings.

But the core of what Kachka is addressing is serious. It’s what first began to spin my head exactly two years ago when David H. Freedman published his stunning article in The Atlantic about, “Lies, Damn Lies, and Medical Science” Ever since then I’ve been saying to my science friends, “Don’t you see there’s serious trouble these days in your profession?”

And last fall, when I ended my series of essays for The Atomic Bulletin by suggesting there was an emerging “glass houses” problem in the science world (that it’s hard to criticize the anti-science folks for distorting science when the noise level of the profession itself is getting so large) I was met with coldness and rebuffs from my science friends (nobody likes to have their profession criticized). But the problems are real.

Regardless, it all comes down to storytelling (i.e. telling “a compelling story” as uber-cool head Carl Zimmer puts it here) — as laid out by Kachka, like this:

“There’s a habit among science journalists to treat a single experiment as something that is newsworthy,” says the writer-psychologist Steven Pinker. “But a single study proves very little.” The lesson of the “decline effect,” as Pinker sees it, is not that science is fatally flawed, but that readers have been led to expect shocking discoveries from a discipline that depends on slow, stutter-step progress. Call it the “TED ­effect.” Science writer Carl Zimmer sees it especially in the work of Lehrer and Gladwell. “They find some research that seems to tell a compelling story and want to make that the lesson. But the fact is that science is usually a big old mess.”

The problems are systemic. They’ve been around for a long time. In fact, one commenter quotes Lehrer’s 2010 New Yorker article on “the decline effect” where he says, “”Jennions, similarly, argues that the decline effect is largely a product of publication bias, or the tendency of scientists and scientific journals to prefer positive data over null results, which is what happens when no effect is found. The bias was first identified by the statistician Theodore Sterling, in 1959, after he noticed that ninety-seven per cent of all published psychological studies with statistically significant data found the effect they were looking for.”

how interesting


I don’t know. I’m beginning to realize I’ve had a longstanding interest in this whole mess. I can think back to over 30 years ago, in graduate school, having long discussions with my marine ecologist buddies Mark Patterson and Ron Etter about Type I and Type II errors — the fact that in the science world all the focus goes on the former, with little interest in the latter. It’s always seemed like there’s an inevitability of a certain amount of error just in the scientific method itself — which is what Lehrer was pointing out in his New Yorker article.

Big mess, really. Not sure how this will all get sorted out.

Oh, well, I love this comment from Kachka’s article to finish on:

“Hey, technology is exciting– but the real work is often boring, and really hard. The problem with TED is, yes, that it is a completely self-centered locus of total suckage– but also that it is a facet of a genuinely dangerous distraction. There’s not an app for social progress, TEDbag.”