Monday, April 13, 2015

Media Miscommunication about the Blob

One of the most depressing things for scientists is to see the media misinform the public about an important issue.

During the past few days, an unfortunate example occurred regarding the warm water pool that formed over a year ago in the middle of the north Pacific, a.k.a., the blob.  Let me show how this communication failure occurred, with various media outlets messed things up in various ways.

The stimulant for the nationwide coverage of the Blob was a very nice paper published by Nick Bond (UW scientist and State Climatologist), Meghan Cronin, Howard Freeland, and Nathan Mantua in Geophysical Research Letters.

This publication described the origin of the Blob, showing that it was the result of persistent ridging (high pressure) over the Pacific.  The high pressure, and associated light winds, resulted in less vertical mixing of the upper layer of the ocean; with less mixing  of subsurface cold water to the surface.  Furthermore, the high pressure reduced horizontal movement of colder water from the north. Straightforward and convincing work.

The UW News and Information Office decided to spotlight this work in a press release, one that also
talked about a paper by Professor Dennis Hartmann: Pacific sea surface temperature and the 
winter of 2014.   This is another excellent paper and makes a convincing case that anomalous high 
pressure in the eastern Pacific and low pressure (troughing) in the eastern U.S. (which brought cold air to the eastern U.S.) was the result of warm, water in the subtropics (NOT THE BLOB).

Unfortunately, the UW press release misrepresented the facts. Clearly, the writer did not appreciate that the two papers were discussing two different areas of warm water (the blob in the midlatitudes and a second pool of high surface temperatures in the subtropics).    The title of the release was unclear (did linked  indicated a cause or just a correlation?)  and the first few paragraphs were explicitly wrong, suggesting that the "warm blob" was causing "weird" weather across the U.S.  

Let me be explicit what these papers DID say.  Dennis Hartmann's paper uses models to indicate that persistent warm water in the subtropics caused an anomalous "wave train" that altered the circulation over the eastern Pacific and North America, with high pressure over the eastern Pacific and troughing over the eastern U.S.   The Bond et al. paper showed how the anomalous high pressure produced the midlatitude warm water blob. 

The inaccurate press release then led to a media frenzy, with the story going viral.  And unfortunately, many of the media got it wrong.   

There were two failure modes.  In one, the headline was wrong, but the internal story was correct. Such a failure was found in the Seattle Times article (see below).    The text was written by Sandi Doughton, an excellent and careful science writer, while the headline was written by Seattle Times editorial staff.   Inaccurate, hyped headlines are common in the Seattle Times.  I can't tell you how many times exasperated reporters have complained to me about it.

In the second failure mode, the story itself was essentially flawed, with most claiming that the Blob off of western North America was the cause of the anomalous circulation (big ridge over West Coast, trough over the eastern U.S.).   (The truth:  the Blob was the RESULT of the anomalous circulations.)   That the Blob CAUSED the California drought or the cold wave in the eastern U.S. These deceptive stories were found in major outlets around the country, including the Washington Post, NBC News, and others.





Take a look at a Weather Channel "science" page found here  Its lead sentence say is all wrong:
Scientists say a mass of warm water off the U.S. West Coast is to blame for the bizarre weather affecting the country. 

I could give you two dozen examples of essentially wrong stories about the Blob in major American news outlets during the past few days.  And this is only one story...many other stories are similarly confused or hyped.

How many ways can you say DEPRESSING?   Nearly every science story I have an intimate knowledge about has major errors.

Why is this happening?   I can offer several reasons:

  • University (and government) PR offices are desperate to secure media attention (get lots of "clicks") and are willing to hype stories to get it.   PR folks without science backgrounds often have inadequate time to get stories right..
  • Media outlets have hollowed out their science reporting staffs.
  • Reporters are writing stories without reading the papers they are supposedly describing.  Often they simply repeat or repackage (without checking) the press releases of universities and government agencies.
  • The war for clicks (and the ad revenue the results from them) has encouraged exaggerated headlines.
What can scientists do to get the straight story to the public?   One approach is to go direct though blogs, web pages, or direct interviews.   Another is to insist that they get to review all press releases from their organizations.  You can surely think of others.  But the problem is a serious one, with the public being given, and often believing, inaccurate information.


David Sanger said...

In addition to what you have suggested it would be great help if all climate-related papers were readily accessible in pdf form to reporters and to the public.

Often I see blog posts where the author quite clearly has not read the paper being discussed. I always try to find and read the original paper, yet that is not easy. In fact sometimes there's no way at all to read it without paying exorbitant prices.

The benefit is that even if I don't fully follow all the math it is not too hard to tell if the authors themselves are saying what the blog writer suggests they are saying. And of course quite often they are not.

JewelyaZ said...

I read the article in the Washington Post and thought, "hmmm, that's not what Cliff said." And that made me go look up the papers... to discover that what you've been saying is correct, and the WaPo was completely off-base. Not surprising, but as you say, depressing. Still, if it's any consolation, reading your blog has led at least ME to understand the situation correctly, and in our offices in Bellevue and Rockville, MD, the weather discussions have been correct and the WaPo and Seattle Times have been criticized. We are not the largest audience, but we can spread correct info and fight back against the crap.
Thanks for what you do. Don't give up... the media is more and more useless, but I do think many people WANT to understand.

Pete said...

News articles that allow comments usually result in the errors being exposed. I spend more time than I would like correcting gross misrepresentations in the media. Climate has become a polarizing political issue rather than a scientific quest for truth. The identification with ideology creates cognitive dissonance that prevents people from being able to process information accurately. If people could become aware of how that works some improvement could happen.

Clearly the persistent ridging allowed the blob to form but doesn't the blob also reinforce the ridging?

John E Vidale said...

The UW press office, including that writer, has written many fine press releases for our seismological work.

I'd first call out the scientific authors for not taking the trouble to insist on proofreading what is really a non-specialists overview of a technical work. These writers cover many dozens of departments spanning several colleges, and write at a rapid pace compared to journalists.

Journalists, to maintain impartiality, do not generally allow proofreading of their articles. But writers for the University are effectively our ghost writers, so we should review the prose. We always read the final copy of our press releases to be sure the facts and the emphasis are appropriate.

Rusty Neff said...

Sadly, miscommunication is rarely picked up on, and if it is, it's not always corrected.

And there is SO MUCH TRUTH in the statement "it's all about the clicks" because on the web, it is all about exposure and advertising impressions.

Axel Schweiger said...

I'd like to second John Vidale's comment. I've worked with UW News and this writer on numerous occasions and she's always been eager to work with us to get the story right. It sometimes takes a few iterations but scientists do need to realize that that's part of of the process and their responsibility. What the press does with it is yet another thing.

Axel Schweiger

Hannah Hickey said...

Hi Cliff,

Just to clarify, all UW press releases are reviewed by the scientists who did the research. This press release was approved by the lead authors of the two papers before it went out.

I wrote the press release. It is unusual to combine two research papers in one article, and one could debate whether that was the right approach here. One of the papers cites the other, and when talking with one author the other paper came up. "The blob" and its influence on West Coast weather is interesting in itself. The fact that it's part of a broader pattern of Pacific Ocean sea surface temperature anomalies (a phrase I worked hard to avoid) that played a role in the eastern U.S. winters is even more interesting. It suggests that our warm winter and the brutal East Coast winter could have both come from the tropics. Writing about science for the public will always mean leaving out some of the details. For all the reasons you mention, and especially with a subject as tricky as this one, the result is never perfect. The hope is an article that provides a simplified version of the main conclusion and its significance for the public. We always link back to the original study, and I also wish that those papers were freely available to all readers.

Even if it's not perfect, I think there is some value in sharing the process of science, and for encouraging debate and comments. On that note, thanks for all the work that you do with this blog. And it is interesting to hear your thoughts on the blob.


Mark said...

I applaud your efforts to force the media to correctly inform the public, BUT:

"With all of the hysteria, all of the fear, all of the phony science, could it be that man-made global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people? It sure sounds like it." Senator Inhofe, Chairman, Committee of Environment and Public Works.

Dr. Mass, according to Senator Inhofe your climate 1 & 2 talks are phony science designed to perpetrate a hoax on the American people. How do you feel about that?

How do you correct Senator Inhofe?

Several conservatives in the Congressional Science, Space and Technology Committee are anti-science. According to former committee member Congressman Paul Broun the Earth is 9,000 years old.

Many Americans have difficulty with arithmetic. They have no background in chemistry or physics. They do not read science papers.

The Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act declaring racism is over in America. Several GOP controlled states immediately tightened voting requirements making it more difficult for low income people to vote, a disproportionate number of whom happen to be African, Native and Hispanic Americans.

Media is replete with disinformation designed to manipulate public opinion.

Rejoice your not Galelio and your work is not censored.

Cliff Mass said...

The problem is that the release gave the impression that the Blob caused the major disruption to the weather around North America--which is not true. And it is worse than that: you sent out a tweet that explicitly stated that the blob caused the bad weather...this was completely wrong (
...cliff mass

Unknown said...

If in fact the authors reviewed and approved the release beforehand, they deserve a very big share of the blame. I can't imagine spending months on important research and then not spending an hour or two carefully reviewing the main vehicle for sharing the results with the public.

Which points to another common problem: scientists who can't (or don't bother to) communicate effectively outside their profession.


Meredith said...

This happens frequently enough that the rather clever PhD comics addressed it a while back:

Michael DeMarco said...

It's been painful to watch all the way around.

disasterarea said...

Headline exaggeration has been around since the invention of paper, I suspect, certainly in the tradition of editorial staff writing headlines. Many English newspapers pride themselves on getting the most sensationalist headline they can. Sure, web clickbait editors have turned it into an art form (well, without any originality at all), but they didn't invent it.

Rainier Andrej said...

I can see how the reporting could be more clear on the cause and effect relationship between the abnormally warm tropical water and the blob via the high pressure but may I suggest the scientists would take ownership for communicating clearly.

I don't agree the articles are "deceptive". They could certainly be more clear about the link between tropical SST and the blob, but to be fair the blob is unusual and AFAIK heretofore unobserved, while warmer than average tropical SST's are not new.

Rich Seymour said...

This recent opinion piece "Lay summaries needed to enhance science communication" in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences would appear germane to this discussion: