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Covering Science: An Interview with NYT Reporter Andy Revkin

This article was written by David Zaks and Chad Monfreda in November 2006. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

Andy%20Revkin.jpg Andrew C. Revkin is an award-winning science journalist for the New York Times covering environmental issues from pole to pole and ocean to atmosphere. Andy has recently completed his third book, The North Pole Was Here. Aside from his journalistic duties, Andy is a member of the band Uncle Wade who play 'simple music for complicated times.' One of his songs, Liberated Carbon, is available below.


David Zaks: You’ve been a science and environment writer for more than 20 years now, and a lot has happened in this realm in 20 years, whether it be with policy, new social and environmental phenomenon, or our growing knowledge base. How has your perspective changed during that time, and what do you think is the most important lesson to be learned from that?

Andy Revkin: The most important lesson I’ve learned in covering science since 1983 is that what matters the most in any individual question is the trajectory of understanding. If it’s the human influence on climate then you see a very steady-state trajectory with a lot of variability along the way. There are always certain studies that will be outliers and there’ll be these early stages kinds of research. Even Greenland. The trends on Greenland’s ice, you know, whether it’s an overall gain or loss of ice has been very variable just over the last year. But the idea that Greenland will be a much shrunken piece of ice in a warmer world is very solid, so the idea that that contributes to sea level rise is very solid.

Nuclear winter is a classic example where the initial flush of the idea was really powerful and strong and dramatic and made for a great page one story and front of magazine stories. I won my first AAAS award for my long piece on nuclear winter, which I reread recently and it’s nice and it stated the complexities and uncertainties very well, but then shortly afterward Steve Schneider and others reran the numbers and it came out nuclear autumn, and it hasn’t stuck.

Chad Monfreda: At times, does injecting more information actually confuse a policy issue?

AR: My sense with what happened to hurricanes is a lot of people, particularly within the environmental movement got a sense that here’s our chance. Katrina was the great wake up call we’ve been waiting for, the perfect icon, the perfect way to get the average person to recognize the potential hazards of humans warming the oceans on the climate. Scientists are people too, and there’re some who have a real tendency to want to shout out when they see a risk like that building. I think that colored how some of these studies were done. Some of them have been sort of rushed into print because the journals also are competitive. They’re just like the media. They are the media.

These are legitimate studies that are really new important looks at data and different ways. Kerry Emmanuel's unconventional way of measuring the total amount of energy expended by storms was novel, but a lot of the media misinterpreted that and the subsequent papers as some new consensus, which is very far, at least in my mind, from the truth in terms of what we know and what we don’t know about hurricane genesis and the factors that make a storm stronger or not. So everything was lined up to get that juiced up.

CM: Do we have to make sure that debates about science don’t give people an excuse to step away from talking about values and actually saying what they care about and what sort of future they want to create?

AR: Ultimately, the choices that confront us are values choices. The question of avoiding dangerous climate change revolves around the word dangerous, and the word dangerous is fundamentally a values-laden word. It’s not a scientifically delineated term. We’ve been in this bollix since 1990. The negotiations leading to the Framework Conventional on Climate Change, never define the word dangerous because no one wants to touch it. The politicians know that it’s too dangerous for them to define it. They toss it off to the scientists and the scientists say that’s not our decision. We just tell you how much warming is going to happen, how much sea level will rise, and you figure out what level is unacceptable. So it goes round and round. Until society really gets a clearer sense of what this boils down to is a decision about what is our responsibility to the next generation and what is our responsibility to our neighbor. And in this case our neighbor could be Bangladesh on this little village called Earth. Until then we’re not really going to make progress on the issue.

DZ: So how do we start that dialog? Is it the job of the scientist to start this value-based dialog? Is it the responsibility of the religious community?

AR: I think several things have to happen. I think scientists need to be much clearer. Even though they know that they can’t answer the question of dangerous, they are still are very seduced by the idea that they can. I think what could benefit the whole discourse is for the scientists to say 'we can’t define this for you'. And scientists haven’t really done that yet. Scientists still sometimes don’t say, ‘Here’s the science. Here’s what I as a human being think what’s right and wrong, based on my experience as human being and my values.’ If there were more clarity along those lines I think there would be a lot more progress because it would force the issue back onto the average person. The other problem that you get there is it perpetuates stasis because there is an expectation that science somehow will come up with a magic formula that will make this all easy. And it’s not going to happen that way.

CM: Does being a journalist and having a bird’s-eye perspective afford you unique insights?

AR: One of the paradoxes with this problem is that it is so multidisciplinary that most scientists are in their own little trench. The thing that I have that most other people don't have is a sense of what other people are doing. Even though there has been a shift to more multidisciplinary approaches, there aren't a lot of people who have the ability to be aware of what is happening in different fields. One thing I do have is the bird’s-eye view, so I talk just as much to people studying the west Antarctic ice sheet as I do to people who are studying currents in the North Atlantic, which is a great gift that my field affords me. So if some scientist speaks out of school and is trying to make a case for something that he or she is not conversant with, I kind of know that. It helps me test better who really speaks with authority on some facet of the problem.

DZ: There are some things that you can say only in your newspaper audience and you are writing books now. The last one you wrote was geared to a broad audience starting at age 10. A lot of the climate change communication going on now is aims for a least common denominator.  What do we need to do to raise that?

AR: I think we have to go to the young people, right from the very beginning. The whole structure of how we learn about science has been warped and is getting more warped by the testing requirements that are put in place now because science is being taught as a set of facts instead of being portrayed as a process or a trajectory, and the trajectory is what really matters. Knowledge is plastic and is always evolving, and ideas mature and take on different shapes. The only way that you are going to distinguish between an immature idea and a mature idea is if you have a better understanding of how science works. So that is why I focused that book on young people. Kids are the only chunk of society left that is open to new ways of thinking. The more I learned over the years, the more rigid and entrenched people get the older they are, in terms of the way they feel the world works.

DZ: As we are going about finding different methods of communication these ideas, what role do you see the Internet as a bottom-up communication strategy?

AR: I think the wiki model is really interesting to me because it has the same shape as science. Wikis are basically peer reviewed.  The quality of the peer review can be suspect, but if there is a way to modulate the quality then that can really be a valuable structure for moving ahead and keeping a goto place for examining the state of understanding of an idea because it is live. I think journalism is going to shift more towards a bloggish presentation generally, and I think newspapers realize what people crave in a world of complexity and too much information is a descent place where they are presented with the shape of an idea and a trusted guide to an idea. What I would like to think the New York Times could be as it becomes increasingly a web thing is where you hitch on to my little ride as I go around examining the state of these ideas.  It will be less then each story spun as if it is God's truth because, in this 21st century world, journalism has to reflect more of the nuances and complexities and uncertainty about issues rather to try to imply in that very black and white way we do on the front of the newspaper every day, that this is the new reality.

CM:  As decentralized as science is, there are parts of it that are trying to become more decentralized.  The Public Library of Science, which is open as it is. plans to become even more so by opening the entire peer-review process, and letting articles be appended, and research to be adjusted as new findings come out in a more dynamic way. Do you see that popping up in other places?

AR: I have been at a lot of meetings with scientists and journalists where there has been discussion about the embargo process and the punctuation marks that have been created by the publishing world. There are these real conflicting issues. Scientists advance by being the first to authoritatively state a new idea and support it. That goes against the idea of this ongoing conversation / wiki model for journalists, although frankly I think that is the future.

Even as a reporting tool, I have done this thing that has become an interesting phenomenon. On the energy challenge story that I just wrote, I found a really interesting way to dig into what people are really thinking in the field. I sent around a list of questions to a large list if scientists working in this particular arena of what role research can play in solving the climate problem versus a cap and trade system and economics. What has happened is that it is uncorking a bottle, and I've started this rippling flow of e-mails back and forth, and then they have gone off into their own little exchanges that I get to be an observer of. It is wikiish conversation where someone will assert their view and someone else will rebut it. A couple of these have actually led to groups of scientists going off to collaborate.

DZ: We definitely have an energy challenge in front of us and from what you have written and we understand that you are starting to write a new book on sustainability issues. What is your view of a 21st century world, and what do we need to do now?

AR: The framing theme from my book is that we need to get over the idea that we are not going to get it right. We screw up, that is what we humans do. We are always testing boundaries and going too far, so that is where you get into the idea that resilience really matters and learn and adjust strategies really matter because you can't lock in because you always get it wrong. All of our projections for energy have been wrong. Whatever tools and structures we invent to get at this climate problem have to assume that failure will be a part of it. My working title for my book is Falling Forward. The idea came from a conversation that I had with Joel Cohen. He said it was like walking, which is essentially a controlled forward fall. The whole idea of walking is to fall forward without falling down. As a species we have been in a teenage, high-revving, steroid-driven sprint for a couple of hundred years, so how do we modulate our gait now that science has afforded us a murky view of what is ahead? It is bumpy and risky, and if we modulate to a walking gait that allows us to progress without totaling fucking up.  I think we need to get over the idea that this is a planetary emergency. The planet is going to do just fine. Life is this incredibly resilient, and inventive and durable force.

Worldchanging Interview: NY Times Science Reporter Andy Revkin is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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