Wind Farms, Hot Air, and the Perils of Scientific Publishing

By Thomas W. Overton, JD

The news blogosphere was briefly contorted earlier this week by a study published in Nature Climate Change that appeared (to some laymen, at least) to suggest that large-scale wind farms were contributing to global warming.

Naturally, given the intersection of several hot-button issues (renewable energy and climate change), and the degree to which this appeared to create cognitive dissonance in the environmental movement (clean energy is causing climate change!), it’s not surprising that a number of media outlets rushed to post some sort of click-bait story on this study.

Never mind that the idea—that a few ground-based wind turbines could affect the global climate—ought to be preposterous on its face (as another flood of blog posts and news items rushed to argue). That took a back seat to getting something, anything, published.

For those of us with a background in scientific publishing, this incident hit the trifecta of Media Abuse of Science:

-The findings were misinterpreted.

-The researcher’s work was hijacked for partisan purposes.

-The actual importance of the study was lost in the ensuing kerfuffle.

This is a problem without an apparent solution, not that universities and publishers don’t do their best to keep things straight anyway. I spent nearly ten years working as the managing editor of a scientific journal, and any time we published a study that might get media attention, we worked closely with the publisher’s PR department beforehand to try to ensure the findings were clear. There were even times the legal department got involved.

When science editors get together, a frequent topic of discussion is the abysmal state of science journalism, no matter whether the topic is climate change, vaccinations, cancer research, or any one of dozens of fields average readers are interested in.

Whether it’s overstating the results, leaving out the context, misunderstanding methodologies, or presenting scientific controversies as 50-50 disputes when they’re closer to 90-10 or even 99-1, too often something goes wrong by the time the story gets in front of the public. The result is essentially negative information: The readers know less than what they did before.

There are certainly plenty of talented science reporters out there, but too often, it seems the science beat is assigned to someone who just happens to be interested in science rather than formally trained. But enthusiasm is no replacement for actual knowledge.

Worse, though many laymen do seem to understand that there’s bad science out there, they often misunderstand what that comprises. One example is the misguided pursuit of objectivity.

A lot of science is politically contentious, and for that reason, writers sometimes want to avoid appearing to take sides. Stories flowing from that impulse tend to just lay out both sides of the controversy and “let the readers decide.” That may work with general news, but it doesn’t work with science, where the average reader simply isn’t qualified to weigh competing scientific arguments.

Yet good science writers who put the controversy in context and lay out what the scientific consensus is run the risk of being accused of bias by readers who may be sympathetic to the other side (typically for non-scientific reasons). This is one of the reasons it takes a special type of talent and background (not to mention a thick skin) to be a good science writer.

As a general rule, one is best off avoiding major media outlets for science news, and concentrating on publications that focus on science journalism. The rest is largely hot air, wind turbines or not.

—Thomas W. Overton is POWER’s gas technology editor