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  Geotimes - August 2007 - Down to Earth with...
DOWN TO EARTH WITH...: News about people from AGI and its 44 member societies

Archive of past profiles stories by date

Gavin Schmidt and Michael Mann

Christy Field
Climate scientists Gavin Schmidt, above, and Michael Mann started a climate blog in 2004.

Lynn Persing,
The Pennsylvania State University

In late 2004, fed up with scientific misinformation in movies such as The Day After Tomorrow, climate scientists Gavin Schmidt of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York and Michael Mann of Penn State University in University Park decided it was time to give the scientists’ response.

With that in mind, they created RealClimate.org — a Web log, or blog, about climate research, controversies and presentations in the media, and also a place where a bewildered public can talk directly to scientists. Now, with avid readership and participation from nonscientists and scientists alike, RealClimate has become a go-to source for the latest in climate science.

Schmidt and Mann talked with Geotimes’ Carolyn Gramling about the need for science blogs, answering the public’s questions and Michael Crichton.

CG: You’re both full-time scientists. Why did you decide to create a blog?
GS:
It all came to a head with the movie The Day After Tomorrow, which talked about ocean changes that are actually quite close to my own research, and it was appalling. The scientific community’s response to that was really very poor — there was some good effort to put out Web sites saying “this is the real story,” but it was all very non-interactive.

That was the summer of the blog, and it seemed to me a great way to do a “rapid response,” which is interactive and people can ask questions that sometimes are from left field. People have some strange ideas, things they’ve heard and sort of strung together. There was this palpable need to set the record straight.

MM: We both recognized that there was this real absence in the blogosphere or the Web for a voice from the climate scientists. We felt there was a need for an archive for the public and journalists, in particular about breaking topics or controversies, because the peer review process just doesn’t happen at a rate that matches public discourse.

CG: What’s a blog entry that you wrote that really took off?
GS:
About a week after we started, Michael Crichton’s book State of Fear came out. I forced myself to buy a hardcover edition, spent the next weekend reading it and wrote the review on Monday. That was a popular item.

MM: It was a decisive debunking, and a great riff on the title (“State of Confusion”). One of the more satisfying things I’ve witnessed since we started was to see how high up we were on Google searches about Crichton. We were on the first page, which meant that people who wanted to know about his novel were getting the scientists’ say on it too.

We [also] got large numbers of new readers after the 2005 hurricane season, with people asking the question, is this global warming? Is this climate change? I feel pretty good about the job we did on that — we wrote an article that October about what we can and can’t say about its relationship to climate change. That strikes me as one of our big early successes.

CG: What makes your blog so successful? And are there other blogs you read?
MM:
Panda’s Thumb (www.pandasthumb.org) is our colleagues in evolutionary biology trying to do very much the same thing. I find Deltoid (scienceblogs.com/deltoid) very insightful, and I also keep up with [Seed correspondent] Chris Mooney’s blog (scienceblogs.com/intersection).

GS: We were very lucky that we started with a bang, and we went somewhere where there wasn’t a niche being filled. And now that we’ve got a track record, people cite our posts in random forums all over the place.

CG: The Day After Tomorrow notwithstanding, what do you think about the treatment of climate change in the popular media — movies, documentaries, TV shows? Is it ever justified to gloss over details?
MM:
There are some really good documentaries out there. It’s a fine line to walk — in our own blog, we need to write in a way that allows us to convey the information to nonspecialists, but scientists read the blog too. To give the big picture, we sometimes have needed to gloss over some complexities — a point for which Al Gore has also been criticized.

GS: It wouldn’t have taken much effort to get the science right in The Day After Tomorrow. People have a tendency to abuse science in lieu of a discussion about policy, and it’s true on both sides. Where things are wrong, and being abused, there will be champions like us! [Laughs] No, but sometimes you do feel like you’ve made a difference. There is a feeling that the media has gone from opposing views on climate change to giving the facts, and I’d like to think we contributed a little bit to that.

Links:
RealClimate.org 
www.pandasthumb.org 
scienceblogs.com/deltoid 
scienceblogs.com/intersection 

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