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The Sciences

About that Popular Guardian Story on the Collapse of Industrial Civilization

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The end of the world, like everything worth knowing these days, will be tweeted:

NASA-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for 'irreversible collapse'? | Nafeez Ahmed http://t.co/nWqOcD3UkB — Guardian Environment (@guardianeco) March 14, 2014

If a study with the imprimatur of a major U.S. government agency thinks civilization may soon be destined to fall apart, I want to know more about that. Click. The piece cuts to the chase in the opener:

A new study sponsored by Nasa's Goddard Space Flight Center has highlighted the prospect that global industrial civilization could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.

What follows is a straightforward summary of the paper, which the Guardian writer tells us has been accepted for publication in a peer reviewed journal called Ecological Economics. I'm going to discuss the actual paper separately in the second part of this post. First, let's talk about the Guardian write-up, its author, and how his piece went global, the latter of which is a sad commentary on journalism today. Technically, the story appears on a blog in the environment section of the Guardian. The blog's host is Nafeez Ahmed, who in his Guardianbio describes himself as "a bestselling author, investigative journalist and international security scholar." Since joining the Guardian's blogging network in 2013, Ahmed has carved out what I would call the doomsday beat. He highlightsindividuals and academicpapers that reinforce the thesis of his 2011 documentary, "The Crisis of Civilization," which is about

how global crises like ecological disaster, financial meltdown, dwindling oil reserves, terrorism and food shortages are converging symptoms of a single, failed global system.

In a post last year, I briefly mentioned him, saying, "If you want a tour guide to the apocalypse, Ahmed is your guy." Understandably, he didn't appreciate this backhanded compliment. In fairness to him, there is a seemingly never-ending supply of journal papers with apocalyptic themes to choose from. A good example, of course, is the collapse paper he disingenuously hyped as being "NASA-sponsored." (You'll soon understand why that was deceptive.) Evidently, Ahmed was shown the paper by its authors ahead of publication, which he turned into an article/post with this headline:

Nasa-funded study: Industrial civilization headed for 'irreversible collapse'?

Ahmed thinks of himself as a journalist, so he writes many of his blog posts in a superficial news story format. He even refers to some of his posts as "exclusives," which is how he characterized his write-up on the supposedly funded NASA study. Journalistic gloss, however, doesn't mask fundamental journalistic shortcomings. In the collapse paper Ahmed wrote about last week, he explains how the authors came to their conclusions, sprinkling in quotes from the paper. But he provides no reaction to the study from independent experts. If he questioned the three co-authors themselves, you wouldn't know, since they are not quoted in his piece. To Ahmed, getting an exclusive apparently means not having to do any actual reporting. On twitter, Ahmed was challenged to respond to rebuttals of the study he uncritically accepted. He demurred: "I'm just the reporter- ask the study authors." Chew on that for a second. Ahmed's summary of the soon-to-be published Ecological Economics paper at his Guardian blog--which he thought of as a big scoop--wouldn't pass Journalism 101. Nonetheless, it was picked up by many other outlets around the world and became a sensation on social media. He was thrilled:

My NASA study exclusive has not just gone viral, it's gone global and is making headlines in national newspapers all over — Nafeez Ahmed (@NafeezAhmed) March 17, 2014

Naturally, the Daily Mail jumped all over it, as did the New York Post, which headlined its piece, "NASA Predicts the End of Western Civilization." Other headlines included: The National Journal: "Here's How NASA Thinks Society Will Collapse"; The Times of India: "NASA-Funded Study Warns of Collapse of Civilization in Coming Decades"; and Popular Science: "NASA-Sponsored Study Warns of Possible Collapse of Civilization." Do you notice anything familiar about those headlines? NASA did and was pretty steamed. It recently issued a statement saying that the collapse paper

was not solicited, directed or reviewed by NASA. It is an independent study by the university researchers utilizing research tools developed for a separate NASA activity. As is the case with all independent research, the views and conclusions in the paper are those of the authors alone. NASA does not endorse the paper or its conclusions.

So much for the sexy NASA angle that was undoubtedly a big selling point. Not that it matters anymore. The marginal NASA connection was played up and successfully dangled as click bait. Mission Accomplished, Guardian editors and Ahmed. So what else fell through the cracks on this story? Well, if you bother to read through all the herd-like media coverage of the study, you'll notice that every piece essentially duplicates what the Guardian published. As far as I can tell, all the other similarly sensationalist articles did was reproduce or restate what appeared in the Guardian. And we know how much reporting went into that big exclusive! Nobody from these other outlets talked to the study's authors or solicited opinion from independent experts. Everyone willingly ceded the story to the Guardian. After teasing its readers with a few excerpts, PopScigushed:

You should really head over to the Guardian for the full story; it's worth reading.

This was not an isolated sentiment. Many people retweeted the story, including journalists in my twitter feed. There were a couple of skeptical outliers, some folks who know about mathematical models and were incredulous after reading both the study and the Guardian story. One is Robert Wilson, a UK Mathematical Ecology PhD Student who wrote up his impressions at his personal blog. Another is the U.S. science journalist David Appell, who offered his thoughts on the study's model and (like Wilson) also took note of Ahmed's conspiracy theorist leanings. The huge, uncritical pick-up of the Guardian story perturbed me. Why was everyone so quick and seemingly content to parrot a story that contained no actual reporting? After all, it was just a blogger's interpretive summary of an unpublished journal paper. Why didn't anyone reach out to the paper's authors or bother to call a few sources to examine the merits of the study? So I thought I'd fill that journalistic vacuum myself. In part two of this post, I'll report what the authors of the paper had to say after I contacted them, and what numerous, highly regarded experts think of their study. This is completed. I'm just proofing the material and breaking it out into a separate post. Check back in several hours for part two.

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