The news had barely broken when the apple cart was suddenly upset.

255 National Academy of Sciences members, not all of them climate scientists, had signed and published in Science magazine a strong letter decrying politicization of science.

Their arguments were concise and forthright. But their message was soon to be enveloped in a media fog of controversy not of their making: a Science magazine staffer had “photoshopped” an image of a lone polar bear afloat on a shrinking ice floe.

Michaels: ‘Shooting Large Fish in Small Barrel’

Science magazine’s initial image, later withdrawn.

Skeptics and contrarians pounced, eager to divert attention from the substantive message of the scientists, eager to again engage in “Gotcha!” revelations, eager, once more, to allege chicanery on the part of the climate science establishment.

Contrarian scientist Patrick Michaels of the Cato Institute was quoted as saying, “I really, really, really should tire of shooting these very large fish in this very small barrel, but I’m just not enough of a sportsman.”

This image, from National Geographic, was later substituted for the earlier ‘photoshopped’ image.

Some, too many, in the media took the bait. The focus turned in some quarters – and certainly in the blogosphere – to the phony image, for which Science later apologized and admitted responsibility. (Science editors, soon after the outburst surfaced, published a correction and retraction. “Due to an editorial error, the original image associated with this letter was not a photograph but a collage,” they wrote. “The image was selected by the editors, and it was a mistake to have used it.”)

But the alternate soundbite sunk in, obscuring the crisp points made in the message initially penned by scientist Peter H. Gleick, a 2003 MacArthur Fellow, Academy member, and founder and president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security.

Key Points Made by Signing Scientists

Key points made in the scientists’ letter and at risk of being obscured by the … dare we stoop to call it this? … “picturegate” brouhaha:

  • Scientists “deeply disturbed by the recent escalation of political assaults on scientists in general and on climate scientists in particular.”
  • “… always some uncertainty associated with scientific conclusions; science never absolutely proves anything.”
  • Waiting “until scientists are absolutely certain before taking any action … [means] society should never take action.”
  • On climate change, “taking no action poses a dangerous risk for our planet.”
  • ” … scientists make mistakes, but the scientific process is designed to find and correct them.”
  • “This process is inherently adversarial …. But when some conclusions have been thoroughly and deeply tested, questioned, and examined, they gain the status of ‘well-established theories’ and are often spoken of as ‘facts.’”
  • “… compelling scientific evidence” exists on Earth’s being about 4.5 billion years old (origin of Earth), on the Big Bang event of about 14 billion years ago concerning birth of the universe, and on the theory of evolution.
  • “Fame still awaits anyone who could show these theories to be wrong. Climate change now falls into this category.”
  • “Compelling, comprehensive, and consistent objective evidence” points to human activities changing the climate and threatening societies and ecosystems “on which we depend.”
  • Many “recent assaults … typically driven by special interests or dogma.”
  • IPCC and some other scientific assessments “Have, quite expectedly and normally, made some mistakes. When errors are pointed out, they are corrected. But there is nothing remotely identified in the recent events that changes the fundamental conclusions about climate change.”

The scientists urged “an end to McCarthy-like threats of criminal prosecution against our colleagues based on innuendo and guilt by association,” an apparent reference to a recent Senate Environment Committee Republican staff report, and to “harassment of scientists by politicians seeking distractions to avoid taking action.”

The whole episode, not surprisingly, quickly led to charges that media again were easily duped into playing-up the photo mishap and ignoring the more important substantive message of the scientists (see related posting, this update).

Film maker Randy Olson, author of “Don’t be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style,” was among those weighing-in forcefully – if unconvincingly for some of the scientists directly involved – on that point. See article.

So too did New York Times Dot Earth blogger Andy Revkin, who wrote that the snafu had “provided a nice bit of raw meat” for those opposing efforts to control greenhouse gases.

The moral of this particular story? The silliness beat goes on. So too, one might note, do the increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide.