The media and climate change ‘dissent’

2008-08-12

in Politics, Science, The environment, Writing

This Ron Rosenbaum article in Slate argues that it is inappropriate for journalists to portray “the anthropogenic theory of global warming” as an undisputed fact. It cites the importance of considering dissenting views, and asserts that the history of science shows that a consensus held by most of the scientific community can be wrong. While there is some value to both arguments, I think they are weaker than the counter-arguments, in this case.

Starting with dissent, we need to appreciate the character of the consensus on climate change and the character of opposition to it. As discussed here before, there are areas of greater and lesser certainty, when it comes to climate change. What is absolutely certain is that we are increasing the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and that, in turn, causes more energy from the sun to be absorbed. The precise consequences of that overall warming are not known with certainty, but we do know enough to have very good reason to be worried. Arguably, those dissenting from this view are a combination of the self-interested (industrial groups reliant upon heavy emissions, conservative ideologues opposed to government regulation) and conspiracy theorists. The doubts of legitimate scientists establish the areas of uncertainty within climatic science, including questions about the strength of feedback mechanisms, the effects of planetary warming on regional weather, and so forth.

On the matter of scientific consensus, the article argues that a “lone dissenting voice of that crazy guy in the Swiss patent office” overthrew the Newtonian conception of gravity. This is a relatively absurd claim. Firstly, relativistic physics essentially includes Newtonian physics as a special case, in situations where velocities are not close to the speed of light and massive objects are not close at hand. Secondly, the process through which Relativity became an established scientific theory was largely focused on the collection of empirical evidence (demonstrations of gravitational lensing, for instance) and the refinement of the theory within the scientific community. Newtonian physics, for its part, is still completely adequate for planning space voyages within our solar system – the basic relationships posited within it are close to correct in most cases. If we have done so well with our climate models, we have engineered them effectively indeed.

Relations between science and the media will always be challenging. The media generally doesn’t have the time, expertise, or interest to deal with nuance. It also lacks an audience interested in cautious and non-confrontational assessments of fact. In short, the kind of story that is demanded of the media is one in which the scientific process and the character of scientific conclusions cannot always be presented effectively. Moderating some of the incentives to distort that are inherent to the contemporary practice of journalism is thus an undertaking with some merit. It is not as though we should forbid any mention of opposition to our general understanding of climate change; rather, journalists should strive to make clear that the evidence on one side is overwhelmingly stronger than that on the other. A defendant who was seen to stab someone in the middle of the field at the Super Bowl, viewed by millions of people, surely has the right to make a defence at his trial. He does not have the right to media coverage that gives equal weight to claims that he had nothing to do with the death.

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

coyote August 12, 2008 at 9:18 am

You raise an interesting and rather historical conundrum. Western journalism is bound by its own conventions to present both sides of an argument. It’s in ‘the rules’ somewhere. More importantly, perhaps, these quasi-dramatic conventions, first articulated by television execs back in the fifties, tend to cause journalists to present many stories as conflicts. It’s a framework that makes it far easier and faster to create short clips or print stories for quick digestion.

It can also make for lazy or deficient journalism – and consumption of same. Unfortunately, white hats and black hats may be a great way to parse Silverado, but they’re often not really useful to understanding science, or a lot of other somewhat grayer public issues.

However, types with agendas often understand these apparently fossilized journalistic rules of engagement,. They have become quite successful at manipulating public discourse by using this journalistic convention against journalists, by serving up ready made “another sides”. Doesn’t even matter if it smells of the ridiculous. In doing so, they’re able to re-frame things that would be fairly certain to most reasonable people as pseudo-debates. And waters muddy considerably, usually to their advantage.

Tobacco kills? Suddenly, it’s a “debate”. Climate change? “Debate” too! Evolution? Another “debate”! Peak oil? Utterly debatable! And journalistic fairness demands that ya gotta report both sides of any debate, even when one side is (pretty obviously) badly misinformed or lying blatantly, and just about every thinking person knows it….

Anon August 12, 2008 at 10:10 am

Arguably, the biggest difference between climate change and most areas of policy and public debate is the need to take major action. Accepting or not accepting evolution has a relatively modest effect on how we organize our society. If we accept that we need to cut our greenhouse gas emissions enormously (eventually to almost nothing), we also need to accept enormous changes to our way of life.

No wonder the question remains contested.

Milan August 12, 2008 at 10:19 am

Coyote,

I suppose your comment raises the question of what ‘the other side of the argument’ is. There are a number of possible positions that logically contradict the anthropogenic climate change hypothesis. Here are a few, with very short refutations in parentheses:

We are not adding greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere. (Data from over fifty years shows that we are)
The planet is not warming. (The data from ground stations and satellites shows that it is)
The warming is caused by solar variation (The IPCC has taken this into account and it doesn’t explain the changes)
Climate is naturally variable. (Yes, but it can also be artificially forced)
It’s all because of water vapour. (Water vapour is important, but greenhouse gasses are the driver of change)
Global warming will be mild / have a positive effect. (This is definitely not what the great majority of scientific examinations have concluded. A tiny amount might be beneficial in some areas, but change of more than a couple of degrees Celsius is likely to be seriously harmful in most)

It seems to me that anyone who tries to make one of these arguments, or a related one, can only be effectively refuted with scientific data. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work well in a televised “he said she said” exchange.

Many more arguments and refutations are on Grist.

Milan August 12, 2008 at 10:22 am

More on uncertainty and skepticism:

Climate ethics and uncertainty
* May 27th, 2008

Climate change ‘delayers’
* March 14th, 2008

Climate denial conference
* March 5th, 2008

Responses to climate change scepticism
* July 26th, 2007

. August 12, 2008 at 10:23 am

A Response from Andrew Revkin

I wish Ron Rosenbaum had explored my Dot Earth posts and Times articles on how best to cover climate science as well as my blogroll. Then he might have realized that Nick Lemann’s admonition to “find the argument” is only one of the vital steps required to effectively communicate a complex subject.

An equally important step is to place the areas of ongoing scientific dispute (hurricane strength , extinction impact, pace of sea level rise) within the broader context of what is not in dispute (more CO2 emissions will heat the world, changing climate patterns and raising seas for centuries to come). If that step is not taken in a story, the lure of conflict can mask the broader reality, and perpetuate policy stasis (whatever policy you might espouse)…

Milan August 12, 2008 at 10:34 am

For those who say “it all comes down to solar variation” here is the graph to look at from the IPCC. It shows the radiative forcing effects of various natural and artificial phenomena.

It essentially shows the contribution to global warming of different greenhouse gasses (at the top), types of particulate matter (middle), and solar (second from the bottom). Note that linear contrails remain a significant unknown, in terms of whether they have a warming, cooling, or no major effect.

Emily August 12, 2008 at 10:56 am

That photo of the wolf spider es muy bonita.

tristan August 12, 2008 at 1:30 pm

It’s quite disappointing that “The media generally doesn’t have the time, expertise, or interest to deal with nuance.” is taken today to be an undisputed fact. In the 1950’s, interviews were more than 4 times longer on average than they are today – the short tidbit style journalism we see, which doesn’t have time to go into detail on anything, is not the only way journalism can be practiced.

Gerry August 12, 2008 at 1:55 pm

From the article:

But the argument over the green consensus does matter: If the green alarmists are right, we will have to turn our civilization inside out virtually overnight to save ourselves. One would like to know this is based on good, well-tested science, not mere “consensus.”

I’d suggest they all be assigned to read the CJR editorial about protecting dissent and the danger of “narrowing the borders” of what is permissible. The problem is, as Freeman Dyson, one of the great scientists of our age, put it in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, environmentalism can become a religion, and religions always seek to silence or marginalize heretics. CJR has been an invaluable voice in defending that aspect of the First Amendment dealing with the freedom of the press; it should be vigilant about the other aspect that forbids the establishment of a religion.

The trouble is, when it comes to be basics of climate change, we have “good, well-tested science.” As with religious people, those who deny the basic reality of climate change can now take one of two positions: asserting that they are right by ignoring or fabricating evidence, or make assertions about things that are essentially unknowable. Neither seems like a useful contribution to the processes of learning about climate and deciding what to do in response to what we know.

Milan August 12, 2008 at 2:02 pm

Tristan,

the short tidbit style journalism we see, which doesn’t have time to go into detail on anything, is not the only way journalism can be practiced.

The debate here is artificial, and spending more time conducting it will not make that plain. People who are either honestly deluded about basic climatic science or willing to willfully mislead people can talk for just as long as those whose positions are scientifically defensible.

At some point, reputable media sources simply need to stop providing a platform for the cranks. After all, there is plenty of conflict left to be discussed in relation to climate. There are North-South issues about poverty, development, and historical responsibility. There are questions about ethical duties to nature, future generations, and so forth.

Now is obviously not the time to close off discussion. Rather, it is a time to make sure the discussion is focused on real questions.

. August 12, 2008 at 3:08 pm

EDUCATION: A flood of new climate science seeps into classrooms very slowly (08/12/2008)

While there has been a growing consensus among scientists about climate change and its global impacts and a great deal of new scientific work that attempts to describe it, science teachers have had to rely on brief and vague descriptions in textbooks for years. Now they are about to get more tools to improve climate literacy. But there are several reasons why they may not succeed in this effort.

Nonprofit organizations like the National Wildlife Federation have compiled information booklets and lesson plans for teaching climate change to kids at all grade levels. Federal agencies are taking steps to consolidate the latest available science into frameworks for what the average citizen should know, and to deploy them in easily digested modules to schools around the country.

But getting the new science into schools may still be hard. A debate continues over how to teach global warming, or whether to do so at all. Climate change is only glancingly mentioned in “National Science Education Standards,” published in 1996 by the National Research Council. Those standards still guide most U.S. science curriculum development. And after the first attempt to require the inclusion of climate change in science curricula on a state level failed last month in California, some students may still get their information about global warming from TV.

anon5 August 12, 2008 at 6:55 pm

the story always has two sides. Do not trust those who say other.

. August 13, 2008 at 12:12 am

Scientists Ask Congress To Fund $50 Billion Science Thing

WASHINGTON, DC—Top physicists from several major American universities appeared before a Congressional committee Monday to request $50 billion for a science thing that would further U.S. advancement science-wise and broaden human knowing.

The scientists spoke for approximately three hours about the complicated science machine, which is expensive, and large, telling members of the House Committee on Science and Technology that the tubular, gamma-ray-using mechanism is vital in some big way. Yet the high price tag of the thing, which would be built on a 40-square-mile plot of land where the science would ultimately occur, remained a pressing question.

Sarah August 13, 2008 at 4:17 am

That Onion article is fantastic – much like the Far Side comics where all that the dog hears is “blah, blah, blah, Rover”. It certainly makes the point that the problem isn’t just what journalists decide to portray as a ‘debate’ or ‘consensus’ because they can’t meaningfully report material that is beyond the comprehension of the public, particularly if it is also beyond the comprehension of the journalists and their editors.

banksy August 13, 2008 at 7:54 am

Was that pic of the wolf spider taken in Ottawa?…please tell me not. I dont want to have to come across one of those in my apartment..

Milan August 13, 2008 at 8:52 am

Banksy,

Was that pic of the wolf spider taken in Ottawa?

The spider picture attached to this post was taken in Bennington, Vermont.

This one, however, was taken right here in Ottawa. The same goes for this one, though it is just a statue.

Milan August 13, 2008 at 9:00 am

Sarah,

It certainly makes the point that the problem isn’t just what journalists decide to portray as a ‘debate’ or ‘consensus’ because they can’t meaningfully report material that is beyond the comprehension of the public, particularly if it is also beyond the comprehension of the journalists and their editors.

This being said, the fundamentals of climatic science really aren’t that inaccessible. What good science writing demonstrates is that – once you have a grasp of the fundamentals – relatively complex phenomena can be understood through extrapolation. The excellent child-oriented science centres around the world also demonstrate this.

Basic science education – covering the essentials of physics, chemistry, biology, ecology, cosmology, etc – really should be something that everybody gets, and actually learns from. Just making sure everyone understands the second law of thermodynamics would allow them to filter out a great many scientific falsehoods relating to energy systems.

. August 13, 2008 at 10:02 am

Are US Voters Informed Enough About Science?

“For decades, educators and employers have worried that too few Americans are preparing for careers in science. But there’s evidence to support a new, broader concern in this election year: Ordinary Americans may not know enough about science to make informed decisions on key questions.”

. August 14, 2008 at 11:24 am

The uncertainty agenda
Journalists need to evaluate strength of scientific consensus
Posted by Andrew Dessler (Guest Contributor) at 5:19 PM on 13 Aug 2008

One of the biggest problems in the climate change debate is the fact that many people out there fail to understand the finer points of “scientific consensus.”

For an example of this misunderstanding, see Ron Rosenbaum’s recent article in Slate. (h/t Dot Earth.)

His article trots out one of the staples of the denial industry: Science has been wrong in the past, so how do we know that a scientific consensus on climate change is right? Because of this, reporters should report all sides of the argument.

. February 22, 2010 at 6:21 pm

“There is no such thing at this date of the world’s history in America as an independent press. You know it, and I know it. There is not one of you who dares to write his honest opinion, and if you did, you know beforehand it would never appear in print. I am paid weekly for keeping my honest opinion out of the paper. Others of you are paid similar salaries for similar things. and any of you who would be so foolish as to write honest opinions would be out on the streets looking for another job. If I allow my honest opinions to appear in one issue of my paper, before 24 hours, my occupation would be gone. The business of the journalist is to destroy the truth, to lie outright, to pervert, to vilify, to fawn at the feet of Mammon and to sell his country and his race for his daily bread. You know it, and I know it, and what folly is this toasting an independent press? We are the tools and the vassals of rich men behind the scenes. We are the jumping jacks. They pull the strings, and we dance. Our talents, our possibilities and our lives are all the property of other men. We are intellectual prostitutes.”

— John Swinden, 1953, then head of the New York Times, when asked to toast an independent press in a gathering at the National Press Club

. March 8, 2010 at 11:33 am

“The pursuit of balance can create imbalance because sometimes something is true.”

Okrent’s Law

. March 22, 2010 at 3:51 pm

Stanford Study Confirms That “Balanced” Media Stories Quoting Skeptics Mislead The Public
By Jim Hoggan on sustainability

Providing climate skeptics a voice in “balanced” mainstream media coverage skews public perception of the scientific consensus regarding climate change, leaving viewers less likely to understand the threat of climate disruption and less likely to support government actions to address global warming, according to the results of a Stanford University research effort.

The Stanford researchers probed the impact on public understanding of climate change when media coverage features a climate skeptic alongside a climate scientist. Media stories featuring only a mainstream climate scientist “increased the number of people who believed that global warming has been happening and that humans have caused global warming.”

However, when media stories also include a climate skeptic, ostensibly to add “balance” to the story, the result is a “significantly reduced” number of people who understand the issue and endorse government action to address the problem.

“Watching a skeptic decreased perceptions of consensus among scientific experts, and this decreased perception of consensus led respondents to be less supportive of government action in general and of cap and trade policy in particular,” the researchers found.

. July 28, 2010 at 11:57 am

“SIR –“Flawed scientists” correctly identified the need for a change of attitude among climate researchers in order to restore public confidence in their work. They have to accept that their work is of greater public interest and concern than their counterparts in most other disciplines and therefore they should be open to their critics as well as to their allies. Climate scientists will also have to learn that they will be assessed not just on their results but also on their conduct, integrity, motives and other qualities that are considered important in public life.

But it remains to be seen whether they will also need to carry on living with the continued double standard of many journalists placing them under critical scrutiny while failing to challenge lobby groups that make inaccurate and misleading claims about the science and misrepresent their own ideological motives. One can only hope that more of the media become as wary as The Economist about self-proclaimed climate-change sceptics.

Bob Ward
Policy and communications director
Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment
LSE
London”

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