Don’t Listen to the Newspapers

This article of mine was published in the newsletter of Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions, a Catholic group that is doing a great deal of work in sustainability issues. Enjoy!

The mainstream media portrays the existence of human-caused climate change as a much fiercer scientific debate than it actually is. Scientists are still working out the details of how much warming we can expect, how it will be distributed, and what the consequences will be. However, the “big questions” have very solid answers. The idea that emissions of carbon dioxide from human activities would eventually warm the planet was first proposed in 1896, and since then, agreement on the issue has grown to a staggering level: 97.6% of publishing climatologists, 100% of studies in scientific journals, and every scientific organization in the world now agree that humans are changing the climate.

Compare this to the media coverage of climate change. The majority of articles in respected newspapers like The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal give roughly equal time to the “two sides” of the so-called “scientific debate”. Balance in journalism is all very well when the issue is one of political or social nature, but for matters of science, giving fringe opinions the same weight as a robust consensus is misleading. Being objective is not always the same as being neutral.

Over the past year, climate change reporting has taken a disturbing turn, as attacks on the integrity of individual scientists have been spread by nearly every media outlet in the developed world. Private correspondence taken out of context (in which the scientists involved have subsequently been cleared of any wrongdoing, by five independent investigations) as well as minor referencing errors in a scientific report (the worst of which gave the wrong date for when a specific glacier was expected to melt) led to widespread accusations of fraud and conspiracy by advocacy groups opposed to climate change action. Rather than investigate these potentially libellous claims, the media repeated them. As a result, many scientists have received death threats, and countless others have been subject to hate mail. One scientist in particular has had a dead animal dumped on his doorstep, and now travels with a bodyguard. Although their scientific reputations have not been damaged, the personal lives of these innocent men and women have been forever altered.

As the popular press reinforces myths and misconceptions about climate change, public understanding of the issue has fallen apart. Only 61% of American adults think that the Earth is warming, and only 50% think that it is caused by human activity (up-to-date Canadian statistics are not available). Most worryingly, only 34% are aware that most scientists think climate change is happening. A vast chasm has opened between scientific and public understanding of climate change, and powerful forces are at work to keep it open.

As we live in a democracy, action on climate change will only happen when voters demand it – and they won’t demand a solution if they don’t understand the problem. The best thing that you and I can do to stop climate change is to spread around accurate information. Scientific reports are often too technical for easy understanding, but major journals, such as Nature, often have a news section where they summarize new studies for the public. Many scientists are also stepping up to the challenge of climate change communication, and casting light on common misconceptions. A website called Skeptical Science is one of the best sources. There are many people working to fix this problem, but we need many more. Slowly but surely, the tide will turn.

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17 thoughts on “Don’t Listen to the Newspapers

  1. In case you haven’t seen it, Nature has a three month free subscription to their online editions. I’ve signed up as my university access isn’t as user friendly (plus not as reliable if I have to use it from home or while traveling–which is most of the time now).

    http://www.nature.com/rediscover/index.html

    With their redesigning of their site (Resdiscover Your Nature), it looks as if they’re also doing their part to help with the education of the public on a variety of issues. They’re still working on their new look and are very open to suggestions and ideas.

  2. I was writing a positive response to the above post and I lost it. Something wrong with my system, probably me. We all need to do what we can to change the public perception with hard facts. I write letters to the local newspaper as often as I can in response to the know-nothings who write denial letters. I will also give public talks and am writing a book on a geological perspective of climate change.
    We need to write newspaper articles and magazine articles and get the facts out there. Debates, I think are a waste of time. It’s like arguing evolution with a fundamentalist. But let’s do all we can. The habitability of our planet depends on it.

    Thanks for dropping in, and please let us know when your book comes out! -Kate

  3. Kate et al., I agree with G. Thomas Farmer; “Debates, I think are a waste of time. It’s like arguing evolution with a fundamentalist.” But add the qualifier ‘debates in the media’.

    I engaged a couple of times online with some young-earth creationists, and the ‘debate’ was of a similar character to arguing with climate change deniers (i.e. those that deny any change is occurring). Enough said.

    I think the line taken on Scott Mandia’s blog is helpful; dispelling some of the misinformation and outright lies about who has ‘something to gain’ by adopting one position vs. another, and SkepticalScience (and ClimateSight) and other blogs that provide access to the facts. But I susupect worthy endeavours such as these are just dismissed as propaganda by many. Case in point, in a more aggressive ‘debate’ I engaged in on a broadcaster web site article on climate change, I pointed to both DesmogBlog and SkepticalScience as sources of information, and was attacked not by the deniers on the blog, but by a blogger self-identifying as a scientist and ‘AGW defender’. To that individual DesmogBlog in particular was pure popaganda (he called it ‘that site run by shills’), in the same category as some of the denialist web sites.

    Because of that experience I prefer to refer people to sites like the position statements on climate change by scientific organizations like the Geological Society of America (GSA), and the American Geophysical Union (AGU) etc. Those organizations in particular include within their membership both climate change scientists (climate modellers, meteorologists, paleoclimate, glaciologists, etc.) and people working in or researching topics relevent to the fossil fuels industry. They should be seen as unbiased as they span in their membership the full range of scientists engaged in the scientific ‘debate’, including most of the scientists who are stakeholders on both sides.

    Links here:
    AGU – http://www.agu.org/sci_pol/positions/climate_change2008.shtml
    GSA – http://www.geosociety.org/positions/position10.htm

    Of the 2, I prefer the one by GSA as it includes references and is more detailed.

    Both organizations will hold as part of their annual meetings special sessions on climate change (e.g., the superb talk by Richard Alley at AGU December 2009 I have linked to several times on ClimateSight). These are often open to the general public, and are directed at K-12 educators, politicians, community leaders etc. Interestingly, at several of these conferences I have seen talks and even whole symposia directed at refuting climate change altogether or at demonstrating that current change is not due to human activity (e.g., promoting astronomical forcing or solar output as mechanisms). So far from stiffling ‘debate’ or consideration of alternative opinion, AGU and GSA are fostering debate so long as the science is sound.

  4. Whether they realise it or not, denialists are using magic tricks, misdirection and misinformation to fool people. The innocent ones are fooling themselves first; the less innocent are deliberately lying for political reasons.

    Merely stating the rational facts will not prevail. Science needs to get tough and expose the deceptions. The basic denialist positions have been thoroughly demolished so many times in public that anybody who continues to promote them can now safely be described as terminally thick or terminally deceitful. Call these hucksters what they are. Loudly

  5. RE**[citations needed – Doran/Zimmerman and Oreskes studies were cherry picked, the Oregon Petition is more credible]**

    Citations for what? The 75 of 77 comes right from your article “97.6% of publishing climatologists”. Anyone familiar with statistics knows that 77 is not significant compared to 30,000.

  6. As for the second claim, Gerald, I’d suggest looking into your own pet petition. Several groups have sampled from it and tried to track down sources. We’ve looked before, and found some pretty embarrassing finds, up to and including people who have been dead for longer than the OISM has existed.

    This ignores the fact that the petition itself lists that only 39 of the signatories have degrees in climatology. 40 is most definitely insignificant compared to 30,000, and is also insignificant compared to the number of the world’s climatologists. This also assumes that they’re all active publishers (a problem with this petition, see above), in order to do a fair comparison with D/Z.

    When will people learn that petition is a freaking joke?

  7. Pointing to the few Mickey Mice , Gerry Halliwells and dead people in the OISM petition is all very well, but still a very large number of legit scientists, or those with science degrees, signed it.

    What the Oregon petition proves is that scientists, or those with science degrees, are at least as vulnerable to being misdirected as the general public. Indeed, possibly more so. A degree or qualifications in one scientific field does not seem to bestow a universal ability to spot what’s wrong or right in another field.

    In psychic research it is pretty much standard knowledge that a fake psychic can more easily fool a scientist than a non-specialist – a scientist is looking for a rational explanation of the phenomena they see in front of them (which includes possible unknown powers), whereas the magician is skilled at making an effect happen that looked like it happened for one reason but was actually accomplished by another (deceptive) method.

    As far as the OISM petition goes, I have already pointed out elsewhere that the operative deception in it is that one has to sign that there is “no proof” that AGW will lead to “catastrophic warming”. Indeed there is no proof nor will there be until after we have finished the experiment by which time it would be way to late to do anything. Climate scientists themselves could almost sign the OISM.

    What AGW science gives us is major probabilities with small uncertainties but the carefully crafted misleading words of the OISM sucked the average “non climate scientist” in.

    The sceptic denier crowd use the OISM and similar in a deceitful way. To the public, they trumpet that this very large number of scientists don’t believe we’re in certain proved danger (which we’re not – just almost certain danger) and the public – like people watching a magician who don’t know he’s a magician – take this to mean that most scientists (far, far more than practising climate scientists) say there is no real problem – move along, nothing to worry about here.

    The deceit of the OISM is both in the wording and how it is presented and used.

    Also, the only requirement for signing was a B.Sc., so 30 000 is not really that many when you consider how many Americans have a B.Sc. -Kate

  8. Nick and Kate raise a solid point; I’m interested in seeing what Gerald’s rebuttals were.

    I would like to add one extra dimension to this: Last year, Mike at Greenfyre’s asked the interesting question of “What if the Oregon Petition names were real?“, which was followed by Brian at Scholars and Rogues investigating how the signatories stack up against ‘all scientists’, by field. Both of these (and others) completely bypass the credibility of the petition and simply look at what impact it would have if it were everything the inactivists say it is.

    Gerald would probably find that second link illuminating, since it provides (with data from the US Department of Education, for the record) exactly the data Gerald would need to make his “significance” point from above… and those data subvert his claim.

  9. Kate, The book, “Climate Change Science: A Modern Synthesis, Volume 1, the Physical Climate” by G. Thomas Farmer and John Cook was published on January 12, 2013 by Springer Publishers. It is available from Springer and Amazon that I know about and possibly other booksellers.

  10. Kate and others, the book, “Climate Change Science: A Modern Synthesis” is available through most libraries in the US and Canada. The cost of a hard copy for personal use is $119.00 from Springer, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other booksellers (with possible discounts) with an electronic version sold a bit cheaper. Authors have no control over costs. The authors, of course, believe the book to be worth every penny!

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