Journalism, truth, and climate change.

Submitted by naught101 on Sun, 02/15/2009 - 14:32

I'd like to declare here and now that I'm sceptical about the "reality" of the round earth. There are many dissenting voices, sceptics of the current "consensus", and significant evidence to show that the earth is not round. Not to mention that it's bleedingly obvious - just look out the window: No curvature there, eh?

But despite this, dissenting voices in the debate are silenced. Proponents of the round earth hypothesis pursue their beliefs with a zeal unmatched even by the world's most fundamentalist religions. While it's true that many scientists believe that the earth is round, there are also significant dissenting voices, but were one to mention this in general conversation, or on talk back radio, one would immediately be shouted down, cut off, ostracised. In short, censored.

This is not how science should operate. Science is not decided by majority opinion, but by healthy debate. And while one side is being censored, there can be no real debate.

I'm not saying definitively that the earth flat or round - I'm still undecided, just that the debate needs to be opened up, so the true process of science can run its course, with maximum access to evidence and competing theories from both sides. Until all the information is on the table, I'll be most skeptical of the majority-imposed "consensus".

Sound familiar? The above arguments are frequently used by the denial-o-sphere (denial-o-plane?). While obviously climate change science is not so developed, or certain (or simple) as planetary physics, that does not mean that the above arguments have any weight in a climate context.

A friend and I recently had a long "debate" of this sort with a local journalist (from one of the larger local media organisations). The above is obviously intentionally hyperbolic, and this journo was much more sane and reasonable than all that.

His story was that he was an old lefty with an unfinished science degree who used to be really concerned about climate change in the 80s and 90s. We started off in agreement, and mostly kept it that way. But once we'd agreed that it was happening, my friend and I started talking about how something has to be done, and quickly. That was about the point that he seemed to start getting defensive. After going through a couple of easily dismissed old denial-o-sphere standards (like solar cycles), and coming to the conclusion that, yeah, it's probably CO2, since there's no other known cause, we were left with him being concerned about the "religious fervour" of anthropogenic global warming proponents. I wish I'd brought up the flat earth society, but I didn't think about that until the day after.

If this was any old pub goer, I wouldn't have been all that worried, I would have just enjoyed debating with a sane person. But this guy has the potential to reach many, many people through the media corporation he's involved in. Newcastle is an old coal town, and the media is generally well known to be pretty supportive of the coal industry - even some of the journos for the local paper acknowledge that it's a "coal rag". I'd be great to have some solid science injected into the local debate.

Journalists have a built in ethic of trying to seek out both sides of a debate. That's a good thing. But not all sides of a debate are equal. In the fanciful flat-earth example above, it would be insane to treat a flat earther with anything approaching the level of respect given to a physicist. It'd be laughable to give them the same amount of time as, say, the local plumber. Even if you didn't have access to any of the evidence, you would still note that there hasn't been any science backing up that position for at least a century.

In climate science, things aren't so cut and dried, still, both sides of the "debate" aren't equal. But it's safe to say that the people who really know about this stuff are scientists: atmospheric physicists, earth scientists, ecologists, etc.. And the information is out there about what these people think, you just have to search for it for a bit, and then, importantly, check for information about what you've found. For example, it's pretty easy to find out that thousands of scientists signed the Oregon Petition stating that climate change wasn't happening, but it's also relatively easy to find out how flawed and unrepresentative that petition was.

Numbers aren't enough, of course, but they are a good indicator. This is because a fundamental task of science is to attempt to disprove current knowledge, and through succeeding or failing, gain new insight into reality. If someone has a new theory that's convincing or plausible, some scientists will want to test it. Once it's been tested, it will either be rejected, or incorporated into the current body of scientific knowledge. If  it contradicts another current scientific theory, both should be tested.

Climate science isn't new. It's been around for well over a century, and has come a long way especially in the last few decades, with a lot of theories tested and rejected. It's extremely telling that there hasn't been a paper in a scientific journal for over a decade that rejects the idea that humans are changing the climate through releasing greenhouse gases.

It's a journalists' reponsibility to tell the public what's new. Climate denial theories that have been debunked many, many times are not new. There hasn't been a new alternative theory for a decade or more. If the general public have some responsibility not to make sure they're not being deluded by spin and lies, then journalists have orders of magnitude more responsibility for the same, as they are the conduit through which a large part of the general population finds their information. If that responsibility is not enacted, is the resulting news really any better than a lie?