Stephan Lewandowsky and Michael Ashley via
A tacit presumption of many in the media and the public is that climate science is a brittle house of cards that can be brought down by a single new finding or the discovery of a single error.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Climate science is a cumulative enterprise built upon hundreds of years of research. The heat-trapping properties of CO₂ were discovered in the middle of the 19th century, pre-dating even Sherlock Holmes and Queen Victoria.
The resulting robust knowledge will not be overturned by a single new finding.
A further false presumption of the media is that scientific opinions must somehow be balanced by an opposing view. While balance is an appropriate conversational frame for the political sphere, it is wholly inappropriate for scientific issues, where what matters is the balance of evidence, not opinion.
At first glance, one might be tempted to forgive the media’s inappropriate inclusion of unfounded contrarian opinions, given that its function is to stimulate broad debate in which, ideally, even exotic opinions are given a voice.
But the media by and large do not report the opinions of 9/11 “truthers” who think that the attacks were an “inside job” of the Bush administration. The media also do not report the opinion of people who believe Prince Phillip runs the world’s drug trade. The fact that equally outlandish pseudo-scientific nonsense about climate science can be sprouted on TV by a cat palmist is evidence not of an obsession with balance but of a striking and selective failure of editorial responsibility.
What is needed instead of the false symmetry implied by “balance” is what the BBC calls impartiality – fact-based reporting that evaluates the evidence and comes to a reality-based conclusion.
The dangerously ill-formed
An example of a dangerously ill-informed opinion on how science works is the widely propagated myth that scientists somehow have a “vested interest”, presumably financial, in climate change. This myth has been carefully crafted by deniers to create a chimerical symmetry between their own ties to political and economic interests and the alleged “vested interests” of scientists.
In actual fact, climate scientists have as much vested interest in the existence of climate change as cancer researchers do in the existence of the human papilloma virus (HPV).
Cancer researchers are motivated by the fact that cervical cancer kills, and the scientists who developed the HPV vaccine did so to save lives, not to get their grants renewed.
Climate scientists are likewise motivated by the fact that climate change kills 140,000 people per year right at this very moment, according to the World Health Organization.
The scientists who have been alerting the public of this risk for nearly 20 years did so to save lives, not to get their grants renewed.
Climate scientists are being motivated by the realisation that humanity has got itself into serious trouble with climate change, and it will need the best scientific advice to navigate a solution.
As scientists, we ask not for special consideration by the media, but simply for the same editorial responsibility and quality control that is routinely applied to all other arenas of public discourse.
Selective failure of quality control and editorial responsibility when it comes to climate change presents a grave public disservice.
The climate change debate is the rotten fish to pull out and wave around any time one of the pious priests of journalism starts spouting about the imminent loss to Western civilization after we all switch to the unfact-checked, crowdsourced ‘echo chamber’ online. All that hard reporting by the wayside, journalistic integrity, blah de blah de blah. Total bullshit.
Journalists’ smug obsession with ‘balanced reporting’ is a cop out: it’s just laziness to call up a crackpot with no scientific credentials to ‘balance’ the nearly unanimous agreement of tens of thousands of climate scientists.
As Daniel Moynihan said, “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts”. Journalists seem to think they are getting at the facts by finding two sides of every story, but that’s willful nonsense in cases like climate change. Or worse, it’s outright capitulation to the wiles of power, those forces in society that seek to gain from obstructionism. And, yes, there are trillions to be made by allowing the world to spin into climate disaster.
The world’s newspapers should run climate change as the lead headline every day for a year and it would still not be enough to make up for the damage they have caused with their weaselly and capricious application of the rules of journalistic objectivism. Self-centered solipsists.