When it comes to an issue like climate change, everyone complains about the media. On the one hand, those who don’t think humans have much to do with it complain that the media often leaves them out of the discussion. Isn’t it only fair to report both sides of the debate? On the other hand, those who support the consensus scientific view complain that, given the fact that the skeptics represent only a small fraction of the experts, their views are already given far too much airtime in the name of “balance.” If the views of 3% of climate scientists are given even a quarter the airtime given to a 97% majority, how is that “balanced”?
There is another, more difficult path, though. Instead of shooting for “balance,” media outlets can try to report THE TRUTH. That’s right, I’m talkin’ ’bout some good old fashioned investigative reporting.
The problem with taking the high road in the case of a highly technical scientific dispute is that it takes an awful lot of work to get up to speed to the point where you can make informed decisions about the sorts of details the experts fight about. In my case, for example, I have a PhD in geochemistry and 10 years experience as a professional research scientist and teacher. This background often makes it pretty easy for me to read climate science literature and make reasonably informed judgements about who has the weight of evidence on their side. Since I’m not a specialist and climate science is a very broad subject, however, I just as often run into situations where I don’t have the right technical background to make those kinds of calls. So if reporters aren’t up for years of hard work, maybe it’s better to strive for some reasonable definition of “balanced reporting.” Otherwise it’s a recipe for making themselves look stupid.
Which brings me to the editors of the local newspaper in Provo, UT, the Daily Herald.
For some time now, Randy Wright and Jim Tynen of the Daily Herald haven’t gone more than a week or two without publishing some editorial about how climate science is a festering swamp of corruption, or about how scientifically obvious it is that humans can’t significantly affect the Earth’s climate. These two men are definitely not stupid–their editorials are often both coherent and persuasive. But when they talk about climate change, reason seems to go out the window, and their editorials are larded with outlandish claims and ignorant statements.
Part of the problem appears to be that the Herald’s editors are what Richard Paul and Linda Elder call “weak-sense critical thinkers”. (See their book, Critical Thinking: Tools for Taking Charge of Your Professional and Personal Life, published by the Foundation for Critical Thinking.) Such people understand some things about the rules of logic, but lack the kind of intellectual honesty that allows people to question their own views and examine their own assumptions just as they criticize others’. Since it’s so obvious to Wright and Tynen that humans can’t affect the climate system very much, they automatically believe any stupid argument they find on a climate skeptic website. They don’t think it’s really necessary to do their homework before criticizing mainstream scientific views.
I recently e-mailed Randy Wright to point out a few of the Herald’s errors about climate change, and said that there’s no shortcut to get out of doing your homework if you want to be able to make rational decisions about such a technical subject. One of his responses caught me off guard. In essence, he blamed the scientists for not boiling the essentials of climate science down so the rest of us could make decisions about it.
If regular people cannot possibly understand the immense technical complexity to which you refer, then how can a congressman or senator or president, who hold the nation’s purse? Should society just trust the high priests and defer to their presumed wisdom? What, if any, effort should be made to shine light on basic questions? For me, these are essential questions. Do the high priests ever have to prove anything at all to people of reasonable intelligence?
In one sense Mr. Wright is correct. Scientists should be trying to boil down their science for public consumption, especially when it intersects with public policy decisions. Maybe such a distillation wouldn’t be enough to allow non-experts to sort out all the disputes between experts, but at least it would give people the basis for determining whether it all looks reasonable. Of course, climate scientists HAVE been trying to do this all along, and there are many good books and websites out there that are meant to help the layperson figure out the basics of the science. My favorite is David Archer’s Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast. Archer has even posted videos of his lectures at the U. of Chicago for a class based on this book.
The problem isn’t that climate scientists don’t try to communicate to the public, then. Rather, the problem is that people like the editors of the Daily Herald don’t think they need to bother reading that kind of thing before spouting their uninformed opinions. In their Dec. 30, 2009 editorial (Warming Theories Cooling Off), for example, they didn’t seem to realize that climate modelers had ever heard of water vapor.
Given the Daily Herald’s relentlessly ill-informed campaign against climate science, we here at ACCEIU (pronounced “ah-choo”, and yes, I’m recruiting contributors other than myself to participate here) have decided to create a series of posts to debunk the ridiculous claims they print about climate science. If we can keep up, that is.