Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Science journalism and climate change

In a previous post I posed the question of why our so-called leaders have fallen hook, line and sinker for man-made global warming – which is, at best, a hypothesis which is increasingly being demolished by newer results and empirical facts. It certainly does not look like the science is settled. Nor do the alarmist predictions that were being made a decade ago seem to be coming true. Despite all of this, and in spite of the increasing scepticism of the public, there seems to be no signs that our political leaders harbour any  doubts. I would joke about the lights being on but nobody being home, but the lights in politicians heads are powered by wind – there are only occasional flickers of intermittent light at best.

But it’s not just the politicians at fault here. Arguably the mania for global warming would not be half as strong had there not been a near unanimous chorus of approval from the mass media. From repeating the mantra about scientific consensus, to labelling sceptics as oil-industry funded ‘deniers’ to trumpeting the most absurd alarmist claims of impending disaster – the media are complicit in furthering the green agenda and propagandising for global warming alarmism. The question we have to ask then, is what are the forces at work here? Why are there so few sceptic voices heard in public?

In a recent post at the Global Warming Policy Foundation, David Whitehouse points out that:

Many science reporters haven’t been scientists and haven’t been general reporters. Like the rise of the career politician that goes straight from University to politics it is a worrying trend.

This is a key point. Anyone who has undertaken scientific research will have an understanding of uncertainty, the contingency of results, the limitations of mathematical modelling, the importance of the choice of statistical model and so on. These aren’t abstract ideas, for someone who has performed research these are part of the very real substance of the scientific method. You don’t have to be a Nobel grade physicist, anyone who undertakes to do a science-based PhD will have to grapple with these to some extent. But for those who are studying science from the outside, these are likely to be just abstract ideas, and not very interesting ideas at that. Sure, they may learn about the scientific method, but it will be in terms of grand ideas and not the day to day slog of getting results and comparing them with them to predictions, or the painful process of having to let go of a favourite idea because it just doesn’t hold.

Besides, much scientific work is boring slog. Where’s the fun in that? For someone looking at science from the outside, what’s interesting isn’t the slog, it’s the big narrative. Even investigations of some minor area of science, some unexciting little niche, fits into a grand narrative. It’s not the painful process of crafting your algorithm or recording the results of your experiment, it’s the results that are interesting and which is a central part of the story.

So, for our trainee science journalist, science is about results, preferably science that has a good story to tell (and which makes for good copy). In fact, the more exciting the story, the more interesting to the reader. Put away the uncertainty, put away all the hedges against confounding factors, ignore the error bars and the gaps in your model. Just tell  a good story. It doesn’t have to be climate change or an environmental story – this applies as much to the search for the Higgs boson as it does to the latest viral scare story. This need for narrative is at work at another level too, and one that is just as important to the climate change story.

How these different stories are framed is the next thing we need to look at. We all see the world through our own personal ideological filters, whether we admit this or not. To some this is self evident, but there are plenty of people who operate as if they are free of these prejudices. For them, the world is as they see it, and anyone who dares to suggest otherwise is wrong or misguided. This is the realm of Gramscian cultural hegemony. It is the theory that a society, including a complex and diverse society such as ours, can be dominated by one world-view, which is perceived to be the cultural norm – it’s there but it’s all but invisible. In our society this default world view is the liberal world view as exemplified by the Guardian or the BBC. This default view is firmly entrenched throughout society, even in those institutions which are nominally apolitical or viewed as being on ‘the Right’. It’s there in the leadership of the Tory party, as well as in the LibDems and Labour. It’s there in the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and the Times, as well as the Guardian and the Observer. And, most firmly of all, this world view is deeply embedded in education – from nurseries to primary schools and right on throughout academia.

From kindergarten to university, the education system imbues a set of liberal values overtly and covertly. Almost from the day that children start at school it will be drummed into them that the planet is being destroyed, species wiped out, global warming is occurring and so on. Children are taught that the profit motive is bad, that ‘public service’ is inherently good, that the state is there to protect the weak etc. Anyone who has children at school can attest to this.

When it comes to training our science journalists, these views are familiar and taken as unremarkable. It is understood that these are normal, and that anyone who disputes them is some kind of fascist. How does this view of the world frame the grand narrative of climate change?

Why, climate change fits hand in glove with this view of the world.

The story of climate change is simple, according to this world view. The planet is being destroyed because of human greed. The drive for profit is what encourages economic development and industrialisation. Industrialisation depends crucially on fossil fuels. Burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas (which every school kid knows from the age of five), and if you’re a science journalist you can probably expound a bit on the process of warming. Furthermore, there is a consensus view amongst scientists that this is happening. The only people who can possibly disagree with this are either in the pay of the oil companies, or else they are deluded ideologues who are psychologically incapable of seeing that they may have to change their selfish ways.

It’s a simple connect the dots story, it’s easy to tell, there is no room for doubt or uncertainty. What is more, the fact that there are sceptics means that there is an identified opposition. The science journalist therefore can retain the illusion that he or she is anti-establishment, they can enjoy the pleasure of being attacked (there’s nothing like that feeling of self-righteousness for making you feel good about yourself).

Forget the fact that the oil companies are fully bought in to the global warming theme – crony capitalism and corporate welfare are powerful forces. Forget the fact that the establishment is completely on board. Forget the fact that bodies such as Greenpeace, WWF, Friends of the Earth etc are morphing into quasi-state bodies, funded to a great extent by national governments and trans-national bodies like the EU.

Our science journalists, therefore, are completely in line with the establishment view of the world. And, of course, the part they play is a positive feedback on the belief system. They are convinced and therefore they take on a campaigning role to convince others. Others read the story and it gathers momentum and driving funds and prestige to those scientists who are most active and vocal. These scientists feedback to the politicians and to the journalists. It’s a perfect circle of illusion and drives out doubt, uncertainty and the willingness to test assumptions.

Again, there’s no big conspiracy here. There is no central committee that drives the global warming hypothesis forward (not even the IPCC). There is no single body that tells our politicians to destroy our economies. Why would you need such a thing? Surely the warming hypothesis is just common sense?

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