Climate Change and the Media

Note: this was composed before the remarks on “experts” by Michael Gove.

As someone with a science background (though not a practicing scientist) one of my frustrations is watching TV or listening to Radio programmes dealing with scientific matters. Whilst the quality of many science programmes is now excellent (after a long period in the 80s and 90s of dumbing down), the way science matters are covered on News and current affairs programmes is still dire. The printed press is hardly any better, and often worse, as it doesn’t even have to pretend to achieve “balance” in its reporting.

One area this is particularly true is on News paper reviews and programmes like Question Time or Any Questions. The participants are almost universally politicians, journalists, business people and entertainers. Almost all have no scientific qualifications beyond GCSE level. If asked to comment on (say) Quantum Mechanics or Relativity, these people would overwhelmingly admit they know very little and what they do know is confusing to them and best left to the scientists. They would surely agree that their opinion is practically worthless scientifically and would not expect to be taken seriously. If anyone claimed, for example, their disbelief in (say) the Big Bang Theory or evolution, they would be treated as vaguely (if not entirely) whacky.

There is one exception to this: climate change. This is one area where many people with no qualifications in science, with largely arts and humanities training and who have no authority in science, feel able to express opinions on climate science AND expect to be taken seriously.

Two  long standing examples are Melanie Philips and James Delingpole (both graduates in English). These are well known man made climate change deniers and accuse scientists, without any evidence, of corruption, fraud or, at best, incompetence [they ought to decide which of these they think it is]. They cherry pick evidence in an attempt to deliver an apparently fatal blow to the cause of scientists whose primary motivation is to understand the workings of the natural world and  ensure the improvement of human society in a sustainable way. At best, these pronouncements serve to confuse the general public on the state of climate science and, at worst, are irresponsible and reckless interventions deliberately designed to thwart action.

Nigel Lawson (PPE graduate and didn’t even have a great track record for economic predictions) and his Global Warming Policy Foundation are an organised lobby aiming to do the same thing. His journalist son, Dominic, (also a PPE graduate with no scientific credentials) acts as effective mouthpiece for his father and the GWPF. Many politicians, particularly of a Libertarian bent (eg UKIP’s Nigel Farage – no post O level qualifications in science) similarly publicly take a sceptical position, often portrayed as an “I’m not convinced” [is he “convinced” on Quantum Mechanics! the Higgs Boson or the recent confirmation of Gravitational Waves?] or “there was a global cooling consensus in the 1970s” [no there wasn’t] so as to delay policy development. Former Environment Secretary Owen Paterson (History graduate and believed not to have had a single briefing by climate scientists during his tenure in office) insists that the best science informs policy on matters such as badger culls and GM food, but apparently not on the much more certain science behind man-made climate change.

Tory MEP Daniel Hannan (a graduate in History) has written a blog entitled “So, should conservatives believe in man made climate change” as if the laws of physics have a political leaning! What next, “should conservatives believe in the Higgs Boson?”.

But in recent months others weigh in with opinions that do much the same. On Sky News, Julia Hartley-Brewer (another PPE graduate) talks about models being wrong; on Any Question’s UKIP’s MEP Jane Collins (4 O levels and an A level in Art) questions the science on the basis of very cherry picked evidence; On Sky News  at Breakfast DJ Liz Kershaw says how the climate has always changed, so it must be natural now (an argument James Whale – no post 16 qualifications cited – also uses as the killer argument),  how Thatcher (a Chemistry graduate)  invented it to have a go at the miners (in contrast to the Delingpole/Philips and US Tea Party assertions that “socialists” like Al Gore invented it to bring in a New World Order; or Donald Trump claiming it is a conspiracy by the Chinese). Sports journalist Jonny Gould (scientific qualifications not stated but claims his authority derives from him being brought up in Birmingham) makes a cheap shot “Climate Change, Global Warming or whatever they’re calling it this week” and that a 1C rise in 150 years is insignificant (tell that to residents of low lying states such as Bangladeshis and Maldivians). We hear how volcanoes emit more CO2 than man [untrue]; how human emissions of CO2 are tiny [misleading]; how the world has cooled since 1998 [untrue – and 2016 has been confirmed to be the warmest year on the instrument record by a long way, after records being set in 2014 and 2015]; and how the antarctic ice is expanding [whilst ignoring all the other lines of evidence supporting warming]. The BBC fail to challenge an interview a woman from Florida who claimed rises in sea level are too small to measure. She poses an alternative explanation followed by a rhetorical “but what do I know”. Yes, exactly.

We get a “Gish gallop” of the usual mishmash of lies, myths, logical fallacies, and strawman arguments to undermine the science and reduce public willingness to take action. The moderators and participants of the debate are unable, or unwilling, to challenge their assertions which then stick in the mind of the audience as fact. On rare occasions, a well meaning comedian, businessperson, or commentator may challenge the nonsense but usually to little effect. Those with humanities degrees appear to think that rhetoric is enough to “win” arguments, or at least create “reasonable doubt”. In science, it’s empirical evidence that wins arguments, not the confidence of ignorance.

What seems common is that few, if any, are briefed (or even want to be) on the state of climate science. Long debunked myths get repeated and no-one is on hand to put the record straight. Moderators of the discussions do not challenge assertions made nor question the authority of those making them, or even realise there is an overwhelming scientific consensus on the matter. Assertions that the science behind Climate Change is new, uncertain , and motivated by some conspiracy is taken without question. Yet the basic science is nearly 200 years old. Commentators go out of their way to find apparent discrepancies in the science, usually from tabloid or business press, not from scientific sources. The result is a “drip drip” of sceptical propaganda confronting the public in a way that isn’t true on most other areas of science. The science comes across as evenly balanced when, in fact, every government in the world accepts the agreed consensus of 97% of practicing climate scientists and this is backed by every national science academy around the world and the professional societies of all practicing scientists. Even oil and energy companies as well as car manufacturers all accept the science (though not necessarily proposed policies). Of the 3% of other scientists, they don’t even have a coherent counter narrative: some argue it isn’t happening at all, others that it is but entirely natural, others still that man is causing it but it’s not harmful.

When faced with this near universal acceptance of the mainstream science (or consensus) the most rational position of all those who are not scientists in the field is to accept that science unless there is some compelling reason why not. Not included in those “compelling reasons” are such reasons as distrust of governments, distrust of scientists, cherry picked evidence already considered by those scientists, claims of “they’ve been wrong before so must be now”, “I’m from Birmingham so know what I’m talking about”,  or simply not liking the predictions or consequences of the science.

Yet information setting the record straight or rebutting claims are readily available. The NASA Climate website is easily accessible and understandable. Current and past information from NOAA, NSIDC,  The UK Met Office, WMO is easily locate-able on the internet. The Royal Society and US National Academy of Sciences produced a summary of the science in 2014. And, of course, many thousands of pages of scientific reports are available from the IPCC which published its fifth assessment report in 2013/14. On the latter, even this is cherry picked by sceptics: Nigel Lawson cites the IPCC when it suits him (eg to disparage claims that extreme weather events are related to global warming) but not on the broader science.

Some of these very authoritative sources debunk many of the common myths, lies and misrepresentations used by deniers. Nearly 2 hundred other commonly used myths are debunked on the skeptical science website and the RealClimate website provided a wealth of information and the ability to ask climate scientists about those “killer” arguments you hear from deniers it in the media.  Whether you accept the science or not, before pontificating you ought to at least check your reasons against these sources and stop using them if they are invalid. One would like to think that rational people would reconsider their denial in the face of such evidence, but they usually proceed to argue with some other cherry picked evidence or myth instead.

What these people and groups actually seem to have in common is objection to policies to address climate change, aided and abetted  by media and journalists seeking controversy. Some (eg UKIP) object to the sovereignty sacrifice necessary to achieve global action to reduce emissions. Others of the more libertarian thinking object to anything that interferes with the free market (and refuse to accept that climate change is the greatest market failure in history). Some doubtless believe that their right to drive a 6 litre SUV and   take multiple foreign holidays by plane each year trumps the rights of future generations to a sustainable planet for human habitation. But rather than argue the rights and wrongs of policies, they prefer to claim that no solution is needed as there is no problem to begin with.

However, reducing CO2 emissions does not have to be at the cost of economic growth:

Climate science has been subject to more scrutiny than almost any other field of science in recent decades and if it’s found to be wrong, it’ll be because practicing scientists do so on the basis of specific criticisms of the data, methodology or the underlying theoretical framework not because people don’t like it. This is decided via the scientific peer review process not by passing motions in the US  Senate, in the pages of the Independent, Wall Street Journal, the Daily Mail, Fox News, the GWPF, Heartland, or because UKIP’s Nigel Farage, Roger Helmer (aha, a Maths graduate, but who obviously forgot his basic statistics when he cited snow in November in Tokyo as evidence that climate science has got it wrong. His 7 killer arguments are untrue, irrelevant, fallacious or all three.) say they aren’t sure” or UKIP’s Nathan Gill and Jane Collins repeat long debunked myths. It’s also not decided by wisecracking bloggers or those posting what they believe to be fatal disproofs on blogs, or saying so on national TV or radio. And it’s pretty implausible that a conspiracy would last nearly 40 years. In the end if you stubbornly refuse to accept the science, no-one really cares: we’re not waiting for you to be convinced.

Here’s what Professor Brian Cox has to say about the difference between serious science and entertainment. Of course, many would argue that these people are merely expressing their opinions and to suppress these opinions is a violation of free speech. But are opinions that violate facts and overwhelming evidence worthy of consideration? In a debate on science why do non-scientists even think their views should be considered at all? Why do the moderators of these debates think it is meaningful and worthwhile to have these one sided arguments take place in the public gaze?  Scientific truth is not decided by a popular vote nor by rhetorical arguments on national TV or radio.But as citizens we all get a say in the policy responses to the science, but not whether the science is right or not. Having said that the possibility of warmer weather in the UK cannot be at the cost of those in the poorest regions of the world. Climate change is an extreme example of the Tragedy of the Commons.

Why do I accept climate science? I have a PhD in Physics and accept the natural world obeys the laws of physics. These predict that increasing the concentration of a heat retaining agent [greenhouse gases] must cause heat retention. The rest is detail (such as whether specific extreme weather events are  attributable to climate change). And arguments over that detail is not evidence the fundamental science is wrong.