Article below appears in the current edition of ‘Village’ magazine. It is a response of sorts to an unusually poor contribution in a previous edition by a journalism lecturer in an article purporting to offer critical insights into the interplay between science and journalism…
IMAGINE IF the world’s largest assembly of scientific experts published a ‘consensus report’ confirming that, with a 90 per cent probability, a giant meteor would slam into the planet within a decade. How would you expect the world’s media to cover this story?
This intriguing scenario is set out by the former editor of Fortune magazine, Eric Pooley in a recent Harvard University analysis of the American press and its coverage of the economics of climate change. “Even in an era of financial distress, they would throw teams of reporters at it and give them the resources needed to follow it in extraordinary depth and detail”, writes Pooley. “After all, the race to stop the meteor would be the story of the century.”
The bad news is that the metaphorical meteor is indeed on the way. The most comprehensive global scientific assessment ever conducted – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – confirmed after more than two decades of detailed analysis across dozens of disciplines that human-driven climate change is on target to render the planet largely uninhabitable in the coming decades.
The IPCC’s assessment is that, in the absence of massive, immediate and sustained emissions reductions, the planet is committed to average surface temperature increases in the range of 3-6 degrees centigrade. At the lower end of that scale, the Arctic disappears, the Greenland ice shelf is doomed, the Amazon rainforest disappears, and 50 per cent of all species face extinction. At the higher – 6C – end of that scale, life on Earth will be largely extinguished.
So where are the teams of reporters, specialist writers and analysts that are busily covering every conceivable angle of the greatest prospective calamity humanity has ever faced? Nowhere. The media is engaged in “one of the most obstinate displays of inertia in human history, a time when, like latter-day Neros, we fiddle while our planet burns”, says media specialist, Prof Justin Lewis.
The media loves scare stories, from MMR to killer bees, yet “despite worrying about all kinds of risks that are unlikely to materialise, when faced with one of the most carefully assessed and well-researched threats of recent times, we appear to dither and stall, inching towards half-measures with little sense of urgency”.
The answer to this conundrum may lie in the widespread misunderstanding within the media about how science is done. Bad Science author Ben Goldacre reckons that many journalists “feel intellectually offended by how hard they find science, and so “conclude that it all must simply be arbitrary, made-up nonsense”.
This caricature of the scientific process leaves them free to “pick a result from anywhere you like, and if it suits your agenda, then that’s that: nobody can take it away from you with their clever words because it’s all just game-playing”.
The impact of industry lobbies can never be understated either. The scientific evidence linking smoking with lung cancer was compelling as far back as 1953, but the tobacco industry fought a brilliant counter-attack, using junk science, paid ‘experts’, phoney institutes and lashings of PR money to keep cigarette regulation at bay for another 40 years.
Similar industry forces claimed vociferously for years that both acid rain and ozone depletion were in reality conspiracies against our freedom by greedy, corrupt scientists looking for research funding. The relentless attacks on climate science over the last decade have followed an identical play-book.
“Scientific ideas must be supported by evidence…both the idea and the evidence used to support it must be judged by a jury of one’s scientific peers”, writes Prof Naomi Oreskes (in ‘Merchants of Doubt‘ – essential reading for anyone involved in public policy or journalism). The so-called climate sceptics have long since abandoned the peer-reviewed scientific process, since they have no evidence to support their claims. Instead, they wage war on science itself in the lay media, knowing that most reporters – and editors – wouldn’t spot the difference, and would instead try to “balance” their coverage.
“Nobody can publish an article in a scientific journal claiming the Sun orbits the Earth, and for the same reason, you can’t publish an article in a peer-reviewed journal claiming there’s no global warming”, according to Oreskes (whom I met and interviewed when she was in Dublin for a lecture in TCD in 2008). “Probably well-informed professional science journalists wouldn’t publish it either. But ordinary journalists repeatedly did”.
Harry Browne’s extraordinarily ill-judged recent article in Village (“It also became clear to me that the conclusion that a certain temperature change is ‘catastrophic’ for humans is not a scientific one — it’s political” is an example in his own words of Harry’s non-understanding of science) was a timely reminder of the scale of the challenge journalism confronts in trying to agree a fact-based approach to tackling the man-made meteor that is climate change.