Climate Science Glossary

Term Lookup

Enter a term in the search box to find its definition.

Settings

Use the controls in the far right panel to increase or decrease the number of terms automatically displayed (or to completely turn that feature off).

Term Lookup

Settings


All IPCC definitions taken from Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Working Group I Contribution to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Annex I, Glossary, pp. 941-954. Cambridge University Press.

Home Arguments Software Resources Comments The Consensus Project Translations About Support

Twitter Facebook YouTube Pinterest MeWe

RSS Posts RSS Comments Email Subscribe


Climate's changed before
It's the sun
It's not bad
There is no consensus
It's cooling
Models are unreliable
Temp record is unreliable
Animals and plants can adapt
It hasn't warmed since 1998
Antarctica is gaining ice
View All Arguments...



Username
Password
New? Register here
Forgot your password?

Latest Posts

Archives

The false, the confused and the mendacious: how the media gets it wrong on climate change

Posted on 27 June 2011 by John Cook

Reposted from The Conversation. This is the tenth part in a two-week series Clearing up the Climate Debate.

The Conversation wraps up Clearing up the Climate Debate with a statement from our authors: the debate is over. Let’s get on with it.

Over the past two weeks The Conservation has highlighted the consensus of experts that climate change caused by humans is both real and poses a serious risk for the future.

We have also revealed the deep flaws in the conduct of so-called climate “sceptics” who largely operate outside the scientific context.

But to what extent is the “science settled”? Is there any possibility that the experts are wrong and the deniers are right?

Certainty in science

If you ask a scientist whether something is “settled” beyond any doubt, they will almost always reply “no”.

Nothing is 100% certain in science.

So how certain is climate science? Is there a 50% chance that the experts are wrong and that the climate within our lifetimes will be just fine? Or is there a 10% chance that the experts are wrong? Or 1%, or only 0.0001%?

The answer to these questions is vital because if the experts are right, then we must act to avert a major risk.

Dropping your phone

Suppose that you lose your grip on your phone. Experience tells us that the phone will fall to the ground.

You drop a phone, it falls down.

Fact.

Science tells us that this is due to gravity, and no one doubts its inevitability.

However, while science has a good understanding of gravity, our knowledge is only partial. In fact, physicists know that at a very deep level our theory of gravity is inconsistent with quantum mechanics, so one or both will have to be modified.

We simply don’t know for sure how gravity works.

But we still don’t jump off bridges, and you would be pretty silly to drop your phone onto a concrete floor in the hope that gravity is wrong.

Climate change vs. gravity: Greater complexity, comparable certainty

Our predictions of climate change aren’t as simple as the action of gravity on a dropped phone.

The Earth is a very complex system: there are natural effects like volcanoes, and variations in the sun; there are the vagaries of the weather; there are complicating factors such as clouds, and how ice responds; and then there are the human influences such as deforestation and CO? emissions.

But despite these complexities, some aspects of climate science are thoroughly settled.

We know that atmospheric CO? is increasing due to humans. We know that this CO?, while being just a small fraction of the atmosphere, has an important influence on temperature.

We can calculate the effect, and predict what is going to happen to the earth’s climate during our lifetimes, all based on fundamental physics that is as certain as gravity.

The consensus opinion of the world’s climate scientists is that climate change is occurring due to human CO? emissions. The changes are rapid and significant, and the implications for our civilisation may be dire. The chance of these statements being wrong is vanishingly small.

Scepticism and denialism

Some people will be understandably sceptical about that last statement. But when they read up on the science, and have their questions answered by climate scientists, they come around.

These people are true sceptics, and a degree of scepticism is healthy.

Other people will disagree with the scientific consensus on climate change, and will challenge the science on internet blogs and opinion pieces in the media, but no matter how many times they are shown to be wrong, they will never change their opinions.

These people are deniers.

The recent articles in The Conversation have put the deniers under the microscope. Some readers have asked us in the comments to address the scientific questions that the deniers bring up.

This has been done.

Not once. Not twice. Not ten times. Probably more like 100 or a 1000 times.

Denier arguments have been dealt with by scientists, again and again and again.

But like zombies, the deniers keep coming back with the same long-falsified and nonsensical arguments.

The deniers have seemingly endless enthusiasm to post on blogs, write letters to editors, write opinion pieces for newspapers, and even publish books. What they rarely do is write coherent scientific papers on their theories and submit them to scientific journals. The few published papers that have been sceptical about climate change have not withstood the test of time.

The phony debate on climate change

So if the evidence is this strong, why is there resistance to action on climate change in Australia?

At least two reasons can be cited.

First, as The Conversation has revealed, there are a handful of individuals and organisations who, by avoiding peer review, have engineered a phony public debate about the science, when in fact that debate is absent from the one arena where our scientific knowledge is formed.

These individuals and organisations have so far largely escaped accountability.

But their free ride has come to an end, as the next few weeks on The Conversation will continue to show. The second reason, alas, involves systemic failures by the media.

Systemic media failures arise from several presumptions about the way science works, which range from being utterly false to dangerously ill-informed to overtly malicious and mendacious.

The false

Let’s begin with what is merely false. 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 CO? 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 malicious

Finally, no truthful analysis of the Australian media landscape can avoid highlighting the maliciousness of some media organisations, primarily those owned by Newscorp, which are cartoonish in their brazen serial distortion of scientists and scientific findings.

Those organisations have largely escaped accountability to date, and we believe that it is a matter of urgency to expose their practice.

For example, it is not a matter of legitimate editorial process to misrepresent what experts are telling Newscorp reporters — some of whom have been known to apologize to scientists in advance and off the record for their being tasked to return from public meetings, not with an actual news story but with scathing statements from the handful of deniers in the audience.

It is not a matter of legitimate editorial process to invert the content of scientific papers.

It is not a matter of legitimate editorial process to misrepresent what scientists say.

It is not a matter of legitimate editorial process to prevent actual scientists from setting the record straight after the science has been misrepresented.

None of those sadly common actions are compatible with legitimate journalistic ethics, and they should have no place in a knowledge economy of the 21st century.

The very fact that society is wracked by a phony debate where there is none in the scientific literature provides strong evidence that the Australian media has tragically and thoroughly failed the Australian public.

0 0

Printable Version  |  Link to this page

Comments

Comments 1 to 16:

  1. The media is also taken to task by Al Gore in "Climate of Denial" published in Rolling Stone Magazine.
    0 0
  2. "The changes are rapid and significant, and the implications for our civilisation may be dire. The chance of these statements being wrong is vanishingly small." the chance that the statement "the implications may be dire" is wrong is exactly zero, since "may be" can not be false. But the chance that the implications won't be actually dire is not vanishingly small, of course.
    0 0
  3. "the chance that the statement "the implications may be dire" is wrong is exactly zero, since "may be" can not be false." The statement "The chance of these statements being wrong is vanishingly small" refers to all of the points made in that section: "We know that atmospheric CO2 is increasing due to humans. We know that this CO2, while being just a small fraction of the atmosphere, has an important influence on temperature. We can calculate the effect, and predict what is going to happen to the earth’s climate during our lifetimes, all based on fundamental physics that is as certain as gravity. The consensus opinion of the world’s climate scientists is that climate change is occurring due to human CO2 emissions. The changes are rapid and significant..." The phrase you decided to criticize was not covered under "The chance of these statements being wrong is vanishingly small". "But the chance that the implications won't be actually dire is not vanishingly small, of course." Why "of course"? That's an assertion without any evidence. There is some uncertainty as to how dire the changes will be for us, but the odds that they won't be dire is not vanishingly small.
    0 0
  4. okatiniko, You critique a bit of grammar, and choose to ignore "The changes are rapid and significant" even after quoting it, thus providing the shallowest of straw-man distractions that you ought to be embarrassed by. If you were serious about what was written, you could have offered a question such as, "Did you mean for the escape clause "may be" or did you intend "will be" or "are"?
    0 0
  5. "But their free ride has come to an end, as the next few weeks on The Conversation will continue to show." Anyone know what this refers to? I've long wondered what we can do to hold deniers in politics and the media accountable... but when Monckton can walk into the U.S. Congress and flat out lie (and claiming that the temperature projection which he made up came from the IPCC was a flat out lie) without being charged for it you have to wonder if the people funding this effort don't have the power to prevent any consequences. Scientists standing up and calling out their colleagues and the deniers in politics is all well and good, but given that the deniers have already been making false denunciations of the same kind for years now it seems inevitable that they will respond by ratcheting up those attacks. Meanwhile half a dozen climate researchers are being 'investigated' by partisan hacks who accuse them of fraud and misappropriation of funds without any evidence whatsoever and then use freedom of information laws to demand e-mails in hopes of finding more quotations they can misrepresent as they did with 'Climategate'. What can really be done to hold deniers to account for what they are doing?
    0 0
  6. We need new laws to deal with this deliberate mis-reporting, and with climate change denial in general. Just as marketers are not allowed to lie in their advertisements, media needs to be held to the same standard. Alternatively, I can see the day coming when denial of climate change is just as serious a crime as holocaust denial is in some countries today.
    0 0
  7. Personally, I think media outlets and journalists should have a regulatory body and a license to practice, like doctors and solicitors. If a journalist prints a story they know is untrue, their licence is revoked, and they can't be a journalist again. If a newspaper publishes a story that misrepresents the truth, then it should be shut down. Democracy depends on a well informed public, and that depends on the public receiving accurate information.
    0 0
  8. Liam23 @7 Here in Australia we have the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) but unfortunately it is a bit of a toothless tiger and rarely issues penalties harsher than slaps across the wrist with a piece of wet lettice. (For more information refer to ABC Media Watch website.)
    0 0
  9. Liam23@7, Licensing journalists (or bloggers, or whoever else decides to speak) would be a hideous assault on freedom of speech. Who is going to decide those things? Some bureaucratic licensing board? Who is going to decide what was a mistake and what was intentional? What happens when "the other side" gets to run such an agency? What if a Monckton or Plimer type were to head such a board? No, we do not need a Ministry of Truth. For all it's imperfections, the marketplace of ideas needs fewer, not more controls.
    0 0
  10. RobertMurphy @9, I am inclined to agree with you. However, I do think a very interesting case could be run against many News Limited outlets on the basis of false advertising in that they promise to bring us news, but bring us lies instead.
    0 0
  11. Consider Fred Singer... the man has been a professional denier for about 40 years now. He has argued that ultraviolet light does not cause skin cancer, CFCs do not cause ozone loss, smoking does not cause lung cancer, asbestos and DDT are perfectly safe, et cetera. He has been at it for decades and doesn't appear to have ever suffered any sort of 'consequences'. Sure, he has been denounced as a fraud many many times... but it doesn't seem to have hurt him any. He is still considered a 'heroic truth-teller standing up to the commie scientists and tree-huggers' by far too many people. I used to think that the only thing which could ever stop such people is if they were foolish enough to lie under oath... but then Monckton got away with even that.
    0 0
  12. I agree with Tom Curtis. The Murdochracy has really gone out of its way to routinely provide outright disinformation in this matter, and I'm glad it was singled out in The Conversation series. News consumers are entitled to believe that they will be given the core scientific information without distortion. Particularly on such a vital issue. And certainly without the sordid pretense that serving up think-tank spin is some kind of equivalent! Instead, the product is blatantly faulty - so where is the redress? Any media outlet that strays so far from the public-interest should risk serious penalty, including revocation of licence. "Free speech" does not run to the right of near-monopolies to propagandise at will, any more than it entitles corporations to lie in their advertisements - that is an absurd perversion.
    0 0
  13. #11: "Consider Fred Singer... He has been at it for decades and doesn't appear to have ever suffered any sort of 'consequences'" Sure it has - he's a pariah among scientists. He has no academic career to speak of and hasn't for years. What more do you want to do? Send him to jail for saying nonsense? Make it illegal for him to speak in public? Where does it end? Jail the scientologists? The creationists? The flat-earthers? I'm sorry, but free speech entitles one to make a fool of oneself and spout outright nonsense. Yes, that means you can lie, as long as you don't break libel/slander laws. Bill, #12: "News consumers are entitled to believe that they will be given the core scientific information without distortion." No, they are not. They are obligated to check what they read. Caveat emptor. That goes for any kind of information, not just scientific. "Any media outlet that strays so far from the public-interest should risk serious penalty, including revocation of licence." And when your enemies gain control of the bureaucracy, YOUR point of view will suddenly stray from the "public interest". Claim the hockey stick is not broken or that the warming has not stopped? They'll say that's a lie and cut you down with the legal weapons you gave them. '"Free speech" does not run to the right of near-monopolies to propagandise at will' Murdoch's media empire, however widespread, is no monopoly. I can easily get all the information I desire from other sources, with no inconvenience. I personally don't choose to eliminate any news outlet totally, but I could if I wanted to. And frankly, all media outlets, bloggers, pamphleteers, and street corner orators have a right to propagandize at will. In the U.S. we call it the 1st amendment. People, think about what such a Truth Commission would mean in practice. It would do far, far more damage than anything the deniers do now. I shudder at the thought of some nameless bureaucrat deciding whether or not someone's scientific or political opinions are illegal. In that sense I'm a 1st amendment fundamentalist.
    0 0
  14. Robert, I largely agree with your free speech concerns but there are two issues which stand out in this case. 1: In the past the idea of deliberate and ongoing deception by major elements of the news media was unthinkable. Anyone engaging in such chicanery would be run out of the profession. Now, it is practically a job requirement for a position at Fox News and the like. This represents a grave threat (i.e. widespread false beliefs are poison to democracies) which somehow must be addressed. 2: Lying under oath has always been an obvious exception to the 'freedom to lie'. If people can lie with seeming impunity in government hearings and courtroom proceedings it removes any chance of exposing those lies or stopping their effects. I agree that a 'truth commission' isn't a viable solution, but we need some kind of solution. We can't continue to allow 'truth' to be defined by the most practiced liars.
    0 0
  15. Robert Murphy, In the rest of the world we've already accepted that corporations do not have the right to lie merely because it is convenient for them to do so. 'Caveat emptor' is the credo of the con-man. 'First amendment fundamentalists' are just that - fundamentalists; people who have deliberately blunted their intellects to all shade and nuance in order to subscribe to a rigid, simplistic dogma, like their market and christian cousins (many subscribe to all three theses, despite the inherent absurdity of the contradictions involved!) In Australia - and many other 'non-fundamentalist' countries that somehow manage to be generally both more egalitarian and liberal than the US - it is accepted that a right to broadcast includes a responsibility to serve the public interest. We have various regulatory offices that are supposed to enforce this. (In fact, this is the method by which civilised nations attempt to acknowledge and deal with what is actually an obvious problem - the interests of the private corporations that run the media and the public are not always the same thing.) However, in reality, corporate power almost invariably trumps such interests, not least via stirring up false-populist 'Freedom of Speech / Freedom of the Press' hysteria. And so it is a blatant straw man, not unrelated to the above, to talk about 'Truth Commissions'. In my city, incidentally, Murdoch owns every newspaper - the only national daily, the only state/local daily, and even all the suburban weekly fish-wrappers. Please don't talk to me about what a monopoly is.
    0 0
  16. I am finding that a common tactic by the denialists is to use the "freedom of speech" to distract from any argument about the facts. This is consistent with the way the Climate Change debate is conducted as a political argument rather than a scientific one. Refer to a famous Monty Python sketch if you are unceratin of the difference. A political argument generally has two sides. As soon as you begin to take part in this political argument then "they" have made a huge gain. Because news organisations must have two sides (not just News ltd, but the ABC and Fairfax), it means that the 3% of GW deniers out there have leveraged themselves up to 50% of the opinion. Its really telling to see daily reports of Gillard's support declining to only 40% but not a whisper of the barely 3% support of the skeptical position on AGW. In the politics of a western democracy, every individual opinion is equal. That isn't true in science. In Science the value of your opinion depends on your skills and experience and observations. Think about a horse race, the average citizen is a half-drunk punter at the start of the straight, 400 metres behind the finish line. The climate scientists meanwhile are like stewards, they are right on the finish line with access to the photo-finish. Whose opinion is the most valuable? The current political debate ignores that reality and is pandering to the conceit of the consumer who are lead to believe that the opinions of a tabloid columnist on a complicated science is of equal value to an experienced NASA climate scientists studying the latest data. So, rather than asking how we can force the media to tell the truth, we should be asking how we can re-frame the debate as a scientific one rather than a political one.
    0 0

You need to be logged in to post a comment. Login via the left margin or if you're new, register here.



The Consensus Project Website

THE ESCALATOR

(free to republish)


© Copyright 2021 John Cook
Home | Links | Translations | About Us | Privacy | Contact Us