THE UNKNOWN SKEPTIC – Journalism, awaiting to be freed
AN ESSAY ON JAMES PAINTER’S “Poles Apart”
If I choose a side, It won’t take me for a ride – paraphrasing Peter Gabriel, 1975
Table of Contents
- The Quasi-Discovery Of the Natures of Skepticism
- Silent Sorrows In Dubious Sources
- In The Cage
- The Unconnected Dots
6- The Unconnected Dots
If you’ve read so far you’re unlikely to be Mr Painter. Or a ‘warmist’. Or a ‘believer’ in (catastrophic) climate change. By the way, according to “Poles Apart: The International Reporting of Climate skepticism” I am a ‘skeptic’ (together with 99% of humanity, as we have seen). I qualify under two categories:
“global temperatures are warming but a) the anthropogenic contribution (burning fossil fuels) to global warming or climate change is over-stated […] compared to other factors like natural variations or sun spots”
“it is not known with enough certainty what the impacts will be” and “urgent action by governments and/or substantial government spending (on all or some aspects of mitigation or adaptation) to counter AGW is not necessary”.
Rather, I think that urgent action on adaptation to current climate conditions is sorely needed. And no, I don’t think there is any conspiracy at work on the part of evil warmists. Never mind: as a skeptic, according to many people I shouldn’t be allowed to express my opinions. The mere existence of this very series of blog posts puts me on par with mass murderers and (according to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, apparently) apartheid supporters. Is that too strong a concept? “No Pressure” videos of exploding children aside, I am the victim of an ongoing hate/cyber-bullying campaign by an Italian journalist writing for a national newspaper. Go figure.
Skeptics hardened by years of internet abuse will surely be excused if they find “Poles Apart” as suspicious sounding. Is there a “message” to send therein, as in much climate-change spirit-uplifting literature? From the press release, republished by several internet outlets:
James Painter […] said: ‘There are politicians in the UK and the US who espouse some variation of climate skepticism. Both countries also have organisations for ‘climate change skeptics’ that provide a skeptical voice for the media, particularly in those media outlets that are more receptive to this message. This is why we see more skeptical coverage in the Anglo-Saxon countries than we do in the other countries in the study where one or more of those factors appear to be absent.’
Organisations for skeptics, uh? A SUV Enthusiasts Club, perhaps? Let’s check what Richard Black got out of “Poles Apart”:
Poles Apart doesn’t nail the issue completely, but its broad conclusion may be familiar to many: “The weight of this study would suggest that, out of this wide range of factors, the presence of politicians espousing some variation of climate skepticism, the existence of organised interests that feed skeptical coverage, and partisan media receptive to this message, all play a particularly significant role in explaining the greater prevalence of skeptical voices in the print media of the USA and the UK.”
Espousing politicians, organised interests ‘feeding’ the skeptics, partisan media, USA and UK mostly. What would that mean, actually? As we have seen much is made by Mr Painter of Pat Michaels’ connections to the oil industry. Words aren’t spared to describe what might be funding some forms of climate skepticism. Then there is the mention of Lord Lawson and Lord Monckton.
Is it too much of a stretch then to interpret “Poles Apart” as trying to prove that the vast majority of climate change skepticism is a “crazy British toffs and American Republicans on the pay of Big Oil” thing?
That wouldn’t be journalism. Or would it? It depends.
What is journalism, at a time when “media ethics” is something broadcast live on a daily basis for the Leveson Inquiry “into the culture, practice and ethics of the press”? Is it about informing the public, and/or educating it? Is it about entertainment, eliciting readers to read by constantly diverting their attention? Or is journalism a form of activism, a way to push for the truth, perhaps a truth? This is what “Poles Apart”’s journalism-from-the-cage mostly risks looking like. And yet it wouldn’t have been too far to break the cage down. Mr Painter could have made up his mind about who is a skeptic and who isn’t, therefore abhorring any conflation. Take the point about the necessity of “urgent action by governments and/or substantial government spending (on all or some aspects of mitigation or adaptation) to counter AGW”.
That is a point of policy, not just of science. What is the meaning of “substantial”? How many years have to pass before something is not “urgent”? And who would ever believe that all non-skeptics agree on exactly what action is needed? Or even if adaptation, getting ready to survive/resist climate events, should be more or less important than mitigation, cutting greenhouse gas emissions in order to lower the frequency of occurrence and/or strength of those climate events? Ms Nadin made it clear, during the launch event for “Poles Apart”, that there is a Chinese debate on adaptation. Are the people involved therein really to be categorised as skeptics?
As Mr Revkin said during the event, policy debates are legitimate. To remotely suggest otherwise, marking for example the GWPF as some kind of unquotable organisation on its way to ruin the planet because branded by the sin of libertarianism, is conspiratorial, therefore seldom serious. In fact, it is not difficult to find an alternative, non-conspiratorial, history-grounded explanation of the report’s results than “espousing politicians, organised interests ‘feeding’ the skeptics, and partisan media”. Consider the following:
- For the UK and USA: at the launch event, debate chairman John Lloyd suggested at some point, that in the UK (and USA) there is a societal penchant for debate. Unfortunately, there is also the recently-established press tradition so nicely described by Nick Davies in “Flat Earth News”, i.e. the massive regurgitation of “wire copy and/or PR material”.
- In Brazil: it might all be down to reporters too enamoured of scientific papers to question anything in them, and to explicit or implicit lobbying by those who would benefit from climate change mitigation policies:
(p66) “US media academic Myanna Lahsen who lives in Brazil says that ‘climate skepticism is hardly existent in the Brazilian media […]’. Another factor is that much of the coverage of science in the Brazilian media is driven by scientific papers appearing in Brazilian and international journals, where there is little space afforded to skeptical arguments”
(p69) “…sectors [of Brazil’s business elite] stand to gain from the continued pursuit of ambitious plans to further biofuel production, where Brazil is second only to the USA in volume of output”
- Regarding China: Ms Nadin told the event’s audience something along the lines of the Chinese government having a strong position about AGW, a topic that is (therefore?) not politically contentious. But this may results in self-censorship and reporting following the party line, as per two examples from the report:
(p71) “skeptical discourses in China make a clear distinction between certain scientific findings, which they may question, and domestic policy statements, which they would not”
(p72) “Academic and other studies suggest that the volume of coverage of climate change increased substantially after the 2007 IPCC reports, often with official encouragement”
- Regarding France: following Mr Sciama, one might be able to explain fully and in purely non-scientific terms the local embracing of mainstream climate change science, and the almost complete absence of skeptical voices from the media. From the report:
(p79) “France has a rationalist, engineer culture and people who have gone to engineer schools often end up in politics or influential positions. This entire social class of powerful engineer has links with the nuclear lobby. I would also say there is a tradition of respecting the science and not challenging the experts which is quite strong in France. This is probably why climate change was accepted very early”
At the event, Mr Sciama suggested the French revolution of 1789 as an additional factor, replacing aristocracy with “meritocracy” (perhaps a better word would be “technocracy”).
- In India: according to “Poles Apart”, the media spectrum is actively occupied by organised believers in catastrophic AGW, literally pushing skeptics out of the way:
(p81) There have been two dominant narratives in the Indian media coverage of climate change…the dominance […] leaves scant room for climate skepticism
(p81) Part of the reason why [skeptical Indian] voices have not been heard much is the high profile of prominent individuals like Dr Pachauri and non-governmental organisations (such as the Center for Science and Environment, Greenpeace India, WWF India, or the Energy Research Institute). They have been vocal about the risks and impacts of man-made climate change and seem to have wielded a significant influence on climate reporting. They often enjoy close relationships with Indian environment reporters.
(p83) the voice of the climate change ‘believers’ is so strong that [Nitin Sethi, Special Correspondent for the Times of India] is wary of civil society and the 500 local and internationally affiliated NGOs he says there are in India which are pushing the government to do more on climate change.
In summary: in the UK/USA, prevalence of believers over skeptics might as well mean warmists are monopolising the press releases manipulating the media into shutting off all skeptics, whose voices are still heard (however faintly) mainly because of a long-standing freedom to report ‘both sides’.
In Brazil, nobody questions mainstream science. In China, skeptics will appear in newspapers as soon as the Communist Party will say they ought to appear. In France, the field is wholly occupied by technocrats, ie mindless (and anti-historical) followers of the latest mainstream science (it’s not by chance that Jules Romain, a French, wrote in 1923 the play “Dr Knock or The Triumph of Medicine”, where a whole village falls under the spell of a new local doctor, convincing them that to feel well is only the ignorant sensation of a sick person).
In India, the noise from climate change activists make skeptical idea inaudible. Is it possible to connect those dots now? Anybody else seeing a pattern, (relative) freedom to report on skepticism on one side, but forceful pushing on the journalists to avoid skeptics on the other? Could it be that Mr Painter and his fellow researchers have been measuring not the power of lobbies or partisan media, but (in the tiny amounts of skeptical voices allowed in print) flickering residual freedom of thought and speech, recalcitrance against being led by the nose by the latest bunch of experts, and willingness on the part of journalists to investigate rather than supinely doing as told?
If that were shown true, it would be truly ironic for the RISJ; they might have reported with “Poles Apart” a great story about journalism without even noticing. And it wouldn’t be the only story missed by Mr Painter and co-authors. Let’s go back to that one-of-two-skeptical-quote, by Dr Peiser of the GWPF:
(p14) “For far too long, scientific organisations and the mainstream media did not give appropriate space to authoritative critics of inflated climate alarm.”
Compare it to this extract from the Executive Summary:
(p4) “The Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) has been particularly successful in getting its views reported across most of the 10 UK newspapers. The two most quoted skeptics by far in the [Nov 2009-Feb 2010 Copenhagen/Climategate] period were Lord Lawson and Benny Peiser (more than 80 times between them) both from the GWPF”
Seems the GWPF has achieved the considerable success of getting at least a tiny part of its views reported by “Poles Apart” too! And that’s not all: the GWPF was founded a few months before the Copenhagen/Climategate period, so the fact that its most prominent representatives were “the two most quoted skeptic” by year’s end is a sign of remarkably speedy success. Alas (but not surprisingly), Mr Painter and co-authors seem to have missed that. Commenting on “Poles Apart”, Richard Black didn’t:
“Among other things, it shows the success that the the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) has had in inserting itself into national discourse since its establishment in 2009 – a success noted this week by the conservativehome blog, which describes it as ‘one of the most important think-tanks in Britain today’”
Ironically, the GWPF found himself praised at the “Poles Apart” launch event, temporarily stealing the show thanks to two non-skeptic.
Mr Revkin agreed with Dr Peiser (who was in the attendance) about the importance of open and frank policy discussions, unencumbered by accusations of denial. According to Mr Revkin, a large problem in the US debate has been leftist (“progressive”?) politicians doing a disservice to a complex situation. He thinks that they have forced anthropogenic global warming into a “single sentence” containing both the issue (climate change) and the solution (emission reduction), thereby attempting to shut off everybody disagreeing on policy just like everybody disagreeing on science. That is of course absurd, non-democratic and unsustainable. As we have seen, even “Poles Apart” suffers a lot from such a conflation.
More: Dr Peiser received some kind of praise from self-nominated GWPF arch-enemy Bob Ward of the Grantham Research Institute:
“I congratulated Benny on his brilliant propaganda campaign, greatly helped by ideological op-ed desks.”
In fact, Dr Peiser thanked back as few people have done more than Mr Ward to provide the GWPF with free publicity at every possible occasion .