The Unknown Skeptic – An Essay On "Poles Apart" – 2of7 – The Quasi-Discovery Of the Natures of Skepticism

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

  1. Introduction
  2. The Quasi-Discovery Of the Natures of Skepticism
  3. Limitations
  4. Silent Sorrows In Dubious Sources
  5. In The Cage
  6. The Unconnected Dots
  7. Conclusions

2-The Quasi-Discovery Of the Natures of Skepticism

A major problem in the “Poles Apart: The International Reporting of Climate skepticism” report is an apparent, underlying inconsistency driven by the unshaken belief that there is something wrong in being a climate change skeptic of any sort. The authors’ relentlessly “warmist” opinions result in the undermining of what could have been a great attempt at clarifying what climate change skepticism actually is.

This all starts with quite a strong claim, early on in the report:

(p14) “This study has been prompted by these important [climate change] debates but it is largely agnostic about them. It is not its purpose to criticise climate skeptics.”

Is that so? Mr Painter is not new to climate-related work and his past activity reveals a clear stance on the science, policy and politics of climate change. Exactly a year ago Mr Painter published for the RISJ another report, aptly and self-consciously titled “Summoned by Science: Reporting Climate Change at Copenhagen and Beyond” with a main web page describing him:

“Mr Painter is the head of the Journalism Fellowship Programme at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. He worked for several years at the BBC World Service in various capacities including Americas Executive editor, head of the Spanish American Service and head of the BBC Miami office. He has written extensively on climate change, the media and Latin America for several organisations and publications, including the BBC, the UNDP, Oxfam and Oxford Analytica. He is the author of several books on Latin America, and of the RISJ challenge, Counter-Hegemonic News: A case study of Al-Jazeera English and Telesur.”

BBC, UNDP, Oxfam, Oxford Analytica, and now the British Council, hardly hotbeds of skepticism, In fact the “Summoned by Science” report contains a revealing phraseology such as:

(p9) “A more science-based series of reports […] released in the months running up to Copenhagen suggested […] the need for an ambitious and binding deal was made all the more urgent by the latest science”

(p10) “it was not just the heads of state, but journalists too who had been summoned to Copenhagen by the urgency of the climate science”

(p88) “The phenomenon of extreme climatic events around the world in 2010 suggests that reporting people’s experience of the weather will become more pressing an issue. Separate data from the NOAA and NASA published in July 2010 found that the first half of the year was the warmest on record globally. Seventeen countries – including Pakistan which registered a record temperature of 53.5C – have experienced record-breaking high temperatures. As Peter Stott of the UK Met Office explained, ‘the evidence is so clear the chance there’s something we haven’t thought of [that could be warming the climate the other than GHGs] seems to be getting smaller and smaller’.”

Mr Painter has also provided the 2008 Annual Lecture at the Society for Latin American Studies (SLAS), on the topic “Climate Change, Latin America and the Media“, where he explained:

(p1) “in the last 18 months I have been lucky enough to travel to parts of the world on the front line of the impact of global warming. These have included Indonesia, Greenland, Vietnam where sea level rises threaten catastrophic economic effects, and Bolivia and Peru where the melting glaciers raise very serious concerns over future freshwater supplies in the dry season”

(p3) “One respected research group is now predicting ice-free summers by 2013”

(p4) “We know that after 10,000 years of relatively stable temperatures, global warming has caused the Amazon region to increase in temperature by about a quarter of a degree C per decade since 1975”

Mr Painter’s attitude in matters of climate change doesn’t remotely reminds of skepticism and is clear throughout the “Poles Apart” report. For example the Climategate “affair” is referred at page 14 to Fred Pearce’s “The Climate Files” and an “unpublished manuscript” by a Myanna Lahsen, with no mention of very-much-published books, Andrew Montford’s “The Hockey Stick Illusion – Climategate and the Corruption of Science” or of (non-skeptic) Steven Mosher and Thomas W. Fuller’s “Climategate: The CRUtape Letters”. The Bibliography refers also to Greenpeace but includes only a single “skeptic” piece, in French by Claude Allègre. And the whole report seemingly assumes the curious opinion that everything ‘skeptic’ is necessarily lacking legitimacy, as implied in Columbia Journalism Review’s Curtis Brainard’s quote from page 39, where climate (change) skepticism becomes the opposite of ‘straight reporting’ of science:

(p39) “Overall I would say that coverage of climate skepticism is a relatively minor problem. […] Almost all the US newspapers now report the science straight; they just don’t cover it prominently or enough”

Near the end of the report, Mr Painter goes further, linking climate change skepticism to “anti-science sentiments”. Note the figure of speech: ‘anti-science’ plus ‘sentiment’, in other words, skepticism as ‘twice irrational’:

(p113) “The way in which climate skepticism feeds into, and is a manifestation of, wider anti-science sentiments both within a newspaper and wider society is just one area with needs further research”

As common in works of a much lower quality than “Poles Apart”, suggestions about some evil monstrosity lurking behind skepticism are not far from the surface. Look at the case of Nitin Sethi, a special correspondent for the Times of India. Try as he might, Mr Sethi admits he can’t find nefarious skeptic puppeteers, actually is convinced there is little coordination among skeptics, versus a giant organised pushing by “climate change ‘believers‘”. Never mind, that baseless initial fear of skeptics being funded by or affiliated to the devil or thereby, is deemed enough to shut off all “skeptical voices” (my emphasis):

(p83) [Nitin Sethi] says he has found about 8-10 articles in scientific journals carrying skeptical voices, but he has been ‘skeptical about picking them up. My first question has been to ask if I can find their sources of funding or affiliation’. Finally [he] says he is not aware of any coordinate lobbying attempts by skeptics in India. On the contrary, he says the voice of the climate change ‘believers’ is so strong that he 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.

Poles Apart” gives further credence to the ‘skeptics-as-evil-monsters’ idea by pointing readers (page 114, note 256) to Tom Yulsman’s Copenhagen-era “7 Tips for Covering Climate Change”, that includes the conspiratorial invitation to

“Understand and distinguish between legitimate analyses and what Eric Pooley calls ‘weapons of mass persuasion’”

For some reason, the “Poles Apart” authors don’t connect ‘mass persuasion‘ to Nithin Seti’s NGOs. Another example of skepticism as abomination is in the words of Emily Shuckburgh of the British Antarctic Survey, lamenting the concept as having been somehow stolen:

(p17) “skepticism is a major part of science. and it’s a shame it has been appropriated. […] If we could reclaim the word, that would be progress”

Finally, Mr Painter’s work for the report has been sponsored by the British Council. Sponsorship is seldom a problem, but it means having to work very hard before being able to claim “agnosticism” on any topic. The sponsor, in fact, is not agnostic at all, as per the British Council’s “Climate Change” web page:

“The evidence is clear: human activity is dramatically altering the environment of the very world we live in. Through deforestation and burning fossil fuels, our actions are releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, raising the temperature of the land, sea and air. Climate change affects us all and it’s taking place on a global and local scale.”

Furthermore, the British Council is proud organiser of a“Climate Change Programme”:

“made up of a series of projects which focus on different parts of society, on differing communities, in order to provide an understanding of climate change throughout society, not just within the scientific and political communities”

As recently as July 2011, the Chief Executive of the British Council has reassured Guardian readers their climate change work will continue:

“Climate change will remain an important part of the content of our core programmes in the arts, English, education and society around the world. Apart from climate change being a critical issue in its own right, it also captures the imagination of young people and stimulates international debate. Our work is part of the UK’s commitment to tackling climate change”

Just like it would be difficult to imagine the British Council sponsoring a report that would undermine all that climate change effort, it is therefore also difficult to believe “Poles Apart” to be “agnostic” about climate change “skepticism”. This appears clearly also in one of Mr Painter’s most important points, the understanding that there is more than one kind of climate change “skepticism”.

(p114) “This study has gone to some lengths to describe the full spectrum of climate skepticism. This is because we think, like many other commentators, that it is the role of good journalism to differentiate between the types of skepticism”

Andy Revkin, former environment correspondent at The New York Times and well-known climate blogger, praised “Poles Apart” on this point at the launch event. Notably, Mr Painter had figured out as much in the 2010 “Summoned by Science” report:

(p78) “there are serious and well-informed bloggers who are not driven by political ideologies or by money from the fossil fuel lobby. The blogosphere may be ‘impure’ compared to the peer-review process but it clearly demands openness and access to data that were absent in the preinternet days. And it is here to stay.”

Unfortunately, the importance of such a realisation does not reverberate throughout the “Poles Apart” report: readers are treated to repeated attempts at conflating all skeptics together, and ”skeptic” and “denier” remain frustratingly interchangeable. For example in Appendix 4 the list of “skeptics” does not contain any category, conflating US politician Joe Barton, scientist John Christy, UK politician Lord Nigel Lawson and TV presenter Alan Titchmarsh all ending up under a single, giant umbrella.

Another example concerns what is described in the report as the “methodology commonly applied” in academic studies of climate change in the media (p36), where four categories of newspaper articles are described as those that:

  1. “present the viewpoint that anthropogenic global warming (AGW) accounts for all climate changes
  2. present multiple viewpoints, but emphasise that anthropogenic contributions significantly contribute to climate changes
  3. give a ‘balanced account’ surrounding the existence and non-existence of AGW
  4. present multiple viewpoints but emphasise the claim that the anthropogenic component contributes negligibly to changes in the climate”

According to Mr Painter though, “Category (4) is where skeptic, denialist, or contrarian views would be most represented.” This is in contradiction to “Poles Apart”’s definition of “skeptic” reported above.

The problem continues when “Poles Apart” turns to politics:

(p112) “The view that climate skepticism is mainly a feature of a certain narrow strand of conservative ideology (libertarian and strongly free-market) may also help to explain the situation in the USA […] This is also one factor explaining the absence of persistent climate-skeptic voices in the media in Brazil, France, and India”

However, during the launch event Mr Revkin did make the point that US TV networks are fairly “progressive” (his word) on the topic of climate change. On the other hand, this is not mirrored by a large “progressive” majority in the population. It is also not clear how many libertarians in social and economic matters would describe themselves as “conservative” (as if there were too much freedom to preserve). But again, how could any of that accommodate for all people with opinions ranging from “global temperatures are not warming” to “anthropogenic global warming is happening but urgent action by governments to counter AGW is not necessary”?

The report authors seem to be moving back and fro on who actually qualifies as “skeptic”. And so whilst the recognition of the variety of skeptical positions rises “Poles Apart” above many undignified, low-quality polemics against “climate change denialists”, it almost looks as if parts of report have been written by somebody unaware of the existence of that very same point. It’s a confusion that could have been easily avoided.

(continues)