The Unknown Skeptic – An Essay On "Poles Apart" – 3of7 – Limitations

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

3-Limitations

Poles Apart: The International Reporting of Climate skepticism” is refreshingly outspoken about what it is and what it is not. Surely Mr Painter and colleagues won’t mind additional help on the subject.

Appendix II (pages 125-127) explains that:

  • the studies were quantitative, therefore losing potentially important details;
  • there wasn’t analysis about how much skeptical voices were challenged in the media, and about the positioning of articles in the papers;
  • only printed media were included, excluding therefore a vibrant online climate change scene;
  • in the UK, differences between the daily and Sunday editions were glossed over;
  • and finally articles were excluded if they mostly focused on Rajendra Pachauri, the Head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), rather than on climate change itself.

Richard Black of the BBC, no “skeptic” of course, listed some more limitations in his blog commentary to “Poles Apart”, published in the morning of the launch event day:

“[“Poles Apart”] can’t be considered a truly comprehensive global snapshot in that it’s looked at only six countries, albeit important ones…this is a toe-dip into media coverage rather than a comprehensive survey.”

Toe-dip”? Indeed, “Poles Apart” is not academic, and it doesn’t pretend to be. But this also means it is more akin to a collection of impressions and anecdotes informed by academic studies and datasets, than to a scientific work. And this is a problem: as everybody who is active in the climate change discourse surely and painfully knows, there cannot be much understanding of the real world without science. A point sadly lost on Leo Hickman of the Guardian, again commenting on “Poles Apart”:

“…a hunch I have long believed to carry some substance: climate skepticism is a predominantly Anglo-Saxon phenomenon. Or, rather, it is a phenomenon that tends to gets amplified to a much greater extent in the various English-language media outlets around the world – particularly, in the US, UK and Australia – than it does in other languages or countries. Until now, there has been very little beyond the anecdotal to support this theory. But the proposition is now on a firmer footing thanks to a new report…”

Hickman is wrong on multiple fronts, and “Poles Apart” will leave him confused, worse, incorrectly sure about the still-unknowable.

If one wanted to really look into English-language media, there’s much more than climate skepticism that tends to get amplified. Take the Daily Mail, reported in “Poles Apart” as providing space to skeptics but very much on the warmist side until the end of 2009 at least: to the point of publishing a fantasy-based article about drowning polar bears, loosely based on some actual sightings (of non-drowning polar bears). The article was reprised and the fantasy amplified further (!!!) in the Italian media at the time, as documented at my Sep 3, 2008 blog post “Polar Bears: Has the Daily Mail Just Pulled a Deceiving Article?”.

Scientifically speaking, the anecdotal nature of “Poles Apart” is just one of the potential ‘confounding factors’, that is, the missing or not sufficiently explored details that might have misled Mr Painter and colleagues in their analysis. In fact, the UK overreaction to past climate change scares should have been investigated in “Poles Apart”, but wasn’t, leaving a gaping hole, even if Brazilian journalist Claudio Angelo is quoted as saying:

(p67) [Brazilian daily newspaper] Folha underreported ‘Climategate’, partly to resist the media frenzy created in the UK around the affair, and partly because Brazil has never hyped climate change the way the British press did, with a lot of doom-and-gloom stories.

Other ‘confounding factors’:

  • Are ‘skeptics’ truly and fully represented by the four categories used in “Poles Apart”?
  • What exactly is represented in the media included in the research? Mr Revkin told the launch event audience that he left journalism to work on “fostering innovation”. Minutes later, Yves Sciama said “I’m a science reporter” after an audience member had reminded everybody that climate change should better be described as an issue not of science, rather about the political economy of energy generation, distribution and consumption.
  • How many of the articles in the analysis were based on ‘churnalism’, the almost wholesale dressing up of news agency and press release copy as original articles, a problem very much present across the world and definitely in the UK media, and a problem mentioned in passing in “Poles Apart”?
  • In the Anglo-Saxon vs. Rest-of-the-World differences about Climategate, what was the contribution of the fact that 100% of the Climategate material was in English and most of it included British and American scientists?
  • Is there any other running difference between the media in the UK and USA compared to the other nations involved in the analysis, for example linked to ownership structure?
  • Was the reported change in coverage of climate change skepticism accompanied by changes in public opinion? If yes, which change led, and which one followed? And how does the situation about climate change compare to other scientific and/or political topics?
  • Is there any link between prevalence of skeptical voices and the realisation that certain parts of the world are expected to have to pay for mitigation and adaptation, and others to receive funding instead?

These are all questions to answers before reaching an academic level, before having scientific conclusions, i.e. before being able to draw conclusions at all.

There is one aspect we can investigate further. Chapter 2 of “Poles Apart”, “The Nature of Climate skepticism” is 18 pages long and still the first skeptic mentioned in there is after four-and-a-half pages (Pat Michaels). Among the first things we learn, his “about 40 per cent” funding from “oil industry sources”. No other quotes by Michaels are provided, and there is no description of what he is skeptical about. A little more can be had with Steve McIntyre, whose voluminous blog Climate Audit is mentioned but not quoted (a description of McIntyre’s “skepticism” is taken from “one US magazine”). This means statements like the one below (from Climate Audit’s Jan 5, 2006 entry) are literally invisible to the “Poles Apart” authors:

“As I often repeat, I [Steve McIntyre] am not a “contrarian”. If I were a politician and forced to make a decision on climate policy in the next 10 minutes, I would be guided by the IPCC and the various learned societies that I so often criticize.”

Lord Monckton? Readers of “Poles Apart” learn of his “anti-communist ideology” before everything else. No quote by him either. Finally, Bjorn Lomborg. Guess what? No quote by the Danish scientist. The chapter about skepticism chugs along with a single direct quote by a non-warmist, “Joe Bast, the head of climate skeptic Heartland Institute” but his printed words (to Nature magazine) are not about skeptical propositions:

(p25) “The left has no reason to look under the hood of global warming […] The right does, and that’s what happened”

No much luck in the rest of the chapter with Lord Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), Ian Plimer, etc etc. We have already seen that the Bibliography points to a single skeptical work, in French. What was then the effect on the “Poles Apart” analysis of having it done without any skeptic either among the authors or interviewees?