The Unknown Skeptic – An Essay On “Poles Apart” – 4of7 – Silent Sorrows In Dubious Sources

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

4-Silent Sorrows In Dubious Sources

The almost complete absence of skeptical voices in “Poles Apart: The International Reporting of Climate skepticism” is as glaring as paradoxical as telling.

It is glaring, because the ultimate subject of the study doesn’t make almost any first-hand appearance, in a sea of ultimately unreliable hearsays. “Poles Apart” at times reads like a LGBT study written without any LGBT author or interviewee: so much for “agnosticism”.

It is paradoxical, because it further removes academic value from the report. Had skeptics been involved, truly “Poles Apart” would have been groundbreaking: alongside a definition of skepticism and a recognition of the diversity among skeptics, it would have included even a treatment of skeptics as normal human beings deserving attention, instead of monsters (note that there is a quote from Benny Peiser of the GWPF at page 14 – but blink and you’ll miss it; more on that later).

And what it is telling? The attempt of writing about skepticism without listening to skeptics shows the conditions under which the report has been written. We have already seen how Mr Painter’s warmist stance managed to have a large negative impact on his insightful observation that there are several kinds of skepticism. There are two further and complementary aspects to that: the excessive (almost, tragic) trust put in dubious (and always warmist) sources, and the determined effort to lock oneself in a warmist cage in order to keep skeptics away.

Having to rush through his opening presentation at the launch event of “Poles Apart” in order to make time for Mr Revkin, who had to leave relatively early, Mr Painter still made sure the audience would know the report had been built upon a large number of academic works in the field of climate change and the media. This is of course very important to provide “Poles Apart” with a “firmer footing” than a purely anecdotal approach. However, it also means that very same footing is weakened by the uncritical acceptance of dubious sources.

Take for example Professor Steve Jones’ “Independent assessment” for the July 2011 BBC Trust review of impartiality and accuracy of the BBC’s coverage of science, cited throughout the report (eg page 23, footnote 58). Prof Jones was present at the launch event and intervened to repeat his mantra about the BBC striving too much for “balance”, even receiving an applause for making the unreal-world example of a scientist claiming 2+2=4 and the BBC feeling the need to invite somebody claiming that 2+2=5.

Of course it has been known for a while that Prof Jones’ contribution to the BBC impartiality and accuracy was anything but. The very review document’s PDF had to be modified a few days after publication to sport the following text at page 2:

“On 8 August 2011 the Trust published an updated version of Professor Steve Jones’ independent review of the accuracy and impartiality of the BBC’s science coverage due to an ambiguity in the section on climate change. This reference was in the section on pages 71-72, immediately before Professor Jones discussed statements about climate change contained in two BBC programmes. The Trust and Professor Jones now recognise that the passage as originally published could be interpreted as attributing statements made in those two programmes to Lord Lawson or to Lord Monckton. Neither programme specifically featured Lord Lawson or Lord Monckton and it was not Professor Jones’ intention to suggest that this was the case. Professor Jones has apologised for the lack of clarity in this section of his assessment, which has now been amended.”

To this day, it is not know to whom to attribute those “statements”. Perhaps less known is the fact that Professor Jones’ inaccuracies don’t stop with the good Lords. From page 72 of the “Independent Assessment”:

“A submission made to this Review by Andrew Montford and Tony Newbery (both active in the anti‐global‐warming movement, and the former the author of The Hockey Stick Illusion: Climategate and the Corruption of Science) devotes much of its content to criticising not the data on temperatures but the membership of a BBC seminar on the topic in 2006, and to a lengthy discussion as to whether its Environment Analyst was carrying out BBC duties or acting as a freelance during an environment programme at Cambridge University. The factual argument, even for activists, appears to be largely over but parts of the BBC are taking a long time to notice.”

The misrepresentation of Montford and Newbery’s submission moves Professor Jones’ assessment into cheap fiction territory. As described by Montford in his Bishop Hill Blog:

“Readers may remember that Tony Newbery (of Harmless Sky) and I made a submission to the review. In it we demonstrated that the BBC Trust had misled the public over a seminar discussing climate change coverage back in 2006.”

Newbery is as succint as explicit:

“can anyone explain to me why Andrew and I might choose to write about the global temperature record to a geneticist who is conducting a review of journalism for a broadcaster? Apparently Professor Jones thinks that is what we should have done. And he also seems to think that because we didn’t do this, we must think that the debate about the science of climate change is over. That is just plain silly.

In fact we wrote to Professor Jones providing evidence, and I do mean evidence, that the BBC’s news gathering operation had become far too close to environmental activism and environmental activists to be able to report climate change impartially or accurately (here). That criticism is clearly material to his report, and his failure to address the issues we raised says far more about the rigour with which he has conducted his review than it does about our views on the science of climate change, which are in any case irrelevant to his review.”

Did Professor Jones actually read, let alone strove to understand Montford and Newbery’s submission? That doesn’t look likely. By the way, they were not granted a correction. The fact that they are not Lords of the Land has obviously nothing to do with that.

Speaking immediately after Professor Jones at the “Poles Apart” launch event, I myself did wonder loudly if we were inhabiting the same universe. Has the BBC ever invited anybody to discuss 2+2=5? Of course not. What one finds on the airwaves and in the website is a Corporation encouraging a WWF activist to campaign on live radio during a recent broadcasting of Radio4’s flagship Today programme; and being obsessed with global warming to the point of inserting tips on how to organise a climate change conference in his Italian language course of all places (see my blog post: “Yes, John: Steve Jones Is Wrong And The BBC Totally Unbalanced On Climate Change”, Nov 11).

Perhaps Professor Jones does consider any question improper, even the pretend ones asked at the Today programme. Things have been progressing though: as if it were at all possible, the situation is now getting even worse for the BBC “impartiality”, “accuracy” and Professor Jones’ “2+2=5” argument, with the news that some TV and radio programmes might have been surreptitiously sponsored by activist organisations and companies with vested interests in pushing forward a “warmist” agenda on climate change. See here.

Professor Jones’ “Independent Assessment” is not the only document Mr Painter’s own “warmist” stance appears to have mislead him into trusting. Greenpeace aside, there are references in “Poles Apart” to heavily-biased group “Media Matters”, and even to Joe Romm, the climate change full-time paid blogger for the Center for American Progress, whose implacable extremism over the years pushed Andy Revkin to half-jokingly say during the launch event (eliciting general hilarity):

“Part of the news process means being wrong some of the time. Joe Romm is never wrong.”

Quoting Romm about climate change should be avoided if the topic is not caricature. It is equivalent to quoting a six-day creationist about the Book of Genesis, and just as informative. Likewise, “Poles Apart” refers an inordinate amount of times to a book where an environmental scientist (Dr Haydn Washington) and a cartoonist/blogger (John Cook) insanely describe skepticism as a sociopathological trait (“Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand”). In fact the problem is not so much citing from this or that source, but the amount of trust put in them. Skepticism, obviously, is very much needed also when gathering for information. The Joe Romms of the world may even be interesting, insightful, provocative, and worthy of being read and quoted at will. But anybody taking their words as “right” will find themselves in danger of being led astray.

This applies to the very same New York Times where Mr Revkin still takes care of the DotEarth blog. “Poles Apart” quotes from Curtis Brainard of the Columbia Journalism Review:

(p90) “It’s not simple ideology: it’s more that the [New York] Times is not blinded by ideology”

Attentive readers might disagree. At the beginning of March 2010, an article by John M Broder appeared in the front page of the International Herald Tribune, the global edition of the New York Times. The article was titled “Feeling the heat from critics, climate scientists battle back” and it was a first attempt by the NYT to do some analysis on Climategate (an ‘affair’ that was four months old at the time already).

Uniquely in the history of the IHT (whose articles usually follow the US edition, appearing on paper a day after they’ve been written and published on the website), Broder’s article was nowhere to be seen at nytimes.com until the early AM GMT hours of March 3. As I reported on my blog the following day:

“Tellingly, the structure has been heavily changed, and the interviewees as well. I have had a series of e-mail exchanges with Mr Broder today and won’t report any of them. The impression remains that some Editor at the NYT panicked after reading the IHT version, and got Mr Broder or some sub-editor to rewrite it almost from scratch to eliminate some inconvenient names and acquire warmist respectability by giving the concluding remarks to Gavin Schmidt. All in all, it has been an episode wholly consistent with an atmosphere of climate bullying at the NYT.”

An important point to make is that neither version of Mr Broder’s article looked remotely “skeptical” on climate change, so this is not an episode of censorship. Rather, it is further evidence of the New York Times being “blinded by ideology” on climate-related pieces, so that the original quote by Judith Curry on Broder’s piece for example had to be excised and the article purified further (in the “warmist” direction, of course). To see how debasing this has become for the climate sections of the newspaper, have a look at Souren Melikian’s wonderful, questioning, informative, challenging, no-holds-barred IHT articles on the art market.

Sadly, self-blinding by ideology is seldom the result of a conscious process. Mr Painter may have done just as much in “Poles Apart”. In Appendix 3 we are told:

(p123) “the search engines came up with significant numbers of articles where the key word ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ were mentioned briefly at the start but where not the main focus [or] the article was not about either of these topics. […] We decided to keep these in the sample ”

and

(p123) “an opinion piece could be skeptical in tone about global warming/climate change, or the need to take measures to combat it, but include no mention or quoting of skeptical voices. These were generally excluded”

How strange…non-skeptics get included no matter who’s mentioned, skeptics get excluded unless somebody else is mentioned. As if there truly were too many skeptical voices to choose from. One has to wonder why no author noticed the end result, a zero count for “skeptical editorials” in all countries and newspapers (see table 4.1, lines 20/21 at page 56).

This is equivalent to building a cage for oneself, safe inside away from the words of those nasty, evil, monstrous skeptics.