The Unknown Skeptic – An Essay On "Poles Apart" – 5of7 – In The Cage

THE UNKNOWN SKEPTIC – Journalism, awaiting to be freed

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

5-In The Cage

Poles Apart: The International Reporting of Climate skepticism” is a good example of what I have recently described as the “journalists in a cage” situation. And it’s a cage of their own making:

“with no clue on what they are forced to write about in the hope of getting the least likely reader to still read their articles; with communications strictly coming only from a single channel; unable to report good news, ignorant of science and pretending to be commenting football: well, climate change reporters live in a cage of their own making and the real miracle is when any one of them does report anything remotely non-biased on climate change”

Note that Mr Painter did mention, during his presentation at the launch event, that people are “confused about skepticism” because few recognise the range of different opinions among skeptics. But why! It takes only a few minutes of participation, even just of reading of popular skeptical sites such as WattsupwiththatClimate AuditReal ScienceBishop HillThe Reference Frame to understand “the full spectrum of climate skepticism”. The “confusion” can only arise from a forcibly-myopic view, merging the extreme diversity of opinions only by keeping oneself away from skeptics, and considering them from afar as some kind of amorphous evil group of abnormal people, monsters unable to express themselves properly, continuously trying to spread disinformation with the aim of ruining the planet.

Even Mr Painter appears to have woken up to the absurdity of such a concept only after Copenhagen (or Climategate). And yet the cage pervades “Poles Apart”. At times, it pushes the report to the hedge of ridicule, reminding of Stalinist pamphlets claiming Trotskyites were not Communist enough (or Catholic documents proclaiming Protestants as non-believers). Look at how Bjorn Lomborg gets included as an example of “climate skeptic” (p23), despite having written in his own FAQ:

“Q: Does Lomborg deny man-made global warming exists?
A: No. In Cool It he writes: “global warming is real and man-made. It will have a serious impact on humans and the environment toward the end of this century” (p8).”

“Q: Does he believe we should do anything about global warming?
A: Yes. […] Lomborg also supports a CO 2 tax comparable with the central or high estimates of CO2 damages. That means an estimate in the range of $2-14 per ton of CO2 […] ”

What skeptic would include Lomborg among skeptics? It’s a concept that stretches the edges of reason. In the “Poles Apart” world where Bjorn-“global warming is real and man-made”-Lomborg gets branded as one of the bad guys and an exemplary one at that, one really has to wonder (a) who else would become a skeptic and (b) who’d ever be left out.

Step forward newly candidate “skeptic”, the IPCC no less. In its latest Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX)”, whose “Summary for Policymakers” is dated November 18, 2011, the IPCC becomes a “Poles Apart skeptic” in the “it is not known with enough certainty what the impacts will be, due to inadequacies of climate modelling or other doubts” category:

(p9) “Projected changes in climate extremes under different emissions scenarios generally do not strongly diverge in the coming two to three decades, but these signals are relatively small compared to natural climate variability over this time frame. Even the sign of projected changes in some climate extremes over this time frame is uncertain”.

Another potential “Poles Apart skeptic”? Richard Betts, Head of Climate Impacts (!) at the Met Office, seen on the web providing arguments for those unconvinced that “urgent action by governments and/or substantial government spending (on all or some aspects of mitigation or adaptation) to counter AGW is not necessary”:

“Most climate scientists do not subscribe to the 2 degrees “Dangerous Climate Change” meme (I [Richard Betts] know I don’t).”

Even Geoffrey Lean’s words at the end of the report fall under “anthropogenic global warming is happening but a) it is not known with enough certainty what the impacts will be”:

(p115) All but the extremists on either side agree that the planet is warming that humanity is at least partly responsible – and that we don’t know how big its contribution is, or what the effects will be

So “Poles Apart” ends, with its own final quote potentially “skeptical”. Think that’s absurd enough? Think again. If we try to reconstruct who’s not a skeptic, by reversing the “Poles Apart” definition, we find only True Believers. A “climate change non-skeptic” is anybody convinced that:

  • Global temperatures are warming, and
  • The anthropogenic contribution (burning fossil fuels) to global warming or climate change is not over-stated, compared to other factors like natural variations or sun spots, and
  • It is known with enough certainty what the main causes are, and
  • It is known with enough certainty what the impacts will be, as climate models are adequate and no other doubt is relevant enough, and
  • Urgent action by governments and/or substantial government spending (on all or some aspects of mitigation or adaptation) to counter AGW is necessary

Scientifically, it’s an untenable position: when there is no doubt, there is no science. It could make sense as a political stance, for an “extremist” party that is (as per Lean’s meaning of the word – see quote above). In any case, it is quite dangerous to mix the concept of ‘skepticism’ in policy and political matters. Shouldn’t people be free to disagree on one or more points without being labelled as ‘monsters’? Surely that’s something everybody agrees on (Chinese officials aside).

There is more unintended hilarity in the explanation given about the absence of climate change skeptics in the Brazilian media:

(p66) Brazilian journalists interviewed for this study also emphasised the strong journalistic culture of science and environment reporting which carried considerable weight within newspapers and other media outlets and strongly influenced their editorial line on climate skepticism

Of course they would, wouldn’t they? Classical scholars know the argument, it’s like Cicero writing “De domo sua”, about his own house. Nobody will speak badly about themselves. Quite the opposite: who will ever reply in an interview, “I’m sorry but we’re clueless about the science and just keep printing stuff from press releases”? Given also the fact that a few lines of text above, the Brazilian press is described as uninterested in global warming until five years ago:

(p65) There is some evidence for thinking that coverage of global warming and climate change in the Brazilian print media began to take off in the latter half of 2006

So much for “strong journalistic culture of science and environment reporting”. Another clear example of how distorted is Mr Painter’s view from within the cage, is the Appendix I of “Poles Apart”, dedicated to Climategate. All doubts on the six affair-related inquiries get assigned to skeptics, as if the author had given up on any possibility of serious investigation, an ironic situation for any journalist. Little wonder then if there are some inaccuracies.True, “Poles Apart” mentions the infamous words about “Mike’s Nature trick” to “hide the decline” and includes some kind of attempt at explaining what the fuss was all about:

(p117) the UEA scientists explained that the ‘decline’ referred to a drop in temperatures inferred from the proxy analysis of tree rings, and that the ‘trick’ meant a graphic device to merge different sets of data from tree rings and thermometer readings

Note however the reader is told nothing about what the hiding was (just a “graphic device”? No: the outright removal of inconvenient data values, and the smoothing of the join between two different data sets). Also there is no hint about the actual underlying issue (the “divergence problem”), or its importance, both described by Andrew Montford in “The Climategate Inquiries”, a report for the GWPF published in 2010:

(p16-17) “The issue revolved around a tree ring series that had been used to reconstruct temperatures of the past […]. This series diverged dramatically from instrumental temperatures in the last half of the twentieth century, experiencing a sharp decline during a period when instrumental temperatures were rising. Showing this divergence would have raised a major question mark over the reliability of tree ring temperature reconstructions since, if there is a divergence between tree rings and instrumental records in modern times, it cannot be said with any certainty that such divergences did not also occur in the past, rendering the temperature reconstruction of questionable utility”

Poles Apart” readers will get almost nothing of that. Furthermore, look at how Mr Painter describes Lord Oxburgh’s “Science Assessment Panel”, convened in the wake of Climategate:

(p117) “[the] independent [committee] commissioned by the UEA that focused on the science being done at CRU”

That is not so. Lord Oxburgh’s panel did not focus on science, rather on “integrity of research”, as per its own published concluding statement:

“The Panel was not concerned with the question of whether the conclusions of the published research were correct. Rather it was asked to come to a view on the integrity of the Unit’s research and whether as far as could be determined the conclusions represented an honest and scientifically justified interpretation of the data”

In an email exchange with Steve McIntyre, Lord Oxburgh was even more explicit:

“[…] as I [Lord Oxburgh] have pointed out to you previously the science was not the subject of our study”

And a lot could be said about the alleged “independence” of Lord Oxburgh’s “independent” panel (see “The Climategate Inquiries”, pp29-38).

These unfortunate cases of mistaken, partial and/or incomplete reporting will continue in Mr Painter’s and the RISJ output on climate change as long as texts written by skeptics will be considered anathema even as reading material, let alone source for quotes or information. “Poles Apart” is saturated of that attitude, and that makes the attentive reader wary of some of the material mentioned in it too. For example, a quote is taken from Naomi Oreskes and her book with Erik Conway “The Merchant of Doubt – How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming”:

(p13) “[in the USA, the] divergence between the state of the science and how it was presented in the major media helped make it easy for our governament to do nothing about global warming”

However “Poles Apart” has no space for Brian Wynne’s Nature review of that same book subtly reversing Oreskes’ conspiratorial stance:

“[Oreskes and Conway] miss a crucial point: the ingrained assumption that scientific evidence is the only authority that can justify policy action — scientism — is what renders both policy and its supporting science vulnerable to the dogmatic amplification of doubt.”

More: a rather inordinate outburst by Robin McKie of the Observer is given pride of place:

(p14) “Only a handful of truly reputable scientists are skeptical about the link between global warming and our industrial activities. More to the point, that minority is given a vastly disproportionate amount of publicity. Note the same old faces – the Lawsons and Moncktons – who are trotted out to speak on Newsnight or Channel 4 News whenever climate change is debated.”

That quote is from a public exchange between McKie and Benny Peiser, Director of the GWPF, in The Observer in the wake of Climategate and United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. “Poles Apart” does contain some of the text written on the occasion by Peiser too. This might be one of two or three direct quotes of words written by somebody considered a skeptic, in the whole report (note however, it contains nothing about climate change skepticism):

(p14) “For far too long, scientific organisations and the mainstream media did not give appropriate space to authoritative critics of inflated climate alarm.”

There are two problems with that. First of all, it is rather unfortunate that the one quote by a UK-based “skeptic”, is singularly buried in the text, rather than highlighted as every other quote as a block, with indented left and right margins. Only the most careful readers will not miss it.

More importantly, Peiser was talking about “inflated climate alarm” but McKie tried to shift the discussion to a “link between global warming and our industrial activity” – the existence of which does not imply the necessity to raise climate change alarms. Again in this case, “Poles Apart” seems to have conflated together all criticisms of mainstream climate change thinking into a single group.

After all: if few have so far defined what they mean by “climate change skepticism” (as noted by Andy Revkin); and few have recognised that there are several kinds of it (as noted by “Poles Apart” author James Painter); therefore, much of the existing literature on climate change skepticism and the media (or anything else) should be taken with the classical grain of salt.

Rather differently than Isaac Newton, Dr Painter might have found himself not on the shoulder of giants, but under the boots of minions. And that would explain the acceptance of the sloppy shorthand form, “climate skepticism” (rather than “climate CHANGE skepticism”). Unless that is, there is something else at work.