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The false, the confused and the mendacious: how the media gets it wrong on climate change

The debate may be fiery, but it’s also phony. AAP

The Conversation wraps up Clearing up the Climate Debate with a statement from our authors: the debate is over. Let’s get on with it.

Over the past two weeks The Conversation has highlighted the consensus of experts that climate change caused by humans is both real and poses a serious risk for the future.

We have also revealed the deep flaws in the conduct of so-called climate “sceptics” who largely operate outside the scientific context.

But to what extent is the “science settled”? Is there any possibility that the experts are wrong and the deniers are right?

Certainty in science

If you ask a scientist whether something is “settled” beyond any doubt, they will almost always reply “no”.

Nothing is 100% certain in science.

So how certain is climate science? Is there a 50% chance that the experts are wrong and that the climate within our lifetimes will be just fine? Or is there a 10% chance that the experts are wrong? Or 1%, or only 0.0001%?

The answer to these questions is vital because if the experts are right, then we must act to avert a major risk.

Dropping your phone

Suppose that you lose your grip on your phone. Experience tells us that the phone will fall to the ground.

You drop a phone, it falls down.


Science tells us that this is due to gravity, and no one doubts its inevitability.

However, while science has a good understanding of gravity, our knowledge is only partial. In fact, physicists know that at a very deep level our theory of gravity is inconsistent with quantum mechanics, so one or both will have to be modified.

We simply don’t know for sure how gravity works.

But we still don’t jump off bridges, and you would be pretty silly to drop your phone onto a concrete floor in the hope that gravity is wrong.

Climate change vs. gravity: Greater complexity, comparable certainty

Our predictions of climate change aren’t as simple as the action of gravity on a dropped phone.

The Earth is a very complex system: there are natural effects like volcanoes, and variations in the sun; there are the vagaries of the weather; there are complicating factors such as clouds, and how ice responds; and then there are the human influences such as deforestation and CO₂ emissions.

But despite these complexities, some aspects of climate science are thoroughly settled.

We know that atmospheric CO₂ is increasing due to humans. We know that this CO₂, while being just a small fraction of the atmosphere, has an important influence on temperature.

We can calculate the effect, and predict what is going to happen to the earth’s climate during our lifetimes, all based on fundamental physics that is as certain as gravity.

The consensus opinion of the world’s climate scientists is that climate change is occurring due to human CO₂ emissions. The changes are rapid and significant, and the implications for our civilisation may be dire. The chance of these statements being wrong is vanishingly small.

Scepticism and denialism

Some people will be understandably sceptical about that last statement. But when they read up on the science, and have their questions answered by climate scientists, they come around.

These people are true sceptics, and a degree of scepticism is healthy.

Other people will disagree with the scientific consensus on climate change, and will challenge the science on internet blogs and opinion pieces in the media, but no matter how many times they are shown to be wrong, they will never change their opinions.

These people are deniers.

The recent articles in The Conversation have put the deniers under the microscope. Some readers have asked us in the comments to address the scientific questions that the deniers bring up.

This has been done.

Not once. Not twice. Not ten times. Probably more like 100 or a 1000 times.

Denier arguments have been dealt with by scientists, again and again and again.

But like zombies, the deniers keep coming back with the same long-falsified and nonsensical arguments.

The deniers have seemingly endless enthusiasm to post on blogs, write letters to editors, write opinion pieces for newspapers, and even publish books. What they rarely do is write coherent scientific papers on their theories and submit them to scientific journals. The few published papers that have been sceptical about climate change have not withstood the test of time.

The phony debate on climate change

So if the evidence is this strong, why is there resistance to action on climate change in Australia?

At least two reasons can be cited.

First, as The Conversation has revealed, there are a handful of individuals and organisations who, by avoiding peer review, have engineered a phony public debate about the science, when in fact that debate is absent from the one arena where our scientific knowledge is formed.

These individuals and organisations have so far largely escaped accountability.

But their free ride has come to an end, as the next few weeks on The Conversation will continue to show. The second reason, alas, involves systemic failures by the media.

Systemic media failures arise from several presumptions about the way science works, which range from being utterly false to dangerously ill-informed to overtly malicious and mendacious.

The false

Let’s begin with what is merely false. A tacit presumption of many in the media and the public is that climate science is a brittle house of cards that can be brought down by a single new finding or the discovery of a single error.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Climate science is a cumulative enterprise built upon hundreds of years of research. The heat-trapping properties of CO₂ were discovered in the middle of the 19th century, pre-dating even Sherlock Holmes and Queen Victoria.

The resulting robust knowledge will not be overturned by a single new finding.

A further false presumption of the media is that scientific opinions must somehow be balanced by an opposing view. While balance is an appropriate conversational frame for the political sphere, it is wholly inappropriate for scientific issues, where what matters is the balance of evidence, not opinion.

At first glance, one might be tempted to forgive the media’s inappropriate inclusion of unfounded contrarian opinions, given that its function is to stimulate broad debate in which, ideally, even exotic opinions are given a voice.

But the media by and large do not report the opinions of 9/11 “truthers” who think that the attacks were an “inside job” of the Bush administration. The media also do not report the opinion of people who believe Prince Phillip runs the world’s drug trade. The fact that equally outlandish pseudo-scientific nonsense about climate science can be sprouted on TV by a cat palmist is evidence not of an obsession with balance but of a striking and selective failure of editorial responsibility.

What is needed instead of the false symmetry implied by “balance” is what the BBC calls impartiality – fact-based reporting that evaluates the evidence and comes to a reality-based conclusion.

The dangerously ill-formed

An example of a dangerously ill-informed opinion on how science works is the widely propagated myth that scientists somehow have a “vested interest”, presumably financial, in climate change. This myth has been carefully crafted by deniers to create a chimerical symmetry between their own ties to political and economic interests and the alleged “vested interests” of scientists.

In actual fact, climate scientists have as much vested interest in the existence of climate change as cancer researchers do in the existence of the human papilloma virus (HPV).

Cancer researchers are motivated by the fact that cervical cancer kills, and the scientists who developed the HPV vaccine did so to save lives, not to get their grants renewed.

Climate scientists are likewise motivated by the fact that climate change kills 140,000 people per year right at this very moment, according to the World Health Organization.

The scientists who have been alerting the public of this risk for nearly 20 years did so to save lives, not to get their grants renewed.

Climate scientists are being motivated by the realisation that humanity has got itself into serious trouble with climate change, and it will need the best scientific advice to navigate a solution.

As scientists, we ask not for special consideration by the media, but simply for the same editorial responsibility and quality control that is routinely applied to all other arenas of public discourse.

Selective failure of quality control and editorial responsibility when it comes to climate change presents a grave public disservice.

The malicious

Finally, no truthful analysis of the Australian media landscape can avoid highlighting the maliciousness of some media organisations, primarily those owned by Newscorp, which are cartoonish in their brazen serial distortion of scientists and scientific findings.

Those organisations have largely escaped accountability to date, and we believe that it is a matter of urgency to expose their practice.

For example, it is not a matter of legitimate editorial process to misrepresent what experts are telling Newscorp reporters — some of whom have been known to apologize to scientists in advance and off the record for their being tasked to return from public meetings, not with an actual news story but with scathing statements from the handful of deniers in the audience.

It is not a matter of legitimate editorial process to invert the content of scientific papers.

It is not a matter of legitimate editorial process to misrepresent what scientists say.

It is not a matter of legitimate editorial process to prevent actual scientists from setting the record straight after the science has been misrepresented.

None of those sadly common actions are compatible with legitimate journalistic ethics, and they should have no place in a knowledge economy of the 21st century.

The very fact that society is wracked by a phony debate where there is none in the scientific literature provides strong evidence that the Australian media has tragically and thoroughly failed the Australian public.

This is the final part of our series Clearing up the Climate Debate. To read the other instalments, follow the links below:

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