“Doubt everything or believe everything: these are two equally convenient strategies. With either we dispense with the need for reflection.”
Political journalism has suffered mightily at the hands of infotainment, but science journalism suffers even more. News programming tends to assume thorough science education is rare among audiences. Behind the scenes, being scientifically astute is not seen as a professional credential in the same way that keeping up to date on partisan narratives seems to be. With public service taking a back seat to ratings/circulation numbers, misrepresenting scientific discoveries provides a comfortable way for media outlets to focus on audience growth.
Global warming brings us a bizarre intersection of politics and science in that the false narratives sustaining today’s American political right wing are extensively involved in misinforming the public about matters of pure science. To hear the real dittoheads speak of it, global warming is all part of a liberal conspiracy to replace Western democracies with ecologically conscious despotisms. Such views rest on profound misunderstandings of ideology as much as climate. Yet for some, profound misunderstandings are the essence of political discourse.
In all fairness, even back in the 70s and 80s when news programming was significantly more responsible and informative than today, profound misunderstandings fueled concern about climate change. Popular scientific journalism was always a little more interested in grand exaggerations than the technical nuts and bolts of observations and analytical techniques. “Scientists pin down CO2 levels to an accuracy of 0.001%” makes for a lousy headline. “Climate modeling guru predicts new Ice Age!!!” is more likely to attract a large general audience.
The innately spectacular nature of many subjects studied by science feeds into media trends toward grandiose storytelling and oversimplification of complex matters. Thus it is that many were led to believe a firm scientific consensus regarding global warming was claimed long before a firm scientific consensus regarding global warming had actually formed. A function of “the boy who cried wolf” phenomenon, irresponsible alarmism perpetrated by science journalists in the past now props up irresponsible denials perpetrated by pundits in the present.
Never mind that nearly all the prominent voices bemoaning the liberal conspiracy to seize power through fear of global warming made parallel bogus arguments when international laws protecting the ozone layer were taking shape. “Man is too puny to affect the global atmosphere at all,” “the science isn’t really in on this yet,” and even, “atmospheric change could hardly do as much damage as curtailing industry surely will” were all in the mix. Unfortunately, this fringe of ideologues serviced by partisan and hyperpartisan media are more concerned about seeing their biases catered to en masse than they are concerned about the poor predictive track records of their preferred (mis)information sources.
A casual poke with the prod of skepticism causes these false narratives to collapse under their own contradictions. Yet for die hard self-identified conservatives, it seems forbidden to ever use that prod on content produced by conservative sources. For example, President George W. Bush acted early in his first term to crush an existing global initiative to govern greenhouse gas emissions. His justification — “the science isn’t in yet.”
Never mind that was factually untrue by 2001. Anyone who honestly believed industrial emissions’ role in global warming was an open question couldn’t overlook the extreme urgency of researching answers to that question. Rather than ratchet up funding for that crucial research, the President made it his business to censor EPA reports and other federal government work products that might make mention of global climate change.
All that said, both then and now there are legitimate areas of uncertainty related to global warming. Of course, there are also legitimate areas of uncertainty related to gravity. One need not have subject-specific omniscience to act on available knowledge, as evidenced by how reluctant most people are to jump off tall bridges. Since 2001, available knowledge has included estimates of human fossil fuel consumption, revelations that atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen dramatically in recent decades, physics establishing that CO2 influences the magnitude of the greenhouse effect, and a measured global increase in average temperatures.
Correlation does not prove causality in the strictest logical sense. On the other hand, a literal “smoking gun” is merely a correlation. That evidence alone does not constitute absolute proof anybody killed anyone else. Yet most people would be outraged to learn a man holding a smoking gun over a freshly shot corpse was acquitted based on lack of epistemological perfection in the case against him. Everybody knows that there is a cause and effect relationship between gunfire and bullet wounds. The cause and effect relationship between CO2 and a warmer, more energetic atmosphere should be no less controversial.
Among climate scientists of at least marginal competence, that link is not in doubt. However, it is the focus of much misleading criticism from pundits and pseudoscientists involved with a social movement that (along with demonizing foreign laborers and preaching the sacrosanct perfection of unregulated markets) leaves millions of Americans passionately convinced that unchecked industrial emission of atmospheric carbon is not at all a cause for concern.
These “skeptics” so politically selective in their application of skepticism to new information nonetheless manage raise an interesting argument or two along the way. Some people see no interest in protecting biodiversity, so why should industry pay any price for that? Is the impact of glacial loss and shifting rainfall patterns really more damaging than the impact of carbon control policies? What about global greening — the prospect that crops and forests will tend to thrive more in an environment of elevated CO2 levels?
Realists today find the tables turned from the state of climate warnings in the 1970s. Now the science is “in” in terms of findings that continued industrial emission of atmospheric carbon will increase the magnitude and speed of effects like loss of natural ice, rise of sea levels, variations in circulatory patterns, rapid regional climate change in some areas, etc. On the other hand, “global greening” and other theories contrived to take the apparent edge off of fossil fuels’ environmental impact are new and almost entirely speculative.
Because news editors often have little grasp of the underlying science and the preponderance of any audience is no different, a mix of outright denial and unfounded climate optimism tends to be presented as “the other half of the story.” Temperature readings are not opinions. The behavior of radiant energy passing through air with varying levels of CO2 is not an opinion. CO2 output from fossil fuel consumption is also not an opinion. Yet the distortion of balance perpetuates public perceptions in which anthropogenic global warming is seen less as a known reality and more as one point of view that must be offset by equal coverage of some opposing view!
Perhaps as much as any controversy in our times, global warming is a call to cognitive arms. Though many political liberals are broadly correct about the facts of the matter, their understanding may come more from feelings than thoughts. Clearly the strong denials coming from American conservatives are more a function of how they feel about their political identity than any sort of thinking on scientific matters. This is a complex subject where the stakes are enormous. Public policy responses can only benefit from the most realistic and thoughtful assessments humanly possible. So long as this continues to be a matter where passion trumps reason, the national debate will only perpetuate both literal and figurative dangers spawned by an excess of hot air.