Science, entertainment or misinformation?

A friend suggested a few days ago that I ‘may be interested in this (forthcoming) ABC TV show Climate Change – Can I Change your Mind?

It is indeed the sort of programme I watch so I thanked him and looked further. I didn’t have to look much further, actually, since a pre-review was also on the ABC’s excellent website: I can change your mind about science on the ABC. In it, Stephan Lewandowsky is scathing about the lack of scientific comment and, in fact, scientific balance in the programme. The Sydney Morning Herald coverage (dare I say even the SMH coverage?) shares some of those concerns. I see no reason to disbelieve Lewandowsky, an acknowledged expert in how people arrive at their opinions, especially since his criticisms match the concerns which the programme information raised in my own mind.

While it is refreshing that the ABC willingly publishes such a negative opinion piece about one of its own programmes, that programme seems to have been disappointingly, frustratingly, ill-conceived in the first place. An ill-balanced pair of debaters, male authority-figure vs young female, in which the authority figure is mis-educated and plain wrong, is a poor start; and ‘equal time’ to pro and anti is an outright injustice in the face of the well-understood science of the subject.* Are they going to give ‘equal time’ to a flat-earther next week? On this basis, they might as well.

So … I will turn the TV on tomorrow evening but I will make sure, for the sake of the screen, that there are no heavy objects within reach.

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* The way conservative media misrepresented ‘equal time’ as ‘fairness’ is something Oreskes covered at length in Merchants of Doubt. A fair balance is one which leaves the viewer/reader/listener with an accurate idea of the relative strengths of the two sides. Graham Readfearn has a detailed critique of the defects of the process on his blog.

Merchants of Doubt

cover of Merchants of DoubtMerchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway (Bloomsbury, 2010)

Merchants of Doubt tells the story of ‘How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming,’ as its subtitle says. It is a very strange and disturbing story of collusion between scientists, science administrators, right-wing politicians and big business in pursuit of an agenda which was ostensibly libertarian but in fact unscrupulously pro-business. One of its strangest, saddest aspects is that their programme gradually became a broadside attack on all science.

Anyone with any interest in the politics and sociology of climate change soon becomes aware that there is a very vocal but very small group which denies the overwhelming expert evidence that climate change is real, that is happening now and that it is man-made. They are today’s merchants of doubt: Bolt, Carter and Plimer in Australia, and Monckton, Lindzen, the Pielkes (father and son), Curry, Spencer, Lomborg, Watts and a few others overseas, mostly in the US. Most of the scientists on that list are not climate scientists, and some of the most vocal deniers are not scientists at all.

Oreskes and Conway show how this situation developed from the US politics of the Cold War era. First, the hard-science establishment was identified with the war effort; second, its already-hawkish leaders were promoted into science policy-making; third, some of them convinced themselves that any regulation of the free market was equivalent to creeping communism; and fourth, industry tacticians began recruiting scientists willing to cast doubt on any science which led to government policies which would cost them money.

The industries concerned were tobacco, agricultural and industrial chemicals (opposing bans on DDT and CFCs) and most recently fossil fuels – fighting, of course, the idea that global warming is a problem. In each case they funnelled money to scientists and opinion-makers through lobby groups, ‘philanthropic’ foundations and so on – bodies with names like ‘Heartland Institute,’ ‘Freedom of Expression Foundation’ and ‘Hudson Institute.’ Names are named and evidence is methodically documented.

The original merchants of doubt, Frederick Seitz, S. Fred Singer, William Nierenberg and Robert Jastrow, were all scientists but (to quote from the book’s introduction) ‘for more than twenty years, these men did almost no original scientific research on any of the issues on which they weighed in. … In fact, on every issue, they were on the wrong side of the scientific consensus. … [They] fought the scientific evidence and spread confusion on many of the most important issues of our time.’

Merchants of Doubt is peculiar in my life in that I commended it to others long before I read it myself. It emerged to great acclaim from people and publications I trusted, reviews showed that it told a very important story and Oreskes’ interviews convinced me it would be well told. It is pleasing to know now that I was right to recommend it and it has been satisfying to read the whole morbidly fascinating story at last.

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