How journalists should handle global-warming skeptics.

How journalists should handle global-warming skeptics.

How journalists should handle global-warming skeptics.

Scrutinizing culture.
Aug. 8 2008 6:09 PM

The Columbia Journalism Review's Division Over Dissent

Is global warming now beyond debate?

Columbia Journalism Review

When does dissent become Untruth and lose the rights and respect due to "legitimate dissent"? Who decides—and how—what dissent deserves to be heard and what doesn't? When do journalists have to "protect" readers from Untruth masking itself as dissent or skepticism?

I found myself thinking about this when I came across an unexpected disjunction in the July/August issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. The issue leads off with a strong, sharply worded editorial called "The Dissent Deficit." (It's not online, but it should be.) In it, the magazine, a publication of the Columbia School of Journalism—and thus a semi-official upholder of standards in the semi-official profession of journalism—argues clearly and unequivocally that allowing dissent to be heard and understood is part of a journalist's mission.

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The editorial contends that doing so sometimes requires looking beyond the majority consensus as defined by the media on the basis of a few sound bites and paying extra attention to dissenting views, because they often present important challenges to conventional wisdom on urgent issues that deserve a hearing.

The editorial deplores the way that journalism has lately been failing in this mission: "Rather than engage speech that strays too far from the dangerously narrow borders of our public discourse, the gatekeepers of that discourse—our mass media—tend to effectively shout it down, marginalize it, or ignore it."

So true. The editorial offers the media's treatment of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a dissident whose views, particularly on American foreign policy's responsibility for 9/11, have gotten no more than sound-bite treatment, as an example.

I found that the editorial gave the best short summary of Wright's view of "black liberation theology," especially the concept of "transformation," and made a strong case that Wright and his views deserve attention rather than derision. He shouldn't be erased from public discourse with the excuse that we've "moved on," that we're all "post-racial" now.

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The CJR editorial encourages journalists not to marginalize dissenters, however unpopular or out of step. Implicit are the notions that today's dissenters can become tomorrow's majority, that our nation was founded on dissent, that the Bill of Rights (and especially the First Amendment) was written by dissenters, for dissenters. That the journalistic profession deserves what respect it retains not for being the stenographers of the Official Truth but for conveying dissent and debate. 

It was troubling, then, to find, in an article in the very same issue of CJR, an argument that seems to me to unmistakably marginalize certain kinds of dissent.

The contention appears in an article called, with deceptive blandness, "Climate Change: What's Next?" The article doesn't present itself as a marginalizer of dissent. It rather presents itself as a guide for "green journalists" on what aspects of climate change should be covered now that the Truth about "global warming"—whether it's real, and whether it's mainly caused by humans—is known. 

About two-thirds of the story offers tips and warnings like "watch out for techno-optimism." Alas, the author doesn't inspire confidence that she takes her own warnings to heart. The very first paragraph of her story contains a classic of credulous "techno-optimism":

… a decade from now, Abu Dhabi hopes to have the first city in the world with zero carbon emissions. In a windswept stretch of desert, developers plan to build Masdar city, a livable environment for fifty thousand people that relies entirely on solar power and other renewable energy.

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All that's missing from the breathless, real-estate-brochure prose is a plug for the 24-hour health club and the concierge service for condo owners.

But, the article tells us, the danger of "techno-optimism" pales before the perils of handling dissent.

The first problem in the evaluation of what dissent should be heard is how certain we are about the truth. If we know the truth, why allow dissent from it into journalism? But who decides when we've reached that point of certainty? In any case, as the author's Abu Dhabi effusion suggests, there's no lack of certainty about what the Official Truth is in her mind:

After several years of stumbling, mainstream science and environmental coverage has generally adopted the scientific consensus that increases in heat-trapping emissions from burning fossil fuels and tropical deforestation are changing the planet's climate, causing adverse effects even more rapidly than had been predicted.

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She's correct in saying that this is the consensus, that most journalists now accept what's known as the "anthropogenic theory" of global warming: that it is our carbon footprint that is the key cause of global warming, rather than—as a few scientists still argue—changes in solar activity, slight changes in the tilt of the earth's axis, the kinds of climate change that the earth constantly experienced long before man lit the first coal-burning plant.

But here lies danger, "a danger that the subtleties of the science, and its uncertainty, might be missed by reporters unfamiliar with the territory," especially when confronted with "studies that contradict one another." Faced with conflicting studies, she tells us, "scientists look for consistency among several reports before concluding something is true." This is, frankly, a misunderstanding or misstating of the way science works.

She seems to be confusing consensus among scientists and scientific truth. They are two different things. The history of science repeatedly shows a "consensus" being overturned by an unexpected truth that dissents from the consensus. Scientific truth has continued to evolve, often in unexpected ways, and scientific consensus always remains "falsifiable," to use Karl Popper's phrase, one any science reporter should be familiar with. All the more reason for reporting on scientific dissent, one would think. Yet when I read her description of how science proceeds, it seems to me she is suggesting science proceeds by a vote: Whoever who has the greatest number of  consistent papers—papers that agree with him or her—"wins." As in, has the Truth.

In fact, the history of science frequently demonstrates that science proceeds when contradictory—dissenting—studies provoke more studies, encourage rethinking rather than being marginalized by "the consensus" or the "consistency" of previous reports.

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Indeed, the century's foremost historian of science, Thomas Kuhn, believed, as even "green" reporters should know, that science often proceeds by major unexpected shifts: Just when an old consensus congealed, new dissenting, contradictory reports heralded a "paradigm shift" that often ended up tossing the old "consensus" into the junk bin.

If it hadn't been for the lone dissenting voice of that crazy guy in the Swiss patent office with his papers on "relativity," we still might believe the "consensus" that Newtonian mechanics explained a deterministic universe. And what about Ignaz Semmelweis and his lone crusade against the "consensus" that doctors need not wash their hands before going from an infected to an uninfected patient? Or the nutty counterintuitive dissenting idea of vaccination? The consensus was wrong. In fact, science proceeds by overturning consensus.

Sometimes the consensus proves to be long-lasting, but in science, any consensus, even the new consensus that formed around relativity, is subject to the challenges of Popper's "falsifiability." But even if—or because—not all truths in science are final, argument about what the truth is, and competition among competing ideas, often helps us to get closer to it.

But our CJR author appears to believe that the green consensus, the anthropogenic theory of global warming, has some special need to be protected from doubters and dissenters, and that reporters who don't do their job to insulate it are not being "helpful." When faced with dissent from the sacrosanct green consensus, the author, as we'll see, argues that the "helpful" reporter must always show the dissenters are wrong if they are to be given any attention at all. 

This was the contention that stunned me—that reporters must protect us from dissent—especially in light of the CJR editorial deploring the "dangerously narrow borders of our public discourse."

The contention that reporters must be "helpful" in protecting us from dissent is best understood in the context of the "no last word" anecdote in which the author tells us of the way your loyal green reporter must manage conflicting reports.

She tells the story of a report that indicated the rest of the century would bring fewer hurricanes. It was important to her that "experienced" green journalists were able to cite other reports that there would be "more and more powerful hurricanes." (Italics hers.)

She praises a reporter who concludes his story "with a scientist's caveat": "We don't regard this [new, fewer-hurricane report] as the last word on this topic."

So, "no last word" is the way to go. Except when it isn't.

We learn this as the CJR writer slaps the wrist of a local TV station for allowing "skeptics" to be heard without someone representing the consensus being given the last word.

"Last year," she writes, "a meteorologist at CBS's Chicago station did a special report that featured local scientists discussing the hazards of global warming in one segment, well-known national skeptics in another, and ended with a cop-out: 'What is the truth about global warming? … It depends on who you talk to.' " In other words, no last word.

Bad CBS affiliate, bad! "Not helpful, and not good reporting" she tells us. "The he-said, she-said reporting just won't do."

Setting aside for a moment, if you can, the sanctimonious tone of the knuckle rapping ("just won't do"), there are two ways to interpret this no-no, both objectionable, both anti-dissent.

One implication is that these "nationally known skeptics" should never have been given air time in the first place because the debate is over, the Truth is known, their dissent has no claim on our attention; their dissent is, in fact, pernicious.

The second way of reading her "not helpful" condemnation is that if one allows dissenters on air to express their dissent, the approach shouldn't be "he-said, she-said." No, the viewers must be protected from this pernicious dissent. We should get "he-said, she-said, but he (or she) is wrong, and here is the correct way to think."

It may be that believers in anthropogenic global warming are right. I have no strong position on the matter, aside from agreeing with the CJR editorial that there's a danger in narrowing the permissible borders of dissent.

But I take issue with the author's contention that the time for dissent has ended. "The era of 'equal time' for skeptics who argue that global warming is just a result of natural variation and not human intervention seems to be largely over—except on talk radio, cable, and local television," she tells us.

And of course we all know that the Truth is to be found only on networks and major national print outlets. Their record has been nigh unto infallible.

But wait! I think I've found an insidious infiltration of forbidden dissent in the citadel of Truth that the CJR writer neglected to condemn. One of the environmental reporters the writer speaks of reverently, the New York Times' Andy Revkin, runs the Times' Dot Earth  blog and features on his blogroll a hotbed of "just won't do" climate-change skeptics: the Climate Debate Daily blog (an offshoot of the highly respected Arts & Letters Daily). Revkin provides no protective warning to the reader that he will be entering the realm of verboten dissent from the Consensus.

I find Climate Debate Daily a particularly important site precisely because it does give "equal time" to different arguments about climate change. Take a look at it. It's just two lists of links, one of reports and studies that support the consensus view and one of studies that don't. No warnings on the site about what is True and what constitutes Dangerous Dissent. Exactly the sort of thing that our CJR reporter says is just not done.

And yet one cannot read the site without believing there are dissents from the consensus by scientists who deserve a hearing, if only so that their theses can be disproved. Check out, for instance, this work by an Australian scientist who was once charged with enforcing limits on greenhouse gases by the government but who now has changed his mind on the issue! It happens perhaps more often than "green journalists" let us know.

At a dinner recently, I listened as Nick Lemann, the dean of Columbia's J-school, talked about the difficulty the school had in helping the students get the hang of "structuring an inquiry." At the heart of structuring an inquiry, he said, was the need to "find the arguments." Not deny the arguments. Find them, explore them.

But which arguments? It's a fascinating subject that I've spent some time considering. My last two books, Explaining Hitler and The Shakespeare Wars, were, in part anyway, efforts to decide which of the myriad arguments about and dissenting visions of each of these figures was worth pursuing. For instance, with Hitler, after investigating, I wanted to refute the myth (often used in a heavy-handed way by anti-Semites) that Hitler was part Jewish. The risk is that in giving attention to the argument, one can spread it even while refuting it. But to ignore it was worse. Perhaps this is what our green journalist with her tsk-tsking really fears, and it's a legitimate fear. But I'd argue that journalists should be on the side of vigorous argument, not deciding for readers what is truth and then not exposing them to certain arguments.

In my Shakespeare book, I mentioned—but didn't devote time to—what I regarded as the already well-refuted argument that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays in the canon. This doesn't mean I would stop others from arguing about it; it just is my belief that it wasn't worth the attention and that since life was short, one would be better off spending one's time rereading the plays than arguing over who wrote them. In any case, the fate of the earth was not at stake.

But the argument over the green consensus does matter: If the green alarmists are right, we will have to turn our civilization inside out virtually overnight to save ourselves. One would like to know this is based on good, well-tested science, not mere "consensus."

Skepticism is particularly important and particularly worth attention from journalists. Especially considering the abysmal record green journalists have on the ethanol fiasco.

Here we should give the CJR reporter credit where due: She does include perhaps the single most important question that such an article could ask, one I haven't heard asked by most mainstream enviro-cheerleader media:

[W]here were the skeptical scientists, politicians and journalists earlier, when ethanol was first being promoted in Congress?

Indeed I don't remember reading a lot of "dissent" on the idea. Shouldn't it have occurred to someone green that taking acreage once capable of producing food on a planet with hundreds of millions of starving people and using it to lower the carbon footprint of your SUV might end up causing the deaths of those who lack food or the means to pay the soaring prices of ethanol-induced shortage?

But it doesn't seem to occur to her that the delegitimizing of dissent she encourages with her "just won't do" sanctimony might have been responsible for making reporters fearful of being "greenlisted" for dissenting from The Consensus at the time.

I think it's time for "green reporters," the new self-promoting subprofession, to take responsibility for the ethanol fiasco. Go back into their files and show us the stories they wrote that carry a hint that there might be a downside to taking food out of the mouths of the hungry. Those who fail the test—who didn't speak out, even on "talk radio, cable TV or local news"—shouldn't be so skeptical about skeptics.

I'd suggest they all be assigned to read the CJR editorial about protecting dissent and the danger of "narrowing the borders" of what is permissible. The problem is, as Freeman Dyson, one of the great scientists of our age, put it in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, environmentalism can become a religion, and religions always seek to silence or marginalize heretics. CJR has been an invaluable voice in defending that aspect of the First Amendment dealing with the freedom of the press; it should be vigilant about the other aspect that forbids the establishment of a religion.