Saturday, December 05, 2009


The right wing assault on climate science continues. The argument has a commonplace structure. Take one small piece of evidence, misconstrue it and then build a whole narrative edifice on the misinterpretation, claiming it as proof positive, whilst leaving the originators baffled, struggling to know how to respond.

This is a pretty standard technique for constructing a false argument, has a resonance in popular culture as it is a mainstay of thriller writing, and it certainly isn't confined to the political right. The troubling aspect for me is the way it is being reported in news broadcasts. Unlike Murdoch's Fox News, which allows opinionated star presenters to rant and rave regardless of fact, British news broadcasts are supposed to be balanced. And what worries me is that this notion of balance seems to divorce reporting from the foundation of good journalism, research.

Rather than investigate and present the findings of that investigation, the style used is to take an accusation from whatever source and present it, often in the style of an advocate, to someone who disagrees and elicit a brief response. Either that or they stage a three minute debate between two people of opposite views, regardless of their credibility, and call the process balanced reporting. Often, it seems that the broadcaster's research team has read little more than competing press releases. In the reporting of the hacked emails from the University of East Anglia, I have yet to hear evidence that anyone has bothered to read and analyse them. Climate scientists' lack of expertise in PR has been exposed, throwing them on the defensive, and only now are they belatedly trying to catch up.

So where is the authoritative research? How is balance served by treating fact and fiction as equivalents and truth to be simply a mater of opinion? It isn't as if the truth isn't out there and easily available. The person who put this video together probably had a bit too much fun making it, but it clearly and accessibly deals with the claims in a way that I have never seen on broadcast news.

All of this is not to deny that there is a deeply polarised debate. But it is political, social and economic. Material changes in our environment are forcing us to ask serious questions about how we respond and the nature of the world in which we wish to live, not just about the technology we use. It is a vital debate and by wandering off into the byways of denial, the right is excluding itself. In a perverse way I find that rather gratifying.

Video via here


Anonymous said...

This is a good example of trying to debate matters about which most of us can know little or nothing.

What bothers me about the climate asserters (opposite of deniers) is that they appear (so we are told) to deny the medieval warm period. So, these natural warmth deniers fly in the face of a few things which are provable through archaeology and conventional history.

We know that Greenland was inhabited and farmed by Vikings whose settlements died out as the country cooled down.

We know that England had a wine growing industry which was not simply the victim of French imports during the Hundred Years War.

The climate asserters, by being dogmatic, play a dangerous game. If their arguments become discredited, then remedial action will be delayed too long.

The Plump said...

What bothers me about the climate asserters (opposite of deniers) is that they appear (so we are told) to deny the medieval warm period. So, these natural warmth deniers fly in the face of a few things which are provable through archaeology and conventional history.

No they don't. There has been extensive research on the Mediaeval Warm Period. It is included in all the historic data. See here for a summary and the latest paper published on it (though the paper itself is behind a subscription screen).

Climate scientists do not deny its existence, they simply say that their research is currently showing that it was not the product of the same phenomena causing contemporary warming.

This is not dogmatism, it is the conclusions drawn from thorough research.

Anonymous said...

I'm even more bewildered....

Jane said...

I see the Climate Research Unit have duped you. Just a few years ago they spoke of nothing but the coming of the ice age.

The Plump said...

Oh dear Jane, this is not true. There were predictions of global cooling, particularly in the popular press, up until the 1970's (more than 30 years ago!) - though the majority of research predicted warming. The CRU was founded in 1972 and as far as I can see has never predicted cooling.

All of this is irrelevant though. Because the 70's was a time of uncertainty. In the meantime we have seen much more research and real, measurable warming - not predictions. In other words, contemporary scientific studies are focused on something existing, not on an hypothesis of what may exist in the future.

See here for more.

Jane said...

Yes well I have a good memory. I can see the headlines in the local paper. Professor Lamb predicted the coming of another Ice Age. It was the same climate research unit. Norwich doesnt even have a decent road so how it can have a world renowned climatic research unit I will never know.

The Plump said...

Well it can't have been that recently Jane - he died twelve years ago.

Though you are right that he once argued a position based on global cooling, both natural and through atmospheric pollution, but not since the 70s. Newspaper reporting is not always distinguished.

So back to Google.

From what I have read, it appears that from the mid 70s onwards his view was that CO2 warming was overcoming cooling, and he was predicting imminent warming for the next century or two, though with a future ice age being possible, though not predictable, in 1,000-2,000 years. His 1982 book, Climate History and the Modern World, is apparently selectively quoted a lot with the sections on CO2 warming and the conclusions that the climate is warming due to increased CO2 omitted, whilst the section on cooling is highlighted. See here.

Since his death, temperatures have, of course, risen rapidly.

See too Real Climate here
and here on the 1975 Newsweek article that is constantly being rehashed.

And despite the road system there are a number of fine and prestigious departments in the university (the MA in Creative Writing is internationally famous), but the football team has gone down the pan.

(One of the pleasures of blogging is the stimulus it gives to learning about this stuff.)

Jane said...

Yes, well I didnt say it was that recently. I also have a photographic memory. I read Law at UEA, was once Malcolm Bradbury's PA (I know, he's dead too, went to the funeral) and know the road system well and I do remember it all and I am well aware that he died whenever and his son's name is Norman oh oh oh Norman in case you didnt know. I am glad I helped you into a little bit of research even if it was all wasted on you.

The Plump said...

Jane, just for the record. I am neither questioning the veracity nor the accuracy of your memory. I am sure that the newspaper article existed precisely as you remembered it. All I am saying is that the article, compared to the documentary record, appears to have put a spin on it that amounts to a misrepresentation. This is hardly rare!

Jane said...

Yeh, well, whatever. Nice to talk.