Monday, 6 December 2010

The Australian’s Resolve Cracks

The Australian last weekend published a lengthy defence of its position on climate change, claiming its editorial policy was never anti-science, with the following rather surprising wording emphasised:
THIS newspaper supports global action on climate change based on the science.
They published a letter from me, cutting much of the substance, so I present it in full here:
I read Graham Lloyd’s lengthy defence of this paper’s coverage of climate science (“Climate debate no place for hotheads” 4/12) with interest.

The Australian may have said all these things but in a context where denialists writing junk were not only given equal time with real scientists, but lauded as in the case of Ian Plimer, who was given an incredible free ride for his book which was torn to shreds once it was in the hands of scientists, rather than the hard right ideologues in your editorial offices. I am also reminded of the embarrassingly incorrect article, "Sorry to ruin the fun, but an ice age cometh" (23/04/2008) by Phil Chapman, who claimed that a decline in the number of observed sunspots presaged an ice age. Current indications are that 2010 is likely to set a new record for overall annual temperature. So much for that.

This paper has a long history of promoting cranks and contrarians with no standing in the scientific community. If these people were correct of course it would be great that you were giving them space, but they have proved time and time again to be talking rubbish. So how do you consider it acceptable that you are giving them equal time? The argument that a contrarian position is owed equal time no matter how bereft it is of logic or factual support was invented by the tobacco industry in 1954 and is as valid today as it was then. If your editorial staff does not understand the difference between pro-industry propaganda and genuine scientific debate, you cannot claim to be a quality paper. Allowing cranks to present easily debunked pseudo-science ad nauseam is not a freedom of speech issue, it is a quality of journalism issue. In any case you are extremely selective on where this kind of bogus balance applies: you do not for example insist on allowing Trotskyites equal time on the business pages, no doubt on the basis that their theories haven’t worked in practice. Well, guess what. Neither have contrarian theories of climate.

If it is indeed this paper’s position that we should base our actions on the science, how about reporting the science without insisting on bogus balance of at least equal space for anti-science? How about some articles informing the public on exactly how uncertainty is deal with in science, rather than stoking the completely false claim that uncertainty in climate science renders the whole field invalid? There’s a lot you can do to defend your reputation without threatening litigation, and I suggest you start by understanding why many scientists hold you in contempt. A mirror can be a most useful tool.
I strongly recommend to anyone wanting to understand the nature of the propaganda war on science that started with tobacco, took on the ozone hole and is now attacking climate science to read the book Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. Oreskes is an accomplished science historian and her careful scholarship adds to the understanding of this topic I’ve built from my own experience in taking on other bogus anti-science battles in the past, including tobacco and AIDS denial, as well as reading other books like George Monbiot’s Heat.

More interesting to me though is why the paper has suddenly decided to defend its track record, questionable though its defence is: the paper’s environment editor, Graham Lloyd, argues that the paper’s own editorials have consistently argued for a science-based approach, while ignoring the fact that allowing so much space for cranks undermines public understanding of the science. But why are they doing this? Do they care about their reputation after all?

Let’s consider one example, the common attack line of the anti-science warrior since the days of tobacco: undermine public confidence in scientific findings by harping on uncertainty, as if this is a sole property of this one area of applied science, and nothing can be done until all uncertainties are resolved. To anyone who does science of the real world, this is a patently absurd line of attack, but it is one that bought the tobacco industry decades, held up action on the ozone hole and caused hundreds of thousands of unnecessary HIV deaths in South Africa. No real-world science is devoid of uncertainty; the biggest irony in this line of attack is that industries like oil that pay for anti-science activism deal with enormous uncertainties in their own line of work. It is beggars the imagination that the industry’s own scientists do not know how to manage uncertainty.

One editorial doesn’t do it for me: the paper will have to build a consistent track record of reporting well-founded scientific positions, and refusing to publish polemics disguised as science. Oh yes, and Graham Lloyd: Bjørn Lomborg isn’t an economist. His background is in political science.