Sunday, 7 February 2010

Climate confusion - blame the press

Unless you have had your head buried in the sand ­– which I have been trying to do ­– you will know that these are hard times in the climate change debate. There have been a couple of scandals and mistakes, and we have gone back ten years to discussing whether climate change is even real. Those who say that the evidence supports the idea that humans are altering the climate are under attack, with even sympathetic journalists lining up to say that scientists need to show their workings, and a little more humility. But these calls from the press miss a real problem with the climate discussion, and that is the inability of the media to understand and communicate complex science.

The reasons are obvious. By and large the media do not have the training, the time or the inclination to process papers and data, and so they need to ask the scientists to summarize extremely complex information in soundbites. At the same time, every normal twist and turn, every refinement and retesting of climate science is pounced upon by the press. ‘Does this undermine/support the case for climate change’, is asked of every single new piece of information. This forces scientists to state their views, to become political.

Perhaps the scientists should be above this. They should simply publish and let the scientific press, policy advisers and businesses make the scientific judgements. The trouble is that this assumes that we have a policy neutral world that will respond to the best science – not so. If the climate scientists remain silent, PR savvy pundits will jump all over their work. Since the majority of the media will not understand it anyway, they can put any spin on it they like. So again the scientists are forced to become politically involved.

So we now have scientists who are involved in the press game. They must be commentators and pundits. They are needed to communicate and comment. They are the gate keepers to a language the press cannot interpret. They are figures of authority, and like politicians, journalists like to find and exploit their weaknesses and contradictions, because we – the public – like to read about them. These scientists are also sensitive, used to conspiracies and tricks against them (particularly climate scientists who have endured nearly two decades of orchestrated misinformation against them). They are now set up for a fall. When mistakes are uncovered (as is inevitable) suddenly the climate scientists are the deceivers… a monolithic block to be vilified.

Sadly, scientists by and large are not good at PR. Some are, most not. They are not trained in it. They respond by restating their data, but since the press did not understand this in the first place it makes them seem arrogant to the press. Out of touch. Their opponents can attack. So the scientists must defend the conclusions of their work, which makes them more political. The press, and in this case climate deniers say they should stick to the science. And so on.

I am not saying that these scandals are not damaging or wrong. If people have mislead intentionally, they must take responsibility for their actions. Mistakes must be scrutinized and the data examined. If it turns out that climate change is not a problem – great, we can get on with dealing with the other problems. But it seems that there are still many thousands of lines of information saying climate change is happening, that we are causing it, and that it is a problem. Perhaps the media need to show a bit more humility and realise that reporting does not create reality, but the perception of it. Unfortunately that is almost as important.

1 comment:

  1. I think a part of the problem for scientists is that science is so often presented as 'a truth' when in fact even the most apparently solid 'fact' can be overturned by further research. If the public could be educated to understand how researchers go about adding to the body of knowledge, the nature of probability and risks, then while we might not all understand the science, we could at least evaluate the worth of the research.