The thing about science is first of all it's after the way the universe really is and not what makes us feel good. And a lot of the competing doctrines are after what feels good and not what's known - Carl Sagan
Today in Japan, there is a volcano experiencing one of its biggest eruptions since it became active again after 52 years. Today there is an evacuation of the low lying parts of North Queensland and its off shore islands in advance of Cyclone Yasi, a category 4 cyclone that is due to hit what has already been designated as a disaster area tomorrow or the next day. Today the US National Weather Service issued a blizzard warning for Chicago. Yesterday 2 people died and 29,000 were evacuated because of floods in Johor, Malaysia. The media has not been short of fodder for articles concerning the heatwaves, floods, droughts and heavy snowfalls that have recently plagued mankind. So many things are happening all at once that it's likely not practical for all of it to be widely reported. This means only a percentage of what is happening in the world due climate change is being made common knowledge. There are things happening we will never know about. But even if those of us trawling the Internet for information don't know about it, the scientists do, and later on we'll realise why that's more important than most people realise. But first let's talk about responsible reporting.
In the early 1990s, I lived in Belfast during the end of the Troubles and the beginning of the Ceasefire of 1994. Not long after the August declaration by the IRA to cease activities, one of the worst attacks on an army barracks took place and 14 soldiers died from the bombing. It was hardly reported at all, even in Northern Ireland. Annoyed and frustrated by this knowledge, I happened to tune into a Larry King Live show ironically discussing the ceasefire in Northern Ireland and before I could stop myself I had dialled the number in the US and told them what I knew. Within minutes I was live on the air talking to Larry King and wondering aloud to him and all of his viewers why no one was hearing about this. I mentioned that it was wrong for the world to assume Northern Ireland was at peace and that the media was misleading people by purposely failing to report this tragedy. This led to some serious discussion on the panel, with no clear explanation by its conclusion why people were not being made aware of this development. People died during a highly publicised ceasefire and their deaths weren't even worth the trouble of the ink. Considering the press time the Downing Street Declaration had received it was distressing to think that this event was not even mentioned. Back then, in 1994 I realised that the media was providing a service and that they used their discretion to print what they saw fit. Up until that point, I innocently assumed that the media printed everything newsworthy. That meant if people died in a bombing, it would get media attention. I was wrong. Fast forward to today.
Although I cannot prove it, it's a reasonable assumption that the media industry likely suffers from similar restraints as other industries in these times of austerity. In spite of budget cuts, the margins have continually risen within an increasingly competitive media environment. When it comes to reporting about climate change, this is where the fine line of honest reporting (which takes time, money, research and rigorous fact checking) gets crossed. Articles get printed, usually with hyped up headlines and bombastic text to catch the eye of a passing browser. However, carefully reading through the article reveals that while some of the facts are presented, it is the tone and flavor of the presentation that manipulates the reader so that by the end of the article the reader has ultimately chosen a 'side'. The media spills a lot of ink about climate change, but not necessarily in any kind of helpful manner, either knowingly or unknowingly they contribute to the controversy that rages for and against the existence of climate change. Here is Joe Public eating his morning toast and reading his morning paper. He fumes at the article that informs him that he will have to pay more tax in a country wide effort to curtail its CO2 emissions by investing in thousands of wind turbines. The author of the article then closes in Machiavellian fashion with the question of whether taking all this tax money is really going to make a difference anyway. Now Joe Public has finished his article. He goes to work thinking he has all the facts since he reads one of the best papers in his country. He looks no further for information, but amazingly whenever he is online his eye targets other articles that ask the same question. Suddenly he starts to wonder if climate change is just a big scam made up by the government to get more tax out of him. He is not alone. The Internet is rife with bloggers, politicians and anti climate change activists who vehemently argue that the planet is not warming up, that it is just the cyclical nature of the planet's climate while claiming evidence that the CO2 contribution of man is inconsequential. They argue that climate change does not exist. They argue that nothing is happening that is out of the ordinary.
In the midst of this online war, scientists are sitting quietly in their labs, compiling and studying data year after year. They are the people who really do know what is happening, but they are not the media. They don't report, they don't make articles with eye grabbing headlines, and they certainly don't speculate about who is responsible. Instead, they spend their time writing long and detailed journal articles filled with data for other scientists to test and disseminate. They look at this data and draw conclusions based on facts distilled from rigorous testing. A responsible reporter would mention that the entire scientific community has concurred that "there is a strong consensus that global surface temperatures have increased in recent decades and that the trend is caused mainly by human-induced emissions of greenhouse gases." Source But they don't report this, because it doesn't sell and it certainly doesn't sound nice.
In the meantime, the chattering classes are of the opinion that everything the scientists are doing is nonsense. This is the tragic outcome of irresponsible reporting, it leads to people believing what they want to believe in opposition to facts, simply because it feels good. Readers cling to part truths and well written blogs that advocate against climate change. Although their arguments are compelling, on this subject science must reign supreme no matter how pretty the words are to the contrary.
Back when I was an undergrad, I remember studying modern western civilisation, which encompassed a broad sweep of history from the time of Rome to present day. In particular, I was fascinated by the brutal control of the church during the Middle Ages, and how it managed to stop man's technological advancement for hundreds of years. Imagine living in a world where science was considered heresy unless it dovetailed with the scriptures. Mankind's current rampant denial of AGW (anthropogenic global warming) in the face of scientific data reminds me of the event known as the Galileo affair. In 1610, "Galileo published his Sidereus Nuncius (Starry Messenger), describing the surprising observations that he had made with the new telescope. These and other discoveries exposed major difficulties with the scientific understanding of the heavens that had been held since antiquity, and raised new interest in radical teachings such as the heliocentric theory of Copernicus (published in De revolutionibus orbium coelestium in 1543).
"In reaction, many scientific and theological scholars attacked the theory because it seemingly contradicted Aristotle's model of the universe, as well as several passages of scripture. Galileo's part in the controversies over theology, astronomy, and philosophy culminated in his trial and sentencing in 1633 on a grave suspicion of heresy."
In spite of his judgement, in time Galileo was proven right and the church, wrong, but this anecdote clearly demonstrates what happens when the majority are controlled by a power that determines for them what is correct to think. It stifles the truth for a time to serve its own agenda, but no matter what, the truth will prevail. But how is it possible that man today has degenerated to the level of man in the middle ages? Lack of knowledge. If one does not look for the answers oneself and instead allows someone else to "think" for them, then man is in terrible danger. The question that begs to be asked is whether the truth will prevail and catch all the naysayers unawares or will we as a species own up to our responsibilities and learn about the greatest threat to our existence we have ever faced?
Remember this if nothing else. The planet does not need us. We need it. Ignoring what science is telling us will only result in our extermination.
I leave this article with reflections taken from one of the last interviews Carl Sagan gave before he died...
"...science is more than a body of knowledge, it's a way of thinking. A way of sceptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility. If we are not able to ask sceptical questions, to interrogate those who tell us that something is true, to be sceptical of those in authority, then we are up for grabs for the next charlatan, political or religious person who comes ambling along."
Originally published on Paradigms Bend Feb 1 2011