Home > Uncategorized > Media Freak Show Meets Science – A View From The “sideshow of political battles”

Media Freak Show Meets Science – A View From The “sideshow of political battles”

[Update 2: 11/8/10 – excellent historical piece exposes global warming denial click here]

Update 1:  8/19/10 – here’s an example of excellent journalism: “Plant growth declines as global warming causes drought” ]

Studies show that the American public is practically illiterate when it comes to science, and deeply misinformed about government and politics.

Aside from the schools, the institution in society that is most responsible for an informed and educated public is the media - which has been dubbed “the fourth estate” precisely for those reasons.

It is common knowledge that the media as an institution has collapsed - which is evidenced by increasingly shallow news coverage (thus the “Freak Show”) and the perversion of our non-existent public discourse and democratic politics.

When public ignorance of science meets media Freak Show on a public policy issue of massive importance, we get – the Global Warming disaster.

Today’s Star Ledger story “N.J. scientist who coined “global warming” term tries to avoid limelight 35 years later“ provides a perfect example.

It seems that media is incapable of engaging serious issues in other than human interest stories.

It also seems like the coverage is incapable of providing the context or history on the science and its relatiosnhip to public policy and politics.

And, as usual, policy and democracy are disparaged.

I hardly know where to begin to discuss all this - perhaps the story’s headline is as good a place as any to start.

What do the phrases to “coin a term” and “avoid the limelight“ generally mean when describing something?  That it is shallow, or glamorous? How can a reporter effectively denigrate her own work as “the limelight”?

To me, in the context of the global warming debate, the headline makes it all sound superficial. Perhaps worse,  from a science perspective, in this case, “avoiding the limelight” amounts to an abdication of responsibility.

These negative perceptions are reinforced by the distorted history of global warming science presented in the story.

But one particular sentence really set me off.

That sentence reveals a distorted view of science, democratic discourse, and activism, which simultaneously are dismissed as a mere “sideshow in political battles”:

“Unwilling to become a sideshow in the political battles around climate policy, Broecker distances himself from scientists who are climate-change activists, such as James Hansen of NASA. Instead he strives to do just what he did in the 1960s: untangle the mysteries of the Earth from clues left by the ice ages.

So let’s correct the record and exert some push-back against the premises of this story:

1. Jim Hansen is a Profile in Courage. He should be embraced. This characterization of his work as a “political sideshow” is an extreme insult to Hansen.

In fact, the void created by scientists (and journalists) who view their role as somehow above the fray of “politics” explains quite a bit about why the public is totally ignorant about global warming and why corporations have been so successful in advancing propaganda and lies used by the global warming deniers.

A scientist who spoke out to publicize the fact that cigarettes cause cancer and that the tobacco industry lies, would never be described as engaging in a “sideshow in political battles”.

Just the opposite is closer to the truth: one might rightfully describe a scientist that knew that and did nothing publicly to speak out and rebut those lies a coward.

2. It’s been said that “politics ain’t beanbag”, but it also isn’t  a “sideshow”.

That cynical view has fed an appalling degree of public apathy, which only enables the rule of elite special interests and erodes democracy.

3.  History matters.

The entire premise of the story is that Broecker was a groundbreaking scientist working on an “obscure” issue (in 1975).

Broecker and his paper may have been “obscure” in 1975, but, while it was nowhere near what it is today, global warming science was NOT obscure in 1975. In fact, the mechanism of global warming from CO2 was described by Arrhenius back in 1891 – (see this)

In 1975 I was a freshman at Clarkson College (now University), where I took my fist environmental science courses.

Today’s story prompted me to take a peek at the 2 introductory text’s we used: “Man’s Impact on Environment” (Detwyler, 1971) and “Environment – Resources, Pollution and Society”“ (Murdoch, 1975). Here’s what I found:

Detwyler, in Chapter 13 titled “All Other Factors Being Constant” (which was the title of a 1968 paper by Reid Bryson published in Weatherwise, Vol. 21 page 56) introductory note begins:

“The extent of man’s impact on the atmosphere is now global… There is now good evidence that air pollution is associated with certain changes in global climate.

…From the 1880’s to the 1940’s, the average temperature of the earth rose by at least 0.7 degrees F. This warming may be a consequence of the increased carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere, which during the same period rose by 11% (@page 167)

Bryson’s  1968 paper concludes:

“All other factors being constant, an increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide, by decreasing the ease by which radiant energy leaves the earth’s surface, should cause world temperatures to rise.” (@p. 172)

Global warming was discussed in Murdoch, Chapter 15 “Man, Weather and Climate” by Gordon J.F. MacDonald. That book states:

“The most complete calculations of the net effect of altering the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere are those of Manabe and Weatherald (citing a 1967 paper from the J. of Atmospheric Science, 24: 241-259). These numerical calculations show that increasing CO2 content results in warming of the entire lower atmosphere.” (@p.389)

Human interest stories are an awful vehicle to transmit science and policy stories. But in doing human interest stories, at least the  science should be given the correct historical context.

The Ledger story today made it appear that Broecker was breaking new ground in 1975. Not so.

Studies show an appalling degree of public ignorance on global warming, while industry funded groups poison the well of public discourse with lies and misinformation.

The media must take some responsibility for these failures.

But this is all from a bitter hippie blogger in the trenches of “the sideshow of political battles”.

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