It is very easy to criticise the obvious failures of many broadcasters and newspapers to accurately and therefore honestly report the climate debate. But what would we sceptics say if someone genuinely came to us and wanted to know how the debate should be accurately reported in an impartial way?
Let’s create an entirely fictional organisation I shall call the SBC (Scottish Broadcasting Company). This is a public broadcasting company which is attempting to be impartial. It is therefore filled with public-sector journalists, of whom very few are scientists and none have any specialism on climate or energy.
Traditionally “science” was seen by the SBC as those ideas and facts originating from the group of people it called “scientists”. And with almost no other communication channels to challenge this view except other non-scientist journalists and a few scientific journals, the authority of “scientists” to be the spokespeople for “science” was never realistically challenged.
And as such “science” was largely synonymous with the views of the self-governing association of public-sector university academics (albeit with a much smaller & less vocal number of private-sector scientists).
For a long time the SBC was respected, however, all that changed with the introduction of the Internet. Suddenly large numbers of individuals with an interest and therefore usually a qualification in science, started producing journalist material on issues traditionally seen as the domain of public-sector “scientists”. Very quickly a massive dispute erupted in the area of energy and particularly the need for fossil fuel to power the industrial economy and infrastructure.
As few of those within the traditional area of “science” had much interest or experience of the industrial economy that needed fossil fuels, they tended to favour public-sector intervention against the private sector. So a massive consensus had developed within the area the SBC tended to refer to as “science” that fossil fuel use needed to be ended. And as this was traditionally thought of as the only voice of “science” this is what the SBC had been broadcasting.
In contrast, many of those individuals on the internet who were now “blogging”, came from a private sector background where they knew the importance of fossil fuels and how it would be extremely damaging to try to stop their use. Furthermore, they tended to be sceptical about the efficiency & effectiveness of the public-sector, so were both sceptical of the conclusions of this sector that fossil fuels were a “problem” and also sceptical of the proposed “solution” which seemed like a huge public-sector power-grab.
For obvious reasons, being a public-sector organisation and already having very close links to the establishments that used to constitute “science” the SBC obviously found its staff tended to naturally side with the established public-sector “science” from academia. So, it had assumed that a “consensus” amongst this group that fossil fuels were a problem meant this was the settled view of “science”. As such the SBC had initially been very dismissive of those private-sector bloggers who were sceptical.
But let us suppose, that hypothetically the SBC now recognised that it had not been impartial and was now attempting to be more evenhanded in its reporting (an entirely hypothetical and probably far-fetched case).
How could it achieve this?
Problems faced by the SBC
- The first and obvious one is that the present group previous referred to as “science” will not be pleased to find that its authority to be the one and only voice of “science” is being challenged by a group of often nameless individuals.
- The individuals on the internet are just that: individuals. Unlike the old “science” there is not established or recognised spokesman for the SBC to approach to ascertain the authorative view of the internet “sceptics”.
- And unlike the old “science” the new group(s) on the internet have no recognised standards. So, if the SBC were to use material from the internet, it would not necessarily know whether that material sourced from the internet was of a sufficiently high standard to broadcast.
- And finally, because journalism and science are such different areas and the SBC does not itself have the necessary experience or qualifications to judge, how can the SBC as a non-scientist/non-engineer, judge in what appears to be a legitimate dispute between the interpretation of scientific facts and ideas.
- One solution, and the one that the SBC initially attempted, was to try to retain the old system and hope that “science” itself would adapt. However, the dispute between the public sector academics and private sector bloggers did not resolve itself.
- Another solution would be to have an effective free-for-all so that journalists in the EBC may print whatever material they want. But unfortunately, because the EBC are public sector, the result was that the EBC journalists when given a free choice, would overwhelmingly publish material that supported public-sector views on fossil fuels.
- A third solution, would be to bring in-house expertise into the SBC. However, as the available experts in the subject tend to come from academia, this might just reinforce the predominantly bias toward the public sector already inherent in the SBC’s output.
A fictional example
The journal “Natural Science” has printed an article stemming from research at the Wave, Atmosphere & Climate Organisation (WACO) which says:
Sea levels along the northeast coast of the US rose by record levels during 2009-2010, a study has found.
Sea levels north of New York City rose by 128mm in two years, according to a report in the journal, Nature Communications.
This has then been picked up by several bloggers. One known as Mr Goodyard described the result as “fraud”, a claim that the SBC are reluctant to broadcast. However, the blogger provided ample evidence that sea level had changed for a number of years and that the period selected for study was dishonest as it did not reflect the known longer term change.
Likewise, another blogger called Mr Homeward, made similar points to Mr Goodyard highlighting the lack of recent acceleration and was equally condemning of the original paper stating:
there is no evidence that anything at all unusual is happening now.
but this time as a Hairy jock he also directed his comments fairly and squarely at the SBC:
More alarmist nonsense from the SBC, by yet another of their “Environmental Correspondents”. (How many do they ruddy well have?)
What should the SBC do?
In order to maintain high standards, the SBC have in place a policy that reports have to be come from a credible source. This means that whereas the original source from WACO is supported by that agency, the criticisms of their work comes from private individuals which the SBC for the best of reasons cannot just broadcast without some mechanism to avoid misleading its audience (or being sued).
But perhaps equally bad, the new internet bloggers do not proactively make their material available to the SBC. So, the SBC is in the invidious position of broadcasting material from WACO, and then perhaps much later discovering that an individual on the internet has serious doubts about the “honesty” of WACO’s research.
The SBC is not itself either equipped to judge who is “right” in this dispute nor does it have this role. But it has a duty to report impartially. But one side is a large organisation who has all the resources necessary to package up its “work” so that journalists at the SBC can almost copy and paste it for output. But in contrast the blogger have almost no resource except themselves and they not package up material suitable for broadcast nor in most instances do they tell the SBC about their work. So, even if the SBC wanted to be impartial, even if its journalists could afford to spend huge amounts of time rewriting the bloggers work in a form suitable for broadcast, it often doesn’t know about the bloggers material until it is too late to make use of it in the original article.
There is no simple solution I can see. Any ideas?
Post Script – Surely there are hundreds of areas where the SBC must already have to “arbitrate” between the big organisation and the individual. What about shoppers versus supermarkets. Patients versus hospitals? What is so unique about climate that journalists are incapable of seeing the issue for what it is? Or perhaps it is that journalists only champion the “little guy” when that little guy is them or the people they immediately know. And because sceptics & journalists are so different in outlook, that no journalists at the SBC know any climate sceptics?