"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Saturday, May 3, 2008

The Great Divide

John Fleck has a very nice, if daunting article about the correlation between scientific and political beliefs about climate change on the ABQJournal site. Here's the nut of it:
“On the climate issue,” University of Colorado political scientist Roger Pielke Jr. famously told the New York Times a number of years ago, “we appear to be on the brink of having Republican science and Democrat science.”

On climate science, every major arbiter that has reviewed the question — the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Geophysical Union — has come to the same conclusion: that Earth has been warming for more than a century, and that emissions from burning petroleum and coal are the only reasonable explanation.
A survey published last year by the Pew Research Center found that 20 percent of conservative Republicans in the United States believe humans are causing global warming, compared to 71 percent of liberal Democrats.

Over time, according to American University political scientist Matthew Nisbet, ... if you drill down in the data, you find a hardening of partisan positions over time.
This is clearly a sign of a malfunctioning democratic process. We can't manage a complex society if we are in disagreement about the facts. Even getting it wrong is less risky than half of us getting it wrong; even if you don't agree with me which half is wrong you have to agree that this is a very serious problem.

I'd like John to speculate on the mechanisms for this disconnect. Some of this, I believe, is the result of malicious obfuscation of the facts by interested parties. Why is the press not getting to the bottom of the roots of misinformation? Can we go so far as to say the press is complicit?

I'd like to count John among my friends, even if he persistently fails to blogroll "In It". Some of my best friends are journalists. Hell, I'd be a journalist in a heartbeat if I could get steady work. (Anybody interested? Let me know.)

So I really don't want to get nasty about this, but the stuff that really ought to be making the papers these days is Oreskes' work. Nisbet and Pielke are only a start. We need to say not just that this correlation between what we believe about science and what we believe about politics is a fact, but also that it is a problem, and that it is a problem deliberately instigated and maintained.

All of which will probably prevent me from getting a job as a journalist, but I have to wonder why. It's true, after all.


John Fleck said...

Michael -

I love your blog! I'm just bad at blogroll maintenance. It's there now. :-)

On the why, I think Dan Sarewitz explains it nicely:


This is not a problem the news media can fix. When I write, as I regularly do, explaining the mainstream scientific position on climate change, I *always* get feedback from people who already have their partisan filters turned on, and who reject my explanation of the science, just as they have rejected the science itself.

A friend recently forwarded me a post from an internal discussion at a major research institution. The poster (who by definition must have at least a masters degree, and more likely a doctorate, in something, I know not what) wrote:

"Have you noticed in the media you see a LOT LESS headlines/news reports about “Global Warming”, having transitioned now to “Global Climate Change”? I think you’ll find in the near future that the media is scrambling to salvage their credibility in the face of the “tsunami” of evidence that’s coming out–but so far has very limited coverage–that’s contrary to all the hype that especially began with Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” and has been wildly embraced by media, governments, the IPCC, and especially scientists with grants to prove it exist."

This person has clearly seen the media do exactly what you would hope that the media do, and then has rejected it in the same way he or she has rejected the science itself.

This is why the media cannot fix this.

Michael Tobis said...

I will tempt the wrath of Rabbett by requoting Walter Lippman via "tidal":

Walter Lippman (wrote) "The present crisis of Western democracy is a crisis of journalism. Everywhere men and women are conscious that somehow they must deal with questions more intricate than any that church or school had prepared them to understand. Increasingly, they know that they cannot understand them if the facts are not quickly and steadily available. All the sharpest critics of democracy have alleged is true if there is no steady supply of trustworthy and relevant news. Incompetence and aimlessness, corruption and disloyalty, panic and ultimate disaster must come to any people denied an assured access to the facts."...

The "tsunami" is cherrypicked from an ocean of evidence as your referenced article explains.

What is not explained is the social source of that cherrypicking. Crazy implausible motivations are ascribed to the relevant scientific community; you'll see those metioned everywhere. Nowhere but in insiders' circles is the malign nature of the opposition examined.

I don't think that this will be sufficient. It's rather too late; the opposition now has its own true believers.

The NYTimes recently has a story about retired generals psing as independent commentators but delivering essentially a party line to journalists. That story needs more attention, too.

It's time the general public started thinking about why they believe what they believe, about who put them up to it. The fear of tackling this in the press is doing nobody any good.

Anna Haynes said...

A start would be the NY Times covering Oreskes' work.

They covered her wedding; surely her research is more important?

How about an online Q&A with the Times's science editor, sponsored by AGU or another scientific body? If he really doesn't think clearing up misconceptions of this magnitude is newsworthy, I'd like to ask and understand why.

(one step would be to get her invited to speak at TED - I've submitted her name, but it'd probably help if others did likewise.)

(though they might need to consider changing the E of TED from Entertainment to Elephant-in-the-room)

Anna Haynes said...

re John Fleck's
"When I write, as I regularly do, explaining the mainstream scientific position on climate change, I *always* get feedback from people who already have their partisan filters turned on, and who reject my explanation of the science"

So your paper is still operating on the "information deficit" model of public understanding. You're right, that won't work.

Oreskes "deficit model" site:scienceblogs.com
for more.

> "This is not a problem the news media can fix.""

If the news media hasn't made an effort to try, I wouldn't say it's time to give up yet.
Members of the general public that I talk to are unaware of the disinformation industry and its tobacco connections.

John Fleck said...

Anna -

Thanks, I'm familiar with the deficit model, and have largely modified my approach over the last five years to covering a number of issues as a result of the insight it offers (not just climate change).

Specifically, as a reporter for a publication focused on regional concerns, I have used an approach based on the literature on agenda setting. Rather than trying to cure the deficit with long pieces of science education, I instead write frequently and repetitively about the connection between climate change and drought and water supply. (I'm in the Southwestern U.S.) This will not cure the deficit of public understanding that so bothers Michael, but it does seem to have the effect of firming up in the public mind the vague notion that climate change would be a bad thing here.

I'm responding here in part to the evolving public discourse here in New Mexico, and I claim no credit for causation. But over the time I've been banging away at this issue on the front page of the newspaper, the link between climate change and the potential effects I describe has largely become conventional wisdom here among the elite audience who has to think about this issue. (Whether they're doing anything as a result is a separate issue, but there is a long list of problems that everyone agrees are problems for which our response is insufficient.)

But I think the notion that this problem will somehow be solved by the media exposing the disinformation of the Fred Seitz's of the world is naive. There's a whole second set of people who think what the media needs to do is expose the obvious disinformation campaign on the part of Al Gore. To the extent that we do expose Seitz, or don't "expose" Gore, they just write us off. That's the sort of filtering I'm talking about, and I'll never get past them. That is why I've taken the approach I have - by writing about drought, I am trying to approach climate change orthogonally, sidestepping the filters.

Michael Tobis said...

I don't doubt you're doing the right thing given your circumstances, John, but I don't find it acceptable that almost nobody in the MSM is willing to take this on.

I saw an expose on Robert Jastrow in the New Republic probably ten years or more ago. That's about it.

The capacity of organized misinformation campaigns to manipulate a significant sector of public opinion has become very impressive. Even if we somehow get out of climate change with our skins intact this is a very worrying phenomenon, and it seems to be some part of the press needs to step up to the plate.

Anonymous said...

Just a short comment to John Fleck, but it's a question if getting angry or rejecting feedback still should stop you from publishing factual and truthful news?

Of course not.

If the news is inconvenient, that shouldn't stop you from printing it, if it's true.

Besides the principle, there is also always a silent majority who don't send back those extremist comments. I've been involved in debates where the public is laymen, and it's important to recognize that. So if you try to take into account the angry and active commenters too much, it's actually the wrong audience.

So I'd say, bring on Oreskes and Tobis and the science - how would the public know otherwise?

John Fleck said...

gravityloss -

I absolutely agree that getting angry responses is no reason not to publish. If you think that is my response, you misunderstand. My point here is that those angry responses are evidence that those particular readers are not listening to what I say. See "deficit model". I still keep saying it, over and over. See "agenda setting". As for the evidence of what that silent middle audience who don't write back to me is thinking, see the polling data. There is good evidence, when you combine the polling data from people like Krosnick and the latest data from Max Boykoff on media coverage, that the silent middle does exactly what I describe in my piece - opinions hardening based on partisan filters.

That is why I think it's naive, Michael, to think great reporting on "disinformation" would not change anything.

For me to convince readers that what Marano is peddling is "disinformation," I need to first convince them that what Morano is saying is false. Given the "deficit model", they're never going to go deeply enough into the science to understand it's false. They're going to instead make a cognitive miserly decision to either believe Fleck or believe Morano. If they believe Morano and not me, then what he's peddling is not, in their view, disinformation. *I'm* the disinformation.

There is a naivete among many journalists that what we write ends up in people's heads the way we write it. (In fact, Anna's point is well taken here - most journalism is stuck in this "deficit model" thinking, not only on science.) My goal is to try to find a way to do journalism that is robust to the reality of what actually ends up in readers' brains. It's a hard problem.

Anonymous said...

I have a question...


The climate inactivists aren't talking about this "Heartland 500 list" fiasco. The National Post is completely silent on it. But what's even stranger is, even the "Global Warmism Biased" mainstream media isn't covering it. What's going on?

Perhaps Mr. Fleck can write a few articles about it?

= =


"So if you try to take into account the angry and active commenters too much, it's actually the wrong audience."

Right on. The real target audience, in my very very humble opinion, is the group of people who are still undecided about the AGW issue, those who are just misguided by the inactivist smokescreen -- but are still amenable to reason and facts. Focus on those. As the maxim goes, "Save the fittest."

Michael Tobis said...

John, Anna, I think there is a deficit, not about the science but about the social context. People simply do not know who has been representing themselves as the alternative branch of climate science, or why.

I thoroughly disagree that there is any justification for the silence of the press as a whole on this matter.

An explanation for the press behavior is easy enough: intimidation, circulation pressure, advertiser pressure, investor pressure. All of these people are likely to be members of the confused yet influential minority that has it all wrong. That explains why it would require courage to report this story. That's the form of courage that the press claims to espouse. Where is it?

The idea that the IPCC is an advocacy group and that the Heartland Institute is a science group essentially goes unchallenged. The idea that Mr. Gore is a wild-eyed radical rather than a plodding mid-range to rightwing pro-Wall Street neoliberal who thirty years ago would have been seen as closer to Nixon than to Humphrey is actively promoted.

This is not a level playing field. A level playing field would give equal time to Heartland as to, I don't know, the likes of Wendell Berry (who is after all a much more interesting and intelligent and honest sort of radical), and place IPCC WGI and comparable organizations firmly as the core, moderate, conservative definition of what is already known.

The US press (and to a lesser extent other English-speaking countries) have tilted matters absurdly out of kilter. Even so, you are accused by the see-no-evil extremists of not playing fair.

Those complaints will never go away, dude, so you might as well play fair.

Let me try this again. IPCC is not an extreme. IPCC is the consensus. Gore is not extreme. Gore is trying to find a way through the crisis that doesn't disrupt the American lifestyle or the corporate structure too much.

The Heartland Institute etc. forms one of two extremes. Playing fair would amount to giving equal weight to the two extremes.

That this has not been the case is scandalous. The best way to approach the matter now that the damage has been done is to examine how the extreme position gained so much credence in Republican and corporate circles.

I think the scientific community shares in the blame. But we are necessarily naive in such matters. A great deal of the failure is attributable to the press, who could and should have known better, and who, on the whole, owes us.

People deserve to know who is espousing these ideas. We don't make our minds up on facts. This has been the error of the scientific community. The facts are there for anyone who has six or seven years to spare and an aptitude for mathematics to follow. That will never be a working majority.

The question is whom to trust. People are lying about the motivations IPCC and the scientific community, and nobody is telling the truth about the motivations of those people.

Trust is being misplaced. People, including the presumably sincere if not especially simpatico Senator Inhofe, are being misled by an organized effort to misconsture the evidence. That is important. It is well-known among those of us who think about the problem a lot, and it's virtually unknown to the public. That is the issue.

I don't call you out on it personally, John. Probably the ABQ press is the wrong place to bring this out.

That said, it definitely strikes me as a failure of the press as a whole to rise to its responsibilities. So where the hell is Edward R Murrow when you need him?

Michael Tobis said...

re: Bi's point:

Just searched for "Heartland 500" on Google News. Indeed, no sign of any MSM attention to this.

This is just the opening y'all need.

Why the hell are you sitting on your hands?

Michael Tobis said...

Bi's blog points to an interesting mp3 from New Zealand radio.

The first half may mostly be of local interest, but the second segment, (after about 9 minutes) with BBC journalist Alex Kirby addresses some of these issues.

Anonymous said...

Looking at this post by Nisbet, it seems to me that there's incontrovertible proof that major media outlets give far too low of a priority to science and the environment (i.e. that they are not in fact operating on the "deficit" model). One can only imagine how low the numbers for climate change would be if that had been calculated separately.

Things are even worse than that since the influence of the broader "MSM" is no longer what it once was. The decline of the newspapers is often mentioned in this regard, but the impact of Republican FCC policies resulting in the gutting of broadcast media news operations has also been important, as has the creation of the right-wing infotainment ghetto exemplified by Fox News, Drudge and Rush Limbaugh.

Michael, I wanted to note that the analysis of all of this also needs to consider the organized polluter/resource extractor response, beginning in the '60s, to the rising concern about public health and the environment. IMHO the path taken by the public discourse about climate change was rather predictable given this context.

Anonymous said...

From a comment on that Nisbet post, there's an interesting new blog from a British journalism prof who has some interesting things to say about this and related subjects.

EliRabett said...

Lippman was one of the founders of the Village and in his view the role of the journalist was to define the window of acceptable discourse. YMMV