One can certainly debate how much the spread of misinformation on the science of global warming has hurt efforts to develop rational policy responses to climate change. Maybe the deep cultural issues on either side of the divide would always doom the discussion, as the work on cultural cognition argues. Or maybe the unscientific falsehoods spread by those opposing recognition of the problem have had a larger influence in locking up the political process over the issue. But surely we can all agree that misleading or sloppily written articles don’t help the situation.
Which brings me to an unfortunate post on Andy Revkin’s widely read Dot Earth blog this past Sunday, concerning “A Map of Organized Climate Change Denial.” As Keith Kloor of Collide-a-Scape remarked (in a post more supportive of Andy’s than I can be):
So two antagonists representing opposite ends of this debate fault Revkin for his interpretation of the chart. Make of that what you will.
What I make of it is that in an almost reflexive effort to seem journalistically objective and above the fray, Andy unnecessarily created a false equivalence between many of the people and organizations on either side of the climate dispute. As such, he’s stumbled into exactly the kind of bad “he said, she said” coverage of the topic that most science journalists and critics such as Jay Rosen have come to recognize as deficient. (Andy has seemed to speak out against it himself, too, so it’s all the more disappointing that he’s committed it here.)
Andy was writing about a diagram created by sociologists Riley E. Dunlap and Aaron M. McCright for their chapter, “Organized Climate Change Denial,” in The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society. There’s no mistaking that Dunlap and McCright see real denialism at work, and that it has been harmful to policymaking:
The actions of those who consistently seek to deny the seriousness of climate change make the terms “denial” and “denier” more accurate than “skepticism” and “skeptic,” particularly since all scientists tend to be skeptics.
Their illustration then shows interplay among the fossil fuel industry, corporate America, conservative foundations and think tanks, the media, astroturf groups and so on for promoting various denialist messages.
Agree with their view or disagree with it as you will. Very reasonably, Andy warns:
But it’s important to keep in mind that not everyone skeptical of worst-case predictions of human-driven climate disruption, or everyone opposed to certain climate policies, is part of this apparatus.
I had misgivings, though, about what followed:
And there’s plenty to chart on the other edge of the climate debate — those groups and outlets pursuing a traditional pollution-style approach to greenhouse gases.
On the one hand, yes, of course, a variety of entities—scientific organizations, NGOs, think tanks and so on, many of them with expressly liberal leanings—do work to put out messages about prioritizing CO2 reductions. Characterize that, too, as a machine if you like.
But what does the comparison actually mean? If it’s only pointing out that opposition exists, that there are people and organizations on the other side of the debate, then it’s so obvious as to be scarcely worth saying. Dunlap and McCright made the point that they were showing the workings of a disinformation propaganda machine, one that misrepresented science with a fixed goal of preventing policies contrary to corporate and rightwing interests. Was Andy implying that those on the climate activism side were an equivalent kind of propaganda machine, even though the case for the reality and gravity of climate change is much better validated by the scientific literature? It seemed unlikely, but he seemed to let his readers think so. (And, goodness, where is the equally important caveat that not everyone on the climate activism side is part of that machine?)
[Added (10:25 a.m.): It's perhaps also worth noting that the Matt Nisbet paper to which Andy linked documents the funding and coordination of climate activist efforts, but unless I missed something, it doesn't make a case for those efforts misrepresenting the science. The simple existence of an organized effort on that side is obvious, however, so I don't see what it accomplishes if that's the full extent of Andy's meaning.]
I chalked it up to an innocent ambiguity. On Monday, though, I noticed an update to Andy’s post:
[Oct. 3, 9:00 p.m. | Updated As it happens, the blogger behind Australian Climate Madness has posted a skeptics' map of "the climate alarmism machine." I think some, though by no means all, aspects of the map are not bad.]
Follow the link and take a look at that diagram. It apes the design of what Dunlap and McCright drew but whereas they only listed examples of the organizations that fit into each of the categories they named, the blogger insults them in keeping with his own biases.
Andy, just which aspects of this do you see as “not bad”?
National Governments Scientifically illiterate, and threatened by a rampant Green movement, national governments continue to pour billions of dollars into climate change research to appease the eco-extremists
United Nations Desire for world government and more regulation and power drives urge to control CO2 and therefore economic growth. Political motives for action outweigh any genuine scientific imperative
IPCC Established solely to find evidence of a pre-conceived conclusion that CO2 is a dangerous pollutant, its terms of reference require it to focus on human-induced climate change, with inevitable results
Academic research Drunk on a continual supply of research funding from governments, climate change research produces more and more apocalyptic predictions, which therefore attract yet more research funding from scientifically illiterate governments. Normal standards of scientific integrity disappear (Climategate) in an attempt to ensure nothing distracts from the constant flow of hysterical projections, and therefore secure further funding.
Corporates and fossil fuel industry Desperate to cash in on the “green economy” and appear politically correct at the same time, corporates allocate billions of dollars to pointless renewable energy schemes on the promise of enormous government subsidies, knowing that if they fail, someone else will pick up the bill
Environmental Advocacy Groups Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, WWF, Say Yes, GetUp! and other exreme-green [sic] and extreme-left political advocacy groups. Badger governments and individuals to take futile mitigation action on climate change, based on suspect science, in order to achieve their stated goals of global wealth redistribution and “social justice” at the expense of Western economic growth and prosperity.
I wouldn’t think that Andy endorses any of those descriptions, but his own presentation leaves readers free to guess whether he does. It seems most likely that his intention was to acknowledge the appearance of the “climate denial machine” diagram without seeming to take the side of the activists. But that unwillingness to engage meaningfully with the information and arguments isn’t doing his readers—or, heaven forbid, the truth—any favors.
Update (10/8): Andy has been on the jump this week and hasn’t had time to respond to this post, but in a postscript to his piece he mentions that he’ll try to respond to it soon, which I appreciate. He asks, though, if I missed the part where he characterized the Australian’s map as an “overdrawn, overblown caricature of reality.”
Nope, I didn’t. I just didn’t find it to be a particularly helpful caveat. In fact, it just reproduces in miniature the entire problem with false equivalence. Without any additional detail, readers can’t know which parts are caricatures and which points are more valid. In the contentious context of the climate debates, that practically invites readers to believe what they want. What makes false equivalence disreputable as commentary is that it allows journalists to surround themselves with an unearned aura of knowing criticism: from their perch above the contest, they can seem wiser than any of those silly people below who actually engage with the arguments.
One can picture Andy peering sagely over his glasses at his audience, nodding in judgment of these maps, but he’s not actually saying anything. It’s a shame because Andy is better than that.
Revkin’s False Equivalence on Climate Message Machines by Retort, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.