Every heretic is not a Galileo
Climate change sceptics rarely have a science background, but editors are still happy to air their views.Updated: Sep 02, 2012 21:25 IST
No one would want a novelist to perform brain surgery with her biro. No one would want a man with a PhD in political science to then write textbooks claiming that those misadventures are best medical practice.
Society understands the architecture of academia and knows there are relevant qualifications in different fields, and the media accepts the idea of specialisations and accords greater respect to those with greater expertise. With one exception: climate science.
When it comes to this academic discipline, it seems that if you are a specialist in public sector food-poisoning surveillance or possess a zoology doctorate on sexual selection in pheasants, editors will seek your contrarian views more avidly than if you have qualifications in climate science and a lifetime’s professional expertise. The press is further littered with climate "heretics" almost all of whom have academic backgrounds in history, literature, and the classics with a diploma in media studies. (All these examples are true.) One botanist trying to argue that glaciers were advancing took his data (described as simply false by the World Glacier Monitoring Service) from a former architect.
I recently watched a debate between a climate scientist and that pheasant-expert-turned-journalist. An audience member asked: "Please could you explain how it is that you are 'right' while all climate scientists are 'wrong'?" He could not. I almost felt sorry for him. I know that he has lectured publicly on scientific heresy. I think that he wants to be Galileo.
Contrary to the beliefs of some contrarians, academia welcomes the Galileos and encourages scepticism. It wants its hypotheses robustly tested precisely because it wants to pass those tests. Its stern system of peer review is judicious and conscientious.
One more thing is required of academia: to play its role right at the heart of democracy. Being adequately informed is a democratic duty, just as the vote is a democratic right. A misinformed electorate, voting without knowledge, is not a true democracy. Society needs the expertise of academics in the most important issues: climate science above all.
A democracy then needs the press to disseminate academia's knowledge and to do so with integrity. But the media's ambition to be entertaining and provocative too often overrules its respect for intellectual rigour.
Journalists cannot hold degrees in every subject they report on, but their job is not to claim they know the science better than the experts, or to practise that consummate deception of pretending there is controversy when the consensus is overwhelming. But a controversy is more fun, and the media — skedaddling towards infotainment — is losing sight of the core purpose of its activity: to be a truthful messenger, in this case between the world of academia and the public.
I would propose a system of certification for media articles in which there is a clear issue of social responsibility — a kitemark of quality assurance. It would be awarded by teams of academics, and be given to the article, not the journalist, recognising the facts, not the sometimes spurious credibility of being a 'personality'. It would be awarded when the article is accurate, using reliable sources and peer reviewed studies.
There already exists the Climate Science Rapid Response Team, which answers journalists' questions to help them achieve accuracy. The formality of certification is necessary, though, for the reader to know whether to trust an article. Accuracy must not only be achieved, but be seen to have been achieved.
The certification should be voluntary. I'm not against entertainment — if someone wants to read nonsense-mongers, let them — but I resent the appearance of parity between two articles on an issue as serious as climate change when one article is actually gibberish masked in pseudoscience and the other is well informed and accurate.
When the pheasant expert proffered his climate-heretic views in a hugely popular book, the New Scientist gave his work to a handful of specialists.
According to them, the author "completely ignores the mainstream scientific literature", "has a very poor understanding of the core issues", and "introduces confusion". He "cherry-picked evidence to form opinions which are unsupported by the bulk of scientific evidence". His work was "misleading", and an "ideological account".
So, no certification there, then. The author has fallen victim to the Galileo fallacy. Just because Galileo was a heretic doesn't make every heretic a Galileo.