Denialist Agenda (Part 5): Who’s defending science?

Here is Part 5 of Clive Hamilton’s excellent series of articles on ABC unleashed:

The sustained assault on climate science, detailed in this series, spread from the loonier corners of the internet first into certain media outlets with an ideological axe to grind, and now into neutral news outlets too lazy or lacking in confidence to carry out some basic checking before reporting the same distortions.

There is no excuse for this as there are a number of websites with easy-to-read and up-to-date deconstructions of the lies and misrepresentations peddled by sceptics, including Deltoid in Australia and RealClimate in the United States.

But if in echoing denialist misrepresentations some journalists are naïve or too busy to check, others are willing accomplices. For several years The Australian newspaper has been the leading organ of climate denial in Australia.

The list of beat-ups is so long that blogger Tim Lambert keeps a catalogue of The Australian‘s war on science. It’s a kind of archive of journalistic misbehavior that could be used in courses on media ethics. Let’s consider a couple of them.

Earlier this month, The Australian decided it wanted to challenge Climate Change Minister Penny Wong’s “alarming predictions” about the effect of sea-level rise on Australia’s coasts. So to which authority did journalists Matthew Franklin and Lanai Vasek turn to repudiate decades of scientific research?

There he was, featured in a huge photograph on the front page under the headline “Wong wipeout doesn’t wash with locals”, a 53-year-old bronzed man named Lee who said he’d been swimming at Bondi for 30 years and “was adamant he had seen ‘no change’ to the coastline”. To augment his careful observations, Lee engaged in some projections too, declaring that there’s nothing suggesting sea-levels at Bondi will change in the future.

Brilliant; give him a job at Australia’s leading sea-level research outfit, the Antarctic Climate CRC in Hobart. There he could go head-to-head with Dr John Church, the world’s leading authority on sea-level rise. He chairs the World Climate Research Programme’s scientific committee on sea-level rise, was awarded the 2006 CSIRO’s Medal for Research Achievement, and in 2007 won the Eureka Prize for his work on the measurement of sea-level rise. Mere trifles compared to Lee’s common sense.

Franklin and Vasek did not ask Church or any other authority on sea-level rise what their research shows; instead, for “authority”, they quoted Bob Carter, one of Australia’s leading climate skeptics — a favourite of the Heartland Institute and a founding member of the Australian Environment Foundation, a front group set up by the Institute of Public Affairs and whose board has included Leon Ashby, now president of the Climate Sceptics Party.

The Australian‘s decision to pitch the opinion of a bloke with a tan against years of scientific research is a deliberate strategy of pandering to ignorance, of fuelling wishful thinking at the expense of science. As politics it’s clever; as journalism it’s risible.

Jamie Walker writes beat-ups aimed at discrediting scientific claims that the Great Barrier Reef is seriously threatened by global warming. In a story earlier this month (front page again) Walker accurately reported research by the Australian Institute of Marine Science to the effect that some reefs did not experience the expected bleaching last summer due to the influence of storms.

This became the headline “Report undercuts PM’s reef wipeout” because Walker made the ludicrous leap from the absence of bleaching for two years to a rosy future for the Reef into the indefinite future. One data point became that basis for rejecting a catalogue of research linking warming seas to coral damage.

Walker has form for bagging marine scientists. Last year a story by him headed “Scientists ‘crying wolf’ over coral” was based on the opinion of Peter Ridd, a physicist who is listed as the Science Coordinator for the Australian Environment Foundation front group.

For years, the opinion pages of The Australian have been turned over to every denialist who pops up anywhere around the world, with even the loopiest given free rein — Christopher Monckton, Andrey Illarionov, Ian Plimer, Bob Carter, David Evans, Jon Jenkins, Christopher Booker, David Bellamy, Brendan O’Neill, Frank Furedi and many more.

The last two, incidentally, are members of an anti-environmental Trotskyist splinter group called the Revolutionary Communist Party, showing that, for opinion editor Rebecca Weisser, it doesn’t matter whether you are left or right as long as you loathe environmentalism.

The man who oversees this travesty of reporting is editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell. Last year he was chuffed to receive the annual JN Pierce Award for Media Excellence for coverage of climate change policy from … wait for it … the Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association, the foremost lobby group for the oil and gas industries. APPEA lauded Mitchell because his paper’s

“in-depth coverage of a range of public policy issues affecting Australia’s upstream oil and gas industry has been of a consistently high standard. The reporting has been thoughtful, balanced, analytical, well researched and a big effort was made to ensure that all facets of the issue were presented.”

Astonishment robs me of words.

The Fox of print
Rupert Murdoch had a much-publicised change of heart in 2007 — thought to be stimulated by his son James — when he told his news editors that the planet should be given the benefit of the doubt and News Ltd would go carbon-neutral. There are now rumours that Murdoch has recanted and has rejoined the denialist camp.

Certainly that would be consistent with the virulent anti-science now being run by his media outlets — including the triumvirate of broadsheets based in London, New York and Sydney — led of course by Fox News. Murdoch’s son-in-law, Matthew Freud said he spoke for other family members when he last month launched a breath-taking attack on Fox News. He said he is “ashamed and sickened by [Fox boss] Roger Ailes’s horrendous and sustained disregard [for] journalistic standards”.

Despite its high-brow pretentions, is not The Australian — with the same commitment to an ideological agenda, the same disregard for the separation of news and comment, and the same stable of bumptious right-wing columnists — just the Fox News of print? No wonder the paper’s last reporter with any credibility on climate change, Lenore Taylor, has finally jumped ship.

Right now on campuses across Australia, The Australian is engaged in an aggressive marketing campaign to sign up university students, offering a year’s subscription for $20. It would be comforting to believe that university students are capable of seeing through the distortions and manipulation of news that defines the national broadsheet. But that is wishful thinking and to the extent that The Australian‘s discount sale succeeds we risk seeing a generation of graduates whose understanding of climate science is grossly distorted by the newspaper’s unrelenting war on science.

For years, scientific organisations have attempted to correct The Australian‘s misrepresentation of the science. So unresponsive is the newspaper that some, including the Bureau of Meteorology, have just given up.

Science’s defenders
The trashing of the reputation of climate science spills over into the other sciences, so how has the profession been fighting back? After all, once the fury dies down it is likely to be many years before public trust in science can be rebuilt to previous levels. It would be a grave mistake for scientific organisations to imagine that this will all blow over and the world will return to normal.

One would expect that the employers and professional organisations of the scientists who are daily attacked as frauds, cheats and political zealots would be in the public domain defending them against these charges. But for the most part, they have been missing in action or engaged in skirmishes far from the main action.

The CSIRO is nowhere to be seen. Instead it has put the lid on its climate scientists, barring them from presenting their work, preferring actively to promote the commercial interests of the coal industry. The CSIRO’s new Chief Executive, Dr Megan Clark (who transferred across from a senior executive position with BHP Billiton) should be out in public defending vigorously the quality of the organisation’s climate research.

The Bureau of Meteorology, whose work has often been traduced, has tried to respond but seems to have capitulated in the face of hopeless odds.

The Australian Academy of Science includes fellows whose work has been called fraudulent and dishonest and who are the target of abuse and threats. Their treatment should be a matter of the first concern, not least because the esteem in which all science is held is under attack.

At bottom, scientists are not good at public relations, and most scientists would much rather bury themselves in their labs than face a microphone. Once this did not matter, but in the face of a sustained assault on their credibility by people who have an intimate knowledge of how to use the media to manipulate the truth, their unworldliness is causing lasting damage.

As expected, the response to this series of articles on the state of climate change denial has been strong. The dogmatic and vitriolic nature of many of the comments on this blog and others confirms that denial is only nominally about the science and really about ideology and cultural identity.

There are two or three charges against me that keep doing the rounds and for the record I want to make brief replies.

1. Using the term “denier” does not equate climate denial with Holocaust denial. The term is used in other contexts, such as HIV denial, as a descriptor for those whose minds are closed to evidence that contradicts their opinion, yet who maintain their opposition to empirical reality is based on evidence. It is not the same as scepticism.

2. I have not equated climate and Holocaust denialism. The passage quoted to “show” that I have is my description of an argument others might use to equate the two (known as consequentialism), but which I explicitly reject.

3. I have not argued that we need to “suspend democracy” to tackle climate change. I have said some people believe this, but I don’t. I have said we must reinvigorate democracy.

4. Most bizarrely, some have said I should not be listened to because I have proposed shooting koalas for sport. This furphy came inevitably from Andrew Bolt. In an article titled “Cashing In On Koalas”, I argued the opposite by ridiculing the free-market approach to conservation using the well-known rhetorical technique of pushing an argument to its extreme, in this case charging American tourists to hunt koalas on Kangaroo Island. For those slow on the uptake I went as far as to propose some koalas be put in cages to be shot at short range by those with poor aim, and, for the really slow-witted, I concluded by saying Wilson Tuckey had given the scheme his blessing. Andrew, it’s called satire, you dope.

5. If a vote were held for the most vituperative blogger in Australia, Andrew Bolt would win hands down. Yet he has reacted to my criticisms of him with wounded outrage and by running around whingeing to everyone who will listen. We all met his type in the schoolyard, the bully who cries as soon as someone gives him one back. It’s truly pathetic.

6 thoughts on “Denialist Agenda (Part 5): Who’s defending science?

  1. Ove,
    Have you read through any of the submissions to the UK Parliamentary inquiry into the CRU email scandal? Here’s an interesting one from the Institute of Physics that might interest. I guess your friend Clive Hamilton would say they are part of the global conspiracy of bad bloggers funded by bad oil.

    Memorandum submitted by the Institute of Physics (CRU 39)

    The disclosure of climate data from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia.

    1. The Institute is concerned that, unless the disclosed e-mails are proved to be forgeries or adaptations, worrying implications arise for the integrity of scientific research in this field and for the credibility of the scientific method as practised in this context.

    2. The CRU e-mails as published on the internet provide prima facie evidence of determined and co-ordinated refusals to comply with honourable scientific traditions and freedom of information law. The principle that scientists should be willing to expose their ideas and results to independent testing and replication by others, which requires the open exchange of data, procedures and materials, is vital. The lack of compliance has been confirmed by the findings of the Information Commissioner. This extends well beyond the CRU itself – most of the e-mails were exchanged with researchers in a number of other international institutions who are also involved in the formulation of the IPCC’s conclusions on climate change.

    more at

    • And hence the need for conducting careful objective and transparent enquiry (as UEA is doing ) to either verify these claims and concerns, or to satisfy everyone that they are unfounded.

  2. MarcH you might yourself, rather than suggesting what Clive would say, look into the Institute of Physics and who they are (“a scientific charity devoted to increasing the practice, understanding and application of physics”). The submission looks like denier talking points, not any kind of independent dispassionate consideration of the evidence.

    These kinds of petitions/submissions have become highly developed as a denier tool. Don’t believe everything you read.

  3. Just read the mcintyre.pdf. It is full of holes that you could drive a bus through. You have to ask the question, why are we wasting valuable time responding to this sort of stuff time and time again?

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