NBC’s Climate Debate: Enabling the Deniers

On NBC’s Feb. 16 edition of Meet the Press a “debate” was broadcast between Bill Nye, the Science Guy, Marsha Blackburn, a Republican Rep. from Tennessee and David Gregory, the media enabler.

Figure 1.  By using split screen imagery the media presents the illusion that climate change is a debatable issue between Bill Nye, the Science Guy, and Marsha Blackburn, the Tennessee Rep.

Figure 1. By using split screen imagery the media presents the illusion that climate change is a debatable issue between Bill Nye, the Science Guy, and Marsha Blackburn, the Tennessee Rep.

On the one hand, its unfortunate that Bill Nye agreed to go on the program and acknowledge by his presence that global warming is a debatable issue.  Marsha Blackburn, who has no credentials in science (at least Nye is an engineer and science educator), teamed up with David Gregory to voice the side of denialism.  This irrational thinking is part of the tactic of “persistent distortion” of climate change.

The media supports this distortion by using their “split-screen” imaging to pretend that there are two equal and competing views on what ever issue they put up for debate.

The research on the “media wars” is quite compelling, and sheds light on why we continue to witness debates such as the Nye-Blackburn debate on climate change, and Nye-Ham debate on origins.

A few years ago, I reviewed Stephen Schneider’s research on climate change politics and climate change science as it is portrayed in the media.  His book, Science as a Contact Sport: Inside the Battle to Save the Earth’s Climate (public library), documents the history of how climate change has been distorted, and how to understand the media’s approach to enabling science denial.

Figure 2.  In the beginning there was the famous Keeling Curve showing the increase of CO2 in the Atmosphere.  Source: Science as a Contact Sport

Figure 2. In the beginning there was the famous Keeling Curve showing the increase of CO2 in the Atmosphere. Source: Science as a Contact Sport

Dr. Schneider was professor of biology at Stanford University, and internationally recognized for research, policy analysis and outreach in climate change.  In particular he focused on integrated assessment of the ecological and economic impacts of human-induced climate change.  He was senior participant in the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007.

As Dr. Schneider points out in his book, we have been warned that human technology could disturb the functioning of nature.  He reviews for us the Swedish chemist Arrhenius in 1896 who theorized that CO2 and H2O trapped the sun’s heat in the atmosphere, connecting CO2 the burning of fossil fuels.

And of course he cites Rachel Carson’s seminal book, Silent Spring, published in 1962, which showed the interconnectedness of nature and how human technology was ravaging nature.  As he points out, the Rachel Carson story is one example of how it is possible to take action to prevent the further threat caused by insecticide technologies.  But the most compelling work that Schneider points to is the atmospheric measurement of CO2 levels at Mauna Loa by David Keeling (Figure 2).  The resulting graph became known as the “Keeling curve” showing the steady increase of CO2 in the atmosphere, from 315 parts per million (ppm) in 1958 to 392 ppm in 2011.  There are many other scientists who delved into climate change during this time, including James Hansen, S. Ichtiaque Rasool, and Schneider.  You can read one of the best histories of the environmental movement to not only bring awareness to the climate change associated with increased CO2 levels in Schneider’s book.

Figure 2. Global annual mean temperatures since 1900.

Figure 3. Global annual mean temperatures since 1900.

Given this early work, and the research done by independent researchers around the world, and the most  research compiled by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, why do we continue to debate the question, Is Global Warming Real?  Or is the Earth warming up, and is this warming attributable to human engineering and technology?

Well, its obvious that the media thinks that the “debate on global warming goes on.” And in these debates, not only does the media enable the continued denial of the evidence for global warming, but the method used is called “balance journalism.”  The tactic that was identified by Schneider is the tactic of persistent distortion.  He puts it this way:

One of the key reasons for distortion in the media reports on climate change is the perceived need for “balance” in journalism.  In reporting political, legal, or other advocacy-dominated stories, it is appropriate for journalists to report both sides of an issue.  Got the Democratic view?  Better get the Republican.

In science, the situation is radically different.  There are rarely just two polar-opposite sides, but rather a spectrum of potential outcomes, which are often accompanied by a history of scientific assessment of the relative credibility of each possibility.

In the NBC debate, there is not another side of global warming.  There is only denial.  But in the debates that do occur, the denier uses the scientific notion of skepticism, that people in the field of science generally welcome.   But in our view, such as, in the Nye – Blackburn debate, there was only one skeptic.  The other was a denier.

Schneider helps us distinguish between skeptics and deniers.

When I give a public talk on aspects of climate change, I always take the time to explain the difference between climate deniers and skeptics.  All good scientists are skeptics—we should challenge everything.  I was a big-time climate skeptic, changing from cooling to warming and nuclear winter to nuclear fall when that is where the preponderance of available evidence led.  As more solid evidence of anthropogenic global warming accumulates, the numbers of such legitimate climate skeptics are declining.  Climate deniers, however, are not true skeptics, but simply ignore the preponderance of evidence presented.  Skeptics should question everything but not deny where the preponderance of evidence leads.  The latter is, at best, bad science, or, at worst, dishonesty.

Crap Detection

We need to heed Neil Postman’s classic essay “Bullshit and the Art of Crap Detection“which was presented at the National Convention of the Teachers of English in 1969.

Here is how Postman explained the title of his speech:

With a title like this, I think I ought to dispense with the rhetorical amenities and come straight to the point. For those of you who do not know, it may be worth saying that the phrase, “crap-detecting,” originated with Ernest Hemingway who when asked if there were one quality needed, above all others, to be a good writer, replied, “Yes, a built-in, shock-proof, crap detector.”

Is climate change real? Is the greenhouse effect based on fundamental science? To what extent are “debates” on TV news outlets using split screen technology peer review or rhetoric? Do large companies abuse the concept of peer review by using rhetoric to cast doubt on scientific findings?  We need to practice the Art of Crap Detection in these situations.

These are questions that should underscore student’s pursuit of an understanding of climate change, and the skepticism that has inverted the public’s view of global warming, the greenhouse effect, and the burning of carbon. For many years, large corporations, starting with the tobacco industry, have led the public and politicians down a path that leads to denial (of the science) that has been established by scientists through the publication and peer review process. Casting “doubt” on the “science,” has been a tactic used to put a wedge between real scientific information and the rhetoric of the deniers.

There is almost no accountability for the “skeptics.” They don’t publish in peer-reviewed journals, and they spend most of their time on media outlets giving their point of view, but with almost little data based on scientific evidence.

We need to call these deniers out, and tell them that we understand their tactic of persistent distortion.  You are not going to change their minds.  But at least you can call it when you see it.

What is your view?  Do you think the media enables the deniers of climate change and global warming?

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University.