Commentary Magazine

The Media Climate Never Changes

One thing liberal, or mainstream, news outlets do better than their conservative counterparts is making what lawyers call “an admission against interest.” You are more likely to find a story damaging to President Obama in a pro-Obama paper such as the New York Times (recent example: “White House Opens Door to Big Donors, and Lobbyists Slip In”) than you will find a story unsettling to the conservative cause in the conservative media. There are lots of reasons for this. Any story embarrassing to conservatives will be exhaustively covered by the liberal media anyway, so why waste the energy? It’s also a matter of temperament and self-definition. Conservative journalists and bloggers are seldom coy about their ideological inclinations. Even when aiming for fairness and accuracy, they don’t feel obliged to act as though they are evenhanded, to pursue the facts wherever they may lead, to let the chips fall where they may, to report without fear or favor, and so on. That’s what liberals pretend to do.

The occasional admission against interest is essential to the mainstream conceit. But the admission must not go too far, as I was reminded one day this spring when I awoke to a story on NPR about glaciers in the Himalayas. “Glaciers?” I thought. “What will those ‘Morning Edition’ editors think of next?” The story, to my surprise, was worth attending to. According to a report issued by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007, the glaciers were supposed to be well on their way to extinction by now. The climatologists told us they’d be gone entirely by 2035, causing untold havoc among millions of people who live along the Ganges and other glacier-fed rivers.

“But that claim was dead wrong,” NPR’s reporter said. He quoted a scientist from the University of Arizona on the IPCC report: “One page had the most egregious errors you could imagine, just one after another.” In fact, the reporter went on, glacier scientists “knew very little about the state and the fate of those glaciers, even the basics.” The glaciers might disappear; then again, they might not. They might even grow bigger. Global warming unlooses too many variables, the reporter said, to allow for a foolproof prediction. “There are so many uncertainties,” said the scientist, “that it’s really hard to predict the future of the glaciers.”

You can see the admission against interest here: The IPCC has shown itself to be unreliable, at least in a single instance, despite serving as an essential source for the mainstream’s global-warming alarmism. (The IPCC shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore in 2007, and you can’t wade much deeper into the mainstream than that.) But the reporter didn’t pursue the concession to the point where it undermines a more essential mainstream interest: the insistence that global warming is scientifically indisputable, is caused by man, and requires massive centrally mandated adjustments in the industrial economy and the patterns of our everyday life. And sure enough, by the end of the story, the NPR reporter had returned to safer ground.

“One of the biggest unknowns is about human nature rather than ice,” he said in his kicker. “What actions will people and governments take to slow global warming in the coming decades?” Admission contained. Interest protected. Drastic action remains urgent.

The story could have more appropriately run to an opposite conclusion, of course. It might have been a cautionary tale about the limits of scientific certainty as a basis for radical changes in public policy. “Having admitted their ignorance of a single system of glaciers,” the reporter might have said, “how long will it be until scientists and governments admit they don’t know enough about the climate of the entire planet to predict the severity of global warming?” For 20 years now, melting glaciers and icecaps have been essential evidence that climate change will lead to catastrophe. Four years ago, NPR listeners learned that the melting in the Himalayan glaciers would lead to “water scarcity and mass migrations,” which would in turn touch off “dreadful violence.” Back then the Times noted that Himalayan melting “underscored the devastating effects of coal-burning and greenhouse gas emissions.” Science magazine said the globally warmed glaciers threatened “the food security of an estimated 60 million people” in the Indus Valley. (I like the estimated.)

Mainstreamers offered these conclusions with the bulletproof confidence that is their hallmark. Any dissenters were mercilessly chastised. In late 2009, when India’s environment minister disputed the Himalayan melting, the chairman of the IPCC accused him of practicing “schoolboy science” and even “voodoo science”—juvenile and superstitious all at once.

A few months later, the claim about Himalayan glaciers was debunked when an enterprising scientist tried to trace its source, which turned out to be a magazine interview given by another climatologist a decade earlier. Defenders of the report first said the mistake was a simple matter of transposition: The glaciers wouldn’t disappear until the year 2350! Or was it 2530? In the end the climatologist said his prediction had been “taken out of context.”

Ah, yes. Context. The important point, the Times declared in an editorial, was that it was a “trivial mistake.”

What a lifecycle for a single assertion! It went from devastating fact (when it was thought to be true) to trivial mistake (when it was shown to be false). What never changed in this decline from scientific truth to silly error was the tone of utter certainty. No matter what was going on with those big blocks of ice, the threat of climate change was large and immediate. Even someone who, like me, assumes that the earth is getting warmer and that man is responsible for a large part of the increase in temperature, can’t blame the majority of Americans whose faith in the “fact” of climate change, according to polls, has been in steady decline.

In making such judgments, laymen don’t rely on hard evidence but on subtler and more intuitive observations. After all, if we knew enough about climate to weigh scientific claims, we’d all be eligible as climatologists for many large grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. But if laymen can’t assess the science, we can assess the scientists. This is why the Climategate scandal of 2009 and 2010 was a watershed event, despite its stupid name. As you’ll recall, a tranche of confidential emails between climate scientists at the University of East Anglia—leaked by someone whom liberals would normally call a whistleblower and conservatives would normally consider a thief—showed multiple instances of bad faith and professional dereliction: concealing data from rival scientists, bullying dissenters, underplaying doubt and overstating consensus, and intimidating editors of peer-reviewed journals to prevent the publication of heterodox research. Not a fun bunch out there at East Anglia.

Mainstreamers reacted to Climategate with another admission against interest: Some climatologists behave unprofessionally. And yet they still asserted that the overwhelming evidence for the coming cataclysm was untouched by their chicanery. The mainstreamers may have been right—I don’t know—but they were missing the point. The British journalist George Monbiot, a prominent global-warming publicist, got closer to the truth. “I’m dismayed and deeply shaken by them,” he said of the emails. “I was too trusting of some of those who provided the evidence I championed. I would have been a better journalist if I had investigated their claims more closely.”

If it comes down to a choice between trust or investigation, nearly all of us have to rely on trust. In a new and hybrid discipline like climatology—a field that claims to combine the infinite complexities of atmospheric science, physics, biology, botany, geology, oceanography, mathematics, and statistics—journalists are laymen, too. Even with further investigation, Monbiot finally would have been forced to base his judgment on the people who provided the evidence rather than the evidence itself. Nothing wrong with that: We are, all of us, constantly outsourcing our understanding of the world to authorities we consider trustworthy, from theologians to podiatrists. It will take more than a few carefully hedged admissions against interest before the public changes sides in the global-warming game of Who Do You Trust? So far the answer is, Not the press.

About the Author

Andrew Ferguson is the author, most recently, of Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College, now in paperback. He wrote for us in this space last month about Game Change.

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