How did science reporting get so detached from the underlying science?
By Holman W. Jenkins, Jr.
The Wall Street Journal
May 3, 2017
I’ll admit it: I would have found it fascinating to be party to the discussions earlier this year that led to oscillating headlines on the New York Times home page referring to the new EPA chief Scott Pruitt alternately as a “denier” or “skeptic.” At least it would have been fascinating for 20 minutes.
Ditto the hysterical discussions undoubtedly now arising from an anodyne piece of climate heterodoxy by the paper’s newest columnist, a former Journal colleague who shall remain nameless, in which he advises, somewhat obscurely, less “certainty” about “data.”
Whether or not this represents progress in how the U.S. media cover the climate debate, a trip down memory lane seems called for. In the 1980s, when climate alarms were first being widely sounded, reporters understood the speculative basis of computer models. We all said to ourselves: Well, in 30 years we’ll certainly have the data to know for sure which model forecasts are valid.
Thirty years later, the data haven’t answered the question. The 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, voice of climate orthodoxy, is cited for its claim, with 95% confidence, that humans are responsible for at least half the warming between 1951 and 2010.
Look closely. This is an estimate of the reliability of an estimate. It lacks the most important conjunction in science: “because”—as in “We believe X because of Y.”
Not that the IPCC fails to offer a “because” in footnotes. It turns out this estimate is largely an estimate of how much man-made warming should have taken place if the models used to forecast future warming are broadly correct.
The IPCC has a bad reputation among conservatives for some of its press-release activities, but the reports themselves are basically numbing testimonies to how seriously scientists take their work. “If our models are reliable, then X is true” is a perfectly valid scientific statement. Only leaving out the prefix, as the media routinely does, makes it deceptive.
We don’t know what the IPCC’s next assessment report, due in 2021, will say on this vital point, known as climate sensitivity. But in 2013 it widened the range of uncertainty, and in the direction of less warming. Its current estimate is now identical to that of the 1979 Charney Report. On the key question, then, there has been no progress in 38 years.
For journalists, the climate beat has been singularly unrewarding. It has consisted of waiting for an answer that doesn’t come. By now, thanks to retirements and the mortality tables, the beat’s originators are mostly gone. The job has passed into hands of reporters who don’t even bother to feign interest in science—who think the magic word “consensus” is all the support they need for any climate claim they care to make.
Take Inside Climate News, an online publication, lately accruing degraded journalism prizes, whose title echoes a successful series of specialist newsletters like Inside EPA and Inside the Pentagon that charge fancy prices for detailed, crunchy, reliable information about the U.S. government.
Inside Climate News might sound like it’s doing the same but it isn’t. Search its website and the term “climate sensitivity,” the central preoccupation of climate science, appears zero times. Any reporter who is truly curious about what scientists know and how they know it would not be working there. Asking such questions would only get him or her suspected of denialism.
But not even the EPA’s Mr. Pruitt or the New York Times’s newest recruit exhibits the ill grace to phrase the “so what” question.
“So what” is the most important question of all. So what if human activity is causing some measure of climate change if voters and politicians are unwilling to assume the costs (possibly hugely disproportionate to any benefit) of altering the outcome of the normal evolution of energy markets and energy technology.
Even liberals have noticed that climate advocacy has morphed into a religion, unwilling to deal honestly with uncertainty or questions of cost and benefit. Climate apoplexy, like many single-issue obsessions, is now a form of entertainment for exercised minorities, allowing them to vent personal qualities that in most contexts they would be required to suppress.
Whether apocryphal or even a joke, who did not delight in the story of “Zach,” the young Democratic staffer who supposedly stormed out of a post-election meeting after cursing the party’s incompetent elders because, thanks to Hillary Clinton’s defeat, “I’m going to die from climate change.”
For the record, Zach, an estimate recently touted by the Washington Post precisely because it was five or 10 times worse than previous estimates had this to say about the consequences of climate change. If unaddressed, they would reduce economic growth by one-fifth over the next 85 years.
In other words, under the worst scenario, Zach’s grandchildren’s world would be only nine times richer than ours today.
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