07. April 2010 · 53 comments · Categories: politics

My exposé of why academics’ private emails sometimes seem cranky has gotten a lot of attention. Joe Romm posted it at ClimateProgress, where it generated many comments, many expressing thanks for saying what needed to be said. George Monbiot posted a comment, pointing out that for a journalist, FoI laws are sacred: a hard won concession that allows them to fight the secrecy that normally surrounds the political establishment. So there’s clearly some mutual incomprehension between the two cultures, academic and journalistic. For journalists, FoI is a vital weapon to root out corruption in a world where few people can be trusted. For scientists, FoI is a blunt instrument, unneeded in a world where honesty and trust are the community norms, and data is freely shared as much as is practically possible.

George expands this theme on his blog, and I appear to have shifted his perspective on the CRU emails, although perhaps not as far as I might have hoped. His thesis is that scientists and journalists have each formed a closed culture, leading each to be suspicious (and worse) of the other. Well, I think this is not strictly accurate. I don’t think either culture is walled in. In fact, I’m beginning to think I overstated the case in my original post: scientists are certainly not “walled in like an anchorite”. Pretty much every scientist I know will happily talk at length to anyone who shows an interest in their work, and will nearly always share data and code with anyone who is engaged in honest scientific work. For our own research into software quality, we have obtained source code, datasets, software bug histories, and extensive access for interviews in every climate modeling centre we have approached.

Unfortunately, scientists tend to be way too focussed (obsessed?) for most people’s taste, so lay people don’t generally want to talk to them in the first place. But scientists will accept into the community anyone who’s willing to work at it (after all most of us spend a lot of time training students), as long as they show the necessary commitment to the scientific process and the pursuit of truth. Traditional investigative journalism used to share these values too, but this tradition now seems to be another endangered species. The experience when scientists talk to journalists is usually more about the journalist seeking a sensationalist angle to sell a story, rather than a quest for understanding. And a reliance on false balance rather than weighing up the evidence.

So there is a bit of a gulf between the two cultures, but its not insurmountable, and there are plenty of examples of good science reporting to show that people regularly do bridge this gulf.

No, the real story is not the relationship between science and the media at all. It’s the story of how the media has been completely taken in by a third group, a third culture, consisting of ideologically-driven, pathological liars, who will say almost anything in order to score political points, and will smear anyone they regard as an opponent. Stern calls climate change the greatest ever failure of the free markets. I think that looking back, we may come to regard the last six months as the greatest ever failure of mass media. Or alternatively, the most successful disinformation campaign ever waged.

At the centre of this story are people like Marc Morano and Jim Inhofe. They haven’t a clue what science is; to them it’s just one more political viewpoint to attack. They live in a world of paranoid fantasies, where some secret cabal is supposedly trying to set up a world government to take away their freedoms. Never mind that every credible scientific body on the planet is warning about the wealth of evidence we now have about the risk of dangerous climate change. Never mind that the IPCC puts together one of the most thorough (and balanced!) state-of-the-art surveys ever undertaken in any scientific field. Never mind that the newest research suggests that these assessments are, if anything, underestimating the risk. No, these people don’t like the message, and so set out to attack the messengers with a smear campaign based on hounding individual scientists for years and years until they snap, and then spreading stories in the media about what happens when the scientists tell them to piss off.

Throughout all this, in underfunded labs, and under a barrage of attacks, scientists have done their job admirably. They chase down the uncertainties, and report honestly and accurately what they know. They doggedly compile assessment reports year after year to present the mass of evidence to anyone who cares to listen. It simply beggars belief that journalists could, in 2010, still be writing opinion pieces arguing that the scientists need to do a better job, that they are poor communicators, that we need more openness and more data sharing. That these themes dominate the reporting is a testament to how effective the disinformation campaign has been. The problem is not in the science, or with scientists at all, nor with a culture gap between science and the media. The problem is with this third group, the disinformers, who have completely dominated the framing of the story, and how honest journalists have been completely taken in by this framing.

How did they do it? Well, one crucial element of their success is their use of FoI laws. By taking the journalists’ most prized weapon, and wielding it against climate scientists, they achieved a whole bunch of successes all at once. They got journalists on their side, because journalists have difficulty believing that FoI laws could be used for anything other than good old-fashioned citizen democracy. They got the public on their side by appearing to be the citizens fighting the establishment. They set up the false impression that scientists have stuff to hide, by ignoring the vast quantities of open data in climate science, and focussing on the few that were tied up with commercial licence agreements. And they effected a denial of service attack by flooding a few target scientists with huge numbers of FoI requests. Add to this the regular hate mail and death threats that climate scientists receive, and you have a recipe for personal meltdowns. And the media lapped up the story about personal meltdowns, picked it up and ran with it, and never once asked whose framing they were buying into.

And the result is that, faced with one of the greatest challenges humanity has ever faced, the media got the story completely backwards. Few journalists and few scientists seem to have any conception of how this misinformation campaign works, how nasty these people are, and how dirty they play. They have completely owned the story for the last few months, with their framing of “scientists making mistakes” and “scientists distorting their data”. They’ve successfully portrayed the scientists as being at fault, when it is the scientists who are the victims of one of the nastiest public bullying campaigns ever conducted. History will have to judge how it compares to other such episodes (McCarthyism would make a fascinating comparator). And the stakes are high: at risk is our ability to make sensible policy choices and international agreements based on good scientific evidence, to ensure that our children and grandchildren can flourish as we do.

We’re fucking this up bigtime, and it’s not the scientists who are at fault.