Cracks in the Slate

[LATE UPDATE: 8/14/08 - CJR responds to Rosenbaum, hitting him on many of the same points I did, notably:

And honestly, journalists have a responsibility to report that the vast majority of the scientific community supports the most fundamental conclusion of climate science — that anthropogenic greenhouse gases are the primary cause of global warming. This should be noted if the question at hand is at simple that. Many well-trained scientists and science journalists agree that to do otherwise leads to “balance as bias.”

and

...Rosenbaum repeatedly accuses CJR of blindly defending “green” journalists and the new, “green religion” of environmentalism. He might note that the only time Russell used the word “green” outside of “greenhouse gas” in her piece was negatively, as in “greenwashing” and “green fatigue.” Go figure.

and

Journalism is not about quashing dissent, but nor is it about providing “equal time” to every Tom, Dick, and Contrary Theory simply because they exist.

The entire CJR response is here.]

Over at Dot Earth, Andy Revkin has a response to a Slate column by Ron Rosenbaum which Andy feels misrepresents not only what he does at Dot Earth, but the responsibility journalists have in reporting on science where there may be a perception of divided opinion. Andy can certainly stand up for himself (and does so exceedingly well), but the tone and phrasing of some of Rosenbaum’s comments led me over to Slate to read the column in full. Here are my thoughts:

The Columbia Journalism Review’s Division Over Dissent: Is global warming now beyond debate?

When does dissent become Untruth and lose the rights and respect due to “legitimate dissent”? Who decides—and how—what dissent deserves to be heard and what doesn’t? When do journalists have to “protect” readers from Untruth masking itself as dissent or skepticism?

Even if one didn’t have the heads up from Andy about the way this turns out, anyone familiar with Rosenbaum will have a pretty good inclination. Controversy is his bread and butter. He has written two books dealing explicitly with controversy and had a column called “The Edgy Enthusiast” that frequently dealt with controversy and dissent. While it may not be a foregone conclusion that he will come out in favor of an expansive tolerance for dissent, it would be a smart bet. This is less interesting to me, however, than the manner in which he handles the argument. Will Rosenbaum apply any sort of reasonableness standard to what qualifies as newsworthy dissent? If not, is Rosenbaum arguing the mantra of “report the controversy” on all subjects?

I found myself thinking about this when I came across an unexpected disjunction in the July/August issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. The issue leads off with a strong, sharply worded editorial called “The Dissent Deficit.” (It’s not online, but it should be.) In it, the magazine, a publication of the Columbia School of Journalism—and thus a semi-official upholder of standards in the semi-official profession of journalism—argues clearly and unequivocally that allowing dissent to be heard and understood is part of a journalist’s mission.

It’s not online? Really? What’s this then? The first online comment on the CJR editorial was posted at 2:20pm on August 7th. Rosenbaum’s piece was published over a full day later, at 6:09pm on August 8th. If this is the level of effort Rosenbaum puts into the rest of the column, it probably isn’t worth the time to debunk it, but on we press. [Going forward, it's useful to read the CJR editorial (it's quite short) in order to see exactly how Rosenbaum is framing his argument, and whether or not the editorial supports it.]

The editorial contends that doing so sometimes requires looking beyond the majority consensus as defined by the media on the basis of a few sound bites and paying extra attention to dissenting views, because they often present important challenges to conventional wisdom on urgent issues that deserve a hearing.

Certainly nothing objectionable there, and this is indeed what the editorial contends.

The editorial deplores the way that journalism has lately been failing in this mission: “Rather than engage speech that strays too far from the dangerously narrow borders of our public discourse, the gatekeepers of that discourse—our mass media—tend to effectively shout it down, marginalize it, or ignore it.”

No complaints here either. The editorial and Rosenbaum go on to lament the media reaction to Jeremiah Wright’s comments about 9/11, which aren’t really of interest for this post.

The CJR editorial encourages journalists not to marginalize dissenters, however unpopular or out of step. Implicit are the notions that today’s dissenters can become tomorrow’s majority, that our nation was founded on dissent, that the Bill of Rights (and especially the First Amendment) was written by dissenters, for dissenters. That the journalistic profession deserves what respect it retains not for being the stenographers of the Official Truth but for conveying dissent and debate.

Also fair enough. However, the editorial does not refer to “dissent” in general, but rather:

meaningful dissent—dissent that is welcomed, even encouraged, as a healthy part of the democratic process; dissent that is taken seriously, debated, and considered

An important distinction. Reading the CJR editorial, it is difficult to see how it could be interpreted as, for example, encouraging journalists to credulously include “dissent” from Holocaust deniers in articles written about World War II, or flat-earthers on cosmology or geography stories. Dissent, in their own words, should be meaningful.

It was troubling, then, to find, in an article in the very same issue of CJR, an argument that seems to me to unmistakably marginalize certain kinds of dissent.

This is the transition into reporting on climate change. The CJR piece referred to is here. It’s actually a fairly encouraging article to read in terms of American journalism covering climate change, given the rather poor record to date.

Christine Russell provides some (to this audience at least) common sense suggestions on writing a climate change-related story like, “It is a good rule of thumb to avoid attributing any specific weather event directly to climate change” and, “seek comments from respected scientific experts who have published in major journals in the field, not the experts offered by various policy think tanks and interest groups with axes to grind.”

Hardly what I would consider controversial or objectionable, and a welcome change to much of what has passed for reporting in the past.

The contention appears in an article called, with deceptive blandness, “Climate Change: What’s Next?” The article doesn’t present itself as a marginalizer of dissent. It rather presents itself as a guide for “green journalists” on what aspects of climate change should be covered now that the Truth about “global warming”—whether it’s real, and whether it’s mainly caused by humans—is known.

Here Rosenbaum engages in outright dishonesty. The Russell article in no way “presents itself as a guide for ‘green journalists’”- and in fact (other than references to greenhouse gases and Greenland), the only times the word ‘green’ appears in the article relate to “greenwashing”, “green fatigue”, and TIME magazine’s now infamous Iwo Jima cover, which Russell notes seems to “cross the line into environmental cheerleading”- not exactly a positive take on “green”. Russell’s article is addressed to journalists, period. Rosenbaum’s conflation of “green” with climate reporting is not only unsupported by the evidence, it’s a rhetorical device we’ve seen before, where the science and facts relating to climate change are deliberately framed as part of an environmental agenda.

About two-thirds of the story offers tips and warnings like “watch out for techno-optimism.” Alas, the author doesn’t inspire confidence that she takes her own warnings to heart. The very first paragraph of her story contains a classic of credulous “techno-optimism”:

… a decade from now, Abu Dhabi hopes to have the first city in the world with zero carbon emissions. In a windswept stretch of desert, developers plan to build Masdar city, a livable environment for fifty thousand people that relies entirely on solar power and other renewable energy.

All that’s missing from the breathless, real-estate-brochure prose is a plug for the 24-hour health club and the concierge service for condo owners.

This is puzzling, to say the least. Russell cites the zero emissions city (or to be more precise, Joe Pacla’s coverage of it for NPR’s Climate Connections) as but one example of new climate-related journalism taking place. She isn’t stating that Abu Dhabi will be successful, or even that such a city is good or bad- this is sheer projection on Rosenbaum’s part, and a cheap shot at that. [I've actually listened to that segment, and NPR is certainly not guilty of techno-optimism in it, quite the opposite really. All in all, a decent piece of journalism.]

But, the article tells us, the danger of “techno-optimism” pales before the perils of handling dissent.

The first problem in the evaluation of what dissent should be heard is how certain we are about the truth. If we know the truth, why allow dissent from it into journalism? But who decides when we’ve reached that point of certainty? In any case, as the author’s Abu Dhabi effusion suggests, there’s no lack of certainty about what the Official Truth is in her mind:

Emphasis mine. Again, this is not only unwarranted by what Russell actually writes, it’s petty.

After several years of stumbling, mainstream science and environmental coverage has generally adopted the scientific consensus that increases in heat-trapping emissions from burning fossil fuels and tropical deforestation are changing the planet’s climate, causing adverse effects even more rapidly than had been predicted.

She’s correct in saying that this is the consensus, that most journalists now accept what’s known as the “anthropogenic theory” of global warming: that it is our carbon footprint that is the key cause of global warming, rather than—as a few scientists still argue—changes in solar activity, slight changes in the tilt of the earth’s axis, the kinds of climate change that the earth constantly experienced long before man lit the first coal-burning plant.

Note how Rosenbaum frames the issue- as a consensus of “most journalists now” vs. (a few) “scientists”; as “anthropogenic theory” in scare quotes immediately reduced to environmentalist terminology (“our carbon footprint”) vs. “the kinds of climate change that the earth constantly experienced long before man lit the first coal-burning plant”. Is this what Rosenbaum considers to be accurate or honest journalism? If so, no wonder Russell’s article seems biased to him.

But here lies danger, “a danger that the subtleties of the science, and its uncertainty, might be missed by reporters unfamiliar with the territory,” especially when confronted with “studies that contradict one another.” Faced with conflicting studies, she tells us, “scientists look for consistency among several reports before concluding something is true.” This is, frankly, a misunderstanding or misstating of the way science works.

Granted, Russell could have phrased it differently (I would say “best explanation” rather than “true”), but on issues relating to climate, like Arctic sea ice, for example, there may be conflicting studies but a consistent finding that bridges across them- the ice is decreasing, an ice-free Arctic sea is looking increasingly likely over the next few decades, etc. Looking at the broad agreement rather than specific instances of uncertainty or disagreement on tangential points is generally how consensus is established.

She seems to be confusing consensus among scientists and scientific truth. They are two different things.

Actually, it seemed to me that she was offering advice to journalists not to mistake disagreement on details and side issues with reversals of scientific opinion. Here is the passage Rosenbaum is commenting on, in its entirety:

But the devil is in the details. New findings on why, where, how fast, and with what impact climate change might occur will take time to assess, and there is a danger that the subtleties of the science, and its uncertainty, might be missed by reporters unfamiliar with the territory. The process of science often involves studies that contradict one another along the way; scientists look for consistency among several reports before concluding that something is true. Journalists should avoid “yo-yo” coverage with each new study and try to put the latest findings in context.

Russell is recommending nothing more than what Andy Revkin has described as avoiding journalistic “whiplash”- and sensibly so. There is a tendency among journalists and the media to portray science as a series of paradigm-breaking revolutions, when in fact these events are the exception rather than the rule, and don’t occur because of minor discrepancies from study to study. This is a mythos that Rosenbaum himself apparently has convinced himself of, which explains his objection to Russell’s common sense advice:

The history of science repeatedly shows a “consensus” being overturned by an unexpected truth that dissents from the consensus. Scientific truth has continued to evolve, often in unexpected ways, and scientific consensus always remains “falsifiable,” to use Karl Popper’s phrase, one any science reporter should be familiar with.

This seems to be a rather muddled interpretation of Popper’s philosophy of science. Popper argued for falsifiability, but also seemed to believe that the collective judgment (or consensus) of scientists is the ultimate arbiter of what is falsifiable. That doesn’t mean scientific consensus itself is falsifiable- indeed all consensus is is the agreement that X is the best explanation of Y for now. It seems as though Rosenbaum is confusing the notion that consensus isn’t “fact” with falsifiability, but I’m not sure why. Scientific consensus emerges from the accumulation of evidence, which presumably is subjected to continual observation and testing. As the accumulation of evidence changes, so will the consensus, but I’m not quite sure how one would “falsify” consensus directly.

All the more reason for reporting on scientific dissent, one would think. Yet when I read her description of how science proceeds, it seems to me she is suggesting science proceeds by a vote: Whoever who has the greatest number of consistent papers—papers that agree with him or her—”wins.” As in, has the Truth.

This is a long way to go just to misread her statement cautioning journalists to avoid the “whiplash” effect of reporting each new study as a revolution or evolution of consensus. I think this says more about Rosenbaum’s understanding of science than Russell’s.

In fact, the history of science frequently demonstrates that science proceeds when contradictory—dissenting—studies provoke more studies, encourage rethinking rather than being marginalized by “the consensus” or the “consistency” of previous reports.

Eh. Not all dissent is equal. Science doesn’t progress when I assert that the moon is made of green cheese and demand that those that support the consensus that it isn’t prove me wrong. Likewise, it isn’t marginalization for journalists to ignore claims that the Earth is warming because it is expanding.

Indeed, the century’s foremost historian of science, Thomas Kuhn, believed, as even “green” reporters should know, that science often proceeds by major unexpected shifts: Just when an old consensus congealed, new dissenting, contradictory reports heralded a “paradigm shift” that often ended up tossing the old “consensus” into the junk bin.

Note the repetition of the dismissive use of “green”, and Rosenbaum’s condescending assertion that “even [they] should know”. And does science “often” proceed by major unexpected shifts? Does Kuhn even believe that? Didn’t Kuhn argue that paradigm shifts should be rather rare and difficultly earned?

If it hadn’t been for the lone dissenting voice of that crazy guy in the Swiss patent office with his papers on “relativity,” we still might believe the “consensus” that Newtonian mechanics explained a deterministic universe. And what about Ignaz Semmelweis and his lone crusade against the “consensus” that doctors need not wash their hands before going from an infected to an uninfected patient? Or the nutty counterintuitive dissenting idea of vaccination? The consensus was wrong. In fact, science proceeds by overturning consensus.

Newtonian physics do not simply cease to be useful because of relativity, nor does relativity because of quantum mechanics. This is the same bizarre logic that Charles Krauthammer was rightly ridiculed for. Ignaz Semmelweis was hardly a “lone” crusader for hygiene throughout history, and his ideas in many ways were not actually scientifically sound and in fact were later disproven by germ theory. What counterintuitive idea of vaccination? Inoculation was practiced for hundreds if not thousands of years before it was “discovered” by Western medicine, and indeed vaccination is a classic example of the false science-as-revolution Mythos. Unless of course Rosenbaum is referring to the antivax-Autism nutters. [Actually, vaccination is a perfect example of why all "dissent" whether it is meaningful or not shouldn't be given equal time. Children's lives are at stake because of it.]

Sometimes the consensus proves to be long-lasting, but in science, any consensus, even the new consensus that formed around relativity, is subject to the challenges of Popper’s “falsifiability.” But even if—or because—not all truths in science are final, argument about what the truth is, and competition among competing ideas, often helps us to get closer to it.

Science is the best current explanation of the observed evidence, and is not “true” or “proven” in the sense that law or maths deal with- this is elementary. It does NOT follow that any and all dissenting arguments should be given equal weight scientifically, and it certainly does not follow that journalists should report them as such.

But our CJR author appears to believe that the green consensus, the anthropogenic theory of global warming, has some special need to be protected from doubters and dissenters, and that reporters who don’t do their job to insulate it are not being “helpful.” When faced with dissent from the sacrosanct green consensus, the author, as we’ll see, argues that the “helpful” reporter must always show the dissenters are wrong if they are to be given any attention at all.

Again, the constant repetition of “green”, the immediate conflation of environmentalist descriptors with the science, the condescending tone. Is Rosenbaum saying that journalists do not have a duty to discriminate between fringe and mainstream science? For all topics?

This was the contention that stunned me—that reporters must protect us from dissent—especially in light of the CJR editorial deploring the “dangerously narrow borders of our public discourse.”

Public discourse- in the case of the CJR editorial- was about having an honest dialog about cultural taboos (Did we “cause” 9/11? Is black liberation theology mainstream?) and the homogenization of mainstream media, not about giving equal time to those that reject mainstream science or medicine.

The contention that reporters must be “helpful” in protecting us from dissent is best understood in the context of the “no last word” anecdote in which the author tells us of the way your loyal green reporter must manage conflicting reports.

He sure loves to hit that “green” button, doesn’t he? Remember, there is nothing in the Russell piece that warrants that. It is pure invention on Rosenbaum’s part. Why does he continue to repeat over and over again?

She tells the story of a report that indicated the rest of the century would bring fewer hurricanes. It was important to her that “experienced” green journalists were able to cite other reports that there would be “more and more powerful hurricanes.” (Italics hers.)

This is simply an example of Russell illustrating how experienced journalists (not “green journalists”) avoided the “whiplash” effect.

She praises a reporter who concludes his story “with a scientist’s caveat”: “We don’t regard this [new, fewer-hurricane report] as the last word on this topic.”

Same.

So, “no last word” is the way to go. Except when it isn’t.

What? Russell doesn’t actually suggest, articulate, or otherwise lay out any sort of “no last word” strategy or guideline. I would assume that it is implicitly understood by most any journalist that by the very nature of reporting it is extremely unlikely that they are conveying the “last word” on anything. And note that Russell herself wasn’t the person using the phrase “isn’t the last word” in the first place- the scientist being interviewed was.

We learn this as the CJR writer slaps the wrist of a local TV station for allowing “skeptics” to be heard without someone representing the consensus being given the last word.

How is a scientist stating that a new study isn’t regarded as definitive at all related to this? This is a huge leap, and a twisting of the phrase “last word” from “not definitive” to “gets to argue unchallenged”.

“Last year,” she writes, “a meteorologist at CBS’s Chicago station did a special report that featured local scientists discussing the hazards of global warming in one segment, well-known national skeptics in another, and ended with a cop-out: ‘What is the truth about global warming? … It depends on who you talk to.’ ” In other words, no last word.

If Rosenbaum actually read Russell’s article it is difficult to see how he can justify trying to beat this anecdote into his “no last word” frame when it clearly relates to Russell’s advice to speak with experts rather than “skeptics” in the employ for think tank front groups with axes to grind.

Bad CBS affiliate, bad! “Not helpful, and not good reporting” she tells us. “The he-said, she-said reporting just won’t do.”

And indeed, the “he said, she said” style of reporting creates a false impression of scientific debate and leads to biased reporting.

Setting aside for a moment, if you can, the sanctimonious tone of the knuckle rapping (“just won’t do”), there are two ways to interpret this no-no, both objectionable, both anti-dissent.

Rosenbaum isn’t really in a place to condemn others for their tone, is he?

One implication is that these “nationally known skeptics” should never have been given air time in the first place because the debate is over, the Truth is known, their dissent has no claim on our attention; their dissent is, in fact, pernicious.

Actually, if you read Russell’s own advice, they should be avoided in favor of scientists who research and publish on the subject in respected journals- you know, actual experts.

The second way of reading her “not helpful” condemnation is that if one allows dissenters on air to express their dissent, the approach shouldn’t be “he-said, she-said.” No, the viewers must be protected from this pernicious dissent. We should get “he-said, she-said, but he (or she) is wrong, and here is the correct way to think.”

This is again complete invention on Rosenbaum’s part. There is nothing in Russell’s article that says anything resembling this.

It may be that believers in anthropogenic global warming are right. I have no strong position on the matter, aside from agreeing with the CJR editorial that there’s a danger in narrowing the permissible borders of dissent.

In fact, Rosenbaum quite obviously does have a position on the matter: journalists reporting on climate change are “greens”, the “theory” of anthropogenic global warming that is supported by these “believers” is opposed by “scientists” and the Earth’s own climatic history, and talking to experts on a subject is tantamount to censorship.

But I take issue with the author’s contention that the time for dissent has ended. “The era of ‘equal time’ for skeptics who argue that global warming is just a result of natural variation and not human intervention seems to be largely over—except on talk radio, cable, and local television,” she tells us.

Is it the author’s contention, or her tentative observation? Important distinction one would think. Odd how Rosenbaum plows through it.

And of course we all know that the Truth is to be found only on networks and major national print outlets. Their record has been nigh unto infallible.

Appeal to ridicule, not really worth unpacking. Let’s just say that as unimpressive as I’ve found mainstream media coverage of climate (and other) issues, I’d wager that their coverage has been significantly better on the whole than AM radio and cable access.

But wait! I think I’ve found an insidious infiltration of forbidden dissent in the citadel of Truth that the CJR writer neglected to condemn. One of the environmental reporters the writer speaks of reverently, the New York Times’ Andy Revkin, runs the Times’ Dot Earth blog and features on his blogroll a hotbed of “just won’t do” climate-change skeptics: the Climate Debate Daily blog (an offshoot of the highly respected Arts & Letters Daily). Revkin provides no protective warning to the reader that he will be entering the realm of verboten dissent from the Consensus.

In fact, Andy does “warn” the reader about “Climate Debate Daily”, putting it under the heading of “FREE-MARKET ADVOCATES, ‘SKEPTICS,’ INDUSTRY VIEWS”. But go to Dot Earth and read his take on this in his own words.

I find Climate Debate Daily a particularly important site precisely because it does give “equal time” to different arguments about climate change. Take a look at it. It’s just two lists of links, one of reports and studies that support the consensus view and one of studies that don’t. No warnings on the site about what is True and what constitutes Dangerous Dissent. Exactly the sort of thing that our CJR reporter says is just not done.

When the IPCC and the AAAS are on one side and market fundamentalist think tanks fronting for oil companies are on the other and they are both given equal weight, it’s hard take such a site seriously.

And yet one cannot read the site without believing there are dissents from the consensus by scientists who deserve a hearing, if only so that their theses can be disproved. Check out, for instance, this work by an Australian scientist who was once charged with enforcing limits on greenhouse gases by the government but who now has changed his mind on the issue! It happens perhaps more often than “green journalists” let us know.

Here Rosenbaum cites, completely uncritically- almost unbelievably credulously- an op-ed by David “I’m a rocket scientist” Evans, which was absurd on its face. Clearly, Rosenbaum is making no effort to distinguish between potentially valuable dissenting discourse that could actually contribute something meaningful to the scientific or lay understanding of a subject and “dissent” rooted in literal denial of reality.

At a dinner recently, I listened as Nick Lemann, the dean of Columbia’s J-school, talked about the difficulty the school had in helping the students get the hang of “structuring an inquiry.” At the heart of structuring an inquiry, he said, was the need to “find the arguments.” Not deny the arguments. Find them, explore them.

Andy handles this better than I could at Dot Earth, read his take there. Rosenbaum then goes on to talk about his own work in handling dissent in his books (none of which, even the pernicious “Hitler was part Jewish” rumor seem to me to remotely approach the seriousness of accurately reporting on scientific and medical issues when public safety is at stake).

But which arguments? It’s a fascinating subject that I’ve spent some time considering. My last two books, Explaining Hitler and The Shakespeare Wars, were, in part anyway, efforts to decide which of the myriad arguments about and dissenting visions of each of these figures was worth pursuing. For instance, with Hitler, after investigating, I wanted to refute the myth (often used in a heavy-handed way by anti-Semites) that Hitler was part Jewish. The risk is that in giving attention to the argument, one can spread it even while refuting it. But to ignore it was worse. Perhaps this is what our green journalist with her tsk-tsking really fears, and it’s a legitimate fear. But I’d argue that journalists should be on the side of vigorous argument, not deciding for readers what is truth and then not exposing them to certain arguments.

In my Shakespeare book, I mentioned—but didn’t devote time to—what I regarded as the already well-refuted argument that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays in the canon. This doesn’t mean I would stop others from arguing about it; it just is my belief that it wasn’t worth the attention and that since life was short, one would be better off spending one’s time rereading the plays than arguing over who wrote them. In any case, the fate of the earth was not at stake.

Well, at least he is capable of recognizing that.

But the argument over the green consensus does matter: If the green alarmists are right, we will have to turn our civilization inside out virtually overnight to save ourselves. One would like to know this is based on good, well-tested science, not mere “consensus.”

Ah. It’s no longer the “green journalists’ consensus”, it’s now the “green alarmists” who seek to “turn our civilization inside out”. Nope, no strong feelings there, Ron.

I’m always curious to see such blatant self-incrimination in the printed word. Presumably Rosenbaum read, and had an editor read, this before putting it on Slate. Did it not strike either of them that this escalating rhetoric in addition to the credulousness with which he accepts blatant denials of reality completely destroys any credibility he has in claiming that he has no feelings about the subject?

Skepticism is particularly important and particularly worth attention from journalists. Especially considering the abysmal record green journalists have on the ethanol fiasco.

Which journalists are “green” again? Those that report on climate change? Are these journalists necessarily the same ones that would report on ethanol? I assume there is plenty of room for overlap, but ethanol is also a domestic and energy issue in addition to its ties to its role in discussions of climate change. And again, all skepticism is not equal.

Here we should give the CJR reporter credit where due: She does include perhaps the single most important question that such an article could ask, one I haven’t heard asked by most mainstream enviro-cheerleader media:

[W]here were the skeptical scientists, politicians and journalists earlier, when ethanol was first being promoted in Congress?

This is my only substantive criticism of Russell’s piece. Here she is just as guilty of failing to do basic research as Rosenbaum. Unsurprisingly, because he perceives it as criticism of “green journalists”, Rosenbaum loves it.

Indeed I don’t remember reading a lot of “dissent” on the idea. Shouldn’t it have occurred to someone green that taking acreage once capable of producing food on a planet with hundreds of millions of starving people and using it to lower the carbon footprint of your SUV might end up causing the deaths of those who lack food or the means to pay the soaring prices of ethanol-induced shortage?

As those who read my criticism of Lomborg similarly propagating the myth that the ethanol debacle could be laid at the feet of climate concern are aware, James Hansen, Mark Lynas, and David Suzuki all sounded caution on the ethanol issue. As for actual “green” groups, with a few minutes of poking around on Google, one could find that Environmental Defense, Greenpeace, Grist, the Sierra Club, et al. were sounding caution as well. Granted Russell blew this too, but were I skeptical person interested in dissent like Rosenbaum, I might dig a little deeper before embracing something just because it fits my preconceptions when I have been disagreeing with everything else.

But it doesn’t seem to occur to her that the delegitimizing of dissent she encourages with her “just won’t do” sanctimony might have been responsible for making reporters fearful of being “greenlisted” for dissenting from The Consensus at the time.

What was “The Consensus” on ethanol again?

I think it’s time for “green reporters,” the new self-promoting subprofession, to take responsibility for the ethanol fiasco. Go back into their files and show us the stories they wrote that carry a hint that there might be a downside to taking food out of the mouths of the hungry. Those who fail the test—who didn’t speak out, even on “talk radio, cable TV or local news”—shouldn’t be so skeptical about skeptics.

Once again we have a case of someone who is whinging on about perceived censorship attempting to dictate what should and shouldn’t be acceptable for others to say or do without the slightest trace of irony.

I’d suggest they all be assigned to read the CJR editorial about protecting dissent and the danger of “narrowing the borders” of what is permissible. The problem is, as Freeman Dyson, one of the great scientists of our age, put it in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, environmentalism can become a religion, and religions always seek to silence or marginalize heretics. CJR has been an invaluable voice in defending that aspect of the First Amendment dealing with the freedom of the press; it should be vigilant about the other aspect that forbids the establishment of a religion.

This is simply bizarre. CJR has an innate self-interest in defending the freedom of the press- and one would assume as Americans those that comprise CJR have an interest in defending their Constitutionally-protected rights generally- but what does the Establishment Clause have to do with journalists covering climate change? Unless Rosenbaum makes the explicit and idiotic argument that any reporter covering climate issues is a member of a religion and that this religion is somehow being promoted by the government, this is just a terribly mangled analogy that illuminates nothing. That Rosenbaum enjoyed Freeman Dyson’s usurpation of the New York Book Review to embarrass himself on climate change (not the first time he’s done so) and equate concern over climate change with religion is telling. Frankly I’m surprised Rosenbaum hadn’t heard that same argument before from another credible voice of dissent and all around class act Michael Crichton. No matter, as Rosenbaum will hopefully learn at some point, repeating something doesn’t make it true.

So what’s my take on all of this? The CJR editorial Rosenbaum uses as a springboard to attack Christine Russell’s helpful guide to reporting on climate doesn’t support what he imagines it to. Meaningful dissent is a necessary part of both the public dialog and science, but not all dissent is meaningful. The mainstream media should do a better job of critically examining “conventional wisdom” and listen to other points of view. That doesn’t mean giving crackpots and industry shills equal weight to experts on science and medicine, which it has done to terrible effect for several years. It means asking hard questions about what our government, the science, and our conscience tell us about the path we’re still on, nearly 30 years later.

It means doing their job a little bit more like Andy Revkin does his.

[UPDATE: MT at Only In It For The Gold and Andrew Dessler at Grist have more.]

4 responses to “Cracks in the Slate

  1. Thank you for taking this smelly thing apart and hanging the pieces up for inspection and comparison. Nasty work. Glad you did it.

  2. Yes, well done, sir!

  3. Crichton class act URL broken.

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