Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Globe and Mail Compromises Truth for Politics

Margaret Wente, a right wing columnist for the Globe and Mail, recently argued that it is wrong and disastrous to science to suppress debate on climate change. She puts forward a string of anecdotal and disproven information to weave a web of doubt of climate change for the innocent and less-educated reader. She refers to Roger Pielke Jr. “one of the saner voices on the climate scene”, yet doesn’t point out that he presents no peer-reviewed empirical evidence to oppose the 97-98% (tens of thousands) of scientists who argue and have proven that climate change is real and man-made.

The question of whether Canada should or should not support a renewal of the Kyoto Protocol is a separate issue from what Wente is referring to here. Her objective is to create doubt when there is none in the science on climate change. It is perhaps no coincidence that this story has been published in the lead up to the UN Climate Conference on Monday, Dec. 5th, 2011 in Durban, South Africa. At this conference, Canada is expected to represent one of the strongest opponents to renewing the Kyoto protocol and, for that matter, any international commitments to mitigate climate change.

I fear that the newspaper’s decision to publish this highly inaccurate and misleading column is a political one rather than one that is in the best interests of the public. Here’s why:

The problem with these opinion pieces is that they plant seeds in the minds of readers that climate change is still debatable. That is, readers walk away with the belief that there is perhaps a 50% chance that the science behind climate change is accurate. The amount of news coverage in mainstream media reflects this with half the stories arguing that climate change is real and man-made and half the stories arguing the opposite. Yet if the media were doing its job and communicating to the public the truth based on sound science, we should see 97-98 out of 100 stories on climate change indicating that it is real and man-made and 2-3 out of every 100 stories with arguments against this science.

In effect, readers should understand that there is no longer any debate on climate change. The science is therefore clear. And by clear I don’t mean 100%. This is impossible. No concentration of scientific studies on a complex issue like this can claim 100% accuracy. We go on probabilities. Decisions are made everyday and conclusions to guide theory are made everyday based on 95% probability levels and sometimes 90% probability levels. This means that if we were to run experiments on a particular scenario, 19 out of 20 experiments would produce the same result. For climate change, we’re at a similar level of probability. This doesn’t dismiss the opportunity to prove these 97%ers wrong. But there needs to be a mountain of peer reviewed empirical studies to raise such doubt and there are few credible studies denying that climate change exists or is man-made.

Wente’s writing is outdated and completely inaccurate. Like most scientists who claim that climate change is not happening, she picks out isolated statistics yet overlooks the overwhelming evidence that opposes these outliers. The fact that we’ve experienced the warmest weather in 13 of the last 15 years is not discussed, nor is the rather remarkable rate at which the polar ice caps are melting, or the dramatic increase in freak weather events in the last decade. The list goes on and on and she speaks as if these rogue scientists represent mainstream thought.

Claims like “no one knows with any certainty the exact impact of carbon dioxide emissions” is completely inaccurate. So is, “what long-term climate trends will be or the effect of other factors, such as the sun”. These alternative explanations have been disproven time and time again and are therefore unrelated to the changes in climate we’re seeing today. She spends time talking about climategate despite the fact that three independent studies were conducted to see if the science behind climate change was compromised as a result of these emails. All three independently concluded that there is absolutely no evidence that the science on climate change has at all been put into doubt as a result of these scandals. Recently Exxon and other climate-change deniers funded an independent study which concluded that climate change is happening and that it is caused by man. Finally, she refers to old quotations from rogue scientists, many of whom, are not even experts in climatology and in some cases have been funded by oil and gas companies (see Climate Cover-Up by James Hoggan)

So Wente is completely hypocritical when she says that science needs healthy debate yet doesn’t produce any empirical evidence that such a debate is warranted. Put another way, she’s advocating for sound science based on healthy debate without using the very scientific principles upon which this is meant to occur.

I respect the views of the conservative right. They are legitimate and important in our society. But when these views ignore the unbiased science that is meant to provide society with knowledge to make decisions, they become an obstruction to democracy. A democratic society requires accurate information and opinions based on sound science. It needs media outlets that publish stories that reflect the findings of unbiased sources rather than stories that create inaccurate views in society.

The fact that this article has been published in Canada’s top newspaper is disgraceful. Wente’s views sadly align closely with the expected stance of our government in Durban on Monday. One has to wonder whether this column was published intentionally by the Globe and Mail as a political statement to defend against the tidal wave of criticism our country will face in the next week. When a media outlet like the Globe and Mail compromises its purpose of helping the public distinguish rhetoric from fact and myth from science, they have lost their role in society and, in my view, are no better than the infamous and highly misleading Fox News. Recently a study found that Fox News viewers were less informed than people who don’t watch the news at all. Is The Globe and Mail heading in that direction?


  1. "if the media were doing its job and communicating to the public the truth based on sound science, we should see 97-98 out of 100 stories on climate change indicating that it is real"

    That's right, but fortunatly news media is a business, that means they will present stories which will sell. If 50% of climate stories are from doubters its is because that is what sells, and it is also a rough reflection of public opnion; roughly 50% do not beleive in AGW anymore. And it is blogs like yours that gradually got them there.

    "wonder whether this column was published intentionally by the Globe and Mail as a political statement to defend against the tidal wave of criticism our country will face in the next week"

    Oh my gosh you are one serious wimp. Who cares if Canada is criticized. I don't care one bit. Ooh no Ban ki-Moon said I was bad, Ooooh no! Actually I like Canada’s new role of bad guy at these socialist climate photo-ops instead of the usual Canadian kiss-ass role. I say Bring it.

    "Until the Globe and Mail filters out completely inaccurate and misleading stories like these, I’m boycotting the newspaper and I encourage others to join me"

    Go ahead. You can always buy the National Post. I predict you'll be buying the G&M again in a couple of weeks.

    Durban will be the biggest failure of all of the climate summits.


  2. Dear Anonymous,

    Your points are well taken. I agree that as a business, the Globe and Mail has a vested interest to publish information that the masses want to read. But does that mean that we should publish articles that inaccurately present the facts? I agree that people would want to read various opinions on a subject where the facts are not quite clear but on a topic like climate change, this is not a question of what people want to read but a question of presenting the facts correctly. If you're saying that a for-profit news organization should be released of its duty to provide accurate and factual information for the sake of satisfying markets, then you're changing the role of news organizations from a vehicle of dissemination to a vehicle of entertainment. On top of all this, i think you underestimate the critical role that media outlets like G&M have on shaping public opinion and on what the market thereby demands to read. So i think you're overlooking the self-fulfilling prophecy where G&M absolves responsibility from presenting the facts because people don't want to read it yet their role in avoiding the facts is leading to people not wanting to read them.

    I completely care that Canada is criticized not only because of our image in the international community but also because i care about future generations of Canadians. The criticisms that will emerge, again to my earlier point, is not based on opinion but on facts about climate change. If you don't care "one bit" about whether we get criticized then you also don't care about the fact that stalling progress on this issue is creating substantial hardship on future generations of Canadians. Do you care about that? I certainly do. I think your inability to care is directly tied to your inability to see the facts. How ironic then that your view is the very issue I'm trying to bring up: that Canadians are not educated on the facts because news outlets are not properly conveying those facts.

    In terms of your last sentence, with that attitude, then i agree that not much will come out of these talks. I'm glad you're not there.

    Most importantly, you clearly miss the point of my blog posting. You don't at all touch on my commentary about the danger of misleading the public that climate change is in fact debatable. This is my core issue!! But perhaps you're so vulnerable to the misleading media that you can't see your way out of the proverbial box you've put yourself in.

  3. You know, Mike, I thought the readers of your blog would be those who deeply care about sustainability. It's so interesting that your blog also attracts people like "Anonymous" above. You should be proud that your blog provides a space for debate for various kinds of people! :)

    I agree with you that climate change is not debatable and the press shouldn't mislead the public by making it sound like it is. Sadly, in the end, people will believe what they want to believe. I've had a heated debate with people who strongly believe that climate change is some kind of hoax. It's just unbelievable.

    And nope, COP 17 didn't turn out to be the biggest failure as predicted by Anonymous!

  4. Thank you for this post Mike. I recently watched the documentary Please Mind the Planet (public on YouTube) and it raised a similar frustration with the concept of doubt.

    In the doc, Bernie Clark quoted a 1969 USA Tobacco Industry Strategy Document "Smoking and Health Proposal" which stated ""Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the minds of general public... It is also the means of establishing a controversy."

    Similarly, today's researchers conclude that "scepticism is a tactic of an elite-driven counter-movement designed to combat environmentalism, and that the successful use of this tactic has contributed to the weakening of US commitment to environmental protection." (Jacque, Peter J. Dunlap, Riley E. and Freeman, Mark (2008). The organization of denial: Conservative think tanks and environmental scepticism'. 17.3. 349-385. ).

    Because of the doubt created by the tobacco industry, it took decades to convince consumers of the deadly effects of smoking - long after scientific research concluded this.

    Today we see environmental scientists and climatologists facing the same struggle. Doubt prevents the public from fully accepting the climate change reality - and are thus unmotivated to change their lifestyles; this doubt generates inaction from our government and leads to the continuation of environmentally destructive investment strategies (i.e. tar sands).

    Time should be spent discussing solutions - the cause is no longer debatable.

  5. A good portion of what Wente writes is complete non-sense.

    Newspapers like the G&M attempt to be balanced, and as such attempt to provide roughly equal space to arguments coming from the left and right. Unfortunately, providing any space for right wing arguments today, means being open to publishing climate change deniers, creationist apologizers, and espousers of economic fallacies.

    The right-wing movement in North America is becoming increasingly detached from reality. The movement is fed by the Fox News (and now Sun TV) propaganda machine.

    Intellectual conservatism is dead. Its been replaced by business elites tricking people into voting in their interest by invoking fear - of God, homosexuals and Kenyan Muslim Presidents.

    The only way right-wing pundits like Wente can continue to support such a situation is by making arguments that don't make sense. David Brooks and Ross Dothat have to bend and twist the facts in their New York Times column's all the time to conform to the bizarre narrative coming from the right. Although they do tend to avoid Went's brand of outright lies.

    Does this mean I will right off the Times and Globe? Can't, they are still the newspapers of record.