Milloy and other aggressive deniers practice a form of asymmetric warfare that is decentralized and largely immune to reasoned response. They launch what Aaron Huertas, a press secretary at the Union of Concerned Scientists, calls “information missiles,” anti-climate-change memes that get passed around on listservs, amplified in the blogosphere, and picked up by radio talk-show hosts or politicians. “Even if they don’t have much money, they are operating in a structure that allows them to punch above their weight,” Huertas says.
Tom Clynes’ takes an in-depth look at The Battle over Climate Science, a gravely overlooked issue. 98% of actively publishing climate scientists now say that it is undeniable, he explains, though disputes over the finer points remain unsettled. More shocking is Clynes’ exposition of the routine death threats, hate mail, harassment, lawsuits, and political attacks faced by these climate scientists.
FJP: There are two important journalism takeaways from this story. One is this asymmetric warfare that deniers use to attack climate scientists and their findings, which, because they are designed to be passed around the web, are quickly picked up by politicians and journalists. The second is that journalists continue to rely on non-scientists for their reporting on the issue, which severely skews public opinion.
“Multiple feet of sea level rising in the next few decades, that’s just fantasy,” says Myron Ebell, the director of energy and global-warming policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank. Ebell is in a taxi heading down K Street, Washington’s lobbyist row, talking to a reporter from theNaples Daily Newsin Florida. The journalist called to get his perspective on a new scientific study that warns of more frequent flooding along U.S. coastlines as higher temperatures accelerate rising sea levels. “The evidence is inconclusive,” Ebell says. “The [Antarctic] ice sheet is not shrinking but may in fact be expanding. The reality from the experts is … ”
Ebell does not claim to be a scientist. His background is in economics, and like Milloy, he was a member of the American Petroleum Institute task force in 1998. Yet his lack of scientific credentials has not deterred a stream of journalists from requesting his opinion of the newly released study. “Happens every time I get quoted in theNew York Times,” he says. Ebell provides two things most scientists can’t: a skeptical view of climate science and clear, compelling sound bites ready for the evening news or the morning paper. For a deadline-pressured journalist covering “both sides” of a complex issue, Ebell might seem an ideal source. Yet by including unscientific opinions alongside scientific ones, that same journalist creates an illusion of equivalence that can tilt public opinion.
“It’s that false balance thing,” Mann says. “You’re a reporter and you understand there’s an overwhelming consensus that evidence supports a particular hypothesis—let’s say, the Earth is an oblate spheroid. But you’ve got to get a comment from a holdout at the Flat Earth Society. People see the story and think there’s a serious scientific debate about the shape of the Earth.”
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