A media love-fest
Feb 28, 2011
Bishop Hill in Climate: other, Media

This is a guest post by Richard Drake.

Three minor things went wrong when I attempted to take part in a debate called Has the media failed science? at Imperial College London last Thursday, as advertised on Bishop Hill six days before. One was that the event ran for two hours, not one, as advertised. This helped to make interaction feasible but had a bad impact on what I'd planned for the rest of the evening! Second, no wireless internet connection was provided for those not at the university or in UK academia generally. Third ... well, the third was quite amusing and humour may be in short supply here so it'll keep for later. There were more serious flaws, the biggest of which was that the debate was not a debate. It was a media love-fest, as one of the audience rightly said in the Q&A.

Talking of the audience, I'm bad at estimating these things but I'd say five hundred bowled up. (It was much more than 50 and less than 5,000, to give it a climatic type of confidence interval.) The vast majority were students, the three older people I talked to apart from Richard Black being parents or relatives of students. Putting two and two together, the organisers weren't expecting a vast influx of outsiders but it was a major student event. My own goals in attending were twofold: to take the temperature (yeah) of where one important London slice of academia and media are up to with climate change and to chip in with at least one question that would cause people to think more deeply about the issue. I've no doubt that I achieved both. This report then is partly therapy - to try and come to terms with what I learned about the first - and partly an account of the one brave man who tried to take a different line. (So the second part is probably therapy too!)

Richard Black was an excellent chair, in that he made some genuinely witty remarks. Given the turgid nature of most of the rest, this was essential for sanity. The best presenter by far was Simon Singh. I didn't agree with everything he said about climate, surprise surprise, but there's no doubting his presentational skills. Various of the panel mentioned climate science in passing in their presentations, the four of which took up about 65 minutes, leaving 55 for the Q&A, but it was Singh who really put the boot in, with his amusing and trenchant critique of The Great Global Warming Swindle, made by Martin Durkin and shown on Channel 4 in March 2007.

Singh also had a go at a BBC2 science documentary which had shown a woman in the far east having heart surgery without general anaesthetic, fully conscious, using acupuncture. It's worth I think telling the latter story first, because I totally trust Singh in the criticisms made: namely, that when he checked the story, the woman had also had both local anaesthetic and three of the strongest painkillers known to man coursing through her body. The acupuncture therefore was irrelevant - but it was the only so-called painkilling measure mentioned by the programme. He was rightly having a go at this sensationalist, sloppy and misleading journalism. And wouldn't we climate sceptics be the first to say amen to that?

What was troubling throughout was not what Singh said but the way he and others found laughs so cheaply by making disparaging remarks about the climate numpties (a phrase that happily was not repeated on this occasion). Of course one can have no idea what every student's private thoughts were but the sense that all criticism of climate science was the work of nutters was strong. It was, to be honest, very discouraging. But there's no winning the battle without knowing where the enemy is situated. And, fortunately, I met one student at the end whose attitude was clearly very different. I won't rehearse Singh's arguments against Swindle. I'd forgotten that he'd been copied in on the email to Durkin from Dr Armand Leroi, also at Imperial, criticising the programme, so that he received the famous reply “You're a big daft cock.” One has to admit that's funny and in Singh's narrative it didn't do Durkin any favours. I laughed away with everyone else at that.

Where I made a point of shaking my head in disagreement (I was about four rows from the front and felt morally obliged to do so by this stage) was the old saw about MIT professor of oceanography Carl Wunsch being misrepresented by the programme. (Lubos Motl made some good points about how conflicted Wunsch was, at the time, if anyone's interested.) This was clearly going to be a hard place to ask the right question. But I felt I had a good chance of being selected, because I'd had a word with Richard Black before proceedings began, explaining that I'd heard about the event from Bishop Hill, that Simon Singh had recently called me a climate numptie (I had to clarify this wasn't in a face to face interaction!), that I'd particularly appreciated Black's article on Arctic ice melt in September, which was heavily criticised by Joe Romm (I'd spotted and appreciated its measured tone well before Romm fell off his trolley), and that I used to know Roger Harrabin in my days in Gospel Oak. It was a friendly chat and I felt sure Richard would give me one chance on behalf of the sceptics. Indeed, the moment I put my hand up I was chosen, the fourth questioner, moments before the great Mr Singh had to leave (which was very early - possibly he had also been told it was only one hour!) What would you have asked?

I decided on two prongs: question and recommendation. The recommendation was that anyone interested in climate and new media should take a look at Judith Curry on Hiding the Decline, a professor of climate science whose blog had just gone nuclear. (This line of thought led me to write Five Minutes on Hiding the Decline on my own blog yesterday, as an introduction to last week's debate for the absolute newcomer. Feedback very welcome.) The question clearly wrong-footed Singh and the others. It wasn't a direct attack on the warmist position or a defence of Durkin. It was based on the conclusion to Matt Ridley and Nick Lewis' article in The Spectator last week on the Antarctic warming controversy:

Science as a philosophy is a powerful, but fragile thing. In the case of climate, it is now in conflict with science as an institution.

I asked whether such a situation, where science as philosophy was pitted against science as institution, wouldn't make the job of a science journalist very difficult indeed? Nobody answered this question - because to admit the possibility that in climate real science is in conflict with the institutional kind would be tantamount to er, institutional suicide. But everything went a bit quiet. I knew I'd achieved something when Singh was reflective, I think partly wondering who I was, and didn't immediately launch an attack on the numpties, though he talked for long enough, avoiding the question, to end up with a cheap jibe about The Spectator being liable for a bad science award. One of the BBC guys then did say, to his credit, that there needed to be more emphasis on uncertainty in reporting the climate area. And then the embarrassing moment was over. I'd never kidded myself that I would get a second bite of the cherry. Shouting out "Have you even read the article?" to Singh was I felt only going to confirm the widely-held nutter hypothesis.

Climate was then barely mentioned, until one very strange incident towards the end of the Q&A. A student in a mauve t-shirt asked a good question about the importance of science blogs, where you could actually interact with the host and others. The information you picked up on these was often better than the mainstream media, he felt. Couldn't disagree with that. And then he mentioned a few of his favourites, ending with Ben Goldacre's Bad Science and Climate Audit. Wow. Now that was a combination for the freethinker. I was impressed.

After the event I waited to speak to the student in the mauve t-shirt. But by this time his thoughts had moved on from science blogs to the much more important theme of snogging his girlfriend, very publicly, just outside one of the entrance to the auditorium, on the way to the rather nice buffet provided for attendees. This went on for more time than I'd assumed likely, as I lurked further down the concourse. Eventually I couldn't stop myself, walked up and tapped the amorous fan of Steve McIntyre on the shoulder - only to discover that he had obviously got completely the wrong name; he meant RealClimate. It was not only his embarrassment but the slight whiff of fear at this point that was not the high point of the evening for me. It sounded as if such a terrible public mistake could have been costly.

Happily I later made contact over a glass of wine with a delightful group of three, student, father and uncle, the father involved in reservoir model building for the oil industry and a genuine admirer of McIntyre. It was very good to share impressions there. But until that friendly and intelligent conversation I have to say I found proceedings discouraging. We have a way to go. It makes me value everyone on blogs such as this who is fighting for 'science as philosophy' in the face of such propaganda from so many of our most previously cherished institutions.

Article originally appeared on (http://www.bishop-hill.net/).
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