For publishing the disproven, error-ridden, ravings of John Spooner and other like climate denialists, Fairfax Media should be ashamed, says Doug Evans.
WELL, Happy New Year. Welcome to 2013. If the last week is anything to go by, the New Year has started exactly as the old year ended, with a mixture of sober recognition of the increasingly sombre reality that confronts us, outrageous distortion of the truth by denialist cartoonist John Spooner, the frighteningly powerful Andrew Bolt and a disgraceful, but possibly accurate, celebration of victory by the deniers on the blog of supreme deceiver Jo Nova.
I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that I own a couple of John Spooner's political cartoons. Purchased long before his childish climate change denialism and unpleasant sexist streak became apparent (to me at least), they expertly lampoon my least favourite Australian Prime Minister – John Howard – and hang on the walls of our family home. I won't be buying any more. Spooner has repeatedly demonstrated his credentials as a climate change denialist — namely a complete lack of understanding of the science and a total lack of interest in examining the evidence. His more recent work amply demonstrates that a good eye and graphic technique are no guarantee of the underlying wit and intelligence of the artist.
In response to Spooner's latest pile of nonsense published in the online Fairfax 'opinion' platform, the 'National Times' – available in the online versions of all Fairfax mastheads – on December 29, I sent the following (of course, unpublished) letter to the editor.
[caption id="attachment_29363" align="alignright" width="345"] (Image courtesy NewMatilda.com)[/caption]
Reading cartoonist John Spooner’s defence of climate change denialism National Times 29/12) – sorry John scepticism it ain’t – I was reminded of a cartoon by Fiona Katauskas (image right) of a talk show host introducing his two guests to an audience. Under the heading ‘BUT OUR MEDIA STILL KEEPS PRODUCING HOT AIR’ the announcer says ‘… and tonight – an expert in climate science and, for balance, someone with no real idea what he’s talking about …’ Guess which newspaper is still ‘producing hot air’ in the name of ‘balance’ and whether John Spooner has any ‘real idea what he’s talking about.’
As with all ‘deniers’, Spooner is not for turning. The inconvenient fact that all of his cherry-picked, oft-repeated ‘factoids’ have been authoritatively and repeatedly rebutted has no effect on his conviction that climate science is a self serving hoax perpetrated by greedy academics and that climate change is not happening, or if it is, that it has nothing to do with man-made greenhouse gases.
However, as they say, ‘the truth will out’ and when Spooner writes: “How did this frightening climate threat dissolve into … political confusion? … Some might blame the …’merchants of doubt’ or the ‘deniers’” he is right on the money and the world is already paying a heavy price for their efforts. Thank you Spooner and The Age for your ongoing contributions to this.
I'm not surprised that the letter was unpublished and, in truth, there were a couple of others published that highlighted Spooner's stupidity more elegantly than my sledgehammer attempt. Nevertheless, I am increasingly angry and frustrated at the way the media debate on climate change is going. As my letter suggests, I believe there are two issues to be addressed here. The first is Spooner's ignorant, ill-founded opinions. The second, and to me more important, issue is the ethical basis for the decision by a major national news platform to publish such material. I'll address each of them in turn.
Spooner's denialism is unremarkable — a simple combination of frequently cited cherry-picked 'factoids', taken out of context; distortions and outright lies; combined with a delusional re-writing of history.
He commences his piece as follows:
WELL, so much for the 2012 apocalypse. If the ancient Mayans ever knew anything about the future, they made a serious miscalculation. The same fate has befallen the international climate change emergency brigade. About $1 billion and 18 "Kyoto" meetings later, the world has agreed to do nothing much more than meet again.
How did this frightening climate threat dissolve into scientific uncertainty and political confusion? What of the many billions of dollars of wasted public resources? Some might blame the "sceptics", the "merchants of doubt" or the "deniers".
The 'international climate change emergency brigade' – by which he means the overwhelming majority of the world's qualified climate scientists, and all of the world's academies of science – are accused of serious miscalculation and dissolving into 'scientific uncertainty'. Well, a slew of reports appearing during 2012 say something markedly different. In fact, any scientific uncertainty remaining now is merely about matters of detail. There is no credible disagreement over the broad thrust of climate predictions as set out by the IPCC process. These have been confirmed as accurate – and indeed conservative – by a process of independent review. Spooner wants us to believe that the science is in disarray — but he speaks with a forked tongue.
He continues [IA emphasis]:
We can say for certain that many hesitant individuals overcame the pressures of group-think, intimidation and tribal disapproval to have a closer look at the relationship between real science, politics and business.
Spooner wants us to believe that climate change denying scientists are victimized, brave, free-thinking souls who, apparently in large numbers, are resisting the bullying and questioning the conclusions of their more powerful opponents.
There are a number of things to say here.
Firstly, the number of climate scientists with requisite expertise to meaningfully contribute to the scientific debate, who dispute the overwhelming consensus view on global warming, is small; the same handful of names crop up again and again: Lindzen, Christy, Spencer, and a handful of others. They publish very little peer-reviewed research, and rely on op-eds and other such vehicles to argue their views. Time and again, their key assertions have been tested and found wanting. Anyone interested to know more about the internal structures and dynamics of the weird and wacky world of climate change denialism may wish to look here and here.
As you will see below, the number of suitably qualified, climate change denying scientists who have published peer reviewed papers supporting their contentions is vanishingly small. So, when Narelle Eggins of Carindale in Queensland, in her (published) letter to the editor about Spooner's article, trumpeted that ‘…there are more than 1000 papers in peer-reviewed journals disagreeing with the anthropogenic global warming theory…’, she is talking absolute nonsense.
The pie chart reproduced below summarises the findings of one independent attempt to establish the quantity of peer reviewed published work from climate scientists disputing the fundamentals of global warming.
There are virtually none!
Bear in mind, peer-reviewed articles are the absolute standard for a researcher. If there is some topic on which scientists disagree, you will find relevant opinions in peer reviewed literature; if there is a solid argument, you will find it there. 24 of the 13,950 articles translates into 0.17% or just 1 in each 581 papers being written by climate change deniers.
There is no other active debate that is as scientifically one sided as this one!
Far from abandoning a repressive scientific orthodoxy for the freedom of climate change denialism, the movement is if anything in the opposite direction to that which exists in Spooner's fevered imagination. For example, prominent climate skeptic Dr Richard Muller exhaustively reviewed the data underpinning the science in his Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature study — and found, to his surprise, that his results confirmed rather than refuted the consensus global warming predictions. Muller has now changed his position stating that 'we are in the dangerous realm of very steep warming'.
In his piece Spooner moves on from his creative retelling of the history of recent climate science to consider some of the facts underlying it. Spooner's delusional nonsense has been fairly thoroughly unpicked here and here, so I'll limit myself to a few of his most glaring errors. He begins by loftily declaring that [again, IA emphasis]:
In the climate debate, the only "judge" is the scientific method - a testable hypothesis followed by factual or experimental challenge. The "facts" here represent an anxious problem for the DAGW advocates. For example, everybody agrees that the warming trend paused 16 years ago, despite a corresponding 10 per cent increase in atmospheric CO2.
How often this claim, a favourite of the deniers, is repeated. Andrew Bolt, for example, stated on his blog (December 4, 2012):
It is grotesque, how Labor’s scare-mongering has so terrified so many people. Consider the following facts: the world hasn’t warmed in 16 years…
And again in a Herald Sun article under the heading 'Open your eyes. Where’s that warming?’ Bolt commences by saying:
…let’s see how the great global warming scare is panning out, shall we? First, the planet hasn’t warmed for a decade – or even 15 years, according to new temperature data from Britain’s Met Office.
Well sorry John, sorry Andrew, it just isn't so. It's a lie and the 'Met Office' 'called it' in a letter to the author of the article that Bolt ripped off without checking (his usual method of research) on 29 January. Perhaps Bolt ,who published only a couple of days after the Met office responded, can be excused — but what is Spooner's excuse, nearly a year on? The graph below shows the actual global warming trend since 1980. Note that measured values for the last 16 years are almost all ABOVE the trend line.
After complaints were registered, Bolt was tut tutted by the Australian Press Council for his pack of lies on February 1, although somehow they excused him for this particular indiscretion. Amusingly (if your sense of humour is very black) Bolt has now changed his tune, declaring loftily in a post just before Christmas [IA emphasis]:
Fact: anyone who claims most sceptics are “deniers” of “global warming” are plainly fools or liars. None of the sceptics I know doubt at all that the planet has warmed in the past century. Most would agree man’s emissions are likely to have a warming influence.
Does this make Spooner a fool, a liar, or both?
Charging on fearlessly, Spooner asks:
Why did the warming trend stop as it did between 1945 and 1975, when CO2 emissions took off?
As the graph above shows, Spooner fails again. There was indeed a pause between about 1945 and 1975, but if Spooner had bothered to look for the big data picture, it is clear that the global surface temperature trend is up and has been trending up for decades.
This past ten years have been the warmest on record.
In fact, NOAA reports that it's almost three decades since any month has been cooler than the long term average. November 2012 also marks the 36th consecutive November and 333rd consecutive month with global temperature higher than the long-term average. The last month with a below average temperature was February 1985 — nearly 28 years ago.
Spooner doesn't think the scientists' computer models are up to scratch, writing that
…we should pay close attention to the computer models that form the basis of climate scientists' projections. In fact these models apparently failed to anticipate the current pause in global warming.
As there has been no pause in global warming, perhaps we should feel comforted by the fact that the computer models don't suggest there has and not concern ourselves too much with Spooner's unfounded claim that
Scientific "consensus" based on these computer models is becoming rather shaky.
There is much more of this nonsense, but I will leave it to the others linked to above to unpick the rest; life is short and Mr Spooner's understanding of climate science is definitely revealed as virtually non-existent. We probably shouldn't expect too much of the book he proudly announces towards the end of his article.
To me, the major point at issue here is the ethics of media platforms consecrating such rubbish. The publication of such material in a “reputable” Australian newspaper is ethically reprehensible on two grounds.
Firstly, whether it chooses to acknowledge it or not, a newspaper confers credibility on a piece of writing when it publishes it. The non-expert reader is entitled to believe that the work is credible by virtue of the fact that it has been published at all. Newspapers such as The Age trade on their reputation for reliability and this is the umbrella under which Spooner's blatant nonsense shelters.
What ethical justification is there for a newspaper publishing material on a matter of such critical importance – the contents of which are so blatantly and obviously incorrect – as this piece by this apparent idiot, Spooner, along with earlier pieces by David Evans and Bob Carter. It's a pity The Age opinion editor didn't pay more attention to its sensible, responsible, competent former senior writer Jo Chandler. Partially motivated by the publication of Carter's nonsense, Chandler concluded her piece 'When Science is undone by Fiction' (29/6/11) as follows [IA emphasis]:
Further distortions in the debate are rendered by clumsy efforts of the media to achieve ''balance'', or contrived efforts to drum up controversy. But as new Chief Scientist Ian Chubb argued last week, ''if 99 people say one thing and one person says another thing, the one person has a right to have their view on the table, but they don't have a right to be given the same amount of time and space as the 99 without qualification”.
Recent surveys of active climate scientists (those publishing in the area) calculate that 97 in every 100 have views that reflect those of the international academies of science: the planet is warming, this is human caused, and it is dangerous. Most are unlikely to ever have the gift of this page to explain their findings.
Therefore, a more balanced, rigorous and honest rendering of their work is critical to elevating the political and public debate on climate. ''The media has a particular and important role to play,'' said Chubb, ''and the sooner they play it better, the better."
Due diligence carried out by an informed sub-editor would count out the publication of this nonsense, but this is apparently not something that can be expected from Fairfax broadsheets.
If a newspaper (or any media outlet) has an ethical responsibility not to mislead its audience, it has an even greater ethical responsibility not to lend support to activities which cause great harm. For example, I wonder if The Age would publish, in the name of 'balance', an op-ed in support of paedophilia — a fairly common activity, whose practitioners doubtless feel themselves misunderstood and persecuted. I hope that if it received an offering singing the praises of caring paedophiles and the benefits for the young recipients of their attentions The Age would refuse to publish it. Spooner objects to poor, persecuted, deniers being compared to paedophiles, however paedophilia is currently topical in this context, since the shameless unprincipled James Delingpole compared wind energy companies to paedophiles in a piece for The Australian. Using an unnamed, and probably imaginary, farmer as cover the unspeakable Delingpole wrote:
The wind-farm business is bloody well near a paedophile ring. They’re f..king our families and knowingly doing so.
This little effort earned The Australian a slap on the wrist with a feather from the Australian Press Council (responding to a complaint) for misrepresenting science. The Australian, of course, responded with typical shameless belligerence and another piece from Delingpole, in which he defiantly declared that he stood by every word in the previous piece. In other words, up yours Press Council!
I like to imagine that The Age takes its ethical obligations more seriously than News Limited papers, whose appalling misdemeanours have been widely documented over the last few years. I hope the opinion editor would not publish a piece in support of paedophilia, which is acknowledged as a social evil that damages and destroys the lives of very large numbers of people. The Age would not, I hope, publish material supporting a point of view that is demonstrably causing great harm.
However, presumably in the name of a perverted version of the right to free speech, it has repeatedly shown itself prepared to publish demonstrably erroneous pieces from regularly discredited climate change deniers like the loopy Dr David Evans, and the unqualified, unprincipled and incompetent Bob Carter. Indeed, Spooner's labelling of Bob Carter as 'distinguished' is risible and says more about his ignorance of the topic than it says about Carter. By publishing the rubbish that these people spout, The Age gives material support to practices and behaviour every bit as damaging, in its own way, as paedophilia. Think that's going too far? Consider these conclusions from the second edition of the very authoritative Climate Vulnerability Monitor:
The combined effects of climate change and the negative impacts of the carbon intensive global economy are already killing large numbers of people.
…climate change causes 400,000 deaths on average each year today, mainly due to hunger and communicable diseases that affect above all children in developing countries.
Our present carbon intensive energy system and related activities cause an estimated 4.5 million deaths each year linked to air pollution, hazardous occupations and cancer.
Failure to act to reduce emissions will steadily and rapidly increase deaths related to these causes.
Continuing today's patterns of carbon intensive energy use is estimated, together with climate change to cause 6 million deaths per year by 2030, close to 700,000 of which would be due to climate change. This implies that a combined climate-carbon crisis is estimated to claim 100 million lives between now and the end of the next decade.
Climate change currently kills 400,000 people annually worldwide and unchecked will increase to kill 700,000 people annually by 2030 — so by publishing these people, and artificially prolonging, for its own purposes, a debate long since concluded, media platforms such as The Age effectively materially support this happening. They should be ashamed.
Perhaps the article Facts are boring - we need much more opinionated idiocy,published on the Fairfax opinion platform 'National Times' on New Year's Day, indicates what we can expect from Fairfax's laugh-a-minute opinion pages in future.
Spooner should also be ashamed but, as with all other deniers I have ever had contact with, Spooner is driven not by logic, but by some combination of emotional and psychological factors that sweep reason to one side.Perhaps we can excuse Spooner for his weakness and compulsions, but there is no excuse for The Age and other media platforms for their disgraceful lack of ethics when they display and consecrate the ravings of such people.
(You can read more by Douglas Evans on his Earthsign blog.)