When they turn up, it's time to leave

Bad journalism should not be mistaken for bad research. For example, via Brennig comes an instance of the BBC casually and cavalierly cutting and pasting from the inaugural speech. This is pretty low, but hardly a surprise. It’s certainly no lower than the levels to which the BBC, the Mail, the Sun or the rest of the national newspapers stoop on a roughly daily basis, as a cursory glance through The Sun: Tabloid Lies, Obsolete and Enemies of Reason would show. You might just as well pick Glen Jenvey’s failed honeypotting of online Islamic groups, passed off as radical Islam, or The Observer prostituting itself to Alastair Campbell over WMDs.

It’s also not an enormous perversion of Obama’s original speech, certainly not to the extent that the slightly feverpitched fisking on “Harmless Sky” might suggest. The original version does indeed stress the urgency of tackling climate change much less than an edit, but then that’s hardly surprising. Obama’s speech was aimed at a country which has had eight years of desperate denial of the overwhelming evidence of human-caused climate change. It wasn’t aimed at the rest of the world, which has broadly accepted the scientific evidence to hand. He’s a unity candidate, was elected as a unity candidate, has never cast himself as anything other than a unity candidate.

You couldn’t edit him and have him be less controversial if you tried. To repeat, it’s terrible journalism on the BBC’s part, but to suggest that this somehow disproves, or greatly reduces the threat of, climate change is to live in cloud-cuckoo land. Is Obama not making a divisive inaugural speech somehow a more important indicator of the future of the world’s climate change than the results of climatological science? Is Obama not mentioning the absence of aliens evidence that aliens do indeed live among us?

Rereading that blog article a few times is like scratching an itch, and eventually the big red weals of David Icke start to appear: the vague atmosphere of obsession, the indication that Obama’s speechwriter’s priorities have empirical weight, and the intense and slightly unhinged deconstruction of Obama’s choice of the word “spectre”. You feel that it was only a matter of time before a 9/11 truther turned up and started talking about the World Trade Center, although they were fairly quickly batted down again. Still, you’d think that faith-based worldviews like geocaust denial might have died out by now, but apparently not, in the echo chamber that is online discourse.

Most climatologists—as opposed to politicians, journalists and half-cocked bloggers like Harmless Sky or indeed myself—see little further point in arguing about the existing broad (and quite solid) consensus on the plain fact of human-related climate change. This is similar to the same way that most geologists have stopped arguing about the flatness of the earth. That non-experts—politicians, journalists, bloggers—feel they still have to keep picking away at the issue, in blissful ignorance of both facts and theory, suggests a lot more about the politics and psychology of climate change than about anything else.

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10 Responses to When they turn up, it's time to leave

  1. Brennig says:

    In your closing thoughts I believe you are touching on the power of blogging. Serious questioning blogging (not the half-arsed stuff that I witter on about just before my brain gives up the fight and fully surrenders to unconsciousness each evening).

    After all, if it wasn’t for the heavyweight political bloggers Messrs Bush, Cheney et al would have had a significantly easier ride; it’s been the political bloggers who have pulled back from the dictated news-cycle and have questioned and dissected where the mainstream media had no desire to tread.

    Taking time out and arguing about/discussing matters down to an sub-atomic level of granularity is what the serious bloggers are good at doing. Even the non-serious political bloggers have a role to play in this, even if it’s just exposing a story to a wider audience.

    An American journalist said last year that ‘the truth is just another conspiracy theory unless you have categorical evidence to prove it is the truth’. He then paused for a few moments and then added, ‘And even then, your description of the truth might not be the same as mine’.

    I love this kind of view. But I’m weird. I rail against Orwellian media manipulation even though I see and hear it on a daily basis. The media is pulling the wool over our eyes on a number of diverse subjects. I just think we all deserve better than we’re getting.

  2. Panic! The sky is falling in! Were you you around for the last ice age?

    “Cloud cuckoo land”.

    Nail. Head.

  3. sbalb says:

    Gosh, Chicken, your prose style is marginally better than your appreciation of what constitutes empirical study and the scientific method. When does your book come out, and have those legendary panic-merchants at the IPCC noticed its forthcoming physical release?

    (They’re such overexcitable woolly-heads, aren’t they? Good job they’ve got you and you and your single-word sentences to sort them out.)

  4. sbalb says:

    @Brennig, I think you’re right about the potential power of bloggers. I keep meaning to write about going to see Nick Davies talk about Flat Earth News last week, and how I agreed with him about everything but his distrust of blogging.

    But the point about climate change is that it’s fundamentally an issue of climatology and climatological study, yet the only times I hear it being picked apart are by people who don’t want it to be that. They want to talk about verbal nuance, about political motive, about human morality. That’s fine, so long as you give the climatological results—all of them, not just your own cherry-picked data set—their due in discussion. That means not talking about Obama’s speech somehow nullifying empirical study.

    The problem with those wanting to continue the dialogue about climate change, or reopen the dialogue, is that they’re fundamentally not climatologists. Worse, they’re not even scientists: they have no appreciation for the philosophy or history of science, or the empirical significance of what it means to do a scientific experiment and come to a conclusion; they can’t even realistically conduct meta-reviews of other people’s work, compare and contrast results, or make value judgments about what different results mean. But still they won’t leave this work to people who can do what they can’t, who don’t have their deficiencies. They don’t like the outcomes, but they won’t learn the skill.

    I accept, broadly, that truth (in the human sense of such slightly nebulous questions as “what’s going on?”, “who’s in charge?” and “why are we here?”) and empirical knowledge (in the sense of “with which competing theory are the current available data in line?”) are actually quite different things, muddied somewhat by the work of positivism (continued to this present day in the guise of Dawkins-led scientism). But if you want to construct a plausible version of the former, you have to have some respect for, some appreciation of, the content and philosophical weight of the latter.

    Skeptical reportage at its best can blow a political hegemony apart; skeptical reporting at its worst can just disempower its own method. It pulls everything to bits needlessly, makes everything relative, undermines anything that gets in the way, levels all the great edifices of accumulated data and experience, purely in order to erect the tiny wee tent of opinion that the writer originally wanted to voice anyway. Quid est veritas then, hm?

  5. TonyN says:

    You say:

    “Rereading that blog article a few times is like scratching an itch, and eventually the big red weals of David Icke start to appear: the vague atmosphere of obsession, the indication that Obama’s speechwriter’s priorities have empirical weight, and the intense and slightly unhinged deconstruction of Obama’s choice of the word “spectre”.”

    I’m flattered to see that you had to read my post several times before finding something to take issue with, and that then the best you can manage is an ad hominem attack. If you read it yet again, with an open mind, you will see that it says nothing whatsoever about the scientific argument about AGW.

    I envy your opportunity to hear Nick Davies speak, but I suspect that he would go with my views on this matter rather than yours. The story which Newsnight should have covered was the lack of references to climate change in the speech, given President Obama’s pronouncements on this subject during the campaign.

  6. sbalb says:

    For someone to imply that what Obama might or might not have said has any effect whatsoever on established, uncherrypicked, empirical climatological studies, and then to start bandying around the phrase ad hominem, takes a particular lack of self-awareness. Anyway, ad hominem is only a dirty phrase if you’re the sort of formal-argument fanboi who thinks that pointing it out is a palpable hit.

    It wasn’t actually an ad hominem attack, or “insult” as we plain folk call it, and it certainly wasn’t argumentum ad hominem, which is what I think you intended to accuse me of. It was a de homini observation. It formed a sparkling jewel set into the well-wrought clasps of a discussion of metatextual proportions. This veritable exemplum of beautifully turned prose touched on the qualities of the discourse and its discussants, rather than on any of the actual content which was, as with most geocaust denial, meagre fare.

    One cannot comment on the nature of the participants in a debate, on their political stances and their rhetorical quirks, without by its very definition such a resultant commentary being de homini in some sense. That’s not sufficient, unfortunately, for certain participants to then be able to point at and shout “Argumentum Bingo! I win, you lose!”

    In short: I was talking about you, not to you.

  7. TonyN says:

    In your post, you said:

    “To repeat, it’s terrible journalism on the BBC’s part, but to suggest that this somehow disproves, or greatly reduces the threat of, climate change is to live in cloud-cuckoo land.”

    And then in your most recent comment you say:

    “For someone to imply that what Obama might or might not have said has any effect whatsoever on established, uncherrypicked, empirical climatological studies ….”

    Can you point out to me where I suggested or implied these things? Perhaps you could even quote the passage.

  8. sbalb says:

    The whole tone of your article, and indeed of your corpus, is one of denialism:

    “And why use the very strange term ‘spectre’ to describe concerns about climate change? Of course spectres are threatening and scary, but they are also insubstantial and not believed in by most people.

    “… So why is he talking about ‘the spectre of a warming planet’, rather than the threat, the problem, the catastrophe or even the reality of a warming planet? Isn’t that the kind of thing that should attract a science editor’s attention?”

    This comment is the last point where I play this plausible-deniability “I didn’t use that specific word” game with you, Tony. If you choose to draft things with a certain amount of wiggle-room and then pretend not to appreciate the difference between the verbs “say” and “imply” then I’m simply not interested in engaging you in discussion. Like I said, I’m talking about you, not to you.

  9. TonyN says:

    But nothing that you say even attempts to answer my question, does it?

  10. K says:

    Tony N, let’s review what’s happened here:

    1. You do a good bit of research that catches the BBC in the act of cutting and splicing a speech.

    2. Then you go and spoil it all by writing a nudge-nudge blog post that implies the BBC are part of some conspiracy to exaggerate climate change. You also try to make out that Obama’s real speech is evidence that he doesn’t think climate change is a problem.

    3. Smallbeds writes a lengthy post agreeing with you that it’s bad journalism on the part of the BBC, but criticising the implications in your blog post. He repeats that there is scientific consensus on AGW and criticises your blog’s tendency to frame it as a debate when it isn’t.

    4. You respond by making a series of comments that completely miss the point of the original post. Instead of saying outright: “No, I’m not a geocaust denier”, you start on the he-said-she-said.

    5. Instead of saying, “No, I’m not implying that AGW is up for debate” and setting the record straight, you challenged smallbeds to point out exactly where you implied it – knowing full well that the entire post is full of hints that climate change isn’t a real threat.

    6. Smallbeds takes the trouble to respond to you by explaining what you already know: that the whole post was an attempt to undermine the reality of climate change, and that the rest of your blog makes it pretty clear that you’re a denier. He even takes the trouble to quench your thirst for quotes.

    7. You accuse smallbeds of failing to answer your question.

    The bottom line here is that you’re trying to get everybody bogged down in fisking and replies-to-replies and he-said-she-said. If you believe in the reality of anthopogenic climate change, if you believe it’s really a threat, come out and say so.

    But if, as I suspect, you’re a geocaust denier, have the balls to say that instead. Don’t hide behind deliberate misunderstandings and USENET-style unpicking of other people’s rhetoric. Don’t say “there is little public enthusiasm for a crusade against global warming”. Say “I don’t believe in global warming, because I am a geocaust denier.” Then we all know exactly what you are and what level of monumental, planet-wrecking stupidity we’re dealing with here.

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