Climategate and the ideology of news

February 8, 2010

The debate about global warming was about science only in the sense that the Spanish Inquisition was about God:  in both cases, an unimpeachable authority was invoked to justify measures a majority of people found unpleasant and unnecessary.  In reality, climate rage was the latest issue seized on by rationalist politicians, who believe that a golden elite, made up mostly of themselves, must act as good shepherds to the ignorant mob, made up mostly of the rest of us.

The political edifice of global warming begins with “nongovernmental organizations”:  pressure groups like the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace.  It embraces large bureaucracies in wealthy Western nations, and crests at the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  People in charge of each of these institutions believe they know truth, and we, the rabble, should just hear and obey.

For me, the science of global warming was settled by Bjorn Lomborg’s magnificent The Skeptical Environmentalist.  Since reading it, I haven’t worried that floods of biblical proportions might swamp my ankles – but on this blog I did note, on occasion, the bizarre, inquisitional behavior of the climate rationalists.  Top of the charts was IPCC chair R. J. Pachauri, who in a burst of originality compared Lomborg’s ideas to Hitler’s.

Global warming as a pretext for rationalist politics died a messy death at the climate summit in Copenhagen.  The wounds were largely self-inflicted.  At the most basic level, the advocacy elites tripped on a paradox:  they deployed moral principles which nauseated them, to save a way of life they despised.  An agenda of revolutionary proportions could not be sustained by a politics of cultural despair.

The recent collapse of the “science” of global warming will surprise no one who has been paying attention.

Climategate shone a light on scientists who treated data like poker chips and embodied the inquisitional spirit at its fiercest.  It also revealed the appalling sloppiness of climate  models. Doomsday predictions of the IPCC’s are now known to rest on little more than assertions by pressure groups.  Temperature data from countries like China and Australia appears bogus or cherry-picked.

Pachauri’s “green” money-making schemes have been exposed; his tenure as head of the IPCC is about to end ingloriously.  In the UK, the scientist-bureaucrat in charge of the Climate Research Unit has already stood down.

This is big news, yet the news media is nowhere to be found.  Talented and tenacious amateurs, working online, first surfaced the problems with climate science:  my favorites are Anthony Watts of Watts Up With That and Richard North of EU Referendum, but there are many others.  They kept pulling at the threads sticking out of the sacred documents of global warming, until the whole thing unravelled.

Anyone could have done that.  The putative watchdogs of the news business chose not to.  In fact, from motives that beg an explanation, the news media became a handmaiden to the most brain-dead elements of the global warming faith.  When climate politics collapsed at Copenhagen, journalists soldiered on with scary stories about melting Arctic ice.  When the corrupted science of the IPCC and CRU was revealed by bloggers, they maintained a surly but determined silence.

Rejectionism overwhelmingly typified the response of the US media.  In the UK, a competitive press began to sniff a delightful scandal, and in time took the story over from the bloggers.  The Telegraph pounded Pachauri’s conflicts of interest, while the Times repeated, to a wider audience, tales of bad science at the IPCC.  Even the Guardian, which is to global warming what the Ossevatore Romano is to the Vatican, jumped into the pool, exposing the CRU’s shell game with data from China.

By contrast, a search of WaPo reporting over the last month – while the scandals were brewing – turned up a total of three articles on the subject, two of them from the Associated Press.  They present a muted and contradictory picture:  some experts say this, others say that.  The single WaPo-authored report headlines a Pachauri plea that “Error shouldn’t derail global warming efforts in India.”  The IPCC chief, we are assured, “promised a more robust reseach system in the future.”

The NYT covered the Climategate revelations somewhat better than the WaPo, and frequently reports on climate-related legislation and regulation.  Over the last month, however, the newspaper has gone dark on both the politics and the science of global warming.  All I could find in a search of the site was a single article urging us to give up meat “to save the planet.”

Why the silence of the media lambs?  Mark Steyn has been among the first to call global warming “a massive journalistic failure.”  Here Steyn cites Matt Ridley of the Spectator:

It was amateur bloggers who scented the exaggerations, distortions and corruptions in the climate establishment; whereas newspaper reporters, even after the scandal broke, played poodle to their sources.

But it wasn’t just a matter of playing poodle.  Big journalism treated the cardinals of the climate church with unwonted deference because the two groups are rationalist to the core.   Both share an exalted vision of their own place in society, and a low opinion of the mental capacities of American public.

The ideology of news holds that journalists must, Prometheus-like, bring the light of truth to the public, which otherwise would run amuck in animal desires.  No story has ever fit this mold better than global warming, with its tragic plot of hubris and destruction, esoteric language, and constant appeals to “science” and scientists.

Thus Andrew Freedman of the WaPo explains his duty to his readers:

But where skeptics see a media conspiracy to ignore cooling, I see an effort to accurately communicate climate science to the public. Of course there is a “possibility” that the earth is cooling, but virtually every peer reviewed climate study has shown the opposite to be true.

Freedman isn’t a scientist of any sort, but an “environmental columnist.”  His qualifications to “accurately communicate climate science to the  public” are on a par with the public’s.  The story is from January 7, months after Climategate had, at a minimum, thrown doubt on the validity of using “peer review” as the last bastion of defense for climate advocacy.

A January 28 news report in the WaPo proclaims our “harsh winter” to be “a sign of unusually disruptive climate change,” and conflates this assertion with the public’s loss of confidence in global warming.

This winter’s extreme weather — with heavy snowfall in some places and unusually low temperatures — is in fact a sign of how climate change disrupts long-standing patterns, according to a new report by the National Wildlife Federation.

It comes at a time when, despite a wealth of scientific evidence, the American public is increasingly skeptical that climate change is happening at all.

The NWF is, of course, a pressure group.  It is unlikely to say, “Don’t worry, cold weather disproves our living faith.”  Its report wasn’t peer reviewed and consisted mostly of puffball scienceWaPo chose to cover the story for reasons unrelated to its intrinsic scientific merit.

Finally, one Chris Mooney published an opinion piece in the WaPo, which rejected the turf-warrior image projected by the CRU scientists in the Climategate emails.

The central lesson of Climategate is not that climate science is corrupt. The leaked e-mails do nothing to disprove the scientific consensus on global warming. Instead, the controversy highlights that in a world of blogs, cable news and talk radio, scientists are poorly equipped to communicate their knowledge and, especially, to respond when science comes under attack.

The public is ignorant but powerful.  Scientists own truth, but communicate it poorly.  Enter the heroic journalist.  The two elites – science and journalism – fuse into a single voice, loud as thunder, wise as God, beyond questioning by blogs and talk radio.  (Mooney, feudally described as a “Knight fellow in science journalism” is the co-author of “Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future.”)

Global warming politics were about taking control away from ordinary people and giving it to a brilliant elite.  Journalism was about limiting the information available to ordinary people to whatever was thought suitable by another brilliant elite.  Both elites relied on authority rather than experience, and preferred the inquisitional style to an honest discussion of possibilities.

Both misread the eagerness of the public to be re-educated by their betters.  And both, I fearlessly predict, will melt away long before the Arctic ice cap.