Comment on NPR's Broadcast, "The Cost of Being Green"

Peter Wood

Peter Wood submitted an abbreviated version of this note to NPR here.

Brooke Gladstone’s intro to her interview with Eric Pooley touched a nerve but not the one she aimed at.  To describe skeptics of global warming and “man’s role in it” as “often bankrolled by big oil or big business” is a way of brushing aside a body of scientific argument by insinuating that it is compromised by the source of the funding. It would be just as plausible to dismiss the science on the other side as “often bankrolled by big government and the alternative energy industry.” Both sides of the debate have some ties to vested commercial interests. That doesn’t mean their arguments are tainted by such connections. The science stands or falls on its merits.

Or it should.

I am the president of the National Association of Scholars, a group that advocates for open debate and rigorous standards in higher education. We are non-political and we take no position on climate change. Our members include people on both sides of the debate.   But recently I have been hearing quite a bit from scholars and scientists who are, in varying degrees, skeptical either about global warming or the claims of human contributions to global warming. Their complaint is that they are increasingly subject to a form of harassment in which they are told that they must obey the “scientific consensus.”   These are not marginal individuals, but mainstream figures in climate science from universities such as MIT.

In my dictionary, “consensus” means unanimity or general agreement approaching unanimity. Consensus isn’t created by one partisan faction declaring it so, or by attempting to intimidate proponents of rival views into silence. 

Ms. Gladstone inadvertently made herself part of this effort to stigmatize dissent on climate change when she contrasted “a climatologist representing the scientific consensus” with “a specialist often bankrolled by big oil or by big business.”   Not only are skeptics tagged with an invidious financial motive, they are cast into illegitimacy for being outside the “scientific consensus”–a consensus that doesn’t truly exist. It is rather a rhetorical tactic for brushing aside one’s opponents without paying due attention to the scientific merit of their work.

Ms. Gladstone said all of this by way of illustrating the alleged error of the media in tingeing its coverage of climate change with “false equivalency.” That’s a provocative term. Surely it does name an error that sometimes creeps into media coverage. But how do the media figure out when its effort to give a balanced presentation of conflicting views has gone too far and thus turned into a “false equivalency?” When the media make that choice, they are deciding the “real” debate is over, and the people who continue to dissent are either cranks or acting in bad faith. 

That’s a stunning judgment to make in the case of climate change. This is a field in which there are profound arguments on both sides held by highly-qualified experts. I am not clear how Ms. Gladstone was able to resolve the conflicting scientific theories and evidence, or adjudicate among competing models. But maybe she didn’t. Maybe she just decided to pitch in with the side she favors. There is a story for “On the Media” to investigate. 

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