Thursday, February 7, 2008

New Media Douchebags Explained

Speaking of which, check out this bit of douchebaggery in which a purported "centrist" poses the intriguing question: "Has Anthropogenic Global Warming Skepticism Hit Mainstream Acceptance?" The substance of this query is an article in the British newspaper "The New Statesman" (the "centrist" in question likes availing himself of the British press because... well, you know... it kind of flies under the radar of more intense scrutiny here on this side of the pond) penned by science writer David Whitehouse contending that recent data suggests global warming has stopped. This was adamantly rebutted several weeks later by another columnist Mark Lynas who pointed out that "Whitehouse got it wrong – completely wrong. The article is based on a very elementary error: a confusion between year-on-year variability and the long-term average."

Isn't that sweet? Now we've got conflicting opinions in a mainstream newspaper about the issue of AGW — a vertitable "he said, she said... on the one hand this, but on the other that" type of scenario. And there's Mr. Centrist on the job presenting the fray in his objectively dispassionate way. "Look, I've provided a lovely graphic that means... something... to somebody, but looks real "scientific" and I've offered up two sides of an argument that's sure to be controversial... not that I'm interested in hits or generating traffic or anything of the sort." And after skimming over the arguments back and forth, what does Mr. Centrist have to say about the matter? "I
f science is based on an objective gathering of information, then even dissenting opinion should be considered material worthy of publishing in the mainstream media."

Snooze-worthy indeed. But here's where the "douchebaggery" and intellectual dishonesty creeps into the equation. Mr. Centrist, ever so keen to present a lively "he said/she said" controversy concerning the issue for our edification and commentary, while at the same time coming across sounding all fair-minded and balanced about the issue, somehow or other failed utterly to make note of this rather obvious disclaimer from the editors of The New Statesman outlining their position on climate change:

Every qualified scientific body in the world, from the American Association for the Advancement of Science to the Royal Society, agrees unequivocally that global warming is both a reality, and caused by man-made greenhouse gas emissions. But this doesn’t make them right, of course. Science, in the best Popperian definition, is only tentatively correct, until someone comes along who can disprove the prevailing theory. This leads to a frequent source of confusion, one which is repeated in the Whitehouse article – that because we don’t know everything, therefore we know nothing, and therefore we should do nothing. Using that logic we would close down every hospital in the land. Yes, every scientific fact is falsifiable – but that doesn’t make it wrong. On the contrary, the fact that it can be challenged (and hasn’t been successfully) is what makes it right.

Bearing all this in mind, what should a magazine like the New Statesman do in its coverage of the climate change issue? Newspapers and magazines have a difficult job of trying, often with limited time and information, to sort out truth from fiction on a daily basis, and communicating this to the public – quite an awesome responsibility when you think about it. Sometimes even a viewpoint which is highly likely to be wrong gets published anyway, because it sparks a lively debate and is therefore interesting. A publication that kept to a monotonous party line on all of the day’s most controversial issues would be very boring indeed.

However, readers of my column will know that I give contrarians, or sceptics, or deniers (call them what you will) short shrift, and as a close follower of the scientific debate on this subject I can state without doubt that there is no dispute whatsoever within the expert community as to the reality or causes of manmade global warming. But even then, just because all the experts agree doesn’t make them right – it just makes them extremely unlikely to be wrong. That in turn means that if someone begs to disagree, they need to have some very strong grounds for doing so – not misreading a basic graph or advancing silly conspiracy theories about IPCC scientists receiving paycheques from the New World Order, as some of Whitehouse’s respondents do.

So, a mistaken article reached a flawed conclusion. Intentionally or not, readers were misled, and the good name of the New Statesman has been used all over the internet by climate contrarians seeking to support their entrenched positions. This is regrettable. Good journalism should never exclude legitimate voices from a debate of public interest, but it also needs to distinguish between carefully-checked fact and distorted misrepresentations in complex and divisive areas like this. The magazine’s editorial policy is unchanged: we want to see aggressive action to reduce carbon emissions, and support global calls for planetary temperatures to be stabilised at under two degrees above pre-industrial levels.

Yes, scientific uncertainties remain in every area of the debate. But consider how high the stakes are here. If the 99% of experts who support the mainstream position are right, then we have to take urgent action to reduce emissions or face some pretty catastrophic consequences. If the 99% are wrong, and the 1% right, we will be making some unnecessary efforts to shift away from fossil fuels, which in any case have lots of other drawbacks and will soon run out. I’d hate to offend anyone here, but that’s what I’d call a no-brainer.

So I ask you... Why did Mr. Centrist throw up an article that the paper in which it was published now admits was "mistaken" and that "reached a flawed conclusion" as a valid point of view? And why did he neglect to bring this disclaimer to his readers' attention? Was that just an "oversight" or was it deliberate manipulation for effect? Or perhaps just outright intellectual dishonesty and douchebaggery?

Update: Mr. Centrist has since added the full text of "the New Statesman's position on climate change" to his post. What a douchebag. Now he's moved on to more of his Muslim rustling and is busy asserting that “the correlation between socioeconomic inequality and terrorism appears to be one which is largely absent of evidentiary support” because, get this, “insurgency statistics” that have been “collected of captured insurgents display that demographics indicate the largest number [44%] come from the country of Saudi Arabia, a nation with a very high GDP.” Too funny for words. Gee, what’s the per capita GDP of Gaza, I wonder? Oh wait, I know… it’s $600. Yep, no correlation there at all.