I’m pleased to offer some essays and letters with links that have recently appeared in The Australian newspaper. One of them is an essay from my friend and fellow skeptic, Jo Nova, in Perth, who does a superb job with her rebuttal to an attempt to shut down debate on climate change.
Here’s a short timeline of events:
Then there was this essay, by David McKnight, which brought out the ridiculous old “tobacco and big oil” arguments to use in smearing skeptics. Sceptical writers skipped inconvenient truths.
Followed by Jo Nova’s rebuttal to that essay: Newspapers should lead the country
Here’s McKnight’s essay:
Sceptical writers skipped inconvenient truths
- David McKnight From: The Australian December 11, 201
A response to The Weekend Australian’s summary of its editorial position on climate change
THE Australian is undoubtedly the most serious newspaper in Australia and its record on climate change matters because of this. More importantly, its stance matters because of the civilisational challenge that climate change presents to Australia and the world.
This was recognised by the chief executive officer of News Corporation, Rupert Murdoch, who warned in 2007 that climate change posed “clear catastrophic threats”. Murdoch also pledged that News Corporation would “weave this issue into our content” and “tell the story in a new way”.
I happen to agree with Murdoch’s description of the seriousness of the threat.
But there is a puzzle. In recent years The Australian campaigned in favour of objective facts in the teaching of Australian history against “political” interpretations.
By contrast, its attitude to the science of climate change has zig-zagged from a grudging acceptance of the facts to simple denial and back again.
In all modes, its stance is invariably dominated by old ideological obsessions that are tangential to this profound issue.
Last weekend in Focus, The Australian’s new environment editor, Graham Lloyd, defended his newspaper’s stance on climate change. It is healthy for a newspaper to publicly debate its stance on such an issue but Lloyd’s article was highly selective and, I believe, misleading.
Lloyd argues that there has been a “longstanding misrepresentation of this newspaper’s editorial position on climate science and its longstanding support for a global response to limit greenhouse gas emissions”.
Really? How longstanding? Editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell told Crikey last week that “for several years the paper has accepted man-made climate change as fact”. “Several years” is hardly longstanding. But Mitchell’s statement is also disingenuous because it omits vital facts.
As Lloyd showed, it is possible to find editorials in 1997 in The Australian under then editor-in-chief David Armstrong that accepted the science on climate change. But after that period, The Australian took a different direction. This is paradoxical. As the scientific evidence for climate change strengthened, the newspaper’s attitude went in the opposite direction.
At the beginning of 2006 an editorial agreed that the world was warming but claimed “no one knows . . . why it is happening” (January 14, 2006).
At the same time the newspaper described itself as “healthily sceptical about the possible causes of and solutions to global warming” (November 4, 2006). No wonder Mitchell confined himself to the phrase “several years”.
A couple of months after this, an editorial made the extraordinary suggestion that “the real debate on climate change is only now getting started”.
The editorial’s contribution to this debate was to disparage the latest UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report and proffer the long discarded sceptical claim that there was “a link between cyclical sunspot activity and the climate here on earth”.
Shortly after its “sunspot” editorial, The Australian published a feature article (“Rebels of the Sun”, March 17, 2007) recycling this discredited theory and lamenting that the debate “has become increasingly stifling and intolerant to dissenting voices”, citing fossil industry-funded sceptics, and attacking Al Gore, whose campaign on climate change was documented in An Inconvenient Truth.
For many years The Australian has been unable to see climate issues except through a distorted ideological lens. For example, an editorial on January 14, 2006, argued that the environment movement was about “more theology than meteorology” and “[S]upport for Kyoto cloaks the green movement’s real desire: to see capitalism stop succeeding”.
Later, an editorial accused “deep green Luddites” of believing that “the only way to avert the coming apocalypse is to close down all the power plants, take all cars off the road and return to a pre-industrial Arcadia” (June 8, 2007). Lloyd’s article last Saturday ignored these editorials.
He failed to mention that just before the 2007 federal election an editorial characterised an environmental approach in politics as wanting to “transform the nation into a wind-powered, mung bean-eating Arcadia” (October 27, 2007). This kind of unrestrained invective suggested the newspaper itself could be accused of hysteria and alarmism, a charge it regularly threw at those who disagreed with it.
Such rhetoric meant that genuine debate on climate in the pages of The Australian was simply not possible.
The newspaper continually framed the debate as one between, on the one hand, sensible sceptics and, on the other, “deep green Luddites”. By implication, the political and business leaders of Europe, plus Gore and Tony Blair, were in the latter category.
A newspaper’s columnists have access to valuable journalistic real estate under the sponsorship of the editor. Instead, The Australian’s columnists have largely repeated the paper’s dominant editorial line.
The former economics editor, Alan Wood, over many years characterised concern about climate change as “green hysteria”. Another occasional columnist, Alan Oxley, chaired the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation study centre that sponsored a conference of fossil fuel companies and climate deniers in Canberra in April 2005.
At the conference, he said, “Leading scientists also explained how the science on which Kyoto is based was unravelling and argued that the cataclysmic threat of global warming is oversold.”
Shortly afterward Oxley argued, “There is no reasonable certainty that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide from human activity cause significant global warming.” (August 2, 2005).
When the Howard government began to acknowledge that carbon emissions were linked to dangerous climate change, another regular columnist, Christopher Pearson, said he felt “bitter disappointment” about curbs on “what will turn out to be, in all probability, a perfectly harmless gas” (November 18, 2006).
Unsurprisingly, this column, as with many others from The Australian, was recycled on denialist websites around the world.
Lloyd reported that The Australian has defended the right of climate sceptics “to have a voice”. This is curious. Does it defend the right of tobacco sceptics to have a voice? Of course not, for the simple reason that all intelligent people recognised long ago that such sceptics were fronts for the tobacco industry and that the medical science of smoking was settled.
On climate issues The Australian still gives voice to a global PR campaign largely originated by the oil and coal companies of the US. On this score genuinely sceptical journalism is missing in action. Instead, an ideological sympathy with climate sceptics has been concealed behind a fig leaf of supposed balance.
But what shines through in the attitude of the newspaper is its lack of intellectual and moral seriousness in dealing with the consequences of climate change. Climate issues are always taken as an opportunity for cheap shots about what The Australian calls “the Left” or “deep greens”. This attitude stands in stark contrast to the deep seriousness of the newspaper’s endlessly re-affirmed belief in free markets, competition and privatisation.
The Australian’s editorials and columns on climate change raise questions about its own standards of evidence.
For example, the newspaper never questioned the so-called evidence cobbled together to confirm Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction.
This was deemed adequate enough to support an invasion at a terrible cost in lives.
But the overwhelming evidence on climate change accumulated over more than 25 years by the best minds in the field was dismissed for many years by The Australian and is now only grudgingly accepted. This is what alarms many of Australia’s leading climate scientists.
The challenge posed by climate change to our economy and society is profound. Most Australian political leaders who are locked into the 24-hour news cycle see it as merely another issue. For a long time the newspaper has characterised climate change as an issue with a political, not scientific basis. It bears some responsibility for the impasse we have reached as a nation.
The role of a serious national newspaper is to give leadership on such issues. It could do this by asking hard questions on the future of the coal industry and on Tony Abbott’s comment that the science is “absolute crap”.
This is especially so given that climate change poses “clear catastrophic threats”, in the words of the newspaper’s publisher in 2007. On that score, I’m with Rupert Murdoch.
David McKnight is the author of several books on politics and history. He works in the arts faculty at the University of NSW.
Here is Jo Nova’s red hot rebuttal:
Newspapers should lead the country
A REPLY to a critic of The Australian’s coverage of the debate about climate change.
- Joanne Nova The Australian December 18, 2010
DAVID McKnight’s criticism of The Australian over climate change (“Sceptical writers skipped inconvenient truths”, Inquirer, December 11) makes for a good case study of Australian universities’ intellectual collapse.
Here’s a University of NSW senior research fellow in journalism who contradicts himself, fails by his own reasoning, does little research, breaks at least three laws of logic, and rests his entire argument on an assumption for which he provides no evidence.
Most disturbingly – like a crack through the facade of Western intellectual vigour – he asserts that the role of a national newspaper is to “give leadership”.
Bask for a moment in the inanity of this declaration that newspapers “are our leaders”. Last time I looked at our ballot papers, none of the people running to lead our nation had a name such as The Sydney Morning Herald. Didn’t he notice we live in a country that chooses its leaders through elections? The role of a newspaper is to report all the substantiated arguments and filter out the poorly reasoned ones, so readers can make up their own minds.
The point of a free press is surely for the press to be free to ask the most searching questions on any topic. Yet here is an authority on journalism attacking The Australian for printing views of scientists who have degrees of doubt about global warming and/or any human component in it.
And these scientists that McKnight wants to silence are not just the odd rare heretic.
The swelling ranks of sceptical scientists is now the largest whistle-blowing cohort in science ever seen. It includes some of the brightest: two with Nobel prizes in physics, four NASA astronauts, 9000 PhDs in science, and another 20,000 science graduates to cap it off. A recent US Senate minority report contained 1000 names of eminent scientists who are sceptical, and the term professor pops up more than 500 times in that list. These, McKnight, an arts PhD, calls deniers.
Just because thousands of scientists support the sceptical view doesn’t prove they’re right, but it proves their opinions are nothing like the tobacco sceptics campaign that McKnight compares them with in a transparent attempt to smear commentators with whom he disagrees.
Ponder the irony that McKnight, the journalism lecturer, is demanding The Australian adopt the policy espoused by the dominant paradigm, the establishment, and censor the views of independent whistleblowers.
He thinks repeating government PR is journalism; the rest of us know it as propaganda.
McKnight doesn’t name any scientific paper that any sceptic denies. Instead, he seems to use a pre-emptive technique designed to stop people even discussing the evidence about the climate.
McKnight’s research starts with the assumption that a UN committee, which was funded to find a crisis, has really found one, and that it is above question. His investigation appears to amount to comparing articles in Fairfax versus Murdoch papers, as if the key to radiative transfer and cumulative atmospheric feedbacks lies in counting op-ed pieces. If he had made the most basic inquiry, McKnight might also have found out that the entire case for the man-made threat to the climate rests on just the word of 60 scientists who reviewed chapter nine of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report.
He’d also know that the people he calls deniers, far from being recipients of thousands of regular Exxon cheques, are mostly self-funded – many are retirees – and that Exxon’s paltry $US23 million for 1990-2007 was outdone by more than 3000 to one by the US government alone, which paid $US79 billion to the climate industry during 1989-2009.
So “sharp” is McKnight’s analysis that he calls the independent unfunded scientists “a global PR campaign originating from coal and oil companies”, but all while he is oblivious to the real billion-dollar PR campaign that is waged from government departments, a UN agency, financial houses such as Deutsche Bank, the renewable energy industry, the nuclear industry and multi-hundred-million-dollar corporations such as the WWF.
The job of a newspaper, he indicates, is to decide which scientist is right about atmospheric physics. Is Phil Jones from the East Anglia Climate Research Unit right, or is Richard Lindzen, Massachusetts Institute of Technology meteorologist, right? Add that to the duties for aspiring national editors. Tough job, eh?
McKnight’s main error in his article – accepting an argument from authority – has been known in logic for 2000 years, and his entire synopsis is built around this fallacy.
Just suppose, hypothetically, that the government employed many scientists on one side of a theory and none from the other. McKnight’s method of “knowing” who is right involves counting the institutions and authorities who support the grants – I mean, the theory. If science were exploited this way, McKnight would fall victim every time, blindly supporting the establishment.
That doesn’t prove he’s wrong but his analysis is confused at every level. He claims The Australian has zig-zagged from acceptance to denial but then later accuses The Australian’s columnists of repeating “the dominant editorial line”. But which editorial line would be dominant: the zig type or the zag? In science, evidence is the only thing that counts, not opinion. McKnight, the follower of funded opinions, has the gall to question The Australian’s standards of evidence but the only evidence he offers is a collection of opinions. McKnight paints himself as an authority on journalism yet fails to investigate his base assumption, research the targets of his scorn or understand the role of the free press: he is his own best example of why argument from authority is a fallacy.
If our journalism lecturers are feeding students with ideas of leadership roles, how decrepit is the institution where students are not even taught that the highest aim of a journalist is to ask the most penetrating questions and leave no stone unturned, so the people they serve might have the best information?
Such is the modern delusion of the activist-journo: McKnight wants to be the leader, to dictate what the public can think and to direct where public spending goes, but he doesn’t want to bother running for office or to expose his claim to open debate. He’s nothing more than a totalitarian in disguise.
Joanne Nova is a commentator and the author of The Skeptics Handbook. She is a former associate lecturer in science communication at the Australian National University.