by Bruce S. Thornton
One of the pleasures of reading the New York Times is spotting the myriad ways liberal ideology shapes stories and presents as fact what is a debatable supposition. Global warming, for example, is a “crisis” about which the Timeshas already made up its mind. Rather than a contested theory rife with qualifications, reservations, and counter-evidence, for the Times the notion that rising global temperatures are caused by increases in human-generated CO2 is settled science brooking no dissent.
A recent Times article about the late Charles Keeling, the scientist who developed a technique for measuring CO2 in the atmosphere, illustrates how the way stories are written reinforces a narrative that owes as much to politics and ideology as it does to science. A perfect example of this phenomenon is the following paragraph from the Keeling profile:
But as action [to reduce CO2 emissions] began to seem more likely, the political debate intensified, with fossil-fuel industries mobilizing to fight emission-curbing measures. Climate-change contrarians increased their attack on the science, taking advantage of the Internet to distribute their views outside the usual scientific channels.
Notice the biased narrative lurking within this paragraph. First, challenges to the notion that human-generated CO2 increases account for global warming aren’t the result of scientists doing their job and pointing out weaknesses in a theory, or exercising prudence when making predictions about a phenomenon as complex and intricate as global climate. No, like in some Hollywood B-Movie, greedy “fossil-fuel industries,” putting profits ahead of people and the planet, started generating junk-science “attacks” in order to befuddle the scientifically illiterate masses.
Next, those researchers who challenge the dominant narrative are identified not as scientists but as “contrarians,” a word that suggests cranks who for attention or other sinister motives reflexively oppose a consensus no matter how dangerous for the rest of us. The Times reporter here repeats a characterization used by uber-liberal Time columnist Paul Krugman, who in a blog posting last year spoke of “contrarianism without consequences” while scolding Stephen Dubner and Stephen Levitt’s SuperFreakonomics, a few pages of which raised some mild questions about global warming orthodoxy. Such global-warming “contrarians,” moreover, rely on the unregulated Internet to promulgate their views “outside the usual scientific channels.” The implication is that those “channels” with their lofty vetting standards and Olympian objectivity would sniff out the bad science and willful errors that go viral on the lawless web, home of “pseudo-science and conspiracy theory blogs,” as 60 Minutes reporter Scott Pelley put it when asked why he didn’t interview global warming skeptics.
So according to this paragraph from the Times story, a scientific fact as unquestioned as the spherical earth orbiting the sun is attacked by evil corporations that manipulate credentially challenged contrarians who take to the Internet and bewitch the oafish public into doubting that obvious fact. Or as Al Gore put it, “Fifteen percent of the people believe the moon landing was staged on some movie lot and a somewhat smaller number still believe the Earth is flat. They all get together on a Saturday night and party with the global warming deniers.” Now we know why, as the article frets, “Polls indicate that the public has grown more doubtful about that science” establishing the “fact” that humans are causing global warming.
Of course, two can play at that ad hominem game. If oil-company money automatically makes global-warming skeptics suspect, how about the billions of dollars — nearly $2 billion a year just in the US — that flow to global-warming catastrophists, who also have the resources of the United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)? Or what about the great “clean energy” boondoggle, $30 billion worth in the 2009 stimulus bill? This lucre wouldn’t be flowing to Gore & Co. without the apocalyptic scenarios generated by the global warming industry.
The worst offense of this article, however, is the suggestion that those scientists who raise questions about the climate-change consensus are “contrarians” with dubious credentials. But that consensus depends on certain assumptions with vulnerabilities that should be the job of scientists to probe. For example, the bedrock assumption behind the theory of human-generated global warming is the recorded increases in CO2 over the last two centuries. And how do we know CO2 has increased? “Bubbles of ancient air,” the Times explains, “trapped by glaciers and ice sheets have been tested, and they show that over the past 800,000 years, the amount of carbon dioxide in the air oscillated between roughly 200 and 300 parts per million. Just before the Industrial Revolution, the level was about 280 parts per million and had been there for several thousand years.”
That seems like a straightforward fact — unless you ask how long CO2 remains in the atmosphere, or whether the volume of CO2 trapped in ice has remained stable all those millennia and so can provide an accurate baseline.
As for the first question, according to Dr. Tom Segalstad, abundant research evidence suggests that CO2 stays in the atmosphere for at most 12 years. If that is true, then humans cannot possibly have pumped CO2 into the atmosphere fast enough to account for the alleged increases caused by humans. Either something other than humans is increasing CO2, or the way the gas is measured is flawed.
Which brings us to those “bubbles of ancient” air that are used to establish how much CO2 was in the atmosphere before humans started burning fossil fuels. Many scientists, including Zbigniew Jaworoski, have challenged this assumption that ice cores accurately record CO2 concentrations in ancient air. Jaworoski’s research suggests that the ice is not a closed system that preserves air bubbles unchanged and keeps gas concentrations stable. Because of ice liquefying, the different solubility levels of gasses in cold water, cracks in the ice, and extreme pressure that crystallizes CO2 into a solid, CO2 in ice can be reduced. Thus the baseline alluded to in the Times article that establishes the notion of dangerously increasing CO2 is put in doubt.
But aren’t Segalstad and Jaworoski “contrarians” with suspect credentials, cranks who rely on the Internet to publicize their junk science? Segalstad is past head of the Geological Museum in the University of Oslo’s Natural History Museums, an associate professor of resource and environmental geology at the University of Oslo, and was an expert reviewer for the UN’s IPCC, the Nostradamus of the climate catastrophists. Jaworoski, the author of four books and nearly 300 scholarly articles, is the senior scientific advisor of the Scientific Council of the Central Laboratory for Radiological Protection in Poland. Like the other legitimate scientists profiled in Lawrence Solomon’sThe Deniers, these are serious researchers doing what scientists are supposed to do — put theories to the test before granting assent.
The point is not that Segalstad or Jaworoski are necessarily right. Rather, their legitimate criticisms should be taken seriously and refuted with evidence and argument, not ignored or dismissed out of hand as the “junk science” of contrarians or oil-company hirelings.
As for the Times, like much of the mainstream media our presumed newspaper of record is not impartially investigating all sides of an issue in order to report the truth. If it were, it would not ignore or mischaracterize challenges to the “consensus,” itself a suspicious notion in science. After all, the geocentric universe was once the “consensus” challenged by “contrarians” like Galileo. Rather, the Times’ reporting too often serves a political ideology, which obscures the truth by “retaining only facts favorable to the thesis one is defending, even, if necessary, inventing them, and denying, omitting, or forgetting others to keep them from becoming known,” as Jean-François Revel put it. Whatever you call it, it isn’t journalism.
©2010 Bruce S. Thornton