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The BBC Trust, an independent advisory body for the British broadcaster, recently urged journalists to avoid giving equal air time to climate change skeptics. The Trust argues that journalists should recognize the consensus view among most climate scientists and avoid giving “undue attention to marginal opinion.” This raises questions among journalists about how to report on science and when to cut off the skeptics; and there are still rigorous debates within the scientific community about the impact of climate change and how to address it.
- Steve Jones Genetics Professor, University College London
- Daniel Kirk-Davidoff Adjunct Associate Professor of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science at University of Maryland College Park
- Brian Vastag Science Reporter, Washington Post
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, why Baltimore is implementing one of the strictest curfews in the nation and whether it will work. But first, covering climate change. The typical news segment usually goes like this. Reporters present a topic, people with different views debate it, the audience then decides what to believe. But the BBC has decided to ditch the debate when it comes to science reporting.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe British broadcaster recently announcing it will stop giving equal airtime to those who don't believe climate change is real. Scientists widely agree that the Earth is getting warmer and that humans are responsible. So many see this decision as a reasonable step forward. Indeed, comedian John Oliver recently played with the idea of a representative debate about climate change on his show.
MR. JOHN OLIVERIf there has to be a debate about the reality of climate change, and there doesn't, then there is only one mathematically fair way to do it. I'm going to bring out two people who agree with you, climate skeptic, and Bill Nye, I'm also going to bring out 96 other scientists -- it's a little unwieldy, but this is the only way to actually have a representative discussion.
NNAMDIDoes that make more sense than a 50/50 climate skeptic versus scientist debate? At what point do we decide ideas are no longer up for discussion? And where does the climate change conversation go from here? Joining me to discuss this decision and what it means for science and for journalism is Daniel Kirk-Davidoff. He's a Professor of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science at the University of Maryland College Park. He joins me in studio. Dan Kirk-Davidoff, thank you for joining me.
MR. DANIEL KIRK-DAVIDOFFThanks very much for having me. This is a great pleasure.
NNAMDIJoining me by phone from the south of France is Steve Jones. He's a Professor of Genetics at the University College London. Steve Jones, thank you for joining us.
MR. STEVE JONESHello. Thank you.
NNAMDIAnd joining me by phone from Boulder, Colorado is Brian Vastag, who is a science reporter with The Washington Post. Brian, thank you for joining us.
MR. BRIAN VASTAGThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDISteve Jones, you wrote the report that led to the BBC making this decision. You say when it comes to science, they've tried too hard to be impartial. Why should those who are skeptical of climate change not get a chance to air their views alongside scientists?
JONESI think science, unlike politics, shall we say, or arts, or poetry, or history, is evidence based. And what's happened in the climate change debate in Britain, and perhaps to a lesser extent in the States, although I'm fairly familiar with it there, too, is that the newspapers, in particular, have been filled with reports and columns by the very small proportion of people who do not -- people who are not scientifically qualified, who simply issue what I can only say are downright falsehoods about the fact that climate change is either not happening.
JONESOr, now that they say how can you deny that, or that it's due to some natural process that we don't understand. And the problem is that the BBC and many other broadcast organizations are so obsessed with the idea of debate that they will again and again bring in these unrepresentative people, these not scientifically trained people, and give them equal weight. And sometimes even more weight than the vast majority of scientists that agree that climate change is real and a large part of it is due to human activity.
NNAMDIYou can join this conversation by calling us at 800-433-8850. How will giving less time to those skeptical of global warming change the climate debate? Should non-scientists, like politicians and reporters, ever be listened to when it comes to science? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. Brian Vastag, this report raises questions about how we, the media, handle science. If you're reporting on a political story, for example, you have to offer equal time to all the sides involved. How is science reporting different from other kinds of journalism?
VASTAGRight. That's kind of the central question here that's being addressed and was addressed in the BBC reports. You know, science is an endeavor that's based on things you can measure. It's based on evidence, it's based on data. And, so it's the job of a science reporter to talk to the experts who know the data, who know what they're talking about, and to try to convey, you know, what they've learned in terms that the public can understand. So, you know, to take a classic example.
VASTAGYou know, the theory of gravity has been measured a million times, and it always comes out the same. So, it doesn't make sense to have two sides, you know, in your story, talking about gravity, having somebody say, well, I don't agree with that. It doesn't convey to the public the reality of what's been measured and what's been found. So, when it comes to the climate debate, you know, there's basically three questions that you can look at. You know, is the average temperature of the Earth going up? And that's been answered to a very high degree of certainty that the answer is yes.
VASTAGAre emission from human activity responsible or largely responsible? And again, that question's been answered largely, yes. And so, it doesn't serve the public's interest, I don't think, to have an article or a news segment where you debate these issues where the amount of evidence is overwhelming. You know, John Oliver had a good way to represent that by having, you know, 96 people on one side and two people on the other side.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number. When should media decide to stop paying attention to a point of view? How should reporters handle non-scientists who want to debate scientists? What is your view? 800-433-8850. Dan Kirk-Davidoff, you are a scientist. You specialize in climate change. The BBC has said there is consensus that climate change is happening and humans are responsible. What do you think about ending the debate on those points?
KIRK-DAVIDOFFWell, I think debate is great and we should have lots of it. I'm a climate scientist. I'm actually an adjunct at Maryland, and my day job, I work in the weather forecasting business, and I do a lot of work for forecasting renewable energy. There's a whole range of things to be debated that are really interesting topics. How should we address climate change? What are the best ways to go about that? What do we think about the environment impacts of the various alternatives? I think part of the problem here is, you know, the need to do a little more research before having people on your show.
KIRK-DAVIDOFFIt's great to have debates about interesting topics. It's great to have lively conversation on the air. But we just need to keep up enough with what's going on in the field to know what's actually a live topic and what's not. And then the other thing I'll mention -- this was something that came up after the BBC made their decision. There was a particular debate that was brought up as an example of a bad one. And I think that it was a bad one, because you had a scientist, Brian Hoskins, being debated by someone who had mostly a political interest in the topic.
KIRK-DAVIDOFFAnd, you know, would say, well, you know, it's all true what you're saying about the science, but, and then do a whole set of interesting, logical arguments that led to a dismissive point, but weren't based in science.
NNAMDISteve Jones, if we agree the Earth is getting warmer, and humans are responsible, what is still up for debate when it comes to climate change?
JONESWell, I think the last speaker made the central point. I mean, the gentleman you mentioned, who was the non-scientist, who debated Brian Hoskins. Of course, rather in a fuss, is a chap called Nigel Lawson, who used to be the Finance Minister of Britain, and he's a convinced opponent to the idea of climate change. And he's more than entitled to his opinion, but the difficulty is that he runs an organization called The Global Warming Policy Foundation and I underline the word policy. Now, I believe that he actually knows a lot about the relative efficacy of, let's say, wind turbines, tide, nuclear power, all these things.
JONESAnd there is a debate there. And I don't think scientists are much more qualified to enter into that debate, apart from providing facts, than say politicians are, or people like me, let's say, who have an irrational hatred of wind farms. Which I do, because they're so ugly. So there is a debate to be had.
NNAMDII think they're beautiful.
JONESWell, I see that we're having a debate now.
JONESSo, there is a debate there, and I think it's right that that debate should be active. But the difficulty is when the opposing side promises to debate the politics, but always ends up, almost always ends up, by denying the facts. Now, that just muddies the water. And the problem is, if people hear again and again that there is a controversy about it, they will begin not to believe it. There is a notorious case in Britain -- I'm not sure it made much of an impact in the United States, although the person involved is now in the United States.
JONESOf a vaccine program for measles, mumps and rubella for pregnant women -- it must be 15 years ago now. And somebody claimed, with very weak evidence, that this caused autism. And it took this triple vaccine as it was known, was called autism. And that had a dramatic effect. People stopped using the vaccine. Children were born and had severe diseases, as a result. And because there was a controversy, people began to think, oh, the safe thing is not to use the vaccine. The controversy was entirely false. It was immediately shown that this wasn't true. But, the vaccine use has still not recovered after 15 years to what it was before.
JONESSo, this kind of false logic, false balance is what I call it, can be very dangerous.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Steve Jones. He's a Professor of Genetics at the University College London. He joins us by phone from the south of France. Joining us by phone from Boulder, Colorado is Brian Vastag. He's a science reporter with The Washington Post. In our Washington studio is Daniel Kirk-Davidoff. He's a Professor of Oceanic and Atmospheric Science at the University of Maryland College Park. We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. How will the BBC's decision, in your view, affect journalism? What other ideas should the media stop giving airtime to? 800-433-8850. Brian Vastag, I didn't get you in on the conversation about what else is debatable. Can we still debate the degree to which this is happening, its specific effects?
VASTAGSo, absolutely. I think that, you know, as a science reporter, there is plenty of opportunity to report on discussions and debates and controversies within the scientific community regarding climate. Look, the Earth's climate is an extraordinarily complex system and, you know, the best minds in the world have not figured out everything about it. There's plenty of uncertainty as to how rapidly the climate's changing, what the effects are and so on. And, you know, as more and more research comes out, there's plenty of opportunity to cover those discussions. You know, one example is this area of attribution studies.
VASTAGWhich is, trying to look at specific extreme weather events, droughts and floods and so on, and trying to say, well, is there a fingerprint of carbon pollution or man-made climate change that made that event much more likely? That's an area of climate science that's developing and there's debate within the scientific community over how robust it is to be able to look at, you know, the drought going on in California right now, and Texas. And to say, well, you know, can we put a number or percentages around, you know, how likely -- how much more likely those events are because of man-made, you know, carbon emissions.
VASTAGSo, yeah, yeah, there's plenty of opportunity for debate. And of course, you know, reporters are traditionally trained to, like you said, to get all sides of an issue, when it comes to policies and what to do about all these massive changes happening all over the planet. Of course, it makes sense to, as a reporter, to have as many points of view as possible. And to look at those issues in kind of a more traditional reporting way. So yeah, there's plenty of opportunity for, you know, lively discussion. I think the BBC got into trouble by, you know, certain units of the BBC, I don't think it was the entire organization, got into trouble by having, you know, I guess, valuing lively debates about, you know, basic facts that have been established.
VASTAGYou know, carbon dioxide was established as a greenhouse gas in 1859, so that's 155 years ago.
NNAMDIDan, what do you think we should do about it?
KIRK-DAVIDOFFOh, about climate change. Oh, I think we should, you know, assign a value to the damage that we do when we put carbon dioxide into the air. So, one way or the other, we need to say that when we put a lot of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, that heats up the Earth. And on the whole, that's a bad thing for humanity and the natural world, so you need to pay a price when you do that.
KIRK-DAVIDOFFAnd whether that happens by specific regulation, like we've done with automobiles, where we've require automobiles to get better mileage and essentially, the consumer pays a little bit of a price in a slightly more expensive car or maybe a slightly smaller one than they would've wanted, or whether you assign a tax and just say, when anyone pulls carbon-producing fuels out of the ground or imports them into the United States, they have to pay a little tax. And then we just redistribute that to everyone on a per capita basis.
KIRK-DAVIDOFFThere's lots of different ways of saying there is a price to putting pollution in the atmosphere. And as we do it we need to pay it. And that will naturally encourage people to reduce their pollution and to turn towards cleaner ways of doing the things they need to do.
NNAMDIAnd that we can debate. What else should we be debating? You can let us know, 800-433-8850 or by sending email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Steve Jones, some people who have criticized the BBC decision say the jury is still out on climate change, that to actively shut out a point of view is as one critic said, Stalinistic. Are you afraid this could be a slippery slope to other opinions getting shut out of the media?
JONESAh yes, one of those slippery slopes. Yeah, there's lots of those around. No. I mean, you know, if you can't play the bull play the man. And that's what many of the opponents have been doing. You don't -- whenever you have a travel program on around the world cruise you don't have a flat earth saying this is impossible. It just becomes silly.
JONESNow I think -- I found writing this BBC trust report on science reporting a fascinating experience because the BBC, as indeed is true of many American (word?) organizations, produces excellent science programs. There's no question of that. And many of them know -- people who produce those programs know a lot about the science they're reporting.
JONESBut what almost none of them seem to know is what you might call how science is done, what the culture of science is, how scientists interact with each other, how we decide what's right and what's wrong, where we get our information from. Now I often say that science -- perhaps unlike the arts, certainly not like politics, science is the profession for pessimists. Because what scientists ought to do -- I'm not saying they always do it, but what they ought to be doing is trying to find information that destroys their own theories. Or even better, destroys one of their colleague's theories. It's a real joy to be going from that, I can assure you.
JONESSo the scientists are always or should be always ready to change their mind. As a famous example of that, in the late -- in 1904 it was, in Britain the president of the Royal Society, the equivalent of the National Academy of Science in the United States, addressed his nation's physicists and said, stop doing physics. You've done it all. We know how it works. Newton was right. We understand the way the atmosphere -- the planets work. Do something more interesting.
JONESThe next year, what happened? Relativity appeared, what's called quantum mechanics appeared, the art of a very small and effectively physics collapse and had to start again. And there was a lot of grumbling and cursing and swearing about that but people did it. People were willing to change their mind. And that's the sign of a good scientist. It is not the sign of a good politician. In fact, it might be the sign of a weak politician.
NNAMDIBrian Vastag, the idea here is that if an opinion is outside the scientific consensus, the media should not present it as part of a debate. Besides global warming skepticism, are there any other ideas to which journalists should stop giving a platform?
JONESI mean, I speak -- you know, you mention that the carbon dioxide was shown to be a greenhouse gas in 1859. 1859, of course, was the year the origin of species was published. And I find it, and I think many people outside of the United States find it absolutely astounding, the number of Americans who are creationists, in particular the younger creationists.
JONESNow I'm an evolutionary biologist and, in fact, I work on micro climates, but that's another story, and I just find that completely astounding. The idea that there are people out there who believe and will announce on air that the earth is 6,000 years old is so absurd I find it hard to swallow. But they get a platform. I'm, by no means, sure they deserve one.
NNAMDIBrian Vastag, same question.
VASTAGYeah, you know, I think the vaccine issue that Dr. Jones brought up a little earlier is a good example where as far as vaccines being connected to the increased rate of autism, there's been a huge amount of evidence that, you know, overturns that idea, that idea isn't viable at all. And so, you know, there've been a few famous people who have gotten a lot of traction in the media by promoting the view that vaccines are somehow linked to autism. But the weight of evidence in that case is so overwhelming that it really does not serve the public's interest to continue to give those people a platform.
VASTAGAnd let me just say that, you know, the climate issue, when it comes to -- and also the vaccine issue when it comes to manipulating the media, you know, the media is prone to manipulation because we have to work fast. We are biased towards controversy in debates. And, you know, interests who are trying to inject on certainty into the climate debates and into the vaccine debate, they know that. And they understand how to kind of make themselves available and how to say the right things to get into the media.
VASTAGSo, you know, it's a reporter's job to vet people and to make sure they're actually experts and they know what they're talking about. And, you know, as a reporter if I put somebody into my article who doesn't know what they're talking about and they're not an expert, that reflects poorly on me and it reflects poorly on the news organization. And so, you know, like you said, you have to do -- Dr. Jones said, you have to do your due diligence and find out who knows what.
NNAMDIDan, any ideas and which media should stop giving a platform to?
KIRK-DAVIDOFFI'm not a media person so I would rather point out some things in atmospheric science that I think would be great to have more attention paid to. And one particular thing would be our skill or lack thereof in forecasting say your short term climate forecasting. What is the climate going to be like in January of this year? So, you know, this year in particular it looks like there's a decent chance we'll have a reasonably strong El Nino develop in the fall. And that has some consequences for precipitation in this winter in California and Florida and lots of other places around the world.
KIRK-DAVIDOFFBut how confident can we be about those predictions? Is it possible that in, you know, 50 years from now we'd be able to make a really, really good forecast of that, or can that be shown to be impossible? That seems like a really interesting topic to talk about.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Daniel Kirk-Davidoff is a professor of atmospheric and oceanic science at the University of Maryland College Park. Dan, thank you so much for joining us.
KIRK-DAVIDOFFThanks so much for having me.
NNAMDISteve Jones is a professor of genetics at the University College London. Steve Jones, thank you for joining us.
JONESWell, thank you.
NNAMDIAnd Brian Vastag is a science reporter with the Washington Post. Brian Vastag, thank you.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, why Baltimore is implementing one of the strictest curfews in the nation and whether it will work. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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