Science and the Media Collide

Michael Mann

There is a basic inconsistency between the here-and-now incentive that drives our popular media, and the slower, more deliberate manner in which science advances. While dramatic (and, unfortunately, many times misleading) headlines may help sell newspapers and get us to view evening news and commentary shows, they are not faithful to the way scientific progress generally occurs—or indeed to how any complex situation unfolds.

Individual scientific studies, as discussed earlier, rarely change our basic scientific understanding. Rather, the accumulation of evidence from many studies and the process by which some findings are reinforced and validated – while others fall to the wayside – typically leads to slow but steady scientific advancement.

Newspaper articles and television or radio broadcast news segments (sometimes aided by carelessly written press releases) tend to play up controversy and minimize uncertainties and caveats. Yet it is those caveats—the “error bars,” the conditional and tentative assertions, the qualifications—that scientists often emphasize (frequently to a fault) in their efforts to prevent their findings from being misinterpreted, overinterpreted, or generalized beyond their range of applicability. Evidently, scientists and journalists (or at least their editors), in this respect, tend to work at cross-purposes.

Who can blame press officers, journalists, and their editors for emphasizing that which appears most novel, unusual, or surprising about a breaking science story? They must find a “hook” to sell their story if it is to compete effectively with the numerous other stories seeking a place in the ever shrinking “news hole.” Incremental refinements may seem dull and uninspiring to the lay public, but controversy sells, and conflict, if a reporter can find it in a story—well, that’s the mother lode.

As a result of this dynamic, the public is subjected to extreme viewpoints, alarmist headlines, and a barrage of seemingly contradictory findings—the “whiplash” effect that has been noted by the long-time New York Times science writer Andrew Revkin. The effect is, of course, worsened by the existence today of agenda-driven news outlets that seek to actively discredit scientific findings that conflict with their ideological views.

It is not difficult to see why confused observers attempting to follow scientific developments would throw up their hands, resigned to the notion that all we can safely conclude is that “the scientists don’t agree.” Such a scenario plays right into the hands of vested interests. If one’s agenda is, for example, to impede efforts to combat the climate change threat, it is not necessary to convince the public that the science of climate change is wrong, simply that it is grossly uncertain.

If one’s agenda is, for example, to impede efforts to combat the climate change threat, it is not necessary to convince the public that the science of climate change is wrong, simply that it is grossly uncertain.

It is hardly coincidental, then, that climate change contrarians have increasingly focused on manufacturing controversy where there essentially is none among those expert in the field (the overwhelming majority of practicing climate scientists concur that human activity is warming the planet and changing our climate), rather than engaging in good-faith debate over the actual remaining uncertainties in the science or what implications they might have for public policy.

This is not to say that the media in some monolithic way are acting as willing accomplices to the climate change denial campaign. Nonetheless, emphasizing controversy over substance, and retreating all too often to the rather uncritical notion of “journalistic balance” when covering “debates” between legitimate scientists and antiscientific advocates, play unwittingly to that agenda.

Michael E. Mann is Distinguished Professor of Meteorology at Penn State University, and the director of the Earth System Science Center. This piece is excerpted from The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, by Michael E. Mann. Copyright 2012 Michael E. Mann. Reprinted with permission of Columbia University Press.

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