Saturday, November 06, 2010

Debunking Climate Change Denials

Time and again we've seen that one problem with the internet is its ability to spread rumors and misinformation. Someone sees a story online that fits their agenda, then copies it or links to it without checking to see what the source of that story was, and whether that source has any credibility. More and more you hear politicians and others defending their spreading of lies by saying, "I read somewhere..." or "I saw a story about..." without citing the person or organization that they heard it from.

British science journalist Peter Hadfield, who has worked for the BBC and New Scientist, has done some in-depth reporting on global climate change for years, and is annoyed by deniers who offer no factual basis or reputable source for their claims. Recently, he took on the oft-reported myth that the earth has actually been cooling since 1998, by going back to check on who said it. By doing some simple research, he discovered that once the incorrect information was posted online, all it took was other climate change deniers to repeat the lie often enough that it began to show up in search engines, which caused even more people to claim they had "read it online," and link to it, and on and on.

The problem was that the original sources had gotten the story wrong from the beginning. Watch what it's like when a real journalist does his job...


That's one of the videos Hadfield has posted on his You Tube page, which has become quite popular, about which he writes (and I've left his British spelling intact),
That success, however, comes at a price. It means looking at the science – not scary and unrealistic images of submerged cities. It means accepting the fact that Al Gore is not always right, and he should not be defended when he's wrong. It means acknowledging that while sceptics like Christopher Monckton and Martin Durkin fabricate a lot of their facts, many environmental activists tend to exaggerate theirs.

Of course, the evidence clearly shows that the climate is changing, largely because of man-made gases. And the consequences are likely to be dire. But exaggerating them – and being caught out – is not the way to gain public understanding or trust. As a science journalist I could not, with a clear conscience, report that the melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice caps will drown most of Florida (as Al Gore does in An Inconvenient Truth) without pointing out that this is not likely to happen for thousands of years.

The result of this candour is that a lot of sceptics trust the Potholer54 channel, and appreciate that they are not being talked down to, or badgered or lectured. I do not call them climate "deniers", which presupposes there is some irrefutable truth they are denying. But neither are they truly sceptics. They learn climate science the same way many schoolchildren learn about sex – from other kids. The only difference in the internet age is that the playground got bigger.