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Denialism and the Five F Words

BY IN BLOG On 05-11-2009

[Originally posted November 5, 2009]

Alumni of my media training workshops know that today’s media are driven by five F words (all of which can be broadcast without fear of a huge fine from the FCC).  They are:

Fear — The media love to scare us.  Fright glues us to the page or the TV screen.

Fury — The media are biased — in favor of controversy.  If it’s a scary controversy, all the better

Fame — The media love stories about the famous or those they can make famous.

Fun — Every stolid local anchor thinks he’s Jon Stewart these days.  The media love stories that they can make fun of or that are funny in and of themselves.

Fascination — The media still go for those “I didn’t know that” kind of stories

In conflicts involving science, the media can often drum up the first two — fear and fury — but it’s rare they can add a really famous name to the mix. But that’s not the case with global climate change.  It’s got three out of five going for it, and for some it’s got four out of five.

FEAR: The consequences of a significant rise in the world’s sea level in the next 75 to 100 years is scary since the vast majority of the earth’s population lives in proximity to a coastline.

FURY:  There is a vociferous community angrily denying either climate change or a human hand in climate change.

FAME: The leading spokesperson calling attention to the climate change issue is the only man ever to win a Grammy, an Oscar and a Nobel Peace Prize, former Vice President Al Gore.

FUN: Gore’s sometimes stiff personality provides a rich target for comedic barbs from global climate change deniers.

I broach this subject because of the confluence of three events:

1. Gore just published his new book, “Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis,” and he began making the rounds of TV shows to promote it (including back-to-back appearances on the two most influential fake news programs on the air: “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and the “Colbert Report.” And the former Vice President did a full hour with Charlie Rose on PBS on the same night.)

2. Climate change deniers have taken a new tack: since there were several colder-than-normal summers in much of the world, especially in somecities, like New York, where media headquarters are concentrated, they are claiming we face global cooling, not global warming.

3. I spent a week media training scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, including two days working with earth scientists, many of whom devote their considerable talents to observing, charting and understanding climate change.

algoreianinconv100607oThe good news about having Al Gore as a spokesperson is that he is famous and he speaks in layman’s terms.  The bad news about having Al Gore as a spokesperson is that his fame is based on his being a politician and politicians’ motives have been made suspect, largely due to a steady drumbeat of accusations from other politicians.  Moreover, the New York Times raised some questions about Gore’s motives by running a front page article about the former VP’s  substantial investments in alternative energy technologies. (Knowing what he knows, however, it would be unrealistic to think Gore would buy stock in Exxon, Halliburton and the Mingo Logan Coal Company.)   In any event, the deniers’ answer to any point Gore made in the past was: “He’s just serving his political agenda”  Now, they are likely to add:  “He’s just serving his personal financial interest.”

But what of the scientists making the same points as Gore?  True, none of them has a similar degree of that third  F word, FAME, but then what politically or financially is in it for them?  How can their motives be impugned?  Aren’t the impugners at best what The New Yorker writer Michael Spector calls, “people who find scientific research too heavily burdened by facts” or at worst people simply serving THEIR political and financial agendas?

DenialismCoverThe title of Spector’s new book says it all: “Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet and Threatens Our Lives.” Spector defines denialsim as what happens  “when an entire segment of society, often struggling with the trauma of change, turns away from reality in favor of a more comfortable lie.”  Clearly the “comfortable lie” regarding climate change has great appeal; a poll this year (2009) found 57 percent of Americans think the climate is warming, down a full 20 points from a 2005 poll which found 77 percent of respondents convinced of global warming.

This is largely a media problem and it revolves around the second F word: FURY.  In order to gin up a good controversy, the media need two sides.  Never mind that the denial side is smaller, weaker in its science and frequently influenced by financial  motives; the controversy, the FURY is what’s important.  So the media give inappropriately disproportionate weight to the weaker argument.  And taking advantage of that, the deniers have been emboldened enough to come up with the canard of “global cooling.”

The economists who wrote the best-selling “Freakonomics” have decided to challenge the worldwide general consensus of reputable scientists by joining the climate cooling team.  The new book by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner is “Super Freakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance,” a compelling a title if ever there were one.

Levitt/Dubner write: “There’s this little-discussed fact about global warming: While the drumbeat of doom has grown louder over the past several years, the average global temperature during that time has in fact decreased.”  That led the Associated Press to present global climate statistics to a group of prominent independent statisticians in a blind test.  The statisticians unanimously said  the numbers do not prove global cooling and, in fact, point to global warning.  For his part, Levitt told the AP that he had not done a statistical analysis of the numbers, just “eyeballed” them, which is proof — if ever you needed it — that economics in not a science.  Or, at least proof that Levitt, who is not letting facts get in the way of a lie, is no scientist.  And not much of a journalist, either.

Levitt further told the AP that the reference to “cooling” in the book title was about ideas  to cool the planet down through geo-engineering.  In this case geo-engineering means combatting the warming effects of carbon dioxide emissions by spewing millions of tons of aerosols into the atmosphere to reflect back the sun’s heat. In other words, pollute the atmosphere to cool the planet, rather than reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Levitt has been called to account by many scientists, not the least of them climatologist Ken Caldeira who the book quotes in support of the thesis that the world is cooling.  Caldeira, smarting from what he considered a misrepresentation of his views, told physicist and climate expert Joe Romm, who writes the blog climateprogress.org:

“I compare CO2 emissions to mugging little old ladies … It is wrong to mug little old ladies and wrong to emit carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. The right target for both mugging little old ladies and carbon dioxide emissions is zero.”

Now that was a terrific soundbite.



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George Merlis

George Merlis is the founder and president of Experience Media Consulting. He is an award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist who has been doing media training, presentation training and crisis communications consulting for more than two decades. He has been day city editor of the nation's largest-circulation afternoon newspaper and executive producer of two of the three network morning news programs, Good Morning American and the CBS Morning News. He also served as executive producer of Entertainment Tonight.