Sunday, 5 September 2010

Manufacturing Ignorance

In "Manufacturing Consent" Noam Chomsky laments that the attention span of television news reporting is so short that only conventional thoughts can be expressed. Chomsky's brand of dissent is undermined by insufficient airtime, in the parlance of TV journalism it is called 'concision'.  Global warming advocates are particularly susceptible to concision because of all the uncertainties and unravelling decades of misinformation .  In short the unfolding narrative goes that the scientists present a dire prediction then the skeptical mass media ask how bleak? When the scientists express uncertainty the media move on. The effect is one of uncertain scientists rather than the bleak outlook.

This trick was skilfully played when Kirsty Wark on Newsnight (23rd August 2010)  asked are the floods in Pakistan due to climate change?  It's not a yes or no question, that unfortunately was posed as a yes or no question. Before we look at Newsnight's effort let's consider some informed opinion , here's Dr Kevin Trenberth on the subject:

“I find it systematically tends to get underplayed and it often gets underplayed by my fellow scientists. Because one of the opening statements, which I’m sure you’ve probably heard is “Well you can’t attribute a single event to climate change.” But there is a systematic influence on all of these weather events now-a-days because of the fact that there is this extra water vapor lurking around in the atmosphere than there used to be say 30 years ago. It’s about a 4% extra amount, it invigorates the storms, it provides plenty of moisture for these storms and it’s unfortunate that the public is not associating these with the fact that this is one manifestation of climate change. And the prospects are that these kinds of things will only get bigger and worse in the future.”

Then there's Dr James Hansen who fairly observes essentially changing the climate is like loading a dice.  A more unstable climate is more likely to give us extreme weather events and hence there will be more extreme weather events. But nailing a specific extreme weather event and asking if it is down to climate change is a different ball game*, and whilst the science, and effects of climate change are so hotly disputed one has to ask what purpose does Kirsty Wark's question serve?

Imagine you are in a casino and your suspicions lead you to say out loud that the roulette wheel might be loaded . And the croupier's response is to claim that the last spin might not have been different if the wheel weren't loaded; the sensible gambler should not find such a remark comforting and conclude it was time to give up.

Perhaps, when BBC producers commissioned this particular debate, they expected all critics to give up. So here's my two cents worth.

BBC news programmes habitually present climate related matters as two sided , a duel between skeptics and everyone else. For expert opinion the BBC chose Dr. Ghassem Asrar, a man with academic credentials in climate science as long as your arm who was cited as from the World Climate Research Project but is also from NASA. a doctor with membership of five professional societies and numerous awards was not enough for the BBC so they called on Andrew Montford a chartered accountant from Kinross. An odd choice for the question at hand because Montford's credentials are that he cannot agree on what the climate has been over the last millenium. Montford largely agreed with the eminent doctor, so was he on the programme for balance or for concision?

A chilling theme of the debate was that now that climate change is upon us, mitigation is obsolete and the question becomes how to adapt.Wark suggested proacive work be done in the form of local levees. But carbon was not mentioned once.  The word mitigate was used only once, by Montford, erroneously or mendaciously suggesting that local adaptive measures were mitigation.

The consensus inevitably reached was that you can't say that these particular floods in Pakistan are due to climate change. But that is due to the 'crooked croupier's proposition' given above. Never did they mention the caveat that the extreme weather events we are beginning to witness now are just the kind of thing scientists would expect in a global warming world .

For no good reason at the end of the debate Wark asked after climategate are scientists becoming more cautious in pronouncing on what could be aspects of global warming? Montford was asked "do you accept climate change is a grave risk facing us all," to which he blustered "errm from my perspective I think the answer is I don't know. I think mankind is affecting the climate but whether it's a little or a lot , I think , in reality we really just don't know"

'We really just don't know' is the so called informed opinion they would like to leave you with on climate change. You've got to hand it to those folks at the BBC  - they are skilled propagandists.  Wark deserves particular opprobrium for fronting this angle, which seems trivial with two million homeless and thousands dead . Of course it's anything but trivial , such is the twisted nature of the media's reporting of our changing climate. 

* A sensible discussion of the question is offered by Michael Tobis in 'When it Rains it Pours'


  1. Hengist,
    Richard Alley is a scientist who has studied the climate in central Greenland over the last 50,000 years. The raw data can be found on the NOAA website.

    Ice cores are considered more reliable temperature proxies than tree rings and they are capable of covering much longer time scales.

    The Alley data clearly shows the temperature rise since 1850 (the Hockey Stick). However it also puts this in context with changes over the last 50,000 years:

  2. In historic times, one of the more notable flooding events was in China (1931) when the flooding was so extensive that more than 3 million people died.

    Was that flooding due to global warming too?

  3. GC Attributing a specific weather event to global warming is like asking which of the thousands of cigarettes that my grandfather smoked was the one that killed him . I can't possibly answer your question, but have you heard the old adage it is the last straw that breaks the camels back?

  4. OK they had extreme weather events before the widespread use of the internal combustion engine, but that goes no way to disprove AGW. I struggle to view your question as a reasonable search for knowledge. I'd have to research the chinese flood to give my uninformed answer. But it's unlikely to be a simple yes or a no. Why don't you answer your question and then construe that in to something relevant that shines some light on today's AGW problems and I'll try and poke holes in your argument :-)

  5. Camel's argument (perhaps appropriately given his name) is just a rehash of the tobacco industry's arguments as to why tobacco doesn't cause lung cancer.

    *Asbestos causes lung cancer. Therefore smoking doesn't*

    Just because extreme weather events aren't always caused by ACC, doesn't mean that ACC doesn't contribute towards today's extreme weather events; just as asbestos causing lung cancer doesn't mean that smoking doesn't.

    The kind of simple, linear logic Camel deploys is totally useless when trying to examine complex dynamic systems where there are always multiple overlapping causes and effects.

  6. Hi Sy, Actually I'd say The kind of simple, linear logic Camel deploys is pretty darned effective at confusing the issue and the public. Thanks for your contrib Sy