Old media + worthless opinions + pointless debate = farce

Stepping away from my usual content to mention in passing the Australian screening of “controversial” climate change “documentary” The Great Global Warming Swindle. Most notable not for the film but the reactions afterwards.

The film was show on ABC TV, who judged it so controversial that it was buffered by a disclaimer, a panel debate and questions from a studio audience. The latter idea backfired deliciously, as we’ll see later on. The film itself (or at least the latest edit) was largely unremarkable and has been thoroughly discredited elsewhere. Three things occurred to me during the evening:

  1. People don’t understand how scientists reach conclusions
  2. Why do scientists believe what they believe? It’s down to a rational thought process called the scientific method, which goes like this: (1) observe, (2) hypothesise, (3) experiment and collect evidence, (4) analyse, interpret and refine, (5) conclude.

    It seems to me that an awful lot of people don’t understand the difference between a scientific conclusion and a belief in, say flying saucers. They seem to think that when a scientist makes a statement, it’s no different to when a conspiracy theorist with no hard evidence makes a statement. I think this is largely because in mainstream media popular science shows, science is presented as a collection of facts with no explanation as to how conclusions are reached.

  3. Not all opinions are of equal worth
  4. There seems to be a trend in the mainstream media, that you can only call political correctness, to assume that all opinions count equally and so deserve equal air time. This is silly. Here’s an extreme example: you may believe that the earth is flat. You’re entitled to your belief of course, but you’re wrong. The earth is manifestly not flat. If I believe that the earth is round, are our opinions equally valid? No, they are not. I’m correct, you are incorrect and no amount of public debate changes that fact.

    Either human activity contributes significantly to climate change or it does not. It’s a question with a yes or no answer and that answer doesn’t depend on who shouts the loudest in a public debate. It depends, as ever, on a rational analysis of the evidence.

  5. Television is old media, incapable of presenting the information we need
  6. For me, the most irritating moment of the night came when the host introduced the debate. It was important, he said, to have a public discussion rather than leaving it to (or words to this effect) “bloggers in dark corners of the internet”.

    To prove the superiority of television, we were then treated to about 10 minutes of questions from an audience of 80 people – from one broadcaster, on one evening. And man, what an audience. Here’s a sample exchange:

    Audience member: Alright Um .. I’m a … I study economics, physical economics and astrophysics and also classical music under Lyndon LaRouche and the question I would like to have with the so-called “scientists” on the panel is 400 years ago Johannes Kepler the man that discovered universal gravity actually refuted the method of the IPCC Report of statistical analysis as being like Plato’s cave of seeing the shadows on the wall and there you got you know Tony doing the happy dance in front of the, uh, you know, the fire being the reality but these guys are just looking at the statistics of what they’re seeing, empirically seeing, and that’s — that’s true for them. Now, Johannes Kepler actually proved that the previous models before that as actually being incorrect in the sense of method wise, now this has been a general trend for 30 years, since the ‘Boomer’ drugs, sex and rock and roll.

    Host: Okay, listen, I think … sorry …

    It turns out that the audience was stacked with right-wing fruitcakes termed “Larouchites” – an organisation with which I wasn’t familiar (and have no wish to become so). Links at the end of this post explain further and the debate is on YouTube for your enjoyment.

    All I can say is: if this is the ABC trying to bring us serious public debate, give me bloggers in dark corners of the internet any
    day. Climate change, like most issues, is complex. To understand it you need to gather large amounts of diverse data, critically appraise it and rely to a large extent on expert opinion. Those are all tasks for which the internet is ideally suited. Television is suited to feeding people short, insipid shallow soundbites. Look at the excellent, informative and widely-read Real Climate blog – Technorati rank 772, almost 10 000 blog reactions – and tell me that it’s a dark corner of the internet frequented only by geeks. I don’t think so.

    Next time ABC, just show the film prefaced by a short disclaimer. You’ve clearly demonstrated that you’re not equipped to handle
    anything more complex.

A few related links:

2 thoughts on “Old media + worthless opinions + pointless debate = farce

  1. Jonathan Badger

    Larouche supporters? in *Australia*? That’s weird. But then Australia gave the US Ken Ham, so maybe it’s an international exchange of crazy people or something. (Larouche is a US former communist, now gone over to far right-wing politics — sort of like Christopher Hitchens, but worse, and with a posse to boot).

    I agree with you on your points in general except I’m not so keen on your version of the “scientific method” in 1). Sure, it’s better for the public to think that scientists follow such a robotic method than having them think they pull their conclusions out of their asses (as much of the public seems to believe), but it’s still not really true. I don’t know if the real way scientists work can be reduced to a slogan.

  2. nsaunders Post author

    Yeah, my scientific method is a bit idealised. It’s never linear for one thing and of course there’s room for opinion, interpretation, speculation. But if you want to make a claim in science, it’s always evidence-based.

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