What the media doesn’t want to hear (or print)

Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, made a reasonable impact with his lecture on climate change delivered at Victoria University last week.

A few media outlets covered the event running an NZPA article and climate skeptics were furious, urging Prime Minister John Key to “rein in” his science advisor or sack him.

The drive of Sir Peter’s speech is that climate change deniers and interest groups are undermining confidence in science as they spread fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) about the state of climate science and what it suggests about the need to act to reduce the impacts of global warming. As NZPA reported:

“The public is confused about what we know and what we do not know about the science, and is unsure whether governments are justified in making hard decisions, despite the science not being certain,” said the PM’s science advisor Sir Peter Gluckman.

“There is a growing concern among those of us who have some role in marrying science and policy that the way the debate is being framed is undermining confidence in the science system,” he told a Victoria University seminar series on key policy challenges facing New Zealand.

What the media didn’t run, except on the Yahoo Xtra website, was the companion NZPA sidebar which outlined how Sir Peter took aim squarely at the media for the way it has covered climate change… looks like editors took exception to being labeled as part of the problem…

Wellington, June 9 NZPAThe media are part of the problem of public confusion over the scientific debate on climate change — but also essential to the solution, says the Prime Minister’s chief science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman.

“The modern media like controversy — they feed off it,” he told a Victoria University seminar in Wellington tonight.

Sir Peter canvassed the issues of credibility and integrity in climate change science and argued that climate change “deniers” had a variety of motives, with the most transparent ones being lobbyists for commercial interests, such as fossil fuel industries.

Farming lobby Federated Farmers has actively campaigned against the Government’s emissions trading scheme due to start at the end of this month, but Sir Peter said if there was evidence that climate change brought dramatic economic growth for the pastoral sector, farmers would not be questioning the science.

“No, they would be demanding research to further its exploitation,” he said.

“I cannot regard it as helpful to actively promote distrust and suspicion of the scientific process for political ends,” he said.

Denialists also included libertarians who objected to state interference in their lives, or believed economic growth must be paramount, with some crossover to creationists who denied the science of evolution.

They all actively confused the public and the media, and in the United States and some other places the media had been “politicised” and was closely-linked to strong economic interests.

“They can give a platform to the celebrity denialist or, in their desire to appear balanced, give equivalency to each side of a scientific argument when there is in fact a broad consensus on one side and not much more than individual opinion on the other,” said Sir Peter.

The key issue was how to communicate complex science, because the public had a right to understand the issues which would determine how society responded.

“Without responsible media it is not clear how this can be achieved,” said Sir Peter.

“If science is not better communicated, science cannot properly inform democratic decision-making or policy formation, and for many that would be seen as dangerous.”

But the actions of rejectionists supported by the media showed the difficulties of the democratic approach in the electronic era, and Sir Peter quoted Professor Philip Kitcher of Columbia University: “It is an absurd fantasy to believe that citizens who have scant backgrounds in the pertinent field can make responsible decisions about complex technical matters on the basis of a few five minute exchanges amongst more or less articulate speakers.”

The media had a duty to convey information in a way which enabled people to cast votes in a meaningful way.

Scientists also faced challenges in communicating evidence of global warming in a dispassionate, transparent, authoritative manner to a public also being aggressively courted by a noisy, anarchic blogosphere and a politicised media urging them to shoot the messenger.

Most scientists were not well trained in public communication, and many became angry and defensive, which raised suspicion. They also worried that release of raw information would lead to uninformed interrogation and harassment — a real conundrum in an open society.

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