Media Mayhem: Two worlds collide
Why can't cable news and science get along? Easy -- scientists are from Mars and the media are from Venus.
Mon, Aug 03, 2009 at 05:46 AM
Science has a nasty habit of failing to cooperate with the Nielsen ratings. In fact, it’s beginning to look as if scientists and the media live on different planets.
Take, for example, the vast expanse between the debate over climate change taking place on Media World and the one that’s taking place on Science World. On Media World, our climate may or may not be changing. It depends on which side’s cable news show gets the highest ratings, and which TV guest is better at expressing his outrage. In fact, on Media World, whether climate change would even be a bad thing is open to question.
On Science World, a tiny minority still wonders whether climate change is occurring or will be severe. The real action is between the overall consensus view that climate change is bad, bad, bad -- much worse than policymakers are prepared to deal with -- and researchers who are finding, in various specialized fields, that things are even grimmer. In other words, on Science World, the debate is between worse and worser.
To be sure, the actual studies point in all directions. The journal Nature published one last week that found jellyfish and other oceanic zooplankton stir up ocean waters more than previously thought. That could lessen global warming because all the churning carries warm surface water to the bottom and colder water to the surface. The cold water might then serve as a heat sink for the warmer atmosphere.
Day after day, however, the steady thud of peer-reviewed studies landing in the pages of respected journals is pounding home a sense of dread on Science World -- a dread that climate change will unleash cascading effects that we can’t even yet imagine. Just last week, at least four studies were published indicating that climate change itself may create changes in nature that could, in turn, generate even more global warming.
Three of those studies said various features of a warmer world -- peatlands, tundra and wildfires -- would cause more carbon to be released, thus turning Earth and its atmosphere into a sort of perpetual warming machine. According to an Associated Press article on the peatlands study:
The researchers warn that annual surplus CO2 released by peatlands with a 1.0 C increase [in temperatures] -- between 38 and 100 million tonnes -- could cancel out the European Union objective of slashing greenhouse gas emissions by 92 million tonnes per year.
In the entirely different field of atmospheric science, climate change skeptics have speculated that clouds created by warming might reflect radiation back into space, thus balancing out the effects. But research published last week in the journal Science found just the opposite, as the Guardian newspaper reported:
Instead, researchers found that, as oceans become warmer, low-level clouds dissipate from the skies. This means more sunlight reaches the ocean surface -- a runaway process that leads to more warming and less cloud cover. "This is somewhat of a vicious cycle, potentially exacerbating global warming," Amy Clement, a professor of meteorology and physical oceanography at the University of Miami, said.
The really scary part of the cloud study is that the pattern of changes in clouds over the last half-century closely tracked the most severe climate change scenario projected by a set of global climate computer models accepted by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
"It does suggest that we should be giving serious consideration to the high end, the high range of future warming,” Professor Clement said on a Science podcast.
That’s why James Hansen, one of the world’s most authoritative climate scientists, has literally taken to the streets to try to convince policy makers to reduce the burning of fossil fuels -- particularly coal. He’s convinced that we’ve already reached a tipping point where the cascading effects start to build on each other so that warming could become irreversible. And he’s frustrated that Media World isn’t getting that point across to ordinary people.
Hansen has crossed over to Media World by participating in high-profile protests and by being blunt in media appearances in a way that most scientists refuse to be. But his exceptionality only underscores the sharp differences between the two worlds.
It’s not as if Media World entirely ignores Science World. To stretch the analogy further than I should perhaps, a regular shuttle operates between the two planets. Some aliens from Science World travel to Media World to appear uncomfortably on TV, too often sounding too equivocal to be clearly understood.
And some in Media World report accurately back from Science World in a way that makes the science easier to understand -- and certainly easier to quote. That’s one reason the excerpts in this article quote news stories rather than the original journal articles.
But you wouldn’t know about all that by reading most papers or by watching TV. For the most part, these stories make it only onto the most obscure back pages of Internet news sites.
And the TV networks that truly control Media World understand that the real experts on science aren’t scientists. No, sir. The real experts are politicians and talk-show bloviators -- such sheer geniuses that they can offer a definitive take on climate change despite never having studied the subject.
It would be nice if the laws of Media World ruled the entire universe. Yeah, sure, those of us who warned and whined about the coming apocalypse would have to hide in our henhouses, chastened like so many Chicken Littles.
But at least 75 million Pacific Islanders wouldn’t lose their homes. Tropical diseases and pests wouldn’t spread across North America. Massive hurricanes wouldn’t wipe out whole cities. And our children would stand a chance of growing up in a safe world and a stable economy.
I’ve got a bad feeling, though, that Science World has an upper edge on analyzing the laws of nature.