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Features

ArrowMcCain's Mutiny
Why "Mr. Integrity" wants the war to drag on
Allan Uthman

ArrowThe Negligents
How to convert ignorance into “skepticism”
Ben Zaitchik

ArrowCivil War?
An oxymoron in one act
Ian Murphy

ArrowBaker-Hamilton Omission Report
Iraq Study Group aims to change perception, not reality
Matt Taibbi

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ArrowAn Important Message from our Fearless Leader
Paul Fallon

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ArrowThe Beast Page 3
Environmental Apocalypse

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Turistas, Blood Diamond, Unaccompanied Minors, Apocalypto, The Holiday

ArrowBEAST-O-Scopes
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Arrow[sic] - Letters
Fiends Like These, Cutler & Run, That's [sic], Osama for your Mama and more

 

The Negligents
How to convert ignorance into “skepticism”
Ben Zaitchik

ManbearpigIn November, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in their first case concerning global warming, Massachusetts vs. EPA. Not surprising anyone, Justice Scalia's attitude toward the very subject of climate change proved to be one of smarmy disregard. It was more surprising, however, when Justice Kennedy admitted that he too was confused about the issue. When told that the court needn't address scientific questions of climate change, he asked: "Don't we have to do that in order to decide the standing argument, because there's no injury if there's not global warming?"

How did it come to pass that a man of Kennedy's influence and erudition could think there was still scientific uncertainty surrounding the fact of anthropogenic warming? The answer to that question begins with the American media. More specifically, it begins in our journalism schools.

Somewhere in J-school they teach you how to write about science. The template looks something like this:

  • "Researchers at X University have found that Y leads to Z."
  • "Professor K, chair of the department, says that ‘this discovery brings together P and Q showing us that S and T.'"
  • "But not all scientists are convinced. Dr. L, of the Institute of Concerned Experts, claims that Y and Z are unrelated.
  • "All sides agree that there is a need for more research." 

Generally speaking, there's nothing much wrong with this formulation. Science is a discipline defined by discovery and dissent, and it is useful to inform the popular audience that both exist. Besides, in most cases, it really doesn't matter who's right at a given moment. Scientific progress is incremental, and disagreements over single studies are resolved or ignored as research proceeds. Passions may flare at esoteric scientific meetings, but it is adequate for the popular press to sketch the ideas, frame the debate, and offer teasers on emerging knowledge.

But the formula is not adequate in all applications. If the findings of Professor K have urgent implications for society, then it is important for policy makers and the public to understand the full weight of Dr. L's criticism. The greater the potential urgency of the topic, the more likely it is that Professor K or Dr. L is guided by non-scientific interests. In these situations the template for writing about science can be manipulated to give the illusion of scientific debate where no controversy exists. It's a simple manipulation, and the most valued qualities of scientific thought -- vigilant skepticism and honest uncertainty estimates -- make it easy for critics to obscure a socially important conclusion. The rigorous scientist can say very few things with certainty, while the skilled contrarian knows how to exploit this to maximize confusion.

Climate change science isn't the only victim of an organized contrarian attack. Another firmly established scientific idea, Darwinian evolution, has suffered the same manipulation for years. In both cases the anti-scientific group has cloaked itself in the robes of "skepticism" while stonewalling the advance of scientific understanding into the classroom and the Congress. The claim to skepticism is a powerful rhetorical stance -- skepticism (Greek: skeptomai, to look about, to consider), after all, is an admirable quality. The Creationist claim is generally recognized to be weak; they are more strongly associated with Fundamentalism than they are with skepticism.

But climate change "skeptics" have managed to hold the term, when their denial of change would more accurately be described as negligence (Latin: ne-, legenda, not reading). Where a skeptical argument would be grounded in creative research, climate negligence is all about willful ignorance. Their partially scientific rhetoric is designed to sow just enough doubt to slow public demand for action to mitigate climate change. As long as they succeed at this, popular concern is unlikely to lead to meaningful changes in policy.

In the fog of scientific jargon it can be difficult to spot this negligent rhetoric for what it is. Take a step back, though, and climate Negligism looks a lot like Creationism. They both do textbook anti-science, and we should be able to dismiss the Negligent's claim to a "scientific debate" as easily as we dismiss biblical stories from biology class.

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