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The sinister tilt of science journalism

22 May 2024 | OP ED Watch

It seems to us that the more a person, organization or publication embraces global warming alarmism, the more reliably they also embrace a range of other left-wing causes and vice versa. Including, as we observed last week, the weird and grotesque tendency of climate activists to support Hamas. The “mainstream” media are certainly in that category and it has not helped them in their growing struggles to retain an audience and avoid bankruptcy. But for a while the more notable organs of scientific journalism, like Scientific American or National Geographic, managed to produce generally apolitical journalism about scientific topics. It ceased to be true about climate-related issues quite some time ago. But now it is an inescapable pattern on a much broader scale, and they too are deteriorating fast in consequence. As James Meigs recently wrote in City Journal: “over the past decade or so, the quality of science journalism – even at the top publications – has declined in a new and alarming way. Today’s journalistic failings don’t owe simply to lazy reporting or a weakness for sensationalism but to a sweeping and increasingly pervasive worldview.” It’s no longer possible to pretend otherwise: science journalism has become leftwing commentary in disguise regardless of the topic.

The supposition that climate alarmism shares deep ideological structural features with left-wing radicalism is nowadays a mere commonplace. Especially when, as the Manhattan Contrarian recently observed, in the face of a growing political backlash against the cost and futility of the supposed energy transition:

“So far, the official talking point seems to be to belittle the resistance to fossil fuel restrictions as some kind of scheme of the ‘far right.’”

Nothing reveals one’s membership on the far left as much as perceiving every criticism, including from the centre, as a scheme of the ‘far right’.

COVID lockdowns are another obvious example, in which appropriate skepticism both about the origins of the pathogen and the appropriateness of drastic governmental responses was shelved for the parroting of often-changing official positions. And now we also get items like, for instance, “Abortion restrictions are spreading, even though science shows they’re harmful” from, yes, Scientific American.

Invoking a talismanic phrase like “science shows” on behalf of a polarizing opinion makes politicians and journalists alike sound like bullying leftist liars. This notion of “following the science” has gone from being an appeal for open, rational and civil debate to a tool for scorning and silencing those who will not take orders from their betters.

Meigs’ article laid out the situation under the pointed but appropriate heading “Unscientific American”:

“American journalism has never been very good at covering science. In fact, the mainstream press is generally a cheap date when it comes to stories about alternative medicine, UFO sightings, pop psychology, or various forms of junk science. For many years, that was one factor that made Scientific American’s rigorous reporting so vital. The New York Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian, and a few other mainstream publications also produced top-notch science coverage. Peer-reviewed academic journals aimed at specialists met a higher standard still. But over the past decade or so, the quality of science journalism – even at the top publications – has declined in a new and alarming way. Today’s journalistic failings don’t owe simply to lazy reporting or a weakness for sensationalism but to a sweeping and increasingly pervasive worldview. It is hard to put a single name on this sprawling ideology. It has its roots both in radical 1960s critiques of capitalism and in the late-twentieth-century postmodern movement that sought to ‘problematize’ notions of objective truth.”

Though if it’s hard to think of a single name that applies, it is not hard to think of the one everyone agrees does not: right-wing. Show us an article in any legacy science-related news publication that comes from a right-wing perspective and we might re-think this (though our first response will be to predict the author will soon be unemployed). Until then the principle seems undeniable that what was formerly called science journalism has become thoroughly political and should be judged accordingly.

At the risk of sowing calm, there just might be some grounds for hope here. In the Wall Street Journal on May 13 of this year, James Freeman notes that Nature, which has been far from innocent here, just published a powerful contrarian commentary from “Ulf Büntgen of the University of Cambridge” called “The importance of distinguishing climate science from climate activism“ that cautioned that:

“While I have no problem with scholars taking public positions on climate issues, I see potential conflicts when scholars use information selectively or over-attribute problems to anthropogenic warming, and thus politicise climate and environmental change. Without self-critique and a diversity of viewpoints, scientists will ultimately harm the credibility of their research and possibly cause a wider public, political and economic backlash. Likewise, I am worried about activists who pretend to be scientists, as this can be a misleading form of instrumentalization.”

So far so good. And it gets better:

“I find it misleading when prominent organisations, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its latest summary for policymakers, tend to overstate scientific understanding of the rate of recent anthropogenic warming relative to the range of past natural temperature variability over 2000 and even 125,000 years. The quality and quantity of available climate proxy records are merely too low to allow for a robust comparison of the observed annual temperature extremes in the 21st century against reconstructed long-term climate means of the Holocene and before. Like all science, climate science is tentative and fallible.”

Yeah yeah, some may say, the usual suspects with the usual rationalizations. But nay. What’s noteworthy here is that this same Ulf Büntgen, a “Professor of Environmental Systems Analysis” (another in modern academia’s strange proliferation of microdisciplines) in the Department of Geography at Cambridge, is no “denier”. Indeed, a piece in YaleEnvironment360 published on May 14 of this year contained this passage:

“The summer of 2023 was the hottest summer in the Northern Hemisphere since the height of the Roman Empire, a new study finds…. ‘When you look at the long sweep of history, you can see just how dramatic recent global warming is,’ said study coauthor Ulf Büntgen, of the University of Cambridge. ‘2023 was an exceptionally hot year, and this trend will continue unless we reduce greenhouse gas emissions dramatically.’”

Freeman’s piece is tentative, as the headline suggests: “A More Honest Climate Science?” And the subhed says “Maybe scientific journals are ready to move past the era of politicized pronouncements.” Which again prompts our sardonic “unless they’re not”. But they certainly should be, and we hope they are.

8 comments on “The sinister tilt of science journalism”

  1. The truth is that most of the commentary which is foisted onto our ears is political analysis by biased political operators. The reason that climate scientists (read activists) are suddenly concerned about Palestine likely has to do with the fact the cause du jour, in this case climate change is losing its mojo. The longer one of these political cause vehicles is in the public eye, the bigger the holes in their crisis story appear to be, pretty soon they just move on to a new cause du jour!

  2. As always,follow the money.And if you're a scientist or journalist who wants to keep the grant money flowing,or even remain employed,you better follow the Alarmist mantra.Ask Peter Ridd or Susan Crockford.

  3. Around the time of the fall of the Iron Curtain and the USSR, the old left abandoned the old class struggle model as western capitalism had given rise to a healthy middle class. They then draped in green and continued their march through the institutions. With institutional capture now nearly complete we are seeing a deterioration of the middle class as the western bankrupt welfare / warfare states are now obsessed with climate hysteria which has been their greatest political ticket and or distraction. Their war on prosperity is now increasingly apparent to all those not inside their tent or on their payroll. The goal is a replacement of the middle class (open borders, 15 minute cities, EVs-for the rich, densified urban housing, diet control, etc) with a dependency that will allow their next dystopian project, this time a global technocracy with total digital control over the serfs in a depopulated Gaia.

  4. This whole “2023 is the hottest year” bit was very bothersome to me. Even locally it was being parroted. But my observations were that it was actually a bit milder than recent years. I had my home windows open more and ran the AC less last summer. So, I Googled the amount of 90F days we average per year in my area and sure enough, we were at about 60% of the average. I live in the southern part of New England.
    Then, I Googled the same info for about 20 or so random cities across the country. I found that north of the border and Gulf states, every location was below average. (I adjusted the criteria to 100F for the locations that that was appropriate for). The only locales that were above average were those on the southern border and the Gulf Coast.
    Now when I hear “2023 was the hottest year…” I just roll my eyes and tune out…

  5. Personal observation of the summer of 2023 in Denmark made me wonder what all 23 The Hottest Summer Ever (TM) hype was about. Yes, we had had an unusually long dry spell in the spring, though not particularly warm, and the summer was unremarkable, except for a conspicuous lack of above-20°C nights. I do remember nice, 'hot' summers here in Denmark in 1975, 1976, 1982, 1995, 1996, 2014 and 2018, but summers have generally been pretty tame here since 2000 in my recollection. So how does one get to a global average? What is the average color of a mozaic?

  6. I live in South Australia, my brother is outdoor worker. Both of us have been saying for 5-6 years now summers have been cooler. In the seventies and eighties we used to run AC during many hot night. Sometimes AC run for a week without turning it of. I have not run the AC at night for at least 5 years. This year my AC use was down 50%.
    Yet, Bureau of Meteorology says it is the hottest year. Makes your eyes roll.

  7. I agree Steve S. I live in southern Ontario about 120km NE of Toronto. It was a normal-to-cool summer in my experience at least where I live. A couple of smoky days and 2 or 3 heatwaves of 2 or 3 days each. Unusual in that 2 of the heatwaves were in April and October. But no big deal. A record or two was set but that doesn't mean much. For example, a record was set for high temp one day in mid April. But if it had been the day before it would not have been a record. I did hear and read lots about terrible weather extremes. But it was always happening somewhere else.

  8. here is s.w. ontario, midway between london and windsor, crops were 7 to 10 days behind normal last year due to lack of heat in the "hottest year ever"

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