James Lovelock, the British chemist and alleged expert on climate change, suggests that 80% of mankind will be wiped out by climate change and that the hot planet will last for 100,000 years. So persuasive is his assertion that it was asserted on BBC World’s HARDtalk as a fact today. What ever happened to science and to journalism?
Lets deal with journalism first. Stephen Sackur, who now fronts HARDtalk, is normally no slouch. He has a solid journalistic career behind him – strong history as a tough foreign correspondent for the BBC and then the solid BBC Washington correspondent – a well respected position and he did sterling work, covering the Lewinsky scandal, Clintonomics and the various forms of Clintongate. He also covered the Bush election by the Supreme Court. He has hosted HARDtalk since 2004, when he replaced journalist and novelist Tim Sebastian. Yet here is talking about science and technology and he quotes this absurb claim by Lovelock as if it were a statement of fact.
Journalists have generally given up on seeking to understand science, but instead look for the next scientist who will say something strange so that they have a “story”. This is why we have such a warped view of all sorts of scientific work – climate change, mad cow disease, obesity being good examples. The trick is to take a general position and then find extreme cases which “prove” the position. This is not scientific reporting or indeed journalism. As we lose more and more science trained journalist to be replaced by more and more journalists who have no other education but a degree in journalism (what exactly is that?), then we can expect science reporting to go very strange. This is why people like Dr James Hansen of NASA can get such a strong press coverage – the more outrageous they are (coal trains are “death trains” and coal powered power stations are “factories of death” according to Hansen – see an earlier blog post) the more likely they will be reported, all in the name of science.
Then there is the problem of science, or more accurately, sensationalism masquerading through a person who used to be scientist who has now become a polemicist. Lovelock is today’s example – last week it was James Hansen and no doubt others will follow. Lovelock suggests that some 5 billion will die as a result of global warming and climate change and, because he used to be a scientist, this is then presented as some sort of scientifically based “evidence” when in fact it is total speculation (a.k.a. “bullshit”). Most people have got to the point when they don’t know what to believe, especially when serious journalists report speculation as science. The consequence is that both science and journalism get a bad name and both get exploited by the lunatic fringe who make a living from bullshit.
We need some journalistic standards, like triple sourcing and fact checking, to come back into science reporting. We need scientists to stop pretending to be something they are not. We need rational, evidence based conversations. Otherwise, we will just discredit good science, good journalism and rational, evidence based dialogue.