CLIMATE SPECTATOR: Conspiracy theories and weak journalism

A range of powerful Australians seem to have talked themselves into some incredible climate conspiracy theories, with lazy journalism fuelling their imagination.

Climate Spectator

Yesterday we reported on how Maurice Newman, a self-titled "climate change agnostic”, will be appointed to chair the "Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council” if the Coalition win government this year.  

Newman clearly commands a great deal of respect and influence across both political and business circles and one would think must also possess an excellent intellect. He is certainly not someone to be dismissed lightly.

Yet in reading through Newman’s sceptical statements on climate change and wind energy, one has to wonder how he could have come to these conclusions. For his views to be true it would require conspiracies of incredible scale and audacity.  

On the issue of climate change, bodies such as National Academies of Science, the editorial boards of some of the most prestigious scientific journals, national bureaus of meteorology and other climatic research institutions, as well as several government agencies around the world and countless well credentialed scientists must all be in on a game to obscure data and mislead us. And all in order to get hold of what are some pretty paltry salaries relative to what many of these people could earn working in finance or resources. 

Newman, and others who share a similar view, seem to have developed a victim mentality of sorts. They have come to believe a group of elites within the scientific establishment, media and government are all collaborating to obscure the truth and silence dissent. But in reality the answer is far more straightforward.

Newman, when chair of the ABC in 2010, told staff that climate change was an example "of group-think where contrary views have not been tolerated, and where those who express them have been labelled and mocked". According to news reports, he warned ABC staff that he would not tolerate suppression of information, using the example of a BBC science correspondent who knew for a month before the scandal broke of hacked emails at the University of East Anglia in Britain but did not report them. He has also referenced this event to support arguments made in 2012.

Yet this so-called "Climategate” scandal that is often cited as proof that climate scientists have been engaged in a mass cover-up to deceive, is in fact symptomatic of something far less sinister. 

To explain firstly I’d like to put you in the shoes of the East Anglia University climate scientists whose emails were hacked and who were subsequently said to be involved in a cover-up to withhold and obscure data in order to exaggerate the extent of global warming.

Imagine when you went to work each day there was someone completely external to your business – not a customer, client, supplier or anyone else with a genuine stake in your work – who repeatedly emailed you. The emails nagged you with time consuming and sometimes very highly detailed requests for information and data, when often sufficient information was already accessible publicly with a bit of digging.

Now also imagine that you knew that the person nagging you had little expertise or experience to properly analyse or interpret the data requested. In addition this person was known to have a pre-determined agenda and had misinterpreted data, or only seemed to pay heed to subsets of data which supported their agenda. How keen do you think you’d be to respond to their requests?

Maybe you might be tempted to have a bit of a dig at them with a fellow colleague who’d also been harassed?

If you take the time to read the inquiry report into the hacked emails of the East Anglia researchers you’ll find this story is revealed. 

I can appreciate the perspective of Phil Jones because I get somewhat similar nagging emails.

For example, I had one long train of emails from a person demanding I provide one single peer-reviewed journal article that by itself proved global warming was true, otherwise it must be untrue. I patiently explained this didn’t make sense and recommended a number of books to read that explained the accumulated evidence that were based on numerous peer-reviewed journal articles. But no, it was all a fraud without one single piece of proof.

Those in the media and government public service who spend much of their time working on the topic of climate change often know who these nagging emailers are. We’ve noticed that their claims involve arguments already refuted some time ago, or involve cherry picking of data and evidence.

Should we report these claims even though they aren’t new and we know them to be incorrect or misleading, because someone influential would like to believe they are true? Is it "balanced” to always give readers two alternative sides of an argument when one has far more evidence on its side than the other?

Are we engaged in a cover-up if we choose to refrain from publicising emails selectively leaked to smear someone’s character based on off-the-cuff remarks they made to a close colleague in private? Or should we instead focus our attention on their research outputs?

And should we simply allow think tanks and company PR departments to promote misleading and incorrect information designed to suit their own interests and agenda without scrutiny?

This isn’t serving readers interests, it’s laziness.

Unfortunately we have a similar problem emerging involving media leaping at conspiracy shadows afflicting wind power in this country, which I’ll delve into tomorrow.

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