May 5, 2010

Shielding Climate Orthodoxy from Free Speech

Does media reporting of climate skepticism undermine the public good?

We all have our hot buttons, our sacred territory we defend tenaciously. Freedom of expression is one of mine. I served on the board of directors of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association from 1993 to 1998, and was then a Vice President of that organization until 2001. Moreover, I spent 10 years as a print journalist (prior to 2002). During that time I considered it my job to expose government claptrap and to give voice to unpopular opinions.

So when I see educated people on university campuses arguing against free and open debate - arguing that the media should conceal rather than inform - I clench my teeth and take a deep breath. Then I remind myself that the struggle to safeguard liberty from agendas of all stripes is never ending.

The American Library Association's "Freedom to Read Statement" dates back to 1953. Its second paragraph begins:

Most attempts at suppression rest on a denial of the fundamental premise of democracy: that the ordinary individual, by exercising critical judgment, will select the good and reject the bad. We trust Americans to recognize propaganda and misinformation, and to make their own decisions... [bold added]

Imagine that. Democracy is about individuals entertaining a variety of viewpoints and then making up their own minds. Here are a few more gems from that statement:

It is in the public interest for make available the widest diversity of views and expressions...To stifle every nonconformist idea at birth would mark the end of the democratic process...We need to know not only what we believe but why we believe it.

...The people should have the freedom to read and consider a broader range of ideas than those that may be held by any single librarian or publisher or government or church. It is wrong that what one can read should be confined to what another thinks proper. group has the right to...impose its own concept of politics or morality upon other members of a democratic society. Freedom is no freedom if it is accorded only to the accepted and the inoffensive. [italics in original, bold added]
Which brings me to this talk, scheduled for yesterday at the University of Arizona and co-hosted by that institution's School of Journalism. Max Boykoff, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado who holds a PhD in environmental studies, was invited to deliver a guest lecture. If that lecture was part of a series in which various speakers expressed a diversity of opinions about how the media should report on environmental issues, that would be one thing. But there's no indication, in the press release announcing the event, that this is the case.

Instead, it appears that a professor from another institution was funded to come tell journalism students that their duty is not to inform the public but to pick and choose which ideas the public should be permitted to hear about. To quote the press release:
Boykoff also will speak to UA students the next day during a class on climate misunderstandings and communication, which is taught by [Prof. Jonathan] Overpeck and geosciences professor Julia Cole.

His public talk aims to promote understanding and discussion of how and why disproportionate media visibility has been provided for outlier viewsparticularly views often dubbed climate “contrarians,” “skeptics” and “denialists" – on various issues in climate science and governance.

...Boykoff suggests that when the media misrepresent or amplify these outlier views, they contribute to ongoing illusory, misleading and counterproductive debates within the public and policy communities and poorly serve the collective public. [bold added]
Isn't that clever? We'll just declare that some debates are "illusory, misleading and counterproductive." Then we'll say that when the media lets people know about those debates the media is undermining the public good.

I'm taking another deep breath, now. According to this worldview lowly journalists are transformed into supreme arbiters. They're supposed to spend their days passing judgment on which ideas the general public is entitled to read about.

Do they take special courses on how to perform this task? No. Did anyone elect them for this purpose? No. Is this what most people expect from journalists? That they'll decide - according to their whim, peer pressure and personal opinion - which side of the story exists and which side must disappear?

Narrow-minded, anti-democratic behaviour such as this does not serve the public good. Whatever this is, it is not journalism. Journalists worthy of the name treat their readers with respect. They trust in their readers' ability to sort wheat from chaff.

Do the Max Boykoffs of the world really mean to argue that while ordinary voters can be entrusted to elect - and dismiss - their own governments, they can't be exposed to alternative climate change perspectives because, well, the poor dears might become confused?

Using this reasoning any point-of-view can, of course, be stifled. Women's reproductive choices, the right of religious minorities to equal protection, anti-nuclear-power activism. Providing media coverage to any of these perspectives no doubt seems "misleading and counterproductive" to someone out there.

In 1953, in the midst of the Cold War, the American Library Association took a stand. It said it trusted ordinary citizens "to recognize propaganda and misinformation, and to make their own decisions."

In 2010 American professors are assailing your right to know. They are encouraging journalists to suppress certain kinds of news. Why? Because, according to the headline on the University of Arizona's press release, "Media Coverage of Climate Change Skeptics Can Mislead [the] Public."


Some sections of the above post have been re-worked/edited since it first appeared.

UPDATE (June 13): According to the last paragraph of Prof. Overpeck's bio here, he "lives in Tucson, Arizona with his wife Julia Cole who is also a University of Arizona Professor and climate scientist." So a husband and wife team teach a class on "climate misunderstandings and communication." That's what I call keeping it in the family.

Overpeck was an IPCC coordinating lead author for chapter 6 of the 2007 Working Group 1 report. Could someone please tell me that the J. Cole (USA) listed as a contributing author for that same chapter is not his wife.


>> Climate skepticism is free speech
>> Bullies need not apply
>> If we don't agree, you're crazy
>> Is this politics or science?