Balance in climate coverage nothing without quality
In what was an unprecedented move, Australia’s two leading climate science agencies, the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology, combined this week to release a statement of confidence in Australian climate change science. No doubt this “climate snapshot” will have the blogosphere buzzing and the skeptics up in arms but I for one am glad to see these institutions taking a stand.
Only a few days ago around 200 scientists from all over the country descended on parliament house for face-to-face meetings and forums with politicians in Canberra. Everything from new research on facial tumours in the Tasmanian Devil to concerns over biodiversity loss were brought to the attention of the folks on the hill. Not surprisingly, climate change figured prominently and especially the need for politicians and the public to focus on the evidence based science.
Interesting then, that on the very same day, the Chairman of the ABC, Maurice Newman, would publicly criticise journalists over their lack of critical coverage of climate science. On the need for critical coverage of all topics we wholeheartedly agree. The media should provide balance. But this should not be balance for balance’s sake.
It should be balance subjected the most rigorous standards of quality available.
For science, quality means research published in peer reviewed journals.
The process of peer review is almost unique to the sciences (including many of the social sciences). Scientists review and criticise each others’ work before they make it public. It is a form of quality control and when it comes to science, it is the gold standard of twaddle detection.
The peer review process allows very complicated research to be reviewed by people with enough skill, competence and knowledge in that area to sort the wheat from the chaff. Just as few of us would trust the treatment of a malignant cancer to a psychiatrist, similarly not all scientists are experts in climate change science.
So where Maurice Newman and I agree is that the media should be running stories on genuine quality science that contradicts the mainstream view, but the key word is quality.
As one scientist attending the Science meets Parliament meeting put it: “The media, and the ABC above all should report any genuine good science that contradicts the accepted view, but not give credence to claims which are not subject to quality control”.
In all areas of science, research that both agrees and disagrees with the consensus is subjected to the same peer review process.
When Australia’s Nobel Prize winning biologist Barry Marshall first suggested that it was bacteria and not stress causing stomach ulcers, his work was in complete disagreement with the scientific consensus at the time – but he subjected his research to the peer review process and the consensus changed.
Australia’s scientists want that same process applied to climate science.
And remember, climate change has not always been the accepted view: it emerged in the 1980s as a challenge to the dominant view, but through the peer review process has now accumulated a vast array of supporting evidence, to become accepted.
Of course the debates raging on the topic of climate change are not just about climate science. There are many social, political and economic issues and many voices, dissenting or otherwise that deserve an airing and it would be ridiculous to limit journalists to only talking to climate scientists in this debate. But when the scientific evidence underpinning climate change is up for discussion it is this quality control that tells us who and what is credible.
So is critical journalism about balance above all else or is it about ensuring that there is quality reporting on controversial issues?
Let’s see how this latest statement, backed by quality peer reviewed science, is treated.
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