Clearing Up The Climate Debate with A Conversation

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CLIMATE scientists must sometimes feel that they’re taking part in some horrific, humourless worldwide game of Chinese Whispers.

After spending months, in some cases years, diligently carrying out research, checking, re-checking and quantifying observations and data, they submit their discovery to a science journal.

Journal editors then send that work out to other scientists who pick holes in it, or praise it, before sending it back with the academic equivalents of those smiley faces or red crosses that school teachers loved to draw on your school books.

Issues with the research are then rectified (if they can be) and finally the work is published. Except of course, that’s not the end of the story.

Because when the “mainstream media”, vested interests and ideologues get hold of it, the game of Chinese Whispers begins. Conclusions are re-interpreted or misunderstood. Key points are missed, findings are misrepresented or, in some cases, bits of the research get cherry-picked. Contexts are lost and nuances trampled.

Andrew Jaspan, co-founder of a new popular Australia-based media website The Conversation, says as advertising dollars have shrunk, so too have the numbers of experienced journalists who can report and analyse science stories accurately and fairly.

Put this together with the rise in corporate marketing dollars and you have a public which, on academic research including climate science, is either deliberately or inadvertently confused.

“We are told that this is the information age, but what we actually have is an age where we have huge amounts of information but most of it is unadulterated nonsense and people trotting out drivel. We have a very shallow age of information,” Jaspan told DeSmogBlog.

“That’s due to the fragmentation of the media. The advertising dollar is being sliced thinner and thinner and news rooms are being reduced and clawed out – subject experts and specialists are replaced with junior general reporters.”

As newsroom resources have shrunk, Jaspan says the amount of news space filled by simple re-writes of corporate press releases has increased.

“They want cheap labour to fill the spaces between the ads,” adds Jaspan, a former editor of The Age (Melbourne), The Observer (London) and The Scotsman.

The Conversation, just three months old, is already registering more than 220,000 visits a month but it is not like any other news website. There is no agency news wire, for example. All the main contributors, of which there are now more than 1000 registered, are academics at universities.

Writers are only allowed to contribute on areas in which they are actively researching, or have a history of researching. Conflicts of interest, such as corporate funding or associations with think-tanks, have to be disclosed to the reader. Even anonymous commentators are banned.

The Conversation’s latest venture has been a series of a dozen articles from leading climate researchers, titled “Clearing up the climate debate” which directly challenge the science and credibility of climate change deniers.

To start the series, a group of almost 90 scientists co-signed an open letter. It read,

“Like all great challenges, climate change has brought out the best and the worst in people. A vast number of scientists, engineers, and visionary businesspeople are boldly designing a future that is based on low-impact energy pathways and living within safe planetary boundaries; a future in which substantial health gains can be achieved by eliminating fossil-fuel pollution; and a future in which we strive to hand over a liveable planet to posterity.

“At the other extreme, understandable economic insecurity and fear of radical change have been exploited by ideologues and vested interests to whip up ill-informed, populist rage, and climate scientists have become the punching bag of shock jocks and tabloid scribes.”

Under the motto “Academic Rigour, Journalistic Flair”, like all the site’s content, the series articles are available under a Creative Commons License. The series included “Rogues or Respectable: How Climate Change Sceptics Spread Doubt and Denial”, “Bob Carter’s Climate Counter Consensus is an Alternate Reality”, “Who’s your expert? The difference between peer review and rhetoric” and “Climate change denial and the abuse of peer review”.

Jaspan, a speaker at the recent Worldviews Conference on Media and  Higher Education in Toronto, explains:

“The Clearing Up The Climate Debate series came about because a bunch of scientists approached us and asked if we would host a series of articles that subject climate change deniers to some peer review… let’s have a close look at what their evidence is. We said we would be happy to do that.

“We are believers in the fact that good quality information makes all of us better citizens and that is what this [website] is about. We don’t let in any corporations or think-tanks or people who have the power to buy their way into the media. The idea was to give a new voice.

“Big tobacco has worked very, very hard to undermine the scientific research around lung cancer and tried to say that the science was not ‘in’. Lobbysists have adopted the same approach with climate – if you can sow seeds of doubt then policy makers become concerned about making decisions.

“This slows the whole process and if you can slow it down then those who are profiting from selling cigarettes or minerals with minimal responsibility can continue their work. My concern is the lack of scrutiny and well-informed public debate on some of these issues.”

The Conversation has a team of journlaists and editors who work with academics to either commission work to react to topical issues or to help them communicate their research. The academics get final approval, which even extends to the headline.

Jaspan says the idea for The Conversation came after spending time speaking to academics at the University of Melbourne.

“It really just hit me in a blinding flash,” he says. “These people in the university were far brighter than any person I’d ever had in a newsroom. These were great people, so why were they not engaging with the public. A lot were just fed up with the media. They were being misquoted a lot of the time.

“They would get a young general reporter that hadn’t properly prepared themselves for the interview. But the academic would explain the story to them. Each time a reporter went away, academics would ask themselves the same question. How bad will this piece be?

“I thought maybe we need to build a new pipeline that’s not mitigated by journalists and people with their own agendas. I decided I was going to turn the universities into a newsroom.”

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