The media tends to present every story as having two sides. It makes for good TV—or radio, press, blogs, etc.—to present arguments from “both sides” of the issue. It creates ready-made conflict and absolves the host journalists from actually following the evidence and taking a position. Fox News has even incorporated this fundamental idea in to its very identity—you know, they’re “Fair and Balanced”. But often, stories don’t really have two sides; at least not two equally valid sides. In such cases, presenting the sides as having equal merit is actually bad journalism—intentionally or otherwise, it misinforms. Such is the case with global warming.
Ultimately, we can’t know anything with certainty. But we can become more and more confident in a given claim as we amass more and more evidence in support of the claim. We are all quite confident that stepping out of a tenth-floor window is not a safe endeavor. We’re confident enough that we accept it as a working truth and we factor this knowledge into our planning.
Now, let’s consider global warming, and more specifically, anthropogenic global warming (AGW), i.e., global warming specifically caused by humans.
In a research paper, published yesterday, Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature, John Cook, of University of Queensland, Australia, and his collaborators present rigorous evidence of the fact that, among scientists, the AGW question is settled. Over ninety-seven percent of scientists agree AGW is a working truth. Does that prove that AGW is an absolute certainty? Of course not. But it should make us confident enough to factor this knowledge into our planning.
But we’re not. Why?
The answer is this: While there is consensus on AGW among scientists, there is decidedly not consensus among the public. Consider the following chart, which shows results from asking the public, “What percentage of scientists agree that humans are causing global warming?” The average answer is around 50%.
I find these results disappointing, but not surprising. The public has been inundated with artificially “balanced” stories about global warming (often driven by well funded special interest groups). It is unrealistic to expect the general public to study and understand mountains of scientific evidence. But that is (or should be) the job of responsible journalists. Unfortunately, today’s “journalism”, too often is just entertainment masquerading as journalism.
So, the next time you hear a story talking about global warming, and specifically whether AGW is real, don’t blindly accept that there are two equally valid hypotheses vying for acceptance. AGW and natural, inevitable global warming are not simply alternate sides of the same coin. A better analogy would be they are alternate sides of 100-sided die—with AGW showing on 97 sides.
Lead author, John Cook, explains the paper’s methodology and findings: