Denial of Facts Is No Way to Understand Science

Originally published on Huffington Post on Dec 7, 2011

On Thursday Dec. 1, Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente declared herself a defender of scientific integrity by calling upon the scientific community to replace the “rhetoric” of climate change with open, honest debate.

According to Wente, the impacts of climate change remain a future fantasy, unquantifiable by data collected through “insanely complicated” climate science. Her perspective is informed by the omission of facts, falsehoods, and fake experts. In a dance with smoke and mirrors she creates issues where none exist and ignores others that do.

There was a time when I couldn’t understand what motivated writers like Wente to stand so firmly against such clear and solid science. The psychology of “confirmation bias” has provided the answer for me. 

Like all of us, Wente has her biases, and most of us, like her, like to have those biases confirmed. So we seek out the information that confirms what we already believe and disregard that information that might prove us wrong.

As a columnist, Wente presents the information which confirms her ideological beliefs as truths and facts to the readers of the Globe and Mail. She excels as a columnist in part because she mocks and jeers her detractors. This pleases the people who agree with her but makes her loathed by those who don’t.  It provokes reaction on both sides and eliminates any possibility of civil conversation.

When it comes to climate change she suffers from an extreme case of motivated reasoning. She has to ignore the concerns and views of virtually all of the world’s scientific academies and rely on the views of oil industry-funded groups like the Fraser Institute as she scrounges for shreds of evidence to back up her contrary view of climate science.

In the fantastical future Wente claims climate scientists are inventing, “the seas will rise, the glaciers will melt, the hurricanes will blow, the forest fires will rage.”

But climate change and its consequences are not mere predictions. We live in a world that is already affected by rising global temperatures, with more frequent and more intense heat waves, more powerful hurricanes, increasing numbers of forest fires, floods and droughts. These changes are consistent with the climate data on which future predictions are built.

In November, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report on the impacts and costs of rising global temperatures, with suggestions on mitigating the damage. The report points out that although it is difficult to attribute single extreme events to anthropogenic climate change, increased global temperatures do contribute to the extreme weather trends and those are already underway.

Wente admits to her lack of scientific credentials, but immediately attacks the world’s leading climate scientists. Their own lack of certainty about the earth’s changing climate and its causes, she implies, is clearly demonstrated by the “so-called Climategate affair.”  

The private emails between the world’s top scientists were stolen, misquoted and published as a massive accusation that the science behind climate change has been fabricated.

Wente mentions that Climategate has been "widely dismissed," yet goes on to re-state the initial false claims made through the "affair." In this, she confirms research on “confirmation bias” that proves people who read false information continue to believe it even after it has been corrected, especially if the misinformation confirms their ideological perspectives.  

Whether she is aware of it or not, Ms. Wente has become part of an “echo chamber” of misinformation created through Climategate. Following the original theft of the emails, right wing groups in the US including the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, and the Heritage Foundation – to name a few – made sure the scandal’s message (climate change science is a hoax) was repeated publicly as much as possible.

She avoids mentioning that nine independent inquiries exonerated the scientists and their work, proving the biggest scandal of 2009 to be a fake scandal. After all of this, Wente still thinks the lie is worth repeating.

Happily duped into repeating and publishing proven falsehoods, Wente has not helped her readers gain any better understanding of “the Climategate affair”. A proper explanation of Climategate would include the facts about who funded it.

Koch Industries, owned by brothers Charles and David Koch have generously donated some $50 million of their company’s fortune to fund the same industry front groups and right wing think-tanks that bolstered Climategate. The Kochs' business activities range from the manufacturing, refining and distribution of petroleum, as well as the production of chemicals, energy, fiber, minerals, fertilizers, pulp and paper. In 2009 alone, Koch Industries paid more than half a billion dollars in fines for environmental damages. 

Looking for back-up on her false assertions on Climategate, Wente refers to economics professorRoss McKitrick. He agrees with her that Climategate proves climate science is phony, and thinks the IPCC should change its process entirely.

Surely, she knows that McKitrick is a fellow at the Fraser Institute (given $175,000 by Koch foundations between 2005 and 2008) and is affiliated with numerous other industry-funded think tanks. He is an open skeptic of climate science, and a perfect validator for Wente’s entrenched beliefs - and he has no credentials in atmospheric science whatsoever.

recent study by Yale University law Professor Dan Kahan would suggest that Wente and McKitrick have a lot more in common than their view on climate change. Kahan surveyed more than 1,500 Americans and found that their cultural values had a far greater impact on their view of climate change than their level of scientific literacy. Most people who tended towards a view of the world that is hierarchical and individualistic were more skeptical of environmental risks including climate change than people whose outlook was communal and egalitarian. 

Margaret Wente is only human, and is as susceptible to her own biases as anyone else. As a journalist, however, she needs to be held accountable for her errors and omissions. While misinformed vitriol may provoke reactions, and may even sell newspapers, the Globe and Mail and other newspapers should be held accountable for the accuracy of the material they choose to publish.

If misinformation is the new journalistic standard, then people will only absorb more media that re-enforces their own opinions, and the possibility for consensus on any issue will be lost.