Friday, July 18, 2008

A convenient consensus

National Radio’s Mediawatch last week carried an item about the new Science Media Centre ( It’s run by the Royal Society but was initiated by the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology (MoRST) and is funded by the government. Its purpose is to promote awareness of science and technology via the media and to help journalists seeking information on scientific issues. It’s headed by Peter Griffin, former technology editor of the New Zealand Herald.

Seems like a good idea, for several reasons: 1. New Zealand journalists, with a few notable exceptions, are notoriously science-shy (I include myself here) and could do with some help; 2. We’re constantly reminded that science and technology are fundamental to the transformation of the New Zealand economy; 3. Except when it becomes political (as in the genetic modification row), science doesn’t get a lot of coverage; 4. When science does break out of its ghetto onto the news pages, it’s not always accurately reported.

So there’s a good case for an independent, credible information source that journalists can go to when they’re floundering with an issue they don’t understand. But it goes without saying that the Science Media Centre will have to demonstrate independence, integrity and credibility if it’s going to win acceptance. And being government-funded, there will inevitably be a suspicion that it might be used to promote projects or ideas that are favoured politically, and to discredit those that the government frowns on.

With that in mind, it’s interesting to note that the top news item on the centre’s website is headed Experts respond on Royal Society climate change paper. Click on the link and you find that the centre has invited three experts to comment on the Royal Society’s recently released statement on climate change. This statement says concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions are well above levels seen for thousands of years and predicts further global climate changes. Reducing the impact will require substantial reductions of greenhouse gas emissions which can only be achieved by “major international policy changes”. In other words, pretty much the orthodox view expressed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and used by the government to justify its controversial climate change policies.

One might have expected the three “independent” opinions to include, if not a voice of dissent, then at least an acknowledgment that there is a large body of reputable scientific opinion that vigorously challenges the IPCC view and insists that the science relating to climate change is far from settled. But no: the three experts selected by the centre to comment on the Royal Society statement – two from Victoria University (including an ex-IPCC man) and one formerly from Niwa – unanimously welcome it and in doing so, obligingly fall into line with the government’s position.

Not a good start, I would have thought. Not being a scientist, I’m open to persuasion on climate change. But like everyone, I’m aware that there is a scientific debate raging on this issue and I’m instinctively suspicious of any “helpful” source - especially one dependent on government funding - that totally omits one side of the argument.


Carol said...

Can't agree with you here, Karl. The debate about climate change is a political rather than a scientific debate. While there isn't unanimity about the science (there are a few, usually noisy, dissenters), there is a strong consensus that the planet is warming, that even small amounts of warming can have major effects, and that there is a human signature.

Serum said...

An admirable and pertinent article précising this vassal of opportunism.

It does conjure up thoughts of a scientific Politicheskoye Buro.