The real “climategate” scandal isn’t scientific, it’s journalistic

Chris WoodDuring "climategate" some of the declarations made under prominent bylines demonstrated professional negligence, writes Chris Wood, who thinks reporters concealed the truth and practised dishonest journalism.

Chris WoodDuring "climategate" some of the declarations made under prominent bylines demonstrated professional negligence, writes Chris Wood, who thinks reporters concealed the truth and practised dishonest journalism.

I can’t speak with authority on science. But after 35 years and a score of honours for documentaries, articles and books, I do know a thing or two about journalism. So I’ll let the academy decide whether the email behind 'climategate' exposed any scientific fraud. But I can say this:

The real scandal here isn’t scientific. It’s journalistic.

Under prominent bylines I read that the emails exposed man-made climate change as (a partial list): “the biggest fraud in history” (David Warren, the Ottawa Citizen); “one of the biggest scientific scams of our time” (Charles Adler, blog); “the biggest scientific hoax in a generation” (Lorne Gunter, National Post); and a "racket" (Mark Steyn, National Review). Peter Worthington (Sun) cites approvingly Conrad Black’s verdict that, “global warming… is not, in fact, occurring at all.”    

Even were an East Anglian cabal plotting to subvert the global temperature record (and independent reviews by The Associated Press and found no support for that charge), to declare human-induced climate change thereby proven a hoax that Canadians can safely ignore goes beyond cherry-picking facts to reckless endangerment.

In a twist on the old legal saw, it is the equivalent of failing to shout fire in a crowded theater that is slowly filling with deadly fumes.

To pass it off as journalism is professional negligence.

The poison filling the theatre is revealed in real-world records. Arctic ice sheets are collapsing and their collapse accelerating. Rivers on the Prairies, in Asia and Latin America, have dwindled along with mountain glaciers. The most violent rainstorms, persistent droughts and powerful storms are all increasing. Plants and animals are migrating away from the equator and up to higher elevations. Diseases are appearing in new places. Established seasons are becoming irregular. Extreme weather has blighted food harvests from salmon to wheat.

These aren't computer simulations or doctored decimal points. Not frauds or fictions. Real people hurt and die when wildfires, storms, floods and droughts grow in frequency and lethality. These changes endanger wealth and security even in Canada. Elsewhere they threaten the stability of states.     

I can imagine innocent explanations for why a journalist might overlook these facts. But I don’t believe any of these writers is stupid or lazy. I think they chose to ignore the only value that justifies our trade at all, and conceal the truth. We used to call that dishonest reporting—a fraud on the consumer.

Or perhaps it was what Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt refreshingly calls by its street name: bullshit.

The bullshitter doesn’t lie precisely. He simply, “does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly,” the scholar says.  A lie or the truth are all the same to him.

That may be fine around the kitchen table and expected over a bar stool, but it’s not journalism.

In fact, the philosopher warns that making a habit of bullshit carries a risk: “A person’s normal habit of attending to the way things are may become attenuated or lost.”

Journalists aren’t (god knows) society's brains. But we can make a case for being its synapses, passing around information and ideas so the rest of society can better navigate a shifting landscape of threats and opportunities. When age and plaque turn the signals flickering in a human brain to alphabet soup, its owner loses track of their surroundings, memories and abilities. We call this dementia.

When true and false is all the same to journalism, an entire society loses touch with the way things are. And Frankfurt reminds us that pundits are at special risk: “Bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic.”

Comedian Jon Stewart’s 2004 appearance on CNN’s Crossfire called the bluff of news 'analysis' in which rabid partisanship smothered all reason. Faux journalist Stewart called out his hosts for posturing while their nation burned. "Stop!" he implored. "You’re hurting America."

Peter, Lorne, Mark and the rest of you: You betray journalism’s core product, that flint of fact beneath the fancy footwork. You’re urging people to stay in their seats while the theatre burns.
You’re hurting us. Stop.

Freelance journalist Chris Wood has covered events in every Canadian province and half a dozen foreign countries. Over a 34-year career he has won recognition for his work in radio, magazines and book-length journalism. His most recent book, Dry Spring: The Coming Water Crisis of North America, connects the dots between looming water conflicts and a changing climate. It was shortlisted in 2009 for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for best Canadian political writing. Chris now lives on Vancouver Island, continues to write for Canadian and international publications, and accepts speaking engagements on how communities can adapt to changing climes.